Analysis

Climate Change: Turning a slow-motion global crisis into a news story

Keith Gladdis

COP26 has put climate change and wider environmental issues at the centre of the UK news agenda.

Keith Gladdis from Engine MHP’s Strategic Media team spoke with Ben Spencer, the Science Editor of the Sunday Times about how clients should navigate the issue.

 

Here are the six key takeaways:

 

Climate change isn’t about emissions, it’s about how it affects people.

Ben says: “Climate change is a very slow news story; it’s happening in slow motion and nothing really changes. That makes it very hard to present as a crisis.

“If I write a story about climate change it’s rarely about an increase in emissions it’s going to be about what it means for people. How we heat our homes, the kind of cars we drive the holidays we take or the food we eat. That’s what people want to read.

To prove the point the best performing story on the Sunday Times website on Sunday 18 April was one Ben penned about the future of gas-fired boilers

 

COP26 isn’t really the story

“This is undoubtedly a big year for climate change, it’s been described as make or break because we really need to see emissions dropping soon. However, COP26 is really a geopolitical story, a diplomatic story about persuading countries to come on board. It’s frankly not the most interesting of events, several thousand diplomats, activists and journalists talking about legal frameworks.

“I was talking to a former UN diplomat last week who said it’s less about there being a big moment at COP26, it’s more about ratcheting up the action, several big countries making pledges. It’s about the totality of what can be achieved rather than in previous summits where it’s been about whether a big agreement can be reached or not.”

 

Journalists are looking for substance.

“There’s a lot of talk about greenwashing and I think some claims companies make are laughable. If a company makes a bold statement on its environmental credentials that’s fine, but I want to know how they’re going to achieve that ambition and how quickly can it be done. There is a lot of scrutiny of these statements.

“It can be very positive if companies like Shell or Exxon Mobil seriously invest in renewables, that’s transformative but we will certainly scrutinise it.”

 

The issue of plastics will return

“The thing about climate change is that it’s very hard for people to actually grasp what it is. It is invisible, no-one can see it. It demands a leap of faith. That’s why an issue such as plastics will make a comeback.

“Plastics in the ocean are tangible, you can see the impact it has on nature.”

 

The political consensus is fragile

“The road to Net Zero have been relatively easy so far. We’ve built wind farms which most people wanted, and closed coal fired power stations which we wanted to do anyway. It’s when things start to affect the consumer that the political unity could fracture.

“It’s not long since Boris Johnson was considered a climate sceptic and David Cameron ordered his team to get rid of all the ‘green crap’. There’s huge potential for political friction, potential for a culture war.”

 

The Sunday Times is looking for ‘solutions based’ stories.

Ben said: “This year has been difficult for so many people and readers are looking for positivity. That’s why we’ve looking to deliver positive, solutions-based journalism.

“Readers know there’s a climate crisis and they want to know what can be done about it. We are looking at the great issues in our society and how science is going to solve them. Even when we are writing a critical story, we are looking for the constructive element.”