Climate coverage isn’t just about prevention

Building my daily news emails, it’s staggering the dearth of good climate coverage. It’s few and far between, and much of what exists is caught up in prevention.

Absolutely we need to reduce emissions and avoid 2 degrees. But we have also already locked in a certain amount of pain that will need to be managed.

This is especially true in countries like Sri Lanka that have (relatively) negligible per person emissions and little scope for further reduction. Many of these areas will also bear the brunt, thanks to geography and economics etc.

One example of it being done well is The Guardian reporting on a heatwave that shut down some Scottish distilleries for up to a month last year. The quotes towards the end suggest this is just the beginning of a shift.

Experts fear that last year’s conditions may not be unusual in future. This week the environment agency is hosting a “drought summit” in London with water company bosses, as fears grow over similar temperatures this summer. Research has shown that last summer’s heatwave was made about 30 times more likely by the human-caused climate emergency. Some estimate that such heatwaves could be happening every other year by 2050 if emissions continue to increase…

…Helen Gavin, who researches climate breakdown and drought at the University of Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute, said such extreme events place stress on the environment and the economy. “There’s an impact already,” she said. “It’s not just hot and dry summers, but strange weather like we’ve just had – 18C in February, that’s just weird. And that messes up biological and agricultural cycles.”

This isn’t isolated. And, interestingly, some distilleries appear to have foreseen and planned for this. That can be replicated as long as the problem is made salient.

Around the world we’re already seeing the impact of increased climate variability in droughts, floods, heatwaves etc. We have to start dealing with it, and that means drawing attention to the increased probability of weather events.

It means highlighting what policy makers should do about city planning and building codes, helping people and businesses that are disproportionately affected, sorting out food and other supplies etc. etc.

We have to stop treating the 2 degree limit as if it’s the finish line of a race that hasn’t started.

As usually my emphasis

The perversion of what makes a ‘story’

There’s a graph doing the rounds that spectacularly illutrates how context rules coverage. Taken from Our World in Data, it compares actual causes of death to Google searches and media coverage.

From the accompanying blog post:

…around one-third of the considered causes of deaths resulted from heart disease, yet this cause of death receives only 2-3 percent of Google searches and media coverage…

…When it comes to the media coverage on causes of death, violent deaths account for more than two-thirds of coverage in the New York Times and The Guardian but account for less than 3 percent of the total deaths in the US…

(My emphasis)

The stories we tell shape our reality, our concerns and actions. This places a lot of power in who and what determines a story, especially the ideological, financial and technological (etc.) incentives and constraints.

All of the journalists I’ve ever met have been hyper-concerned with being accurate. But this seems to relate more to the “facts” within the story, rather than the choice of what to cover.

Over-inflating the salience of a violent death is surely as misleading?

Climate change is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed

The title is from a tweet by Kate Mackenzie, although I’m unsure if she was referencing someone else.

It highlights a central problem in tackling climate change.

By now most educated people around the world are at least aware of anthropogenic climate change. Even if they refuse to accept it.

So the problem is not really one of education, but salience. Even if most are aware of, and intellectually accept, the phenomena, it’s just not present in their day to day lives.

Climate change is already devastating farmers with increased variability and hammering certain exposed communities. But for most it only really exists in the periodic news report. It’s like a far away war or natural disaster – easy to miss in an increasingly comfortable and abstracted day to day.

Given both the looming catastrophe and what we know of the health impact of pollution, it’s insufficient to simply “inform people” and sit back – the most comfortable mode for the news media.

Accurate reporting and discussion of climate change is more than highlighting the results. We have to engage with the process. The currently invisible must be made unmissable.

The question is – how do you turn something that takes place subtly and slowly, often only visible in the varied probability and intensity of “normal” events, into something that can’t be missed? That affects their day to day?

How do you increase salience?

Our climate future lies in the past

The shambolic state of climate change discourse in Australia (and elsewhere) has left us largely focusing on electricity suppliers and technological solutionism.

But as American economist John Cochrane points out, the answer probably lies less in contraptions and arbitrary interventions than old ways of living:

…a carbon tax is the only way to change behavior. The answer to energy savings isn’t as much new technology as in old behaviors. Turn the lights off. Take fewer trips. Turn the heat down. Move nearer your work. Carpool. Without a carbon tax there is no way for the average bleeding heart Palo Alto climate worrier to realize that one trip to Europe is like driving a car for 10,000 miles. (Planes get about 80 passenger miles per gallon — but it’s a lot of miles to Europe.)

In order to incentivise these behavioural changes we need to make the cost of carbon emissions more salient.

Granted, it won’t work in every sector thanks to varying elasticities of demand. But it’s a start.

Whether or not you think the proceeds should be given straight back as a dividend (or some other mechanism to ameliorate compounded inequality), it’s [past] time to tax carbon.