The Biggest Story of the Century Needs More Coverage

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Scientific American,

When I’m trying to impress people, I like to tell them that I won the Nobel Peace Prize. Yes, that’s right.

Okay, maybe you’ve never heard of me, and it’s true I don’t rank up there with Mother Teresa or Elie Wiesel. But arguably thousands of people can make claim to have won the prize because in 2007 it was awarded to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a grouping of thousands of scientists and other experts who regularly evaluate the latest science to report on the state of the climate and the prospects for our planet.

 Journalist Fellows sponsored by Internews at the 2017 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bonn / Credit: Internews

Seven years earlier, while taking a break from my career as a journalist to work for a brief stint at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), I was tasked with overseeing the US government’s review of the IPCC’s Third Assessment Report, gathering feedback from various agencies to send as an official response to the report. So I was in theory a very small part of the IPCC, and thus a recipient of an ever so minute portion of the prize. Hey, when it comes to climate change, you take what victories you can get.

The IPCC has been in the news lately because it recently released a striking new report documenting that the impacts of climate change have generally been worse than expected. They also concluded that the target the world’s governments had set of keeping average global warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius is probably not enough to avoid planetary catastrophe. They concluded that is likely to occur even with a 1.5 degree rise, a level we might reach by 2040 if greenhouse gas emissions continue at the current rate, costing the planetary economy an estimated $54 trillion.

The situation, in other words, is much worse than people thought.

That is a hard message for journalists to tell in our stories. Yes, it is true that even if governments meet all the commitments they made to the landmark 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, we probably still won’t be able to keep average global warming below 3 degrees, if that. And the fact is that in the current political climate—not only is the U.S. led by a climate change denier, but Brazil has elected one as president too, putting the fate of the Amazon rainforest and other ecosystems into question—even the hope of fulfilling those commitments seems tenuous. Most Americans care about climate change, but not enough to make it a priority when voting. Some communications experts, however, worry that too much candor about the dire outlook may cause people to throw up their arms in despair and simply carry on with business as usual, even as the forests burn.

On the other hand, journalists have a responsibility to be honest about our planetary prospects, and to report as often and openly as possible about climate change. A recent column by Margaret Sullivan emphasizing the need for more and better media coverage explains quite eloquently that our civilization may be at stake.

As the director of Internews’ Earth Journalism Network (EJN), a global network of over 6,000 journalists who cover climate change and environmental issues, I have dedicated my career to improving such coverage—not only because climate change is likely to be the biggest story of our century but because it can generate millions of smaller stories as we struggle both to prevent it and adapt to it.  So far, over the last 14 years, EJN has trained over 7,500 journalists in climate and environmental storytelling and produced over 10,000 stories just during our activities.

Some of the highlights from the this year alone include award-winning stories by our grantee Helene Doubidji on illegal fishing in West Africa, and by our partner InfoAmazonia for its series on mining in Venezuela (also supported by the Pulitzer Center). In Asia, we’ve helped produce outstanding stories on how climate change is affecting the Mekong Deltaand the South Pacific, among other places.

Sometimes these stories can have real impacts, too, as when coverage by a group of journalists in Myanmar helped to shelve a controversial dam, or when a group of Vietnamese journalists ended up saving a national park.More recently, Colombia suspended construction of a controversial road in the Amazon following coverage by EJN grantee Andrés Bermúdez Liévano and other journalists.

Of course, reporters generally don’t advocate for or against certain policies or projects, and as with the Colombian example, it is difficult to prove that specific stories have specific impacts. But we do know that merely by informing policy makers and the public about the environmental or climate change implications of certain activities, journalists do have influence.

And yes, it remains true that many stories about environment and climate change—such as this excellent piece from a Chinese journalist on Tibetan harvesters of caterpillar fungus—do focus on problems. But good stories can also look at solutions, and that includes not just how to prevent climate change, but also how people are adapting to it, as with this piece on migration in and from Cambodia.

Debates over how to report on climate change once included questions about whether to report on adaptation. Back when I was working at NOAA, its efforts to support better research and understanding of climate resilience was considered a distraction by some, who quietly argued that we need to keep the focus on preventing climate change. Focusing on adaptation, the argument went, was akin to “giving in” and “accepting” that it was going to happen.

Two decades later, we have now accepted that climate change is happening—well, most of us have—and that we need to adapt. It’s up to the media to report on ways everyday people and institutions can counter the increased risk of floods, droughts, heat waves and forest fires, can prepare for rising and acidifying oceans, and can try to keep the public health gains we’ve made over the last 50 years.

The more we learn and discuss the actual risks from climate change and what it will take to adapt to it—not just in the future but today, not just “over there” but at home—the more people will realize that preventing a problem is better, cheaper and fairer than trying to cure it. The news media, frankly, is better at covering problems than solutions. But less reporting on climate change—or even worse, suppressing information on or consideration of it —is a recipe for worse disasters. What you don’t know can hurt you.

People prone to despair about the seemingly overwhelming challenge of addressing climate change should understand that is not a reason to avoid thinking or doing anything about it. We have left our efforts until quite late, but dramatic change is possible, and the effects of climate change are meted out on a sliding scale: the more we can do to prevent it—no matter how small the steps—the more we reduce the odds of catastrophe.

I recently visited the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo, and somewhat hesitantly told their officials how I occasionally brag about winning the peace prize or a miniscule portion of it. They just chuckled and didn’t seem to mind. Presumably, they knew that any story about climate change, so long as it is truthfully told, gives us a better chance of making peace with our planet.

James Fahn is the executive director of Internews' Earth Journalism Network and a Lecturer at the U.C. Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.