Last weekend’s Mediawatch story by Hayden Donnell – it’s really good, please do make time to read it – zoomed in on a particular paradox of our media at the moment.
Which is: while climate change is the overriding story, anything that makes the tiniest progress towards addressing it – like, say, swapping a handful of parking spaces for bus or bike lanes – is still presented as “controversial”.
Almost as if a global phenomenon that’s set to impact life on Earth with the blunt force of a comet strike (and not just someday, but right now) isn’t also, y’know, a little bit controversial. Hold the front page. Or maybe just page 3.
Earth on track to be unlivable. Story, page 3.
You can’t make this up pic.twitter.com/k4LooD1R8x
— Peter Kalmus (@ClimateHuman) April 10, 2022
We’re lucky to have onto-it journalists who provide consistently smart and engaging climate coverage. Under the guidance of Eloise Gibson, the climate team at Stuff has been doing fantastic work for a couple of years now for The Forever Project – covering the banner headlines and the nitty-gritty, inspiring inventions and interventions, and phenomenally beautiful writing on both the human angle and what nature’s up against.
Other standouts in local climate reporting include Marc Daalder at Newsroom; Simon Wilson and Jamie Morton at the NZ Herald; Rebekah White and the whole NZ Geographic team; and senior free-range observers like Bernard Hickey and Rod Oram and David Slack… and I’m sure I’m missing many others.
Stuff in particular has lifted its broader game in reporting low-carbon policy initiatives without always framing them as “controversial”. The recent Reimagining Wellington series was an encouraging example of this.
But as Hayden Donnell pointed out, we still see both kinds of stories – climate coverage alongside headlines that, intentionally or otherwise, undermine the crucial message.
An example of this whiplash effect can be seen in two recent headlines on Stuff about urban planning: one about the climate impacts of urban sprawl (featuring an image of what not to build), and another about ‘controversial’ plans for intensification (with an image of the more climate-friendly future).
The cognitive dissonance is profound, and feels relentless – but this is an editorial choice that can be changed.
What’s even more disorienting is when you’re reading news “brought to you by” certain industries… about climate change also “brought to you by” certain industries. Especially when you know they’ve known the score for at least half a century, but have chosen to resist, bury and muddy the climate message, before finally conceding which way the wind is blowing at the moment it’s almost too late.
Here’s a recent example that made me wonder how and where this all ends.
Last Monday, the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was the top story on Newshub’s evening news. I watched this news bulletin in real time, the old-fashioned way – on a telly, from my couch, like a 20th C person – mainly to see if the story would make the news at all. It was, frankly, thrilling and encouraging to see it given top billing and such a good, clear, thorough treatment.
Reported by Alexa Cook, the story grounded the words of the IPCC report in a local context and noted that New Zealand has some of the highest emissions in the world per capita. The story began with people and places in Aotearoa already badly affected by extreme weather events. Here’s a transcript:
A beautiful slice of coastline now an absolute mess after floodwaters tore through homes, the marae, and urupā at Anaura Bay ten days ago.
“This is our third flooding event in less than a year.” [Hera Ngata-Gibson of Hinetamatea Marae]
The Tairāwhiti region was hit with three months worth of rain in 24 hours.
“Our homes were in about a foot to two foot of silt, right the way through.” [Ngata-Gibson]
Scientists say it’s because climate change increases moisture in the atmosphere.
“It just makes things worse. It loads the dice towards bigger floods, heavier rainfall.” [Professor James Renwick, climate change scientist]
And warn it’s only going to get worse. The IPCC has found that even if all the carbon-cutting policies that governments had put in place by the end of 2020 were fully implemented, the world would still warm by 3.2 degrees C this century.
“Some government and business leaders are saying one thing and doing another. Simply put, they are lying.” [Antonio Guterres, UN Secretary General]
It’s now or never if we want to limit warming to 1.5 degrees.
“We are on a fast track to climate disaster. Major cities underwater. Unprecedented heat waves. Terrifying storms.” [Guterres]
To avoid this, report authors say there must be rapid, deep and immediate cuts in carbon dioxide emissions. Recommendations include a rapid shift away from fossil fuels towards renewable energy, eating less meat, an increase in electric-powered transport, planting more trees, and creating technology to store fossil fuel emissions and even suck CO2 from the air.
That’s just a snippet – check it out, it’s powerful stuff. Kudos to Alexa Cook and Newshub for excellent news-making: not just reporting in the abstract, but showing us how shit is already getting very real, right where we are.
In the first ad break, a commercial for an SUV roared into view. Here we go again, I thought… and then stopped and paid attention, because I couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing.
Here’s the ad. Do you see what I see??
Here’s what happens in the ad: the driver of a self-styled “cutting edge” vehicle literally slices her way through road safety infrastructure, including a parking barrier and roadside bollards; people’s possessions and clothing; the road surface. As she travels from the city into the country, the car slices through the very elements of nature itself – water, rock – culminating in a vast swathe of coastline being carved off as the car zooms past, crumbling dramatically into the ocean.
It’s all CGI, of course, although it looks to have been filmed in Wellington. (Not, as far as we know, Tairāwhiti.)
The ad isn’t quite bold enough to show the product slicing through actual human beings – that’s probably too much for prime time. It just casually destroys their accessories, their children’s school uniforms (WTF), and the very whenua they live on.
The clue that the ad might actually be serious about selling cars comes at the end, when we come face to face with the driver (a proxy for the company, but also for the customer). As she steps out of the car and notices what she’s done to the coastline, she smiles, a little guiltily, as if to say: Busted! And then she strolls off into the landscape.
Where on earth is she going?
And what’s going on here?
Is this pure poker-faced climate denialism? Or just a massive wink? Could it be a subliminal cry for climate help, crafted by clever (but cornered) ad-biz whiz-kids? (Or did someone watch the Volvo safety ad, and miss the point?)
It doesn’t really matter, because the ad can have it all ways at once – just as the same car company can sponsor climate coverage in one of our major media outlets.
What can we do, as 21st C citizens confronted with a constant juxtaposition of climate coverage with clickbait “controversy” headlines and compelling ads for cars?
We can at least be aware that this is an awkward and unsustainable frame for information we need to be able to trust. We can also see it for the global phenomenon it is, backed by billions of dollars in deeply vested interests.
Every year, for example, auto makers spend an average of $6.5m to run a high-profile ad during the annual Super Bowl broadcast – brilliantly covered by the must-listen podcast, The War on Cars – and according to Time magazine, 2022 was “the year climate change broke through“. One money-no-object ad by General Motors reunites the cast of Austin Powers, with Dr Evil learning he must save the world (with electric cars), in order to destroy it. Yep. Irony is, if not dead, certainly winged.
This pervasive and expensively produced car advertising is part of a pervasive political economy of car dependence that’s proving awfully sticky, even when we know we need to pull ourselves out of it, and fast. Researchers have started calling for curbs on car advertising – or even outright bans. France offers one model, requiring all car advertisements to mention the vehicle’s CO2 emission level, and include mention of alternative transport options like public transport, walking and cycling.
Perhaps one day it will seem as gauche and horrifying to see a car ad pop up in the evening news as it would to see an ad for cigarettes?
Back to the Newshub coverage of the IPCC report. After the initial part of the story, newsreader Mike McRoberts asks: “Are Kiwis getting the message about the seriousness of climate change?” and reporter Alexa Cook responds:
Not all of them, and certainly not all drivers. New figures out today show that Kiwis have been rushing out to buy gas-guzzling vehicles last month before a new fee came into force on Friday under the government’s Clean Cars scheme. More than 21,000 new passenger vehicles were registered last month, that’s the highest ever on record and a 36% increase on March last year.
Now, the top three being sold, they were all utes. However, in at place #4 is the electric Tesla Model 3. So perhaps the message to clean up our act is finally sinking in, for some.
Cars, cars, cars. As Matt noted yesterday, it’s increasingly incomprehensible that e-bikes aren’t part of the government’s clean vehicle policy. Especially when there are already five times as many two-wheeled EVs on the road as the four-wheeled kind – which would suggest that Kiwis are “getting the message” about the more immediately accessible, widely affordable and agile all-ages alternative, even when it’s not as expensively advertised.
The Newshub item finishes – as is traditional for worrying climate stories – with encouraging examples of what individuals can do to help and urging us to “go forth and try”:
- go plant-based
- reduce household energy use
- be more thoughtful about food waste and clothing purchases
- cut down on driving and try other modes of transport.
In the last seconds of the segment, we get a glimpse of a pop-up tactical cycleway.
The smiling rider looks uncannily like the young woman in the prime time ad for the $50,000 car – although she’s slicing nothing and nobody in half. There’s no throbbing soundtrack. No CGI. The bike lane is protected by wooden planters, which add a little greenspace while preserving the integrity of the road surface and the whenua it sits on.
In every sense, this brief moment is the polar opposite of the fancy ad with the “cutting edge” katana-car and the cruelly crumbling coastline. As empowering counter-narratives go… it’s a start.
Are Kiwis getting the message about the seriousness of climate change? And who are we getting it from? Because the good news – perhaps the only good news at this point – is: it’s not too late to do something, which at this point means doing everything. Go forth and try!
Postscript – today in forecast flooding:
Weather warnings are in place for much of the North Island from [Tuesday 12 April] as ex-tropical Cyclone Fili approaches New Zealand – bringing with it heavy rain and severe gales up to 140km/h.
Just two weeks ago the Tairāwhiti Gisborne region was battered with heavy rain and flooding and tomorrow’s weather could see up to 300mm of rainfall in the area over a 27-hour period from 6pm.
MetService said heavy rain could cause streams and rivers to rise rapidly, flooding and slips.”