Like any fashion, media trends go in cycles. There are a few reliable basics, such as political scandals and celebrity kiss-and-tells, which can gain air time regardless of current trends, but most stories are at least partly at the whim of what is currently in vogue. Moreover, predicting these media tropes is as thankless a task as trying to work out whether fashions dictate we should be wearing pastels or fluorescents this summer.
This is as true of the environmental sector as it is any other issue, meaning that plenty of legitimate stories can fall by the wayside simply because they lack the right angle and do not fit in with current trends.
The recent history of environmental coverage demonstrates the dominance of these trends and the way in which they help shape the narrative that directly and indirectly impacts green businesses every single day. It is a gross simplification of millions of column inches, but in essence climate change's emergence as a relatively mainstream media trend began with the release of Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth in 2006, providing an invaluable introduction to the scale of the climate change threat. This focus on looming ecological and economic apocalypse, punctuated by occasional more upbeat stories about the development of the low-carbon economy, continued for around three years, providing the backdrop to the 2009 Copenhagen Summit.
Copenhagen and its ignoble failure then gave birth to two more trends: 'Climategate' and the re-emergence of utterly fatuous stories about climate scepticism, and a realisation among environmentalists and editors that with warnings of apocalypse having become ubiquitous, they needed to focus more on the benefits associated with the low-carbon economy.
This shift in focus has delivered substantial dividends. As BusinessGreen has reported over the past few years, support for the low-carbon economy as both a concept and a physical reality has never been stronger. There are plenty of notable exceptions, but as a general rule business and political leaders understand and accept the case for developing a more environmentally sustainable economic model, and are moving at varying paces towards building it.
The numerous polls and research reports demonstrating that green businesses outperform their peers, that renewable energy is being deployed at a faster rate than fossil fuels, that clean tech is the world's top venture capital category, that growth in low-carbon goods and services defied the recession, and that low-carbon technologies will soon be able to compete with conventional alternatives without recourse to subsidy, are becoming self-fulfilling prophecies. This media trend has been a sizable, albeit qualified, success.
And yet the problem with media fashions is that the atmosphere does not care one iota about how we fill the environment pages of our newspapers. While we have (necessarily) comforted ourselves with predictions of a low-carbon economy, the world has continued to pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere at a record rate. There has been plenty of news about the changing climate and the grave nature of the threat presented by rising temperatures, but audiences appear to have become apathetic about the warnings and editors have responded by underplaying climate science stories. This shift in focus may have helped engender enthusiasm for the low-carbon economy, but it has also allowed many politicians and businesses to underestimate, ignore, or attempt to discredit the latest climate science.
However, there are indications that the pendulum may be swinging back again. As governments warm up for what has to be the final meaningful showdown at the UN's climate talks in Durban in December (if substantial agreement is not reached this year the whole process will surely lose what little credibility it has left), economists, green NGOs and the perpetually ignored scientific community are again trying to force world leaders to wake up to the full scale of the climate threat.
The Guardian's exclusive yesterday revealing figures from the International Energy Agency (IEA) that show carbon emissions from energy are soaring once again is part of this pattern, providing a stark reminder that meeting the UN's stated goal of limiting temperature rises to 2C is all but impossible. Today's report from Oxfam demonstrating how climate change could spark a global food crisis is similarly part of this trend. Expect plenty more reports and studies in the coming months stressing how all the science suggests we remain firmly on track to trigger dangerous climatic 'tipping points' around the middle of the century.
The challenge for the media, as well as business and political leaders, is how to balance these urgent doom-laden stories with the continuation of a degree of optimism relating to the development of the low-carbon economy. There has to be a middle ground where we accept the full scale of the threat without succumbing to apocalyptic despair, a point where policies and investments are informed by scientific realities, not a hope-for-the-best aimless optimism.
Finding this point will not be easy, but green businesses can play a crucial role in mapping out a position that refuses to sugar coat the scale of the climate crisis, at the same time trying to engineer a viable solution.
Firstly, any serious business – by which I mean a business that has aspirations that go beyond surviving the next quarter or plans that stretch beyond the next three years – should, as a matter of urgency, undertake a dispassionate climate risk assessment. You would be amazed how few businesses outside of the insurance sector have done this, despite the fact that millions of firms are facing growing climatic threats.
Secondly, step up investment in climate adaptation. We could build a low-carbon economy tomorrow and still face substantial climatic disruption – businesses that recognise this gloomy reality and prepare for it are bound to prosper in the long run.
Thirdly, take the results of your risk assessments and share them with our political leaders. Those politicians that promise action on climate change are far too willing to claim that the response they are engineering is commensurate with the scale of the threat. In all but a handful of admirable cases, this is simply not true and they need to be reminded constantly by businesses and NGOs that their actions are insufficient.
Finally, if you are a genuinely green business, keep doing what you are doing. Green businesses have to be the optimistic cheerleaders for the low-carbon economy, demonstrating at every opportunity that there is a more sustainable alternative to business as usual and the potentially catastrophic path we are on. Leave the doom-mongering to the NGOs – they are far better at it.
It is essential that world leaders go into this December's Durban Summit with absolute conviction that failure is not an option and that the low-carbon economy provides a working alternative to current business models. It is only by mapping out a more nuanced trend for environmental reporting that eschews the predictions of apocalypse or utopia and better balances the competing demands of pessimism and optimism that this can be achieved. Deliver that, and we will really have a fashion worth adopting.
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