Though the “tyranny of the immediate” can push crucial climate coverage off the front page—like when the headline-grabbing events of Russia’s Ukraine invasion overshadowed coverage of the latest working group report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)—media experts at a recent webinar hosted by The Energy Mix offered journalists a list of promising strategies to keep climate news in the forefront.
Nearly 350 participants signed up for the March 24 webinar, Storylines for 2022: Where does Climate Journalism Hit the Wall?. Panelists sought to bust barriers to reader engagement on climate, including competing with “breaking news” for column inches, and challenges in reaching a wider audience.
To keep the climate emergency in the public eye, climate news must be “integrated into the daily rhythm of news coverage” so it doesn’t get lost, even when there is no major news hook or another topic takes precedence, said Anna Hiatt, executive editor of New York-based Covering Climate Now. An end goal, she added, would be for editors and producers to ask every morning what the day’s “climate story” will be, just as they would save space for their regular “DC story”.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its consequences for energy supply have some fossil supporters “cackling with glee” and proclaiming triumphantly: “Now you need us!” said Megan Darby, editor of United Kingdom-based Climate Home News. But this “fossil-fuelled” war is also an opportunity to connect climate actions like insulating homes as a path to “freedom and peace.” Phasing out fossil fuels should be framed as a way to “Putin-proof” our economy, Darby said.
Journalists need to challenge misinformation that Canadian oil is “ethical” or low in GHGs, said Binnu Jeyakumar, director of clean energy with the Pembina Institute. She said she was encouraged by the “backlash” against using the war to advance the cause of Canadian fossils, which is viewed as “exploitive and opportunistic.”
Exposing health impacts, detailing costs to the economy, and presenting positive solutions for a fossil phaseout are great ways for reporters to connect with readers, said Jeyakumar. She cited the example of reporting on coal from about a decade ago, which resulted in the federal Conservative government adopting emission reduction standards for Canadian coal plants in 2012—an extraordinary accomplishment.
Jeyakumar cited a more recent long-form article in The Narwhal about worker impacts of a coal phaseout as an example of the kind of journalism that’s needed. Reporters need to reach beyond white, colonial, established corporate voices—“beyond the first page of Google”—to give a platform to others, including women, people of colour, and people from the global South.
Journalists get a “passing grade” for making climate issues “relatable and accessible,” but should be doing a much better job of detailing local impacts, said Steve Winkelman, executive director of the Ottawa Climate Action Fund (OCAF). “We are terrible wonks at mitigation, adaptation, decarbonization,” said Winkelman, urging climate communicators to focus on the simple and the immediate. He said practitioners must get beyond talking about photovoltaics and electric vehicles (“PVs and EVs”, he said) to focus on the benefits of home insulation, heat pumps (a little-understood heating and cooling technology that can be explained as a reversible refrigerator), public transit, walking and biking, and 15-minute neighbourhoods that can save money at the gas pump by making us less car dependent.
“We’ve got to keep it simple and have the media echo that: prevent and prepare,” he said.”
Winkelman cited OCAFs “deep engagement” with local equity-seeking groups, which generated a focus on jobs, housing, liveable neighbourhoods, and food waste. “These are climate issues,” he stressed, adding that it’s essential to get “beyond finger-pointing” to co-create solutions and share in the benefits. It’s also important to get beyond a vision of a green future to talk about the path to get from here to there.
“We need to create safe spaces to talk about this,” he said.
Greg Overmonds, director of marketing and communications for Vancity Community Investment Bank, said the last decade of climate communication has seen increased use of data and strong storytelling. “Those two hand in hand, as more data is being generated and tracked and shared, I love seeing that type of quantitative plus qualitative connection” on the rise.
“Using that to showcase urgency is thumbs-up from my point of view, because it’s powerful,” he added.
Overmonds said the general (and often well-founded) cynicism about corporate greenwashing sometimes makes it difficult to get attention for legitimate good news about corporate climate action. “It’s hard for some of us who are actually genuine about it to rise above the noise,” he told participants. That dynamic has him “trying to showcase and tell everyone about the cool stuff that’s happening”.
There’s also a new challenge brought on by shifting media models. “You need to draw people in,” he said. “You need to hit them with things that drive traffic. I often find that the good news pieces that come from a lot of climate firms is something that doesn’t get picked up as often, to the point of being muscled out.”
Veteran climate reporter Alex Kirby said reporters need to explain that climate change is happening now, and that once tipping points are reached it will be “abrupt and irreversible.” He cited examples from Greenland and the Amazon, adding that death and destruction in Ukraine are a warning that climate change will be “much, much worse.” But Hiatt said “hope is essential”, and climate news must avoid being so “scary” that people become defeatist.
Kirby pointed to positive changes in climate reporting over the past decade. Not long ago, standard news coverage gave credence to false claims that climate change isn’t happening, or that it has natural causes, or that human beings aren’t responsible. “This wall has come down,” Kirby said. “Climate change is taken seriously.” Winkelman added that the perception of an “environment versus economy” trade-off has also largely been laid to rest.
Darby said she hopes she’s seeing a decline in “both-siding” journalism, in which equal space is given to opposing perspectives—for example, climate science and climate denial—even though the facts are overwhelmingly on one side.
She said it’s up to climate journalists to find engaging stories “about people” that will attract readers and provide an opportunity to communicate climate messages. She recalled her publication investigating one story involving “astonishingly high” carbon credits and cryptocurrency.
“It was basically a scam,” she said. But the “human story,” which included an interview with the proponent, was a “stealth” opportunity to educate readers about the carbon market.
To reach out “beyond the bubble” of people who are already onside with climate action, Jeyakumar said the first step is to speak to the issues people care about, like heat waves and utility bills. There’s also a big opportunity to connect on shared values: for example, Albertans’ concern about clean air and their identity as “people who build things.”
Webinar moderator Mitchell Beer, founding publisher and managing editor of The Energy Mix, said the session reflected an approach to “opinion leader journalism” that “recognizes the groups and audiences that can play a disproportionate role in driving faster, deeper carbon cuts, if they have the information to make a difference.”