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Delayed today, disaster tomorrow

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Jaideep Saraswat & Vidvatta Sharma
Jaideep Saraswat is a Senior Program Manager at a not-for-profit foundation working in the climate change mitigation space. Vidvatta Sharma is an Assistant Communications Manager at a not-for-profit organization working in climate change mitigation space.
 

Global temperatures are on the rise. With the increase in levels of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, we are putting ourselves on the backfoot in the fight against climate change. Climate change is an existential crisis for human beings, and knowing the intricacies of climate change and acting to mitigate it is a civic responsibility expedient upon everyone.

But acting on a cause requires knowledge about the cause. People largely act according to the majoritarian sentiment prevailing at the time. The media is the largest creator of public sentiment. Unless amplified by the media, issues of great public importance stand the threat of being lost in the background noise. Early examples of global warming discussions and negotiations are a fair example of this. 

The first warnings regarding climate change began emerging more than five decades ago in the 1960s when the first reports about the potential threat of fossil-fuel induced global warming started surfacing.[1] In 1965, the report on “Restoring the Quality of Our Environment” by U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Science Advisory Committee warned of the harmful effects of fossil fuel emissions, stating that an increase of atmospheric carbon dioxide could act, much like the glass in a greenhouse, to raise the temperature of the lower air. A report in 1968 by the Stanford Research Institute warned of the negative impacts that warming earth could expose humans to.[2] The call for climate change grew stronger through the 1970s and 1980s, culminating finally in the formation of the IPCC and the bringing out of the decisive First Assessment Report that categorically warned of a growing greenhouse effect and laid out the potential threats of such warming. [3]

A conversation around climate change had clearly begun.

However, the salient feature of this climate change discourse was its relatively closeted nature. The discussions were taking place within a community of scientists and policymakers, largely belonging to the Western world. Moreover, communicating a threat that you cannot perceive is always a difficult proposition. Human psychology is such that it tends to prioritize the challenges that it can materially sense in the near-term. The media cover concerns that are of immediate interest to the public and those that are being discussed by the decision-makers. Climate science is also a complicated subject and as journalists point out, scientists do not communicate about climate change in a jargon-free language, which could make it difficult for them to cover the issue.

Media coverage on climate change in India was almost absent throughout the late 1900s and early 2000s. A backtracking analysis of the media coverage around climate change from 2000- 2015 shows that from 2000 to 2010, there was barely any coverage on climate issues in the national media. A couple of international media sites were carrying stories of how Indians are unaware of climate change which is most likely to affect them. Throughout 2010, India-related climate coverage was large to be seen in international media like BBC, The Economist, The New York Times, Financial Times, etc.

Over the first half of the next decade, climate coverage remained sporadic, picking up pace only after the UNFCCC discussions on climate change in 2015.[4] In May 2015, southern India was also hit by a deadly heatwave that took the lives of nearly 2000 people within a matter of days.[5] This occurrence jolted the national conscience and the media began talking about the impacts of climate change. Voices linking the heatwave to climate change were still tentative, but the idea had taken root. Post the 2015 Paris Agreement, coverage around climate change picked up phenomenally and there was no looking back.

The Coronavirus pandemic has shown us that we need to take action on pressing problems before they grow out of control. Climate change is a far larger problem, and once it truly hits home, reversing the situation will be far more difficult. We need to act continuously on climate change mitigation. But the pandemic has resulted in a lowering of the climate change reportage and as a result, driven the issue out of public minds.

Articles on climate change published in the last 4 years were scraped using the API offered by ‘The New York Times’ at https://developer.nytimes.com/. Following is the visual representation of the data scraped:

The visualisation shows that discourse on climate change has dropped substantially during this pandemic. If we look deeper, we find that the conversation from March to June for the year 2020 is significantly less than in 2019, far below the noise level.

Today the situation in India is akin to the global trend as can be seen in the figure demonstrating coverage on climate change in an important Indian daily below:

With each passing day, we are losing time on survival. It is not the survival of the planet that is at stake, the planet has seen far worse. It is the survival of the human civilization as we know it, which will not be able to absorb the shocks from the changes we are going to see by the end of the century.

Journalism can play a vital role in spurring greater action on climate mitigation. The media came out on the top during the pandemic; their 24*7 coverage kept citizens informed and played a vital role in moulding behaviours around hygiene and self-isolation. The media can positively impact action on climate change, both from governments and citizens. We need even more conversations on the impacts of clean energy and energy security on mitigating climate change. Going forward, the instances of extreme climate events will become the ‘new normal’. More awareness, discourse, and debate on climate change problems and more importantly, solutions, is the need of the hour and it is that which is ultimately our way out of this crisis.



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Jaideep Saraswat & Vidvatta Sharma
Jaideep Saraswat is a Senior Program Manager at a not-for-profit foundation working in the climate change mitigation space. Vidvatta Sharma is an Assistant Communications Manager at a not-for-profit organization working in climate change mitigation space.

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