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We Can't Defuse the Climate Crisis Without Tougher, Louder News Coverage

At COP26, some US newsrooms are finally stepping up — but will it last?

Insights + Opinion
UN-CLIMATE-COP26
President Joe Biden addresses a press conference at the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow on November 2, 2021. Brendan SMIALOWSKI / AFP

Mark Hertsgaard

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story. The author is CCNow's co-founder and executive director.

Some of the best news out of Glasgow so far is that the U.S. media is finally paying serious attention to the climate crisis. We'll see if it lasts, now that U.S. President Joe Biden and other world leaders have left for home. Indeed, by Wednesday, the third day of the UN COP26 climate conference, U.S. mainstream news coverage was starting to diminish. But it's usually during the second, closing week of these conferences that the key agreements are or are not reached, so the true test is what comes next.


But for the first 48 hours of COP26, some of the biggest voices in U.S. media were treating climate change as a big deal. They did many stories about what world leaders said they would do to defuse the crisis, and they gave those stories high visibility, running them at or near the top of homepages and broadcasts. The coverage wasn't perfect — breaking news coverage rarely is — but anyone following the news couldn't miss it, and that alone is huge.

As a journalist myself, I've covered UN climate conferences since the 1992 Earth Summit, the gathering that put in motion the processes that have governed every such conference since, including the breakthrough 2015 summit that yielded the Paris Agreement and the current deliberations in Glasgow. Never have U.S. news organizations devoted as many newsroom resources, produced the sheer volume of coverage, or given the story such big play as they did in the opening days of COP26.

The Washington Post in particular went big, splashing the story across the home page and providing one smart take after another about a range of issues — from a tough-minded curtain-raiser the day before the summit to a revealing report on how Brietbart and the Russian television network RT are leading spreaders of climate disinformation online. The Guardian, long the gold standard for climate coverage, continues to lead the pack. Its COP26 live updates are indispensable, and the depth of the paper's climate expertise was evident in one of the most encouraging COP26 stories yet, a report on a scientific study finding that if countries carry out the emissions reductions pledged at this summit, global temperatures will rise by only 1.9 degrees Celsius, the first time the 2 degrees C threshold has been met. The New York Times' coverage included an astonishing piece about climate change's emergence as a theme in contemporary theater, film, and television. Climate change led NPR's Morning Edition, signaling to the audience: Listen up, something important is happening.

Television lagged, as it often does, but U.S. networks by no means ignored Glasgow. Most remarkable has been ABC News, which last week joined the global media collaboration Covering Climate Now (which, disclosure, I direct) as part of an expanded commitment to the climate story. Rightly grounding her reporting in the latest science, ABC News White House correspondent Mary Alice Parks emphasized that Biden's climate commitments in Glasgow, impressive as they sounded, were actually "the bare minimum of what some of the climate scientists say is required" to stave off the most catastrophic climate scenarios. The big cable networks — CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC — also stepped up, airing "over four hours of combined coverage on the opening day" of COP26, with CNN leading the way, an analysis by the nonprofit watchdog group Media Matters found.

There's no single reason why the U.S. media is suddenly trumpeting the most important story of our time. But surely some of the credit belongs to whoever decided to schedule the G20 meeting literally the day before — and a two-hour plane ride away from — the opening day of COP26.

Biden and other leaders of the world's 20 biggest economies — with the exceptions of Vladimir Putin of Russia and Xi Jinping of China, who were also shamefully absent from COP26 (one prerogative of dictatorship is no fear of bad press coverage) — were all but certain to attend the G20 summit in Rome. Which made adding a stop in Glasgow for COP26 relatively easy. A president's overseas trips are like catnip for big news organizations, so they were going to be in Glasgow no matter what, which more or less obliged them to do the climate story.

Not all the coverage has been great, to put it mildly. Fox, as usual, has been a hothouse of anti-science nonsense and right-wing talking points. And CNN's ample coverage aired mainly outside of the evening hours when viewership is the highest.

What matters most, though, is that climate change was a big part of the daily news. The climate silence that much of the U. S. media practiced the past three decades began to break two years ago when the mass movement Greta Thunberg inspired put millions of climate protesters in the streets, but most newsrooms have still been pretty climate-quiet. As COP26 began, they started to get louder, at least for a couple days.

Getting loud matters. Staying quiet all those years left the public not only uninformed but misinformed. Industry propaganda and right-wing disinformation filled the void, blunting pressure for climate action.

Perhaps we are witnessing the dawn of a new day. Like a rising sun kills trolls, plainspoken news coverage disarms climate denial and dissolves public passivity. Professor Katharine Hayhoe, head scientist at the Nature Conservancy, says that the most important thing to do about climate change is talk about it. The facts are clear, and most people, whatever their political allegiances, want a livable planet.

News organizations have some of the largest megaphones on Earth. Monday and Tuesday's coverage were good moments for journalism, for public engagement with the climate crisis, and for humanity's chances of stepping back from what UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has called "the verge of the abyss." Now, will journalists keep it up?

Mark Hertsgaard is the co-founder and executive director of Covering Climate Now and the environment correspondent for The Nation.

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