19 questions about climate change way more interesting than 'is it happening or not?'

The International Panel on Climate Change has just released a report into how we can avoid warming the Earth above 1.5 degrees celsius. This is the first in a series of reflections on the report and what it means for climate action. After Leo Murray on how no change is not an option, here’s Alice Bell on how our media coverage could step up.


It’s the evening after a massive new report on climate science. Everyone’s really depressed and scared and wondering where to turn next. But at least it’s got people talking about climate change. Maybe this is part of a shift in momentum on the topic, finally. Newsnight are covering it…

… and they have invited climate sceptic Myron Ebell on to discuss it. Of course.

The reasons why broadcasters shouldn’t invite sceptics on shows like these are well rehearsed. Last month, Carbon Brief got hold of some BBC internal guidance on how to report climate change, including a crib sheet noting “Climate change has been a difficult subject for the BBC, and we get coverage of it wrong too often.” This followed a ruling from Ofcom in April which found the Today Programme had breached broadcasting rules by “not sufficiently challenging” Lord Lawson about climate change.

This isn’t a 2018 issue either. Back in 2011, I was working as an academic and played a small part in the BBC Trust review of science coverage, and the issue felt tired then.

We’re told editors continue to keep booking people like Lawson and Ebell because it offers the controversy and drama they need to make an entertaining show. This is such a poor excuse. There are so many more interesting controversies about climate change than (yawn) “is it happening?” Here are just 19 off the top of my head.

  1. How much warmer exactly are we willing to let it get?

  2. How will we power ourselves? If not oil and gas, what?

  3. Why are we banning techs like onshore wind?

  4. Why are we still giving the fossil fuel industry so much money?

  5. Why do we allow people to rent out poorly insulated buildings? (This could make a fab campaign for a newspaper too…)

  6. Who’ll own all this new solar and wind we have build? Will it be big companies, local communities, the national government, local government, or a mix?

  7. Does any serious attempt to tackle climate change really involve smashing capitalism? Who are the right wingers campaigning for action on climate change? Who are the left wingers blocking it?

  8. Who are the people already suffering from the impacts of climate change? How can we best help them?

  9. The headlines say we have 12 years. That’s not very long. Have other societies managed change this fast before?

  10. We’re already at over a degree’s warming - are we prepared to protect ourselves against that?

  11. What are the mental health impacts of climate change?

  12. What’s the link between climate change and violence against women?

  13. What will climate change do to the economy?

  14. Who’s going to tell my mate Steve he has to stop with all that flying?

  15. Do we need to talk about population?

  16. Do we all have to go vegan?

  17. What about those giant space mirrors?

  18. Who holds the power when it comes to the UN’s work on climate change, and why?

  19. What will we do if we don’t manage to change things as fast as the scientists say we need to? Should we just give up?

All this is just the tip of the speedily melting iceberg - there are plenty more if you go digging. We need our media to help us have a decent public debate on these issues. What’s more, these issues are just way more interesting than debating whether it's real.

Questions of whether global warming is happening or not were valid, once upon a time; like in the 1960s, maybe the 1970s and 1980s (though even then, it was getting a bit retro). I know loads of journalists get this, it’s their bosses who need to catch up.

If you’ve been spitting at media coverage of climate change recently, what can you do? You can buy, read, watch, support and listen to the news reporters who do get it, share their work and when you can, pay for it too. You can also write to editors and bodies like Ofcom. The people who run papers and broadcast stations are very responsive to their mailbags. As that new BBC guidance Carbon Brief found last month said: “After a summer of heatwaves, floods and extreme weather, environment stories have become front of mind for our audiences… Younger audiences, in particular, have told us they’d like to see more journalism on the issue.”

Let your media know you want something better.

Alice Bell is director of communications at 10:10 Climate Action.

Photo: Nasa Earth Observatory, the Secrets in Greenland's Ice Sheet, cc.