We’ve woken up to climate change but we’re not tuning in

Programme makers are wary of turning off viewers with climate change. Till Krech

A report from the International Broadcasting Trust has argued that more investment should be made to get environmental issues covered on television.

Environment on TV is based on interviews with people working in the media, including programme commissioners. It offers a rare insight into the state of industry thinking. And feeling in the industry appears to be that issues such as climate change and biodiversity loss may be some of the greatest challenges facing humanity, but they make for programmes that are about as watchable as a pension scheme sales pitch. High levels of environmental concern don’t translate into high viewing figures for programming on these issues: TV commissioners believe we find it dull, dismal and depressing.

Broadcasters told the report’s authors that audiences won’t tune in to programmes tagged as “environmental” but that they sense an obligation to cover them, and that there is a need to invest and take risks in programming of this kind.

The report points to TV shows in a range of areas where viewers do turn up and engage. Hugh’s Fish Fight, in which chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall railed against the damage done by fishing quotas in the European Union, showed how it is possible to punch through to public attention, even with an apparently “dull but worthy” subject.

Frozen Planet also displayed a deft touch. The jaw-dropping images and compelling stories gathered a mass audience. Along the way they would pick up insights into the latest natural science research on environmental change in the polar regions. And careful editorial judgements can allow high-rating shows such as Countryfile and The One Show to tell environment related stories with a sure-footed understanding of audience appetites and aversions.

That said, the report warns that programmes often focus on nature rather than climate change or biodiversity loss and that there is an absence of long-form programming dealing with these subjects head on. This is particularly true of climate change. The report notes the virtual absence of drama programming on a topic of very broad social significance.

Waiting for a Brian

There are a couple of things that need clearing up, however, for environmental research to be better represented in the media. First is to question the way the heavily worked term “scientist” is deployed. The world would be a better place if the media stopped using the word “scientist” as a stand-alone term, and talked instead of “researchers” when they have only room for just one word.

If they have room for two words, why not tell us more about who they are and what they do. It would help build understanding and trust to know that a particular claim is being made by “an environmental economist”, “a soil scientist” or “a climate modeller”.

Quite apart from being accurate, this subtle move would also make more space for environmental research to be just plain interesting. We’ll never see a Brian Cox of environmental change while the research effort is so closely allied in the minds of broadcasters and the public with recycling and energy bills.

Beyond politics?

Some comments from media people in the report seem to imply that it would be better if environmental issues were “beyond politics” and that they become tainted for broadcasters when they become politicised. The truth is, they have always been political. One classic definition of politics is, after all, “access to decisions about resources”.

It is more accurate to say that environmental issues are intrinsically linked to politics, but have never been dominated by one tradition. To suggest that the discourses around environmental change issues have been inherently left-dominated is just bad history. Some of the founding figures of conservation and biodiversity movements rooted their work in references to preservation and the retrieval of a prior order. I don’t know Prince Philip’s precise politics, for example, but I sense that he isn’t “of the left”.

The fact that it is political shouldn’t be an obstacle to broadcasters: it is an opportunity. This is the stuff of good current affairs television.

Embracing the new

The media is not necessarily to blame for the absence of these stories on our televisions. Researchers and policymakers have tended to work with a simplistic model of communications – and NGOs continue to recycle a very narrow emotional and cultural repertoire. Phrases like “the science is finished” and drumbeats-of-fear narratives don’t accurately summarise the issues and appear to have worn people out.

Global environmental change research presents the public and media with difficult new knowledge that cannot be tidily organised into a fixed agenda. Changes in the media could prove to be very significant in telling such layered stories about an interdependent world. Interactions between digital, online and social media, and new media forms – including interactive documentary – will help to communicate something of the huge body of imagination and effort that is going into understanding and acting on environmental change issues.

But it may in any case be a serious mistake to bundle these issues together as “environmental”, “green” or “sustainable”. It feels more accurate, but also more inviting, to think of them as big features of the landscape of the next chapter of the human story.

The environmental research community should work harder to weave these issues into mainstream conversations about our ambitions for ourselves, our communities, our economies, or our species as a whole. The environment then stops being a dull-but-worthy subcategory, attended to by media and viewers with a feeling of guilty obligation rather than excitement. Then there is a chance of seeing that at the heart of these issues are some of the most important questions humans ever ask themselves: What is a good risk? What is a good life? What is “fair”? How can the future be better than the past? Attempts to answer these questions could make very watchable, let alone important, programmes.