Submerged: how climate news gets hidden away

Tip of the iceberg: Climate change headlines from newspapers around the world.

February’s global temperatures smashed records for the fifth month in a row, by a higher margin than ever. So when NASA revealed all in a ‘bombshell’ report, why didn’t the media care more?

‘Wow’ tweeted Gavin Schmidt. He is director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, which maintains global temperature records — and he was linking to the latest figures for February 2016. Normally he would not comment on individual months, he explained. But this one was ‘special’.

According to NASA data, last month was the hottest February on record. Worse still, it was a ‘whopping’ 1.35C above the global average temperature, the highest leap ever recorded. It smashed the previous record of 1.15C — a record which was set in January 2016.

‘We are now hurtling at a frightening pace toward the globally agreed maximum of 2C warming over pre-industrial levels,’ said the scientists Jeff Masters and Bob Henson. In the Northern Hemisphere, this has already been reached. In the Arctic, the temperature was over 5C above average. Another scientist described it as a ‘climate emergency’.

Why was it not on the front page of every newspaper? On the day that NASA released its report, a quick glance at the UK’s press revealed a fairly ordinary day: The Guardian and The Times led with the housing crisis. The Telegraph offered a new ‘Brexit’ poll, while The Daily Mail lambasted the living wage. The Sun called Chris Evans a ‘donut’ for a Top Gear stunt in front of a war memorial. Only the fading Independent chose NASA’s climate news as its lead story.

Britain is not alone in its ambivalence towards climate news. Last year saw some of the biggest environmental stories in years, including speeches from the pope and multiple smashed records. Yet television news coverage fell in the US.

Meanwhile, analysis of 50 major newspapers from across the globe found that journalists wrote about a third more on the failed UN climate conference of 2009 than they did about last year’s successful Paris summit.

‘If we delay any longer strong cuts in greenhouse gas emissions,’ said Bob Ward, a climate research director at LSE, ‘the impacts of climate change are likely to be very dangerous’. Is the media ignoring the threat?

Breaking the ice

‘Journalism tends to be a rear-view mirror,’ explained the former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger last year. ‘We prefer to deal with what has happened, not what lies ahead.’ If something extraordinary is happening too slowly, it may never reach the top of the agenda. This makes it even harder for readers to grasp its importance.

But it is not just the media, others point out. The lack of interest from the press reflects a much wider attitude — it is the same reason why politicians do not bring up climate change in their speeches, and it rarely trends on social media. Most of society simply finds it hard to care. That is another problem entirely.

You Decide

  1. Is it fair to suggest that the media ‘doesn’t care’ about environmental news?
  2. How can newspapers and climate activists convince people of the importance of climate change?

Activities

  1. As a class, suggest some key ways ordinary people can help fight climate change.
  2. Design your own newspaper front page reporting February’s record-breaking temperatures. Think carefully about how you grab the reader’s attention.

Some People Say...

“People don’t care about things they can’t change.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Who cares what the front pages say?
The papers’ lead stories aren’t as influential as they once were; people have access to a huge range of excellent blogs and magazines which are dedicated to climate news if they are interested. But the mainstream news still tries to reflect — and shape — the concerns of its readers.
How worried should I be about the temperature rising?
On one level, everyone should be a bit worried: climate change is still, scientifically, the biggest risk humans face. But the scale of the problem makes it impossible for one person to tackle alone. There are small things that everyone can do, but it will take action from governments and businesses to really make a difference.

Word Watch

NASA
America’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration monitors global climate change data, including solar activity, sea levels and temperatures.
Global average
This baseline was set using the temperatures between 1951 and 1980. Scientists think that the ‘pre-industrial’ figure was from 0.2 to 0.4C cooler. This means February’s 1.35C could have passed the 1.5C target set by the UN in Paris last year.
2C warming
Scientists and politicians have agreed that this is the target which global warming cannot reach without becoming ‘dangerous’.
Northern Hemisphere
The Northern hemisphere recorded average temperatures which were 2.76C above the average. In the Arctic, it was 5.36C.
Independent
The newspaper is known for its strong opinions and unusual front pages. However, it will print its last edition this Saturday (26 March).
Paris summit
World leaders came together to agree ambitious climate change goals in Paris in December last year. In 2009, a similar even in Copenhagan failed to reach a consensus.
LSE
The London School of Economics, a top British university.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.