Environmental Report: Climate of chaos

Media treatment of climate change ranges from the apocalyptic to the dismissive. Adam Hill reports.

Sir Richard Branson's pledge to plough £1.6bn into alternative energy research; James Murdoch's announcement that Sky has halved its ‘carbon footprint' in the past two years; the successful media tour around Davis Guggenheim's An Inconvenient Truth, starring Al Gore; and Britain's latest heatwave.

All are examples of how climate change - specifically global warming - has become the latest media cause célèbre. Indeed, the mainstream media have never been more interested in environmental subjects.

As with all campaigning issues, PROs are on the front line in a battle of ideas, in which NGOs, government and corporate communicators are competing for share of voice. Their ­mission is to discuss serious environmental topics without sounding apocalyptic, which can be off-putting for those tired of scare stories. They must also ensure that they don't characterise themselves as the ‘tree-hugger' stereotype - people whose concerns do not relate to the real world.

But according to a report published in August by the ­Institute for Public Policy Research, PR people are failing to effectively communicate environmental messages.

The IPPR analysed 600 articles on climate change from UK newspapers, magazines and websites, including those of Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and Stop Climate Chaos. It found that communication around climate change was ‘confusing, contradictory and chaotic', with media given licence to print disaster-movie-style stories to the detriment of seriousclimate-change messages. Worse still, the IPPR concluded that (in part due to PR activity) the media's treatment of environmental stories has become unpredictable.

Words of doom
Take this doom-laden press release from the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), headlined ‘More fires, droughts and floods predicted'. The release flagged up recent research by Climateprediction.net, which predicted that a doubling of carbon ­dioxide levels would lead to temperature ­rises of between 3ºC and 11ºC. But the ­release only mentioned the highest ­figure, leading to headlines such as ‘Global warming is twice as bad as ­previously thought'.

Is this really the best way to present the climate issue? NERC senior press officer Marion O'Sullivan admits that she should have included the other figures. However, she adds that journ­alists nevertheless overhyped the story.

David Eglinton, head of ­ media relations at ExxonMobil, says that the media tend to seek negative angles:  ‘Regrettably, we find there are some who seek to misrepresent us in the ­comments they give to the media.'

So, what is the alternative to alarmist press releases, and how can PROs prevent media from accentuating the negative? Over the next pages, we assess why PR people often struggle to communicate messages around climate change. Media cynicism may be part of the problem - it is certainly cited by most PROs - but communicators need to better make their voices heard.


01.  Financial Times63 (number of articles published over three months),  2.7 (Average fear/hope rating*)
02.  The Independent602.2
.  The Guardian492.2
.  The Times352.3
.  The Daily Telegraph282.4
.  Daily Mirror132.1
.  The Independent on Sunday121.7
.  Daily Mail102.6
.  The Observer93.3
.  Daily Express81.9

Source: Futerra * 5 = wholly positive, 3 = balanced, 1 = wholly negative


Environmental comms agency Futerra's most recent report - ‘Climate Fear vs Climate Hope: Are the UK's national newspapers helping to tackle climate change?' - analysed 320 newspaper stories in autumn 2005. It ranked newspaper reports by what it called a ‘fear/hope index', rating them from one to five for optimism, with five being positive or hopeful, and one being negative or fearful (see table above).

Futerra MD Solitaire Townsend says most stories (59 per cent) focused on the negative effects of climate change, with no mention of solutions. The Sunday broadsheets reported the issue in a more positive light, with The Observer and The Sunday Times scoring above three overall in the fear/hope rating.

The report cited Fiona Harvey, environment correspondent on the Financial Times, as the most prolific and positive of journalists rated - although even her fear/hope rating of 2.7 tends towards the negative.

The Daily Express was in eighth place in the table, with just eight articles in three months. John Ingham, environment editor of the Express, denies his paper is guilty of writing little on climate change and of being negative when it does, citing his own weekly environment column: ‘We've written extensively about global warming. Terrifying people all the time simply isn't a good idea. They give up.'

One worrying trend found by Futerra was that of all the climate change coverage measured in the period, 84 per cent was in the ‘quality' papers, which meant tabloid readers - 47 per cent of the readership in the sample - were seeing only seven per cent of coverage.

The good news is that things have changed, with The Sun, for instance, having a Green Week in September. Townsend says: ‘The Sun gave the film An Inconvenient Truth five stars, and [associate editor] Trevor Kavanagh wrote a piece on how he'd changed his mind on climate change.'

Henry Hicks, a Forum for the Future scholar on sustainable development, says: ‘Even the Page 3 girl was talking about recycling. I think we're really getting somewhere.'


The Institute for Public Policy Research's report - ‘Warm Words: How are we telling the climate story and can we tell it better?' - makes depressing reading for environment PROs. It found that the media's ‘linguistic landscape' was contradictory, that ‘for every argument or perspective on the problem there is a voice declaring its opposite'.

‘One of the big surprises was the extent to which discourse around climate change in Britain is disputed,' says Simon Retallack, head of climate change at the IPPR. ‘The science is clear; the policy makers accept there is a problem. But the message that the public are likely to draw from the media is that no one really knows what's going on because on every subject there's an argument and a counter-argument.'

The report identified several ‘voices' used by the media to report climate-change issues (see below). 

1. ‘British comic nihilism'

Defined as:
An evasive rhetorical repertoire. Its rejection of climate change is whimsical and blithely irresponsible.

Typical example: ‘Rising temperatures mean that Kent will be ripe to support vineyards by 2050' (Daily Telegraph).

Newspapers with this attitude: Telegraph, Times, Evening Standard.

IPPR says: ‘It is a very British repertoire (self-mocking and contrary, dealing with adversity by humour), and a middle-class one. This is important if PR agencies choose to address a middle-class or professional audience.'

2. ‘Settlerdom'

Defined as: Having a ‘what's all the fuss about?' element, rejecting alarmist arguments. This style of reporting invokes a quasi-common-sense approach.

Typical example: ‘The doom-mongers are always coming up with contradictions' (Daily Mail). ‘A massive scam based on flawed computer modelling, bad science and an anti-western ideology… a pack of lies and propaganda' (Melanie Phillips, Daily Mail).

Newspapers with this attitude: Right-wing press including the Mail and Express.

The IPPR says: ‘It rejects and mocks the alarmists by involving common sense on behalf of the "sane" majority. It dismisses climate change as a thing so fantastic that it cannot be true and reflects a refusal to engage in the debate. It is significant because the attitude makes one immune to scientific argument. The task of climate change groups is not to persuade by rational explanation but to develop a new "common sense".'

The journalist's view: John Ingham, environment editor of the Express, says: ‘We're sceptical about scientists claiming to know everything. We're suspicious of government, but most papers are.'

3. ‘Alarmism'

Defined as: Talking about climate change as something that is awesome, terrible, and beyond human control. 

Typical example: ‘We're heading for dodo status' (Dazed and Confused); ‘Freak weather just like in a disaster film' (Daily Express); ‘A world of climate chaos spiralling out of control' (The Independent).

Newspapers with this attitude: The Independent.

The IPPR says: ‘It is the most popular voice, seen across the print, magazine and campaign literature from government comms and environmental groups. The scale of the problem excludes the possibility of the party  talking about real action.

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in