Covering Climate Change in Age of Coronavirus

April 8, 2020

Presenters at an April 2 SEJ webinar on covering the coronavirus and climate change crises (clockwise from top center) are moderator Emily Holden of the Guardian,  Denis Hayes of the Bullitt Foundation, Alice Hill of the Council on Foreign Relations, Katharine Hayhoe of Texas Tech and John Mecklin of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Click to enlarge.

SEJ News: Covering Climate Change in Age of Coronavirus

By Joseph A. Davis

Can news media continue to cover important environmental stories like climate change while the COVID-19 pandemic is dominating the news cycle? The answer from an all-star panel in an April 2 webinar sponsored by the Society of Environmental Journalists — not easily, at least for the moment.

The webinar, moderated by Guardian environment reporter Emily Holden, included panelists Earth Day founder and Bullitt Foundation CEO Denis Hayes, Texas Tech climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe, Council on Foreign Relations Senior Fellow Alice C. Hill and Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Editor-in-Chief John Mecklin.

Most panelists agreed that the current news cycle is dominated by what Mecklin called “all COVID all the time.” That has meant a dramatic lessening of coverage of climate change, in particular, despite there being plenty of climate news to cover.

Tellingly, the night before the webinar it was announced that a key United Nations’ climate summit, its COP26 meeting in Glasgow, had been postponed until 2021 because of the pandemic.


Pandemic, climate change share similarities

While the virus is beating out climate change in the headlines for now by virtue of its perceived immediacy, most panelists seemed to concur that the climate story would eventually return as a focus of news coverage.

Several emphasized the ways in which the pandemic was itself an environmental story.


Both climate change and the pandemic 

involve the need to look ahead and

respond to anticipated catastrophes.


Speakers also pointed out the similarities between the pandemic and climate change. Both involve the need to look ahead and respond (or fail to respond) to anticipated catastrophes with solutions. 

And both topics entail large-scale confusion caused by complex subjects worsened by misinformation and division.

“Climate change is one of the most politically polarized issues in the U.S.,” Hayhoe said. “We are seeing a similar response to the pandemic as well. We are seeing a breakdown along the political spectrum in terms of how we assess risk and how seriously we take this.”

But Hayhoe pointed out that across the political, economic and geographic divides, “When it all comes down to it, what matters is this: the health and the safety of ourselves, our families, our friends, our loved ones, our community. That’s what really matters. That is what is threatened by the pandemic. And that is exactly why we care about climate change, too.”

The problem in both cases, Hayhoe said, was “psychological distance. … It wasn’t something we thought we had to worry about until it was almost too late.”


Warnings left unheeded

Publications like the Bulletin have been writing about pandemics for decades, noted Mecklin. And the publication’s Doomsday Clock has served as a metric and message for warnings about the existential threats to humanity — including both climate change and pandemics. 

“The government’s been warned,” said Mecklin. But the international infrastructure for dealing with global threats has been decaying, he added, and nationalism has made it worse.

Hill agreed that with both threats there has been no lack of warnings. The problem, she argued, was “some kind of failure of imagination.” That, for instance, has left our public health system “very weakened.” 


“We are spending trillions in response

— and pennies in preparation.”

— Alice Hill, Council on Foreign Relations


With both climate and the pandemic, Hill suggested, “We are spending trillions in response — and pennies in preparation.” The federal government since 1964 had spent over $3 trillion on disasters, she added; much of it, others have noted, is arguably related to climate change.

Media coverage plays a role in how people end up thinking about global threats, Hayes argued.

“At least within the American culture,” Hayes said, “there is a need, seemingly, for a personality that people will be able to identify and to trust and to understand, who speaks clearly, doesn’t seem to have a personal agenda … and also to have some solutions. It’s a role that [director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases] Tony Fauci has emerged to play just brilliantly with regard to COVID.”

“With climate, it didn’t go that way,” he said. Among the earliest personalities to emerge, he said, was former Vice President Al Gore, who was “clearly a partisan” and whose movies “focused on disaster, not about solutions.” 

And the solutions to climate, Hayes added, would be harder than just coming up with a vaccine.

Mecklin said he felt one key to better climate coverage is “do clearer journalism about what the actual, visible, happening-now effects of climate are. Sometimes it’s lost to the general public that climate change isn’t something in the future. It’s in a really, really significant way happening now and you can see it here.”

Hayes said, playfully, that it might help if Hayhoe were head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and held a televised press conference every afternoon.

Video is available of the full webinar in both speaker view and gallery view, along with an audio-only version and accompanying chat text.

And for more on covering COVID-19, see:

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheetReporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, as well as compiling SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog column and WatchDog Alert.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 5, No. 14. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

SEJ Publication Types: