A Crisis of Communication: What media gets wrong about climate change, and how to set it right
Philosopher Timothy Morton describes the climate crisis as a “hyper-object”. A phenomenon so complex and so all-encompassing, that it simply blends into the mundane backdrop of daily life. As incomprehensible to us as water is to a fish. If this psychological barrier wasn’t challenging enough, it has also been suggested that our current media systems are systematically ill-equipped to help us understand and tackle such hyper-objects.
In my undergraduate dissertation; ‘A Crisis of Communication; What media gets wrong about climate change, and how to set it right’ I explored many of the socio-economic, political, and psychological factors which impact the effective communication of the climate crisis, in a way that spreads real awareness, and motivates meaningful change. Through this research, I was able to identify seven broad theoretical guidelines for creating more effective media narratives around the topic.
1. Bridge the Gap Between Science and Media
Many misconceptions about climate science have resulted from the media’s miscommunication of it. This can be partially due to the fact that most media practitioners have little scientific literacy or training, indicating a need for greater scientific literacy among media practitioners, and greater media training among scientists.
2. Bridge the Gap Between the Human and Natural Worlds
There is a prevailing perception that climate change is a niche issue, irrelevant to most people’s lives. Undeniably, growing inequality, living costs, corruption, war, displacement, terrorism, pandemics, etc… appear more pressing and tangible in people’s daily lives. Therefore, acknowledging the connection between climate change and other human and social justice issues is crucial. This is also central to the emergingly prevalent philosophies of “climate justice” and a “just transition”.
3. Know Your Audience
Narratives should be crafted to resonate with intended audiences, appealing to their lived experiences and values. It can be difficult for an audience to engage with issues that seem abstract or irrelevant to them personally. To engage with society in tackling the climate crisis, the causes, consequences and issues, must be made clear.
4. Balance Optimism and Despair
There has been a growing awareness and acceptance of climate change as a reality in recent years. However, some argue that widespread overwhelm, nihilism and apathy may now hinder progress as much as ignorance or denial ever did. At the same time, overly-optimistic narratives risk undermining the issues and creating a false sense of comfort. Ideally, narratives should balance an honest picture of what’s at stake, with an overview of the many solutions available, perhaps drawing on lessons learned from past examples, such as the mending of the Ozone Layer, or the handling of the COVID-19 Pandemic.
5. Balance Individual and Collective Action
There is a similar tension between narratives which focus too heavily on individual action, and those focusing on collective responsibility. The former, too often deflects blame from the seismic political and economic culprits. The latter can leave people demoralized and apathetic. Media narratives should address the key drivers behind the crisis, while highlighting the importance and strength of grassroots action.
6. Redefine the “Good Life”
Inevitably, life in the developed world will have to change substantially to mitigate climate change’s worst effects. Media could offset these realities by balancing them with realistic visions of how a “green transition” can be a “just transition”, creating a different, but in many ways better life for society. If done right, this could generate demand for a new, potentially better “status quo”
7. Co-create narratives
Polarization plagues media narratives around climate change. Whether they focus on aloof expert opinion, or blind-sighted populism, either on their own is unhelpful in creating positive change. For this reason, Climate Outreach suggests that media practitioners facilitate a “co-creation” of narratives between citizens, experts and policymakers. Provided they are governed by facts, an informed public dialogue around solutions can co-create narratives which provide our best hope for tackling the crisis in as democratic and just a way as possible.
One Crucial Piece of the Hyper-Puzzle
The science is clear, it’s implication, stark. Human caused climate change is the greatest overriding threat that humanity faces in the 21st century. Minimizing its worst effects will require the collective efforts of every nation, industry and sector of our global society, along with a fundamental restructuring of our political and economic systems. Media is only one interdependent piece of this daunting hyper-puzzle. Daunting as these challenges are, the power of strategic media narratives to help bring about such changes should not be underestimated. Our current media-political-economy presents practical limitations. If media practitioners can find ways to work effectively within and around these limitations, to co-create narratives which empower societies to collective action, our hopes of achieving a more just and sustainable future might be that bit brighter.