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13 December 2021updated 14 Dec 2021 1:08pm

The double-edged sword of catastrophe climate reporting

The media has recently adopted more urgent language to discuss climate change. Yet, stronger words have had little impact on public behaviour.

By Polly Bindman

British newspapers are using more urgent language to describe climate change, data shows. Analysis of articles from over the past 15 years has found that the use of alarming phrases to describe climate change, such as “crisis” “breakdown” or “catastrophe”, has dramatically increased since the end of 2019. Yet this more radical language doesn’t necessarily translate into radical climate action.

Between 2020-2021, the phrase “climate catastrophe” tripled, and “climate emergency” is now mentioned on average 126 times a month in British newspapers — a sharp increase from an average of twice a month between 2006-2018, according to analysis by the Media and Climate Change Observatory (MCCO), a collaboration of universities from around the globe, and Babbel. However, mirroring the trend of general climate coverage, there are large disparities between usage — the left-leaning Guardian holds the record for using the phrase 179 times in a single month, followed by the Times and Sunday Times (70 times), with the right-wing Daily Mail in last place using it a maximum of nine times a month.

While “climate change” is still the media’s favourite phrase, mentioned 1,483 times this October, its popularity peaked in 2020 and 2009. The term “global warming” is falling out of fashion altogether. This is partly thanks to the Guardian changing its style guide in 2019, replacing “climate change” with “crisis” or “emergency”. The newspaper has historically led the discourse on climate change, but the issue peaked across all media in October 2021 in run up to Cop26

This upward trend reflects a growing recognition of climate issues among the British public, who in November, cited climate change as their top concern for the first time ever, says leading pollster Ipsos Mori. 

But does more noise around climate issues drive more action, or just add to the “blah blah blah”? As the data shows, each surge in media climate coverage, coinciding with major climate summits, is followed by a decline. The implication being, once the dust settles around Cop26, the recent international climate summit held in Glasgow, that interest in environmental issues could wane. 

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Meaghan Daly, a research associate at the University of Colorado and a member of MCCO, shares this concern. “These types of events can really focus public attention toward the climate issue, but maintaining that level of attention can be pretty challenging.” In part, because climate change is “constantly competing with other issues for public attention”. 

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A report, which was co-authored by Daly and published in January, finds that during the first half of 2020, the “rapid rise in reporting on Covid displaced coverage of climate change”. When interest in Covid began to wane, climate reporting rebounded. Daly suggests this could be due to a lack of capacity in media organisations that have been forced to cut staff to reduce costs, but also the public’s limited capacity to absorb crises narratives. “It's really hard to operate in an emergency mode all the time… people may tune out some of this rhetoric,” she says. 

The notion that people can only compute so much crisis leads some to argue that catastrophe framing can have adverse effects. Funmibi Ogunlesi, from the UK's New Economy Organisers Network, which provides training and support for climate organisers, warns that while emergency framing can be helpful in raising public concern, it also has an “important backfire effect: It fuels fatalism”. 

“Ultimately, crisis-only framing is in danger of building the belief that climate change is too far gone and nothing can be done to meaningfully mitigate the impact,” says Ogunlesi. “Crisis messaging might keep an issue salient but it also fuels a state of panic and powerlessness.” 

This concern is supported by research, published in November, which finds that journalistic usage of “climate emergency ” and “climate crisis” have little impact on the public’s engagement with climate change. In the study, 2,333 individuals were shown fake tweets, which either focused on the impact of climate change, or climate solutions, alternating the phrases “climate change”, “crisis” or “emergency”. Some patterns emerged, including that news about the effects of climate change increased fear and decreased efficacy beliefs compared with news about climate action. 

“It is extremely important to make sure messaging about climate is imbued with hope,” says Ogunlesi. “This starts with presenting the problem in a way that shows we got to where we are by design, by decisions made by people in power and not by coincidence. This in turn feeds the idea that people have the power to make decisions to change course.”

The study also shows that the ”emergency” framework slightly reduced perceived credibility and newsworthiness. Emergencies, or crises, are necessarily conceptualised as having an end-point, so when deadlines pass and life (at least in Western countries) resumes as normal, cynics can claim the issues have been sensationalised. 

Concerns about the psychological impact of “doomsday” narratives have found form in the relatively recent concept of “eco-anxiety”. According to a study in the Lancet in September, three quarters of young people globally think the future is “frightening”, while more than half think that “humanity is doomed” and a third said climate change has made them hesitant about having children.

The language around climate change will continue to evolve, influenced by what Daly describes as a “tug of war across scientific, political and social time domains”. She cites fossil fuel companies, keen to fissure the link between their products and climate change, as an influence over the shift from “global warming” to “climate change” in the late 90s. On the other hand, Extinction Rebellion can be credited with popularising the phrase “climate emergency” in 2019. 

Despite these fluctuations, Daly suggests the increased hiring of dedicated climate specialists in 2021 by news outlets (including at the New Statesman) could mark a real shift. At least until the next pandemic.

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