The Media’s Climate Coverage Is Improving, but Time Is Very Short
By Mark Hertsgaard and Kyle Pope
In this autumn of horrific fires and deadly floods, it's easy to overlook one bit of promising news on the climate front: Some major U.S. media coverage of the crisis is finally getting better.
We're seeing the evidence this week as Covering Climate Now—a collaboration of four hundred-plus news outlets, with a combined audience of two billion people—publishes and broadcasts a profusion of stories about climate change and the 2020 U.S. elections. Climate change has been largely overlooked in general-election coverage to date, with one exception: September 14, when Donald Trump said of California's record wildfires, inaccurately, that "science doesn't know" whether the earth will keep getting hotter and his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, warned that re-electing a "climate arsonist" to the White House would ensure worse blazes in the future.
Covering Climate Now's week of coverage, which runs September 21 through 28, aims to give climate change the attention it deserves. The collaborative, co-founded last year by CJR and The Nation in association with The Guardian, aims to help news organizations increase and improve coverage of the crisis as well as its solutions. Even amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the looming Supreme Court battle, and the other huge news stories of 2020, "the climate emergency remains the central question facing the world," United Nations Secretary General António Guterres said in a September 8 interview with Covering Climate Now. As Justin Worland wrote in a landmark special issue of Time magazine on July 7, the U.S. elections will shape whether we "keep driving off the climate cliff or take the last exit."
NBC News, which joined Covering Climate Now in April, kicked off this current week of joint coverage by launching a new series, Planet 2020. Al Roker, the network's chief climate correspondent and long-time weather forecaster, has been talking about climate change on the Today show for months, describing its links to wildfires and hurricanes without wiggle words or alarmism. Now, Roker and cohost Savannah Sellers, the host of NBC's daily digital news show Stay Tuned, are connecting the dots between extreme weather, climate change, and the 2020 elections where, as Sellers reported, "millennials and Gen-Z will make up 37 percent of eligible voters and concern over climate change is … shaping up to be more important to all voting blocs than ever before." Also this week, our partners at Reuters and Agence France Presse delivered a story to their thousands of newsroom clients around the world that puts the Paris Agreement goals in a new light, reporting, "The richest one percent of people are responsible for more than twice as much carbon pollution as the poorest half of the world's population."
Good climate coverage by Covering Climate Now partners is begetting good climate coverage among the media as a whole. More of America's leading newspapers are speaking more loudly and plainly about climate change, notably The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Arizona Republic, and the Los Angeles Times. The latter headlined a September 14 story about the state's wildfires "A Climate Apocalypse Now." Among magazines, Bloomberg has launched a new digital outlet and accompanying print edition, Bloomberg Green, that is a must-read for the far-reaching economic aspects of the climate story.
On television, Covering Climate Now partner PBS NewsHour continues to set the pace for sustained, informed climate coverage. And on August 8, CNN rebroadcast climate correspondent Bill Weir's "The Road to Change," a documentary that we praised in April as perhaps the best piece of climate journalism ever done by a mainstream US news outlet.
The problem is, these and other examples of first-rate climate coverage remain the exception.
Despite recent orange skies over the West Coast and fearsome storm surges in the Gulf of Mexico, not to mention the 32 years since NASA scientist James Hansen's U.S. Senate testimony that man-made global warming had begun, the climate crisis remains a marginal afterthought in most U.S. news coverage. Chris Wallace of Fox News has announced that he will not even raise the subject of climate change when moderating the first presidential debate between Trump and Biden next week.
And consider the scandalous absence of climate change from most coverage of the wildfires, Hurricane Laura, the Iowa derecho, and countless other extreme weather events of 2020. Only one of the ninety-three news segments that ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, Fox, and MSNBC aired during the week after Laura slammed the Louisiana coast connected the storm to climate change, according to a study by the watchdog group Media Matters. Of forty-six segments ABC, NBC, and CBS aired on the California wildfires, only seven mentioned climate change.
This is media malpractice. It is also, from a business point of view, foolish: the public actually wants more, not less, climate coverage. According to a poll released today by our partners at The Guardian and VICE Media, 74 percent of likely voters want the moderators to ask climate questions at the upcoming presidential debates.
We are heartened by the progress Covering Climate Now has made in helping the media rise to the existential challenge of the climate crisis. Yet even as we celebrate that progress this week, we recognize how far there is to go, and how little time we have to get there. The first presidential debate takes place on September 29, and five weeks later is Election Day. Between now and then, newsrooms should follow the advice of Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan: "This subject must be kept front and center, with the pressure on and the stakes made abundantly clear at every turn."
This story originally appeared in Columbia Journalism Review and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
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By Dana M Bergstrom, Euan Ritchie, Lesley Hughes and Michael Depledge
In 1992, 1,700 scientists warned that human beings and the natural world were "on a collision course." Seventeen years later, scientists described planetary boundaries within which humans and other life could have a "safe space to operate." These are environmental thresholds, such as the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and changes in land use.
The Good and Bad News<p><span>Ecosystems consist of living and non-living components, and their interactions. They work like a super-complex engine: when some components are removed or stop working, knock-on consequences can lead to system failure.</span></p><p>Our study is based on measured data and observations, not modeling or predictions for the future. Encouragingly, not all ecosystems we examined have collapsed across their entire range. We still have, for instance, some intact reefs on the Great Barrier Reef, especially in deeper waters. And northern Australia has some of the most intact and least-modified stretches of savanna woodlands on Earth.</p><p><span>Still, collapses are happening, including in regions critical for growing food. This includes the </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/importance-murray-darling-basin/where-basin" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Murray-Darling Basin</a><span>, which covers around 14% of Australia's landmass. Its rivers and other freshwater systems support more than </span><a href="https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/latestproducts/94F2007584736094CA2574A50014B1B6?opendocument" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">30% of Australia's food</a><span> production.</span></p><p><span></span><span>The effects of floods, fires, heatwaves and storms do not stop at farm gates; they're felt equally in agricultural areas and natural ecosystems. We shouldn't forget how towns ran out of </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/issues-murray-darling-basin/drought#effects" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">drinking water</a><span> during the recent drought.</span></p><p><span></span><span>Drinking water is also at risk when ecosystems collapse in our water catchments. In Victoria, for example, the degradation of giant </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/logging-must-stop-in-melbournes-biggest-water-supply-catchment-106922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mountain Ash forests</a><span> greatly reduces the amount of water flowing through the Thompson catchment, threatening nearly five million people's drinking water in Melbourne.</span></p><p>This is a dire <em data-redactor-tag="em">wake-up</em> call — not just a <em data-redactor-tag="em">warning</em>. Put bluntly, current changes across the continent, and their potential outcomes, pose an existential threat to our survival, and other life we share environments with.</p><p><span>In investigating patterns of collapse, we found most ecosystems experience multiple, concurrent pressures from both global climate change and regional human impacts (such as land clearing). Pressures are often </span><a href="https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1365-2664.13427" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">additive and extreme</a><span>.</span></p><p>Take the last 11 years in Western Australia as an example.</p><p>In the summer of 2010 and 2011, a <a href="https://theconversation.com/marine-heatwaves-are-getting-hotter-lasting-longer-and-doing-more-damage-95637" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">heatwave</a> spanning more than 300,000 square kilometers ravaged both marine and land ecosystems. The extreme heat devastated forests and woodlands, kelp forests, seagrass meadows and coral reefs. This catastrophe was followed by two cyclones.</p><p>A record-breaking, marine heatwave in late 2019 dealt a further blow. And another marine heatwave is predicted for <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/dec/24/wa-coastline-facing-marine-heatwave-in-early-2021-csiro-predicts" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">this April</a>.</p>
What to Do About It?<p><span>Our brains trust comprises 38 experts from 21 universities, CSIRO and the federal Department of Agriculture Water and Environment. Beyond quantifying and reporting more doom and gloom, we asked the question: what can be done?</span></p><p>We devised a simple but tractable scheme called the 3As:</p><ul><li>Awareness of what is important</li><li>Anticipation of what is coming down the line</li><li>Action to stop the pressures or deal with impacts.</li></ul><p>In our paper, we identify positive actions to help protect or restore ecosystems. Many are already happening. In some cases, ecosystems might be better left to recover by themselves, such as coral after a cyclone.</p><p>In other cases, active human intervention will be required – for example, placing artificial nesting boxes for Carnaby's black cockatoos in areas where old trees have been <a href="https://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/publications/factsheet-carnabys-black-cockatoo-calyptorhynchus-latirostris" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">removed</a>.</p><p><span>"Future-ready" actions are also vital. This includes reinstating </span><a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/a-burning-question-fire/12395700" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultural burning practices</a><span>, which have </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/australia-you-have-unfinished-business-its-time-to-let-our-fire-people-care-for-this-land-135196" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">multiple values and benefits for Aboriginal communities</a><span> and can help minimize the risk and strength of bushfires.</span></p><p>It might also include replanting banks along the Murray River with species better suited to <a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/my-garden-path---matt-hansen/12322978" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">warmer conditions</a>.</p><p>Some actions may be small and localized, but have substantial positive benefits.</p><p>For example, billions of migrating Bogong moths, the main summer food for critically endangered mountain pygmy possums, have not arrived in their typical numbers in Australian alpine regions in recent years. This was further exacerbated by the <a href="https://theconversation.com/six-million-hectares-of-threatened-species-habitat-up-in-smoke-129438" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019-20</a> fires. Brilliantly, <a href="https://www.zoo.org.au/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Zoos Victoria</a> anticipated this pressure and developed supplementary food — <a href="https://theconversation.com/looks-like-an-anzac-biscuit-tastes-like-a-protein-bar-bogong-bikkies-help-mountain-pygmy-possums-after-fire-131045" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Bogong bikkies</a>.</p><p><span>Other more challenging, global or large-scale actions must address the </span><a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iICpI9H0GkU&t=34s" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">root cause of environmental threats</a><span>, such as </span><a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-018-0504-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">human population growth and per-capita consumption</a><span> of environmental resources.</span><br></p><p>We must rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero, remove or suppress invasive species such as <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/mam.12080" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">feral cats</a> and <a href="https://theconversation.com/the-buffel-kerfuffle-how-one-species-quietly-destroys-native-wildlife-and-cultural-sites-in-arid-australia-149456" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">buffel grass</a>, and stop widespread <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-reduce-fire-risk-and-meet-climate-targets-over-300-scientists-call-for-stronger-land-clearing-laws-113172" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">land clearing</a> and other forms of habitat destruction.</p>
Our Lives Depend On It<p>The multiple ecosystem collapses we have documented in Australia are a harbinger for <a href="https://www.iucn.org/news/protected-areas/202102/natures-future-our-future-world-speaks" target="_blank">environments globally</a>.</p><p>The simplicity of the 3As is to show people <em>can</em> do something positive, either at the local level of a landcare group, or at the level of government departments and conservation agencies.</p><p>Our lives and those of our <a href="https://theconversation.com/children-are-our-future-and-the-planets-heres-how-you-can-teach-them-to-take-care-of-it-113759" target="_blank">children</a>, as well as our <a href="https://theconversation.com/taking-care-of-business-the-private-sector-is-waking-up-to-natures-value-153786" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">economies</a>, societies and <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-address-the-ecological-crisis-aboriginal-peoples-must-be-restored-as-custodians-of-country-108594" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultures</a>, depend on it.</p><p>We simply cannot afford any further delay.</p><p><em><a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/dana-m-bergstrom-1008495" target="_blank" style="">Dana M Bergstrom</a> is a principal research scientist at the University of Wollongong. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/euan-ritchie-735" target="_blank" style="">Euan Ritchie</a> is a professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences at Deakin University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/lesley-hughes-5823" target="_blank">Lesley Hughes</a> is a professor at the Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/michael-depledge-114659" target="_blank">Michael Depledge</a> is a professor and chair, Environment and Human Health, at the University of Exeter. </em></p><p><em>Disclosure statements: Dana Bergstrom works for the Australian Antarctic Division and is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Wollongong. Her research including fieldwork on Macquarie Island and in Antarctica was supported by the Australian Antarctic Division.</em></p><p><em>Euan Ritchie receives funding from the Australian Research Council, The Australia and Pacific Science Foundation, Australian Geographic, Parks Victoria, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, and the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC. Euan Ritchie is a Director (Media Working Group) of the Ecological Society of Australia, and a member of the Australian Mammal Society.</em></p><p><em>Lesley Hughes receives funding from the Australian Research Council. She is a Councillor with the Climate Council of Australia, a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and a Director of WWF-Australia.</em></p><p><em>Michael Depledge does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/existential-threat-to-our-survival-see-the-19-australian-ecosystems-already-collapsing-154077" target="_blank" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
To save the planet, we must save the Amazon rainforest. To save the rainforest, we must save its indigenous peoples. And to do that, we must demarcate their land.
A new EarthxTV film special calls for the protection of the Amazon rainforest and the indigenous people that call it home. EarthxTV.org
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"Today's interim report from the UNFCCC is a red alert for our planet," said UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres.
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