Media: The Absent Force

by Ray Grigg

The sobering reports coming from almost all scientists confirm that the response of the media to the unfolding climate crisis is not proportional to the seriousness of the problem. This incongruity between the scientific assessments and the media coverage creates the impression that our greenhouse gas emissions are a manageable challenge, that our corrective measures are adequate, and that we can avoid ecological catastrophe. The opposite on each point almost certainly applies.

The media is largely to blame for this misrepresentation of our predicament. Its efforts to provide balanced coverage is an admirable goal when exploring the broad dimensions of a controversial issue. But not every subject is equally controversial. On the matter of climate change, the media continually juxtaposes messages of alarm with those of reassurance, thereby inflating the importance of minority opinions and giving the impression that the political initiatives being enacted are sufficient to address the problem. But the science is conclusive. Climate change is happening, the consequences will be serious, and will not be averted by the present pledges of greenhouse gas emission reductions.

As extreme weather disasters proliferate and heat records are regularly broken, the searching reporter and inquisitive camera can always find someone who will attribute the cause to an El Niño year — only one-fifth the effect, by scientific reckoning — or some other extenuating circumstance. In the meantime, however, valuable time passes, we lose opportunities for corrective measures, and we enter further into the multiple and irreversible manifestations of extreme weather.

The media actually has the power to set the global climate crisis in its proper and serious perspective. It does this for declarations of war and the attacks of terrorists when headlines envelope the front page of newspapers, special features consume radio, and extended coverage occupies television. These are unequivocally events of human drama that get special attention. The same attention could be given to issues relating to climate change, but this option is subverted by the complex psychology.

Natural disasters — no longer as natural as they used to be — have become morally ambiguous. Media still conveys the impression that the victims are wholly innocent. Sympathy is implicit for those who suffer the effects of floods, droughts, wildfires, hurricanes and the other expressions of extreme weather. But so-called “Acts of God” are increasingly becoming “Acts of Man”. What does the media do with the growing complexities of sympathy when the suffering is self-inflicted?

The obvious solution is to avoid the issue of human blame. So anthropogenic climate change is downplayed in respectful deference to the victims. The actual cause, the unmentionable that pervades every such news report, is silenced beneath the drama of tragedy. Like the two incompatible realities in cognitive dissonance, the cause and the effect cannot be connected without violating our ethical sensibilities.

So the collective consciousness of our culture, as cultivated by the media, disconnects our behaviour from its consequences. While this avoids a confrontation with the seriousness of the climate problem, it impairs the possibility of implementing solutions. That which we should be saying remains unsaid. We do not acknowledge the truth we know. The full ramifications of our emissions escape critical examination, our critical need for solutions is unsatisfied, and the comfort of illusion persists.