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.”

Canadian Energy Centre: promoting the message that “Canadian oil and natural gas can make this country and the world better”

alberta energy war roomOn December 11, the Alberta government of Jason Kenney launched its “rapid-response war room” – deceptively called the Canadian Energy Centre –  using $30 million to argue for the benefits of the oil and gas industry and attack any criticism as “misinformation”. By January 6, in an article in the Edmonton Journal, the provincial NDP party reviews the agency’s performance to date and calls for it to be shut down.   Chris Turner also describes the inept launch of the CEC in an Opinion piece in the National Observer, calling it  a “$30 million bonfire”, and the criticism reaches its peak in “The Silly, Scary Truth about Alberta’s New Ministry of Truth” by Andrew Nikoforuk in The Tyee (Jan. 1) .

Despite the ridicule and criticism it has earned, the publicly-funded Canadian Energy Centre continues to post supportive, good news stories about Teck’s Frontier oil sands mine, the Trans Mountain pipeline, Enbridge Line 3,  Coastal GasLink, and more – using its  Twitter account  with almost 5,000 followers, Facebook,  and its web site . Readers should be aware that in an unguarded moment in an interview with Global News, CEO Tom Olsen explained: “We are not about attacking, we are about disproving true facts.”

How to communicate “Just Transition” to union members and communities

Climate Outreach, a U.K.-based organization of  social scientists and communication specialists, has published new research, summarized in the handbook for a general audience, How to Have Conversations about Climate Change, released on December 5.  An earlier handbook released in September was aimed at NGO’s, policymakers and academics who seek to communicate better about Just Transition. Broadening engagement with Just Transition: Opportunities and Challenges is an 18-page handbook with practical recommendations for the language and imagery which reaches people across the political and economic spectrum – with very specific attention to union members. It is based from experience since 2010, including 55 workshops in Alberta in 2017 (7 of which were with oil workers), and interviews with UK union leaders about just transition in 2019. The full reports concerning the Alberta Narratives project is here.

Recommendations from Broadening engagement with Just Transition include:

…..The idea of just transition prompts negative reactions amongst some union representatives, who see it as a conversation about job losses, with little realistic chance of recompense.

…. In previous testing, the imagery and language of ‘justice’ has not resonated well across the political spectrum with centre-right audiences, suggesting that ‘just transition’ may prompt the same response. The subtly different framing of ‘fairness’ may work better with people who hold these values. Fairness is about doing right by everyone involved; justice, by contrast, may imply wrongdoing in the past that must be atoned for.

…People’s sense of identity is often closely bound up with the work they do. Extractive industries like coal mining are often, for example, closely associated with pride and a strong sense of place. Demonstrating gratitude and respect for the contribution of fossil fuels can create a strong basis for mutual discussion in the future – with renewables and natural resources as an extension of that pride.

….When people feel criticised and devalued, they are much less likely to engage. Approaching a conversation without a sense of blame is an important part of a productive dialogue.

….Many communities are turned off by the imagery and stereotypes associated with environmentalism, and will speak more openly with trusted members of their own community. In successful communications, trust between all parties is essential.

A good Canadian example of some of these principles  recently appeared on the CBC website in the form of  an OpEd by Rylan Higgins, now a professor at St. Mary’s University in Halifax, but formerly an oil worker.  He writes about his experiences in the oil fields in   “‘It’s pretty brutal, pretty unforgiving’: Why the West should move beyond an oilpatch economy” (Nov. 15), and  argues that the fossil industry has “long been one based on inequality, bootstrap individualism, and high-octane opportunism.” Importantly, he urges those working to transition Canada into the green economy “to consider the workers and families in the industry as we do so.” He adds that “the next economic arrangement should put workers [to whom he “tips his hard hat”], families, and the environment first—and investors and corporate bigwigs last.”

Youth-led Global Climate Strike in September asks for workers’ support – updated

Greta Thurnberggreta on sailboatWhat a difference a year makes!

 

The #FridaysforFuture youth movement began in August 2018 when the Swedish teenager, Greta Thunberg, began her solitary climate strike . Since then, millions of students (and their adult supporters) have been inspired to copy her action in almost every country in the world, including Canada.  In May 2019,  Thunberg  and other young climate activists sent out a call for a global climate strikes  in the week of September 20 – 27,  timed to coincide with the United Nations Climate Summit  in New York on September 23.

The youth movement has explicitly called for the support of adults and workers in the global climate strike.   One of the first unions to offer support was Ver.di in Germany, as reported in “Youth and Workers Uniting Behind This Crisis’: German Labor Union Urges 2 Million Members to Join Global Climate Strike  in Common Dreams  (Aug. 6).  The Labor Network for Sustainability (LNS) , in cooperation with 350.org,  has issued an appeal on the LNS website, asking unions to participate and providing  A Climate Strike Toolkit for Workers: How to Support the Young People Who Are Striking to Save Our Planet .   The Global Climate Strike website  also offers their own Guide to organizing a workplace climate strike.  The University and Colleges Union in the U.K. is submitting a resolution at the Trades Union Congress  conference in early September, asking all members to support the Sept. 20 action with a 30-minute strike.

victoria facebook postFrom the state of  Victoria Australia,  the Victoria Trades Hall Executive Committee posted on Facebook with their August 9 resolution which endorses the September 20 global climate strike and “commits to organize our members to participate as much as possible.”

Updates, as of August 30: 

Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED), in its Bulletin #88,  has compiled statements and actions from unions around the world in support of the calls for a “Global Climate Strike”, with ongoing updates here  . For Canada, the TUED list includes the B.C. Teachers Federation , who will be using their September 23 Professional Development Day to hold a “Rally & Teach-in for Climate Justice” in Victoria; and the Toronto and District Labour Council is included for its endorsement of the global strike at the General Delegates Meeting on August 1, 2019.

The Toronto Labour Council has posted a statement on the Climate Emergency on their website, calling on Labour Councils across Canada to be involved in local and national efforts on climate action,  including on September 27th. The statement carries on with the initiatives outlined in their 2016 action plan, Greenprint for Greater Toronto: Working Together for Climate Action . Not included in the TUED list, but also from Canada:  the Confederation Syndicats Nationaux in Quebec are planning to coordinate union support across the province, according to their Convention document from June 2019, La Planete s’invite au travail  (in French only).

Management attitudes to Climate Strikes: Workers’ strike will reveal if firms really care about climate change” in The Irish Times (July 8) reports on the results of a journalist’s informal emailed survey to 20 global companies, asking about their company policies concerning climate protests .  Either vague responses or no response was received from Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google, Bloomberg, IKEA, BP, Exxon Mobil, BlackRock, and Virgin Group . Of the few who responded:  Patagonia is quoted as saying that it “actively encourages its employees to take part in environmental protests and has a global policy of providing bail for workers arrested during such actions. In September it plans to expand digital efforts to connect customers with local green groups.”  Germany’s GLS ethical bank said “it will close on September 20 so all employees can march ‘against the climate catastrophe'”. And Shell stated that “it backed peaceful protest and its employees could seek leave to join such action.”

For updated news, check the Global Climate Strike websiteand for Canada, the #Fridays for Future Canada  or #Climate Strike Canada Twitter feeds.  And even the mainstream media will be awake to the global climate movement.   The “Covering Climate Now” initiative, led by the Columbia Journalism Review and The Guardian, has gathered  commitments from print and online newspapers and magazines, as well as television,  to run one week of focused climate coverage, to begin September 16 and culminate September 23.    Canadian participants include Maclean’s magazine  and The Tyee

 

Are the media getting the message? Mainstream media begin to cover the climate emergency – updated

Re-written on May 28 to include an article appearing in The Tyee: “Dear Journalists of Canada: Start Reporting Climate Change as an Emergency” .


The traditional media have been criticized for their indifference to the climate change issue – recently, in the Columbia Journalism Review, “The media are complacent while the world burns”, and in The Tyee,  “Dear Journalists of Canada: Start Reporting Climate Change as an Emergency”. 

Both article refer to a  Media Matters report that only 22 of the 50 largest newspapers in the U.S. even bothered to cover the landmark IPCC Report in October 2018. The article in The Tyee is presented as an open letter to media owners and journalists, and reports the author’s own search of  Canadian Newsstream — a database which covers 569 different English language news sources – mostly newspapers, as well as national evening news broadcasts by CBC and CTV television.  Giving examples, he identifies problems of lack of climate change coverage, failure to provide local context about international stories, and failure to seek accountability in story coverage. Finally, he calls upon Canadian journalists “to do these five things: properly placecovercontextualize, and localize the biggest story of our time, and hold public and private institutions to account for their actions and inactions on climate change.”

Improvements are on the way:    The Guardian newspaper in the U.K.  has been called  “one of the best-respected and most widely used international sources of information on the crises of the climate and the natural world” by Climate Home News.  In April 2019, The Guardian became the first newspaper to publish global carbon dioxide levels on its daily weather pages, and on May 17, it announced that it has updated its internal Style Guide to better reflect the reality and depth of the climate emergency. Now, instead of using the term  “climate change” in its reports,  the preferred terms will be “climate emergency, crisis or breakdown”. Other changes:  “global heating” rather than “global warming” and “climate science denier” rather than “climate sceptic”. In its explanation, Editor-in-chief, Katharine Viner is quoted as saying:  “The phrase ‘climate change’, for example, sounds rather passive and gentle when what scientists are talking about is a catastrophe for humanity.”

In a follow-up report by The Guardian,  the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation is cited as the furthest along amongst traditional news outlets (including the New York Times and Washington Post)  in adopting The Guardian’s  language:  “Senior CBC management told staff they were able to use the terms “climate crisis” and “climate emergency” when covering the wide-ranging impacts of temperature rises around the world.”  On CBC Radio, the host of Metro Morning interviewed a spokesperson from The Guardian on this issue here (9:34 minutes audio). Although the CBC guidance is permissive rather than prescriptive, it hardly seems possible to avoid the term “climate emergency”, when  the parliaments of both the federal and the Ontario government formally debated declaring a “climate emergency” in May, and municipalities across the country have already done so (over 300 municipalities in Quebec alone).

Most recently, the Toronto Star began a new newsletter series in May, Undeniable: Canada’s Changing Climate . So far, topics have included: “Toronto’s Ninja Storm” (re the 2018 flooding) (May 21); “Life and Death Under the Dome”  (when 66 Montrealers died in a heat wave)  (May 23) ;  and “Open for Business” (May 27) (re mining in Ontario’s North) . Much more to come from The Star, which has previously collaborated with the  National Observer, Global News, the Michener Awards Foundation, the Corporate Mapping Project and four journalism schools on a special investigative series, The Price of Oil, regarding the impacts of the oil and gas industry on Canadian communities.

Finally, the Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation announced a new international initiative in late April,  the Covering Climate Now project, which  aims to improve the media’s coverage of “the most  urgent story of our time” . The project  “will provide substantial resource guides for journalists, tutorials, source lists, and web briefings; we’ll gather the best of climate coverage in an online blog, and provide commentary on how other reporters can replicate it; and we will increase our own reporting on how news outlets are covering the climate crisis, highlighting what is working and calling out what isn’t.”  The first big goal: to organize a  week of concentrated climate coverage beginning September 16,  in the lead-up to the UN climate Summit in New York City on September 23. They’ll have lots to cover, now that 350.org is also organizing a one-day global strike for September 20.