Until recently, the U.S. mainstream media featured more climate silence than climate science. (Many foreign outlets have more regularly covered the climate story, and its impact, for years.) No questions were asked about climate change in the 2016 general election debates. When a landmark U.N. report warned in 2018 of calamitous consequences absent action in the next decade, only 22 of the 50 largest U.S. newspapers featured the story on their home pages.
More recently, when flames engulfed more than 44,400 square miles of Australia and drove thousands of people from their homes, news outlets filled with images of charred and displaced kangaroos, koalas and other wildlife. By one estimate, nearly 3 billion animals were killed. Many reports linked the fires to climate change. But the fires faded from news coverage — and public consciousness.
New catastrophes lead to spikes in coverage. But sometimes media outlets appear to have climate amnesia: Journalists forget to link the latest incidents to the overall threats, and in the periods between coverage spikes, the story goes largely unmentioned.
To be sure, some newsrooms have significantly ramped up climate coverage, partly because Greta Thunberg and other young people drew millions into the streets last year and forced media outlets to pay attention. Separately, a critical mass of news organizations, including the Nation — of which I am editorial director — and the Columbia Journalism Review, collaborated to form Covering Climate Now (CCNow) to encourage the media as a whole to do a better job of covering the defining story of our time. The initiative features some of the biggest news outlets, including the Guardian, NBC, CBS, Reuters, Bloomberg and Agence France-Presse. An example of it working: A year ago, CCNow partners published 3,640 climate stories in a single week, making “climate change” the most-searched term on Google. This week, CCNow outlets are collaborating on seven days of coverage, with a focus on the coming U.S. elections.
Even in our digital era, television remains the leading news source for Americans. This means that corporate behemoths and their numerous local affiliate stations are the arbiters of what most Americans learn about climate change. Underlying climate issues are often absent from quick-hit broadcast segments. For instance, in 50 stories on ABC, CBS and NBC about Hurricane Laura late last month, not one mentioned climate change, according to Media Matters, an outlet that studies journalism coverage and trends. It found that only 4 percent of broadcast news reports on the wildfires in August mentioned climate change.
Unlike business or political stories that media outlets may play up or down, climate change poses an existential threat to civilization as we know it. If those who control what the public consumes online, on television or in print fail to place the climate crisis in the center of our national conversation, it verges on media malpractice. Most news accounts shun terms such as “climate emergency” as unacceptably activist, but “emergency” is the word that more than 11,000 scientists have used to describe our collective predicament.
Several emergencies will drive voters this year: the pandemic, the economic downturn, racial inequity and the long-awaited reckoning. The climate emergency will not wait. Scientists say that we have a scant 10 years to cut heat-trapping emissions in half by transforming energy, agriculture, construction and other practices — or face indescribable catastrophe. This campaign season presents an opportunity for the media to do better at explaining this existential threat to the public and ask candidates at every level of government what they plan to do.
As Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan put it: “This subject must be kept front and center, with the pressure on and the stakes made abundantly clear at every turn.”
If a climate question isn’t asked at next week’s presidential debate, journalists should follow up. Candidates must be asked again, and again and again, how they will approach climate issues. Our lives, and those of our children, depend on it.