Has climate change finally reached the mainstream in our media?

As the swirl around the 21st Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change(COP21) begins it would be easy to think climate change is now mainstream news.

In recent months we’ve witnessed growing cooperation and diplomacy; from the historic agreement between the US and China, to pledges from business leaders and financiers, to clear country commitments via the INDCs (Intended Nationally Determined Contributions). Meanwhile natural disasters have provided stark reminders of the urgency and need for action, and President Obama and Prince Charles have both linked recent conflicts to climate change. All of which have been reported on by broadcasters, print and online nationals, and trade media.

A Factiva search of UK media reveals that there currently are almost 2,000 references to “climate change” each week. That might seem a lot, and is in comparison to recent months, accounting for over 20% of mentions this year. However, if you consider there have been 158,614 mentions in the last five years (an average of 2,644 a month) that puts last month below the average. And that’s with a major international milestone just around the corner.

It’s also telling who is doing the reporting. Unsurprisingly the Guardian is the most prolific media outlet, with 236 mentions of “climate change” in the last month, 2,400 in the last year, and 6,243 in the last five years. The Guardian is consistently followed, but with around half the number of mentions, by the Times, Press Association and Telegraph Online. And the journalists have been consistent too; the Press Association’s Emily Beamant leading the way, followed by Damian Carrington and Fiona Harvey (both the Guardian) and Tom Bawden (the Independent).

Of course these numbers tells us nothing about the tone or depth of reporting. But they are a reminder that only certain news outlets, in certain sections, written by certain journalists are covering what is widely recognised as the greatest challenge of our generation and the largest threat to humankind.

Perhaps the references to lofty-yet-terrifying scale is part of the problem; people put climate change into the “too big to handle” box, and therefore so does the media. Instead they focus on more tangible threats, ones with an enemy and clear victim.

Isn’t it time climate change made it out of the environment section and onto the front pages? President Obama has put his legacy on it, Pope Francis has called it a “moral imperative”, the Bank of England’s Mark Carney has sternly warned us of the cost, corporate leaders from Branson to Buffet to Gates have called for greater action. What’s it going to take?

If we’re lucky and the outcome of COP is a success – with the first ever plan of action on climate change and enough political will to see it implemented – then the world’s media will rejoice for a moment, beaming rare good news headlines into our TVs and newspapers. And then it will move on to other pursuits, like how to baste a turkey and who might win the X Factor finale.

If Paris doesn't result in a strong agreement, it still won’t be the disaster of Copenhagen in 2009; the lasting image being our world’s leaders locked in a room with furrowed brows. French diplomatic efforts have already assured us of that, with the leaders’ speeches at the beginning of the two week conference leaving their negotiators to determine the end game, and the INDC pledges in advance meaning much has already been decided. Without a clear disaster it could fade from the headlines all together – no one wants to report on, or read about, a damp squib.

In either scenario, the challenge for journalists will be using the pre-COP21 momentum we’re currently witnessing to drive climate change onto the mainstream media agenda. And then keep it there: holding leaders to account on their pledges, and accurately reporting both the dangers and the opportunities. The key will be making it tangible by finding ways to connect ambitious pledges to individual actions, i.e. making action on climate change relevant to our day-to-day lives – because if you think about it, it’s the most transcending topic there is. And that’s quite a responsibility for our small band of environment journalists to handle – shouldn’t the others share the load?

Image from the Telegraph

(Image from the Telegraph)

Suzy Greenwood

Hill & Knowlton Strategies Search