How to report on climate change during a pandemic

Apr 7, 2020 in Environmental Reporting

This article is part of our online coverage of reporting on COVID-19. To see more resources, click here

The year 2020 was tipped as a super-year for the environment, one with a packed line-up of key political meetings and developments around biodiversity, climate change and oceans. Now, as political momentum and people’s priorities have shifted to responding to COVID-19, journalists should consider where and how to cover that other existential threat we are facing: the climate crisis. 

Below are some suggestions on climate change reporting angles during a health crisis from Arthur Wyns, a climate change researcher at the World Health Organization (WHO). These can be seen as complementary to tips for journalists provided by IJNet and others.

First, the COVID-19 pandemic is a human tragedy. It should receive the media space it needs and deserves for the foreseeable future

The dramatic emergence and spread of COVID-19 has disrupted lives, communities and businesses worldwide, and has rightfully dominated media coverage. 2020 will go down in history as a year of uncertainty, pain and sadness. All reporting, no matter the subject, should be sensitive to this.

[Read more: Key quotes: Frontline lessons from international news outlets reporting the pandemic with Maria Ressa, Ritu Kapur and Branko Brkic]

Keep in mind, we’re in the age of concurrent crises

We live in an age of intersecting crises. The main cause of the climate crisis is also causing a massive public health threat in air pollution. Meanwhile, the health threat of COVID-19 could prove harder to control in places suffering from water insecurity, exacerbated by climate change.

Inequality, environmental degradation and climate destabilization, surges in populism, conflict, political tensions, economic uncertainty and public health threats: there is a high need for better understanding and increased coverage on how these crises relate, interact and scale. 

We can no longer afford to report on one crisis at a time. We need to move toward covering — and tackling — them together.

Approach the climate crisis as a health crisis

The effects of climate change are increasingly placing pressure on health systems worldwide. Climate-induced disasters, heatwaves, water insecurity and air pollution, for example, are contributing to rising consequences for our health security.

The climate crisis is increasing the prevalence and spread of certain diseases. It is causing a rise in malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea and heat stress. It will lead to billions of dollars in costs to health.

The decisions we make about climate change now and in the years to come will profoundly affect the lifetime health of a child born today. This is why the WHO has made climate change a top institutional priority

In this sense, climate change reporting can be very much aligned with health reporting.

[Read more: How can journalists protect themselves during the COVID-19 pandemic?]

Understand that healthcare is the front line

Health systems are our first line of defense against health security threats, including climate change. The COVID-19 pandemic is making it very clear that our health systems need to be well-resourced, equitable and supported with an equipped workforce if they are to be resilient to shocks. 

Reporting should highlight the human cost of strained and under-resourced healthcare systems when having to respond to crises — whether it is in relation to the current pandemic, the ongoing climate impacts or other stressors.

The COVID-19 crisis shows us the importance of acting early when faced with global risks, and that governments can and should take forceful steps to protect their populations.

Cover the inequality that shines through in every crisis

Poorer regions and population groups are disproportionately vulnerable to COVID-19 due to their unequal access to affordable healthcare. The same is true for climate change. 

The global rise in inequality is very visible in the realm of public health. At least half of the world’s population does not enjoy full coverage for the most basic health services. When crises hit — environmental, health or economic — global inequality is sustained and reinforced, hitting the most vulnerable and marginalized the hardest. 

Report on solutions and remember: Health solutions are often climate solutions

The temporary restrictions most people have had to accept in response to the COVID-19 pandemic could lead to long-term shifts in old behaviors and assumptions, many positive for both health and climate. Even though climate change presents a more gradual long-term health threat, an equally dramatic and sustained shift in economic and social habits will be needed to prevent irreversible damage.

A solutions-oriented approach is extremely valuable when reporting on any crisis: by providing evidence-based reporting on the responses to social problems, anxiety is reduced and a constructive way forward is offered.

Healthcare workers have become the faces and voices of  the current pandemic, often stepping up in leadership roles or effectively voicing public concerns. These trusted figures could be valuable and refreshing spokespeople on the environmental and climate crises, and how they affect our lives and well-being.

Recognize the air pollution side-effects of COVID-19 control measures

Efforts to control the novel coronavirus pandemic have reduced economic activity, leading to temporary and localized improvements in air quality, as several media outlets have covered.

Air pollution is a serious health risk strongly linked to climate change. The same fossil fuels that drive climate change are responsible for two-thirds of air pollution deaths. And, although it threatens us all, children, the elderly, pregnant women and adults with weakened immune systems are the most at risk from polluted air.

However, the short-term reductions of air pollution due to the measures to contain the pandemic are no reason to celebrate. They have come at the cost of human lives and livelihoods, and they will likely be short-lived or even reversed once economies start up again. 

Provide forward-looking coverage of the recovery from COVID-19

When the global community eventually overcomes the COVID-19 pandemic, governments will have the opportunity to rethink how they want their social and economic systems to look like moving forward.

The financial and social support packages many governments are currently designing to resuscitate the global economy can go in two ways: they can either lock in health-damaging fossil fuels for decades to come, thereby reducing our chances of reaching the Paris Agreement goals, or they can speed up the transition to a resilient, zero-carbon, just and healthier future.

Many of these decisions will be made behind closed doors and have consequences for decades to come, and therefore require in-depth and forward-looking media coverage. 

Acknowledge public health as a political catalyst

Now, more than ever, public health has entered the political realm. Health considerations will shape international developments and political choices in 2020. They will also determine the long-term future health impacts from our response to the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change and other threats.

 Arthur Wyns is a climate change researcher at the World Health Organization (WHO). He writes in a personal capacity, his views do not necessarily represent WHO or any of its member states.

Main image CC-licensed by Unsplash via Matthew T Rader.