We need to treat climate change as the emergency that it is

Why are most media outlets not giving the climate emergency the 24/7 coverage they provided for the COVID-19 pandemic?

COP21 Demonstration
A demonstrator holds a poster that reads 'State of Climate Emergency' behind Indigenous people during a protest in Paris, France, on December 12, 2015 [Etienne Laurent/EPA]

Veteran journalist Bill Moyers has told us the story of how Edward R Murrow, the pre-eminent US broadcast journalist of his time, insisted on covering what became Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939. Murrow’s bosses at CBS News had other priorities; they wanted reporters to cover dance competitions in Hamburg, Paris and London instead, explaining that Americans needed some happy news. Murrow wouldn’t do it. “It’ll probably get us fired,” he told his colleagues, but he sent his correspondents to the German-Polish border; they arrived just in time to witness Hitler’s tanks and troops roar into Poland. Suddenly, Europe was at war. And Americans heard about it because journalists at one of the nation’s most influential news outlets defied convention and did their jobs.

Today, all of humanity is under attack, this time from an overheated planet – and too many newsrooms are still more inclined to cover today’s equivalent of dance competitions. The record heat waves and storms of 2020 confirmed what scientists have long predicted: climate change is under way and threatens unparalleled catastrophe. And because carbon dioxide traps heat in the atmosphere for centuries, temperature rise and its effects are only getting started. As one scientist said as wildfires turned San Francisco’s skies orange last September, “We’re going to look back in 10 years, certainly 20 … and say, ‘Wow, 2020 was a crazy year, but I miss it.’”

A handful of major newspapers are paying attention. But most news coverage, especially on television, continues to underplay the climate story, regarding it as too complicated, or disheartening, or controversial. Last month, we asked the world’s press to commit to treating climate change as the emergency that scientists say it is; their response was dispiriting.

We created Covering Climate Now in April 2019 to help break the media’s climate silence. Moyers talked about Murrow’s determination to cover the news that matters at our inaugural conference. Since then, Covering Climate Now has grown into a consortium of hundreds of news outlets reaching a combined audience of roughly two billion people, and the climate coverage of the media as a whole has noticeably improved.

But that coverage is still not going nearly far enough. To convey to audiences that civilisation is literally under attack, news outlets should give more space to climate change stories. They should run more stories about the issue – especially about how climate change is increasingly affecting weather, economics, politics and other spheres of life – and they should run those stories at the top, not the bottom, of their homepages or broadcasts. News reports should also speak much more plainly, presenting climate change as an imminent, deadly threat.

This message is muted at best today, and the result is predictable. In the United States, only 26 percent of the public is “alarmed” about climate change, according to opinion polls analysed by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication (a member of the CCNow  consortium). One reason why? Less than a quarter of the public hear about climate change in the media at least once a month.

Good journalism leads the conversation, and there is certainly plenty of climate news worth covering these days. In a pair of stunning developments last week, a court in The Netherlands ordered the Royal Dutch Shell oil company to reduce its own and its customers’ greenhouse gas emissions by 45 percent by 2030 in accordance with the Paris Agreement. Meanwhile, shareholders of ExxonMobil and Chevron rebelled against management’s refusal to take strong climate action. A week earlier, the International Energy Agency declared that all new fossil fuel development must stop to prevent irreversible climate destruction. The climate emergency is upending politics, economics and virtually every other subject journalists cover, and newsrooms need to catch up.

They can start with the Climate Emergency Statement that CCNow issued in April as part of our Earth Day coverage. Co-signed by eight of our partners – Columbia Journalism Review, The Nation, The Guardian, Scientific American, Noticias Telemundo, La Repubblica, The Asahi Shimbun and Al Jazeera English – the statement’s first sentence says, “It is time for journalism to recognise that the climate emergency is here.” Emphasising that this was “a statement of science, not politics,” the statement links to articles from peer-reviewed journals affirming this fact. The statement notes that the COVID-19 pandemic illustrated how well news outlets can cover emergencies when they commit to it, and it invites journalists everywhere to apply that same urgency to the climate story.

More than 30 news organisations have now signed the statement, but some major outlets told us privately they won’t sign. The phrase “climate emergency” sounds like activism, they said; claiming that endorsing it might make them look biased. Instead, they added, they would let their climate coverage speak for itself.

But that’s the problem: their coverage does speak for itself, and it is simply not reflecting the facts of the story. It is a fact that thousands of the world’s scientists, including many of the most eminent climate experts, say humanity faces a climate emergency. Most major news outlets still present climate change as no more important than a dozen other public issues, when the fact is that if the world doesn’t get it under control, fast, climate change will overwhelm every other issue. Another fact: the climate emergency comes with a time limit – wait too long to halt temperature rise and it becomes too late; CO2’s long atmospheric life makes further temperature rise inevitable, perhaps irreversible.

We’re not obsessed with whether a news outlet does or doesn’t use the term “climate emergency”; what matters is whether the outlet’s overall coverage treats climate change like an emergency. For example, does the outlet give the climate story the same 24/7 coverage it has devoted to the COVID-19 pandemic or, before that, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, or other landmark events? Has it reoriented its newsroom and reassigned reporters to cover the climate story? Do its journalists present the story with a sense of urgency?

At a summit in Glasgow this November, world leaders are supposed to adopt much stronger measures to address the climate emergency. Between now and then, journalists have a responsibility to make sure the public understands what’s at stake and, crucially, that humanity already has the technologies and solutions to decarbonise our economies; what’s needed is the political will to implement them. Journalists also have a responsibility to hold those in power accountable to ensure they are doing what’s needed to keep our planet liveable. That starts with telling the truth: about the climate emergency, its solutions, and how little time remains before it’s too late.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.