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The Toronto Star

Media Failing on Climate Change Coverage

Climate change may be the story of the century. So why aren’t more news outlets giving it the coverage it deserves?

Guardian newspaper editor Alan Rusbridger is stepping down in June. In March, he wrote an editorial explaining that his only regret in 20 years was not giving climate change the attention it deserved. (Alastair Grant/AP)

More than two dozen news publishers from around the world launched an initiative on May 21 called the Climate Publishers Network, spearheaded by the popular U.K. newspaper The Guardian.

As members of the network, publishers agree to freely share climate change-related news content to raise public awareness of environmental issues in the lead-up to the UN climate change summit in Paris in December.

Montreal's La Presse is a founding member, and the Toronto Star is in the process of signing up, joining a group that includes India Today, The Seattle Times, China Daily and The Sidney Morning Herald in Australia.

It’s a good sign, and hopefully more Canadian news outlets will join the effort. So far, no others have applied.

But even if more do, will it mean climate coverage in Canada will finally get regular, thoughtful treatment as the massive economic, public health, technology and global security story it is?

To be fair, the individual bits are being reported well enough — a newly extinct animal here, a collapsing Antarctic ice sheet there, a new clean technology just around the corner, another oil pipeline protest on Earth Day — but the big picture is still missing, as are sustained, deeply informed efforts to push public policy in the right direction.

What stands in its place is too often a form of cognitive dissonance: tepid recognition that, yes, climate change is real and we need to do something about it, accompanied by a largely uncritical, unsustainable obsession with oil wealth, jobs and growth.

Why does this contradictory position persist? Why do mainstream media outlets in Canada continue to enable political inaction when we need to make tough choices today, not tomorrow?

Consider that it was in 2011 when Fatih Birol, chief economist at the International Energy Agency, warned that the world only had five years to dramatically change direction with regard to building new fossil-fuel infrastructure. Beyond that, “the door will be closed forever” on combating dangerous climate change. “I am very worried,” he said.

This may partially explain why the divestment movement is gathering steam, proving that it’s more than a mere nuisance to the fossil-fuel industry. What started as a student-driven campaign to decarbonize university endowments is having ripple effects throughout the investment community.

Major institutional investors, philanthropic foundations, church organizations and health-care organizations have since announced their commitments to divest from oil and coal stocks — to varying degrees — and the numbers keep growing.

The G20 powers, meanwhile, have launched a joint probe into future spending on fossil-fuel infrastructure and how such investments could pose risks to the global financial system as climate action heats up.

Even the Saudi oil minister recently admitted that his country, the world's largest exporter of crude oil, could phase out its own use of oil by mid-century.

For his part, Pope Francis aims to pile on with the collective guilt of the world’s nearly 1.3 billion Catholics, an effort David Roberts of online news site Vox believes could situate the fight against climate change as a deeply moral issue and “slowly and inexorably drag culture and politics along in its wake.”

That doesn’t mean a return to the stone age. Quite the contrary, clean alternatives abound, and they’re only getting cheaper and better. The public is also becoming more aware and excited. Five years ago, would anyone have cared about a company announcing an energy storage product for the home?

Yet when Elon Musk, founder and chief executive of Tesla Motors, recently announced a new line of slickly designed home and commercial batteries for storing renewable energy, it received the same rock-star reception Steve Jobs used to get when Apple introduced its latest iPhone.

First week sales? About $900 million. Musk called the response “nutty.”

The only major news organization that appears to be painting this big picture for readers — and policy-makers — is the Guardian, led for the past two decades by editor Alan Rusbridger.

Rusbridger is stepping down in June. In March, he wrote an editorial explaining that his only regret in 20 years was not giving climate change the attention it deserved. Since then, under his orders, the newspaper has covered the climate issue every day from every possible angle, giving it front-page play at least once a week.

It’s the kind of (moral?) stand Canadian media have taken on child poverty, mental health, homelessness, privacy rights and institutional racism.

Why not for climate, the story of the century?

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Tyler Hamilton

Tyler Hamilton

Tyler Hamilton is editor-in-chief of Corporate Knights magazine and an adjunct professor of environmental studies at York University in Toronto, Canada.

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