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  • Lara Engel

Fanning the flames of climate doomism: Reigniting hope through the media

Illustrations by Megan Le Brocq

‘Devastating Wildfires’, 'Extreme Temperatures', 'Rising Tides of Doom' — the media is adopting an increasingly apocalyptic tone when reporting the effects of climate change. However, the question remains: is using fear-mongering as a tactic to encourage climate action really that effective, or even counter-productive?

Yes, urgent action is needed to address the pressing climate crisis, and this urgency is communicated through dramatic language to raise public concern and awareness. Yet, exaggerating news stories to capture public attention runs the risk of ‘climate doomism’, a popularised term which refers to the belief that it is too late to act and the future is uncertain. In this article, I argue that the media's illustration of the pressing climate crisis must strike a balance between highlighting the negative consequences of climate change whilst emphasizing that there is still time to act.

To achieve this, it is crucial that a degree of ‘climate optimism’ is imparted onto these reports to bring about a real impact. For example, in the context of wildfires, which has had dramatic news coverage due to its occurrence in several holiday destinations, one could argue that the media can urge people to reduce the number of times they fly to these places. This will help steer away from climate doomism, encourage proactive behaviour and prevent disengagement from climate action. Highlighting individual accountability can lead to pro-environmental behaviour, as it reconnects people with the situation and reduces the sense of detachment. Research has shown that individual behavioural change can help mitigate up to 38% of emissions , stressing the potential impact that encouraging more sustainable lifestyles can have.

However, at present, the BBC’s reports use phrases such as ‘the Earth is in unchartered territory’ which suggests that there is a lack of research and reliable information about its current condition. This creates a sense of uncertainty in society, and makes the problem seem distant and out of control, giving little hope in finding a solution. Having a doomist view of the climate not only results in hopelessness, but also complacency. This creates a dangerously ignorant perspective on the climate crisis if people assume the time for action is past and no effort will make any difference. Evidence for this complacency is portrayed in a random-sample survey of 70,000 European men and women, which found that most citizens are not particularly worried about climate change and, as a result, do not proactively make more sustainable changes to their lifestyles.

I do, however, recognise that attempts have been made to inform the public about new policies and action towards tackling climate change, but it often lacks a gripping storyline. For example, there have been efforts to urge people to get rid of their gas boilers and install heat pumps which are much more energy efficient. This greater efficiency is generally communicated through numbers and scientific language, which is not widely accessible and not very enticing. This may partially explain why the government is falling short of its heat pump installation goal as these types of articles are typically not engaging, and consequently, struggle to drive meaningful change.

So here we are presented with two challenges: firstly, there needs to be more coverage on optimistic stories about climate change, and secondly, these need to be just as enticing to the reader as the reports on environmental disasters. How can this be done? Integration is the answer. Short, punchy statements within climate crisis reports to give the reader hope and autonomy, whilst raising awareness and concern. Headlines should read more like ‘Devastating Wildfires: what can you do?’.

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