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The IPCC Report on Climate Change: Anxiety and Action

New findings see some improved media coverage. Will audiences panic?

Key points

  • The latest IPCC report on climate change emphasizes both urgency and hope.
  • Will media coverage of the report encourage action or just anxiety?
  • The media coverage we need should focus on what the IPCC produces.

There is abundant research into how climate change’s extreme weather diminishes mental health. Across the decades, study after study have correlated the experience of violent storms with the onset or increase in depression, substance abuse, domestic violence, and post-traumatic stress disorder. This also connects to longer-term, less dramatic tendencies, such as global warming and poor air quality leading to decreased educational attainment.

Source: VladisloveM/Shutterstock

We now see what is termed “climate anxiety.” While it has individual effects, the relevant research clarifies that the means of dealing with it must occur at the bio-social level, not just the individual one. Emotional suffering is caused not only by catastrophic events themselves, but by their disruption of everything from housing to schooling to mass transit.

Children are particularly vulnerable, in terms of their bodily capacities to adjust to changes in temperature, the need for protection from climate-change-denying parents, and because they lack the resources to ameliorate familial exposure.

Two hundred medical journals have just published editorials alerting us to climate change’s past, present, and future impact on public health.

This month will see the world’s nations convening at the UN General Assembly, the Kunming biodiversity summit meeting, and Glasgow’s climate conference. The journals’ editors call on political leaders to understand that human health is imperiled by temperature change: mortality due to heat among people over 65 has increased 50 percent in the last two decades, while a whole host of associated risks accompanies radical climatic transformation, such as renal failure, dermatological malignancy, pregnancy problems, tropical illness, pulmonary and cardiac disease, and mental health difficulties, apart from the malnutrition caused by crop failure.

Their goal is to alert us—potentially making us anxious, and with good reason. This anxiety is generated not through direct experience of the folly of industrial society but rather discursively: people are rightly worried when they learn the science and its lack of articulation to corporate and governmental conduct.

Is there helpful as well as unhelpful anxiety? Anxiety can produce both survival and suffering, achievement and failure, depending on the context.

Consider the reception of the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The Panel is the world’s premier authority on our environmental crisis. For many years, it has offered short and long, complex and clear, provisional and definitive, eviscerating and candid reports on the horror wrought to the Earth by our industrial and political systems.

The IPCC’s sixth assessment of climate change came out this past August, along with an Interactive Atlas of climate change that shows what has happened in your area.

The Panel confirms that unprecedented shifts have occurred, such as rising sea levels, that are irreversible for centuries to come. At the same time, it emphasizes the possibilities for ameliorative action. Cutting carbon dioxide emissions would immediately improve air quality, and could decrease temperature increases in two or three decades’ time.

The upshot is a cause for concern—and a stimulus to act. If we give in to fear or denial and do nothing, the outcome is obvious. Alternatively, our understandable anxiety could lead to action.

Most of us will never open the report. Instead, we’ll learn about it from the venerable, middle-aged, and adolescent media; from print, broadcast, and amateur journalism. So it’s important to see which tone those sources take.

The history is far from encouraging. Sometimes ill-prepared journalists and twitterers are intimidated by technical language. They avoid its findings and warnings or argue that uncertainty militates against action, particularly when there are potentially adverse short-term economic impacts. Meanwhile, reporters frequently take the seductive option of believing that Twitter storms signify public opinion about climate change, despite their lack of random sampling.

Sometimes journalists pretend nothing is going on. Of the fifty largest newspapers across the U.S., 28 failed to mention the 2018 IPCC report at all, even where their homes were in cities heavily affected by climate change.

And coverage on US TV nightly news has plummeted. Corporate broadcast television cut its number of climate stories by 53 percent in 2020 compared to the previous year—down to a combined total of under two hours. Across all news segments, our environmental disaster was allocated a grand 0.4 percent of news time. Producers and bookers struggling for this information to come out are blocked again and again by emerging stories that are deemed more urgent.

Fox News immediately denounced the 2021 IPCC report as an attempt to bypass science in favor of supporting multinational institutions—a political project of world government that pretends to be about scholarly knowledge, but whose desired end is to change the way people think and vote. Its Australian corporate child, Sky News Australia, deemed the IPCC’s work “not a proper scientific document.” Otherwise, these networks largely ignored the report.

But overall, US broadcast and cable news rejected both alarmism and the denial of the outlier Fox to give excellent summaries of the 2021 findings.

In the UK, there was a clear bifurcation in news coverage. Left-liberal and scientifically-inclined business pages highlighted the report; conservative papers tended to play down the impact of climate change, both in terms of tone and by placing stories beyond the headlines.

In general, mainstream reporting of the IPCC has minimized the room for new policies and programs to mitigate the disaster, leading to a sense of helplessness and inevitability among many readers.

The coverage we need should focus on both the certainties and the uncertainties of documents such as the IPCC produces. Such coverage should deal with the highly emotive responses that can be triggered, and offer stories that are as realistic about hope as fear.

A bare majority of US residents understand that there is a near-universal consensus on climate change among scientists. Misled by pulsating pulpits, problematic press conferences, tendentious talk-shows, poisoned political parties, coin-operated think tanks, and intemperate interviewees, 45 percent are unaware of this basic fact. It is a forbidding task to overcome such obfuscation. Inducing some anxiety in its place may be no bad thing.

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