Climate Change Show-and-Tell

There was much media coverage of climate change early in the 2000s, with events like sea ice loss in the Arctic making the headlines. But disaster narratives can only be sustained for so long. Soon after the UN’s Copenhagen talks in 2009, there was a sudden silence, with coverage in 2010 down 70% on the previous year. Fossil fuel lobbyists and others took advantage of the need for constant, instant news to silence the issue.

The People’s Climate March held this September just before the UN climate summit in New York showed how the media treat climate change (and the debates and actions around it) as just a short-term event, even though it was called “an invitation to change everything” and endorsed by more than 1,500 organisations internationally. Marches took place in cities across the world, with New York attracting by far the greatest media attention. The presence of UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon, former US vice-president Al Gore, British primatologist Jane Goodall, French ecology minister Ségolène Royal and (perhaps most importantly) Leonardo DiCaprio guaranteed their interest.

Significantly, small media and digital channels were used extensively, and globally, to mobilise participation. The organisers were expecting 100,000, but some 300-400,000 people came to New York, and reporters called it the “largest climate change protest in history”. The pictures accompanying the reports showed tens of thousands of people occupying Manhattan streets usually packed with cars, buses and taxis. The quotes were epic: DiCaprio stated that climate change “is the most important issue of our time” while Ban Ki-moon warned ominously: “There is no ‘Plan B’ because we do not have ‘Planet B’.”

The problem with all this coverage was that mainstream media focused on the event, the celebrities, size and spectacle, rather than using the coverage to begin (or continue) a deeper discussion of climate change and its consequences. And those in the front lines of the march barely figured in the pictures and video footage — representatives of communities most vulnerable to climate change, labour unions, Hurricane Sandy victims, indigenous groups and advocates for the global poor. The issues raised by the marchers quickly evaporated into the media-sphere, as did the story of the march itself. (Though hailed as historic, how could it compete with IS beheadings and Ebola?)

As Natasha Lennard commented, “These mobilizations can reflect or herald an uptick in street-focused political action. And I hope that is what we will see following Sunday’s climate rally. The majority of the 300,000+ people who attended will have returned home, folded away their homemade tree costumes, and will not return to the streets until the next major call is made to liberal sensibilities. But we should not foreclose the possibility of an exciting political moment emerging, rooted to climate activism and undergirded by anti-capitalism” (1).

‘Slow climate violence’

Rob Nixon reminds us in Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (2) that traditional media ignore “slow climate violence” over periods longer than news cycles. So while there had been plentiful images of New York under water from Hurricane Sandy in 2012, there was little coverage or pictures of victims of the 10-year famine in the Horn of Africa, although both disasters are related to climate change. “Slow violence” gets ignored because of the way news is packaged, and we need “slow media” to ensure that long-term injustices — to people and planet — do not become invisible.

One such route is museums — we could call them “slow media”, like the slow food movement — which can offer spaces and exhibits to stimulate reflection on planetary health: people visit museums at a human pace and might have a greater personal response there to major planetary problems.

Museums are better at the longer term. In the short term, they can host controversial forums, but their galleries, exhibitions and collections are long-term. Their displays must stimulate the imagination of visitors in ways that survive the first moment, invite repeat visits, and enable personal responses.

Museums have to be careful with hot political issues since the life cycle of a permanent gallery is often more than a decade, and even a temporary exhibition has a long lead-time. Only the long-term stories make it to the floor — exactly the stories that the “fast media” won’t touch. But although parameters are changing, there is no way to fix the storyline in a gallery, so the focus has to be on principles and solid research data.

Museums such as the American Museum of Natural History in New York and the Deutsches Museum in Munich have developed exhibitions that exploit “slow media”. The Deutsches Museum — the largest science and technology museum in the world — is opening a major gallery on 4 December, Welcome to the Anthropocene, which will provide an explanation and exploration of the idea of a new geological epoch, in which human activities and fossil fuel use are driving biological and physical changes on a planetary scale. The “Anthropocene” is still a hypothetical epoch, and though the term has been used for more than a decade in technical circles, surveys of museum visitors in 2012 showed it was new to the public. Visitors were curious to learn about it and enthusiastic about a gallery devoted to it.

‘Melt chocolate not polar ice’

So should we resign ourselves to the fact that the media-friendly, tweeted slogans of the People’s Climate March — “May the forest be with you” or “Melt chocolate not polar ice” — quickly dissolved along with participant interest? It is worth considering ways in which the benefits inherent in “slow media” could be absorbed into “fast media”.

There are dangers. Over the past few years, sceptical voices and climate-change deniers — including those who believe in global cooling — have become publicly visible through the media. Such interventions have ruinous effects on public opinion and action on an already complex issue. The online release of emails from climate scientists at the University of East Anglia in the UK turned into a media event, “Climategate”. Although extensive investigations by the university proved the charges mostly baseless, polls showed the event caused many in the US to lose faith in climate change. Polls also showed shifts toward more sceptical positions in the UK.

Journalistic norms of objectivity, impartiality and balance compete with tight deadlines, space, resources and a transmedia environment with multiple platforms, where the same story needs to be published after being quickly and cost-efficiently adapted to each medium. Yet even if the solution to the biggest challenge our global society is facing — climate change and environmental decay — will not come from the media, accurate public understanding of risks and necessary actions is essential. What undermines the social impact of media coverage is that events must be spectacular and de-contextualised; and the sporadic nature of coverage fails to make the seriousness of the issue clear to listeners and viewers.

Popular culture has played a key role in this de-contextualising. Big-budget movies such as The Day After Tomorrow (3) portray global warming and freezing as rapid, cataclysmic events, and sometimes suggest that science can offer a quick solution (which can reinforce the view of environmental deterioration as separate catastrophic events, interspersed with business as usual) or an equilibrium that can be re-instated with magic bullet science. On the other hand, the 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth (4) was a case study in how climate change could be incorporated into mainstream storytelling, and led to a broader social discussion about global warming even among those who had not seen the film. Good documentary filmmaking is long-form — and slow — journalism. It can help. Just as museums can sometimes use mass media techniques to attract a broader public. The key is to meld the best elements of slow and fast media to tell everybody about something that affects us all.

Miyase Christensen is professor of media and communication studies at Stockholm University, guest professor at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology, and visiting senior fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science;.

Libby Robin is professor of environment and society at Australian National University.

Nina Möllers is curator of Rachel Carson Center exhibitions at the Deutsches Museum.


(1) Natasha Lennard, “The People’s Climate March Could Have Been Huge, But It Wasn’t Historic”, Vice News, 23 September 2014.

(2) Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011.

(3) The 2004 American climate fiction-disaster film co-written and directed by Roland Emmerich.

(4) The 2006 Academy Award-winning film and box-office success directed by Davis Guggenheim about former US vice-president Al Gore’s campaign to educate citizens about global warming.

This article appears in the excellent Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.

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