As part of their Earth Day coverage on April 22, broadcast and cable news shows predominantly pushed the narrative that the “silver lining” of the coronavirus outbreak is cleaner air. Predictably, Fox News and other right-wing media outlets lapped up these stories and used them to feed their ongoing assault on climate activists.
From the outset of the outbreak, the temporary drop in global carbon emissions and the short-term air quality gains have been reported as a “silver lining” or “upside” of the coronavirus pandemic by traditional media sources. While the phenomenon is real, the relentless and often shallow reporting on it has left climate activists vulnerable to right-wing media attacks, with conservative outlets twisting the idea that this is a “silver lining” to claim that people are celebrating coronavirus.
The nearly singular focus on Earth Day by broadcast and cable news on the temporary environmental and climate benefits of social distancing came at the expense of every other climate story, including timely stories at the intersection of climate and the coronavirus crisis. Earth Day’s 50th anniversary was an opportunity to tell the day’s most pressing climate stories and share the salient lessons from the pandemic as it relates to the climate crisis: the danger of delayed action, the paramount role of science and experts in a crisis response -- and the perils of misinformation.
Instead, viewers were told again that coronavirus lockdown orders have resulted in clean air -- a story that has been part of the coronavirus media landscape for nearly two months and has been weaponized by right-wing media for just as long.
Most broadcast and cable TV news Earth Day coverage was repetitive and tired
Out of nine Earth Day segments that aired across the morning and nightly news shows on the three major corporate broadcast TV networks -- ABC, CBS, and NBC -- six of them dealt with how the pandemic has led to improved environmental conditions, including lower air pollution and increased air quality. In four of these segments, there were mentions of the sort of “silver lining” phrasing that has been weaponized by right-wing media.
For example, on ABC’s Good Morning America, meteorologist Ginger Zee said, “But this is a great moment, a moment of pause for all of us to realize that our choices do impact the environment around us and maybe we can make a healthier balance going forward.” Later that day on CBS Evening News, anchor Norah O’Donnell said of Earth Day that “people are celebrating inside and they're celebrating cleaner air and cleaner water.” And on NBC Nightly News, anchor Lester Holt stated that decreased air pollution is “a glimmer of hope in these painful times.”
The unintended clean air benefit was also the focus of nine of 12 Earth Day segments across programming on CNN and MSNBC. Of these nine segments, three specifically used the phrase “silver lining” that’s been repeated throughout the pandemic. For example, on MTP Daily, host Chuck Todd stated that Earth Day “brings some silver linings amidst the gloom of the pandemic. It's evident in the reduced human activity and it has been pretty good for the planet.” The segments that did not specifically use the “silver lining” reference still characterized the coronavirus as a positive development for the environment; for example, on CNN Newsroom, anchor Robyn Curnow stated that “the planet itself I think is benefiting from this global lockdown.”
While some of these segments included some nuance to the “silver lining” framing described above, including the idea that once the lockdown is lifted, emissions will likely spike, the overall narrative was still reinforced. And by running so many segments based off of the framing that the pandemic has had beneficial environmental effects -- a story that has already been told -- the networks missed the opportunity to cover other crucial climate stories that have come to light during the pandemic, including the scorching, record-breaking heatwaves in both Florida and Antarctica, the megadrought already underway in the western U.S., rising methane emissions from natural gas, predictions of another destructive hurricane season, the fact that 2020 is on course to be the hottest year on record, and the catastrophic wildlife extinctions that could occur due to climate change.
Right-wing media attacked these Earth Day segments
There were several examples of right-wing media weaponizing this “silver lining” framing and casting climate activists in a bad light. Perhaps the most egregious came from Miranda Devine, an Australian News Corp. writer who is also a columnist with the New York Post. Appearing on Fox & Friends on April 24, she stated:
MIRANDA DEVINE (NY POST COLUMNIST): Look, for the climate alarmists and the left, this is a dream come true. We have always known they are not fond of human beings and now we see that in fact that whatever misery people are going through, medical and economic, for them it's a good thing. They’re excited about it, because it’s not only that carbon emissions have temporarily gone down, but it's also that they see this great opportunity for them to do all the things they wanted to do before, which is to basically cripple our economies and reshape the way we live, control our lives.
Devine made the same claim in an April 22 New York Post column called “Celebrity climate activists cheer coronavirus misery in name of environment.”
On Fox News’ Hannity, Sean Hannity mentioned a piece from conservative media watchdog group NewsBusters on how broadcast TV networks focused on the “silver lining” framing in their Earth Day reporting, and then aired clips of such reporting. NewsBusters wrote that the networks “shamelessly used the coronavirus pandemic to push their hope for more stringent environmental regulations.”
In The Washington Times, Valerie Richardson attacked climate activists, writing that “environmentalists see a ‘silver lining’ of falling global emissions while drawing comparisons between the pandemic and the ‘climate crisis.’” Also in The Washington Times, an article the day before Earth Day was titled “Earth Day activists weaponize the coronavirus” and included references to mainstream media coverage of the decreased air pollution as a result of the coronavirus. It also included longtime climate denier Marc Morano with this absurd statement: “The climate activist community has been waiting for decades for this type of muscular government intervention in the economy and society.”
Writing in Real Clear Markets, American Enterprise Institute (AEI) scholar and longtime climate denier Benjamin Zycher went on a long rant that included references to Stalinism and anti-humanism:
Because of that Stalinist ideological core, the environmental left is happy to accelerate economic and physical suffering among ordinary people so as to further its goals. Witness the happiness about the reduced emissions of GHG and conventional pollutants attendant upon the sharp decline in economic activity worldwide caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead of a central hope that the economic suffering will end, we have instead the central left-wing fear that an economic revival will increase emissions! This celebration of suffering exposes the fundamental anti-human core of the Earth Day movement, which views ordinary people---climate kulaks, as it were---as only mouths to feed wreaking environmental destruction.
James Delingpole also ran with the “celebration” framing in Breitbart, and he referenced media reporting on the environmental benefits of coronavirus to make his bad-faith argument.
These specific Earth Day attacks are nothing new; the idea that climate activists are “celebrating” the coronavirus has been repeated quite often in right-wing media. Media Matters covered some of these earliest attacks in mid-March. Laura Ingraham did a segment on this idea. Fossil fuel shill Daniel Turner wrote about it in The Federalist, and Morano ran with this framing in early March. The bland and rehashed reporting on the environmental benefits of the coronavirus, though, gave right-wing media more fuel to add to the fire.
Many climate journalists and activists have discouraged the “silver lining” frame
The notion that climate activists are somehow celebrating the coronavirus is completely bogus, and this idea has been debunked by numerous people who work in the climate field.
Climate scientist Kate Marvel perhaps put it best. In Drilled, she wrote:
I’m angry at the very idea that there might be a silver lining in all this. There is not. Carbon dioxide is so long-lived in the atmosphere that a small decrease in emissions will not register against the overwhelming increase since the start of the Industrial Revolution. All this suffering will not make the planet any cooler. If the air quality is better now, if fewer people die from breathing in pollution, this is not a welcome development so much as an indictment of the way things were before.
Shannon Osaka’s piece in Grist, titled “Coronavirus: The worst way to drive down emissions,” also debunked this idea. She noted that “there are a lot of bad things in the world that also happen to (temporarily) lower carbon emissions” and that “respites from fossil fuel pollution aren’t actually ‘good for’ the climate.” Ditto to Brian Kahn, who referenced some of the shoddy reporting on the “good-for-the-planet” trope. He wrote that “we don’t need a pandemic to show us that a better world is possible.” Climate scientist Zeke Hausfather and climate and energy analyst Seaver Wang also flat out stated that “There Is No Climate Silver Lining to COVID-19,” noting that “while it appears almost certain that the pandemic will significantly impact global CO2 emissions in 2020, this effect will likely be neither strong enough nor prolonged enough to meaningfully alter our climate’s trajectory.”
More recently, climate journalist Emily Atkin appeared on MSNBC’s Velshi to call out this “beneficial” framing, stating, “I think what hurts the movement more [than low oil prices] is to keep, honestly, on the narrative that this is some kind of -- that this is some kind of beneficial thing. … It's an actual false idea that anyone who wants to solve climate change wants economic destruction to be the side effect, if that makes sense."
Additionally, after the pandemic ends and economies gradually start to open up again, carbon emissions will most likely skyrocket again. Georgetown University energy expert Joanna Lewis emphasized that point in a Washington Post piece:
“The reductions are substantial, but they are most certainly only temporary, and there will likely be a rebound effect,” said Joanna Lewis, an expert on China’s energy sector at Georgetown University. “Once people go back to work and factories restart, they may try to make up for lost time. This could result in a surge in emissions.”
The Grist, Earther, and National Geographic articles are part of a body of reporting that could have helped shape or steered the networks away from the “silver lining” story, had they done even minimal due diligence in preparing their Earth Day coverage. There is no shortage of ways to connect climate and the coronavirus. Climate journalists have done an outstanding job of pointing out the myriad ways the coronavirus response has mirrored climate inaction.
Mass protests against climate inaction were supposed to usher in the 50th Earth Day, but widespread lockdown orders due to the coronavirus moved activism -- and the images their stories would have told -- out of the headlines. Even so, Earth Day provided an opportunity to turn the national spotlight, however briefly, to climate and the environment. In fact, every network ran multiple Earth Day segments on April 22. Unfortunately, the majority reinforced the same message: The response to the coronavirus has resulted in cleaner air. And that leaves the impression that the climate crisis is on hiatus and swings the door wide open for climate deniers to claim activists are cheering the pandemic on.