The media frames the climate crisis as hopeless — but that’s because they’re hiding the solutions – Business Insider
- Yes, the climate news is bad, but there’s action to be taken.
- Our hopelessness comes from a media system that doesn’t place the blame on corporations to protect their bottom line.
- We have to change our media diet if we want to feel less hopeless about climate change.
- P.E. Moskowitz is an author, runs Mental Hellth, a newsletter about capitalism and psychology, and is a contributing opinion writer for Insider.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
The climate crisis news is constant: Wildfires start earlier and earlier in the year in California, extreme weather floods places not built to handle extreme weather, the Arctic is melting, and the world keeps getting hotter — all with no sign of stopping. And now the UN has said we can’t avoid many of the worst impacts of global warming, no matter how hard we try.
Given the overwhelming negativity, it makes sense that people are either in denial about the magnitude of the problem, or end up feeling hopeless, defeated, and without recourse. The media spent the last few decades simply convincing people the issue was real. But that war has been won: Only 10% percent of Americans don’t believe in the climate crisis at this point.
Now, we face a new problem: None of us know what to do.
While a large majority of Americans agree we need to act on the climate crisis, no one seems to know exactly what we should do, except push our government to do more. 40% of people who believe in climate change feel “helpless” about it.
But this helplessness is not an inevitable result of the severity of the crisis — severe as it may be. Instead, it’s a conditioned response to a world in which the most powerful politicians and corporations want to cast the issue as too difficult and overly complex. To protect their bottom line, those in power want to obfuscate what should be an obvious truth: We can only stop global warming if we end fossil fuel extraction. And we can only do that through direct action, protest, and political revolt.
In order to hide this truth, the powerful have used the mainstream media to make it seem like the answer to the climate crisis is in small, incremental, largely electoral steps. Mainstream news has made everyday Americans feel like we have no options to impact climate change beyond voting, and that’s given us the illusion there’s nothing else to be done. Until we adjust our media diets and start paying less attention to the everyday, overwhelming destruction, and more attention to the people who are already combating climate change, we’ll keep vacillating between overwhelm and helplessness.
In May, when a series of environmental wins occured back to back, the media reported the news nearly universally as a “bad day for Big Oil.” And while this wasn’t untrue, it also ignored the positive side of the stories, namely that pro-environment and anti-oil activism had worked — the public tide had turned against oil causing shareholder revolts at two major oil companies. One was ordered by the government to drastically reduce emissions.
By centering the oil companies, media outlets failed to show why the companies’ luck had turned, obscuring the work of environmental activists and leaving the impression that climate change is something that happens passively, without human and corporate actors.
As climate journalist Emily Atkin points out in her newsletter, the media prefers this framing mostly because it hides a fact they’re reluctant to admit: “that stabilizing the climate requires an end to oil and gas extraction.” Atkin explains that “describing May 26 as ‘A good day for life on Earth’ means admitting to that fact, and becoming vulnerable to cries of bias from the oil industry and its allies. News outlets don’t want to deal with that, so they simply call it ‘a bad day for Big Oil,’ and let the industry attack those pesky oil-hating climate activists instead.”
This framing extends to nearly every news article produced about climate change and its related disasters. In the thousands of articles written on, say, the California wildfires, the cause of the problem — namely the fact that oil and gas companies, other large corporations, and the US military still exist — is nowhere to be found. Imagine if every story about a wildfire started with: “Due to the inaction of the US government and the unsustainable practices of corporations, California is burning … ”
While this might seem unrealistic, the fact that news stories don’t connect the dots leaves media consumers feeling like climate change is just something that happens — it has no direct cause, and thus, no direct solution.
“Media that doesn’t focus on climate accountability alongside sounding the alarm perpetuates a damaging circle of silence around the root causes of the crisis, which in effect protects those who are profiting from our burning planet, rather than protecting the masses who will pay for their selfishness — and already are,” Britt Wray, a writer and expert on climate-induced dread told me.
This leaves media consumers feeling abandoned and helpless, unsure of where to focus their anger, which then simmers into nihilism.
Shifting the focus
But the problem goes deeper than the omission of blame. Our hopelessness about the climate crisis also comes from having a political theory of change promoted by the media that feels too small and slow to really challenge such a gargantuan issue. We’ve been conditioned to think we should vote every few years, and then politicians will work on issues like global warming, and then we’ll wait to see their impacts.
But we all know this isn’t working — climate change is here, and no political party is working fast enough to stop it or help us adapt to it. But if you go to the homepage of the world’s biggest newspapers and broadcasting companies, the vast majority of stories about challenges to addressing the climate crisis are about electoral politics.
This is not unique to climate: The media’s modus operandi is to uphold our current power structures so that we think radical, swift change is unrealistic. In Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman’s seminal 1988 book “Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of Mass Media,” the authors explained that “free” countries like the US don’t need an official state propaganda system because the commercial, mainstream media acts like one anyway, upholding the needs of those in power.
The media does this for five reasons, what Chomsky and Herman call “filters”, the first two of which are ownership and advertising. We can see these two filters play out regularly: Just a few corporations control the vast majority of the media. While it might be okay to acknowledge the climate crisis in the mainstream news these days, most opinions about global warming that are anti-corporate or anti-capitalist will get left out because they directly implicate the massive corporations that own the media. And the fact that most media is reliant on advertising further constrains opinions — it’s unlikely that companies that advertise big oil companies would call for their abolition, especially when those media companies are producing the ads for big oil themselves.
The corporate ownership of media also encourages a false sense of “unbiasedness”, meaning any criticism of those responsible for climate change by reporters and news outlets leads to charges that they’re too radical or left wing, further constraining climate coverage to only being about the gloom and doom, and not about who is to blame or successful activism against the oil-based economy.
This doesn’t mean that getting information from mainstream media is bad, just that the information produced is incomplete: It will tell us what the problem is in a myopic sense, but it won’t tell us who is to blame, or what can be done beyond voting. When news outlets are owned by large corporations — ones with deep ties to our governmental power structures — they’re not likely to advocate for forms of change that would threaten their bottom line.
If you’re used to consuming a steady diet of mainstream print and broadcast news, it makes sense that you’d become hopeless about the climate emergency. So the first step toward changing that is to change what you read. A quick click over to news sites like It’s Going Down or Unicorn Riot show a much different theory of political change about climate than The New York Times. There’s no mention of electoral politics, President Joe Biden, or diplomatic accords. Instead, the focus is on people who are already doing things — risking their lives and their liberty — to fight climate change and the powerful entities responsible for it.
Of course reading different sorts of stories on the climate isn’t a complete solution to our crisis — we still have to abolish oil companies and drastically reconfigure the extraction-based economy we live in. But changing our media diet gives us a key ingredient to start of those massive changes: hope that transformation is possible, and perhaps even imminent.