(LONDON, U.K.) – In recent weeks, wildfires ravaged Algeria, killing at least 90 people. Massive floods have affected thousands in the Central African Republic, Ethiopia and Sudan. Drought is threatening food security in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Madagascar.
But western media has mainly closed its eyes to the catastrophic impact of these extreme climate events caused by global warming.
“The impacts of climate change on local and indigenous people often go unreported or unrecognized by western media. A lot of it has to do with where they live and how climate change impacts them,” Lonnie Thompson, a paleoclimatologist and professor at the Ohio State University, told The Click.
Calamities caused by climate change have killed approximately half a million people in the last two decades, mainly in the world’s poorest countries, according to a January study from the not-for-profit Germanwatch. This study also found that climate change caused approximate damages of $2.5 trillion in the last two decades, mainly in the world’s least developed countries. Despite these sobering statistics, the catastrophic impact of climate change on developing countries hardly gets any media mileage in the west.
“Voices across the majority of the world, especially from the Global South, are not heard,” Nick Simpson, lead author on the Impacts/Adaptation Working Group of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, told The Click.
A March study by MediaMatters, an American not-for-profit media watchdog, found that more than 75% of the climate coverage by major US broadcast TV networks in 2020 concentrated mainly on the impact of climate change in the US. Media in the UK and Europe is equally myopic in covering the effects of climate change on developing countries.
“Western media reports on the impact of climate change on developing nations with a sense of distance,” Ulka Kelkar, director for Climate Program at the World Resources Institute in India, told The Click.
Structural issues, like the lack of English-speaking ability of indigenous populations and the absence of reporters representing major western media outlets, also hinder climate change stories from developing countries. In addition, most western media outlets provide limited space for stories from the developing world.
Sometimes western journalists miss the climate change link to these stories because they fail to understand geopolitical issues affecting these countries. John Kioli, executive director of the Kenyan nonprofit Green Africa Foundation, said that western media often covers pastoral conflicts, in which tribes in northern Kenya dispute lands with access to resources and water, as a governance issue instead of a climate change issue.
Western media also incorrectly assumes that extreme weather events in developing countries will turn ugly because of the lack of good infrastructure and public services.
“This assumption by western media normalizes these extreme weather events in people’s minds, and western media does not problematize them,” Tal Harris, international communications coordinator for Greenpeace in Africa, told The Click.
According to the 2021 IPCC report, the least developed countries, small island nations, and the Arctic are at most risk of being adversely affected by global warming. The report also found that global warming is likely to disproportionately affect disadvantaged and vulnerable populations, indigenous peoples, and local communities dependent on agricultural or coastal livelihood.
Western Media is ethically responsible for the coverage of climate change stories in developing nations
Stories about the climate crisis in remote parts of the world are unlikely to increase viewer ratings, search engine optimization, and advertising revenues for most western media outlets. These stories also lack a personal connection to a typical western reader worrying about his mortgage. Many western readers are not interested in learning that global warming will submerge parts of the remote Marshall Islands by 2035 or that Costa Rica has reinforced a ban on hydrocarbons exploration. Another reason for this disenchantment by western media is the basic human tendency of ‘out of sight, out of mind.’
A study commissioned by the European Parliament in 2007 found that developed nations predominately cause global warming, which disproportionately impacts developing countries.
Developing countries do not have the economic capacity to adapt like wealthier developed nations. Additionally, global warming is a problem that affects the whole planet, and a piecemeal regional solution cannot solve it.
“It is critical that we understand that we as developed nations have sown the seeds for discontent by creating a problem. It is important to cover it, so people understand the global impact,” Andrew Weaver, Professor of climate change policy in the School of Earth and Ocean Sciences at the University of Victoria, Canada, told The Click.
“The historical polluters must be reminded of the plight and the survival of these island nations in the face of a changing climate. Western media can be a significant influencer,” Nilesh Prakash, former Head of Climate Change and International Cooperation for Fiji Government, told The Click.
Western media can also act as a guiding light for developing countries where possible. Rodel Lasco, executive director of the Oscar Lopez Centre for Climate Change in the Philippines, told The Click that “Western media can highlight ways developed nations can assist developing countries in enhancing their climate resilience.”
At the same time, developing nations’ stories can help educate western readers. For example, Bangladesh was among the first countries to ban the use of plastic and polythene bags.
“We can only solve this problem by recognizing that we are all in it together and learning from each other. And the only way to do it is by knowing what others are doing,” said the University of Canada’s Weaver.
Establishing ethical approaches for western media’s coverage of climate change in underserved populations
Western media must cover climate change in developing countries, and their coverage should balance the impacts with stories of innovation and adaptation.
Western journalists should also link climate change and migration more effectively to help audiences understand that the climate crisis is creating a generation of climate refugees. For example, many climate refugees from Micronesia have moved to Portland, Oregon. Similarly, many Guatemalans trying to enter the US or Nigerians trying to enter Europe are escaping famine and drought caused by global warming.
“Western journalists must say that these people are not leaving because they want to be European or Americans. They are leaving because they are starving because climate change has destroyed their traditional ways of living,” Brian Murnane, group business development manager at CarbonAction, a carbon consultancy service based in the UK, told The Click.
Western media also needs to make its coverage of the climate crisis more diverse to make it more equitable and inclusive. The western media needs to give a platform to a more diverse array of experts, universities, and think tanks specializing in climate change. In March, a study by MediaMatters found that most guests featured in significant TV broadcast climate segments in the US in 2020 were predominantly white men. This problem also extends to academic articles on climate change, where studies by western scientists form the crux of the published literature.
“We have got to hear from developing world scientists,” Leo Hickman, Editor of CarbonBrief, a UK-based news website specializing in climate change stories, told The Click. Hickman also thinks that western journalists can get more diverse voices in the climate change discourse by building partnerships with journalists on the ground in developing countries.
The western media should also communicate that one solution to the climate crisis would not always fit all countries. Coverage should reflect the nuances, circumstances, and policy landscapes of different countries.
“We all need to make sure that stories of how climate change is impacting the people living in most remote corners of our planet are told,” said Thompson. It’s imperative that these indigenous people who don’t have voices have someone who speaks for them.”