Are TV and media effective tools for climate activism?

It’s no secret that TV and media shape our society, but what does that mean for climate activism?

Worldwide 60% of adults have heard of climate change, but in the UK the number of people concerned about the climate crisis is 83%. You would think that this would make the UK extremely ‘eco friendly’, but whilst the UK has this high awareness, the number of people who are actually willing to make changes is much smaller. Another recent survey found whilst 30% of the UK are reducing their meat intake, only 11% said this was due to ‘environmental reasons.’

The point I want to make is that the UK scores highly for climate awareness, but much lower in their willingness to change their lifestyle, and this has a lot to do with what we see on TV and in the media. Activists are often portrayed as radical with headlines going to groups such as Insulate Britain.

If you haven’t heard of them, they are the group that sat on the road, stopping traffic to campaign for better housing insulation. These groups, of course, will continue to act in this way as it grabs the media’s attention and works but doesn’t accurately represent what it is to be taking climate action seriously to the wider population. 

This isn’t to say the news hasn’t come a long way, in the not so distant past climate deniers had a much bigger platform in mainstream news as broadcasters wanted to show a ‘balanced’ report. It seems that now the climate crisis is so blatantly factual that the ‘balance’ now comes from making activists out to be radical.

Both of these have had lasting effects; climate deniers are still prevalent and when I first became a climate activist I spent a significant amount of time at family events explaining that I wasn’t going to glue myself to a building! It’s not all doom and gloom though, as things are changing.

For example, Sky News has a particularly good segment called ‘The Daily Climate Show’ every day from 8:30 pm – 9 pm, which my climate friend Laura Young often appears on (aka @lesswastelaura).

Also, don’t get me wrong, I am a huge David Attenborough fan! His BBC documentaries pulled at the heartstrings of the nation and in 2017 Blue Planet had 17 million viewers, the most-watched TV show in the UK that year.

He clearly has got so many more people thinking about the climate crisis, but that’s the issue, thinking alone will not solve the climate crisis – we need action. Sir David himself said at a BBC interview, ‘Every day that goes by in which we don’t do something about it is a day wasted’ – and yet days go by where so many of us don’t do anything despite Sir David’s best efforts.

The focus on nature, whilst beautiful and still important, distracts from the bigger issue of the people who are suffering due to the climate crisis. This is something we are totally disconnected from, especially in the UK as for most people the main impact is milder winters and warmer summers.

I had the privilege to attend the UN’s meeting on Climate change, COP26, last November in Glasgow but it wasn’t the meetings or speeches that struck me the most. I was most struck by conversations with people across the world the same age as me who had lost family members due to extreme weather events made worse by climate change, or who had stories of walking 10 hours to collect water during a drought.

Whilst we might’ve heard these kinds of stories on the news we are for the most part unaware of the realities of frontline communities experiencing the climate crisis.

Both David Attenborough and Greta Thunberg have become the faces of the climate movement, and though their impact is undeniable, their profile is down to a combination of the media and a lot of privilege. Again I’m a big fan of Greta and how she has diligently spurred on our generation, myself included. I was lucky enough to hear her speak at a protest in Glasgow during COP26 and she was brilliant, famously saying ‘no more Blah Blah Blah.’

Without the media and the way the world is connected today, however, we might not even know her name, so we can thank the media for that. But we also have to acknowledge the fact that there are so many other climate activists all over the world, who haven’t had the opportunity to be seen by the media.

It is their stories that need sharing most, as their lives are being affected today, whereas for us it is our future. So, a practical thing to do is to look at who you are following on social media and follow more frontline activists! 

The recent Netflix film ‘Don’t Look Up’ starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence did a fantastic job of showing the media and TV’s response to the climate crisis. (I won’t give any spoilers, don’t worry! But do go and watch it if you haven’t.)

Activists from around the world have taken to social media to say that ‘Don’t Look Up’ portrays exactly the feeling of frustration they have experienced from the media whilst campaigning.

The irony is that the film includes caricatures of billionaires claiming to save the world, and then recently Leonardo De Caprio went on a private cruise party with Jeff Bezos; cruises being known to be terrible environmentally and this event, therefore, shattered Leonardo’s reputation in the activist world. Nevertheless, it is a great watch if we don’t dwell on individuals and see the film as a whole.

To summarise my thoughts, TV and media are brilliant resources for educating the public and have real power for creating change when used well. There just needs to be more focus on frontline communities of activists and less of the ‘radical activist’ narrative.

Featured image – Markus Spiske on Pexels

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