More than 100 years ago, in 1912, a short news piece announcing that global coal use was heating up the planet was printed in the Braidwood Dispatch and Mining Journal, a small New Zealand-based newspaper. The article, entitled “Coal Consumption Affecting Climate”, was the first time the press had suggested that fossil fuels were causing global warming.
In 1958, scientists began to measure atmospheric carbon. Since then, that figure has increased by 101 parts per million (ppm) of CO2 to 416 ppm, just 14 ppm away from the concentration that scientists estimate could lead to catastrophic warming of more than 1.5°C.
Research and data: few and far between
Despite the urgency, articles on climate change or the low-carbon energy transition did not make it onto lists of the most-cited articles of 2022 from reputable scientific journals like Springer or BMJ in Google Scholar’s metric rankings.
Some researchers are digging into the stunted state of reporting on climate change and the energy transition.
Waqas Ejaz, a researcher with Oxford University’s Climate Journalism Network, published work with Reuters in 2022 evaluating climate change journalism across the Brazil, France, Germany, India, Japan, Pakistan, the UK and the US. “We found that generally, people at least in the markets we cover feel quite well-served with the climate change news coverage, which of course is good news for journalists. However, there are additional insights from this work,” he says.
The research found that respondents feel their knowledge of global and local climate policy is limited, and that the media typically does not include these policy details in its coverage. This lack of information can be a hindrance to those seeking to understand the complexities of climate change and the policy solutions being proposed to address it, says Ejaz.
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He points to another finding of concern: young people, who are often seen as the driving force behind the climate change movement, tend to avoid climate change news more than those who are 45 years and older.
“[This presents] a concern because news media is struggling to reach such an audience and this issue is evident both in the South and North,” adds Ejaz.
What concerns Jan Rosenow, Europe director at the non-profit Regulatory Assistance Project, most about covering the energy transition is that its journalism is limited by the availability of relevant data.
"Data availability is often poor when it comes to sectors such as buildings, and data is often published with significant delays," says Rosenow, a regular writer on the energy transition who has amassed large followings on LinkedIn and Twitter.
Rosenow believes that improved energy transition reporting is integral to enhancing understanding of and advancing the transition.
"Too much reporting is driven by short-term issues," he says. "Not enough investigative journalists cover the details of the energy transition." Rosenow would like to see "more holistic and well-researched" reporting on the energy transition, "beyond the current day events".
For Philippa Nuttall, Energy Monitor’s founding editor-in-chief and former environment and sustainability editor at the New Statesman, data is what energy transition journalism does best. Her concern is not the data availability itself – she cites reputable sources such as the International Energy Agency, think tank Ember and the European Energy Poverty Intelligence Unit – but the continued publication of stories that are not based on data.
“[As the field of energy transition journalism progresses] we would ideally see articles and newspapers backed up by data rather than opinions, and [we would no longer see] politicians repeating lobby opinions that are not backed by science," Nuttall explains. "[Ideally] we would start to see the [energy] transition as more of a mainstream issue,” she adds.
Reporting on the energy transition: the fine line between sensationalism and engagement
According to Sean Gallup, chief news photographer at Getty Images, one of the main challenges of reporting on climate change and the energy transition is that the topic is "massive and unpredictable".
"One year might bring floods and the next drought, but you don’t know when something is going to happen or where,” he says. This unpredictability can make it difficult for photographers and journalists to be in the right place at the right time. “When the floods occurred in western Germany in 2021, I was on my first day of summer vacation in the US and scrambling at 5am to help coordinate photographers, coverage and access,” he recalls.
Nevertheless, Nuttall believes that reporting on the energy transition has been given a shot in the arm by one unprecedented event in particular. "Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, energy has become a mainstream subject that most people on various desks need to cover, whether it is business or finance or energy. Sometimes we can see in certain right-wing press in the UK that false, incorrect or misleading information is still published, but I think the general awareness and coverage has improved – and it is much more mainstream now.”
Another challenge for Gallup is the lack of depth he perceives in much of the reporting on climate change. “Climate [disasters] get a whirlwind of coverage, but the contributing circumstances and the recovery of affected areas don’t get the priority they deserve," he says. "What is often lacking is a holistic approach to covering climate change and trying to get a handle on the various factors creating extreme weather occurrences.
"Journalists and photojournalists need to stay on the topic of a certain region and follow through, rather than just wait for the next disaster,” he adds.
There is also a risk of certain stories being sensationalised or even misleading readers. “For example, there is an initiative to cover part of the Rhone glacier in Switzerland with white tarps to reflect away the sun’s rays and slow down melting ice,” he says. “However, the tarps only cover a very small section at the bottom of the glacier, which is actually an ice grotto that has been hewn into the ice every year for decades as a tourist attraction. Yet media reporting suggests that the tarps cover the entire glacier – that would be quite a feat as it is over 7km long!”
Germany's energy transition has been a major focus of Getty Images' recent news coverage and a prime example of Gallup’s struggle to adequately cover climate change and the energy transition. As the world moves away from fossil fuels, photographers must be able to capture the changes and provide context for the viewer. “[However], it can be challenging to produce new imagery, as visuals of open pit coal mines or fields of wind turbines can start to look the same,” he notes.
Developing journalism in developing countries
Climate journalism in the Global North and South is also quite different, notes Ejaz. His recent studies, published in January 2023, looked at the influences journalists feel covering climate change in Pakistan and analysed new coverage of the issue over the last ten years in three leading Pakistani newspapers.
Ejaz says the most substantial and empirically backed up differences between climate change coverage in the Global North and South are, first, a far greater volume of climate change coverage in the North versus the South. Second, climate change remains more contested in the North, triggering more space for climate sceptics. Third, coverage in the North is more adapted to local circumstances. "The reporting includes local scientists, politicians, NGO representatives and other sources," he explains. "Countries from the Global South have a low level of domestication as their climate coverage heavily relies on foreign sources and style of coverage.”
A primary reason for the differences in reporting between North and South is a lack of interest by upper management in newsrooms in the Global South, suggests the researcher. This leads to a lack of resources dedicated to reporting on the energy transition and climate change, and negatively impacts the quality and quantity of the coverage. In contrast, even though in the Global North newsrooms have the resources that the Global South is lacking, they still struggle with their output because audiences aren't engaging with the content.
Overall, reporting on climate change has substantially increased in the North in the last decade, Ejaz says, but "there is [also] more negative valence in climate news"; for example, the space given to climate sceptics. In the South, there has been no substantial growth in climate coverage. "The overall [output] of climate stories in Pakistani and Indian media isn’t close to the global average,” he says. In both North and South, more data-led, holistic reporting could drive the energy transition and climate action forward faster.