Providing suitable spatial and temporal context remains a critical need if journalists are to meet their responsibilities for informing global publics about risks posed by a warming climate. Are the media ready to do so?
Reporting accurately on an issue so profoundly vast and intricate — and important — as the Earth’s changing climate poses journalistic challenges of constantly grappling with elusive notions of context.
To capture the magnitude of the climate problem on one hand, and make it accessible and “relevant” on the other, reporters and editors find themselves torqued between competing choices focusing on the global and the local. In addition, along with reporting on science’s projections on possible trajectories of climate change for the future, editors and reporters at times try to relate current and recent experiences of weather extremes to the long-term process of the changing climate.
These developments might reflect scientists’ evolving and increasing understandings of the actual unfolding of climate change, or of the news media’s own increasing understanding of the issue, even in a rapidly changing 24/7 digital news environment.
But, in fact, the local and the global, just like the present and the future, are not mutually exclusive — and the most effective coverage of climate change will reflect both of these important characteristics and provide audiences the needed context to improve their understanding.
Some writers and analysts have stressed that within their newsrooms, climate change stories often fall within the realm of so-called foreign news. That was the case, for instance, when a report on the June 2013 round of United Nations climate talks appeared in The Philippine Star, or when The Times of India reported on impacts of climate change on food security in Ghana.
Growing dependence on wire services and news agencies like Reuters, Associated Press, and Agence France Presse also plays into the tendency by some to treat the subject as a “foreign” issue, though without those services’ attention to climate change, coverage in local and regional media outlets likely would be even more limited.
Several bloggers — for example Curtis Brainard, Keith Kloor, and Mike Shanahan — have called for better localizing of climate change stories. They point out that taking a concrete local perspective on such a complex issue helps making it more understandable and more “relevant” to those wondering “How does it affect me, my family and loved ones, and my neighborhood?”
However, an excessive focus on local impacts can risk parochialism and can give undue emphasis to the scientific reality that forecasting impacts at local or regional levels inevitably lags behind science-based findings on a global scale. It’s highly problematic to simply assume that the “global” in “global warming” makes clear that the issue goes beyond a local, regional, or domestic context.
A better approach might therefore be a collaborative one. In short, engaging a pool of individual journalists or media outlets from multiple localities to jointly report on a particular subject could facilitate a broader and more contextual understanding of our changing climate. Here’s an example of such an effort involving the author of this piece and other freelance journalists.
Let’s say a reporter with a newspaper in Miami, another in Mumbai, and a third one in Lagos get together remotely to report on potential impacts of rising seas on major coastal cities. Elsewhere, a comprehensive story on hydrocarbon exploration in the Arctic could benefit from cooperation among journalists in the U.S., Russia, and Norway. Each would still contribute their local perspective and each run the joint larger-context story in their respective media outlets.
The temporal dimension of climate reporting is perhaps more tricky. Using future tense to discuss the impacts of climate change is rather standard practice in most traditional news outlets. But it is the use of present tense — and in particular perhaps the relationship of today’s freak weather events to increasing global temperatures — that is contentious.
Experienced science writers and other journalists regularly covering climate change recognize the scientific complexities involved in trying to extrapolate from a single weather event to long-term trends, and indeed in many cases avoid over-reaching.
And yet, climate science on the climate/weather connection is evolving rapidly over the past few years — now it’s possible for scientists to go beyond just identifying paleo-climatic trends; a number of studies published over the past two years have shown how climate change can help explain and put into context recent weather extremes with a considerable degree of confidence.
From this some conclude, with justification, that climate change in fact is happening — that the regional and local impacts are now being reliably detected in many of our own “back yards” and as we speak. At least in some places. One of many clear examples is that in the poles, observed temperature rise is known to be particularly accelerated.
And again, there are obvious benefits to conceptualizing climate change manifestations as here and now: It does makes complex issues like climate change relevant, tangible. But it also can run risks of making those long-term but likely more-damaging impacts seem less a big a deal. And that in turn might lead some — and in particular those already inclined to think the projected impacts over-stated — to believe that it might be possible to simply “get used” to climate change. Or, worse yet, “get over it” and consider adaptation and “resilience” the only sensible approach.
But as so often is the case with climate change, things in reality are more complicated.
“It will not be good enough to base your decisions for the future on the past,” Michel Jarraud, Secretary General of the UN’s World Meteorological Organization, told a meeting with journalists four years ago.
Changes now occurring locally and regionally in some cases can be so gradual that the public will fail to link them to changes occurring globally. In addition, there’s also the delayed feedback — that implications of our current and near-term actions (read: greenhouse gas emissions) — will be manifested for all to see only years or decades into the future.
In his last contribution from The Guardian’s environment desk, Leo Hickman accurately captured humanity’s temporal challenge in addressing climate change:
Nothing exposes our species’ “future flaw” more than climate change — rarely, if ever, have the history books demonstrated a generation acting selflessly, or in sacrifice, for the sole benefit of generations to come. We are an extraordinary animal in so many ways, but one of our weaknesses is that we operate firmly in the present tense. We jump only when we are in imminent danger ourselves. If not, we prevaricate, delay or turn our heads away. Climate change requires us to fast overcome this flaw…
So are many in the media actually lagging behind the science? As long ago as 2009, Bill Becker, then a blogger with Inside Climate News, explored what he then saw as an emerging trend in climate researchers’ studies: “Not long ago, most climate scientists stuck to the future tense when they talked about the impacts of global warming,” he wrote at the time. “Now, they are using the present tense — and using it more and more often.”
And it seems that American climate advocacy groups have also gradually switched from future to present tense in their press releases.
There remains at best only scant evidence that the pace of collective international governmental and political action is anywhere near catching up with that view of climate change and its global impacts. It will be interesting to see how the language in the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report will influence the sense of urgency at the upcoming United Nations climate conference…and perhaps also influence approaches taken by media.
Media outlets that can find both future and present perspectives in their reporting on climate change — and, under specific conditions, also find a global and local perspective — may do the most to improve public understanding on these issues.
It’s certainly true that what happens in one place, or at a certain point in time, does not necessarily mirror what happens in another time or place. Yet, the links between them are crucial, and understanding of those links is essential to a more informed citizenry.
Properly contextualizing climate change means both sides of the two dimensions — the spatial and the temporal — are presented in tandem. And with sufficient context. Whether the popular media are up to that challenge remains one of the big unknowns in forecasting how the global community will or will not come to address our collective climate challenges. And that in turn will be essential in influencing how the public and policy makers worldwide come to see, or perhaps ignore, their own roles and responsibilities.