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The double-edged sword that is catastrophe climate reporting
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The double-edged sword that is catastrophe climate reporting

The double-edged sword of catastrophe climate reporting


Data shows that British newspapers use more urgent language to describe climate changes, according to data. Analysis of articles from over the past 15 years has found that the use of alarming phrases to describe climate change, such as “crisis” “breakdown” or “catastrophe”, has dramatically increased since the end of 2019. Yet this more radical language doesn’t necessarily translate into radical climate action.

Between 2020-2021, the phrase “climate catastrophe” tripled, and “climate emergency” is now mentioned on average 126 times a month in British newspapers — a sharp increase from an average of twice a month between 2006-2018, according to analysis by the Media and Climate Change Observatory(MCCO), a global collaboration of universities. However, mirroring the trend of general climate coverage, there are large disparities between usage — the left-leaning GuardianHolds the record for using the phrase 179x in a single month. Followed by the Times Sunday Times(70 times), with right-wing Daily MailIn the last place, it should be used a maximum of nine times per month.

While “climate change” is still the media’s favourite phrase, mentioned 1,483 times this October, its popularity peaked in 2020 and 2009. The term “global warming” is falling out of fashion altogether. This is partly due to the Guardian Its design should be changed style guide in 2019, replacing “climate change” with “crisis” or “emergency”. Although the newspaper has been a leader in climate change discourse, the issue reached its peak in all media in October 2021. Cop26

This upward trend is a reflection of a growing awareness of climate issues by the British public. citedAccording to leading pollster Ipsos, climate change is their number one concern for the first ever time, according to Ipsos Mori. 

But does more noise around climate issues drive more action, or just add to the “blah blah blah”? Data shows that each increase in media coverage on climate, which coincides with major summits, is followed up by a decrease. The bottom line is that once the dust settles, everything will return to normal. Cop26, the recent international climate summit held in Glasgow, that interest in environmental issues could wane. 

Meaghan Dally, a research associate at Colorado University and a member of MCCO also shares this concern. “These types of events can really focus public attention toward the climate issue, but maintaining that level of attention can be pretty challenging.” In part, because climate change is “constantly competing with other issues for public attention”. 

A report, which was co-authored by Daly and published in January, finds that during the first half of 2020, the “rapid rise in reporting on Covid displaced coverage of climate change”. Climate reporting began to rebound after Covid’s popularity declined. Daly suggests this could be due to a lack of capacity in media organisations that have been forced to cut staff to reduce costs, but also the public’s limited capacity to absorb crises narratives. “It’s really hard to operate in an emergency mode all the time… people may tune out some of this rhetoric,” she says. 

Some people believe that catastrophe framing can have detrimental effects because they cannot compute the consequences of a crisis. Funmibi Ogunlesi, from the UK’s New Economy Organisers Network, which provides training and support for climate organisers, warns that while emergency framing can be helpful in raising public concern, it also has an “important backfire effect: It fuels fatalism”. 

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“Ultimately, crisis-only framing is in danger of building the belief that climate change is too far gone and nothing can be done to meaningfully mitigate the impact,” says Ogunlesi. “Crisis messaging might keep an issue salient but it also fuels a state of panic and powerlessness.” 

This concern is supported research, published in November, which finds that journalistic usage of “climate emergency ” and “climate crisis” have little impact on the public’s engagement with climate change. In the study, 2,333 individuals were shown fake tweets, which either focused on the impact of climate change, or climate solutions, alternating the phrases “climate change”, “crisis” or “emergency”. There were several patterns that emerged. For example, news about the effects climate change caused fear and increased efficacy beliefs when compared to news about climate action. 

“It is extremely important to make sure messaging about climate is imbued with hope,” says Ogunlesi. “This starts with presenting the problem in a way that shows we got to where we are by design, by decisions made by people in power and not by coincidence. This in turn feeds the idea that people have the power to make decisions to change course.”

The study also shows that the ”emergency” framework slightly reduced perceived credibility and newsworthiness. The end-point of emergencies or crises is always a given. Therefore, when the deadlines pass, normal life (at least in Western nations) resumes as normal, cynics may claim that the issues were sensationalized. 

Concerns about the psychological impact of “doomsday” narratives have found form in the relatively recent concept of “eco-anxiety”. According to a studyIn the Lancet in September, three quarters of young people globally think the future is “frightening”, while more than half think that “humanity is doomed” and a third said climate change has made them hesitant about having children.

The language around climate change will continue to evolve, influenced by what Daly describes as a “tug of war across scientific, political and social time domains”. She cites fossil fuel companies, keen to fissure the link between their products and climate change, as an influence over the shift from “global warming” to “climate change” in the late 90s. On the other, Extinction Rebellion can be credited with popularising the phrase “climate emergency” in 2019. 

Despite these fluctuations Daly suggests that news outlets (including at The) will increase the hiring of climate specialists in 2021. New StatesmanThis could be a significant shift. At least, until the next pandemic.


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