For the past few years, news headlines have been crammed with reports of extreme weather events unfolding around the world. Recently, UN climate scientists issued their most urgent warning yet: we have 12 years in which to bring carbon emissions in check or face run-away climate breakdown. But journalists are only now starting to join the dots between the two. Why has South Africa’s media failed in its role to inform us that the planet is burning, when nature has been sending out warning flares for decades? Leonie Joubert asks.
This week, one of South Africa’s leading daily online news websites the ran a story announcing that it was launching a series called ‘Our Burning Planet. It’s a call to action from the newsroom which acknowledges that it’s finally time to start reporting on just how much of a threat climate change is to our country and ‘civilisation’. Its focus will be to look specifically at the overlap between climate change and poor governance. ‘The Earth is on fire,’ the accompanying headline cried, ‘it’s time to start worrying.’
Behind the scenes, a handful of irritated local science journalists muttered amongst themselves that it was about time that mainstream newspapers started paying attention to what we’ve been saying for years is the most important story of the century.
But the Daily Maverick’s announcement did get us thinking again about why it is that the media – one of the most important pillars of a functioning democracy – has failed so badly in its role to educate and activate the voting public, and hold government accountable for how it responds to climate Change. This was a slow burning emergency which has been rolling towards us for decades, but now it’s erupting into very real Flames.
It’s not just the southern African media that’s at fault. The failure seems to be global, and worldwide we’re seeing newsrooms running similarly self-reflective editorials, asking why this issue hasn’t been front-page news for years.
Here are two of the main reasons South African journalists are failing in their role as educators and advocates for a healthy society.
Environmental stories: ‘nice to have’ but not headline news
Climate change issues are seen as an environmental story, and the environmental ‘beat’ is still seen as a nice-to-have rather than headline news.
Most editors think that once their teams have done the important reporting – the politics, the economics, even the sports writing – if they’ve got a bit of unfilled space in the paper or budget for extra copy, then they can pop in an altruistic little environmental piece.
It’s a bit like someone taking care of all their day-to-day responsibilities – running the kids to school, paying the bills, doing the grocery shopping, turning up at work ready for a meeting – and only if they’ve got a bit of spare change in their time budget, they’ll spend a bit of it doing some charity work over the weekend because, you know, we all want to make the world a better place.
Few South African newsrooms have specialist science or environmental reporters. And few are willing to pay skilled freelancers a fair fee to generate these stories. Few newsrooms give climate issues the front page, because they don’t join the dots between a functioning environment, and a healthy society. Without the free services offered by nature, there would be no food, no water, no clean air, no regulated climate. Without a healthy environment, there will be no school runs, no homework, no groceries to buy, or food on the table.
Our schools have failed us
I’ve just run a short climate change training programme with some professional communicators. Even after two days of wrestling with the basic science of climate change, many were still confusing ambient air pollution (the environmental and health problems associated with, for instance, soot and smoke coming from chimneys or car exhaust fumes) with carbon emissions that lead to climate change.
This is basic high school level science and yet these individuals, some of whom had tertiary training, still weren’t seeing the difference even after having it explained several times.
Levels of scientific literacy – in our newsrooms, and in society at large – is cripplingly poor, and this is the failure of our education system. How can we have an active and responsive citizenry, fired up by responsible journalism, if most of us don’t understand how the natural world works, and how our very survival depends on it?
The climate change story isn’t an environmental story. It’s a political story, an economic story, a health story, a development story… it’s even a sports story (several of the Cape Town Cycle Tour races, amongst the country’s biggest cycling events and significant tourism money spinners, have been cancelled, shortened or stopped mid-way in the past few years, because of extreme winds, fires, heatwaves, or rain).
If South Africa hopes to meet its developmental commitments, and steer itself towards a just low-carbon, pro-poor economy, we all need to need to study up on what climate change means for every aspect of this country.