Climate change coverage: is it enough?

The vast majority of scientists agree global warming is real. In the media, it’s a debate.

By Christian Pollard

The vast majority of scientists agree global warming is real. In the media, it’s a debate. 

By Christian Pollard 

Writer Andrew Nikiforuk holds a copy of his new book The Energy of Slaves. (Photo: Chris Plecash. Cover photo: Jake Wright)

Andrew Nikiforuk is weary and jet-lagged. He is in the second week of a cross-country book tour. Writing and speaking about the environment are his passion. Like most of his books, The Energy of Slaves examines resource development. It’s about oil.

Nikiforuk is a storyteller, and his stories are not pretty. They’re about people and places, and people’s relationship to where they live. It’s a relationship that, he says, is destructive. He says we haven’t learned how to live on the right scale or at the right pace. Our ability to abuse the environment is “pretty damn good.”

He’s not impressed with how that abuse is reported.

Nikiforuk spent his career as a reporter. Now he’s a writer living in Calgary. His time at the Calgary Herald, Maclean’s magazine, the Globe and Mail, (and others) made him skeptical of mass media ­— particularly its coverage of the environment.

“It’s no surprise to me that the media has not been able to communicate something as dire and simple as climate change,” he says. “People generally put way too much faith in the media.” 

In 2011, viewers of major American nightly news shows saw more than twice as much coverage of Donald Trump than they did of climate change. Between 1991 and 1997, the airtime of all environment stories on American TV was less than that of a single Monday Night Football broadcast. In 2011, combined airtime of all climate change stories on ABC, CBS, NBC and FOX Sunday news shows was nine minutes.

How do writers like Nikiforuk cover the environment in this kind of media environment? “You do the best you can.”

Writing about environmental issues can be difficult to communicate. Environment stories do not fit with some core news characteristics—particularly conflict. The media searches for conflict between people—but the conflict here is against ourselves. Explaining an environment story’s full context demands more time and space than networks are willing to give. Nikiforuk says the media is “putting out stories and data and information that is … contaminated.”

Nikiforuk says, “There’s no point in doing this if you don’t feel like you can make some kind of difference.” He can’t change how the media works; he “can only choose to what degree I want to be part of a corrupt system and to what degree I want to be out of it.”

An ongoing discussion about the science of global warming has been in mainstream media for over 20 years. The overwhelming majority of scientists agree human activity is increasing the planet’s temperature. Despite this, the media continues to debate.

At Dalhousie University, the Mona Campbell Building houses the College of Sustainability, and there’s no debate there. The university’s crown jewel of sustainable infrastructure uses half the energy of a same-size standard building, and a quarter of the water. It opens through wide glass doors to a towering atrium made mostly of glass. The college itself lives on the ground floor, where director Steve Mannell enjoys a corner office. The floor-to-ceiling windows give the public a transparent view of his sitting area and wraparound desk. Like the atrium, it’s mostly lit with natural light.

Mannell, a former architect, has white hair and oddly timed smiles that add a hint of eccentricity to his leadership. Whether you’re a scientist, construction worker, politician or waiter, he says, we need to work together to solve our problems. Journalists are no exception.

Mannell says climate change and global warming are “one small piece of a sustainability story that includes over-consumption, unequal distribution of wealth, and a whole set of other issues.” He finds mass media’s treatment of these issues deflating and depressing because they are so poorly articulated and shallowly examined. “Watching any of the national news media, the occasion when there’s actually a substantive story is so few and far between … so as someone who actually wants to continue doing things in the world, I have to ignore a lot of what’s going on.”

Mannell is discouraged by how bad the coverage is. For the average citizen who doesn’t know any better, he says, the coverage breeds inaction. “Either there’s no problem, or it’s too late — those are the main lines we get. Both of those suggest there’s no meaningful role for an individual in all this.”

The Union of Concerned Scientists, a non-profit science policy think tank, recently announced that 93 per cent of FOX news prime time climate discussions were factually inaccurate. Even though FOX covered climate change on its Sunday shows more than any other major news network between 2009 and 2011, its focus was on skepticism, and it never explicitly mentioned the scientific consensus.

Peter Gorrie, former environment columnist for the Toronto Star, helped report on “Climategate”—an incident in 2009 where over 1,000 emails were leaked from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia. Climate change skeptics used these emails as ammunition to call the unit’s research a hoax.

Some argue proper journalism demands that all sides of a debate have a voice. Gorrie doesn’t believe climate change deniers deserve one. “I’ve looked into them and they are funded by vested interests, and they don’t make sense. So I’m not going to give equal weight to somebody who doesn’t make sense and is doing it for reasons other than science.”

In the Blue Ridge Mountains of southwestern Virginia you will find the city of Radford, home to Radford University, where Bill Kovarik teaches journalism, environmental writing, and media history. He has a boyish enthusiasm for good journalism — especially when it’s on the environment.  He says the environment “is the best thing to report on ever, because it literally is the fate of the world. Why more journalists don’t want to find out about this, and write about it, I don’t know.”

Radford is blessed with large deposits of coal. The mining industry has been the area’s flagship enterprise, but its prosperity has come with a cost. Miners’ safety is a concern because of frequent deaths. Every year, mountain top mining displaces homes. Strip and open pit mining anger environmentalists. These issues, like global warming and climate change, are seldom and poorly covered in Virginia.

Bill Kovarik recommends getting environment news from alternative sources — in this case, a Charlestown Gazette blog called Coal Tattoo. The blog, affectionately named after the discoloring effects of coal dust on skin, is run by Ken Ward Jr. as part of his job at the newspaper. He’s been covering the American mining industry for nearly 20 years.

Kovarik says Ward’s blog is successful because it allows the environmentalists, miners and mining companies to discuss the many controversies of mountaintop mining in a public forum. It’s “the only place in West Virginia” where this happens.[pullquote]“I can go to a climate change meeting… and offer stories to Canadian media… For the most part, they’re not interested.”

—Stephen Leahy, freelance journalist [/pullquote]

Ward is currently in a legal battle with the largest privately owned coal company in the United States: Murray Energy. The company called Ward’s July 18 blog post about the connections between itself and presidential candidate Mitt Romney  libelous and defamatory. The coal giant said the post painted CEO Bob Murray as “a criminal, dishonest and scurrilous executive.” Kovarik is amused that Ward’s blog bothers Murray Energy. “When people actually try to take a middle road and try to moderate these amazingly difficult conversations, a lot of times it’s not appreciated. Ha!”

From his rural home in Uxbridge, Ontario, environment journalist Stephen Leahy tries to produce the same style of independent, unbiased journalism seen in Coal Tattoo, but on a global scale.

Leahy does not have time to waste. The Inter Press Service — a global news agency focused on development that sends stories to 5,000 print and online news sources in 138 countries — pays him around $200 for a story that takes a week to write. He also runs his own website, which is splashed with donation requests. He says the market isn’t very good for environmental news.  “I can go to a climate change meeting — maybe a UN meeting — through whatever way I get there, and offer stories to Canadian media… For the most part, they’re not interested.”

By volume and topic, climate change is generally covered the same in Canada as it is in the United States. Laena Garrison, a former coordinator for the Ecology Action Centre in Halifax, conducted a study for her Master’s thesis where she found that between 2005 and 2011, Canadian media primarily covered three climate change topics: the politics of climate change, how to lessen the impact of climate change and the economics of how to do that. Other topics, such as education and awareness, adaptation, consequences, causes, energy security, ethics, public opinion and science, were mentioned significantly less.

Garrison says coverage that leaves out other topics does not give readers the full story. She says a more diverse range of information sources is necessary—not “just those that hold the power, but those that don’t.”

Garrison is from British Columbia. She has frizzy hair and a quirky smile. She is sincere and passionate about connecting with nature. She believes it should be the basis for all education, and says the more people understand nature, the less confused they’ll be by “surface” news articles that lack depth.  

A look at mainstream Atlantic Canadian media reveals similar coverage to that of mass media elsewhere in Canada and the United States. There are three main provincial newspapers in the Maritimes: the Chronicle Herald in Nova Scotia, the Charlottetown Guardian in PEI, and the Moncton Times and Transcript in New Brunswick. In the summer of 2012, environment stories in all three papers were limited both in content and in number.

The United Nations Rio +20 conference was held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for three days in June 2012. It was a follow-up to the landmark Earth Summit in 1992 that discussed development, ecological conservation, and climate change on the global stage for the first time.

All three East Coast papers ran five stories or less on the conference, including opinion pieces. The Chronicle Herald had five brief news stories, each around 400 words — one before the conference, one for each day of the conference and one after. All were by The Canadian Press or The Associated Press, and had little to no depth of analysis. The Guardian had two news stories and an editorial in a similar style. The Times and Transcript ran two editorials and a news story, and was the only paper to openly attack the conference.

After Mitt Romney caused nearly 20,000 Republicans to laugh at climate change and sea level rise during his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in September, Barack Obama, in his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention replied, “Climate change is not a hoax.” The first significant mention of climate change in the 2012 campaign was barely covered in mainstream media, including the three provincial papers on the East Coast. The papers’ regular campaign coverage included the speech, but Obama’s remarks were never discussed.

Megaprojects like the Alberta oil/tar sands are frequently the focus of Nikiforuk’s books. While they are the world’s largest energy project, they receive little coverage in the media. (Photo: Jake Wright)

Andrew Nikiforuk finishes his presentation in Toronto. He’ll be speaking again in Ottawa in 48 hours. By the end of his tour, he will have stepped foot in 15 cities across Canada and the United States. It’s a tiring life, but the one he wants.

Nikiforuk wants change. He wants the media to change. He wants our resource development to change.  He wants to make sure his sons can look back and be proud of his work.

Nikiforuk thinks conversation and debate is not enough to provoke new attitudes. “People change when they are confronted with a crisis that is so profound and so staggering or so bloody that they have to rethink where they are.”


Published Jan. 2013