One-sided newspaper reporting is a threat to safely navigating the climate crisis

Photo by Roman Kraft on Unsplash

Last week, the UK’s Daily Telegraph ran a full-page article in its business pages titled “The problems Extinction Rebellion still worry about are already solved”. This kind of disingenuous headline-grabbing activity is naïve at best, and dangerous at worst.

There is a lot to be optimistic about at the moment — the falling price of renewables, and the rapid pace of technology development, to give two clear examples — but the game is not yet decided, and the outcomes are far from clear. The author advises his readers that there is “no need to stop travel, live on beans, or to forgo our affluent lifestyle”, as “our elected leaders and our creative capitalists already have the matter in hand”. Journalistic optimism is very welcome, as long as it does not actively discourage individuals from taking steps to look at their own part to play in addressing the crisis.

The science of human-induced climate change is now widely accepted and agreed upon. But the scale, depth and timing of the changes required is not — at least not as far as is evident from national and international commitments. The latest scientific evidence shows that the crisis is accelerating faster than anyone had previously expected, and yet international decision-making and agreement on the issue is as torturous a process as ever. The 2015 Paris Agreement was rightly hailed a victory, but without reference to its fragility — and near impossibility to police effectively. Subsequent global politics have left a proverbial mountain to climb for the COP26 negotiations in Glasgow next year.

And still planetary carbon emissions (with this highly unusual year being the only exception so far) continue to rise. Every. Single. Year.

Image source: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-52485712

It is important to report on the significant green shoots that are evident in the global energy economy; on that note, the article is suitably optimistic. But it is too much to interpret green shoots as mature redwood forests; there is a vast amount of work to be done before we develop a stable market for this new energy order, and claiming it is all in-hand is wherein the danger lies.

Is the matter in hand?

The article claims that ‘our elected leaders and creative capitalists’ have got this issue well under control. That fundamentally misunderstands (or misrepresents) the very real diplomatic and democratic challenges that lie ahead as the next round of detailed and careful behind-the-scenes international negotiations ahead of COP26 next year take place.

As evidence of the UK’s leadership, the article refers to the world-leading net zero target of 2050 that the UK has committed to and enshrined in law. In itself, this is an incredible win (for all of us) and to be celebrated, but Extinction Rebellion’s demands to bring this date forward to 2025 reflect the increased urgency of the situation, as the pace of climate change continues to outstrip former expectations. For context, current policies in countries across the world are projected to result in about 3.0C warming above pre-industrial levels, well above the 1.5C target of the Paris Agreement. Yes, work is underway to strengthen these commitments but, at the same time, a report by the Institute for Government released this week warns that the UK is “well off track” for achieving its net zero goals for 2050.

Don’t forget the nature emergency

And of course this line of argument ignores the ecological dimension of the climate and nature emergency. Continue with unabated growth, and — even if the climate issue can be miraculously solved — we are still doing untold damage to our natural world at a pace that has never been seen before. The period of recent history of rapid human industrialisation and population growth has gone hand in hand with the world’s sixth mass extinction.

WWF’s 2020 Living Planet Report reports that global populations of vertebrates — mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish — have fallen an average of 68% globally since 1970, and species loss is happening at an alarming rate. Some, but not all, of this extinction rate is directly related to climate change. Many of the same actions that accompany efforts to live a more low-carbon lifestyle, would be required to save species loss. I, for one, do not wish to live in a biologically dead, concrete world, reliant on clever market solutions to keep us in the game.

Keeping up the pressure for change

But the real reason that such a one-sided article can be considered dangerous is that major daily newspapers continue to have significant influence in popular beliefs and perception.

The majority of people in the UK now believe that human-induced climate change is both real and requires urgent action, but many are confused about what actions they should take. By publishing articles like this, newspapers are using their immense power to give their readers a convenient get-out clause… Gosh darling, I was starting to get worried about it all, you know, but The Telegraph says that it’s all under control, so we can continue as we were… “without any need to stop travel, or forgo our affluent lifestyle”].

The speed and pace of decarbonisation required, demands a multi-lateral approach to solutions. Not a blind faith in the power of the free market to solve the crisis, but a consistent and deliberate approach from all sectors of the economy and segments of society. And that includes individual and collective behaviour change.

But this isn’t all about individual behaviour (demand-side) change vs. systemic (supply-side) change. We need increasingly firm political commitment, and — in the face of growing global instability — to avoid a potential reversion to protectionist policies and a race to the bottom. In order to achieve that, we need a groundswell of public demand to keep the pressure on political opinion and decision-making. We are in the midst of a recognised emergency (a climate emergency has been declared by the UK Parliament, as well as the Scottish & Welsh Governments), and so we need to act like it’s one.

Until the general public are unequivocally demanding changes in policy and the law to support a rapid energy transition, the pace of change will remain slower than the unfolding climate situation requires, as other issues take priority. This isn’t in line with a declared emergency. So we need sufficient pressure from all political sides, and articles like this one merely have the effect of softening that pressure. Extinction Rebellion’s methods are not the only way to maintain pressure, but arguably environmental activists have played an important role in holding the decision-makers’ collective feet to the fire, effecting change at a faster pace in recent years than might otherwise have been the case. The Overton window is shifting.

I do like a positive article. Optimism is badly needed in this debate. But encouraging people to switch off on the issue, in the misapprehension that others “already have the matter in hand”, is absolutely the wrong approach. And fundamentally dangerous.

Head of Climate Action, The National Lottery Community Fund. Co-founder of Semble, Outdoor Classroom Day and Backyard Nature.