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The news media is missing a big part of the climate crisis story — what you can do.

Sean Holman 19 Sep

Sean Holman covered B.C. politics for 10 years and is now a journalism professor at Mount Royal University in Calgary. He is now writing a book on the history of freedom of information in Canada.

It’s easy to feel hopeless when you tune in to the news media’s coverage of the climate crisis.

Each week it seems there’s a new story about how many millions of people will die and how many thousands of species will go extinct because of global heating. With each story, the world becomes more uncertain and more uncontrollable.

So, instead, we tune out. And that’s because journalists aren’t covering this disaster like they would any other disaster. But there’s something you can do today to help change that.

In a disaster, we want to know what we can do right now to keep ourselves, our families and our communities safe. And journalists usually work hard to meet that need. When western North America was choked by wildfire smoke, reporters reminded the public to “stay indoors.” When the Midwest was flooded by rainstorms, reporters quoted sources who told the public to “move to higher ground.” And when Europe was scorched by extreme heat waves, reporters reminded the public to “drink cold drinks regularly."

What many reporters aren’t doing as regularly is reminding the public about the ways they can reduce the future severity and frequency of such disasters, each of which was fuelled by global heating.

For example, in May an Australian think tank warned the temperature and weather changes caused by that heating could, by 2050, create a world of “‘outright chaos’ on a path to the end of human civilization and modern society as we have known it.”

But few in the media told their traumatized audiences what they could do in their own day-to-day lives to help prevent that frightening future.

Given this lack of information, is it any wonder we feel hopeless? Is it any wonder we wait for someone to do something about the climate crisis? And is it any wonder we think that someone can’t be us?

So what information should reporters be providing to change that? Well, scientists have clearly identified what we, as individuals, can do each day to protect ourselves and our loved ones. We should give up driving our cars. We should give up travelling by plane. And we should give up eating meat.

Because these are three of the things we regularly do that damage our world the most.

It’s true that not everyone may be able to make each of those changes. Some of us, for example, can’t give up driving because we live in a rural community or away from a bus route, while others aren’t well enough to walk, or earn their living driving. Some may also find it difficult to give up eating meat because of a medical condition. And then there are those who can’t give up travelling by plane because it’s part of their job.

But each of us must try, doing everything possible to turn those can’ts into wills.

That’s because, according to a 2017 study, these three things add 4.4 tonnes to your annual greenhouse gas emissions, assuming you go on a single roundtrip transatlantic flight each year.

To put that in perspective, a recently released Institute for Global Environmental Strategies report found that by 2030 we must have reduced our individual annual emissions to less than 2.5 tonnes to keep global heating below 1.5 C.

Just by changing what you eat and how you travel, you can do a lot to keep the world safe. It doesn’t require government action. It doesn’t require industry action. It doesn’t even require new technology. You just have to change your behaviour. That doesn’t mean, though, that government and industry don’t need to act. They do. But these individual changes could have an immense impact.

For example, a team of United States scientists calculated what would happen if every American replaced the beef they ate with beans. In their 2017 study, they found that one food change could likely get the U.S. almost halfway — and perhaps three-quarters of the way — to meeting former president Barack Obama’s 2020 greenhouse gas emissions goal.

Similarly, according to a 2016 Oxford University study, more than a quarter of our greenhouse gas emissions come from our food system. If everyone gave up eating meat, those emissions would plummet 63 per cent by 2050.

Such information doesn’t often make it into stories about the climate emergencies of today and the calamities to come. For example, in an analysis of 449 news outlets in Canada, I found that in the 10 months since the United Nations released its bombshell in October 2018, those organizations have broadcasted or published just 255 unique articles that factually referenced the relationship between eating meat and the climate crisis.

That seems especially low as this period coincided with changes to Canada’s national food guide that recommended consuming less meat, Beyond Meat’s initial public offering, the burning of Brazil’s rainforests to clear land for cattle ranching, a high-profile study stating that our eating habits are the “single largest driver of environmental degradation” and a United Nations report that delivered a similar warning.

Moreover, of those 255 articles in the Canadian Newsstream database, 115 were either columns, editorials or op-eds. In other words, they could be dismissed as someone’s opinion. The remainder were usually news reports about food and nutrition, environmental protests or climate change solutions. Just 16 were news reports about a current or predicted climate disaster that included details on how a dietary change could help forestall future changes to our planet.

So why aren’t reporters being as clear as they could be about the need for such changes in their regular coverage of the climate crisis? Why don’t reporters include a short public service sentence in each of their stories about what we can do to protect ourselves from this disaster, just like the news media often does during other emergencies?

In part, I think it’s because many of the government officials who reporters usually interview at these times of crisis aren’t saying these things. Maybe they worry what would happen to the economy if they did? Maybe they worry what would happen to their own careers if they did?

But most of all they are probably worrying about you. They believe you are so used to your car, air travel and meat that you aren’t willing to give them up. They believe you can’t imagine a future without their convenience, enjoyment or taste. And they believe you won’t make the sacrifices needed for our civilization to survive the climate crisis.

But I don’t think that’s true. I believe you are willing to give up your car. I believe you are willing to give up air travel. And I believe you are willing to give up meat. Because I know the lives of our children and every species we share this world with are more important to you than any of these things. And I believe each of us are willing to sacrifice them to survive.

So here’s what I want you to do today: if government officials aren’t willing to say these things and if journalists won’t either, you need to. You need to take control of the out-of-control disaster that is climate change. You need to add your voice to the coverage of this emergency, whether it’s on social media or around your kitchen table. Because the voice of the people is louder than any government, newspaper or broadcaster. And with that voice you must let the world know what we need to sacrifice to survive. Because if we make this sacrifice together, if we are willing to sacrifice just like the generations that came before us, then future generations may still have a world worth living in.  [Tyee]

Read more: Media, Environment

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