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Climate change, the main existential crisis of our day, remains under the public radar in 2019 South Africa. Inadequate media coverage is in part to blame. Whether or not South African media are reporting on the climate crisis and encouraging public participation, and how they do it, affects how the public perceives and engages on the issue.

Climate change is already affecting South Africa in a critical way – and there is no doubt that it is going to get worse. Without radically changing the way we do things right now, the climate crisis poses an immediate threat to our developmental objectives. And yet, apart from the odd-7 million people from 185 different countries who walked out of school, work, and home for September’s Global Climate Strike, everyone else on planet earth is dragging their feet. That’s not even 0.1% of the world’s 7.7 billion population. Governments and society the world over are far behind, and failing to take urgent, ambitious action commensurate to the scale of this climate emergency. In South Africa, the government claims to be committed to climate action, but continues to promote fossil fuels and an economic model at odds with what it takes to rapidly achieve a low-carbon and just society. South Africans of all ages seem too busy with other issues to think about the climate crisis. An August 2019 Afrobarometer survey reveals that “aweh-ness” is at a shocking low. 59% of our fellow citizens haven’t heard of climate change, or don’t know anything about it. As few as 17% are “climate change literate”. They know what climate change is, understand it has negative effects on long-term weather patterns, and that it is anthropogenic in nature – that is, that human activity is to blame.

This begs the question: how is it possible that the main existential crisis of our day – not forgetting mass species extinction – remains under the public radar in 2019 South Africa? Why isn’t everybody talking about it, panicking “as if the house was on fire”, making it a top issue of our 2019 general elections, and marching through the streets to demand that government leads the way with ambitious and rapid action? One would expect a swell of concerned citizens descending on Parliament and the Provincial Legislatures to demand that their elected representatives address the dire state of the climate. Instead, only a few thousand across South Africa joined the #ClimateStrike from the 20th to 27th of September 2019. Erica Chenoweth, a political scientist at Harvard University, showed that it takes around 3.5% of the population actively participating in non-violent protests to ensure serious political change. In South Africa, this means 2 million people.

Is there too much happening and too much to worry about – jobs, inequality, the education crisis, corruption and State Capture, or gender-based violence – for people to care? Is it wilful blindness to an inconvenient truth that challenges the very economic and social system we are told is the only way to address inequalities and lift people out of poverty? More worryingly, can we pin this on the fact that, ultimately, the people of South Africa believe they are powerless to influence legislation and government action? Is access to information the problem? Or could it be that our media is not doing quite enough to cover the climate crisis, and to emulate public conversation on the issue? Most likely, the answer is: all of the above.

But there is no denying that the vast majority of South African newsrooms are failing to bring climate change and environmental challenges to the fore, and to offer accurate information and critical commentary on what needs to be done to address them. Why is that? More importantly, why and how should the media play a bigger role? To be or not to be newsworthy Many editors and journalists would argue that people don’t feel concerned by environmental and climate issues, therefore it is not newsworthy. This line of argument is debatable, and one would expect the media to interrogate if this lack of public concern might result from a lack of awareness, as evidenced by the Afrobarometer survey. It could be that the general public doesn’t fully grasp the seriousness and urgency of the challenge, and what should be done about it. This is precisely why the media have the responsibility to inform the public and make it clear that the climate crisis is everybody’s business. How the media reports on air pollution, contaminated water, degraded ecosystems, or rising greenhouse gas emissions and temperatures, goes a long way to determine how the public reacts to these issues. News coverage brings causes into the mainstream by facilitating understanding, emulating deliberations amongst citizens, and fostering public engagement necessary to drive action. With a few exceptions, the South African media aren’t doing near enough to communicate that climate change and environmental degradation are serious systemic issues.

They treat them as any other news item, worthy of coverage when the next drought, cyclone, or flood hits. The devastating damage caused by Tropical Cyclone Idai on neighbouring countries Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Malawi in March 2019, received widespread media attention in South Africa. Similarly, the media’s extensive coverage of the prolonged drought that affected the Western Cape in 2015-2018, draw clear links with global warming and shortcomings in governance. In October 2018, the alarming United Nations 1.5°C Special Report – and the scientists who wrote it – told the world we had 12 years left to drastically curb greenhouse gas emissions to prevent irreversible global warming beyond 1.5°C. While that was the hot topic of the week, these headlines quickly become old news to the next environmental segment space-filler. In the meantime, other issues are left completely unreported. Why are national, provincial, and local media so silent about the climate and environmental crisis happening right now in Limpopo, as the province struggles with drought, hotter temperatures, and devastating air, water, and soil pollution from the coal industry? Where are the stories about the climate injustice that so many fellow citizens, mostly in rural areas and townships, are experiencing today? As Leonie Joubert wrote in the Daily Maverick’s Our Burning Planet series: “Editors continue to shove climate change into the environmental and science beats. These are still treated as the low-priority, “nice to have” pages, after newsroom resources have been given to the “serious” issues like politics, economics, and even sport.”

Climate change is a complex topic from a scientific perspective, but also in its social, economic, and political dimensions. For this reason, it isn’t an easy topic to cover. However, there should be no debate that it is newsworthy. Navigating neutrality and ‘balanced’ reporting Climate change is an “inconvenient truth”, as famously coined by former US Vice President and Climate Reality Chairman Al Gore in his 2006 documentary. Human activities are causing it – so we can’t blame it on the natural climate cycle of Earth, or a meteorite, fate, or bad luck. In addition, addressing it requires radically changing our lifestyles, and the type of economic and development model presented to us as the only one that works. We are wrongly made to think this change goes against “progress”; that it would deprive people of a quality of life modelled on the unsustainable living standards of people in “developed” economies. All too often, the newsroom has failed to interrogate the underlying narrative and systems that drive the climate crisis, or inconsistencies in the political discourse.

For instance, no media flagged the blatant contradictions in President Cyril Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation’s Address of 14 February 2019. President Ramaphosa hailed Total’s Brulpadda oil and gas discovery off South Africa’s coast as a “game-changer”, while in the same breath saying that “unless we tackle climate change, we will not be able to meet our developmental objectives”. Consciously or not, many mainstream media align their coverage with the misleading argument that economic development and jobs come at an environmental and social cost – or conversely, disregard the fact that the economy is not dependent on the state of our environment and climate at all. Media coverage should always strive to present a balanced representation of facts, fair comment, and a diversity of views.

Yet, because of this principle, some journalists and editors give a platform to all opinions, and offer two (or more) sides to an argument rather than seeking to establish the truth. The result is a confusing, often watered-down narrative offered to the public. Neutrality and fairness do not mean that all sides should necessarily be considered as relevant to the conversation, when one side is based on false, fake, or misleading information. Balancing views has no place when it comes to science reporting – this is when the media need to uphold journalistic principles of truth and accuracy. Emulating public engagement Broader public understanding of the environmental and climate mess we have put ourselves in is required if South Africa is to respond and adapt to them adequately. There is also a need to give a platform to those most affected, so that they can communicate their perspectives and experiences to those responsible for causing the problems, and put pressure on those elected to address them. The media can, and should, be alert to and interrogate actions and narratives that undermine the public interest.

This doesn’t mean they should speak on behalf of the public, but rather that they must play their part in widening opportunities for citizens to understand and engage in environmental governance. News media are one of the main platforms that spread views and inform political and societal positions on matters as serious as the climate and environmental breakdown. That means that newsrooms have the crucial task of reporting on these issues accurately and responsibly, in a way that helps their audience – and hopefully the 59% of South African citizens who are climate illiterate – to connect all the dots, comprehend the global climate crisis on a local scale, and take action.