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Illustration: A person is looking through binoculars in which a person is reflected, in the background a fireball falls to earth.

Media in the Climate Crisis

For decades, there has been excellent reporting around climate change, but it is still not editorial standard. Consistent journalistic classification could contribute decisively to appropriate action.

When the Queen died in September 2022, media reported prominently and in detail for days, with a tight schedule of news, background pieces, and special broadcasts.

A day later, researchers published a meta-study which core message was that we could possibly reach six tipping points in the climate system within the range of the Paris Climate Agreement, i.e. somewhere between 1.5 and well below 2 degrees. If a tipping point is reached, it triggers irreparable and unstoppable changes that have an impact on the global climate system and will further contribute to global warming. According to scientific calculations, if we continue until as now, these temperature marks could be reached as early as 2030 and 2050.

In contrast to the death of the Queen, which everybody with average media consumption could hardly escape, daily newspaper readers, for example, often only noticed the tipping point study if they made it to the back pages of the science section of their paper that day.

Rolling Reporting

Two women are reading a newspaper that says "Time is running out!
Under the slogan "Climate crisis on the front pages", various local chapters of Extinction Rebellion Germany called for better coverage of the climate crisis in May 2021, photo: Jonas Walzberg / dpa via picture alliance

When a submarine carrying tourists disappeared on its way to the wreck of the Titanic in June, it triggered a rolling report. Newsrooms around the world meticulously accompanied the search for the missing for days.; On the homepage of Spiegel.de, one of Germany's leading news media, the first six articles revolved around the topic at times.

When the third part of the current report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was published in April 2022, many media outlets reported on it with one or two pieces, which had often already slipped to the bottom of the homepages the next morning. Renowned scientists from all over the world have summarized the state of knowledge about the solutions we need to implement if we want to preserve our livelihoods. The message: The situation is extremely serious, but the 1.5-degree limit can still be met – provided that the whole world radically rethinks climate policy – immediately.

In the film "Don't Look Up", an asteroid is hurtling towards Earth, scientists are trying to warn politicians and the public about it, but hardly anyone takes it seriously. Hardly anyone seems to understand how acute the situation is, how urgently action is needed when one can agree on the common goal of keeping the earth habitable.

This is not only the responsibility of politicians, but also of journalists who do not treat the threat according to its urgency. Many climate scientists reported on Twitter, among other things, that they could hardly laugh about the film because they recognized themselves too much in it. There is a difference between a rough understanding of the mechanism of global warming and acknowledging its threat in principle. Or whether we are aware of what it means concretely for our own lives and how little time there is to prevent dramatic changes that cannot be reversed.

When a tipping point is reached, it triggers irreparable and unstoppable changes that affect the global climate system and further contribute to global warming.

The fact that climate change has grown into a life-threatening and all-encompassing crisis in the decades of doing nothing does not seem to have been realized yet by everyone – not even by all media professionals. After more than 60,000 people died due to heat in Europe in the summer of 2022, according to a study, the media are still illustrating the current heat wave with footage from an outdoor pool or ice cream parlor.

In the vast majority of cases, the media still report on topics such as the decision to have children, buy a house, or provide for retirement, as if our world would not change fundamentally in the next 10, 30 or 50 years.

It is not as if nothing is happening in climate reporting. With the rise of the climate movement in 2019, climate as a topic has also become larger in many editorial offices, with many media outlets not only increasing their reporting at the time, but also creating specialized formats and new offerings such as climate newsletters and podcasts. With the Corona crisis and the Russian war in Ukraine, attention to the climate waned again, while hardly any media company has developed a sustainable strategy on how to adequately depict the climate crisis in the long term.

It is not only politicians who are responsible, but also journalists who do not treat the threat according to its urgency.

After all, the climate crisis is an acute threat to our livelihoods – and thus to our civilization. It is therefore not an issue like others we cannot simply treat it on the media stage like others from foreign policy, business, sports, or culture. The climate crisis threatens the stage itself and has a double relationship to all areas of life and business. Journalists – and indeed all other professional groups – must therefore ask themselves:

What impact does my topic have on the climate crisis?

And what influence does the climate crisis have on my topic?

Climate is a dimension of any issue; a cross-cutting issue, the connections of which must be considered everywhere and, if necessary, made transparent in reporting.

Dual Role in Society

Hand holds magnifying glass around which question marks buzz.
On the one hand, journalists only depict the ignorance towards the climate crisis, on the other hand they reproduce it by not asking the crucial questions, photo: DANK0 NN / Zoonar via picture alliance

Journalists have a dual role in society. On the one hand, we only depict the ignorance of and the repression of the climate crisis, but on the other hand, we reproduce and consolidate it socially by not asking the crucial questions, by not consistently pointing out the gaps. By treating connections to the climate crisis as a topic that is regularly reported on by dedicated and specialized journalists – but which is often ignored by the majority of colleagues in their daily work – we make individual and thus social repression possible in the first place.

The fact that media coverage has not yet adequately reflected the extent, urgency and context of the climate crisis poses massive problems in democracies: In order to make informed decisions, an informed discourse is needed. If the scale and urgency of a crisis are not sufficiently clear, the responses will inevitably be too small and too slow.

What "Don't Look Up" doesn't show is that there are structural reasons for the distorted media portrayal of the climate crisis. In the film, journalists are simple-minded and keen for attention. All in all, people are portrayed primarily as isolated individuals, as short-sighted, selfish, and incapable of action. There is no room for social contexts and dynamics in the movie.

That's a shame, because as entertaining as many people probably found the drama, it should leave viewers perplexed. If the reasons for inaction are in "human nature", there are hardly any levers for change.

The reasons for the lack of reporting are manifold and that is precisely why they are so stable. Probably the most important one is that the climate crisis has hardly played a role in the training of journalists so far, neither at journalism schools and traineeships, nor in studies. In contrast to the Covid crisis, where many colleagues were soon able to explain the most important key figures, climate expertise is still often only found among specialist journalists, in the science or climate departments.

Many journalists also lack a basic understanding of the natural sciences. Their view of social problems, like that of many politicians, is characterized by compromise and negotiation. From the point of view of democratic theory, this makes sense and is important.; However, the fact that there are physically non-negotiable limits to growth and economic expansion is often lost sight of.

In contrast to the Covid crisis, where many colleagues were soon able to explain the most important key figures, climate expertise is still often only found among trade journalists, in the science or climate departments.

We can negotiate socially about how we want to manage to break down certain borders and stop tipping points. Or we can consciously decide not to try this in the first place and live with the consequences. At the moment politicians and economic decision-makers are postponing what is scientifically necessary and technically possible, as if inaction had no effect – as if we could negotiate with physics itself.

Practices of Political Journalism

Journalism repeatedly depicts these social negotiation processes, but hardly puts them into context adequately. After all, journalist deal with climate policy as they do with politics. This assumes that there are many different legitimate opinions on a topic and that it is "balanced" or "neutral" to reflect all these opinions and keep them side by side on an equal footing. So far so good, so what's the problem?

In terms of democracy, it is quite valuable to assume that the other person could also be right. However, in the case of a scientifically measurable and assessable problem, the principles of (supposedly) balanced political reporting lead to a false balance. Because who is right to what extent can often be classified in a differentiated way, but it is precisely this classification that is omitted in many cases. Or the reporting follows a pattern that is difficult for many to understand.

The classic climate policy article is structured as follows: It starts with the question that is currently being argued and it then explains what parties A, B, C, and D have to say about it. At the end, there is often, but not always, a paragraph along the lines of: "Scientists/activists/environmental associations say that's not enough." Two things are problematic about this: First, it can seem to the addressees as if the scientific assessment is simply another opinion. Secondly, it is often not clear how big the gap is between what is offered politically and what is necessary from a scientific point of view.

It is often not even clear how big the gap is between what is offered politically and what is necessary from a scientific point of view.

Actually, it would make sense to turn the whole pattern upside down and ask oneself: What offers do the different parties make to achieve this goal? And how well are the proposed measures to do just that?

Information and its understanding are not sufficient conditions for appropriate political and social action – but they are necessary. The media must offer essential guidelines for public debates, and as the fourth estate, they are supposed to control political decisions and actions in democracies. In the climate crisis, journalism does not do justice to this task. It primarily depicts political discourses instead of consistently classifying them on the basis of climate science findings. This delays the debate and thus also the action.

Fossil Lobby Delaying Narratives

We regularly report on the fossil fuels lobby and its delaying narratives – and at the same time reproduce their message again and again. In political reporting, they are presented as equal, legitimate arguments; in talk shows, they remain unclassified as one opinion among many.

We report on the CO2 budget from time to time; some daily newspapers even have dashboards – inspired by the much-noticed depictions in the Corona crisis – in which they count down the budget for 1.5 and 2 degrees. Surprisingly, however, this hardly plays a role in the reporting of climate policy measures, where different proposals are often presented as if one could not classify how well they are suitable for achieving the respective goals.

Climate citizens' assemblies show how far the public discourse is from the scientific one. If representatively selected people are informed by experts about how acute the situation is and which measures are effective in helping, they are willing to support supposedly radical measures to save our livelihoods, as long as they are implemented in a socially just manner.

In France, for example, participants in a climate citizens' assembly proposed removing meat from public canteens, lowering the speed limit on highways from 130 to 110 km/h and banning domestic flights.

 

Illustration: People sitting at a table and discussing.
Die Aufklärung, die in Bürgerräten geleistet wird, kann gesamtgesellschaftlich repliziert werden: über eine angemessene und informierte mediale Berichterstattung, Illustration: scusi / Zoonar via picture alliance

The participants were neither climate activists nor scientists but were deliberately selected after the protests of the yellow vests. They had supposedly opposed climate protection, but in reality, they denounced the unequal distribution of the resulting social burdens.

The education provided in citizens' assemblies can be replicated in society as a whole: through appropriate and informed media coverage. Journalism must think about the existing connections and point them out wherever they are relevant. Only when these connections are consistently addressed in media coverages can they not be repeatedly suppressed, ignored, or dismissed as attitudes, morals or perspectives, both individually and socially.

Climate citizens' assemblies show how far the public discourse is from the scientific one.

In order for this to succeed, the industry and editorial offices need a greater awareness of the problem on the one hand and appropriate support on how such scientifically sound, solution-oriented reporting can succeed in everyday journalistic work on the other.

This is the case in journalism as well as in the climate crisis as a whole: the solutions are known and increasingly tested. There are players who are working on their implementation and from whose experience the rest of the industry can learn when the need and urgency finally arrives there.

European Pioneers

The British daily newspaper "The Guardian" has been intensifying its climate reporting for years, making it an international pioneer. Among other things, it is one of the few media outlets that no longer accepts advertising from fossil fuel companies.

The Irish public broadcaster RTÉ had already announced in 2021 that it would train its entire workforce in order to better reflect the crisis; Radio France followed suit in the summer of 2022 and published its own charter declaring its determination to take the side of science. A few weeks later, many of France's quality media outlets joined a similar initiative by journalists. After an extremely hot and dry summer it became clear to many newsrooms that the crisis had not been sufficiently on their radar.

Climate journalism networks have been established in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, and the Oxford Climate Journalism Institute offers programmes for journalists worldwide to further their education. At the beginning of the year, the European Broadcast Union published a detailed report entitled "Climate Journalism That Works". The Arena for Journalism in Europe has founded a climate offshoot and has just organised the second Europe-wide conference on the topic, which will take place in Vienna in November.

Even if this is far from enough, these developments are encouraging. Journalism is struggling to be part of the solution because of its mediating role in public discourse. But journalism should at least stop being part of the problem as soon as possible.

Literature

 

About the Author
Sara Schurmann
Journalist, Author and Journalist-Trainer

Sara Schurmann is a freelance journalist, author and journalism trainer. In 2018, she the German Medium Magazin voted her one of the “top 30 under 30” German journalists. In 2020, she wrote an open letter addressed to the journalism industry to initiate a discussion about climate reporting; in the summer of 2021, she co-founded the German Climate Journalism Network. In 2022, her first book "Klartext Klima" was published, and in the same year the jury of Medium Magazin voted her Science Journalist of the Year.

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