The challenges of news representations of climate change

Hazard Reduction

Although there are still denialists around the world among politicians, common people and even ‘scientists’ who minimize the effects of climate change, nobody less than the United Nations (UN) states it as the defining issue of our era[1]. With a clear impact on the habitability conditions of our planet, dealing with climate change is not just a matter of cutting carbon emissions and other technical actions, but foremost a human rights perspective. With its consequences –floods, droughts, heat… – more severely felt by disenfranchised people and communities, it is not an exaggeration when the former High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, defines climate change as “probably the greatest human rights challenge of the 21st century”[2].

Because climate change is one of the major targets of propaganda campaigns spreading scientifically misleading information, the role of news media is so critical. With the power to establish themes in the public discussion, news media can increase public concern about climate change. Such a commitment to accurate news representation of climate science is defended, for example, by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its sixth report[3]. The document acknowledges the ability of the news media in shaping the public discourse about climate mitigation, emphasizing that this can be very beneficial in building public support to accelerate mitigation actions.

Notwithstanding, climate change remains a difficult news topic to cover and as Robertson[4] emphasizes, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. As is getting near the next edition of the UN Climate Change Conference (COP 27), which will be held in Egypt this year between 6-18 November, we will probably see a lot of coverage of the event in the news media worldwide, as is usual in all editions. Nevertheless, climate change is still a narrow news topic much more linked to the effects than to the causes, even in the non-mainstream media[5].   

Therefore, it seems a welcome initiative that Guardian has joined forces with newsrooms around the world to treat climate change as an emergency issue – the newspaper even started to use the term ‘climate emergency’ rather than ‘climate change’[6]. Although we should be cautious about this kind of stance as the latest Digital News Report (DNR)[7] indicates that “audiences in Latin America, Southern Europe, and several markets in Asia-Pacific are more open to news outlets taking a stand in favour of climate change action (…) On the other hand, pluralities in Northern European, Western European, and North American markets favour impartiality. Respondents in Germany (45%), Norway (44%), and the US (42%) say they would prefer news outlets to reflect a range of views and leave it up to them to decide what to think”[8].

In general, most people consider climate change an extremely or very serious problem as the 2020 edition of DNR demonstrates – 69% of the respondents stated that[9]. Regarding the interest in climate change news though, the latest edition of DNR indicates that this is superior in audiences not so politically polarized and that have already felt the negative effects of extreme weather[10]. For instance, audiences from The United States – currently, a very polarized country – demonstrate the lowest level of interest. On the other hand, audiences in countries like Greece and Portugal, which suffered from severe wildfires in recent years, present high levels of interest.

The effects of climate change are unfairly distributed around the globe – the countries that less contributed to it are the ones most impacted – but climate change is still a global issue. Nevertheless, news media remains privileging the Global North perspective[11]. If conscious journalists and newsrooms want to make a difference and help to promote civic engagement with the issue, is necessary to develop local languages of climate change reporting[12]. A polar bear in melting ice became a common image to represent climate change, but it speaks little to people in Brazil, Portugal, Chile, South Africa…

So, I would like to conclude by sharing this great initiative from the specialized news website Carbon Brief and the Reuters Institute’s Oxford Climate Journalism Network: The Global South Climate Database (https://reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk/global-south-climate-database). Publicly available, this database aims to connect journalists from all over the world with scientists from Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Pacific.


[1] Climate change. (n.d.).  United Nations. https://www.un.org/en/global-issues/climate-change

[2] In-depth Q&A: What is ‘climate justice’? (2021, October 4). Carbon Brief. https://www.carbonbrief.org/in-depth-qa-what-is-climate-justice/

[3] Jäger-Waldau, A. & Sapkota T. (Eds.). (2021). Technical Summary. https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg3/downloads/report/IPCC_AR6_WGIII_TS.pdf

[4] Robertson, C. T. (2022, June 15). How people access and think about climate change news. Reuters Institute. https://reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk/digital-news-report/2022/how-people-access-and-think-about-climate-change-news

[5] Loose, E. B. (2022). Cobertura climática desde o Sul: análise crítica de discursos jornalísticos não hegemônicos. Estudos em Jornalismo e Mídia, 19(1). DOI: http://doi.org/10.5007/1984-6924.2022.e82435

[6] The climate emergency is here. The media needs to act like it. (2021, April 12). The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/apr/12/covering-climate-now-guardian-climate-emergency

[7] Digital News Report is released every year by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and documents the digital news consumption of more than 40 markets. Reports available in: https://reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk/digital-news-report/2022

[8] Robertson, Op. cit., 2022.

[9] Andi, S. (n.d.). How People Access News about Climate Change. Reuters Institute. https://www.digitalnewsreport.org/survey/2020/how-people-access-news-about-climate-change/#fn-11894-1

[10] Robertson, Op. cit., 2022.

[11] Loose, Op. cit., 2022.

[12] Selva, M.  (2021, April 22). Why we need a new local language of climate change reporting. Reuters Institute. https://reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk/news/why-we-need-new-local-language-climate-change-reporting

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