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Media Coverage of Climate Change Is Caught in an Equilibrium Trap

The media outlets focused on climate change are centered in areas where the actual effects of climate change generally haven't become tangible.
A firefighter observes the flames while trying to extinguish a fire in Cabanoes, Portugal, on October 16th, 2017.

A firefighter observes the flames while trying to extinguish a fire in Cabanoes, Portugal, on October 16th, 2017.

The United Nations has issued a dire warning on the future impact of climate change: A global climate crisis has nearly arrived—and this is humanity's last chance for preventative action.

The report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change describes a state of global civil war driven by environmentally driven causes ranging from energy crises and food shortages to natural disasters—all by 2040. Avoiding it, as the New York Times notes, will require a complete reorientation of global political and economic systems, adaptation at a rate that has "no documented historic precedent" in human civilization. The driving message of the report is not that global environmental degradation is avoidable (it's not); it's that nations must collectively reimagine the human project to avoid complete collapse.

Unfortunately, when it comes to climate change, most people don't seem too concerned. Clearly, given the infinite bandwidth of the Internet, it's not a lack of real estate that's preventing public anxiety. Rather, it's a matter of attention: Despite the ubiquity of information and a hyper-charged news cycle, even the most alarming messages about climate change often fail to break through. Just as the "it bleeds, it leads" maxim made the crime blotter the beating heart of local news, so the argument goes, environmental news just isn't sexy enough.

"There is so much else to distract us at every turn," notes Washington Post media critic Margaret Sullivan. "It's not easy to find a compelling, immediate angle to compete with palace intrigue or horse-race politics.... This subject must be kept front and center, with the pressure on and the stakes made abundantly clear at every turn."

To that end, media institutions play a central role in shaping and framing climate news. A 2007 examination of journalistic norms and climate coverage published in Geoforum (before the digital boom turned the economics of media on its head) found that "adherence to first-order journalistic norms – personalization, dramatization, and novelty – significantly influence the employment of second-order norms – authority-order and balance – and that this has led to informationally deficient mass-media coverage of this crucial issue." How journalists tell a story shapes how it's remembered, period; the medium is the message.

But it's unfair to blame the media for the public's indifference on climate issues. Sure, environmental coverage doesn't garner the same eyeballs—and therefore snag the same editorial resources—as the goings-on in D.C., but that doesn't mean media outlets don't still produce important journalism on the issues. To wit: Two of the last four Pulitzer-winning stories in the feature writing category fit firmly in the environmental camp.

The coverage is there; it's the reader appetite that's missing. And that's not wholly unsurprising: Most media outlets taking an aggressive approach in their climate coverage are being read by the people least affected by the issue.

Indeed, a 2013 survey of 115 leading media outlets in 41 countries published in Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy revealed that "no homogeneous global trends exist with regard to sustainability-related media agendas." Rather, media outlets' climate coverage tends to coincide with the socioeconomic development of the nation at large: Abstract subjects such as climate change "[emerge] as typically Northern issues," the authors write, "whereas issues such as corruption and poverty show significantly higher levels of coverage across newspapers from the Global South."

Data on media coverage from 2004 to 2015 published in International Encyclopedia of Geography: People, the Earth, Environment and Technology underscores this point:


This means that, globally, the media outlets focused on climate change are centered in areas where the actual effects of climate change generally haven't become tangible. (This may change in the coming years, as places like the Chesapeake Bay's Tangier Island appear on the verge of sinking—though by that point it may be too late.) It follows, then, that the nations most directly impacted by climate change should be the ones leading its coverage charge.

But that's not been the case. Consider it the environmental version of a high-level equilibrium trap, the concept developed by environmental historian Mark Elvin to explain why the Industrial Revolution transpired in resource-poor Great Britain rather than economically flush China.

China, the theory goes, was just too self-sufficient to innovate, stuck in an equilibrium of supply and demand and flush with enough cheap labor to make capital investment necessary and unattractive. By contrast, Britain's relatively small size and lack of resources forced landowners to explore more efficient methods. Scarcity was the incentive for innovation; but for China, why adapt when the current model is doing just fine?

If this were a perfect analogy, it would be those countries in the Global South (and their media outlets) that would be leading the charge on climate awareness. But there exists, unfortunately, a near-global ubiquity of seemingly more pressing concerns, with bureaucratic volatility running rife around the world. It's these issues—say, the attacks on the free press in Poland, or the rise of the far-right in Brazil—that are registering most profoundly with people, no matter how thoroughly or reflectively the press covers climate change.