Green issues: It's not the end of the world

Journalists have a responsibility to cover climate change, but make the pieces too gloomy and readers will fail to listen. And there's also a problem convincing some editors to take the subject seriously, reports Oliver Duff
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The British press routinely carries The Day After Tomorrow-style articles - about earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, tornadoes, floods and big freezes - which journalists might think are raising awareness of climate change.

The reality, a new report has found, is that this coverage is so hopelessly doom-laden in tone that readers have become apathetic about the threat.

The research, by the green communications agency Futerra, found that 60 per cent of articles about climate change in national newspapers were negative and failed to mention possible solutions. Only a quarter included any mention of what could be, or is being, done to fight climate change. Stories in the tabloid and mid-market papers (which reach three-quarters of national readers) tended to be highly scaremongering.

"If we keep telling people that Armageddon is inevitable, we risk creating an epidemic of apathy," says Solitaire Townsend, managing director of Futerra. "If you create fear you must create hope and agency - the ability to do something about it, and believe that you can do something about it." She says that telling the public to take notice of climate change is proving "as successful as selling tampons to men".

In its study, Futerra reviewed the 320 national newspaper stories about climate change published between August and November last year. Each was given a "Fear/Hope" rating from one to five, with one being the most pessimistic.

The Financial Times came out best: it printed 63 climate change articles and had an average Fear/Hope rating of 2.7 - as close to "balanced" as any paper got. The Independent was second, with 60 articles and a more pessimistic outlook (2.2). The Sun was one of the worst offenders, publishing just four (hugely negative) articles.

The FT's environment correspondent, Fiona Harvey - who recently won the Foreign Press Association award for environment story of the year - topped the reporters' league. Her prolific writing (28 articles in 13 weeks - 20 more than her closest challenger, Charles Clover of The Daily Telegraph) was the most balanced (2.9, where 3 is balanced).

"Our job is just to report the truth of what is going on," says Harvey, speaking from the UN climate conference in Montreal. "If [government] talks are taking a long time and there's no progress, you have to say that. A story that is gloomy is still often realistic."

But Harvey says she tries to emphasise practical measures that readers can take to tackle climate change. "We have a business audience and I've lost count of the number of times over the last year I've written about energy efficiency," she says. "It is beneficial for companies, as it saves them money, and it helps the environment by curbing emissions. Telling readers what they can do is crucial."

Journalists have a responsibility "to get people away from the idea that climate change will be gradual and will happen in 20 or 30 years' time," she says.

Harvey adds that environmental reporting in the British press is far more responsible than in the US, where many articles include views by climate change sceptics to provide "balanced" coverage. "Our opinion in the UK is that the argument has been won by mainstream scientists," she says. "Quoting climate change sceptics only gives them a spurious credibility they don't deserve."

Jonathan Porritt, the founding father of the British green movement, and now an advisor to the Government, says that the Futerra research "highlights the responsibilities of the media to look to the opportunities as well as highlighting the risks".

Futerra's Townsend says that one of the biggest challenges in improving press coverage is overcoming the lack of interest most tabloid editors have in the subject. "They account for the biggest chunk of UK newspaper readership and therefore have the biggest opportunity to enlist the British public in the fight against climate change. But they almost exclusively give out the apathy message."

One of the few good environmental articles to emerge from the tabloids last year came in February, from David Edwards for the Daily Mirror: "20 ways YOU can save the planet". Instead of covering the Kyoto treaty in terms of limits and legal obligations, he gave readers environmentally friendly tips (many of them unpopular), such as giving up foreign holidays, turning the heating down and using energy efficient light bulbs (all costed, with facts showing the environmental benefit).

Futerra, which is sponsored by the Government, wants to move the debate beyond "Is this the End of the World?" headlines. In an effort to make environmental communications more sophisticated, it has produced 20 "rules of the game". One of these is to ignore those who deny that climate change exists. "The argument is not if we should deal with climate change but how," says Futerra.

"Normalising is the crucial thing," said Townsend. "We don't need to make recycling or bus journeys sexy. We need to make them normal."

Futerra also highlights one of the glaring problems of green marketing: talking about climate change doesn't make people feel good about themselves. So it is worth exploring campaigns to link green activities such as cycling to work or having solar panels on your roof with values such as self-improvement (fitness), home improvement (house price) and national pride (having the world's leading scientists).

One final warning: "Confronting someone with the difference between their attitude and their actions on climate change will make them more likely to change their attitude than their actions." Go gently to keep everybody on side.