Is News Media Doing Enough To Change The Climate Crisis Narrative?

Here’s why the climate story must move beyond ‘rich vs poor’ narrative, writes environmental journalist Bahar Dutt.

5 min read
Hindi Female

The climate crisis will be the biggest story of our times, perhaps even bigger than COVID-19. And yet, action on climate change is slow and doesn’t always match the urgency with which we responded – for instance – to the pandemic. There’s a reason why.

The doom and gloom stories on climate change have desensitised the public to the issue instead of mobilising them to put more pressure on their governments.

The Climate Ambition Summit, that begins on Saturday, 12 December, is slated to be a curtain raiser for Glasgow 2021, where nations will announce significant commitments to the health of our planet. Prime Minister Modi is expected to speak of India’s commitments to the climate cause. Harjeet Singh, Action Aid International’s Global Climate Lead says: “India cannot afford to be complacent. It can do more to be compatible with the global targets needed to limit warming at below 1.5C. But it needs support from the rich nations who are obligated to help developing countries leapfrog to a greener future.” And he’s right.

Of course, we need to continue to put pressure on rich countries to pay up for healing the planet. But we now must expand our narrative to a world of possibilities. Powerful storytelling can help fix this predictable narrative on climate reporting.


The Traps We Fall Into As Environmental Journalists

As an environmental journalist, I have tracked a couple of UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) summits, I have scaled the walls of the Copenhagen Convention Centre having waited outside in the cold for over 10 hours, reported with glee when the Indian Environment Minister staved off pressure from the rich countries in the final text cleared at the summit, and celebrated when the world came together for an agreement at Paris in 2015.

But my stories – from all the summits I tracked – fell into a predictable cycle of reportage, like a stale Bollywood film.

I can now write the headline coming out of each summit in my sleep: ‘The developing world wards off pressure from the developed world’. Or, ‘India will continue on its path of growth while remaining committed to the Paris agreement’.

As environmental journalists, we have all fallen into this trap. Our reportage is centred on geo-political loyalties that are dictated by the foreign policies of our countries.

We haven’t reported as journalists reporting on the health of our planet or our common future as citizens of one world.


Why Media Narrative On Climate Change Must Change

The media plays a massive role not just in shaping policy, but impacting behavioural change. An international campaign that was launched by UN Environment to discourage the use of plastics, for instance, found countries making pledges to wean out plastics and the beverage industry moving to paper-based straws. It’s obvious that behavioural change can be brought about by nudging people in the direction of right choices for the environment.

For more action on the climate front, we need our media narrative to change as well.

For far too long, stories on climate change have been stuck in the ‘rich vs poor’ or the ‘developed vs developing world’ quagmire. Of course this divide is real, of course the historic emissions of the developed world have brought the planet to this slow-moving catastrophe. But it has also become an excuse for inertia and disengagement of the public with an issue that will affect us all (if it hasn’t already in many ways).

It’s as though no climate action can take place till the ‘rich vs poor nations’ debate is resolved at a fancy UN summit, quite like a squabbling couple expecting a counselor to magically ‘fix’ their marriage.

Dr Jagadish Thaker, senior lecturer at Massey University, New Zealand, in a paper titled ‘Climate Change Communication in India’, rightly points out: “the Indian media portrays climate change as real and human caused and reports its severe impacts; it largely externalises the problem.”


Despite A Stale Narrative, Some Positive Changes – Mainly In Renewable Energy

For much too long we have pitched the ‘economy vs ecology’ narrative as an excuse to continue business as usual. Any policy action that leads to a cap on our emissions is seen as a barrier to economic development. It is not pitched as an opportunity to reduce air pollution or generate jobs in a low carbon economy.

But some positive changes have occurred – particularly in the renewable energy sector – showing us glimpses of what a world that’s not fixated on fossil fuels can be like. The last couple of years have shown us that a a world powered by clean sources of energy isn’t just fairy lights and twinkle toes in a distant promised land; it is now a close reality.

Due to the giant strides made in the renewable sector, solar and wind will power half the globe by 2050, based on BloombergNEF forecasts. We can have access to clean forms of energy, generate livelihoods, and save our biodiversity. But what we have to change is our narrative.

Fact is, even in the midst of a global pandemic, the impacts of climate change have continued to rage on. India has experienced forest fires, unseasonal rains, less rains and two cyclones. More and more sections of our population report changes in weather patterns from farmers experiencing unseasonal rains to the homeless in cities exposed to extreme heat wave conditions. But reporting on climate issues continues to be abysmally poor.

According to a series of studies by the Centre for Media Studies (CMS, 2014), between 2009 and 2014, environmental news comprised only 0.8 percent of all news content during prime time (7–11 PM) on five national English-language and Hindi-language television channels.


Fixing Climate Change Is A Chance To Fix Our Economic Models Of Development

The rhetoric surrounding climate change needs a positive frame. Fixing the planet’s climate change problem is an opportunity to fix our economic models of development. It’s an opportunity to generate livelihoods, to reduce air pollution and to develop cities with cycling paths, better public transportation, and last mile connectivity. We have to carve our own road to low carbon growth that could heal our lungs, fix our economy without creating infrastructure that locks us into a carbon intensive world.

A better world has to start with a more creative narrative on the climate crisis.

While the number of scientific analyses of climate change in India appears to be increasing, a lack of public understanding and awareness is likely to result in low demand for government action on climate change in a democracy.

At the same time, studies evaluating how Indian businesses communicate about climate change are lacking, which can provide an important impetus to understand the drivers of change.

Why Aren’t We Doing More To Turn The Climate Change Story Around?

What if we turned the story of climate change around? What if we gave it a positive frame. Of a world that is powered by renewables, that is generating livelihoods while at the same benefitting the environment. If it sounds so simple, why are we not changing the narrative? Very simply, because it’s convenient not to.

We don’t want to change the narrative, as that would require us to genuinely work towards these goals.

There’s going to be a lot of scope to play out the ‘rich vs poor’ debate over the next one year. But how about ground reports on towns powered by renewable energy, the achievement to scale of.

(Bahar Dutt is an award-winning environmental journalist in search of a greener world. She is also the author of two books. She tweets @bahardutt. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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