Communicating climate change in the world of Covid-19 – strategies from social scientists, and the role of journalism

As stated in an editorial, “The Guardian view on the climate and coronavirus: global warnings” ( April 12) ,  “Could the renewed shock of human vulnerability in the face of Covid-19 make way for an increased willingness to face other perils, climate chaos among them?  Impossible to say at this stage, perhaps. …. But with the postponement of crucial UN biodiversity and climate conferences, it has never been more important to keep up the pressure. There is no exit strategy from our planet.”

What do the social scientists recommend?

Much attention has been focused on the pivot which climate activists must make to replace protests with virtual organizing – for example, in “How To Be A Climate Activist During The Coronavirus Pandemic” (HuffPost Mar. 20).  But does the messaging also need to change?   “Communicating climate change during the coronavirus crisis – what the evidence says” ( April 14) offers advice in a blog  based on extensive social science research into climate change communication, conducted by Climate Outreach,

“A few things are clear: a key starting point must be emphasising communal values of compassion and mutual support. It’s also critically important to challenge assumptions about what we think we know, and to ensure climate advocates don’t open themselves up to ‘ambulance chasing’ accusations.”

Although moments of life-changing shift (such as the “shock of human vulnerability” cited in The Guardian editorial) have proven make people more open to changing behaviours, Climate Outreach notes that after traumatic events, people also have a need to get back to normal. With a clear possibility that human society may be entering a period of months and years of disruption on many fronts – health, economy, and even food supply – the blog argues that two futures are possible: an increased emphasis on communal values and the public good, or  a society accepting of authoritarian values which erect barriers against perceived threats.  The conclusion:  “This points ever more strongly to the importance that climate campaigners emphasise the communal values of compassion and mutual support in a time of crisis.”

Climate Outreach plans to publish a practical, evidence-based guide on how to communicate about climate change during the ongoing Covid-19 crisis by the end of May, using the model of their previous guides, such as their #Talking Climate Handbook  (Dec. 2019).

A recent review of the research on behavioural adaptation to climate change also identifies the importance of collective behaviours over individual action – the original article,  “From incremental to transformative adaptation in individual responses to climate-exacerbated hazards” , appears in  Nature Climate Change (Feb. 2020); a brief summary appears here.  The authors, from Ohio State University, found that that most academic studies have examined coping strategies of individuals or households in the face of isolated hazards such as floods or fires.  Lead author Robyn Wilson is quoted here, saying “If we want to really adapt to climate change, we’re talking about transformational change that will truly allow society to be resilient in the face of these increasing hazards. We’re focused on the wrong things and solving the wrong problems.”

 

Climate change media amid the Covid-19 crisis

covering climate now2As he does regularly as part of the Covering Climate Now  global initiative, author Mark Hertsgaard, executive director of CCN,  compiles major climate change stories. On March 25, he wrote “COVID-19 and the media’s climate coverage capabilities” , which states: “the media’s snapping to attention on coronavirus throws its coverage of the climate crisis into sharp relief. The press has never treated the climate story with anywhere near this level of attention or urgency.”   On April 8, he continued his critique in  “Silence of the climate watchdogs” which states :

“The solution is not for newsrooms to stop covering the coronavirus story. It is to expand their definition of what qualifies as a coronavirus story to include profiteering from the pandemic, whether financially or politically. That’s exactly the kind of impropriety the press’s watchdog function is supposed to expose and inhibit, and there are plenty of dogs capable of fulfilling that function. It’s high time more of them start barking.”

The Columbia Journalism Review hosts the Covering Climate Now global initiative. Its  Spring issue  is titled The Story of Our Time , written principally by and for journalists. It provides insights into the state of climate journalism, and also reflects their personal and professional experiences– for example, “Good Grief” by Emily Atkin, who recounts how  her own frustrations in the mainstream media led her to start her own independent news outlet, Heated  in 2019, with the byline ”for those who are pissed off about climate change” .

The introduction to The Story of Our Time  sums up the recurring themes throughout all the articles and reflects the militancy of a growing number of climate journalists:

“We have reached a turning point for journalism and the planet. Old ideas that had dampened our attention to climate change—that the subject was too polarizing or too complicated or a money-loser—have been proven wrong. Old forms of storytelling—fast, without helping readers draw crucial connections—are not what’s needed to confront the crisis we face. We owe it to our audience, and our conscience, to be more thoughtful. Climate change is the story of our time. Journalism will be judged by how it chronicles the devastating reality.”

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