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The Canadian media are failing us on climate change

The Canadian media are failing us on climate change

Written by
Stephen Leahy
on
September 24th, 2019

Climate change is affecting the lives of every Canadian, but our media have largely failed to convey the consequences of inaction. It’s time to ask federal election candidates what their vision of a low-carbon future looks like.

The Canadian media are failing us on climate change

Our mainstream media have been ignoring climate issues for decades, with disastrous results.

How many Canadians know that we cannot build one more home, factory, office building, car, train, bus or power plant that uses gas, oil or coal? Never mind a new oil pipeline, liquefied natural gas plant or oil sands expansion. There’s already enough fossil fuel-using stuff in the world to push global warming beyond 1.5C, the target every country agreed to stick to.

That’s what a simple accounting of the current and future carbon emissions of our existing carbon-emitting stuff shows. Although these findings were published in the prestigious journal Nature last July, you’d be hard pressed to find any coverage in Canadian media. Nor would you find an examination of the considerable implications for Canada and Canadians.

In August the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a sweeping report warning that a complete transformation of the world’s food production system is needed to both combat climate change and continue to grow enough food. Even though Canada is one of the world’s biggest food producers, there was little original coverage of the report in traditional Canadian media other than the CBC. What does this mean for Canada? Canadians don’t know because their media isn’t asking the question.

Meanwhile, every Blue Jays baseball game and Canadian NHL game gets detailed coverage by multiple media outlets.

Covering Climate Now: A CJR Commitment to Reporting on Climate Change

This near invisible coverage of climate, science and environmental issues has been the norm in Canada for the last two decades. As a Canadian journalist covering science and the environment, this has meant I have been writing almost exclusively for international media like National Geographic and The Guardian. I’d come home to Canada from covering a major environmental event or climate conference and catch up with friends who’d invariably say, “Never heard a thing about that here.” Some would even say, “It can’t be that important, otherwise we would have heard about it.”

The media tell a society what issues it needs to be aware of, write researchers at the University of Kansas in a new study looking at how media cover climate change. Media also tell the public how to think about those issues based on the framing. Even though climate science is as rock-solid as our understanding of gravity, media in rich countries like Canada have largely framed climate change as a political issue, the study found. Such framing legitimizes reporting the views of those who ignore scientific evidence; someone arguing that gravity is a hoax, however, would never be broadcast.

Even though climate science is as solid as our understanding of gravity, the media have largely framed climate change as a political issue. This legitimizes reporting the views of those who ignore scientific evidence.

Canadian media continue to air the opinions of climate deniers and, as is more often the case today and during the upcoming election, the opinions of those who oppose taking significant steps to reduce carbon emissions. Regrettably, they rarely provide Canadians with the proper context to assess those views: We’ve left acting on climate so late that Canada needs to cut emissions between 50 to 80 per cent by 2030 to keep global warming below 2C. Saying — or more likely screaming — that this is impossible or unrealistic doesn’t change the climate math. It is what it is.

If someone wants to dispute the evidence that we already have enough fossil fuel-using stuff to push global warming beyond 1.5C, they should collect the proof and publish their results in a peer-reviewed journal. Otherwise, they’re just the crazy guy on the corner claiming gravity is a hoax. And yet media do allow those guys — and they’re usually men — on their pages and in their studios.

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All of this matters because “…a public that is unaware of the realities and risks associated with climate change poses a threat to society and planet by undercutting strenuous global efforts to rapidly mitigate threats to the planet’s biosphere,” according to a new study of media coverage of climate change in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Communications. The main recommendation is for media to ignore “climate change contrarians” and focus coverage on “career experts and relevant calls to action.”

That seems unlikely to happen in the Postmedia chain of publications, which includes the National Post, Financial Post, Toronto Sun and dozens of others, amounting to 30 per cent of Canada’s newspapers. Former journalist Kevin Libin, who defamed Canadian climate scientist Andrew Weaver, according to a B.C. Supreme Court ruling in 2015, is now in charge of all political reporting and analysis in Postmedia newspapers. This appointment was made to ensure the newspapers became more “reliably” conservative, the National Observer reports. Unfortunately, “conservative” no longer seems to include views that are pragmatic, fact-based and risk-averse.

There has been a marked increase in climate coverage by other Canadian media over the past year. That looks to continue, with some joining Covering Climate Now, a project co-founded by the Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation aimed at strengthening the media’s focus on the climate crisis. [Disclosure: I’m one of the participating independent journalists]. More than 170 media outlets around the world agreed to intensify their coverage in the lead-up to the United Nations Climate Action Summit in New York on Sept. 23. However, The Toronto Star and Maclean’s are the only traditional Canadian media currently involved.

Basic climate science is simple and unarguable: The more carbon emissions we pump into the atmosphere, the hotter the climate is and the worse the impacts are. Stop adding carbon and the climate will gradually stop getting hotter. Climate change is affecting the lives of every Canadian, but our media have largely failed to convey the extent of the consequences of inaction. Some of these, like the melting of Arctic sea ice and the thawing of permafrost soils, will soon be irreversible.

There’s also been a widespread failure to plainly explain to Canadians the full extent of sweeping changes needed to avoid the most dangerous consequences. Although Canada’s carbon price is still being hotly debated, it is hardly a sweeping change. It’s a bailing bucket on a sinking Titanic: We’ve left taking action so late that bucket would have to be enormous to keep the ship afloat.

There’s been a widespread failure to plainly explain to Canadians the full extent of the sweeping changes needed to avoid the most dangerous consequences of climate change.

The main topic during the federal election should be—must be—how to dramatically and quickly reduce our carbon emissions. Media can facilitate this urgent discussion by explaining the scientific context and asking candidates how they think these compulsory carbon reductions can be made in a fair and effective way.

Perhaps the first question is to ask candidates this election season is what their vision of a low-carbon future looks like. That has to be Canada’s destination — and soon.

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