At the Conventions, Cover Climate as an Emergency not an “Issue”

With the Democratic and the Republican conventions unfolding this week and next, it’s high time for news coverage to catch up with science and make the climate emergency a leading topic in the national political conversation.

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It’s rare to hear the term “climate emergency” in media and political discourse in the United States, even though that is the term thousands of scientists say most accurately describes the situation facing humanity. More than 13,000 scientists have now signed the “World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency,” which begins by affirming that scientists have “a moral obligation … to ‘tell it like it is’” before enumerating all the many “alarming trends [that make] it urgently necessary to act.”

With the Democratic and the Republican conventions unfolding this week and next, it’s high time for news coverage to catch up with science and make the climate emergency a leading topic in the national political conversation. To be sure, climate change has gotten much more attention in 2020 than in previous campaigns; and the first two nights of the Democratic convention featured several overtures towards climate action. But by and large, climate is still treated as just another issue. That’s partly because most candidates still don’t say that we face a climate emergency, though Joe Biden comes closer than any major party nominee in history. But it’s also because many news outlets still seem not to recognize climate change as different than the other political subjects they cover. This one has a strict, rapidly closing time limit: wait too long to take aggressive action, and the climate emergency accelerates beyond salvaging.

That’s why scientists deliberately choose the words “climate emergency.”. Like in science, language matters profoundly in politics. It’s one thing for a politician—and for a news story—to say that climate change is an important “issue” or “problem.” “Issues” and “problems,” however worthy, are a dime a dozen on the campaign trail, as is news coverage thereof. It is something else to say that a problem rises to the level of an emergency. An emergency, by definition, demands immediate action. An emergency is not merely one in a long list of worthy concerns, it is a supreme priority that allows no time for delay, half-measures or distractions by less urgent matters.

A few journalists do use the term “climate emergency.” Al Roker, the weatherman and chief climate correspondent at NBC News, is one. Bill Weir, the climate correspondent at CNN, is another. The Guardian makes a regular practice of it after revising its style guide last year to prefer “climate emergency” or “climate crisis” over the more anodyne terms “climate change” and “global warming.”

Most newsrooms, though, especially in the United States, have avoided the “emergency” framing, regarding it as activist. It’s true that many activists use the term. So, for that matter, have hundreds of national, regional, and local government bodies, including the parliaments of the United Kingdom, France, Portugal, Canada, and Argentina. But the nervousness in newsrooms misses the point: when political actors use this term, they are doing so in accordance with climate science—the same science that should be guiding news judgements.

The political conventions this week and next offer an opportunity for newsrooms to treat the climate emergency with the urgency that science demands. No country is more important to defusing the emergency than the United States. Not only is the US the world’s largest economy and historically its biggest climate polluter, it has also been the greatest obstacle to climate progress, especially during the Trump administration. Yet Trump has faced relatively little media criticism of his climate record. It seems taken as a given that Trump opposes climate science, which he has dismissed as “a hoax,” so much so that news coverage doesn’t even bother to call him out on it anymore. The result is journalistically indefensible: it gives the president a pass on arguably the most important challenge of our time.

Joe Biden also deserves attention on this front. Without question, Biden’s words and proposed policies are immeasurably better aligned with the science than Trump’s. The former vice president has said that “there is no more urgent crisis facing this nation and the world than the threat posed by climate change.” His climate plan endorses a Green New Deal, in all but name, promising $2 trillion in spending to achieve a zero-carbon electricity sector by 2035, while also earmarking 40 percent of federal climate spending for “communities of color and low income communities [that] have faced disproportionate harm.” And the Biden campaign’s social media posts have occasionally used the term “climate emergency.” The candidate himself, however, seems not to have used those words. Does that reflect a caution about not looking more extreme than he deems prudent? Or does it signal that Biden takes climate change seriously but does not regard it as an emergency?

Perhaps Biden will clarify this in his convention speech Thursday night. In any case, between now and Election Day, journalists must make clear to voters what science says: we face a climate emergency, and only immediate, far-reaching action can preserve a livable future. Journalists should ask candidates in both parties and at all levels of government what they plan to do about this emergency. Of course, it is not journalists’ role to tell people how to vote, but it is our responsibility to help them understand what is at stake so they can decide what to do about it in the ballot box.

REMINDER: At CCNow, we believe climate change is a defining issue in this fall’s elections, at all levels of government. Make sure to take a look at our fall plans, which include a CCNow “joint coverage week,” September 21 to 28, when we encourage all partners to focus extra attention on Climate Politics 2020, and a Youth Takeover Day.

Now, here’s your weekly sampling of the latest in climate news, from across the CCNow collaboration.

  • With Kamala Harris now identified as Biden’s running mate, Grist takes a look at the California senator’s record. She “isn’t quite a climate activist’s dream,” in that she has accepted money from the fossil fuel industry in the past (she has pledged not to do so this election). But Harris’s commitment to environmental justice dates back to 2005; her campaign put it front and center during the primaries, and Harris recently joined congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to introduce a bill that would ensure future environmental regulations are evaluated through a justice lens.
  • The ongoing Loyalton fire in northern California has burned some 40,000 acres and is not yet near being contained. On Saturday, the National Weather Service issued its first-ever warning for a fire-induced tornado, an extremely rare but not unheard of occurrence, Earther reports. Many major outlets covering the fire did not mention climate change, but Earther makes the connection. The conditions that led to the fire “are becoming more common due to the climate crisis,” the story explains, “leading to larger and more destructive wildfires across the West. Despite that, firenados remain thankfully rare (for now).”
  • The “derecho” storm that ripped through Iowa last week potentially cost Iowa half of its corn yield—some $6 billion in crop damage. “We should get used to it,” Art Cullen, editor of Iowa’s The Storm Lake Times, writes in an op-ed for The Guardian. “Extreme weather is the new normal.” The climate crisis will have a profound impact on agriculture and food systems, he continues, in America and around the world. “It will lead to a reckoning more quickly than most of us realize.”
  • Bloomberg Green explains the so-called “degrowth movement,” a growing group of economists and scientists who contend that the world’s obsession with economic growth—rising gross domestic products, even as inequality deepens—must come to end. “Planetary boundaries,” including climate change and ocean acidification, they say, necessitate that economies accept limits, an idea which the coronavirus pandemic has perhaps made intuitive for a wider group of people. “Having watched their politicians refuse to take important public health measures for the sake of maintaining GDP growth was a real shock,” one economic anthropologist tells Bloomberg. “And it just became clear that, look, we could reorganize the economy in such a way that the main focus is not growth or capital accumulation, but rather human welfare and well-being.”
  • Across America, abandoned oil wells continue to pollute, because, left unplugged, they leak highly toxic methane gas. The federal Bureau of Land Management isn’t taking care of the problem, so a group of Montanans have taken it upon themselves to get the job done in the state, reports Yes! Magazine. With the oil companies long gone from the wells in question, volunteers with the group say their work is about taking responsibility for the health of their community. This piece is *available for republication by CCNow partners.

*When republishing any of the stories identified above as available, CCNow outlets must include the following tagline: “This story originally appeared in [insert name of original news outlet, with a link to the outlet’s homepage] and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalistic collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.” Our complete Sharing Library, including further guidelines for content sharing, can be found here. Please note the special instructions for Guardian and HuffPost stories.