Media & Climate Change Roundtable

In August 2008 the New Economics Foundation estimated that humanity had 100 months to stabilise concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, after which the risk of uncontrollable climate change will become unacceptably high.
With the failure of the Copenhagen talks and the controversy surrounding the leaked University of East Anglia emails hugely damaging the case for action, four activists, one academic and a journalist discuss the media’s role in reporting climate change.
Helen Bird, Head of Media, Friends of the Earth
We recently took part in a debate on Channel 4 following the documentary ‘What the Green Movement Got Wrong’. It was riddled with factual inaccuracies – but it at least started from the premise that manmade climate change is happening, and looked at how we can tackle it.
This could be a sign of a bigger, gradual shift. The media will always chase the latest story – be it Climategate or a sweltering summer.  Some columnists and the Express continue to rage against reality – and the BBC has taken to reporting climate change as the views of some scientists, rather than fact for which there is overwhelming evidence. But by and large the mainstream media recognises climate change is a problem and we are the cause. The issue is how we solve it – which induces various measures of outrage (rightwing media) and hand-wringing (leftwing media) about everything from wind turbines to lightbulbs.
Digital media brings a cyber army of climate sceptics but also allows us to get our message out there direct and unmediated – and motivate our own army of citizens for change. 
Post-Copenhagen the media has grown weary of climate change, and is looking for new ways in to the story. This gives green groups a chance to show the environment is not a niche issue but integral to how we live our lives – from our jobs to our relationships with each other and the world around us.  

David Edwards and David Cromwell, Media Lens (
Media debate on how best to respond to environmental crisis has barely moved in a generation. For years, we have been assailed by the same anodyne editorials urging “the need for all of us to act now”. But how serious can the corporate media be about challenging the lethal activities of their big business allies when, for example, the Guardian and the Independent rely on advertising for around 75 per cent of their revenues? The media are silent about the inherently biocidal logic of corporate capitalism. They are silent about the reality that politics in the US and UK are “a two-party dictatorship in thraldom to giant corporations,” as Ralph Nader has observed.
How can even the BBC be relied upon for “balanced” news when its senior managers, invariably high establishment figures, are appointed by government? When the BBC’s “public service” remit is under the thumb of governments whose policies are distorted by the dictates of power and elite financial-economic interests?
Even debating these issues is forbidden in the mainstream. To criticise journalists for their silence and hypocrisy is to become an instant hate figure – someone intolerable, to be ignored.
How can we change all of this? We could begin by challenging corporate media to reject advertising for climate-wrecking products and services; just as tobacco advertising is now regarded as unacceptable. Ultimately, we need public journalism that is part of the global movement to challenge corporations and states to return the power and rights that have been stolen from us.
Kevin Lister, Plane Stupid
Climate change is the defining issue of our civilisation.  Adapting our growth orientated and energy dependent society to the limitations it imposes requires the biggest reassessment of values and philosophies since the stone-age. CO2 emissions are currently increasing 50% faster than the worst case scenario in the IPCC reports which will lead to global heating in excess of six degrees by this century’s end.
The focus of our society must be on making urgent cuts to emissions. The quickest and most equitable way to do this is cutting unnecessary consumption. Crudely, 27% of our emissions come from the top 5% of our society. But, the debate on how we do this has not even started – as stopping unnecessary consumption challenges the market economy, which the most powerful in our society have every interest in defending.
Instead, our media echo our politician’s claims that we must grow our economies and do not even consider how we make a fair transition to the zero growth society we need. Nor do our media make any critical assessment of the fraudulent claims of big business, such as aviation’s claim that new technologies will solve all our problems. Rather, they host seductive adverts for carbon intensive lifestyles that push the rational debate we urgently need off the pages, making the necessary changes an even more distant prospect.
Justin Lewis, Professor of Journalism at Cardiff University and co-editor of the book Climate Change and the Media
Why is it that the scientific consensus on the alarming threat of climate change is greeted with such inertia by politics and the public? I want to highlight two explanations that are often overlooked.
First, science suggests that to avoid the worst impact of climate change we need be consuming less. And yet we have allowed advertising to become our most pervasive cultural industry. Advertising messages are everywhere, and they promote a worldview that suggests that the main source of gratification in life – and the solution to every problem – comes from consumption. In the politics of climate change, this is an overtly political message – one that tells us not to worry and carry on consuming.
Second, the media and telecommunications industry not only has a carbon footprint as large as the aviation industry, it promotes absurdly high levels of built-in obsolescence. Television screens, computers, phones etc. are built not to last, to be replaced by the next wave of gadgetry as quickly as possible. This creates massive overproduction with appalling environmental consequences. Building a computer, for example, uses up the same level of resources as an SUV, while the new technology we buy is generally less energy efficient that the things it replaced. Meanwhile, we create mountains of highly toxic e-waste, most of which is neither reused nor recycled.
Michelle Stanistreet, Deputy General Secretary, National Union of Journalists
The quality of climate change media coverage, as with many controversial issues, is mixed.  Politics and capital have distorted the debate leaving coverage predictably partisan.
Unsurprisingly, media outlets line up to defend editorial policy regardless of the story. Right-wing media is vociferous in pushing climate deniers onto our screens and comment pages while more left of centre media dish out some of the sobering facts, with a quick plug for eco-kitchenware or cycling holidays placed adjacent. This said, most outlets now have environment editors, something unheard of a decade or so ago.
Climate change has a lot stacked against it when it comes to receiving quality mainstream coverage. It’s complicated and filled with doom and gloom, it doesn’t bring any scandal or page three models, celebrities are few and it threatens the commercial consumerist status quo.
This partly explains why the ‘Climategate’ episode was so widely covered – it offered scandal! And it offered the opportunity to discredit the scientists whose work contributes to climate change research – never mind that the science was never in doubt. The preoccupation with exposes, with scandal and sleaze, meant the climate deniers’ PR exercise worked fabulously with this story timed to discredit the Copenhagen climate talks.
Journalists need news angles for stories, preferably with photo opportunities, recognisable spokespeople, catchy soundbites and plenty of statistics. Al Gore did the trick for a while and Greenpeace remain the masters of media stunts, but the climate lobby needs to understand the demands of popular media.

*Ian Sinclair is a freelance writer based in London, UK. [email protected].

Leave a comment