Since March this year, COVID-19 coverage has dominated the news cycle. But the pressing need for pandemic updates has eclipsed another crisis in the making: the climate catastrophe.
Over the past two years, thanks to a string of alarming scientific reports and a wave of global protests, climate change stories have finally gained the visibility they warrant. However, with the COVID-19 outbreak posing an immediate and severe threat to human health worldwide, environmental reporting has taken a back seat.
Unfortunately, complacency to global heating will be one of the many potential negative impacts of COVID-19 – if we don’t urgently get climate change stories back in the headlines. While we must keep our eyes peeled on the humanitarian crisis before us, we can’t risk losing sight of the other existential threat unfolding in the background.
Demanding more climate change news doesn’t downplay the importance of COVID-19 coverage, and it isn’t about pushing a political agenda. It’s about understanding how these two crises impact and compound one another. As long as we don’t see COVID-19 and climate change coverage side by side, we’ll never be able to grasp the full extent of our predicament.
Recent worrying studies
While climate stories have decreased overall, several key pieces did get published during the COVID-19 outbreak, though most slipped through the Internet cracks worryingly fast. One of these was a report on the state of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, which just experienced its third mass bleaching event in five years – a climate changed fuelled phenomenon scientists didn’t expect to see until mid-century.
Then there was the study on the near-record level melting of Greenland’s ice sheets that could be due to unusual conditions not taken into account by the predictive models of the world authority on climate science, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Should these unusual conditions, also observed in 2012, repeat themselves annually, ice sheet melting could be twice as high as predicted.
Equally worrying was a study by University College London published in journal Nature. According to the findings, the world could experience abrupt and catastrophic biodiversity losses as early as 2030.
What these stories have in common – aside from their damning content – is the horrifying conclusion that climate change is happening much faster than predicted. Global heating will likely escalate regardless of the temporary drop in carbon dioxide emissions caused by the COVID-19 outbreak.
Without an immediate switch to green energy, emissions will go up again once countries turn their economies back on. During the financial crisis in 2009, this is exactly what happened; as global output slowed down, emissions dipped slightly, before increasing by a staggering 5.9% the next year. (It goes without saying that no matter what the so-called environmental “wins” might be, a global pandemic is quite possibly the worst conceivable form of climate change mitigation).
Far from helping environmental progress, COVID-19 is more likely to deliver a serious blow to climate action. Environmental activism, which has been an instrumental force in Belgium and abroad for getting climate change in the headlines, will suffer until lockdown measures are lifted, and mass protests can resume.
This makes the need for climate stories all the more pressing. With half of humanity in lockdown, people are spending an unprecedented amount of time reading the news online. Given climate change stories are few and far between, the mounting threat posed by a heating planet is at risk of dissipating from public consciousness.
While certain media outlets are deliberately avoiding covering climate change, the lack of coverage isn’t just down to political and editorial choices. Newsrooms, many of which were already struggling to stay afloat before the COVID-19 outbreak, have taken an additional hit as advertising revenues plummet.
With crippling budgets and staff shortages, editors are allocating all resources towards COVID-19, and understandably so. Not to mention that powerful climate storytelling involves reporting on the ground. With social distancing and travel restrictions in place, many climate stories simply cannot be told.
Climate change is not going to go away
And then there’s another problem – us, the readers. COVID-19 stories are terrifying enough on their own. Subjecting audiences to an additional set of apocalyptic narratives does feel like a lot to ask. But getting readers to stomach the horror of climate change has always been difficult. Unlike COVID-19, climate change is not going to go away; there’s no vaccine or experiential treatment to look forward to.
Yet, we cannot treat climate change as a separate issue that can wait until the pandemic is over. The climate catastrophe is a permanent, intensifying threat that will only compound the severity of any other crisis that emerges alongside it.
A recent report from Bloomberg warned that record high sea temperatures last month could mean a “chaotic year of extreme weather ahead.” In addition to the COVID-19 crisis, we could now expect a major hurricane season in the Atlantic, heightened wildfire risk across Australia and the Amazon, and severe thunderstorms in the US.
Some nations, such as Fiji, Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands, are already experiencing this compound effect. Cyclone Harold swept through the region earlier this month, claiming dozens of lives, and leaving large parts of the population at risk of homelessness, food, water and power shortages.
Despite the grim outlook, there is a way forward. One significant hurdle holding back climate action is powerlessness. The threat is enormous, and nothing short of an act of global mobilisation can help mitigate it. It wasn’t clear if this would ever be possible – until COVID-19 came along.
The global response to the pandemic has been far from perfect. Yet, many countries have acted and adapted quickly, with the government and general public making the kind of changes that seemed unimaginable just a few weeks ago.
If the world can mobilise this way for COVID-19, it can do the same for the climate. But we cannot and will not be willing to do what it takes if we don’t have full visibility over the entire crisis. To do so, we must help journalism stay afloat while ramping up our demands for radically greener policies at a national and EU level. And once we get climate change stories back in the headlines, we must not look or scroll away.