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Climate experts look to COVID-19 as a model for crisis coverage

Despite the imminent threat of climate change, many people are having a hard time focusing on anything other than coronavirus. Some experts say there are lessons to be learned from what’s working.

The spread of COVID-19 has occupied minds, hearts and headlines for weeks, and for good reason: More than one million people are infected worldwide and at least 56,000 have died. As the death toll continues to climb, some experts are sounding the alarm about another pressing issue that is falling by the wayside: climate change.

“As humans, we are predisposed to focus on the bear that’s coming for us right now instead of the bear that might come for us in the future,” said Katherine Hayhoe , director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University.

Hayhoe and three other climate experts gathered Thursday morning for a virtual conversation with the Society of Environmental Journalists about how the media should approach environmental issues in the midst of a global pandemic. The challenge, all four experts agreed, is not to separate the two crises when communicating with the public, but instead to learn from what’s working.

“It makes complete sense to talk about the climate with the pandemic,” said panelist John Mecklin, editor-in-chief of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.

The Bulletin is known for its “doomsday clock,” a symbolic representation of the likelihood of a man-made global catastrophe. The clock has been maintained by scientists since 1947, but it made headlines in January when it moved to “100 seconds to midnight” — humanity’s closest-ever approach to devastation. Mecklin said the clock’s position is compounded by both climate change and the threat of pandemic.

“When we set the doomsday clock, one of our biggest warnings was that there is an erosion in the international structure for dealing with global threats,” Mecklin said. “There is decay in the nuclear arena, in the climate arena and in the biological arena. We view all these global threats as things that need a similar approach.”

Despite the imminent threat of climate change, both consumers and creators of news are having a hard time focusing on anything other than the virus. Almost all journalists — whether they report on climate, politics, entertainment or even sports — are covering COVID-19 and its impact on their beats. It’s a level of intensity the panelists wished the media would have placed on climate change for at least the last few decades.

“If the media coverage were all climate, all the time, that would create a similar context where a $2.2 trillion dollar bill could rush its way through congress without much discussion or opposition,” said Denis Hayes, board chair emeritus of the Earth Day Network, referencing the historic coronavirus relief bill that passed in the U.S. House on March 27. “But with the climate, it didn’t go that way.”

Hayes also credited Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, for acting as the face of the coronavirus crisis at a moment when science and accurate information are sorely needed. It’s a role former Vice President Al Gore might have filled after winning an Oscar for his climate change documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth,” in 2006, but his position as one of the Democratic Party’s top leaders ended up politicizing an issue that should have been bipartisan. That climate change became linked to the liberal agenda is something Hayes views as a significant setback.

“Within the American culture, there is a need for a personality that people will be able to identify and trust who speaks clearly and doesn't have a personal agenda,” Hayes said. “[Gore] started with a whole tribe against him.”

Still, it’s not a competition. Those who care about the environment can actually learn from how the media, government and general population have responded to COVID-19: daily press briefings, front page coverage and an emphasis on science are all approaches that have been working when it comes to informing the public and working toward “flattening the curve.” The same might work for climate change.

“We need people who can break the silos and translate across the policy realm,” said Alice Hill, senior climate change fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “People who can take the science and put it in terms other people can understand.”

And although it feels like the environment has taken a backseat to the virus, almost all the panelists emphasized that the two issues are, in fact, inextricably linked. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), climate change has allowed disease-carrying insects to spread into larger areas and create new opportunities for epidemics to spread. Similarly, urban sprawl and deforestation have increased the threat of zoonotic diseases.

“Humans have moved much closer to animals, making it much more likely that there would be a morphing of some kind of virus that would be a danger to humans,” Hill said. “This isn’t much of a surprise.”

From an ecological standpoint, the conversation now centers around what will happen when extreme weather events start occurring in 2020. Hill said the outlook for the year includes more hurricane activity, greater heat extremes and increased threats of wildfires, and that it is likely only a matter of time before environmental issues began to overlap with coronavirus.

“There’s an additional [news] hook we may start to see if more tragedies start to befall the U.S. in addition to the pandemic,” she said.

Focusing on what lies ahead also means focusing on the human cost, something that can make coverage of any crisis — climate, pandemic or otherwise — all the more essential.

“One of the things that has been most compelling about the COVID stories has been the human dimension, the faces of people we can identify as victims,” said Hayes. “Somehow that doesn’t get linked to climate. I think there’s a job for reporters to do to connect those dots in a way that hasn’t been done so far.”

Hayhoe concurred.

“What this pandemic has reminded us,” she said, “is that we all want the same things.”