A Stormy Forecast For Climate Change Reporting

  • Date: 04/11/10

WHATEVER HAPPENED to climate change? This time last year climate change was a hot topic regularly appearing in news bulletins and on front pages. Phrases such as “the future of humanity could be at stake” were quoted, celebrities marshalled and 4,000 journalists prepared to descend on the UN climate change summit in Copenhagen. Apparently humanity’s future is now secure… or so it might seem given the paucity of journalism devoted to the issue in the mainstream media.

Where did all the climate change stories go? “The [programmers] are against it because it loses ratings,” says a senior BBC journalist. “The wave [of public interest] has gone. There is climate change fatigue. That is why I am not [reporting] it now.”

Other journalists agree. Even reporters at The Guardian, which especially targets environmental reporting, complain that it’s difficult to get a run. Another UK broadcast journalist said he was warned that putting climate change on prime time would risk losing a million viewers.

In a series of interviews with some of the UK’s top specialist environment and science correspondents, I explored the changing climate for reporters covering global warming – as part of the ABC’s Donald McDonald research fellowship at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford. Most of the journalists rated the media poorly on communicating what some have dubbed the epic news story of the century. “We have failed to engage the public,” said a broadcast journalist.

The key problems? The list is long but includes a cold winter in Europe, the distant impacts, the failure of the December 2009 UN climate change Copenhagen summit to produce a binding international agreement, public confusion about whether there is a reliable scientific consensus, and alarmist media coverage with Hollywood-horror headlines like “Be Scared; Be Very Scared!” that are more likely to induce the purchase of popcorn than solar panels.


The biggest hurdle mentioned by most journalists was the so-called ‘Climategate’, the controversy surrounding the publication of hundreds of hacked emails from the University of East Anglia (UEA) in the UK between influential climate scientists. It was a “defining moment in all our careers,” according to an environment editor.

Given the underlying science (sic) has been exonerated in successive inquiries, what is it that the journalists believe they were guilty of? Firstly, they missed a cracking story that was instead first pursued by the blogosphere and which proved to be, unlike many other climate change stories, a hit with the public. After struggling to find stories the public wanted to read, a tabloid journalist observed “Climategate … got a strong response; it made climate change more topical.”

Many journalists say the UEA email hacking, combined with the discovery of an error regarding the melting of the Himalayan glaciers in the 2007 report by Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), also proved they had failed to cast a critical enough eye on climate science and that they had been far too dismissive of sceptics.

It’s the editors, stupid

Probably the most important reaction to the UEA hacking for journalists was in their own newsrooms, among their own editors who are the gatekeepers controlling if your work appears and how prominently. While some UK surveys show no dramatic loss of credibility for climate scientists with the public, here’s how some senior journalists described what it was like in their newsrooms after hacking:

  • “dirty looks”
  • “sense of betrayal”
  • thought we’d “gone native”
  • “you told me the science was settled – and it isn’t!”

“Climate-gate was extremely damaging in many ways. It gave the impression that journalists had been duped. I think in the end it was mountains out of mole-hills but it looked really bad,” said a print journalist.

The science is never settled

“The science is settled” was an oft used slogan by governments, non-government organisations and scientists especially in the lead up to Copenhagen and was meant to encapsulate the certainty with which most scientists believe that man-made greenhouse gases are causing global warming. But some journalists and commentators now believe it implied too sweeping a claim and most scientists will tell you that science is rarely if ever completely settled – and certainly climate science is full of vast uncertainties about the extent and pace of global warming and its impacts.

Now, a key BBC news manager has declared that climate science “isn’t quite a settled question”; and the BBC Trust is investigating the impartiality of science reporting including on climate change and including whether sceptical views are given due airing.

Not all sceptics are equal

Previously, media coverage of sceptics had focused almost exclusively on whether or not they believe in anthropogenic climate change, but that is likely to change, the journalists say, because there are many different kinds of sceptics and a range of other debates. Some say they wished they had engaged credible sceptics earlier.

Looking to the future

So what is the future for the climate change story in the mainstream media?

The forecast is grim. Around 4,000 reporters went to Copenhagen, Denmark; only 150 attended follow-up negotiations in Bonn, Germany, and some senior correspondents say they might not go to Cancun, Mexico, in December for the next UN climate change summit. Some believe climate change as a story is finished. New York Times blogger, Andy Revkin, says it is now turning into an energy and business story.

The challenge for reporters is immense. Climate change is a multi-disciplinary story that requires at least some knowledge ranging from science and energy policy to potential military deployments, from coastal development to diplomacy and to mass biodiversity loss, to name a few. A BBC correspondent said it is arguable that journalists need qualifications in science, politics and economics to straddle the demands of climate change reporting.

Yet the issue has become newsworthy at a time when many newsrooms have been downsized while servicing an accelerating 24-hour news cycle. Not enough people. Not enough expertise. Not enough time.

Despite the present crisis of confidence among some UK journalists, I believe it remains a live story and that underlying the short-term news cycles is a number of titanic struggles and shifts which will force the issue back into mainstream press coverage no matter what tag it is given – these include the biggest global energy transformation since the industrial revolution; the unfolding, gobsmacking scientific mapping of the phenomenon (from ocean acidification to polar ice) as well as the reformation of an inward-looking scientific community to accept more transparency and robust public debate and explanation; and the great ideological clash over climate change policy including right-wing fears that it is a front for left-wing eco-fascism.

Then there’s the actual climate. If the scientists and insurance companies are right, it will produce increasing horror temperature, drought and precipitation events as well as more natural catastrophes. How we adapt to a dramatically changing climate, if or when it emerges, could, sadly, become the most compelling story of all.

ABC News, 4 November 2010


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