On Feb. 2, [email protected] hosted a panel discussion on the role of journalism in effectively communicating climate change. NASA recently revealed that 2016 was the hottest year in history and the third record year in a row—the first time such a pattern has occurred since climate data collection began. Despite this, according to a 2015 study from the Université de Montréal, only about half of Canadians subscribe to the scientific consensus that rising temperatures are primarily caused by human activity and only 27 per cent say that they are well-informed on the issue of global warming. In an attempt to address the gap between scientific knowledge and public engagement, the panel featured six experts across multiple sectors.
The participants acknowledged the media’s limited success in bringing climate change to the forefront of public awareness.
“The media has covered climate change in Canada extensively, but it has failed in a lot of cases, particularly in the last election,” Mike de Souza, managing editor of the National Observer, said. “It would have been up to the media […] to provoke more discussion during debates.”
Kai Nagata, communications director of the Dogwood Initiative, believes that the Canadian government has made decisions on the assumption that there will be a market for non-renewable energy in the future because climate action will fail.
“[The media] fails to hold these people to account,” Nagata said.
The discussion also touched on the challenges journalism faces as a medium in tackling the complex issue of climate change. A proposition was put forth that the scope of the environmental phenomenon cannot be contained by the reactionary, event-driven format of popular media.
“[To communicate about climate change] we need to dig down deep into stories over a long period of time,” Linda Solomon Wood, CEO of the Observer Media Group, said. “And that’s not sexy, it’s the total opposite of clickbait.”
Repeatedly, the conversation returned to the subject of promoting engagement with the issue of climate change in diverse populations.
Martin Lukacs, environmental journalist for The Guardian, argued that a rift along ideological and political lines is central to the divergent perceptions of climate change.
“Polarization is really necessary [to motivate action against climate change],” Lukacs said. “What we are confronting is an ideological foe.”
Nagata agreed with Lukacs that perceptions of climate change vary strongly across the political spectrum.
“Discussion [on climate change] is not happening to the same extent on the political right [as on the left],” Nagata said. “Our responsibility, as advocates, is to understand the values that motivate people’s choices and to find a way to talk about this crisis that motivates action from people who are our political opposites.”
On the other hand, Candis Callison, associate professor at the Graduate School of Journalism at UBC, shared insight from her research on different forms of environmental activism, including that of American Evangelicals.
“There’s a way of talking about climate change which imbues it with ethics and morality […] and in various contexts it sounds different,” Callison said. “That kind of plurality associated with climate change isn’t something we generally think of.”
Laure Waridel, executive director of Interdisciplinary Research Centre on Sustainable Development Operationalization, agreed with Callison.
“The same message will not reach everybody,” said Waridel. “To get the business sector involved, […] we might not even use the language of climate change, but […] the language of optimization, for example.”
Lukacs remarked that environmental issues may resonate more with the public when they are framed in a new light by social movements.
“Pipelines six or seven years ago were a technical issue that got mentioned in the business section of newspapers, […] but they are now a defining political issue in this country, discussed in terms of their impact on indigenous rights,” Lukacs said.
The panel seemed to agree that an impactful communication of climate change goes beyond an accurate reporting of statistics.
“[Climate change communication] needs to stay true to the scientific fact […] and at the same time it needs to become more than that in order for a diverse public to become engaged,” Callison said.