Friday 24 May 2019

Why does climate change not get same hype as plastic waste?

Recycling plastic will not change the levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, writes David Robbins

Harmful greenhouse gases on the environment don’t get the same news coverage as plastic waste. Stock photo
Harmful greenhouse gases on the environment don’t get the same news coverage as plastic waste. Stock photo

David Robbins

When I tell people at the vegan, biodynamic, politically correct dinner parties we academics are always being invited to, that I study media coverage of climate change, I get one of two reactions.

The first one involves a slight pause, a puzzled frown and then: "Well, we're very keen on recycling, aren't we, Desmond?"

Great. Fair play. But nothing to do with climate change.

The second also involves the pause and the frown. Next comes: "You must be delighted with all the stuff about plastics."

I am. Yep. Delighted that DCU, where I work, has become the first campus to ban single-use plastics. And that there is a ban on plastic micro-beads going through the Dail. And depressed by the size of the floating heap of plastic in the Pacific, and the fact that 90pc of bottled water has bits of plastic in it.

But again, nothing to do with climate change.

Then it's my turn to frown, in wonder at why the media are so interested and energised by the growing clamour to ban plastics, yet relatively uninterested in my area of climate change?

My research shows that only 0.87pc of total news coverage in Ireland mentions climate change. A quick analysis of the previous two weeks' news content in seven national titles shows that coverage of plastic waste is twice as high.

At other biodynamic and even more politically correct dinner parties, we environmentalists swap stories about being contacted by the media to talk about plastic. One told how she was speaking live on radio on her phone while another radio station kept calling her. "Why can't it be like this with climate change?" she asked.

So there are two things going on here. One is that many people conflate different environmental issues. It's like someone being drawn into a discussion about Ireland's rugby Grand Slam and starting to talk about golf, because, hey, it's all sport, right?

It's generally a positive thing when public consciousness is raised about topics such as plastic waste, composting and recycling, because it usually gets them thinking about other environmental issues.

And plastic waste is an easily comprehensible issue. We see and use plastics every day and the solution to the problem is easy and straightforward too.

But it's not so easy to talk about - or to tackle - climate change. Research suggests people are wary to discuss it because it can be a loaded and divisive issue.

Many also feel unsure of their ground: they don't know the science and are reluctant to have their ignorance shown up. So they stay quiet, or talk about plastics instead.

The media do know that plastic waste and climate change are unrelated issues. We could recycle and ban all the plastic in the world, and it wouldn't have any impact on the levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

But they like the plastics issue for the same reason the people at the dinner party do. It's simple. It's easy to understand. It has one cause, and the solution is obvious. The media also like it because they've been here before, with the ban on plastic shopping bags in 2002.

Unlike climate change, which is slow moving, involves hockey-stick graphs and climate modelling, and has various people saying it is a Chinese hoax, the problem of plastic waste is simple to understand and easy to solve.

It is also infinitely more manageable in media terms and can be reported on a domestic scale.

For instance, BBC's Newsnight is following a family for 10 days as they try to expunge plastic from their lives.

Although a family could do a lot to reduce their CO2 footprint, individual action alone cannot tackle climate change.

Back at our environmentalists' dinner party, we yearn for a day when both the public and the media are talking about climate change with the same interest as they talk about plastic today.

It's at that point that we usually open another bottle of the biodynamic wine.

Dr David Robbins is an assistant professor in the School of Communications at Dublin City University. His PhD thesis examined the competition to establish the dominant framing of climate change among journalists, ministers, and political advisers

Sunday Independent

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