‘The biggest reconstruction story since World War II’: Wolfgang Blau on global climate adaptation
A new report, Climate Journalism That Works: Between Knowledge and Impact, commissioned by the European Broadcasting Union, features a Q&A with Wolfgang Blau, Co-founder of the Oxford Climate Journalism Network. This is an edited extract.
Wolfgang Blau is an experienced international media manager. During his time as a visiting fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism in Oxford, he not only studied climate journalism, he also co-founded the Oxford Climate Journalism Network which brings together journalists from all over the world to learn about climate coverage.
In October 2022 the advisory firm Brunswick appointed him as Managing Partner with responsibility for the Climate Hub.
Wolfgang, you spent two years researching how news organisations cover climate change. What struck you most?
What I found most striking was the extent of denial when you confront yourself or others with the severity of the climate crisis. In the past, I thought overcoming denial culminates in one breakthrough moment. I had a somewhat judgmental view of denial, including my own.
I saw it as a weakness or something that needed to be attacked. I suspect this is the reason why so much journalism is so alarming, confrontational, and full of doom: Journalists often feel they have to hammer it home. Then I started reading up on the psychology of denial.
Today, I think it would be better to look at denial with more compassion. It is an integral part of our psyche, in fact, it helps us survive. Denial has many layers and is something that can rarely ever be transformed with shock-and-awe journalism.
What is ideal climate journalism from your experience?
A news organisation’s climate journalism should be as all-pervasive as the consequences of the climate crisis itself are. It should be completely normal to have a paragraph on climate impacts in, let’s say, a sports story or a story about company earnings. Climate desks are important, but they carry the risk of creating a new silo in the newsroom.
There is not a single area of journalism that will not be transformed either directly by climate impacts or by humanity’s efforts to mitigate climate change or adapt to it. Journalism should also translate the issue of climate change into the here and now.
People tend to respond to this better than to very abstract narratives. And overall, journalism about potential solutions needs more context. Currently, the goalposts are often missing. Stories about new carbon capture technologies or a new wind farm are almost pointless if they lack the context of how much capacity will be needed to keep global warming well below two degrees Celsius.
Take the pandemic: Only when we had a small set of metrics did we develop a sense of whether the situation was getting worse or better. This context of the bigger picture is missing in much of climate journalism.
So, is it similar to the digital newsroom? Many newsrooms started out with a very complicated set of metrics to measure success but became aware that the best metrics are those that everyone understands.
Yes, we need simplicity. It is very difficult to find these metrics, but what we need most is proportionality: Where does this story sit in the bigger picture? How much does a supposed solution actually contribute?
To summarise the to-dos: First, free climate journalism from its organisational silo and make it all-pervasive. Second, localise it and bring it into the here and now as much as possible. Third, put it into context.
Are today’s newsrooms up to the challenge?
Many news organisations produce better climate journalism today than they did two years ago, but even the efforts of the best are not yet proportionate to the size of the challenge we are facing. Climate change or whatever you want to call it – the climate crisis, the climate question, the climate emergency, global warming – climate change is a systemic challenge, but most news organisations are still treating it only as a topic.
You can now see news organisations that have built world-class climate desks but then let their business desk cover the fast-fashion giant Shein or the quarterly earnings report of Saudi Aramco as if there was no climate expertise in their newsroom whatsoever. This compartmentalisation no longer makes sense. And this is not about injecting activism or politics into business coverage. It is much rather about better business journalism.
Some newsrooms have now put their best reporters on the climate beat. Canadian broadcaster CBC assigned it to a former war correspondent. Is this a trend?
I have not noticed this as a widespread phenomenon. But you are right, many editors think of climate journalism as crisis reporting. And while it is important to cover extreme weather events, they are still only the breaking news surface of something much more profound and systemic. For instance, there is the aspect of climate adaptation, of anticipating and preempting the effects of climate change that can no longer be preempted or have already happened.
Just in the context of climate adaptation alone, we are looking at the biggest reconstruction story since World War II.
Are our transport infrastructures and cities ready for higher temperatures or rising sea-levels? How are we transitioning the world’s agriculture to crops that are more heat or drought resistant?
There are so many important and interesting stories just on climate adaptation alone that you overlook as an editor when you reduce climate journalism to breaking news and crisis reporting.
With the war going on now, the pandemic still in the news, newsrooms face conflicting pressures.
It seems to be a recurring theme in the history of climate journalism: There is always another crisis that seems more important. Often it doesn’t even need a crisis. All it took for the last IPCC report to be washed out of the news cycle within hours was an actor misbehaving at the Oscars.
It had taken seven years to produce that report.
With the Russian attack on Ukraine, several participants in the Oxford Climate Journalism Network said they could no longer cover climate change but had to help out at the news desk or cover the energy crisis.
This said, energy literacy is a core aspect of climate journalism, and it seems the war in Ukraine has also heightened the world’s awareness for just how integral energy is to our societies and economies. A next phase in this realisation may be that the much-needed shift to renewable energies will come with its own new set of geopolitical dependencies.
Which should be exciting for all those policy strategy reporters… But does everyone in the newsroom need climate literacy?
Yes, you need more general climate literacy in newsrooms, just as news organisations at some point realised that they couldn’t just depend on a few digital specialists but needed to increase everyone’s digital literacy in order to stay relevant as an organisation.
Will knowledge be sufficient to spur action?
You can have a lot of factual knowledge but still not appreciate that the clock is ticking. The locus of the denial has shifted. It has shifted from denying climate science, and specifically that climate change since the pre-industrial age is human-made, to denying how urgent our situation is and how little time we have left to avoid a much more dramatic course of events.
The willingness to embrace the time pressure we are under is part of climate literacy.
Has climate coverage risen to be a C-level topic?
In newsrooms? I doubt it. It has been a somewhat confusing experience for me that in some of my other work I have met the CEOs of very large global companies who had deep knowledge of the climate crisis. I have yet to meet one chief editor with a similar degree of climate knowledge.
In many large news organisations, climate literacy is still where digital literacy was in the late 1990s when chief editors delegated ‘the internet’ to a few experts or had just launched their first digital teams, mostly at a safe distance from their main newsroom.
It is the nature of the climate crisis, though, to move faster than most of us think. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a major news organisation restructure itself around the climate crisis as its organisational axis soon.
This Q&A, which has been shortened, is republished with permission. The full article can be read in the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) News Report 2023, Climate Journalism That Works: Between Knowledge and Impact.