Climate change and the media


 History of climate change and the media:

It is important to understand the history of the climate change movement within the media and further how the issue is framed globally to comprehend how inequality is produced within the movement. Climate change disproportionately affects the working class and people of colour, however their struggle if often underreported upon. Twenty of the warmest years have occurred within the last twenty-two years, with temperatures growing steadily (Strott 2019, Griffith 2019). The evidence over the years has all concurred that human activity is the reason for the warming, particularly due to our extensive use of fossil fuels, which when burned produce carbon dioxide as a waste product (Orestes 2019).

The earth acts as a greenhouse, as the sun moves through the atmosphere, gases such as carbon dioxide trap roughly 90% of the heat radiated, keeping the surface warmer than what it should be; acting as a blanket and increasing the temperature (Hansen 2019, National Geographic 2017, NASA online). As a direct result, the earth is one degree hotter than it was during pre-industrial time.

Scientists are predicting for the temperature to rise by a further 0.5 degrees between 2030 and 2052 if the current trend continues (Climate analytics 2015, Climate central 2018).

In his most recent documentary, ‘Climate Change: The facts’, David Attenborough explains this current rise is strong enough to bring on what we know to be climate change (2019), hotter days, more intense rain fall, sea level rise and droughts – with particular social groups being effected more than others (Shonkoff et al 2009).

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Climate change first made front page news over thirty years ago due to climate scientist James Hansen. Hansen testified to a congressional committee outlining a cause and effect relationship with greenhouse gases and the warming of the earth, asserting that he was 99% confident the trend was not “natural variations” but instead due to the buildup of carbon dioxide (Hansen Et Al 1988, Shabecoff 1988).

Justin Fox argues this started the public and political debate on climate change [2020]. This is emphasized during the 1988 presidential election, campaigner George H.W Bush vowed to “use the white house effect, to battle the greenhouse effect” (Holthaus 2018). Prior to 1988, climate change had failed to break mainstream media to a similar capacity, which could indicate a shift in perceptions towards the movement (Ravkin 2018). Climate change was scattered within news reports over the decades however, notably in 1956 when a small article appeared outlining “long lasting environmental changes” as a result of greenhouse gases [Kaempffert 1956]. Having said that, it was Svante Arrhenius who first contended in 1896 that carbon dioxide influences the mean temperature of the earth [Arrenius 1896, Rhode et al 1997, Black 2013. Through his work, Arrhenius has become known as the “father of global warming”, with his literature still being used as the “cornerstone work” for the greenhouse effect theory [Watts 2015]. Although Hansen cannot take credit for the theory, he can for propelling the climate change debate and movement onto the front pages of mainstream media [at the time].

Framing of climate change:

The way the media frame the issue of climate change impacts upon how society interpret the issue and more importantly their response to it [Chong and Duckman 2007, Entman 1993]. Critics Shelby and Prosterman further argue, the way social policies are implemented is based upon how the issue is framed [2011]. Through analyzing 37,000 articles from across 45 countries, Hong Vu et al found no media globally, frame the issue of climate change as an immediate problem. Whilst the media from rich/western countries frame it as a political problem, they still tend to focus on debate about approaches to the cause rather than “policy solutions” [2019].

In addition, media within poor countries tend to focus on the cause as an international issue that the world need to address accumulatively [2019] – which makes sense as those countries [who are more likely to be affected by climate change] do not have the wealth to fight it alone [Phakathi 2017]. Whilst Stecula and Merkly claim the media today are more likely to use terminology which implies danger and risk [2019], Keeling supports Hong vu’s findings, maintaining the media are imposing the issue upon society to one which is “happening in everyday life” – with no sense of urgent threat implied [2009]. As a result of this, he argues phrases such as “winters aren\'t as cold as I remember” [2009] have become widespread.

The lack of urgency portrayed is a result of media executives\' professional interests. Media groups acquire the majority of their funding through advertisers, and therefore those advertisers can impose the media to “filter their content” [2008] in order to avoid exposing their negligent associations with commodities, which affect and impact upon climate change [Sevener 2019, Farber 2008]. FOX news reporter Jane Akre conducted an interview with Monsanto\'s milk research director regarding the use of chemical rBGH being used in their product. The chemical is a synthetic growth hormone and was shown to harm the environment and human health. However, the day before it was supposed to air FOX cancelled the interview after receiving a warning that it would not be helpful for the network.

At the time, Monsanto milk had associations with top advertisers at FOX [Smith and Jeffery 2009, Grimonprez 2006]. After the incident, FOX fired Akre and the production staff involved, clearly demonstrating a media bias of keeping their advertisers happy over informing the public of major health risks.\n As this incident occurred in America, those more at risk of the chemical are the working class, who are unlikely to be able to afford the healthcare required should they develop serious health implications from drinking the milk [Islam and Winkel 2017]. Furthermore, working class and ethnic minority social groups are more likely to live within toxic and polluted environments as appose to the white middle class [Hanh 2020]. These groups are most at risk, yet the mainstream media are failing to report upon incidents in which deepen this inequality. The context of the story the media informs their audience on, impacts upon the help these social groups receive. Without a voice themselves, the media must raise these issues to wider society.

The media portrayal of climate change deepens the existing inequality

Due to the media framing climate change with a lack of importance, the coverage has never stimulated for serious action to be taken [Donald 2019]. Therefore, the struggle due to climate change for ethnic minority and working-class groups is rarely highlighted, further increasing the vast inequality these marginalized groups are currently facing [Baird 2008, Minority rights 2019] Although these social groups contribute less to climate change in comparison to the middle class, it is the least superior groups in society who require urgent help with the adverse effects they are likely to face. Within small islands across the world, ethnic minority communities are more likely to live. These communities are often on a low income, relying on agriculture as a food source and tourism to supply their wage. Islands such as the Maldives face becoming submerged if sea levels rise by just one more meter, leaving the island uninhabitable. This is the reality for many small islands globally, with the loss of their land impacting their social and economic livelihoods – leaving communities who were already vulnerable in a worse position [UNFCC 2005, Environmental protection agency 2009].

The media fail to highlight the consequences of climate change for many, with a lack of coverage these communities are not enabled with the necessary support and their struggle is heightened. The media are more focused towards “sudden dramatic events”, rather than long term environmental deterioration [Anderson 2011]. This results in society observing devastating natural disasters and the week that follows, but after the initial impact the news media move on to another story. The long-term effects of an environmental issue go unreported upon.

However, Elseness and Stromberg contend that the media even fail to report upon natural disasters accurately. They concluded between 1968 and 2002, over five thousand natural disasters occurred, with only 10% being covered on major networks in the United States [2007]. In North America, ethnic minority and working-class communities are more exposed to the consequences of a natural disaster. Due to those social groups possessing a higher probability of living and working within unsafe conditions, in comparison to their white counterparts [Bolin 2007]. This further indicates how many communities who need help are getting left behind [Leiserowitz and Akerof 2010]. As briefly mentioned, the media fail to inform society consistently about the aftereffects of a natural disaster, consequences which only propels ethnic minority and low-income individuals into a more vulnerable position.

Extreme environmental events result in food crises for many, twenty-nine million people died in Africa over 2018 due to the aftereffects of server drought, many of whom were dependent on agriculture. To further emphasis the crisis, climate change has the capability for 250,000 people to die from heat stress and malnutrition in Africa by 2050 [Mercy Cops 2019]. Statistics such as the above make it hard to comprehend why the media are failing to report upon such events [Zein 2019], leaving society unaware of how many communities are currently at risk, and the further peril they are likely to face if nothing is done. Through his study on public perceptions to climate change, Robert Sanders found a large majority of the public do not understand such events are currently taking place [2019]. This emphasizes just how important it is for the global media to highlight such issues which occur as a result of climate change, with a heavy focus on societies use of fossil fuels.

Although it is acknowledged that the media need to do more to inform society of the dangers communities are facing, Elseness and Stromberg contend that minority groups will never gain the same press attention regarding environmental issues, as those from privileged middle class backgrounds do [2007]. For every individual killed due to a volcano erupting, 40,000 sufferers from drought must die for the media to offer the same attention [2007]. The bias of press attention between working class and minority groups can further be highlighted through the 2018 heatwave, which affected many countries across the world – although not to the same level. Whilst European and North American media focused on their own repercussions, little attention was given to countries such as Pakistan, where the impact was felt on a greater scale. The heatwave killed over sixty working class laborers, who continued to work in forty-degree heat in order to support their families [Amnesty International 2020]

It must be taken into consideration however, that it is not just ethnic minorities and working-class individuals in developing countries who are affected. Communities from first world countries such as the United States suffer as well. With many falling victim to the implications of climate change as a result of their status – with little being done to help them. In North America, working class communities of colour are forced to inhale toxic pollution due to their homes more likely being near a power plant. As a result, African Americans have higher chances of dying from airborne pollution than the general population [Amnesty International 2020]. Furthermore, the United States face many extreme weather climates, with those from the middle class obtaining the privileged to evacuate to a safer area due to possessing greater economic capital.

However, this is not the same for everyone. In a financial survey by Bankrate, it was found that less than 40% of Americans have a thousand dollars saved for an emergency fund. For individuals in the working-class group, it is unlikely they have the income in which allows them to do this and therefore they become a vulnerable group for when these events take place [Blatchford 2018, Tepper 2018] Whilst it is clear that climate change affects ethnic minorities and the working class disproportionately, it is also clear that the media are not doing enough to inform society of what these social groups are currently facing – social groups from their own country, as well as developing nations.

It has been argued that the media heavily influence the publics opinions, as well social policies being implemented [Shah 2012, Christian 2013]. Therefore, the media need to act now in order to ensure the working class and ethnic minorities currently facing the struggle do not go under reported upon. If not, those most vulnerable from climate change are more likely to die from malnutrition caused by droughts, face serious health implications due to living near a power plant or lose their home as a result of rising sea levels.

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Climate change and the media. (2021, Oct 31). Retrieved from

Climate change and the media
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