The Climate Reporting Emergency

by | May 25, 2021 | Commentary

As the chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2020 elections dominated the news cycle, the urgent threat of climate change nearly disappeared from the spotlight. The climate crisis is a global emergency that deserves major attention, yet – with the exception of major natural disasters – mainstream news outlets have failed to consistently report on the issue that poses the greatest threat to humanity.

“Nature is(n’t) Healing”

Among the many horrors of the COVD-19 pandemic, there were a few silver linings. The early lockdowns provided people with a glimpse of what the world might look like with less human interference. “Nature is healing” became a hopeful, viral (although misguided) quote, often posted under photos and videos of once-bustling areas returning to a quieter, cleaner state. With the absence of human activity, water and air pollution lessened, smog in cities like Los Angeles and Beijing lifted, and roadkill rates plummeted. Earth, it appeared, showed signs that it was capable of making a comeback.

Now, with lockdowns lifting, vaccinations on the rise, and over 7 billion people anxious to enjoy life outside their homes, it seems that the stage is set for a massive comeback of human activity and pollution. As people are desperate for travel, it is likely that the resulting emissions will be on par with pre-COVID levels, if not worse. And with pollution levels already at an unsustainable level, the world simply cannot afford a return to “normalcy” in this respect.

The Crisis

As it stands, without major intervention, the climate crisis is geared to have calamitous effects on humanity in the near future. While scientists claim that the remaining years humanity has left to effectively combat the crisis are numbered, it seems as though we may have already passed the tipping point.

 The United States experienced its worst ever year for wildfires in 2020. Endless photos from the west coast depicted an apocalyptic nightmare, prophetic of worse disasters to come without proper intervention. To make matters worse, the Trump administration pulled the United States out of the Paris Climate Agreement and allowed for grievous rollbacks on environmental regulations during the four-year reign. 

Mother Jones reported that cities around the world now have to deal with issues of “flooding, overheating, water shortages, and damage to their infrastructure from extreme weather” more often and are ill equipped to take the measures needed to help residents through future calamities. Each year has brought worsening temperatures and more devastating and frequentnatural disasters – and while mainstream news outlets have been consistent as ever in covering sensational disasters, they have failed to connect natural disasters to the climate emergency.

The Corporate Coverage

In a 2012 study conducted by Media Matters, corporate news outlets gave 40 times more coverage to the Kardashians than the increasing acidification of the world’s oceans – a process that, once past a certain point, would essentially mean an end to most life on Earth. Such an urgent story merits due coverage every day from major news outlets, but there has been a lasting drought of climate-related stories. This may be because the existential threat tends to net lower ratings than celebrity gossip. In other instances, corporate outlets may avoid reporting the devastating effects of fossil fuels because they’re locked in Big Oil’s grip.

Whatever the reason, this lapse created a “calamitous public ignorance” and an overall sense of apathy toward environmental issues among the American people. Although recently exacerbated by the Trump administration’s stonewalling of all climate-related matters, corporate media has ignored the far-reaching effects of climate crisis on immigration, health, the world economy, the global patterns of inequality, and more.

Independent outlets such as The Guardian and The Nation have for years published informative articles on the problems caused by the climate crisis and corporate media’s complacency in acknowledging those issues. Many independent outlets, such as GristInside Climate News, and Earth Island Journal, are devoted to environmental reporting. However, considering the magnitude of the crisis, mainstream media must share the duty – given its wide reach and large audiences – to provide accurate and consistent coverage of the climate emergency.


Illustration by Doug Chayka for The Nation

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