Global warming is the story of our time. So why is news coverage always so scant here?
In 10 stories on the Irish heatwave on the RTÉ News website between July 14 and yesterday morning there were just two brief references to climate change. This contrasted with coverage of the heatwave in Britain: on a cursory search of the BBC, Guardian and Times websites, at least, I found references to climate change to be a matter of course.
Coverage of the floods in Germany and Belgium in the international media, likewise, routinely linked them to climate change: “Europe’s floods are latest signs of climate crisis” was the front-page headline in the New York Times; “Devastating floods in Germany warn Europe of the dangers of warming”, announced the Economist. Meanwhile, RTÉ ran a story headlined, “Too soon to say floods linked to climate change — experts”.
Indeed, the body of that story made the connection between global warming and the greater frequency of flash flooding events clear; still, the sceptical tone of the headline seemed symptomatic of a puzzling lack of curiosity about the context of an outbreak of tropical weather on our very non-tropical island.
“Another @rtenews piece fails to connect the dots”, Maynooth University climate scientist Peter Thorne tweeted in response to one of these stories. “I’m a huge supporter of RTÉ, but it’s gone beyond a joke”, Oisín Coghlan of Friends of the Earth Ireland tweeted. Reporting on record-breaking weather events without mentioning climate change was “as egregious as reporting on the unprecedented spike in ICU admissions without mentioning a global pandemic”, Irish Doctors for the Environment said in an open letter to RTÉ.
The balance of reporting improved towards the end of the week, with reports on the Six One News on Thursday and Friday on the impact of climate change in faraway spots.
Still, the lack of context in RTÉ’s recent weather reporting had its own context. Since the onset of the pandemic, RTÉ’s excellent environment and science correspondent, George Lee, has been assigned almost exclusively to the Covid-19 beat as part of his science brief. In May environmental journalist John Gibbons asked RTÉ’s managing director of news, Jon Williams, on Twitter, was it “asking too much” to expect RTÉ to have a full-time environmental specialist. “Sadly it is,” Williams replied. “If everyone paid their TV licence, RTÉ could have an environment correspondent.”
That logic is unconvincing. The range of correspondents that RTÉ has managed to retain, despite its funding situation, suggests the environment role is undervalued, not that RTÉ is underfunded. (Both, of course, may be true). But Williams agreed that, post-pandemic, things would have to change. “We know we need to do better,” he wrote. “And we will.”
The complaint that the media ignore or, as David Wallace-Wells, author of The Uninhabitable Earth, has put it, is “sanguine” about climate change is widespread. The leading American climate scientist, Michael E Mann, responded to a New York Times heatwave story in similar terms last month. “It’s truly irresponsible to publish articles like this with no mention whatsoever of global warming, climate change, carbon emissions, etc”, he tweeted. “Please do better!” The NYT subsequently added a reference.
This newspaper, too, has run plenty of stories that revelled in the heat without acknowledging the climate context. The research organisation Media Matters for America found that just 27pc of news reports on the extreme weather on the main US TV networks during the June heatwave mentioned climate change. (This, however, was a huge improvement on previous, similar studies).
Pandemic aside, climate change is the story of our time. So why is coverage so poor? Frank Coughlan captured this predicament with raw honesty in his column for the Irish Independent last week. “I have an insatiable appetite for news and have never been squeamish”, the veteran newspaperman wrote. “But this stuff makes me look away, turn the page, flip the channel. The wettest, hottest, driest records are routinely smashed every year now and we hardly bother to notice.”
This is a problem. Democratic political systems rely on the media to inform the public, who then make demands of their politicians. If the media can’t tell the great story of our age in a way that captures people, and provokes them to action, then a crucial link in that chain is missing.
And yet there is contrary evidence. In the US, where climate denialism has gripped one of the two main parties, more people than ever before (75pc) told an annual Gallup poll this year they worried about the environment either a fair amount or a great deal. In a YouGov poll for the Economist last week, climate change was ranked more highly than even before (2nd) in a list of the most important issues facing America.
In a study released earlier this month, the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found that, in the US, six times as many respondents believe in climate change as don’t; two-thirds of respondents said the government should do more to combat it. Of 31 countries surveyed, support for the Paris Climate Agreement was lowest in the US — but that support was still 74pc.
In another blow to denialism, respondents in Brazil — which has a denialist president, Jair Bolsonaro — had one of the highest levels of belief that climate change was happening (92pc). Meanwhile, almost three-quarters of Irish respondents said they knew “a lot or a moderate amount” about the issue, displaying one of the highest levels of confidence. This, it seems to me, is a reason for optimism. But the lead author of that survey, Anthony Leiserowitz, disagreed.
“Awareness is just the first step,” he told me, via email. “Then do people understand it’s human-caused? Then do they perceive it as a serious threat? Then do they support action? And then are they willing to put pressure on leaders to change the systems on which we all depend — like energy, transportation, food, consumer goods, etc, etc?”
He echoed the argument made above: “Climate change continues to get a tiny fraction of the quantity (let alone quality) of coverage other issues get — eg Covid, royal marriages, billionaires racing to space.”
For the media, this is a conundrum neatly exemplified by Frank Coughlan above. Climate change is alarming; but alarmist coverage may provoke, not action, but fatalism. And though climate change is the necessary context for reporting extreme weather events, overstating the causal link — as the New York Times appears to have done in its headline on the German floods — may provoke scepticism.
In the midst of a summer of record temperatures, wildfires and floods, there has been good news on climate change: in politics, finance and technology there is evidence of progress (the signing into law of the Climate Action Bill by President Higgins last Friday being one small example), and of the potential for averting disaster. That is a crucial part of the story and the means to combat fatalism, and it’s something I’ll return to in future columns. In the meantime, for us all in the media, the injunction is simple: must do better.