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Do we have a climate problem or a communications problem?
Do we have a climate problem or a communications problem?
Victoria Harvey
By Victoria Harvey
Feb 16 2022 · 5 min read

Illuminem Voices
Sustainability · Climate Change

A recent BBC evening news slot at prime-time viewing covered the issues of ‘climate change’ in the UK. It reported that the main result of 4-degree level of global warming above pre-industrial levels would be that the south of the UK would be ‘around 7 degrees warmer in the summer’. It went on to sugar-coat the other ‘potential’ effects, such as adverse weather and food supply issues that ‘might’ occur. In their scenario, there was no mention of complete climate collapse, millions of climate refugees worldwide or catastrophic weather events that would render a large percentage of the globe uninhabitable. What the average Brit would have heard from that particular news report was that their summer holidays in Torquay would be much warmer. The parallel with the recently released Don’t Look Up film was uncanny, a slick news reporter in front of a dynamic red background, under-reporting a catastrophic issue with a slight smile and a ‘in other news’ sign off. The scale and urgency of the climate issues we face are (still) not being communicated to the wider population.

TV and Film

It’s not just news reports, when was the last time you watched a TV series or a film that covered climate change or any aspects of the climate crisis? Almost never, aside from the week that COP26 took place last November and a few popular soaps adopted their scripts to put this onto the average Brits radar. But that was a small token compared to the norm. Recent research, by Albert, the BAFTA backed sustainability charity, found that the word “cake” was mentioned 10 times more than “climate change” on UK television in 2020. There are other worrying statistics in this report, but they summarise by saying that overall, the UK media do not take climate change reporting seriously.

Advertising

Advertising media is no better. A few weeks ago Reuters reported that 450 scientists had called on advertising and PR firms to halt the spread of disinformation around climate change issues. Their focus was on advertising and PRs’ role in downplaying the risks of climate change specifically posed by fossil fuel clients. Not only is advertising not communicating any issues to do with climate change, but they are being accused of actively contributing to dumbing down the issue with assurances that don’t stand up. Recent research show that the influence of the UK Advertising sector adds ‘an extra 28% to the annual carbon footprint of every single person in the UK’. With this influence and power, just think what they could achieve if really challenged their creativity to communicate the consequences of climate change and create positive behaviour shifts. What if the Advertising industry were able to reduce the carbon footprint of every single person in the UK through effective communication?

Frequency

Even David Attenborough’s Blue Planet, which everyone assumed helped change behaviours on plastic consumption actually had little effect. It was a groundbreaking series, but a one off and one of the problems with climate change communications is the frequency of how often we hear it. Without climate change being relentlessly pushed to front of mind by the media, it will simply not be successfully addressed. Squid Games, check, EastEnders, check, catastrophic climate breakdown where millions will die, er no.

Accuracy

But what about the accuracy of what is being reported? Ask your average Joe on the street to give you any facts on climate change and I bet he can’t give you one accurate answer. Why? Because, according to Ofcom, we mostly get our general knowledge and scientific information from media rather than studying scientific papers or reading IPCC reports. And in many cases, the media is not accurately reporting the science. In his 38 year study of climate news, David Romps, a University of California professor of Earth and Planetary Science found that ‘of the 600 news articles mentioning climate change over the 38-year period, the vast majority contained none of the five basic climate facts.’ Going back to our initial BBC news report mentioned earlier, they went onto state that one way out of the climate crisis is to invest in green technologies, which the government has in hand, so it’s all ok. Misleading at best. And what about educational tools in media? Faring no better apparently. A recent highlight of the BBC Bitesize educational tool showed that dumbing down on the climate crisis is being taught to our kids. It mentioned that ‘warmer temperatures could lead to ‘healthier outdoor lifestyles’ along with facts such as benefits of climate change could mean ‘easier access to oil in Alaska’. This has now been taken down.

Is this a comprehensive study of UK media? No, it’s not, but I’m not highlighting all of this for no reason. Aside from the few facts above, it’s also a general feeling and set of observations that many of my sustainability colleagues have noted and commented on over the years. There are obviously exceptions to this rule and we’re talking mainly about moving image media here, rather than papers such as The Guardian or New York Times, who at large do an excellent job on reporting climate issues.

So, what’s the point of this article, just another piece of media?

Climate scientist Dr. Katherine Hayhoe has decades of incredible work on climate change under her belt. Her work informs public policy in the US and globally, however it’s interesting to note that her most recent book is not about climate science, but about climate communication. She advocates regular and informed conversations, relating climate change issues to what people care about here and now, because she says, this is one of the main ways we’ll see a shift in behaviour change.

Let’s take her advice, let’s call out media when we see inaccurate reporting, let’s talk about climate change every day, in our workplace, to our friends, neighbours and family. Let’s make it commonplace and translate it into everyday actions that drive change. Let’s not wait for media to lead the charge, or we’ll be waiting a long time, and that’s one thing we don’t have.

Energy Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Energy & Sustainability writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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Victoria Harvey
About the author

Victoria Harvey is co-founder of Clima, a firm working with media organisations striving to reach net-zero. She works as an advisor to the media industry on low carbon methodologies as well as working on a government-funded PhD at UEA on Climate Change and Organisational Behaviour. She has 20 years of experience as a business director, with 7 years as a sustainability director in media production. She is a practitioner member of IEMA, the UK body for suitability professionals.

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