It’s not looking so green: Is climate change media coverage missing a certain ‘Je ne sais quoi’?

With Earth Day upon us, world leaders are gathering today to sign the Paris Climate Agreement, an international accord that came as an output of negotiations between 200 countries, and sets the target of capping global temperatures changes by 1.5°C versus 2°C, which scientists argue is beyond humanity’s adaptive capabilities, by 2020. While this declaration undoubtedly acts as a step in the right direction, it is fuelling controversy over questions of its impact. As we’ve seen with the UN Millennium Development Goals – which have now fed into the UN Sustainable Development Goals – global agreement on targets doesn’t always filter down to the national level, and most definitely to the community level, especially in developing countries with varying agendas. And to rectify our inability to translate a statement into practice, goals are extended into new timeframes and amended targets, masking our struggle to paint a happy picture of progress. So is the Paris Agreement any different or more promising? Or will it prove, like so many other international initiatives do, to be a media grab with its fifteen minutes of fame, and barely be even referred to when natural disasters strike in the future?

First of all, before this turns into a pessimistic rant on our all-encompassing shortcomings as humanity, let me highlight that there is a positive message here. When the mainstream media is provoking a discussion around climate change, it is undoubtedly a plus for NGOs and the international community that fight for this cause every day. It also has a chain effect and feeds down the media line, getting picked up by local content producers in global communities, relaying that message in a way that speaks to people’s everyday lives. And this is strictly speaking from a media perspective; of course in the political realm, it is a strong statement of global bureaucracy to unite over 150 countries as signatories over such a pertinent issue. And as noted by a NPR commentary, the mainstream media is focused on showing this success, with the New York Times and the Washington Post praising the action. The Guardian headline reads: “The world’s greatest diplomatic success” (I for one would say that may be slightly melodramatic).

The kicker here is in the fine print: the agreement doesn’t actually commit signatories to take action until 2020, which sceptics argue is too late to change our inevitable fate of a warmer planet. This means that if public interest doesn’t sustain, political agendas could be at risk of de-prioritising climate action, and before you know it, the hype of the Paris Agreement is but a mirage of the past.

The key in this case could be, as I previously hinted, in local media. Starting at the top, looking at the BBC coverage, they list the top ten countries with the highest greenhouse gas emissions. Unsurprisingly, China is double its next perpetrator at 24% (with the US sitting in second at 12%). But to an American sitting in the Midwest countryside, the severity of emissions in China is a bit of a mystery, and frankly, completely irrelevant to their life. But how are emissions – whether it be in China, the US, or anywhere else for argument’s sake – affecting that countryside? Is it reducing crops and therefore affecting the community’s wealth? Is it creating wildly weather patterns affecting the community’s ability to support their infrastructure and build resilience? Regardless of what that impact is, it’s up to local media to find it and expose it. It’s a sad truth: too often the bigger picture is not translated into the digestible picture that people need.


Photo by Alisha Weng; Instagram (published 5 July 2015 by VancityBuzz)

I’ll give a personal example that may seem minor, but was quite thought-inducing for myself as a Canadian, a nature-lover, and an average middle-class consumer. A few years back, British Columbia, Canada had record-breaking numbers of forest fires – an obvious impact of drier than usual summer temperatures. Local news coverage mapped the fires, showed impact on residents of the areas, and investigated how the fires were initiated. And yes, they did cover temperature records over several years., at a minimum hinting at the bigger issue of climate change. There was a point in the summer where the downtown core of Vancouver was engulfed in a cloud of smoke that had wafted in from a relatively nearby fire (though it posed no direct threat to the urban areas). Walking downtown was like being in an apocalyptic parallel universe – the streets were fairly empty and the definitive smell weighed on your lungs. It also happened to be the same weekend as the women’s FIFA tournament final, bringing American and Japanese fans into the city centre. I was working at a restaurant at the time and tourist customers continually asked what was going on, or commented on how despite the smoke, they were still enjoying their visit. What occurred to me though was the complete disregard for the connection between our excessive food consumption (and waste) and drier climates that created the smoke to begin with. Okay, I admit this seems like a bit of a stretch and perhaps an extremely indirect connection, but the point is there is a responsibility for these connections to be made. And even if you’re not reporting the absolute full picture of climate change – which undoubtedly wouldn’t fit into editorial word counts – the blatant connection must be made and must matter to a local audience.

Although it may seem cliché, what is abundantly clear is that paying attention to our planet one out of 365 days of the year is inadequate, and media plays an essential role in repainting the global picture with a bit more green.