Welcome back to the Baekdal Plus newsletter. Today's newsletter is about climate coverage where I have two important focus areas to discuss.
I'm currently working on my next Plus report (or guide in this case). It's about how publishers can build a propensity model, so stay tuned for that. It will be exclusive for Plus subscribers (subscribe here if you haven't already)
One of the biggest problems with covering climate change is that it's a very slow moving news story, where the goal is not that clearly defined (well, actually it is, just not in the press), and where all the actions that need to be taken only make a very small, but interconnected part of the whole.
Essentially, it's like cooking. You have a complicated recipe with 30-40 ingredients, but some of these are just a pinch of something.
This creates a problem for journalism because it's really difficult to cover this in a way that makes sense to the public, and, worse, because there are so many individual parts, it's incredibly easy to start to undermine effective progress if we merely cover it in the traditional way.
This is what I call the 1% climate coverage problem, and I want to talk about what this problem is and what we need to do to address it in our newsrooms.
I want to start off by just giving you a simple example.
One of the large cities in Europe recently announced a plan to reduce the speed of cars by 10 km/h. So while before you were allowed to drive 50 km/h, now the maximum speed within city limits would be only 40 km/h.
There are three arguments for doing this:
That's it. That's the projected result. One percent!
So, you can probably imagine how we then covered this in the press. It was immediately attacked. We went out and found some 'experts' who could disagree with this, and then we featured their views like this.
It's not just the headline that is negative towards this, it's the picture. The entire presentation is designed to encourage the public to 'fight this'.
And when you read the article, you get quotes like this:
Philip Loldrup Fosbøl, associate professor of Chemical Engineering at DTU, does not believe, however, that it makes any difference with a stricter speed limit in the city.
It's peanuts and pure symptom treatment. If it was really going to do any good, you got people into either electric cars or public transport right away if it was to do anything for the climate, he says.
... and ...
The effect on CO₂ emissions with stricter speed limits can be overlooked, says traffic researcher Niels Buus Kristensen from the Climate Council.
In relation to CO₂ emissions, the effect is quite limited. It becomes, so to speak, "eaten up" as we switch to electric cars. On the other hand, the effect on the urban environment will continue to persist.
And, of course, it wasn't just this one newspaper who did this. Here is another example:
So, I just want to get you to stop and think about what it is that we are doing here as the press ... because it's obvious. We are turning the public against this. We are saying, because this is only going to impact 1% of the CO₂ emissions, we should be against this.
But it's not just the public we are impacting here, it is also the opposition parties. Like the politicians who don't care about things, they will see this article as fuel to support their cause to act against climate action. And this narrative acts as a deterrent against future climate action as well.
We are basically telling public officials that whenever they do something, this is the kind of attack they will face from it. As the press, we are going to destroy them for trying to implement ways to reduce CO₂ emissions, unless they can come up with some gigantic 'one big thing to solve it all' kind of thing.
The problem is that this isn't how climate action works. There is no 'one big thing' that we can just do and then this whole problem is solved. Even the big issues like ending fossil fuel, are not just going to happen over night. Instead, it will happen as the combined effect of hundreds of smaller things that we do.
In other words, the future of climate action is a ton of smaller 1% initiatives, that by themselves don't seem like much, but when combined will take us to 100%.
But think about what we are doing in the press. We are very effectively preventing this from happening. Our journalistic mindset of attacking things and to provide the opposite view just because it's 1% creates an environment where the public are turned against this, the officials will be afraid to even suggest it, and the non-climate focused politicians can use it for fuel to prevent actions being taken.
This is the impact we have as journalists.
The problem I have as a media analyst is that this is not happening because we are against climate action. The newspapers I feature above are 'for' climate action. These are good newspapers.
The problem is with the culture of journalism. The problem is that we see a story like this, and we instantly focus on it as something to attack. The people we interview, the way to ask the questions, the framing of that article, it's all based on creating this opposite view.
And we do this every time. Here is another example:
Now, if we were just talking about how to build a bridge across a river to connect two cities on either side, having a debate like this would be fine. But climate action is not like this. It's not a debate, it's not a 'both sides' kind of thing. We need to stop the damage we are currently creating, this is the fact-based reality that we have today, and we need to create an environment where such initiatives are welcomed.
Today, as the press, we are an obstacle to effective climate action, and we need to change this.
Mind you, I'm not saying that we should just let the politicians do whatever they want as long as they slap a climate label on it. That's not what I'm saying at all. As the press, our role is to fact-check and to hold those in power to account if something isn't right.
But that's not what is happening here.
Here we have a situation where the cities know that the impact will only be about 1%, and they told the public that it will only give us a 1% reduction in CO₂ emissions.
And the experts more or less agree. There is an effect, albeit a small one (again 1%). But then as the press, we present this to the public as "we should reject this". Not because it won't work, but because the effect is small.
This is how we are undermining climate action. We need all these 1% initiatives. This will be the main way to fix this problem. But, as the press, even when they are working, we tell the public to reject the idea.
We need to welcome the 1% changes because they are the ones that will save us. This is a shift in mindset that we need to have as the press.
Speaking of climate change, I want to end this newsletter with something I came across the other day. I was just looking at things on YouTube when I came across this video of Carl Sagan, the famous astronomer, planetary scientist, cosmologist, astrophysicist, and astrobiologist, being invited to give a testimony for the US Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, on December 10, 1985.
It is an astonishing talk (astonishing how civil the tone was by the politicians compared to today). Basically, he is saying the same things that we hear today.
However, I then came across an even better video. Again, it's from a speech Carl Sagan gave, this one from 1990 at the Emerging Issues Forum. This is even more amazing because every single thing he says here is still true today.
I strongly encourage you to take the time to listen to this. You don't have to watch the video. Just put on your headphones, and listen to the audio while you are doing your exercise, cooking, going for a walk, or whatever.
There are many interesting parts to this, and some of the solutions he mentions are very similar to what we hear today (and some are a bit dated). But I want to highlight two specific things that caught my attention.
The first one is about the problem with the two degree increase in temperature. This is something that is also being reported today, and it's something that the public has a really hard time relating to.
What does two degrees mean? It doesn't sound like much. Why should we care? And how would we even know if it will cause any real harm?
Well, Carl Sagan had the perfect response to that. He said:
If we look at the prognostications, the three dimensional general circulation computer models, of which there are some six independent models working right now (mainly in the United States, one in UK), they all predict temperature increases of a few degrees centigrade between now and the middle of the next century. And the difference between them is only a factor of two in temperature rise, none of the models predict that the Earth's climate is going to get cooler, none of them predict it's going to be 10s or hundreds of degrees, increase. The agreement considering the state of our knowledge is quite good.
If you then look at the output of these computer models, which purport to give a sense of how the temperature has changed on a regional basis, as you go through time, you begin to see some very worrisome things. Yes, there are some places that get cooler and some places that get warmer, but the overall trend is warmer. And by the middle of the 21st century, there is no winner. Every place has gotten warmer.
And to give you an idea of how much warmer we are a few degrees centigrade. Global change doesn't sound like so much. Let me point out that a one degree temperature change, iIn this case a decrease following a massive volcanic explosion is enough to produce widespread suffering and famine worldwide, as happened following the Mount Tambora volcanic explosion in 1815. And other cases, which are still more serious.
Several degrees is a very major temperature increase. And some of these predictions prognosticate, that the American Midwest will be converted into something approaching scrub desert by the second half of the 21st century, and likewise, the Soviet, in Ukraine and so on, but the American Midwest is the breadbasket of the world. If the grain and cereal foodstuffs from those places are unavailable, we are in serious trouble.
In addition to the volume expansion of seawater and the melting of glacial and polar ice, sea levels rise, and again, there's an uncertainty, average prediction for the middle of next century as a meter, three feet, but it might be as little as one and it might be as much as many meters and then take a look at all the low lying coastlines all around the world. and ask what happens when the sea level rises?
Okay, the Dutch, they're very good at building dikes and levees, they'll build more dikes and levees. That's not going to destroy Holland. But take a look at Bangladesh, where a 1 to 3 meter water rise will flood an area, which is inhabited by 10s of millions of people, where are those guys gonna go? Environmental refugees, it's a new prospect.
For these reasons, I take very seriously the prediction of greenhouse warming.
Again, remember that this was in 1990.
What I find so eloquently put about this is his example of the volcanic explosion. If you ask people how much of an impact a few degrees will make, most of the public can't say. To them, this is an abstract number that they cannot relate to.
But we know what kind of impact it can cause. We have historical data that can show this to us. As a media analyst, I just find this fascinating because he is basically giving us a way to explain this problem to people today.
The second thing I want to highlight is about funding. Now, this has changed dramatically over the past years, and we are starting to see some real problems. But it's still astonishing how we hear climate action being described as a cost.
In 1990, they were faced with the same problem, and Carl Sagan put it like this:
There are policy makers, who would like to respond as follows: And you have perhaps, seen this sort of opinion in the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, that's the first place to expect a complaint about having to change anything.
It's too uncertain. They say, this is serious stuff. A few scientists with computer models and who can be sure that they know what they're talking about. You want us to turn everything upside down, because some scientists say that things are gonna get a few degrees warmer? It's a few degrees warmer on the stage than in the audience. You don't see any catastrophe up here, do you?
I'd like to pose the following question. Imagine this kind of thinking. Back in the height of the Cold War.
Let me ask the question, How much money do you think the United States has spent? Since 1945? On the Cold War? Sometimes I ask this question and someone at the back of the audience comes and answers billions and billions. A huge underestimate of billions and billions. The amount of money that the United States has spent on the cold war since 1945, is approximately $10 trillion. Trillion. That's the big one with the T.
What could you buy for $10 trillion? The answer is, you could buy everything in the United States, except the land. Everything. Every building, truck, bus, car, boat, plane, pencil, baby's diaper, everything in the United States except the land. That's what we spent on the Cold War. So now, let me ask, how certain was it that the Russians were going to invade? Was it 100%? Guess not, since they never invaded.
What if it was only, let's say 10%? Certain? What would advocates of big military buildup have said? They would have said: We must be prudent. It's not enough to count on only the most likely circumstance, if the worst happens, and it's really extremely dangerous for us, we have to prepare for that. Remote contingencies, if they're serious enough, have to be prepared for. It's classic military thinking. You prepare for the worst case.
And so now, I ask my friends who are comfortable with that argument, including the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal. Why doesn't that same argument apply to global warming?
You don't think it's 100%? Likely? Fine. You're entitled to think that if it's only a small probability of it happening, since the consequences are so serious, don't you have to make some serious investment to prevent it or mitigate it?
I think there's a double standard of argument working, and I don't think we should permit it.
Now, Carl Sagan was known for his opposition against the amount of money the US spent on its military. He said on numerous occasions that investments in other areas of the US would have generated a far better return for that money and the US as a society.
But, as a media analyst, I'm not going to go into that discussion here. What I do find very interesting though, is that he is kind of right about the argument itself.
Climate change is a very real problem. In the year 1990, there were still some uncertain elements, but even back then the likelihood that this would cause big problems was pretty well established. Today, in 2022, it is a certainty. We know that we need to act now.
But, if we look at what is happening today, we are doing the same as what we did back then.
Let me give you an example of this. If I go to the Guardian right now, this is what is on the front page. And that's not just today. This has been dominating every front page for the past 100 days.
So, here is my question, where is the stuff about the climate? Well, if you look at the Guardian, you have to first scroll past all the articles about Ukraine, then past a ton of other random news stories from around the world, then you have to go past the opinion section, none of which focused on the climate either, then you have to go past the sports sections and some other stuff, and only then, extremely far down the front page, do you find the section about climate change.
And, okay, maybe it's because there is nothing new to report. Well, let's take a look. On the day I took this screenshot, one of the news stories in this climate section was this one:
I think we can all agree that this is a pretty significant story. In fact, this story should be dominating the news. But it's not. It's buried far down the page, underneath all kinds of other random stuff.
And remember, this from the Guardian. A newspaper, which has made a climate pledge, and which has categorized climate actions as a focus that they will cover with sustained attention and prominence.
But, I'm not seeing this as a media analyst. And the Guardian are the good guys here. They do more about climate change than many others. Nor is this an isolated example. Here in my country, one of the largest newspapers, Politiken, who have defined themselves as "the leading climate paper of Denmark" ... they too have almost nothing about climate change on their front page.
This is exactly the problem that Carl Sagan pointed out in 1990. This double standard when it comes to focus.
So, let me ask you the same question as Sagan did. How likely do you think it is that Russia will attack and invade an EU country, a NATO member country, or Britain? Different people will have different opinions about this, but it's close to zero. Putin can't even seem to capture a small part of Ukraine with any form of efficiency.
Okay, so how likely is it that we will face harm due to climate change, as three former heads from the UN now warn (and others have warned about for decades)? Well, if we don't start to really focus on this now, that outcome is near certain.
This is the double standard that Carl Sagan outlined. We have two situations that can cause harm to our society. One that is very unlikely to happen, and another one that is very likely to happen. But, in the press (and in society as a whole), we focus everything we can on the unlikely outcome, burying the far more pressing problem much further down the front page.
In fact, let me ask you another question. If you look at your newsroom, how many journalists have you dedicated to covering the situation in Ukraine, and how many journalists have you dedicated to covering climate action?
I don't have any numbers for this, but my guess is that it's not even close.
This is a problem.
Obviously, I'm not arguing that we shouldn't cover the situation around Russia and Ukraine. In fact, during the recent referendum here in Denmark, I was in favor of Denmark taking on a bigger role in the defense corporation of Europe.
But, from a societal and news perspective, if you place the war in Ukraine on one side, and climate action on the other, climate action is the bigger story, by far.
But in the press, we are still doing exactly the same thing we did in the 1990s. As Guardian says in their pledge:
We promise to provide journalism that shows leadership, urgency, authority and give the climate emergency the sustained attention and prominence it demands.
We, as the press, are not delivering on this promise. In fact, we do the opposite.
Over at the New York Times, their focus is on why Biden isn't helping bring down oil prices and doing more to encourage oil companies to drill for more oil and ramp up production.
We are faced with a climate emergency, and this is their focus. The article does mention climate change, once, and as a side note to all the other arguments in favor of more oil that dominate the article.
So, we have a problem in the press around how we cover climate change. And it's not a new problem. But it is vital that we change the way we focus on this.
I have written more about climate journalism, for instance, also take a look at my report:
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