Climate change reporting

Interview with Katherine Richardson

Journalists fail to cover the most important aspects of climate change

Media has failed to cover the most important aspects of climate change, says professor Katherine Richardson. Photo credit: University of Copenhagen
By Lise Brix

Journalists are too focused on issues such as how climate change will affect the economy, polar bears and icebergs, according to Katherine Richardson, a keynote speaker at the 4th European Conference for Science Journalists (ECSJ2017). This “silo thinking” distracts the public from learning about the disruptive impacts of climate change on our society.

“The biggest challenge of the 21st century is the recognition that our global resources are not infinite. It represents a paradigm change in our thinking because we are forced to discuss how to allocate the resources we have left. But you would never know this from reading the news,” says Richardson, who heads up the Sustainability Science Centre at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark.

Our ancestors realised very early in history that, for their own health and prosperity, they would have to manage local natural resources. According to a United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, resources such as water and arable land will become increasingly scarce as global warming takes hold. Today, Richardson says, the management of resources is no longer a local but a global challenge: “It’s no use if one country protects its water and air against pollution, if the neighbouring country is doing nothing.” She adds, “How to deal with this global management of resources is an extremely important discussion and the media needs to realise this.”

Richardson is a member of the Danish Council on Climate Change and a member of the UN scientific panel whose task is to draft the Global Sustainable Development Report for publication in 2019. She compares resource management with balancing a budget and figuring out how to spend the remaining money in the best possible way. One example she gives is atmospheric management.

In 2015, the world’s governments met in Paris and agreed to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Richardson stresses that if we want to reach this goal, there is a clear limit on how much more greenhouse gas humans can emit. “We’ve been using our atmosphere for waste disposal. We’ve used up more than half the space in the atmosphere and we know exactly who filled up the first half. So now the political discussion is all about who has the right to use the other half,” she says.

Moving beyond ‘false balance’ in the media

Richardson believes the way the media focuses on climate change is swaying public opinion and negatively affecting the way politicians choose to address the issue. “When you read the news you get the impression that there’s still a lot of uncertainty among scientists on what causes climate change. This is not true,” says Richardson.

It’s partly because of a phenomenon termed false balance. This is where journalists give equal weight to opposing sides of an argument, even when one view is only held by a small minority. “I’m not saying we should put a gag on anyone,” says Richardson. “But I think the media should reconsider if it’s always necessary to have conflicting views in their stories when there is consensus among the large majority of researchers.”

Despite the media’s failures in covering climate change, Richardson still sees positive new societal movements to address global resource management. She describes the UN Sustainable Development Goals agreed by world governments in 2015 as “a paradigm change in thinking in international politics.”

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals attempt to end poverty and hunger, while combatting climate change and protecting oceans and forests. “For the first time in history we have an international agreement recognising that the planet’s resources are not unlimited,” says Richardson. “The agreement represents a vision of how to allocate the resources we have left. This is a positive change and absolutely relevant to all of us. But we don’t read about it in the news.”