Way back in 2017, I saw Edward Maibach, the director of George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication, give a presentation about the climate crisis and the public’s still-limited understanding of it.
He said that people only need to know five things.
- It’s real
- It’s us
- Experts are in agreement
- It’s bad
- There’s hope
I wrote the five-point list in my notebook. Tweeted it. Since then, these points have been based on Maibach research was conducted in collaboration with the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication — and which, he told me recently, still hold true — have been the rubric I’ve used for thinking about climate-crisis story ideas.
After decades of recklessly presenting an issue of science as a two-sided political debate, mainstream news organizations have gotten better at saying “it’s real” and “experts agree.”
The same applies to decades of Reports from the IPCC warning of calamitous fires, droughts, and storms, we’re now adept at highlighting how “bad” things have gotten.
Television news has always been interested covering live events, such as storms and fires. These days, the stakes have never been higher and I am seeing more correspondents. like CNN’s Bill Weir including information about the “climate signal” present in the world’s intensifying weather events.
Climate attribution science is an important part of this work. It often shows the human fingerprints associated with extreme rain events or heat waves. NPR’s recent coverage of the Megadrought in the Southwestern United States, for example, quoted an expert saying that “roughly one-fifth of the current megadrought can be attributed to human-caused climate change.” (World Weather AttributionThe Climate Attribution DatabaseCollect scientific studies that quantify the impact of global warming on weather patterns.
All of this is positive and should be commended. There’s no point in talking about climate crisis solutions if the public doesn’t understand the massive scale of the disaster we face.
We journalists remain terrible, however, at digging into the myriad ways in which “it’s us.”
And we seem even less ready to remind people “there’s hope.”
A StudyGlobal Environmental Change published last-year a study showing that only 2% worldwide climate coverage was focused on clean power. About 1% of more than 71,000 stories analysed covered divestment from fossil-fuel companies. About 1% also covered energy efficiency. All three topics are essential to making the economy more carbon neutral, slowing climate change, and making the planet safe.
TV news networks, like ABC, NBC, CBS, and Fox, mention solutions in their climate change reporting on their nightly newscasts and Sunday shows less than 30% of the time in 2020 — and that percentage declined from the year before, according to a 2021 Media Matters Report.
There are many organizations. This is what we are trying to change and inject a “solutions mindset” into climate reporting.
The Society of Environmental Journalists (SEEJ) has published a List of useful informationClimate-change Solution Resources Harvard’s Belfer CenterThe Solutions Journalism NetworkHave hosted discussions. And The GuardianThe Washington PostAmong other things, they have announced solutions-focused coverage. I’ve hosted two seasons of a climate-solutions podcastForeign Policy.
Still, the impulse in many newsrooms is often to focus on what individuals should be doing to curb emissions — whether that’s driving electric cars or eating less beef.
These things matter because they connect individuals to a global phenomenon. They can also help us feel more powerful. But, as I’ve argued elsewhere, it’s hardly fair to dump this crisis on the shoulders of individual people when large corporations and governments are profiting from it.
It is important to measure the progress and speed of solutions to the climate crisis by how far and fast they bring the world towards net-zero emission. That will require an overhaul of the world’s economy.
Which brings us to the remaining point on that numbered list: “It’s us.”
It’s true that news organizations are now more confident in reporting, accurately, that human activities — largely burning fossil fuels — are driving global warming. A study published in Environmental Research Letters in 2019 found that more than 90% of stories were accurate. This is the right thing. We continue to do far to little to hold governments and corporations accountable.
Some investigative journalists shy away from climate stories because they’re seen as rife with uncertainty. They’re not. They are not. Democracy would be well-served if the world’s sharpest investigative reporters turned an eye to the companies and governments that continue to talk about a the zero-carbon economy while doing little to eliminate fossil fuels. Already there are potent examples, including Inside Climate News’s exposé on Exxon’s climate research.
Any policy that encourages burning fossil fuels should be considered negligent. It’s been more than 30 years since scientist James Hansen TestifiedBefore the U.S. Senate, the era for global warming had started. We don’t need more IPCC reports like the one released recently to tell us that we are playing with the fate of humanity; the clock is ticking loudly.
It takes all hands on deck to cover the climate crisis. We need all approaches — all angles, from all beats. My hope is that our coverage of the world’s biggest long-term threat will include more investigative reporting, more solutions, and more context. Some carbon emissions remain in the atmosphere and oceans. Around 1,000 years. Every action we take today has a lasting impact on the future. This fact should be enough to motivate us all to do better.