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Plus Report - By Thomas Baekdal - July 2021

Climate change is a news story that requires a very different type of journalism

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Let's talk about how to cover climate change, and why it is important to approach this in a very different way. Let's talk about the role of journalism, and what mistakes we cannot afford to make.

But, first I have an apology to make before I get to that. My apology is that I should have written this article 15 years ago, but instead, like the rest of the media, we have been dragging our feet, not taking things seriously enough, and just focusing on other things.

Well, all that needs to change. Today, climate change is no longer something that is happening in the future. It's happening right now, and it's all around us. Most importantly, though, it is a problem that is accelerating. The goal that we have for 2035 now needs to be reached much sooner.

What is also very important about climate change is that the real change isn't even what you think. Most people see climate change only through the lens of big stories in the news. We see worsening weather events, flooding causing a tremendous amount of damage, extreme heat waves causing multiple deaths, forest fires at a scale and severity never seen before, and now even the Amazon rainforest has started emitting more CO₂ than it can absorb ... all presented in the press with scary pictures and shocking headlines.

While these things are a problem and will cost billions to mitigate (not just in 2021 but for years to come), there is an even bigger problem hidden out of sight. This is the problem that climate change is causing in everyday life.

One example is how it impacts our food production. This is not defined by a big flood raging through a city. Instead, it 'just' causes a 15% drop in production rates, which means you have to spend more resources to produce less.

This doesn't sound that bad, and it doesn't make for scary headlines, but it is. For the world as a whole, this is a far bigger problem than a forest fire.

Or think about temperatures in general. While a few degrees doesn't sound like much, it leads to an increased energy bill in order for us to keep society at a comfortable temperature, increasing the demand for even more renewable energy, while making it even harder to get rid of non-renewables.

Or take something like air pollution. 60 years ago, the level of carbon dioxide in the air was about 330 ppm (parts per million), and today it's more like 400 to 500 ppm. And more importantly, indoors, inside offices or schools, it can reach 1000 ppm.

These numbers don't mean anything to normal people, but researchers have studied what effect this has on "higher cognitive abilities of office workers", and they found that: "At 1000 ppm there is a 15% decrease in cognitive function" ... or to put it in simpler terms:

Me not think so smart anymore.

You learn more about this from Kurtis Baute, in his video "This Is Your Brain On Stale Air".

 

So, if you are a media executive (which most of my readers are), imagine if your staff lost 15% of their ability to think and concentrate. How much is that going to cost you? How big a problem is that going to cause society? How will that impact our ability to do the right things, to understand facts vs fiction, to stay focused on getting the perspective you need?

These hidden dangers are a disaster. And remember, this is not something that will happen in the future. Researchers have found that many offices already reach 1000ppm. This is now!

And these are just three examples, but there are many more.

But what is important about this is that these things don't make the news. A slow increase in the level of carbon dioxide in the air doesn't look like a small town turned to rubble by a flooding river.

What is also important is that these hidden dangers have a much more profound cost. Let me explain. The extremely big climate events that we see in the news are very expensive in the short-term, but not really expensive at all in the long-term.

Let's look at this from a future perspective. How do you prevent future floods? Well, it's simple. You build things ... like dikes, dams, flush-gates, alternative water paths, you name it. In fact, look at the Netherlands, and how it has mastered how to do this.

 

And what happens when you want to build things? Well, you need engineers, project managers, consultants, workers ... and you need material from hundreds of related industries. In other words, you are creating jobs!

And what do people do when they have a job? They spend the money they make, lowering the unemployment rate, and stimulating the economy.

This is what happened in my city. We were flooded too (much less than in Germany though), and it caused a tremendous amount of harm to every shop and building affected. Here is a picture I took outside the window from my home when we were last flooded. That is my street you see here.

So what did my city do? Well, they hired some people to build some kind of dam system that can control the water level in the three canals crossing the city, they added some protective structures where the water had flooded over, dug into the canals to allow them to carry more water, and more.

In other words, more jobs.

Yes, in the short-term it was terrible. But, in five years from now, nobody will even notice that we spent millions to fix this.

And this is the problem with climate change. The real danger is the overall change itself, causing hundreds of smaller problems, whereas the big problems we see on the news are really bad when it happens, but they are just infrastructure problems.

This leads me to another very important point.

The future is amazing!

While the problems around climate change are an absolute disaster, and have already killed so many people, the solution to climate change is amazing. In fact, we are looking towards an incredibly positive future, exactly because of the many steps we now need to take to fix this.

Let me give you just a few examples. Take cars. They run on petrol or diesel, they pollute, they make a lot of noise, and are a part of the overall problem around climate change.

Okay, so how do we fix this? Well, there are two things we can do.

  1. Only allow cars that are renewable (like electric cars).
  2. Change how we use cars.

The first option is pretty simple, and you can already buy all kinds of electric cars. This is great. It means the cars are no longer polluting, and that means the air outside your home is fresher and cleaner. That in turn means fewer people will suffer from pollution related diseases (which kill thousands every year). Electric cars make less noise (well, at low speeds, above a certain speed, the tires are louder than the engine), so that means quieter neighborhoods, which lowers stress and increases the public's general wellbeing.

All of that is freaking awesome!!

On top of that, electric cars are cheaper to run, which is great. But it doesn't even stop here. One thing you might have noticed is that many electric car brands don't just make their cars electric, instead they have started thinking about how to make the entire car renewable.

So, for instance, they now offer interiors made from renewable sources, instead of the old materials made from plastic and leather. And because rich people really like having rich things, the luxury brands have been spending millions on developing new fabrics that feel amazing. Far better than the leather it replaces.

And think about carbon fibers. They're made from petroleum. Well, to fix this, Polestar is now using flax fibers instead ... a plant that you can grow in a field in a completely renewable way.

And then think about the battery. Electric cars have a lot of power, so there is a big push not only to create better batteries, but also to find new ways to minimize how much energy is needed. And this innovation is then used by all our other devices as well, and suddenly your phone can run longer on the same battery.

Again, all of this is amazing.

What about the other solution I talked about? How do we even use cars?

Well, here I'm reminded of a video from a few years ago about the difference in grocery shopping comparing how it is in the Netherlands and how it is in the US.

 

In the US, suburban city planners don't allow local shops to even exist, so everyone has to drive their cars to the mall creating a situation where everyone has to drive all the time.

In the Netherlands, however, local shops are part of the local communities and, as such, there is no need for a car.

And what's really interesting about this is that this creates so many other positive effects. Local shops prosper, they get more customers and sell more products. The local community is strengthened and people start to care more about those around them, and the list goes on and on.

Here are two other interesting videos about this: "The Highway Plan that Almost Destroyed Amsterdam", and "How I Got Into Urban Planning (and Why I Hate Houston)"

So, again, focusing on finding a solution to climate change leads to a very positive future, and not just for the things we are trying to fix but for many other things around it too.

For instance, because of climate change we have seen severe drought in parts of the world which never had drought before. That's bad, but innovation to fix this will also help everyone else. So if we find a way to fix drought in California, it will also help countries in Africa who had this problem even before all of this. How amazing is that?

How about trees. The EU wants to plant a lot more trees. Obviously, most of these will be planted in open areas, but you know where we should also plant trees? Inside our cities, thereby turning what now looks like giant car parks into some place we actually want to live. And again, that also helps reduce pollution, lowers CO₂, and noise.

How amazing is that?

If we fix climate change, not only do we solve that problem, we end up with a world that is many times better than anything we have ever had.

As such, climate change is the most positive story you have ever covered. Not in the short-term, where things are terrible, but in the future, and the hope and prosperity that brings.

And this is important to understand. If you think about solving climate change as a problem, not only do you have the wrong mindset, you are actually making things worse.

Solving climate change is not optional

Another important thing is that climate change action is not optional. We cannot say, "let's just wait and see", nor can we say "we just have to learn to live with it". Neither of those statements are acceptable, and we only have to look at what has happened around the world in 2021 to see why.

Every one of us has to work towards fixing this problem, nobody is allowed not to. The politicians, of course, must create better conditions for change to happen quickly, while also making sure that old and heavily polluting industries are stopped. But this is not just a political focus, the rest of us have to do our part as well.

If you are a brand, you need to think like Polestar above, and start to think about how every part of your production chain can be done in a more renewable way, and this will be a vital competitive advantage. If you want to be able to sell anything in 10 years, it has to be based on renewable concepts.

In the EU, they are proposing an end to petrol and diesels by 2035. That's a politically defined goal, but this really isn't a problem because that's where they were heading anyway.

All the big car companies have already been focusing on creating electric cars, so shifting all cars to that in 14 years is really not that big a problem. So even if the EU hadn't said this, the public would have demanded that anyway. In 2035, nobody would buy a diesel even if they could.

We see this in every other industry as well. Take a company like Dow, one of the world's largest chemical and plastics manufacturers. It is currently investing millions into designing the next generation of plastics that are made from more sustainable sources. Why are they doing this? Because they are smart. They can see the trend as well as the rest of us, and they know that their future profits rely on them inventing these new products.

So, climate change action is not just because the politicians are doing things. In fact, it's mostly the opposite. Society and the market itself is heading very strongly in that direction, regardless of what the politicians are doing.

We are on a deadline

Finally, before I start to specifically talk about journalistic focus, it's also important to know that we are on a deadline. As I mentioned in the beginning, we are already 15 years behind, but more than that, we don't have enough time to get things done unless we start to do it in a much smarter way.

Right now, politicians, governments, and companies say that: "In 2030 we must have reached this point. And in 2040, we need to be here, and in 2050, we will do this."

This is nice (much better than doing nothing), but not actually enough. What really needs to happen is that all the things planned by 2030, should happen before that. And 2040 and 2050? Well, that's just way too late. We can't wait that long. We are on a deadline, and we need to find a way to fix this faster. We need to find a more efficient path forward, and we need to do this now.

So, think about all I have just said about climate change. In the short-term it's a disaster, but the solution is extremely positive ... We need quick and decisive action, and every one of us must contribute to that.

But now let's talk about journalism.

Journalism can help, or get in the way

Journalism has the power to help solve the problems around climate change faster. But it can also cause people to get needlessly distracted, thereby delaying climate change action. Or, worse, it can directly undermine climate change action, making it nearly impossible to get anything done at all.

The problem is that traditional journalism doesn't make a distinction between these three things. Whether you help, delay, or undermine is not a consideration because we think our role is to 'just report what people are saying' and then leave it up to the public to decide what to believe ... thereby positioning us as a neutral party that neither helps nor defines anything.

The problem is that this doesn't work, and we know that it doesn't work. Look at COVID. You can clearly see that 'just reporting' doesn't lead to effective action, instead the public is all over the place, extremely polarized, and more confused than focused.

This is not a good baseline for trying to fix the climate.

Another part of this problem is how we hold people to account. Don't get me wrong, it's very important to hold people to account for things and to make sure that there is a good basis for doing things, but it's another thing entirely to hold people to account just because you want to be a skeptic.

This is the problem that I very often see with journalism. When we hold politicians to account, we don't distinguish between whether what is being done is good or bad.

Again, we saw this very clearly during COVID. When we look at the data, we can very clearly see that some countries have performed much better than others, but from the press perspective, no matter what the data said, we attacked those actions.

This is an outcome that we simply cannot afford with climate change. If the government is doing something bad, then yes, hold them to account for it. But if your country is making the right choices, then we as the press should look at that, recognize that we are taking the right steps, and help facilitate that action. We should not get in the way, demand answers, and delay it from happening.

This leads us to another problem around "negativity". This is a fundamental problem with journalism today. We present everything as a negative, especially when any form of change is involved. So any action anyone proposes is immediately reported in a negative way.

Again, we cannot do this with climate change because it will fundamentally undermine our ability to act. In order to fix this problem, we need to change a lot of things about our society. But if we always report these things as an obstacle, we cause the public to not want to do it, companies can't sell climate friendly products, and politicians face a wall of opposition no matter what action they propose.

Of course, journalists and newspapers are not trying to undermine climate change. But there is a culture of journalism that makes us report stories in the wrong ways.

But let me give you some specific examples to illustrate this.

Examples

The first example is from mid-July. Here the EU announced their plans for climate action across Europe. The plan includes 13 things, ranging from no petrol cars after 2035, to higher demands on buildings to be energy neutral, to a quota system for how much CO₂ can be released, and many other things. So, what did we write in the press? Well, here is one headline that I came across on the front pages.

This headline makes three massive mistakes all at once.

The first mistake is that, remember, this is a news report about what the EU is now doing, and it is then presented as 'a bill' imposed upon the public, making your life more expensive.

This is really bad because this presents the entire package of climate action as a negative, politically focused, EU imposed bill. In other words, a headline like this is likely to cause massive reluctance and anti-EU sentiments, completely undermining our ability to have a useful and constructive look at this.

The second problem is that it cherry picks this plan to take out only the element that normal people would feel most resentful about. So, it is more expensive to drive your car and to heat your home ... oh no!

This is journalistic malpractice. You are picking the thing you know can create the strongest negative reaction, ignoring the EU's plan including thoughts about how, for instance, to help poorer families with the changes, and just presented it as "OMG, this will increase your heating bill".

It is incredibly irresponsible to report this story this way. You are completely undermining climate action.

The third problem is that it's ...a lie!

No really, the headline above is a lie. The reason is that, because it's focusing only on the short-term, it completely ignores that this is not how things will be in the future.

Take cars. Sure, if you are still driving a petrol powered car in the year 2035, it will be dramatically more expensive than today. But you are not going to drive a petrol car in 2035. By then, you will long have shifted to an electric car, which is cheaper to drive.

Yes, cheaper!

It's the same with your heating bill. Yes, there is an initial cost to make homes more energy neutral, but once you have done that, your heating bill will be dramatically lower than what it is today.

So the above headline is a lie. You are deceiving the public about what climate change action really means for them.

The next example is a tricky one.

Help people get a new job instead of focusing on how they might lose their old one

What is happening here is that many of the old heavy polluting industries are facing a future where they either have to dramatically change what they do, or, in the case of coal mines, close their operations entirely.

This, of course, means that many of the workers will be out of a job, which may have a knock-on effect in the local town and community who may rely on those jobs being there for their shops, schools, etc. to have anything to do.

So is this bad? Well... no!

Obviously, we should try to give these people a new job, and the article the headline is from even talks about that (which is good). But as journalists, we need to realize the way we talk about things can have either a positive or a negative effect.

In this case, it has a negative effect because, once again, we are presenting climate change action as a negative causing people to lose their jobs. But this is not actually true (in the long-term). There is nothing that indicates that action on climate change will cause more unemployment in the future. So, it's the wrong narrative.

So, as a publisher, you need to change this focus. Again, you are presenting climate change action as a negative, and every day when people open up the newspaper, you remind your readers of those negative things. When you do this, you lower people's enthusiasm and willingness to do something, and it will eventually lead to people saying: "We will just have to live with it". They just give up.

This is the single worst outcome we can create.

Instead, we need to start covering climate change action from the basis of constructive solution-based journalism. Instead of writing about how people might lose their job, write about all the new opportunities and growth areas that are coming. And, instead of writing about how this will cost you money, write about how it saves you money in the long run.

Climate change can't be solved with politics alone

The next example is about politics. Take a headline like this:

From a news perspective, this is a good story. It explains Biden's plans and it's not defining them as a negative (it's just stating the facts). But there are still several problems here.

The first problem is that it's 'Biden who wants to halve U.S. emissions', in other words, it's something that is imposed upon you.

The problem with this, of course, is that if you know anything about US politics, you will know that starting a news story with "Biden wants to" is automatically going to cause polarization in the public.

Simply because you wrote a headline in this way, there are now thousands of people in America who are actively trying to work against it ... and we know this is happening. So, as journalists, we need to learn that our words can be misused depending on people's personal biases, even if what we report is factually correct.

Focusing on politics also creates another problem in that it disconnects the public. Suddenly it is a problem that the politicians need to solve, but the public doesn't need to do anything on their own.

This is really bad, because if climate change becomes "someone else's problem", we are not going to be able to fix this.

The way to report this better is to move our focus away from politics, and instead focus on the public. You need to write about climate change from your readers' perspective.

To put it simply, we need to change the narrative from "Biden wants to do this" to "We want to do this".

Start your story from the public's perspective. Climate change should not be reported as a political problem. It's not their problem. It's our problem.

But this also leads me to this:

What you see above is a graph of energy consumption by source. As you can see, coal started reducing in the late 2000s, while renewables have increased. And today, renewable sources have surpassed coal.

But think about what happened over the past four years, specifically between 2017 and 2021, during the Trump administration. Here the US had a president who was actively working against renewable technology, trying to turn the public against it, while at the same time trying to help his friends in the coal industry.

But look at the graph above. The trend didn't care about Trump because every company in the US fully understood that preparing for a future of climate change is vital for their future profits.

Think about this as a journalist. We spent four years writing about what the president was doing, meanwhile the real world changed all around us, because the trend doesn't care about that. Climate change is not a story centering on politics, it never was. Instead, the real change is going to come from all the other parts of society. From companies who realize that it is unprofitable to do things the old way, and from change in public sentiment to demand things to be fixed.

Don't turn climate change into someone else's problem. Climate change is not an election campaign strategy, or a political discussion. It starts with your readers, within their communities, and it ends with your readers.

We don't need more studies

The next example is about how we focus on debating things. For years, we have wasted everyone's time by inviting climate change skeptics into our articles, to have 'a debate' with scientists about whether climate change is real.

For instance, after the extreme flooding in Germany, many newspapers across Europe started writing articles asking the question "is this climate change?"

For instance, one newspaper wrote:

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.

Another newspaper wrote:

Of course, more studies and analysis are needed before one can say something scientifically certain. We know that higher temperatures create more evaporation, so the atmosphere contains more water vapor and the cloud therefore more water [...]

And then we have this:

This week's catastrophic flooding in Europe shows the increasingly urgent need to reduce emissions and tackle the climate crisis, scientists have said.
Experts and politicians admit it is still too early to say whether global warming caused the devastating deluge - which has left more than 150 people dead in Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands - but they say the destruction must be heeded as a warning of just how ruinous extreme weather will become.

Mind you, all of these articles basically concluded that, yes, this is probably climate change. But look at the doubt being displayed here, and more so look at the focus on still trying to have this debate.

Let me tell you something. All the way back in 2007, the scientific community got together to agree on a conclusion based on the many decades of work they had done up to that point about whether climate change was real and man-made. The overwhelming consensus (more than 90%) agreed that it was.

In other words, it has been an established fact, for 14 years, that this is climate change ... but in the press, we are still wasting everyone's time and delaying effective action by instead focusing every single event on whether it is even a thing or not.

So, no journalists, we don't have to do "more studies and analysis" before we can say this for certain. We have already done that, 14 years ago!

Yes, we can link this to individual events, because the frequencies of these events are directly linked to the worsening climate.

And no, what happened in Germany is not "a warning of just how ruinous extreme weather will become". It's not becoming anything. It's here, now!

As a media analyst, I implore you. Stop doing this!

Stop debating whether climate change is a thing. It is a thing, it is causing this, we have the studies to prove it. It is a fact. The climate change debate is over. What we now need from the press is action.

We need consistency

The final thing we need to talk about is consistency. As a media analyst, I spend a considerable amount of time analyzing how we cover things (obviously), and what I always see is a very inconsistent focus.

Many people in the press think this is positive because covering things from a lot of different perspectives must mean that you are being neutral. But it isn't. This is the worst thing you can do.

There are three reasons why this is so bad.

The first problem is around confusion. The role of the press is to inform the public, but if we keep telling people completely conflicting things, they don't become informed. They become confused, and when they are confused, they stop acting based on fact, and instead act based on their personal emotions.

One example is to look at what happened during COVID when we started reporting about the use of masks. It is a total shitshow of completely confused people who have no idea about anything, and the result is that the use of masks has become a politically contentious topic where people just do whatever they want.

The second problem is with 'bad-faith-actors'. Bad-faith-actors are people who actively work against climate change action, and there are many reasons why they do this. Some do it as a scam (to make money), some do it because they have interest in the old polluting industries, some do it to trick people into voting for them, and others simply do it because it gives them an egotistical boost.

Why they do this isn't really important, but how they do it is.

Most of the bad-faith-actors aren't actually making up things, instead, they are cherry-picking stories from the news to support their arguments. So, when we in the press report that "an expert says you can faint if you wear a mask, but another expert says that you don't" ... then they cherry pick that, and the next day, you will see posts on Facebook saying: "This newspaper reported you shouldn't wear a mask because this expert says you will faint".

This is happening every single day.

The third problem is with what this causes for the press. When we have inconsistent coverage, the public don't know what to think, and as such, cannot identify the value of the press.

I made a joke about this on Twitter a while back, where I wrote this:

Imagine walking into a burger bar, and you ask: "Is this vegan?" ... and then they answer: "One person says that it is, while another person says that it isn't".

Okay... uhm... what?!?

You can't use this. Are you going to buy this burger now, still not knowing what is really in it? Of course not. Sure, you heard the statements of two people, but you still have no information.

This has no value.

So what happens is that people stop thinking about news as a place to learn, and instead they start to just read the news whenever they are bored ... and, when that happens, people start to go to Facebook for news?

They don't go to Facebook because they think it is a better news platform (it obviously isn't), they go there because they are just having a break. And as a publisher, you can see this in your analytics. Facebook traffic has a terrible retention and conversion rate, because this traffic isn't coming to you because they want something. They are just bored.

This is a terrible outcome because it means that we no longer have any ability to influence the world. Our own inconsistency makes news irrelevant.

And what do you think will happen to climate change if we in the press can't inform the public? Well, look at COVID ... What happened there?

As an editor, I encourage you to think about all the things I have highlighted here (but again, also take a look at what Wolfgang Blau wrote in his article). We need to change the way we do journalism, we need to think about this in a very different way. We need to stop being so negative and short-term in our thinking and we need to get closer to our community, instead of spending our time at press conferences with political leaders. We need to do all of these things.

As I said in the beginning, fixing climate change isn't optional, nor is it just another news story. It's a project that we need to fix across all parts of society, and every one of us must do their part. Nobody is neutral, nobody can stand to one side and just 'report about it'. This is not someone else's planet. This is our planet.

As journalists, our stories can either help achieve this, distract from it, or completely undermine it. Only one of these options is acceptable.

 
 
 

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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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