Is the media’s stance on climate risk finally shifting?

From the FT to Bloomberg, serious business titles are finally calling on politicians and corporations to deliver more ambitious action on climate change

08 Jan 2013, 09:51

"Another year has passed where the physical signs of climate change came fast and furious, while the political process for dealing with it remained glacial." A New Year lament from Friends of the Earth or Greenpeace? Nope, it is the opening line from a leader in the Financial Times from last week.

The leader went on to run through the litany of extreme weather events that marred 2012, acknowledge that climate scientists are telling us worse is on the way, and conclude that "doubts that weather changes are a serious risk to lives and livelihoods - thus a matter for public policy - are by now theoretical or delusional".

The article came in the same week as that other journal of corporate record, Forbes magazine, argued that Shell's attempts to drill in the Arctic were probably not worth the risk. Sure, this most unreconstructed of business titles criticised draconian environmental regulations and argued that the $5bn invested so far in exploration in the Alaskan Seas would be better spent in safer onshore shale oil projects. But it also notes that in this post BP Gulf-spill world, "the cost of a blowout in the Arctic, far from land, in frigid waters, is incalculable", while acknowledging that "as Shell has shown in spades, the operational risks [of Arctic drilling] are enormous".

Meanwhile, Channel 4 News left its viewers in no doubt that the near record rainfall that was frequented upon 2012 is both linked to climate change and a sign of things to come. And even the bête noire of environmental campaigners, the Daily Mail, has quietly started to acknowledge the link between extreme weather, shifting climates, and the soaring food prices that concern their readers.

All of this follows BusinessWeek's dramatic post-Hurricane Sandy intervention in the US presidential race, which saw the magazine run the headline "It's Global Warning, Stupid" and owner Michael Bloomberg endorse President Obama on the grounds he was the only candidate willing to take serious action on climate change.

A few enlightened swallows do not make a spring, but something that is both inevitable and yet still remarkable finally appears to be happening. As the evidence for manmade climate change and the visible impact it has on societies stacks up respected news organisations that have for too long under-played this slow motion crisis have been forced to report it accurately and with due weight. Moreover, they are beginning to ask why political and corporate leaders have not been more alive to these soaring climate risks.

Are we at some kind of tipping point where the mainstream media sees the error in years of under-powered or just plain inaccurate climate change reporting?

Hardly - not while James Delingpole continues to find a home at the Telegraph for his poisonously nasty and wilfully ignorant diatribes, not while the Spectator runs any statistically meaningless nonsense as long as it supports its anti-wind farm campaigns, not while BBC correspondents (with some admirable exceptions) report on climate change with little of the urgency the issue demands.

But there is clear evidence that the stance of some important titles is shifting. Successful media brands are mirrors as well as a moulds, reflecting their readers' positions at the same time as trying to shape them. No savvy editor wants to run articles dismissing climate science if their readers increasingly regard such views as the work of cranks and vested interests. The evidence of people's eyes mean more and more people accept global climates are changing in worrying ways, and more and more people think mankind has something to do with it.

Business titles are more astute to these audience and market pressures than most and consequently it is titles such as the Financial Times and Blomberg that are now reflecting the way in which their reader base is shifting in favour of urgent action on climate change.

2013 is unlikely to herald a dramatic tipping point in favour of accurate reporting on climate change and green economic issues - for many reporters and editors there is simply too much fun to be had in pandering to the dwindling minority of climate sceptics. But as climate impacts escalate the distance between anti-green media titles and their readers will only widen.

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Previously known as the BusinessGreen Blog, James' Blog features musings, observations and occasional rants from BusinessGreen editor James Murray

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