The consequences of human-caused climate change—including recent extreme weather events that have wreaked havoc around the globe—will grow drastically worse this century if humanity fails to act, according to a landmark report issued Monday by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The IPCC warned in 2018 that global warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius beyond pre-industrial levels will be catastrophic; Monday’s the new report, authored by 234 scientists from 66 countries, warned that humanity is currently on track for even worse, leading the report’s authors to recommend “strong, rapid, and sustained reductions” of greenhouse gas emissions to stave off the most severe consequences of climate change. The report stamped an exclamation point on the climate story so far, calling humanity’s impact on the climate “unequivocal” and making clear that today’s “widespread” changes in the earth’s atmosphere might be just the start of a grim new epoch. UN Secretary General António Guterres, in a statement, called the report a “code red for humanity.”
The press seemed to get the message. Striking headlines and imagery featured prominently on front pages and homepages, including those of the New York Times and the Washington Post. The report also prompted segments on the flagship morning and evening programs on ABC, NBC, CBS, and PBS. Many outlets ran helpful explainers and op-eds unpacking the report.
Much of this coverage helpfully linked the report’s findings to the record-breaking wildfires, heat waves, and floods that have lately dominated headlines—an encouraging step at a time when extreme weather stories often skip over the climate connection. Some journalists also took the opportunity to preview COP26, November’s international climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, which experts have called a make-or-break moment for the future of life on this planet. And, as the watchdog group Media Matters for America observed, journalists mostly ditched the false equivalence that has long plagued climate reporting. “Overall, journalists did a decent job communicating the IPCC report’s dire findings,” Allison Fisher, the climate and energy program director for Media Matters, told me.
Coverage of the report marked an improvement, in fact—a similarly consequential IPCC report in 2018 was all but absent from more than half of major American newspapers at the time—but news outlets must keep the crisis, and efforts to address it, front-and-center. “The needle on climate coverage is moving forward,” Fisher said. “But the climate emergency isn’t a one-day story, so let’s hope this marks the beginning of a sustained effort.”
With the hard news peg of the IPCC report behind us, the question facing journalists is where to go from here.
Let’s start with a broad framework for climate storytelling in the coming months. The IPCC report is likely to serve as the foundation for much of the negotiation and debate at November’s COP26 meeting. From a storytelling perspective, that gives a clear narrative structure, the report and the meeting as two posts to hang a line that will bear plenty of strong coverage between now and November.
Before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s be real: most people, including in our newsrooms, have never heard of COP26, or else have only a loose understanding of it. We need to guide audiences into this story. Journalists should explain early and often the stakes of the conference, which COP26 president Alok Sharma has called the world’s last chance to smash the brakes on emissions.
There are two subplots that demand special, ongoing journalistic focus: climate justice and climate solutions.
An ironclad rule of the global climate emergency is that it will affect the poor, communities of color, and Indigenous people first and worst. Virtually no major media outlets in the US articulated this in their coverage of the IPCC report, even while touching on extreme weather disasters that disproportionately affect those with the least resources to cope. On the international stage, it’s the countries that contributed least to global warming that are reaping early, dire consequences—in Bangladesh, entire communities are already submerged. As part of the Paris Agreement, developed nations, largely in the Global North, pledged $100 billion annually to support poorer countries, largely in the Global South, with climate mitigation and energy transitions. But most of that money hasn’t materialized; a critical question hovering over COP26 is whether wealthy governments will finally honor their commitments. As this pertains to journalists, a July “V20” meeting—attended by leaders from nations most vulnerable to climate impacts—did not inspire confidence. Given invitations and every opportunity, news outlets in the Global North chose simply not to cover the event.
Some IPCC coverage was also overly fatalistic, so much so as to be misleading. Commentary suggested, for example, that global warming of 2 degrees Celsius is already a foregone conclusion. That’s a critical error. Although 2 degrees grows more likely with humanity’s repeated failure to act, 1.5 degrees is still possible—and, according to the IPCC report, imperative if we hope to ward off truly hellish consequences. On ABC, a reporter stressed that some climate impacts “can’t be reversed” and wouldn’t change “within the next couple of hundred years.” This isn’t a mischaracterization of the IPCC’s findings; it’s true that we can’t refreeze the polar ice caps. What the reporter left out, however, is that many ominous trends can be reversed, and quickly, with a sharp reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.
“What we’re doing by acting aggressively, soon, is making sure that these next two decades of warming may be some of our last, and we are reserving the right to potentially begin cooling globally later this century,” Kim Cobb, an American climate scientist and an IPCC report author, told reporters during a press call Sunday.
As journalists, we must keep in mind that many people are still deeply unfamiliar with the science of climate change. Only 55 percent of Americans are aware that “most scientists” agree on climate change, which, if nothing else, is a certain takeaway of Monday’s report. Using such terminal verbiage as “irreversible” without also detailing the climate solutions humanity has at hand is irresponsible. (We would not report that Covid-19 infection rates are expected to get worse without also reporting that vaccines and masks can slow the spread.)
And, to be sure, there are solutions to climate change. Many. The question is the will of humanity—and, in particular, governments—to use them. That’s a question journalists should dig into daily in the lead up to COP26.
We can and should be playing the climate story much bigger.
While journalism outlets have broken their collective climate silence, most still stop short of affording climate the “stop everything” treatment given to other stories, from Covid-19 (rightfully) to outrageous distractions. On the day of its release, the IPCC report received a total of 22 minutes of coverage from major broadcast news networks; compare that to the 212 minutes dedicated in a single day by ABC, NBC, and CBS to Jeff Bezos’s brief space jaunt in July. Likewise, though the IPCC report was splashed across homepages on Monday morning, by midday it had lost position on many sites to other stories; on the New York Times’s homepage, by 1:45pm the IPCC news was nowhere to be found.
A common excuse in journalism for middling climate coverage is that the story is so enormous as to be abstract. Outlets want to elevate the climate story, this argument goes, but there isn’t always a crystal-clear news peg. At best, this thinking belies a failure of imagination; at worse, given a challenge unprecedented in human history, it’s journalistic malpractice.
There are any number of creative ways we could give the climate story top billing each and every day. Four decades ago, to draw attention to the Iran hostage crisis, CBS anchor Walter Cronkite added a simple update to his nightly sign off: “That’s the way it is, Thursday, June 12, 1980, the 222nd day of captivity for the hostages in Iran. This is Walter Cronkite, CBS News. Good night.” (A Washington Post column from that time called the epitaph “the most powerful subliminal editorial in America,” adding, “The closing hymn passes through our minds quickly like a flashcard—do something! do something!”) Similarly, amid Covid-19, outlets have affixed permanent homepage modules to update audiences on the spread of the virus.
Lately, across the industry, networks and publications are hiring to boost their climate coverage. That’s great! News outlets should use their expanded capacity to push climate coverage past the limits of a normal beat.
COP26 is approaching quickly. Decisions made between now and the event’s conclusion will be critical in determining whether humanity limits warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. The extent to which our audiences understand the necessity of that target—and, more importantly, of action—will shape the pressure world leaders feel, or don’t, to finally get climate right. As journalists, we must do our part. The strong IPCC coverage this week should mark our collective beginning.
Andrew McCormick is CCNow’s deputy director and an independent journalist in Washington, D.C. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Nation, and Columbia Journalism Review, among other publications. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewMcCormck.