When you look at the news, what topics do the headlines generally focus on? Do articles relating to climate change feature with the same frequency as those relating to celebrities?
In school we are taught to construct balanced arguments, taking into account a wide range of factors and sources. In geography lessons we learn that the acronym SEEP (social, economic, environmental, political) is the key to writing successful essays. When researching case studies, we take care to maintain a focus on their social, economic, environmental and political aspects. This breadth of investigation allows us to form well-balanced views in our geographical analysis.
For example, no case study of the 2010 Eyjafjallajökull volcanic eruption in Iceland would be complete without a mention of the fact that despite costing the global aviation industry a total of £1.1 billion, by 19 April the volcanic ash cloud preventing air travel also prevented an estimated 1.3-2.8 million tonnes of carbon dioxide being emitted into the atmosphere. Likewise, a case study of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami would not offer a broad view without recognition of not only the social impact of lives lost, but also the environmental impacts of seawater ingress poisoning fertile land and the resulting in knock-on effects for future food security.
So why then, when as school-level geographers we know the importance of considering all the SEEP factors, does the media often take such a different view?
As a global issue, the effects of climate change are not visible in every country to the same extent. In many western countries the impact of rising sea levels is negligible, but in nations such as Tuvalu and Fiji, it represents a major threat not only to their environment but also to their economic security. As seawater seeps into fields, the soil fertility decreases and harvest yields diminish, reducing food security. While sea level rises are classified as “headline news” in Fiji, in the USA the issue barely merits a mention. This reflects a wider global pattern; the media in poorer countries typically presents climate change as an economic concern, but in richer countries the issue is rarely mentioned and when it is, it is often framed as a political concern. For example, in the USA in 2018 environmental matters accounted for only 142 minutes of total combined coverage from major news outlets (ABC, CBS, NBC & Fox) in that year. Furthermore, while environmental issues such as floods and bushfires are reported, many news sites fail to mention the link with our changing climate.
We could perhaps take a look at what drives global media coverage, and the objective of many news reports. Many frontpage articles focus on short-term high-impact events, or sensational moments. By nature, these incidents are mainly social, economic or political; the result of an election, a sports match, or an update from the Bank of England on inflation rates. In contrast, most of the impacts of climate change take place slowly and with few obvious day to day effects. In the 24/7 news cycle which requires instantly eye-catching items, articles about the gradually changing climate are not appealing.
This invites the broader question: what is the purpose of the news? Is it to educate us about current affairs relating to all aspects of our lives or is it to entertain?
Perhaps the answer is found in the following statistic. Out of 75 total climate segments aired on ABC, CBS, and NBC in 2018, just 15 of them (20%) made any mention of solutions or responses to climate change. Neglecting to mention strategies to mitigate or adapt to the impact of climate change in favour of focusing on the obvious disasters can shape public opinion on climate change and create a sense of inevitability. The premise of Elizabeth Arnold’s 2018 paper for the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center was that “repetition of a narrow narrative that focuses exclusively on the impacts of climate change leaves the public with an overall sense of powerlessness”. However, it does not need to be this way. In 2015 the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives published a study which found that media coverage of climate change can lead the public to either “climate cynicism” or “help build more positive public engagement”.
So when our generation creates the news, we must remember that it has a large role to play in increasing not only public understanding of, but also engagement with, climate change.