This article was originally published in "Canada's Map to Sustainability," a special issue of Alternatives Journal (AJ) in partnership with Sustainable Canada Dialogues (SCD). Comments on the AJ website will inform SCD's white paper on how Canada can achieve sustainability later this year.
Even though people pay attention to images of oil-soaked birds in the aftermath of oil spills, researchers know that another, less perceptible, issue is the death of algae from the use of chemical dispersants after these disasters. Although people focus on shifting to hybrid cars to reduce their carbon footprint, researchers show that we also need to think about methane emissions from the global livestock industry.
Though people promote the environmental benefits of digitization in our workplaces and media consumption, researchers remind us that this shift generates massive amounts of e-waste with its own ecological footprint. Despite nearly universal scientific consensus about the harmful impacts of climate change, government and the public keep ignoring it.
Three environmental communication dilemmas help to explain: The scale of environmental issues, difficulties portraying environmental problems and a tendency to individualize problems.
By recognizing how these factors structure media coverage of environmental issues, scientists and academics can strategically work with them as opportunities to play a greater role in public debates.
The first dilemma concerns the way environmental issues cross multiple geographic and conceptual scales, making them difficult for people to understand or act on. Take climate change as an example. Greenhouse gases are produced locally by individual households, drivers and factories, but carbon emissions quickly move from local sites into atmospheric systems and affect communities and ecosystems worldwide. Climate change impacts are most observable in the Arctic and Antarctic, which are out of sight to those producing the damage. Unfortunately, many people don’t pay attention to environmental problems until they are in their own backyards.
Recent examples of this include opposition to “dirty diesel” trains in Toronto, the expansion of the Kinder Morgan pipeline in Burnaby, or the risks posed by the Energy East pipeline for beluga whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
The second dilemma is the difficulty of portraying environmental problems to general audiences. Media privilege stories with dramatic visuals, moments of crisis and issues that appear to have clear causes and effects. However, many environmental issues are complex, difficult to represent and have diffuse causes and consequences. For instance, disasters like the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico provide dramatic imagery of oiled birds and ruined coastlines.
But viewing oil through the lens of catastrophe means that the chronic and mundane impacts of oil extraction on air and water quality go unnoticed. Similarly, focusing on the catastrophic failures of oil extraction reinforces the disconnect between upstream criticisms of oil (e.g., protests against the Alberta oil sands and pipeline projects) and the end users — vehicle drivers and consumers — who depend on oil development.
The last dilemma is that causes and solutions to environmental problems are often framed in individual-level terms, rather than focusing on political and economic structures that promote unsustainable consumption, resource exploitation and waste. In line with an overarching media logic that promotes consumerism, this dilemma focuses on buying new products or individual actions a person can take, but ignores the role of governments and industries that also need to change.
Furthermore, the individualization of environmental issues is often linked to the use of celebrities to communicate environmental issues. When this happens, the environmental issue can become tied to the personality of the celebrity and his or her knowledgeability.
Gone are the days when one can say “environmental issues don’t affect me.”
Therefore, we increasingly need scientists who have done the research to help us successfully navigate these vital issues. We need scientists to communicate in a way that resonates with everyday people. The dilemmas of environmental communication outlined above are well-entrenched in media. However, it is possible to work with these dilemmas and treat them as opportunities, so that the boreal ecologist can go viral on YouTube, the geophysicist can be a regular contributor to the Huffington Post or the social scientist can create the trending podcast on iTunes.
Such translation of science for popular audiences is an important part of the solution to environmental and climate change.
If scientists and academics accept that environmental issues are difficult to portray visually and have complex causal narratives, they can play a major role in translating issues in meaningful ways and helping the general public and policy makers respond to environmental predicaments.
Doing this means that environmental researchers need to move away from the technical language of their disciplines to more common language and analogies. They have to accept that appealing to non-specialists will require linking environmental problems to personal narratives. This will help translate large-scale data into relatable stories that can provoke personal as well as political responses. This will create a gateway to even more sophisticated understandings of the environment.
To succeed at such translation, environmental scientists and academics will have to engage in multiple communication strategies. They cannot assume their research is inherently newsworthy, that academic journals will be read or understood or that their primary audience is other researchers. Instead, environmental researchers can become prominent public intellectuals, embracing new media and opportunities to comment on environmental changes.
This means devoting grant money to non-academic communication; it means partnering with videographers, web designers or gamers. It means rewarding public engagement and not just articles in peer-reviewed journals.
If environmental scientists and academics embrace these dilemmas as strategies for communication, we could have a fuller understanding of environmental changes. By becoming more visible in public communication, environmental scientists and academics can help shift the tone of environmental debates that are currently led by media workers, politicians and activists.
If they did this, perhaps we would be clicking on YouTube videos of algae destroyed by oil spill dispersants, adopt carbon pricing for beef products to reflect their contribution to climate change or think of scientists as celebrities and not just nerds. By serving as public experts, environmental researchers can play an important role in communicating that tomorrow’s problems are sown today, and so are the solutions.
From Dilemmas to Opportunities
Our comparative research on environmental movements and outdoor recreation in British Columbia and Nova Scotia demonstrates how scale and locality affect media attention. In an ongoing conflict, environmentalists and First Nations groups oppose the development of the Jumbo Glacier ski resort in the Purcell Mountains of B.C., due to impacts on grizzly bear and other wildlife habitat, as well as claims about undemocratic decision-making over land-use development.
In another controversy, environmental groups in Nova Scotia opposed off-highway vehicle use in the Tobeatic Wilderness area due to issues of vegetation damage and noise pollution, and their demands were incorporated into the final management plan for the area.
In comparing these cases, we see that local and rural-based environmental groups were most successful in gaining media coverage when their claims were reinforced by urban environmental organizations closer to provincial levers of political power and media attention.
Research on the BP oil spill shows that actual environmental damage was not the main driver of media and political reaction to the disaster or its aftermath.
In an article published in the Canadian Review of Sociology, we find that media coverage primarily focused on how the government, the oil industry and environmentalists reacted to one another.
Over time, news narratives shifted to issues of economic impacts, compensation and recovery, leaving the ongoing environmental harms of the spill and its cleanup at the margins of the story.
Singer Neil Young campaigned to raise awareness about the impacts of bitumen development and First Nations rights in Alberta. While he gained much attention, a lot of the media focus was on him and the appropriateness of his comparison of the oil sands to the aftermath of the bombing of Hiroshima, rather than on environmental issues.
As demonstrated by our research, national news media coverage of climate change in Canada (and in much of the world) peaked in 2007-2008. Much of this coverage was driven by the film An Inconvenient Truth, the release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) fourth assessment report, and the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Al Gore and the IPCC.
The reason An Inconvenient Truth successfully got people talking about climate change was because it used the celebrity of Al Gore to translate climate science in ways that made it feel accessible and personal. Imagine if that celebrity were a scientist instead of a politician – perhaps we would see the environment differently.
Mark C.J. Stoddart is an associate professor of Sociology at Memorial University of Nfld. He received the 2014 Early Investigator Award from the Canadian Sociological Association.
Howard Ramos is a political sociologist at Dalhousie University who investigates the relationships among social movements and NGO advocacy and media coverage.
Image Credit: DaveJDoe CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr