This year’s election is focused on the climate crisis and should be covered by journalists accordingly. | Mark Hertsgaard and Kyle Pope
In 2024, there will be a record number of voters participating in national elections, with approximately 4 billion people, which is almost half of the total human population.
The second fact states that the previous year was the warmest ever recorded, and experts caution that the use of fossil fuels such as oil, gas, and coal must be significantly reduced in order to protect the habitability of our planet.
Journalists frequently fail to make connections between different pieces of information.
In 2024, the climate election should take precedence according to ethical journalistic principles. Nations globally are confronted with urgent decisions regarding transitioning away from fossil fuels, updating transportation systems, housing, and agriculture methods to withstand extreme weather conditions, and safeguarding vulnerable populations. It is crucial for reporters to inquire about candidates’ stances on these matters to provide voters with reliable facts and hold elected representatives accountable during the voting process.
Regrettably, this is largely not occurring. Despite the current state of danger we are experiencing – a state that is particularly felt by young individuals as they look towards their futures – media sources worldwide are mostly neglecting the topic of climate change. This only adds to the feeling among young people that journalism is not addressing the issues that matter most to them.
The United States is facing a significant issue as the leading contributor to climate pollution in the world and the second highest annual emitter after China. The nation is already experiencing costly and harmful consequences due to climate change. In January, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that 2023 had the highest number of climate-related disasters in the US, resulting in 492 deaths and at least $92.9 billion in damages. According to scientists, these extreme climate events will only worsen unless human activities, such as emitting carbon and other greenhouse gases, are reduced.
As of now, the media is not giving attention to climate change in the 2024 campaign. Climate-related questions are often given little importance in candidate debates and interviews, regardless of whether it is for the presidential, congressional, or state and local races.
When the topic of climate crisis is discussed, it is often oversimplified as a yes or no question that suggests the science is still uncertain: do you acknowledge or deny the existence of man-made climate change? However, this question was resolved a long time ago; the scientific agreement on the severity of the climate crisis is comparable to that of gravity.
A simple change can be made by asking candidates about their plans to address the urgent climate crisis. This includes inquiring about their strategy to quickly eliminate the use of oil, gas, and coal, as recommended by science. Additionally, journalists can investigate if candidates receive funding from the fossil fuel industry, which is a major contributor to the climate crisis. They can also ask about potential solutions for constituents who are experiencing the devastating effects of extreme heat and other severe weather events.
It is not our belief that political journalists and their editors are purposely hiding the significance of the climate in the election. However, they are accustomed to a traditional style of reporting that has been problematic in campaign coverage for many years. As Margaret Sullivan, Jay Rosen, and other experts have been expressing for quite some time, political reporting remains stuck in an unproductive time period.
Elections are still largely influenced by polls, which receive more coverage than necessary. This is because reporting on polls is convenient, fast, and aligns with the news cycle. The media’s obsession with covering campaign strategies, commonly known as the “horserace,” remains a popular topic for campaign reporters but holds little relevance for most voters. Furthermore, a lack of discernment among journalists leads to giving a platform to the loudest and most provocative voices, regardless of their relevance to voters’ concerns.
We think that increased and improved coverage of the climate crisis could potentially address the issue of media’s focus on campaigns. Globally, significant majorities of the population express worry about the climate crisis. In the United States, 56% of individuals surveyed are either “concerned” or “alarmed” by it. If a candidate were to win an election with 56% of the votes, political journalists would consider it a landslide victory. However, this widespread public opinion is not being represented in television news or social media updates.
The issue of climate change is a compelling narrative that holds significance and offers potential resolutions while also providing intense moments. Let’s view it as an opportunity to approach political coverage in a unique manner during this crucial election period.
At Covering Climate Now, the global collaboration of 500-plus news outlets we co-founded in 2019, our partners are doing their part. This week, CCNow is launching The Climate Elections project, a non-partisan series of efforts aimed at helping journalists and newsrooms center climate crisis in their 2024 elections coverage.
We want journalists worldwide, particularly those covering campaigns and politics, to include the issue of climate change in their coverage of this year’s numerous elections, both local and national. We hope they will remind their audiences that, in addition to other important matters, the fate of the planet is also being decided at the ballot box.
The Climate Elections project kicks off with a weekly newsletter aimed at helping reporters incorporate climate, where appropriate, into their campaign coverage. Called Climate on the Ballot, the newsletter will highlight a new topic every week and suggest ways to make the climate connection to campaign coverage.
This week’s focus is on a potentially unexpected revelation for political journalists and editors: the majority of the American population desires more information about climate change. According to Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, approximately 80% of Americans in a recent poll expressed a desire to learn more about the climate crisis. Our newsletter will suggest potential story angles, showcase examples of election coverage that addresses climate change, and provide resources for journalists to enhance their reporting.
In the upcoming weeks, we will introduce more materials such as a schedule of linked elections and climate happenings, a feature to recognize and expose false information about climate, a guide for beginning as a climate journalist for campaigns, and events like a webinar on Tuesday with Margaret Sullivan and Ben Tracy titled “Beyond the Stump Speech: Including Climate in Election Coverage.”
Experts stress that the issue of climate change can be resolved. According to the agreement made at the Cop28 climate conference in December 2023, the world’s governments have the required technologies to shift away from using fossil fuels. However, what is often missing are leaders who are willing and capable of implementing these technologies and moving away from fossil fuels.
Elections play a vital role in tackling the climate emergency. However, in order for voters to contribute, they must first be knowledgeable, and the media continues to be an effective means of supplying them with the necessary information.
This election season holds a lot of significance, both in the United States and globally. Journalism will be evaluated based on its actions. We anticipate that by the year 2024, journalists will prioritize reporting on the issues that are most important to individuals and their everyday lives, rather than fixating on insider information or producing clickbait content.
During this pivotal moment in the climate crisis, it is difficult to imagine a more significant topic for voters. Journalism should prioritize coverage of this issue.
Mark Hertsgaard is a co-founder and the executive director of Covering Climate Now, a collaboration of journalists worldwide dedicated to improving coverage of the climate issue. He also serves as the environment correspondent for The Nation magazine.
Kyle Pope serves as the executive director of strategic initiatives and is also a co-founder of Covering Climate Now. He previously held the position of editor and publisher at the Columbia Journalism Review.
This piece is being shared as a contribution to the global effort of journalism collaboration, Covering Climate Now.