On August 9, the United Nations International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will release its latest report on the state of the climate crisis. The significance of the 2021 report can not be overstated: It will be an unfortunate confirmation that we are already in the throes of a climate emergency and a painful reminder that past calls to act in order to avoid a climate breakdown have largely gone unheeded.
Historically, the dire warnings in IPCC reports have galvanized social movements seeking to address the overheating of our planet and put pressure on local and world leaders to move the needle on climate action. The IPCC issued the last assessment of its kind in 2013 -- just prior to the global meeting that resulted in the Paris climate agreement. In 2018, it released a special report about the consequences of allowing the average global temperature to rise more than 1.5 degrees Celsius. Climate advocates, particularly youth activists, rallied around the report's warning that governments needed to act within the next 12 years to avoid the worst consequences of the climate crisis.
Past coverage of major climate reports have been both spotty and a vehicle for climate misinformation. The U.S. media has a major role in both translating the findings of the report to the American public and signaling the importance of those findings in how much coverage it affords it. But above all the media must connect the findings to people’s lives and expose why efforts to act have largely failed.
To do that, here are five steps the media outlets can take and past pitfalls that they must avoid.
1. Contextualize the report with extreme weather
The report will be released at a time when much of the world is under siege from extreme weather events. The U.S. alone has suffered through five brutal heatwaves: the June extreme heat event that saw temperatures in Portland, Oregon, reach 116 degrees, killed hundreds of residents across Oregon, Washington state, and British Columbia in Canada; wildfires in the West, exacerbated by the heat and drought, are reaching levels never experienced this early in the season; deadly flooding has overwhelmed cities across Europe, China, and India; and a climate-fueled drought in Madagascar is pushing nearly a million people to starvation.
These are the events that climate scientists have warned would result from overheating our climate. More coverage than ever before is linking these events to the climate crisis -- 17% of cable news segments on the Pacific Northwest heat wave linked the event to climate change, and 38% of the combined coverage by broadcast and cable news of the most recent heat wave in California made the climate change connection. For perspective, in June 2020, temperatures in a small community in Siberia hit 100 degrees, followed by record-breaking and prolonged heat in large swaths of the U.S. -- and neither event propelled TV news to discuss the climate crisis.
TV news coverage is beginning to point toward extreme weather events as proof that we are in a climate emergency. For those outlets and networks that have already covered these events in the context of climate, the report offers an opportunity to expand on that coverage by drilling down on the populations most harmed by these events and asking what, if anything, is being done to make those communities more resilient. For those that didn’t, the report provides a chance to retroactively discuss these events as an illustration of the IPCC’s findings.
2. Connect the state of the climate crisis to the state of climate action
On the same day that temperatures in the Pacific Northwest were soaring past 100 degrees, creating conditions that melted cables, buckled roads, and even shattered glass, the Biden administration announced that it had reached a deal with a bipartisan group of senators on an infrastructure package. But the deal was effectively stripped of any efforts to address the climate crisis or make our transit system, roads, and buildings more resilient to climate impacts.
By and large, TV news programs covered these as two separate events even as their relationship was so painfully evident. MSNBC host Chris Hayes was one of the few who discussed the compromised infrastructure package in relation to the Pacific Northwest heatwave -- calling the lack of climate spending in the infrastructure bill “utter madness.”
To decouple coverage of the climate crisis from discussions of the failure to keep our planet livable is not the exception, it's the rule. In fact, many in the media approach climate policy almost exclusively through the lens of whether the policy can pass rather than whether the policy is sufficient for the issues it is designed to address. For example, when the Green New Deal was introduced just months after both the IPCC special report and National Climate Assessment in fall of 2018, coverage centered around the question of whether it was politically viable, not whether it was at scale with the scope of the crisis laid bare in back to back climate reports. Just as policy should be measured against issues, assessment of the issue should include discussion about the state of action at the national and global level.
The 2021 IPCC report will set the stage for the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Glasgow this November -- an event itself that requires much more media coverage and scrutiny. The report will surely be mandatory reading for leaders coming together to negotiate global commitments and actions to address the climate crisis. Media coverage of the report should repeatedly connect the findings of this report to global negotiations, in order to mount pressure and raise the stakes of this meeting.
It is vital that the coverage of the IPCC report is put firmly in the context of climate action at the national and global level.
3. Connect climate impacts to the fossil fuel industry
Coverage of the climate crisis largely characterizes the build-up of carbon emissions in our atmosphere as the cause of global warming but rarely does coverage explicitly discuss the fact that those emissions result from the burning of oil, gas, and coal. It may seem like semantics, but failing to clearly connect fossil fuels to the climate crisis detaches our dirty energy system and the industry that profits from it, which is no accident.
It is no secret that the fossil fuel industry doesn’t want its products associated with the climate crisis. It’s why Exxon and other Big Oil companies run ad campaigns about their investment in low-carbon technology like converting algae to fuel -- the ads are so pervasive that one would think the technologies mentioned are a major part of their portfolios. In fact, it represents a fraction of their businesses.
The fossil fuel industry’s branding campaigns intentionally distance themselves from fossil fuels while attempting to position themselves as proponents of climate action. A typical news consumer might be unaware of the fact that Big Oil in particular has spent decades sowing doubt on the realities of climate change and fighting any effort to break our dependency on their product. An Exxon lobbyist was recently caught on video admitting to tactics used to spread climate disinformation and detailing the critical role of congressional shills to ensure meaningful climate policy never sees the light of day. This smoking gun video was mostly ignored by legacy media. It is the responsibility of the media to expose Big Polluters' role in the climate crisis -- the IPCC report offers a fertile opportunity to do just that.
4. Hold decisions makers to account for climate inaction
Akin to what is or is not being done to address the overheating of our planet is the question of who is obstructing efforts to mitigate this global emergency. In fact, these two discussions need to happen in tandem. The fossil fuel industry has waged a war against climate action but they have not acted alone.
In fact, it has only been successful because the bidding for Big Polluters has been carried out, in part, by decision-makers at all levels of government. But opposition to climate efforts is usually framed as a lawmaker’s legitimate position without disclosure of who benefits from climate inaction or the dire consequences of failing to act. For example, the infrastructure bill that was stripped of climate provisions was covered as a win for Republicans. Washington Post media critic Margaret Sullivan recently made the case that political reporting which frames congressional actions around winners and losers and treats each side's actions as equivalent, in this case related to efforts to understand the events of January 6, is a threat to our democracy. The same should apply for reporting that covers climate policy. Reporting that gives politicians a pass for obstructing action on climate, especially when those politicians do so because they don’t “believe” conclusions like the ones reached in the IPCC report or because they are recipients of fossil fuel money, is a threat to our planet.
5. Interview a multitude of stakeholders and representatives from impacted communities, and don’t platform climate deniers
Climate scientists should be tapped by print and TV news to help translate and contextualize the report’s findings for the public. In 2013, scientists made up 54% of all guests in climate segments which was largely driven by the release of the IPCC report that year, but scientists' appearances are not always that consistent. For example, last year that number dropped to 9%, and in 2019 -- a year more on par with 2021 in terms of the quantity of coverage -- scientists made up 22% of guests in climate segments.
That said, it is highly likely that initial coverage of the IPCC report will include the perspective of climate scientists, but they should not be the only community represented. Even within the climate science community, the vast majority of those who appear on TV news are white men, but the impacts of climate change are disproportionately borne by women and people of color -- and those groups have been woefully underrepresented in climate coverage. Last year, continuing an ongoing trend -- people of color made up only 8% of guests who were interviewed or featured in the corporate broadcast networks’ climate coverage. Women made up 28% of guests -- and of the 89 total guests, only six were women of color.
And if outlets and newsrooms commit to fully covering this report, there is an opportunity to hear about the experiences of frontline communities, farming communities, and climate first-responders like firefighters, public health professionals, and humanitarian aid workers -- and even Olympic athletes. There is an opportunity to leverage this report to illustrate myriad ways the climate crisis is already affecting our lives and livelihoods. And coverage should expand beyond the first day of the report’s release to include those working toward and innovating climate solutions.
Those that deny climate change and are obstructing efforts to address it should be excluded from participating in coverage of the IPCC report. It should go without saying, but as recently as 2018 -- when the IPCC’s special report was followed by the National Climate Assessment (released every five years and vetted by 14 federal U.S. agencies) -- mainstream media invited climate deniers to provide commentary on scientific findings. Broadcast news also ran a number of segments which included footage of then-President Donald Trump expressing denial or skepticism about climate science, often by casting doubt on the IPCC report or the National Climate Assessment, without rebutting his comments. U.S media coverage of the 2013 assessment was riddled with commentary challenging the report's conclusions on the state of the climate crisis. And while the science and the crisis are even more advanced than they were in 2013 and the current administration does not deny climate, mainstream media is still highly vulnerable to false balance in order to appear unbiased.
Media must treat this report as a major news story and a catalyst for better climate coverage
These steps hinge on and assume that the major news outlets will cover the release of the IPCC report on August 9 -- that both airtime and print will be sufficiently dedicated to unpacking the findings and recommendation -- eight years in the making -- from a panel of more than 200 leading experts. Recent coverage of the climate crisis allows both this cautious optimism and the looming reality that a shinier story could push climate out of prime time and off the front pages. The report’s findings are not going to be shocking, insofar as they will be surprising. In a nutshell, the report will likely say the climate crisis is us, it's now, and it's going to get way worse if we don’t act boldly and urgently. But what the media does with that information and how it tells this story has the power to lay the foundation for national and global action.