Troubles in Climate Journalism
Matthew Nisbet’s column, “The Trouble With Climate Emergency Journalism” (Issues, Summer 2019), highlights two persistent problems at the heart of public debates on climate change over the past three decades: the relentless pursuance of consensus and message-discipline, combined with a flinching from the difficult political arguments that are required to move on climate policy.
The recent gilet jaunes protests in France against fuel tax increases are instructive of the difficulties of climate politics, and how public support for climate policies can be upended when those policies exacerbate economic inequalities. A recent editorial in the supposedly standard-setting Guardian newspaper belittled fuel tax protests as “support for the destruction of the planet” rather than acknowledging how climate politics needs to engage with the unequal resource consumption that is driving climate change. The declaration of a “climate emergency” reinforces this disavowal of politics, as science-inflected urgency displaces inclusive debate about what transition to a zero-carbon society means for citizens who are more concerned about the end of the month than the end of the world.
Hand in hand with this aversion to political argument is the promotion of consensus in climate politics that, the Guardian claims, “must ultimately transcend left-right distinctions.” Such a view is a logical extension of Nisbet’s observation that climate journalists “portray science and scientists as truth’s ultimate custodians,” but displaces the values-first discussion we need in order to imagine what zero-carbon societies will look like and, crucially, how we can get there. Social scientists and media scholars have a crucial role to play in facilitating such approaches, which hold more promise than unimaginative attempts to delineate who has the right to contribute to public debate based on consensus rather than actual expertise. When the role of climate science in political debate is questioned, as in recent citizens’ assemblies, citizens note how the participation of scientists and the framing of scientific knowledge may be neither neutral nor helpful.
These issues have deep roots, and will be hard to address. The long-established science-first framing has facilitated climate change being seen as a discrete problem, rather than a social issue that intersects with acute policy challenges such as poverty and inequality. Such framing is seductive, as it allows left-leaning journalists and activists to swerve the deep, difficult debates we need to build coalitions for climate policy. Yet as the gilet jaunes experience demonstrates, climate change will always be a political issue that inevitably prompts tension and dissensus. The sooner climate journalists focus on these politically productive conversations, the better.
Senior Lecturer, Department of Sociological Studies
University of Sheffield