MeCCO 2019 Year End Retrospective

Special Issue 2019
A Review of Media Coverage of Climate Change and Global Warming in 2019

January
February
March
April
May
June
July
August
September
October
November
December

2019 has been an important year in which climate change and global warming fought for media attention amid competing interests in other stories, events and issues around the globe. In a finite ‘news hole’, climate change and global warming garnered coverage through stories manifesting through primary, yet often intersecting, political, economicscientificcultural as well as ecological and meteorological themes.

Sub-Saharan African drought, Central American migration pressures, South American deforestation, Asian public health concerns, European decarbonization, United Nations (UN) climate talks, Australian bushfires, Canadian Federal Elections, United States (US) withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement and global youth-led climate social movements punctuated the 2019 media and climate change landscape. Climate impacts – from the Amazon to the Zambezi River – grabbed media attention in 2019. Personalities like Donald, Jacinda, Jair, Greta, and Narendra contributed ‘discernible human influences’ on media coverage of climate change across the year. And in 2019, other names made climate-related news: Barry, Dorian, Hagabis, Idai, Kammuri and Lorenzo.

As the year ended, retrospectives like Miles O’Brien’s take at PBS NewsHourhelped to put the “Earth’s fragility and humans’ indifference to it” into context, describing how we ‘Earthlings’ found ourselves at an ‘inflection point’ after this pivotal year. As journalists and editors took stock of the year gone by, numerous influential news organizations called out US Trump Administration actions as incommensurate with the scale of the intersectional climate challenges. For example, in ‘President Trump’s very bad year on climate change hurts us all’ at the end of December, Los Angeles Times Editors wrote, “If Trump thinks the Paris agreement posed an ‘unfair economic burden’ on the U.S., as the administration described it, he ought to contemplate the costs of dealing with a warmer and more unstable climate”. Meanwhile, New York Times journalists Nadja Popovich, Livia Albeck-Ripka and Kendra Pierre-Louis placed seven explicit climate policy actions in the context of a larger basket of ’95 Environmental Rules Being Rolled Back Under Trump’. Outside the US context, Guardian journalist Fiona Harvey pointed out that, “Climate breakdown played a key role in at least 15 events in 2019 that cost more than $1bn (£760m) in damage, with more than half of those costing more than $10bn each. Extreme weather including floods, storms, droughts and wildfires struck every inhabited continent in the past year, causing devastation and loss of life”.

As this end of the year also marked the end of a decade, numerous outlets also examined climate change over the past ten years. For instance, journalist John D. Sutter at CNN commented, “On the cusp of 2020, the state of the planet is far more dire than in 2010. Preserving a safe and healthy ecological system is no longer a realistic possibility. Now, we’re looking at less bad options, ceding the fact that the virtual end of coral reefs, the drowning of some island nations, the worsening of already-devastating storms and the displacement of millions — they seem close to inevitable. The climate crisis is already costly, deadly and deeply unjust, putting the most vulnerable people in the world, often who’ve done the least to cause this, at terrible risk. The worst part? We’ve known about this for a very long time”.

At the global level, September was the high water mark for coverage of climate change or global warming among the sources tracked by our Media and Climate Change Observatory (MeCCO) team. New Zealand print media coverage reached an all-time high, while the amount of coverage in Germany and Spain were second highest, and the United Kingdom reached the fourth highest on record in the month of September. Also in September 2019, Indian print media coverage reached an all-time high.

Coverage was most abundant in history apart from attention in November and December 2009 associated with the Copenhagen round of climate talks (COP15) and the University of East Anglia email hacking scandal ‘climate-gate’. MeCCO documented particularly strong signals in the quantity of coverage in the US in September in both television and print media. US television media reached its second highest levels (after the aforementioned period of November and December 2009. US print media of climate change or global warming reached an all-time high since MeCCO monitoring began in January 2000. US print media coverage of climate change surpassed the previous high water mark achieved in January 2017 (largely dominated by speculation of how newly inaugurated US President Donald Trump would impact global efforts to combat climate change). Contributing to these increases, a ‘Covering Climate Now’ campaign – led by US-based media organizations the Nation and Columbia Journalism Review – was deployed in September to increase media coverage of climate change across more than 300 participating outlets. With a combined potential audience of over 1 billion readers, viewers and listeners, this initiative contributed to the increases in coverage that we in MeCCO detected.

In 2019, we at MeCCO introduced expanded media monitoring of climate change or global warming around the world.

  • in January, we began tracking Public Broadcasting Services on United States television and additional monitoring across four wire services: Associated PressAgence France Press (AFP)The Canadian Press, and United Press International (UPI)
  • in April, we then added eight new European sources to our counts: Correio da Manhã (Portugal), La Republica (Italy), Corriere della Sera (Italy), Le Monde (France), Le Figaro (France), El Mundo (Spain), La Vanguardia (Spain) and Expansion (Spain)
  • also in April, we added a ‘European Newspaper Coverage of Climate Change or Global Warming’ figure like we had done with our work to track ‘Latin American Newspaper Coverage of Climate Change or Global Warming’ in the past
  • in May, we began monitoring six sources total from Sweden (Dagens NyheterAftonbladet, and Expressen) and Norway (AftenpostenVG, and Dagbladet) to our European monitoring
  • in October, we integrated 17 new sources across 14 countries: five new sources in Asia, 11 new sources in Africa and 1 new source in the Middle East: The Malaysian Reserve (Malaysia), Today (Singapore), The Daily Mirror (Sri Lanka), The Daily News (Sri Lanka) and The New Nation (Bangladesh) in Asia; Daily Trust (Nigeria), Vanguard (Nigeria), The New Times (Rwanda), Daily Nation (Kenya), The Times of Zambia (Zambia), New Era Namibia (Namibia), The Citizen (Tanzania), Pa Potentiel (Congo), L’Observateur Paalga (Burkina Faso), La Nouvelle Tribune (Morocco) and Sud Quotidien (Senegal) in Africa; and Dawn (Pakistan) in the Middle East

This work increased our explanatory power regarding print media coverage of climate change in these regions now with 23 sources in Asia, 15 sources in Africa and 6 sources in the Middle East along with 20 sources in North America, 13 sources in Latin America, 8 sources in Oceania and 28 sources in Europe. In addition, we at MeCCO now monitor print media representations of climate change at the country-level in eleven nations. Including television and radio with newspaper sources, we now monitor 113 sources total across 55 countries in nine languages (see fact sheet):

  • English: ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming’
  • French: ‘changement climatique’ or ‘réchauffement climatique’
  • German: ‘klimawandel’ or ‘globale erwärmung’
  • Italian: ‘cambiamenti climatici’ or ‘riscaldamento globale’
  • Japanese: ‘温暖化’ or ‘気候変動’
  • Norwegian: ‘global oppvarming’ or ‘klimaendring’
  • Portuguese: ‘mudanças climáticas’ or ‘aquecimento global’
  • Spanish: ‘cambio climático’ or ‘calentamiento global’
  • Swedish: ‘global uppvärmning’ or ‘klimatförändring’

Across the one-hundred newspaper sources, coverage was up 73% in 2019 compared to 2018. Across global radio, coverage was up 74% in 2019 compared to 2018. At the country level, coverage increased everywhere. This was most pronounced in Germany and the UK where coverage more than doubled. Yet coverage increased substantially in New Zealand (up 95%), Canada (up 90%) Spain (up 88%) and Australia (up 83%) in 2019. Elsewhere, coverage in 2019 compared to the previous year in India was up 61% while coverage was up 59% in Norway, 48% in Sweden and 45% in Japan. US television coverage increased dramatically in 2019, up 138%, but the increase in print coverage in 2019 was more modest by comparison, up 46% from 2018.

At the US country level, Figure 2 illustrates these trends month to month in US press accounts across five newspaper publications in 2019 – The Washington PostThe Wall Street JournalThe New York TimesUSA Today, and The Los Angeles Times.

Figure 3 shows trends month to month in 2019 across US television news – ABCCBSCNNFox News NetworkMSNBC, and NBC.

In the US, there was a continued prominence (detected in 2017 and 2018 as well) of news from US outlets on climate change or global warming associated with Donald J. Trump. We at MeCCO have referred to this as a ‘Trump Dump’, where media attention that would have focused on other climate-related events and issues instead was placed on Trump-related actions, leaving many other stories untold. It bears repeating that Lisa Hymas described this aptly in this way: “The media should be chasing down stories on climate science, the people being affected by climate change, responses and solutions to the problem. Instead, even when they report on climate change, they’re still chasing Trump”.  This pattern was discussed particularly in February, March and May 2019 below. This resurfaced as well in November 2019 when the Trump administration formally notified the UN that the US was withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement (see below for more). In 2019, these ongoing trends led to a ‘distracting Donald’ label as many appeared to grow weary of interference and subversion of ongoing efforts by the Trump Administration to confront a changing climate as the 2020s approached.

This report is a reprise of monthly summaries that our MeCCO team has compiled and posted each month on our website. It is our third annual review of coverage. The project is currently based in the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research (CSTPR) in the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) at the University of Colorado Boulder. However, contributions are made through collaborations and partnerships with MeCCO members at the University of New England (US), Babson College (US), Universidad Complutense de Madrid (Spain), Universidad de Sevilla (Spain) and the National Institute for Environmental Studies (Japan) and Oslo Metropolitan University (Norway). MeCCO members are Midori Aoyagi, Andrew Benham, Max Boykoff, Patrick Chandler, Meaghan Daly, Kaori Doi, Rogelio Fernández-Reyes, Lauren Gifford, Isidro Jiménez Gómez, Jennifer Katzung, Lucy McAllister, Marisa McNatt, Ami Nacu-Schmidt, David Oonk, Jeremiah Osborne-Gowey, Olivia Pearman, Anne Hege Simonsen, and Andreas Ytterstad.

As the next decade unfolds, let us take some time to reflect on how the past year of media coverage of climate change may shape what is to come. 2020 is also a critical time to ponder how our histories up to the present shape those that will follow in ‘the fierce urgency of now’. What follows are ‘highlights’ of key events, stories and developments through politicalscientificculturalecological and meteorological themes that have transpired during our collectively experienced year 2019.

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