"News coverage has the potential to hinder, as well as help, environmental activism."Grace Blackshaw

The environment has been in the news a lot recently. The terrible wildfires currently ravaging California have already destroyed 3.3 million acres of land. Unusually warm weather recently shattered part of the Arctic’s largest remaining ice shelf. According to a new UN report, the world has failed to meet a single one of the Achi biodiversity targets designed to stem the destruction of wildlife.

While increased media attention is generally perceived as a win for environmentalism, it also highlights the crucial role of communication in general, and journalism in particular, in shaping narratives around the climate crisis. News coverage has the potential to hinder, as well as help, environmental activism.

In the US, a progressive media watchdog analysed all the wildfire coverage on corporate broadcast TV outlets in the month of August and found that only 4% contained any mention of the climate crisis. Just this week, President Trump’s comments dismissing the role of the climate crisis in the wildfires received extensive media coverage. In the UK, a BBC Radio 4 presenter recently described “the climate and environmental emergency” as “a matter of opinion.”

In both of these cases, the first thing to consider is accuracy. Extensive scientific evidence has shown the climate crisis to be a significant factor in the increased frequency and ferocity of wildfires. Furthermore, “the climate and environmental emergency” is simply not “a matter of opinion.” As of May last year, it is the official position of the UK parliament.

Indeed, this isn’t the first time the BBC has come under fire for the way it reports on the climate crisis. In 2018, Fran Unsworth, the BBC’s director of news and current affairs, admitted in a leaked memo: “climate change has been a difficult subject for the BBC and we get coverage of it wrong too often.” The memo went on to tell journalists and presenters: “to achieve impartiality, you do not need to include outright deniers of climate change.”

Allegations of “false balance” should not be reserved solely for the BBC. Earlier this year, Rach Wetts analysed 1,768 press releases from businesses, governments and other organisations, categorised them by their stance on climate action, and then ran them through plagiarism detection software to see how often they featured in the largest circulation newspapers in the US. She found that press releases opposing climate action were twice as likely to be cited as press releases advocating for climate action. Wetts suggested this might be because “journalistic norms of balance and objectivity have distorted the public debate around climate change.”

Others argue this explanation assumes overly benevolent intentions. When it comes to inaccurate climate reporting, it’s important to analyse who stands to benefit from these inaccuracies.

“Climate scientists have been telling us these things for decades. The problem is that no one’s been listening.”

In the UK, six billionaires are the majority shareholders for most of the national newspapers. It’s hard to underestimate the influence these six men (and yes, they are all men) have on the UK media. In particular, News UK, which includes The Sun and The Times, has a 36% share of circulation. It’s also owned by Rupert Murdoch, who has previously argued that “we should approach climate change with great scepticism,” and who sits on the board of oil and gas company Genie Energy.

That said, there has been some progress. In 2019, The Guardian updated its style guide (the same one we use at Varsity) to “more accurately describe the environmental crises facing the world”. “Climate change” was replaced by “climate crisis” or “climate emergency”. “Global warming” became “global heating.” This mimics the language that is increasingly used by experts, from the UN Secretary-General to the Met Office’s Head of Climate Impacts.

However, when it comes to the climate, accuracy is the bare minimum. Good environmental journalism is about more than simply relaying the facts.

It’s easy to tell people that the scientific evidence for climate change is unequivocal; that the 20 warmest years on record have all occurred in the last 22 years; that the area covered by sea ice in the Arctic has shrunk by 40% since 1979; that the number of climate-related disasters, including extreme heat, droughts, floods and storms, has doubled since the early 1990s.

“Climate communication is complex, and it’s not just the BBC that gets it ‘wrong too often.’”

It’s not much harder to tell people that things are only going to get worse unless we do something; that global warming is expected to reach 4°C by the end of the century; that the World Bank warns this will bring “cataclysmic changes,” including extreme heatwaves, global food shortages and millions of people affected by sea-level rise.

None of this is new information though. Climate scientists have been telling us these things for decades. The problem is that no one’s been listening.

Psychology plays an important part in understanding why this might be the case. In one study, participants were universally “alarmed about the consequences of high-energy futures, and mollified by images of low-energy futures,” and yet they had often erected “psychological barriers” to justify climate inaction both as individuals and through collective institutions.

Espen Stoknes, a climate psychologist and professor at the Norwegian Business School, recently defined five of these key psychological barriers as distance, doom, dissonance, denial, and identity. Distance paints the climate crisis as something happening far away (both spatially and temporally). Doom sees the climate crisis as a huge, insurmountable catastrophe, even our best efforts couldn’t fix. Dissonance allows us to ignore the facts as long as they don’t interfere with our own small sphere of existence. Denial is rooted in fear and relies on well-worn “head in the sand” tactics. Identity dismisses facts that don’t align with our own pre-existing views.


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Other psychologists are increasingly concerned about the impact of “climate anxiety” on mental wellbeing, particularly among young people. In some cases, this anxiety leaves people overwhelmed and in a sort of “climate paralysis,” which can, in turn, lead to further inaction.

Climate communication is complex, and it’s not just the BBC that gets it “wrong too often.” For me, the most important thing is to recognise the climate crisis as, first and foremost, a social crisis. Just this month, a report predicted the climate crisis could displace one billion people by 2050. Other research suggests tackling the climate crisis could save at least one million lives each year. There is also a huge discrepancy between those most responsible and those most affected. According to new research from Oxfam, from 1990 to 2015, the wealthiest 1% of the global population released more than twice as much carbon dioxide as the poorest 50%.

Effective climate crisis communication, then, isn’t about statistics, or about polar bears. It’s about justice, about change, and, most importantly, it’s about people.