Why the news media thinks our oceans are uncharismatic :(
Happy Earth Day everybody! Today more than ever we remember how beautiful — and how human — our planet is. The essence of nature, I would argue, is only slightly more important than our feelings toward & observations about it. While we have the power to harm our world, we can also recognize its beauty and import — after all, there would be no Earth Day if there weren’t any humans!
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
To hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour…
Thank you for joining me so far on this safari through climate change’s effects on our oceans. We covered the IPCC Report’s conclusions on sea level rise, ocean acidification, coral bleaching, geoengineering, and global overturning circulation. To wrap up this series, I think it would be beneficial to digest some non-scientific articles for a change. My intention is to draw attention to the media’s anti-ocean bias — that is, the way many outlets prefer to discuss the terrestrial consequences of climate change when writing articles for the ‘general public.’ It is only in the Science or Environment sections of these papers where one can find articles about the risks of global warming to marine environments, and even then some articles lack a depth of knowledge. Some organizations have a dedicated staff of science & climate writers, but even these intelligent people overlook ocean science in favor of other topics. In order to determine why, I have designed a little experiment using the Scientific Method:
Question: my initial idea
What has the news coverage of the IPCC’s report been like? And why is oceanography seen as such a niche and marginalized topic?
Research: my sources and their relevance
My resources were the New York Times (NYT), the BBC, the Times of India (TOI), CNN, and the UN itself. I chose the first four organizations because they are within the the top 10 the most-read online news outlets among English speakers worldwide. Instead of choosing the exact top 5, I tried to find popular & reputable sources from different parts of the globe. A lot of outlets are based in — or focus on — the West; it is important when conducting an experiment to have a good amount of diversity in data collection. Also, I wanted to compare these analyses with what the UN said about their own report.
Hypothesis: what I believed
News outlets regularly ignore our oceans because they deem them irrelevant to everyday life. This (for reasons I will explain below) is a gross oversight that hinders our ability to both mitigate and adapt to climate change.
Experiment/Procedure: how I began the experiment
The two time frames I looked at were the day of the report’s release (February 28th, 2022) and the nearly eight weeks since then. The UN’s website served as my control, or the most neutral source of information. During these two months, I read both the report’s Summary as well as six of its chapters that either included or focused on marine science. I also went through information from the indices & annexes provided by the IPCC for each of their chapters and cross-chapters. Surely the ~real~ science journalists did the same?!
Data: what I found
On February 28th, the BBC, TOI, and CNN published 1 article each about the IPCC’s report; NYT, the overachiever, published 2. The articles touched on the main points of the Summary for Policymakers, namely that countries of the world are not doing enough to adapt cities, farms, and coastlines to climate change’s adverse effects. Every outlet quoted UN Secretary General António Guterres who called the report “an atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership” (NYT & BBC); he also noted that any “delay [in adapting] means death… [and] an abdication of leadership is criminal” (TOI). CNN even titled its article “Delay Means Death!” Below are short summaries of the news articles’ main takeaways, as well as any discussion they made of the ocean and/or its problems:
The main NYT article summed up the report for policymakers and highlighted the economic & human cost of climate change. None of the pictures they included were about the deep ocean, but they did feature photos of people wading through flooded streets & walking along a seawall. The other article published on 2/28 had the same conclusions but was less heavy on the data and economics of climate change. It is essentially a summary of the summary and includes statements made by world leaders such as President Biden & Grenada politician Simon Stiell as well as the Red Cross/Crescent & other NGOs. **OCEAN MENTION: Towards the end of the article, NYT writes that “coral reefs, which buffer coastlines against storms and sustain fisheries for millions of people, will face more frequent bleaching from ocean heat waves and decline by 70 to 90 percent. The number of people around the world exposed to severe coastal flooding could increase by more than one-fifth without new protections.” They also say if we were to exceed 3°C warming (we are on track to hit 2-3°C by 2100), sea level rise & associated flooding could cause “four times as much economic damage worldwide as they do today.” They note if average warming passes 1.5°C, “the cost of defending coastal communities against rising seas could exceed what many nations can afford.” Interestingly, the NYT asserts that one reason why SLR is becoming such a huge issue is that many people are moving into coastal towns and cities. Their solution? “As oceans rise, coastal communities could relocate inland while additional development along vulnerable shorelines could be discouraged.” Hmm… not very scientific.
Right away, the only BBC article from February 28th states that 40% of the world’s population is “highly vulnerable to climate change.” They provide context for the IPCC’s findings, noting that this report came out four months after the COP26 conference where representatives met to discuss global warming’s global impacts and brainstorm solutions. The BBC clarifies some key statistics for their readers, such as the current degree of warming (1.1°C) and the ideal limit of said warming (1.5°C). They mention the same key points as the NYT, mainly how the report says that climate change’s impacts “are already going beyond the ability of many people to cope.” They maintain that the report “puts much focus on ‘climate resilient development,’ which it says helps build the strength to cope with climate change in every society.” **OCEAN MENTION: Although they do not depict it, coral bleaching is mentioned towards the middle of the article and is rightfully attributed to “rising temperatures.” A few sentences later, they say that SLR “will increasingly hit coastal settlements, pushing them towards ‘submergence and loss’… under all emissions scenarios.” Towards the article’s end there is a paragraph about the ramifications of temporarily going over 1.5°C, noting that the report has concluded this would be dangerous. This leads into an interesting final discussion of geoengineering, which the report, according to the BBC, characterizes as “disdainful.” (lol)
The Times of India (TOI) by contrast begins by saying 30-50% of the planet needs to be conserved to “ensure future food and freshwater supplies.” TOI maintains that the purpose of the IPCC’s report was “to focus on how nature and societies are being affected and what they can do to adapt,” a point not clarified by BBC or NYT. While the TOI article makes mention of economic incentives for halting emissions and investing in sustainable technologies, they pick up on the same points as the BBC: there are limits to adaptation and “every increment of warming will cause more pain.” The last paragraph of this article discusses the social justice implications of climate mitigation, specifically in the context of our “brief and rapidly closing window” to invest in adaptation measures. **OCEAN MENTION: Disappointingly, their only sentence regarding climate change’s adverse effects on the world’s oceans is about “coastal cities need[ing] plans to keep people safe from storms and rising seas.” They make no suggestions, nor do they attempt a detailed scientific explanation.
CNN compares today’s reality with predictions from the beginning of this century, noting how this report “found that the impacts from human-caused climate change were larger than previously thought.” The report, CNN maintains, is a call to action for leaders “to move toward climate-resilient development.” The most important sentence in the article is “those who contribute the least to the problem are the most affected,” which sums up what TOI was trying to say. After quoting the Secretary General more fully than any of the other articles, it discusses how most of the funding allocated by the world has gone towards mitigation (reducing greenhouse gas emissions) instead of adaptation, as touched on in NYT articles. CNN includes criticism of the global community for focusing on mitigation instead of adaptation yet proceeds to close out their article by falling into the same trap. The last paragraph asserts “we still can avoid the worst” & includes a photo of wind turbines and renewable energy, which is a focus that they just criticized the numerous international financiers and governing bodies about! That being said, they do pick up on the small sentence I discovered in the IPCC’s writings about geoengineering, which details how politicization and misinformation are hindering wealthy (Western) nations from responding adequately to this crisis. **OCEAN MENTION: Their first section about keeping warming low shows a picture of a bleached coral reef, but no further details are provided except for a quote from a scientist who contributed to the report: “for coral reefs, we must say that in many locations, they are already beyond tipping points. They are on the downslide [sic].” Towards the end, CNN mentions the vulnerability of coastal societies and ecosystems, particularly where sea level rise is concerned. They note how the time frame for adaptation measures such as sea walls to be implemented is coming to a close.
Our control, the UN site’s article, begins “according to the report, human-induced climate change is causing dangerous and widespread disruption in nature and affecting billions of lives all over the world, despite efforts to reduce the risks, with people and ecosystems least able to cope being hardest hit.” They note, as did the Secretary General whom they quote, that the COP26 funding agreements reached in Glasgow are not nearly enough to slow the progression of climate change as the 2022 report lays out. The article goes onto discuss extreme weather & the loss of biodiversity as well as how these two phenomena will affect humanity. **OCEAN MENTION: The writers note how conserving 30-50% of freshwater, land, and ocean habitats are vital to protecting our planet, but the article overall emphasizes the necessity of giving nature enough space to adapt, and why we human beings help this happen by “focusing on equity and justice” for communities worldwide.
Since February 28th, TOI has only published 1 article, which concerned the critical need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and did not once mention the ocean. The BBC published 4 articles since about rainforests and the switch to green energy. In two of the articles, they mention that the ocean is a carbon sink – and then move onto the topic of cities being the new frontier for sustainable development. The most interesting BBC article discusses five ways to help avert a climate disaster, one of which is to seriously consider geoengineering…but only discuss atmospheric carbon dioxide removal. The NYT’s 3 successive articles were about what can & should be done, with a short paragraph at the end about geoengineering the oceans. They also published a step-by-step analysis of how countries could reduce global emissions but neglect to mention ocean conservation. Similarly, CNN wrote 3 articles about reducing methane in order to halt warming more abruptly; the “sponginess” of cities aka their ability to manage heavy rainfall and river flooding; and the politics of adaptation, including carbon dioxide removal. Unlike the other news outlets, they include more than one sentence about our oceans(!):
“Another way to achieve [carbon dioxide removal] is ocean fertilization, where nutrients are added to the upper layers of water to encourage plankton blooms, which absorb carbon dioxide from the air. That been proven to work, but the method has not been studied for long enough to understand whether side effects (like toxic algae blooms) may outweigh the benefits.”
For context, the UN has many articles concerning the human and environmental cost of climate change. There honestly were too many to read, but the ones I skimmed did discuss the fate of populations living in coastal areas and on small islands. They also wrote about the upcoming Oceans Conference set to take place in June around World Oceans Day.
Analysis: why my findings are important
So, the media only referenced the ocean in the context of geoengineering, and there was minimal coverage of sea level rise, a topic that once was the face of the ocean conversation. The words “acidification” & “deep water formation” did not appear at all, and if an article mentioned sea level rise it did not attempt to provide more details. This demonstrates a lack of motivation to appropriately discuss our ~sea~ of issues. These news outlets — and to some extent the UN itself — have largely ignored the IPCC’s in-depth analysis of contemporary oceanography and its predictions for 71% of our Earth’s future. I was not surprised to discover that the first batch of articles about the Summary for Policy Makers mostly focused on the human toll of climate change. I was shocked, however, at the absence of any meaningful follow-up publications, for there was plenty of information in the subchapters on oceans, small islands, biodiversity, and polar regions. Instead, organizations wrote about economics, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and generic information about how everyday life will worsen for human beings. It seems that journalists in popular outlets are continuing to ignore ocean science despite its relevance to all people because of a mistaken bias against anything that human beings do not see or encounter ever day. This reminds me of a paper I read while at Oxford by Dr. Jamie Lorimer. It was called “Nonhuman Charisma” and gave three reasons why people do not care about certain kinds of animals (or conservation efforts & environmental phenomena):
Ecological proximity: humans do not engage with the Thing in their everyday lives.
Aesthetic proximity: humans do not believe the Thing to be attractive, beautiful, or enticing.
Corporeal proximity: humans do not see a physical resemblance to themselves in the Thing – aka they are unable to form a kinship with the Thing.
For many of us, the ocean does not visibly manifest itself throughout the course of our days; in short, the ocean lacks ecological proximity. Sure, we may take seaside vacations or go on cruises, but unless a person is lucky enough to live right on the coast or to see the sea outside their windows each morning, the vast waterscape is in large part forgotten. Even residents in large cities like New York & Miami, which are jeopardized by SLR, might connect engine exhaust with air quality instead of acidification. It is impossible for all of us to visualize our waters and our lives as connected not because we choose not to see but because most people reside so close yet so far from the nearest beach. Therefore, it is the job of writers and journalists to bring the beach to us, to place our feet in the waves and explain how their perils are ours, too. The ocean’s problems will get exponentially worse unless we take comprehensive, decisive actions to mitigate and adapt to climate change. However, we will never create the sustainable & environmentally equitable society that the IPCC recommends unless climate change’s impacts on our oceans are fully understood. And the only way to form an ecological affinity with the Atlantic et.al. is to centralize marine science in our conversations about global warming – not in place of air quality & increasing temperatures of course, but right next to them. Essentially, the mainstream media must change their priorities and lead the public instead of reviewing what we already know.
Conclusion: the relevance of my experiment
People write articles about land and freshwater resources because these have a measurable, immediate bearing on our quality of life — we are not denizens of the deep sea, I must admit. Yet in focusing on our familiarities, journalists overlook a crucial responsibility: to educate the public. Sure, it is beneficial to learn more about something you already understand, but this strategy of writing for readers has reached a point of insufficiency. At this point in time, people know we have to reduce emissions, they know that sea level rise will threaten coastal communities & that greenhouse gases make our planet warmer by the hour. They are jaded, or worse: they believe there are no new details, that climate science has reached a point of stagnation. If journalists, writers, and the media as a whole do not introduce new discussion topics (ahem the oceans), how can they expect to enhance engagement? News outlets, while being victims of public opinion, have made no (or very little) effort to correct their perspective. The oceans are important, and they will continue to rise like sea levels in relevance as the decades go by. We humans have a problem of not caring until it’s too late, of not noticing until disaster hits. In order to improve our collective future, we must expand our perspective and include phrases like coral bleaching, ocean acidification, ice melt, and overturning circulation into our vernacular.
The general public’s ignorance of ocean matters is not (in a majority of cases) due to a dearth of information. Since not all of us are physically close to the coast, it is the job of science communicators to increase humanity’s proximity to the ocean. Hopefully before long, our oceans will become more ‘charismatic’ and we will actually move towards comprehensive climate action. But until then, an easy way to “hold [our] world in a grain of sand” is by turning to the Science section of your local paper – or by subscribing to an ocean-focused newsletter like mine. :)
Sources from my experiment:
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