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Two Steps Forward

Climate change and the media: More news is good news

For the media, climate change is morphing from a controversy to a crisis.

As we approach another edition of Climate Week — an intensive annual gathering of professionals, policy makers, activists and thought leaders in New York City, starting next week — there’s an apparent pivot taking place in the news media: Climate change is morphing from a controversy to a crisis.

The number and frequency of political stories debating whether climate change is real are going the way of, well, coal-fired power plants. In its place are stories about adaptation, mitigation and sequestration.

In other words, climate solutions.

Admittedly, this conclusion is based on zero empirical evidence — just my observation as an avid consumer of climate-related news and information. But as I scan the steady stream of climate stories produced daily by both mainstream and niche publications, the trend seems marked and meaningful.

This isn’t necessarily good news. The growing focus on the real-world impacts of a climate-changing world reflects the grim reality that we are thick in the midst of some challenges that not long ago seemed off into the future, but which now are menacing threats. So the shift makes sense: When a patient is seriously ill, there’s little use in debating the cause of her illness.

The apparent pivot is long overdue. For decades, the media — again, both mainstream and niche — have been complicit in sowing doubt about climate change’s existence, what’s causing it, whether it can be solved and how bad it will really be. The two-sides-to-every-story mentality of traditional journalism helped give climate doubters and deniers a seat at the table, and many smaller publications and websites with a political axe to grind — on both sides of the issue — have been all too happy to pull up a chair.

As a result, climate stories have been largely about the controversy — the political and scientific skirmishes, not about the on-the-ground realities. Inspiring stories that show what’s possible if we succeed in stemming the worst impacts of the climate crisis have been few and far between.

Maybe, just maybe, we’ve reached a turning point.

Witness the launch of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets. The goal: 'to strengthen coverage of the climate story.'
Witness the launch of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets. The goal: "to strengthen coverage of the climate story."

That seems newsworthy in and of itself — both the concentrated focus on the climate topic and the level of collaboration among media organizations. The initiative is led by the Columbia Journalism Review, The Nation and The Guardian. The participating outlets — including roughly 40 newspapers; 150 magazines and online publications (including and 60 broadcast outlets — have committed to sharing climate-related stories at no cost, leveraging their collective reporting resources — and their collective audiences.

It will be interesting to see what the collaboration produces, and whether it continues beyond its intended two-week lifespan. We at GreenBiz plan to be doing our part.

But it’s only a start. What will it take for the media to bring stories to light that can alert and arm their viewers, listeners and readers to take action at the personal, household, community, marketplace and political levels? And to provide such stories for more than just a brief blip in September.

Beyond solar and wind

The climate solutions story is a rich one. It's not just about buying renewable energy and electric cars. It’s about understanding what might happen to families and communities in a world where floods, droughts, hurricanes, heatwaves and other extreme weather events become more frequent and severe. It’s about understanding how companies need to mitigate the risks climate change may pose to their supply chains, operations, customers and employees. It’s about understanding how the impacts of climate change will be unevenly distributed, hitting poorer countries and communities harder, perhaps dealing a figurative or literal death blow to already-vulnerable citizens around the world.

The climate solutions story is a rich one. It's not just about buying renewable energy and electric cars.
It's about transforming our world with an eye toward prosperity, security and resiliency.

As the Los Angeles Times editorial board put it this weekend:

The changing climate is no longer an abstract threat lurking in our distant future — it is upon us. We feel it. We see it. In our longer and deeper droughts and our more brutal hurricanes and raging, hyper-destructive wildfires. And with that comes a new urgency, and a new opportunity, to act.

Still, much of the climate coverage seems to focus on the impacts: the melting glaciers, burning forests, disappearing species, dying coral reefs and all the other distressing manifestations of the climate crisis. And on the vulnerable populations impacted by these developments. All are important signposts of the new normal. To be sure, a growing percentage of these stories are connecting the dots to climate change, which itself seems a big win.

But there’s more to it: What about stories highlighting neighborhoods and communities that are working to become more resilient, and ensuring that all citizens of every income level, political leaning and skin color are taken care of? What about stories about technologies that are deployable here and now to counter the underlying problems contributing to climate change? What about profiling inspirational entrepreneurs, business professionals, Wall Street mavericks, local and regional elected officials and other heroes who may not even self-identify as being part of the climate movement?

And what about casting a light on the next generation? The youth movement seems to be doing a pretty good job of garnering international attention to the climate crisis, although their messages are light when it comes to what we need to do about it other than "take action." We can tell better stories about these young leaders and leverage their inspiring message.

This is the role the media can and should play. Not simply to accentuate the negative, although that's a traditional media role and one that’s critical in delivering the long-overdue and much-needed wake-up call that the climate crisis isn’t a theoretical exercise. But also to provide insight and inspiration about how it can be slowed or solved — stories about economic and workforce development, and food, energy, housing and water security in every community.

For so many citizens, many feeling overwhelmed and fatalistic about the climate crisis and what they can do about it, such positive, solutions-oriented stories would be newsworthy.

From extraordinary to ordinary

Every sustainability solution goes through its own media lifecycle. There was a time when a company’s mere publication of a sustainability or CSR report was worthy of a news story. (Plenty of PR folks still think this is the case.) Eventually, it became table stakes for any self-respecting company, therefore no longer "news." So, too, with LEED building status: Every new certification was worthy of a press push until certification became so commonplace as to become the norm. And back in the 1990s, achieving ISO 14001 certification — part of a family of standards for environmental management — was yet another reason for shouting from the rooftops. Today, few citizens have heard of that standard, even though it is ubiquitous in the manufacturing world.

Simply put, the fact that these things were no longer newsworthy is … newsworthy. What was once extraordinary is now ordinary.

When it comes to the climate crisis, what’s extraordinary is that we, individually and collectively, have failed to stop it. All of us, globally. Today, we’re in a race against time to blunt its sharpest edge. There are dozens, hundreds, probably thousands of inspiring stories of individuals, companies and communities that are doing just that.

Is the media up to telling those stories, or will it be just more mind-numbing bad news, day in and day out?

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