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By Thomas Baekdal - November 2021

Climate coverage needs action, not discussion

This is an archived version of a Baekdal/Basic newsletter (it's free). It is sent out about once per week and features the latest articles as well as news and trends about the media industry. If you want to get the next one, don't hesitate to add your email to the list.

Welcome back to another edition of the Baekdal Plus newsletter. I'm currently working hard on a new series on Baekdal Plus called "Known to work". This will be an ongoing series about things that publishers can focus on right now to get real results based on real-world data.

Don't confuse this with best practices. Best practices are about things that worked well in the past, whereas "known to work" is focusing on new areas that we have enough data for that we know will work.

So, stay tuned for that. And, in the meantime, I have another very important story for you. It's about how we, the press, need to level up and focus on climate action.

Climate coverage needs to level up and focus on actions

One of my greatest frustrations as a media analyst is how we in the press are spending so much time discussing climate change, rather than focusing on doing something about it.

Here is a simple example that I came across over the weekend.

This is an article from a Danish news site, and journalistically, it's a pretty good article. It makes it clear that climate change is real and man-made, and explains in a very clear way how we know this. It does make a few mistakes, but overall, it's a good article.

I do have two problems with this.

The first problem I have with this is not with the work of the journalist, but with the focus on the news site. Why do so many news sites still believe that they have to spend most of their time talking about whether climate change is a thing? Why is the 'debate' still the focus?

Which leads me to my second problem. Why do so many news sites believe that this is a new thing?

In the article above, you can read things like this:

The UN finally states that global warming is man-made - but how do they know?
A suspicion that [climate change was man-made] has taken a long time to definitively confirm.
This is the first time that the IPCC report is finally pointing the finger in the direction of ourselves.

In other words, this article (and so many others) makes it sound like, up until now, we just didn't know. This is not true, and I can prove this to you in a very simple way.

The report that they are referring to is the "IPCC: AR6 Climate Change 2021". It's a great report, but notice the AR6 in the headline. That number indicates that it's the sixth report about climate change that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has released.

In 2014, we had the AR5 report, and in 2007, we had the AR4 report ... and this continues to go back all the way to 1992 with the AR1 report.

So let's go back to the first report. What did they actually find back then? Well, if you read the "Policymaker summary of working group 1: Scientific assessment of Climate Change", they have divided their summary into three categories:

And if you look at the first one, things they are certain about, we find this:

And so, for a news site, in 2021, to claim that the UN finally states that it's man-made is a bit disingenuous. They said that all the way back in 1992.

What the 1992 report was not entirely clear about was the effect of this. They didn't know whether Earth would adapt to it, how it affected the clouds, the oceans or the polar ice sheets. And they said that they probably wouldn't be able to tell for another decade or so.

In other words, in 1992, they knew that climate change was happening, and that we humans were causing a big part of it, but we didn't understand what it would do.

So, we fast forward 15 years to 2007, and we look at the AR4 report. More than a decade of study has passed, so what do we know now?

Well, in 2007, we could now see a clear effect of this. As they wrote:

Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice and rising global average sea level.

They then divided this into two focus areas.

First they talked about the natural system (nature, weather, and seasons), where they said this:

They then also looked at 'human environments', meaning, how this impacts agriculture (crops and food productions) and forestry (forest fires, pests, etc), human health (infectious diseases, allergies), and other things like the tourism industry.

Here they said that:

There is medium confidence that other effects of regional climate change on natural and human environments are emerging.

Now, it's important to talk about confidence levels because this is something I often see newspapers misreport. When scientists say "we have a medium confidence that climate change is causing this" that doesn't mean that it's 50/50.

What it actually means is that they have some pretty good data pointing towards these conclusions, far better data than anything pointing the other way. But, more data is required to tell for sure.

In other words, if you were to put confidence levels on a scale from 1 to 100, it would look like this:

So, in 2007, the problem with climate change was very well established. We knew it was happening, we knew it was man-made, we knew it had a clear negative impact on nature as a whole, and we could also see it impacted humans as well, albeit with more study to be done.

Then we fast forward to 2014, to AR5, and what did we see then?

Well, now we have even more data. Climate change is, of course, still man-made. But now they have upgraded the confidence levels to say that it's not clear both for human and natural systems.

In other words, there is really nothing to discuss anymore. In 2014, this was a very established problem.

Human influence on the climate system is clear, and recent anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are the highest in history. Recent climate changes have had widespread impacts on human and natural systems.
Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, and sea level has risen

And they even provided this handy chart illustrating the confidence levels for each type of impact measured in studies from across the world.

For instance, take the US where they say there is a very high confidence level that the increase in forest fires are attributed to this. This is from 2014!!

So what was actually new in the 2021 report (AR6)? Well, nothing really, except all the data points had been further enhanced.

As they say:

Since AR5, improvements in observationally based estimates and information from paleoclimate archives provide a comprehensive view of each component of the climate system and its changes to date. New climate model simulations, new analyses, and methods combining multiple lines of evidence lead to improved understanding of human influence on a wider range of climate variables, including weather and climate extremes.

The result is that nothing is really new. Climate is still man-made just like we knew it was in 1992. It is still causing problems for nature systems, as we knew in 2007, and it is still causing problems for humans ... as we knew in 2014.

But, with the new improved data models, the confidence levels have gone up even further. In other words, now we see this:

It is virtually certain that the global upper ocean (0-700 m) has warmed since the 1970s and extremely likely that human influence is the main driver. It is virtually certain that human-caused CO₂ emissions are the main driver of current global acidification of the surface open ocean. There is high confidence that oxygen levels have dropped in many upper ocean regions since the mid-20th century, and medium confidence that human influence contributed to this drop.

And so finally, after 30 years of very clear (but improving data), the media finally reports it as fact.

Just think about this for a second, in fact, let me illustrate it to you instead. If we take this progression and put it into a table, we get this:

As you can see, the press has constantly been more than a decade behind the curve, and our reporting (or failure to report) is a big reason why so few things have been done before now.

Yes, now in 2021, we are focusing on this, and we are doing a much better job. But, we still don't get that the discussion is over, we still think that we need to cover this as both sides, and we still have a culture of reporting that undermines this message and this focus.

This is the problem. If you look at the article above saying that the UN "finally states that climate change was man-made", that article would have been fine and relevant back in 2007, but in 2021 ... we, as the press, are just hopelessly out of date.

And, even today, we are not really living up to our responsibility as the press. Back in July 2021, after the flooding in Europe, the press reported this:

Experts say that climate change is expected to increase the frequency of extreme weather events, but linking any single event to global warming is complicated.

As a media analyst, I'm shocked that any newspaper would write that in 2021. I mean, this is not true. It's not 'expected' any more. It's known to happen. And it's not 'complicated' to link these events to global warming because we have studies that prove it.

What you are reporting today is actually what the scientists used to say back in 2007. And I can prove this. If we look again at the 2007 report (AR4), we find this table:

It says:

"Heavy precipitation events. Frequency increases over most areas: Very likely".

Disruptions of settlements, commerce, transports, and societies due to flooding: Pressures on urban and rural infrastructures; loss of property.

This was defined as "very likely" in 2007, and further confirmed in the later studies. But in the press, you are still reporting about it, in 2021, as if we are still not really sure about it.

We also see that, in the 2007 report, they found it likely that climate change would lead to an increase in drought, crop failure, and an increased risk of wildfire ... which is exactly what we have seen in places like California, USA.

Now, news sites like the LA Times have done a good job recently of linking this to climate change, but remember, the UN said this in 2007.

Our reporting is getting better, but, fundamentally, is just out of date.

The public's perception of climate change

This links us to the second problem. One of the reasons editors have told me that they continue to focus on debating climate change (like in the articles above) is the perception in many newsrooms that the public still don't understand this.

And yes, in the past, this was a problem ... But is it still true today? Well, let's have a look.

Here is a study from Nature that asked 10,000 young people in ten different countries how they felt about climate change, and only 5% said that they were "not worried". The rest had different levels of anxiety about it.

So, if you want to appeal to young people, don't just report about climate change ... do something about it. Young people are not going to support a newspaper that thinks climate change is just another news story, that it's something you have to continue to debate, or how it might impact things in 2050.

Young people want you to focus on climate action. You have to be useful, be factful, and be helpful. And they want you to have this focus today!

We can also see this when we look at the many studies done by YouGov. Here, we see that 72% of all adults believe in climate change. So, again, there is no reason for you as the press to keep writing articles explaining that it's so. The public, meaning your audience, already knows this.

Move on. Your news articles are out of date!

But, wait a minute, you say. What about the older generations? Don't we have to convince them?

No. If we look at the YouGov studies, and segment that into the 50-64 years olds, we see exactly the same thing.

It isn't until we look at the segments above 65 years old that we see a drop, but even so, a majority of 66% of the elderly believe in climate change.

But, and this is going to sound morbid, they don't count. By 2050, they will all have died, so whatever they think today is irrelevant. There are no 'both sides' here. They don't have to live in the future, but the young people do.

So, as the press, you need to focus on what young people need. You need to focus on their future. Ignore the old geezers who say that climate change isn't a thing. Just pretend they don't exist.

The rest of us, the scientists, the UN, and everyone below 65 (and even the majority above it) understands that we need to act.

Focus on that!

Level up your reporting. Stop being stuck in the past. Focus on climate action.

Want to know more?

If you found this interesting, I have many more articles and reports about climate coverage and the press.

In last week's newsletter, I talked about how the culture of an adversarial press often undermines climate coverage simply because we turn everything into a problem ... even when people try to do something good.

And back in July, I wrote about how climate coverage requires a very different approach to journalism. It's not just another news story, and it can't be covered as such.

You can read much more about that here:

Support this focus

Also, remember that while this newsletter is free for anyone to read, it's paid for by my subscribers to Baekdal Plus. So if you want to support this type of analysis and advice, subscribe to Baekdal Plus, which will also give you access to all my Plus reports (more than 300), and all the new ones (about 25 reports per year).

This is an archived version of a Baekdal/Basic newsletter (it's free). It is sent out about once per week and features the latest articles as well as news and trends about the media industry. If you want to get the next one, don't hesitate to add your email to the list.


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Thomas Baekdal

Founder, media analyst, author, and publisher. Follow on Twitter

"Thomas Baekdal is one of Scandinavia's most sought-after experts in the digitization of media companies. He has made ​​himself known for his analysis of how digitization has changed the way we consume media."
Swedish business magazine, Resumé


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