We like to think we’re enlightened, don’t we? No question is too big that the internet cannot provide us with some skeleton of an answer. We’re no longer relying on news outlets for information. We have taken out our deckchairs, sat down, and set up shop. Why bother standing when the knowledge of every discovery, from the pseudo to the scientific, is just a click away?
Climate news is in its own crisis. It seems that in taking out our deckchairs, we may have taken to relaxing a little too much. Learning new things is tedious, keeping up with the news is too much hassle, and, frankly, we are tired of new information. So much for enlightenment.
As each natural catastrophe likes to remind us, we are staring down the barrel of a climate emergency. The Golden State, California, is facing its first tropical storm, Hilary, in 84 years. Lush Hawaiian paradise, Maui, wears an ashen shroud as devastating wildfires have taken at least 114 lives.
To claim absolute unawareness about climate change is to claim complete detachment from society
As always, our knowledge of such disasters is relayed to us through our news cycle. To claim absolute unawareness about climate change is to claim complete detachment from society. Even those who deny its existence must know something about climate change. With coverage of climate change rising from 47,000 articles in 2016 to 2017, to 87,000 in 2020 to 2021, our knowledge of climate change is at its peak. Far from the 1980s, when it was mainly scientists clamouring for action to be taken, now, 64% of adults in Great Britain are concerned about our climate. For this, the media must take credit.
However, progress has stalled. Rather than provoking us to act, climate news is having the opposite effect – it is boring us into an actionless stupor. While negativity bias suggests that we should be more reactive upon hearing negative information, climate news, in taking on the role of doomsayer, has embedded hopelessness into our psyche. Action feels futile and we are left completely subdued in the face of humanity’s most urgent crisis.
Climate news has steadily built itself an army of climate ‘doomers’
Negative headlines and doomist angles are to blame. When the United Nations issued a special report on global warming in 2018, the main finding (that carbon emissions needed to fall 40 to 60% by 2030 to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celcius) was overlooked by the media. Instead, articles presented the incendiary idea that we had just twelve years to save the planet before disaster, despite this not being mentioned in the report.
By reporting with such negative angles, and teasing out the worst from reports, climate news has steadily built itself an army of climate ‘doomers’. These are people who believe in climate change but are paralysed by the thought that the damage done is irreversible. They think that recycling is now pointless, low-emission zones are ineffective, and societal collapse is imminent.
Psychologically speaking, according to Yerkes-Dodson Law, we have surpassed ‘optimal’ stress, the type that motivates us to act. We are floundering in the territory of high stress, leaving us burnt out while the planet burns up.
But we do still care about climate change. 70% of Britons support the UK taking a leading international role in tackling climate change. 64% of Britons have made changes in their lives to reduce their personal impact on the planet. Climate news must reflect this.
A solutions journalism approach to climate reporting might be the catalyst we need
One approach is solutions journalism, in which news stories report on the ways that people and governments are meaningfully responding to the issues presented by climate change. By shifting the focus from discouraging facts to actions that can be carried out locally, solutions journalism creates a personal role for each member of the public, reinstating hope and igniting action. Through engaging by example, the media can shift our doomist mentalities into gear. When we hear of the next climate-related natural disaster, our minds will first jump to thinking about what can be done, rather than picturing the pitiful end we have in store.
To be enlightened is defined as a ‘rational, modern, and well-informed outlook.’ Climate news has always made sure that we are well-informed, but as boredom has crept in and hopelessness prevailed, a more modern and rational response from the media is needed. In order to rectify the self-inflicted wounds of climate change, we must know how to act. But first, we must feel hopeful. A solutions journalism approach to climate reporting might be the catalyst we need.