[SNAPSHOT] The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: U.S. Climate Coverage during Corona Times

The COVID-19 outbreak has changed everything, and climate journalism is not an exception. But how has climate coverage changed in the times of coronavirus?

On March 17th, USA Today ran an article headlined “Could the coronavirus actually be saving lives in some parts of the world because of reduced pollution?”.

In his story, journalist Doyle Rice highlighted a tweet from the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air —“That is NOT to say that the pandemic is some kind of a blessing in disguise, with all the suffering it has imposed on people. At the most, it shows it’s easy to overlook chronic, long-term health threats such as air pollution, and thus, harder to muster an adequate response.”

Three days later, Fox News anchor Laura Ingraham spinned USA Today’s reporting in a different direction—claiming that “climate alarmists” are rejoicing the pandemic.

“Shutting down entire industries and then forcing people to stay behind closed doors is terrible for the economy, for mental well-being, and our standard of living. That must be why climate change activists are celebrating,” Ingraham said. 

Climate change alarmists see hope in coronavirus,” Mar. 20, 2020 – 5:37 – Some activists say the coronavirus could be saving the planet; reaction from Mike Shellenberger, president of Environmental Progress| Fox News 

Allison Fisher, Climate and Energy Program Director at Media Matters highlighted the inaccuracy of Fox’s interpretation in a phone interview with Climate Tracker.

“The example [Ingraham] cited, CNN and USA Today—it was not the frame or the intent of the pieces to claim that climate activists were rejoicing about the state of affairs. What those pieces were stating was that the global carbon emissions were down because of the response in the US and elsewhere to the coronavirus.” 

This was not the first time America’s media commentators noted that polarization in coronavirus messaging—climate-conscious or not— mirrored that of climate coverage prior to the pandemic. 

Gilad Edelman, political writer at Wired, noted that “the epistemic trajectory of the pandemic is like that of climate change, but at 1000X speed.”

“I was seeing stories about polling data that showed that Republicans were way less worried about the coronavirus than Democrats—and that was striking to me because it’s very consistent with patterns of public opinion on climate change,” Edelman told Climate Tracker. 

However, not all news about American media’s coverage of climate and COVID-19 is bad news. Covering the pandemic has also allowed journalists to spotlight the consequences of ignoring science. 

The Good 

Vernon Loeb, Executive Editor of Inside Climate News (ICN), believes COVID-19 will “fundamentally change the way most people think about climate change, and begin to take it much more seriously.” 

In an interview with Climate Tracker, Loeb cautioned journalists against presuming readers’ disinterest in climate because of the pandemic.

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said. “People’s minds have been opened to the inevitability and immutability of science, which is making them more interested in climate, not less.” 

Indeed, stories linking climate change and the coronavirus have been gaining traction: a week after publishing, Fast Company’s “What would happen if the world reacted to climate change like it’s reacting to the coronavirus” reached 921,000 engagements, according to Climate Action Network’s Global Communication Working Group. 

COVID-19 is undeniably spurring conversations about long-term risks. Veteran climate journalist Andrew Revkin, Founding Director of Columbia University Earth Institute’s Communication and Sustainability initiative, recently launched webcast series Sustain What, exploring issues of resilience and sustainability. 

One webcast, organized with the help of the Earth Journalism Network and several journalism schools, featured Laurie Garrett, a journalist with three decades of experience writing on epidemic risks. 

Risk was a challenging concept for journalists to portray before the pandemic. Freelance journalist Melody Schreiber, a veteran in health and science reporting, recalled feeling like “a nerd in the corner” when she followed up on stories about the Arctic and epidemic diseases in the past.

“It always felt like people believed [epidemic diseases] were not going to happen [in the U.S.], that we were beyond that,” she told Climate Tracker. “People are more tuned into these stories now.” Schreiber recently wrote an article for The New Republic about future epidemic risks hidden in the Artic’s melting permafrost

Arthur Wyns, the World Health Organization’s Climate and Health Advisor, noted how articles reflecting the point of view of medical staff on climate and pandemic risks could strike a chord with a broader audience.

“When you hear a doctor who’s saving lives everyday talk about climate change and environmental issues—it’s interesting to see those two things combine, because healthcare professionals are the most trusted in society,” Wyns said.

Wyns further highlighted how COVID-19 is forcing Americans to understand environmental justice. The New York Times recently reported black Americans facing alarming rates of coronavirus infections due to weakened immune systems related to pollution exposure. 

There are multiple angles to approach the climate-corona link from, Loeb said. When he urged ICN reporters to cover the coronavirus through the lens of climate change, they “started finding stories everywhere.” ICN’s recent coverage includes emission changes, shifts in climate activism, halts in renewable energy development and more.  

Climate stories are more important now than ever because without public interest, countries will easily  “backslide on their carbon reduction targets because they don’t have the money to invest in renewable energy,” Loeb said.  

In her article “10 ways coronavirus is changing energy and climate change,” Axios’s Energy Reporter Amy Harder provided a comprehensive outline of how the COVID-19 epidemic is changing energy usage in the short and long run. 

“I approach my column thinking ‘what do readers want to read about,’ and I thought it would be helpful for people to have a quick rundown of how the coronavirus is impacting energy,” Harder told Climate Tracker.  

The Bad

On the other hand, COVID-19 brings a host of new challenges to climate reporting. 

First and foremost are financial constraints. Revkin noted, that “newsrooms already had shrinking resources, and the collapse of advertising revenue and other financial strains have further stressed news outlets.” This phenomenon was also reported by USA Today. As a result, the quantity of climate coverage has been reduced. 

Schreiber is experiencing these challenges firsthand. “As a freelancer right now it’s challenging to pitch stories because budgets are shrinking even as traffic is going up,” she said. 

Loeb, on the other hand, spoke about having to stay “closely tethered to the [pandemic] news” in any climate story. This doesn’t mean cutting or pushing articles, however. “The key is contextualizing,” Loeb said, pointing to a recently published article about the proposed Ohio River Valley petrochemical storage which referenced corona-induced drops in oil price.

The Ugly 

With climate change and COVID-19, the largest pitfall for American media remains the politicization of science. 

Reporters with climate-skeptical agendas continue employing “experts” who downplay climate risks —a three percent minority in the climate science community—as their sole sources. Ingraham exclusively quoted from the Breakthrough Insitute’s Michael Shellenberger in her report—a controversial figure at best, and ardent climate skeptic at worst. 

According to Fisher, this tactic still works because news outlets like Fox have a core viewership, consolidated along party lines, who are not interested in fact-checking for credibility. 

Edelman, who considers Wired an apolitical science-focused magazine, spoke about the challenges of maintaining neutrality as president Donald Trump spreads misinformation. “It’s hard to talk about what the government is doing without seeming to take sides.” Do journalists have the responsibility to maintain balance when one side persistently acts in bad faith?—Edelman pondered. 

Moving Forward: Beyond the Red and Blue 

Perhaps the only solution to this, Fisher contended, is for climate coverage, like COVID-19 reporting, to focus on “the realities of human experience” rather than mere technical terms.

When reports only emphasize scientific forecasts, “everybody could have a different forecast,” Fisher noted.  But there’s an opportunity to depoliticize issues when enough people are experiencing it. 

If American journalists passively wait for this to happen with climate change, however, it may be too late. 

“It’s harder to not take [coronavirus] seriously when it’s killing people around,” Edelman said. “What’s so scary when you analogize that to climate changes—we can’t wait that long. If we have to wait until sea levels have risen and engulfed our cities, when there is catastrophic drought or famine—if that’s the point when people on both sides of the spectrum take it seriously—we’re screwed.” Edelman hopes, however, that at least journalists take the COVID-19 pandemic as a lesson in integrity. 

For now, Wyns said climate-conscious journalists should tread more carefully. In a media landscape so politicized, it is necessary for reporters to not only consider facts, but the interpretation of facts as well. 

“Videos are going around [social media] thanking COVID for teaching people a lesson—which is extremely unhelpful messaging. The only people this resonates with are those who already care about climate,” Wynns said. 

“There’s no silver lining—’good for the environment, not good for people’—because whatever small incremental changes that are good for the environment we see now, they will be undone after the pandemic if nothing systemic changes,” he concluded.