The unending bleak news on climate change is not breaking through to the public. What might do it?

Anyone following the daily stream of climate-related news these past few years knows one thing: The future looks grim. Sure, the media have a way of making it look especially grim, but let’s be honest, there is increasing alarm regularly expressed in many quarters, from the U.N. Secretary-General to the U.S. Pentagon. All told, the cumulative message conveyed in the media since the mid 2000s can be summed up by the tagline on a Time magazine cover story on global warming: “Be Worried. Be Very Worried.” That was in 2006.


This tenor of media coverage, which projects a climate crisis unfolding before our eyes, has a familiar feel to it. Indeed, before global warming became the “mother of all environmental problems” (as Jon Foley has lamented), reporters routinely spit out the unceasing bad news on biodiversity, endangered species, rain forests, etc. Those stories are still duly reported (though they are now second billing to climate change) and they constitute what science journalist Michele Nijhuis calls the “tragic narrative in environmental journalism.” As Nijhuis noted in another essay:

Environmental journalists often feel married to the tragic narrative. Pollution, extinction, invasion: The stories are endless, and endlessly the same. Our editors see the pattern and bury us in the back pages; our readers see it and abandon us on the subway or in the dentist’s office.

Well, if that’s the case with articles like this one, then perhaps we should expect no less a mind-numbing effect to accrue with the constant drumbeat of gloomy global warming stories.

So instead of being “very worried,” as Time advised six years ago, people seem to be turning off, tuning out.

Kathy Seal, in an article in Miller-McCune, reports that “83 percent of Americans believe the Earth is heating up, according to a recent Reuters/Ipsons poll. Yet most live as though global warming isn’t taking place, even while knowing that it is.”

What gives? Seal reasons that the prospect of global warming is “so horrifying” to readers “that you may feel like clicking away from this article right now.” The piece goes on to discuss various defense mechanisms people employ to avoid thinking about climate change.

Another explanation for the lack of serious, sustained engagement on climate change is offered by Andy Revkin, who has likened public attitudes to “water sloshing in a shallow pan — lots of fluctuations, little depth or commitment (particularly when money is involved).”

Will an unremitting drumbeat of climate catastrophe stories finally force the public to pay closer attention to global warming? Nijhuis suggests it’s time to abandon the “tragic environmental narrative,” if for no other reason than to “startle the reader out of his or her mournful stupor.” She showcases different approaches that can be taken.

If the news on climate change (and other environmental issues) is as worrisome as many in the media report, then perhaps breaking out of the “tragic narrative” is the last, best shot at getting the public’s attention.

Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a New York City-based freelance journalist who writes often about the environment and climate change.