Ben Stewart looks back at the media coverage of climate change so far this century, and finds some glimpses of hope in 2013. Part of our series of short contributions from writers and activists looking to the year ahead.
There was a time when mention of climate change in the national print media was such a rare occurrence that when it did happen it caused a flurry of excitement at Greenpeace HQ. Emails would be exchanged between excited campaigners and the article in question would then be poured over, as if it was the Rosetta Stone, in the search for some deeper significance inherent in its appearance.
Sometime around 2005, around the time when newly appointed opposition leader David Cameron took to the ice, the weight of climate coverage shifted discernibly. The Independent carried its tabloid re-brand by regularly splashing on green stories, the broadsheets bolstered their environment teams, and that year’s UN climate conference in Montreal was graced by the presence of a large and hungry British media pack that knew it had guaranteed space in the next day’s edition.
The trend continued over the following years, interest intensified, the middle-market papers and the tabloids reported the story fairly straight. But as Copenhagen loomed, climate sceptic voices found a home in the right-of-centre press and on broadcast outlets with a contrarian bent. Then Leaman Brothers collapsed, as did the media’s business model. Could humanity even afford to address climate change, and could journalists afford to cover it? Things got worse. A month before Copenhagen the East Anglia email hack crash-landed. It immediately shifted the balance of legitimacy in newsrooms. In the slipstream of mass media coverage of Copenhagen came what seemed a potent and cogent case against the consensus, albeit founded on a deliberate and reprehensible misinterpretation of the emails. By the end of the year, Copenhagen had failed and it felt like the only climate story in town was that being sung by the sceptics, as evidenced by a very noticeable shift at the Today Programme (one journalist there told me some editors and producers, and at least one presenter, had been ‘captured’ by climate scepticism).
And so the forth estate settled into a period of what might be called hostile apathy, which is where we now find ourselves. So what will this year bring? Could it witness a renaissance in coverage of the climate story?
At first glance, the signs aren’t encouraging. Last week the New York Times announced the dismemberment of its environment desk. A survey by DailyClimate.org found that 2012 had seen a two per cent reduction in global coverage of the climate story, in line with a three-year decline. The global warming story certainly didn’t break through to the extent that it could force a climate question at any of the Presidential debates. Rupert Murdoch - despite his travails, still the most influential media mogul on the planet - has since the new year been tweeting the apparent benefits of increased atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations (they’re greening the planet, he claims, by encouraging vegetation).
The fact is, the fundamentals for proportionate, appropriate climate coverage still do not exist. The climate story often lacks tension, while the impacts have for long been perceived to be chronologically and geographically remote. Nothing much new ever happens. The issue has been defined as right/left, and most media in English-speaking countries have a rightward bent. And although our media is changing, to some extent those changes are unhelpful, as the opposing camps across a swathe of controversial issues retreat into their own silos to consume their own ‘facts’ (one reason why the loss of the NY Times team is so significant).
But there is hope. Reality often has a way of intruding on the best-laid plans of editors and owners, as Mr. Murdoch well knows, and increasingly the climate story is being told through the prism of extreme weather events. UK floods, a record melt in the Arctic, Hurricane Sandy, Australian wildfires – sure, we can’t say definitively that these are the result of fossil fuel burning, except perhaps the retreat of Arctic sea ice - but surveys show a hardening of acceptance of the scientific consensus in the United States at least. As families watch images of the mid-west drought or New York under water, they know instinctively that they are absorbing a climate change narrative, even when reporters studiously refuse to explicitly offer one. A recent study in Australia showed 45 per cent of respondents reported direct personal experience of climate change. As these personal experiences intrude into newsrooms, it may be that 2013 will be the year that climate change pushes itself back onto the front pages.
Ben Stewart is a former Guardian student journalist of the Year and now is head of media at Greenpeace. He was one of the six protesters cleared of criminal damage to Kingsnorth power station in a ground-breaking case. You can follow him on twitter: @benstewart999