In the 2009 sci-fi documentary The Age of Stupid, a fictional archivist, played by the late Peter Postlethwaite, looks back on the present from the ruined debris of the future. Through a series of archival news footage of climate impacts in the late 2000s – droughts, hurricanes, floods and heatwaves – Postlethwaite asks, “Why didn’t we save ourselves when we had the chance?” The accumulated footage is intended to convey the overwhelming visual evidence of climate change. What it demands is political action in the present to avert future catastrophe.
Fast forward ten years and the impacts of climate change still permeate mainstream news coverage. While these impacts are more frequent and severe, there remains a sense of distance in the stories of the UK media – fires in the Amazon rainforest, melting sea ice in the Arctic. Catastrophe hovers at a temporal distance too – scientists give us less than 12 years to turn it around.
The UK media shouldn’t just cover the descent into climate breakdown. Where are the stories that explore alternatives to carbon-intensive economies? Without these discussions at the forefront of media and culture, an imagination vacuum will develop around the idea of zero-carbon societies.
Yet change is coming. Media coverage of Greta Thunberg and the youth climate strikes shows the increasing visibility of young people. Often characterised in the news as burdened with climate impacts – while denied a voice and rendered powerless – young people are now seizing hold of the narrative and demanding action from adults in power.
In doing so, they bring the threat of future climate change into the present in ways that require new stories. These stories must bring system change and zero-carbon economies into mainstream media discussions. They must also involve young people writing them. This cultural task is not for the future, it must begin now.
Future media needs present change
Research on young people shows that feelings of despair about climate change increase with adolescence. Young people also tend to avoid news with pessimistic headlines. When they do access news, it’s most often through their smartphone and social media, particularly Instagram and podcasts.
Young people need media stories about climate change that make it relevant to their everyday lives and don’t present their future as a foregone conclusion. Media communication on climate change also needs to challenge everyday social norms about the importance of economic growth at the expense of the environment and the role of individual responsibility in tackling climate change. Providing opportunities for young people to question these dominant narratives in the media could address part of the problem.
“System change not climate change” has become a prominent slogan in the youth climate strikes. The mainstream media should explore how these new systems might work. Reuters found that young people want media that presents their views on climate change and provides context to the problem through visual and graphical storytelling. The media could use these formats to bring them into the debate on the transformational changes needed to create zero-carbon societies.
I’m involved in a collaborative project called System Change Hive, a touring exhibition that starts in October 2019. With a team of young artists, researchers and technology experts, we’re creating art that explores how life in sustainable and socially just systems might look, and what barriers exist to achieving this.
System change is difficult to understand and can feel abstract. Young people need examples that connect their social values and everyday activities to wider socioeconomic systems. Stories that explore how changes to working culture could promote well-being rather than productivity, or that imagine a society in which the values of care trump competition can help make alternative systems seem tangible.
Our research with over 50 young climate activists across Europe explored their motivations. We found that they wanted to be involved in rethinking socioeconomic systems, and are inspired and empowered by working together.
The climate strikes show the power of young people united. The media should support them by providing a platform for their perspectives. Give young people opportunities to produce news and entertainment in which they explore their hopes, fears and aspirations about the future. Ensure that a diversity of young voices are given opportunities to speak.
Without conversations in the media about alternatives futures and systems that actively involve and empower young people, then we all miss out on hearing different ways of being, and living in our world.
This article is part of The Covering Climate Now series
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