MeCCO Monthly Summary: If You Think You’ve Heard This Story Before, You Haven’t Seen Anything Yet

Media and Climate Change Observatory (MeCCO)
January 2020 Summary

January media attention to climate change and global warming at the global level increased slightly from December 2019 coverage, up about 4%. Yet compared to a year earlier (January 2019), the number of news articles and segments about climate change and global warming nearly doubled. Across all regions and countries monitored, coverage in January 2020 was higher than coverage in January 2019. Regionally, the ongoing stream of stories in January 2020 increased most in Oceania (up 25%) and North America (up 15%) from December 2019. Increases in coverage in these regions in January 2020 compared to January 2019 was striking, with coverage in Oceania up 144% and coverage in North America up 85%. While coverage in Europe in January 2020 was up just 3% from the previous month, it has gone up 103% from January 2019.

Figure 1 shows trends in newspaper media coverage at the global scale – organized into seven geographical regions around the world – from January 2004 through January 2020.

At the national-level, coverage rose most in Australia (up 30%) in January 2020 compared to the previous month of December 2019. This coverage in January 2020 was also more than triple the amount of coverage in January 2019. Coverage was also notably higher in the United Kingdom (UK), up 17% in January 2020 from December 2019 and up 123% from coverage in January 2019. And coverage in United States (US) television and newspapers increased 7.5% in January 2020 from the previous month while going up 43% from January 2019.

In January, ecological and meteorological connections with climate issues continued to contribute substantially to media coverage of climate change around the world. To illustrate, the ongoing domestic as well as international reports on ongoing Australian wildfires generated numerous media reports that connected the dots between these fires and a changing climate. As the death toll rose into the twenties while 12 million acres have burned and nearly a billion animals have been displaced or killed, media coverage intensified. For example, Washington Post journalist Andrew Freedman reported, “While bush fires are a regular occurrence during the Australian dry season, a combination of long-term climate change and natural variability is making the situation far worse. Human-caused global warming is raising the odds of and severity of extreme-heat events and also adding to the severity of wildfires by speeding the drying of the landscape, among other influences. One of the most robust conclusions of climate studies has been that human-caused warming would increase the frequency and severity of heat waves and also boost the occurrence of days with extreme fire danger”.

However, as media mogul Rupert Murdoch owns News Corp Australia that, in turn, runs nearly 60% of Australia’s daily media organizations, this control over narratives became part of the stories appearing in January 2020. For example, New York Times journalist Damian Cave reported, “The idea that “greenies” or environmentalists would oppose measures to prevent fires from ravaging homes and lives is simply false. But the comment reflects a narrative that’s been promoted for months by conservative Australian media outlets, especially the influential newspapers and television stations owned by Rupert Murdoch. And it’s far from the only Murdoch-fueled claim making the rounds. His standard-bearing national newspaper, The Australian, has also repeatedly argued that this year’s fires are no worse than those of the past — not true, scientists say, noting that 12 million acres have burned so far, with 2019 alone scorching more of New South Wales than the previous 15 years combined”.

News Corp Australia, via The Australian, pushed back while also accusing other outlets of political motivations behind their critiques. The Editors wrote, “our factual account of bushfires, climate change and the remedies, as well as our editorial commentary on these issues, have been wilfully and ineptly misrepresented by The New York Times and The Guardian Australia as climate denial. The truth is that the political and media reaction to this devastating bushfire season is a bid to replay the May election and get a different result. There is a belief that The Australian — having predicted the result — is somehow complicit in driving policies that promote devastating bushfires. This is not only disingenuous but disgraceful”.

Journalist Zoe Samios from The Sydney Morning Herald reflected, “As bushfires rip through the country, criticism of News Corp’s climate change coverage in its Australian newspapers has been unrelenting. As the links between climate change and the ferocity of the bushfires played out, a subsidiary debate about the appropriateness of certain articles and opinion pieces in The AustralianThe Daily Telegraph and The Herald Sun gathered momentum… News Corp has run many pieces that have questioned the legitimacy of widely-accepted climate-change science over the past decade”.

In coverage across Australia and New Zealand, ‘fire’, ‘fires’ and ‘bushfires’ along with ‘climate’, ‘change’, ‘Australia’, ‘Australian’, ‘government’ and ‘Morrison’ all appeared in the top 25 most frequently used words in January 2020 news stories.*

In January, political and economic content also shaped media coverage. Prominently, many media outlets abundantly covered the announcement early in January from BlackRock that they were divesting from carbon-based energy projects that posed significant risk to ongoing capitalist profitmaking. In particular, an open letter from CEO Laurence Funk garnered significant attention, as a break from business-as-usual and potentially (with the scale of BlackRock investments) a sign of emerging trends. For example, journalist Stephen Gandel from CBS News reported, “BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, says it is selling $500 million of coal-related investments as part of a larger shift to make climate change central to its investment decisions. BlackRock founder and CEO Laurence Fink, who oversees the firm’s management of $7 trillion in funds, announced the initiative in his influential annual letter to chief executives of major companies. The letter was posted on BlackRock’s website Tuesday. In it, Fink said he believes we are “on the edge of a fundamental reshaping of finance” because of a warming planet. Climate change has become the top issue raised by clients, Fink said in the letter, and it will soon affect everything from municipal bonds to long-term mortgages for homes”. Meanwhile, Washington Post journalists Stephen Mufson and Rachel Siegel noted, “In a separate letter to investors, BlackRock announced it would exit investments with high environmental risks, including thermal coal, which is burned to produce electricity and creates carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. BlackRock will also launch new investment products that screen for fossil fuels. The nation’s largest financial institutions are under increasing pressure from investors, activists and some political leaders for their tepid response to climate change, even as the Trump administration has systematically rolled back environmental regulations to promote economic growth”.

Also in January, the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland – with particular attention paid to climate risk – led to media attention. Of note, the annual risk report released ahead of the meeting contained news that for the first time the top five risk concerns related to climate, biodiversity loss, environment and sustainability. For example, journalist Larry Elliott from The Guardian reported, “A year of extreme weather events and mounting evidence of global heating have catapulted the climate emergency to the top of the list of issues worrying the world’s elite. The World Economic Forum’s annual risks report found that, for the first time in its 15-year history, the environment filled the top five places in the list of concerns likely to have a major impact over the next decade”.

In January, scientific dimensions also grabbed media attention to climate change and global warming. For example, pronouncements that 2019 was the second-hottest year on record (and 2010-2019 was the hottest decade) generated media interest. First to report, the Copernicus Climate Change Service (supported by the European Union) made the announcement. Shortly thereafter, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) announced similar findings. Read more …

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