By Allison Fisher
In May 2018, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said climate change poses “an existential threat to humanity”.
Major national news programs did not echo that cry – or even cue up a conversation to discuss this most serious designation.
In October, when the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that humanity has twelve years left to limit climate catastrophe, not one major television news program used the term “existential threat” to characterize the IPCC’s warning.
When the U.S. government released its Fourth National Climate Assessment in November confirming that the crisis was already hitting the American people and was expected to become even more costly and deadly within decades, only one network reporter, Alisyn Camerota of CNN, called climate breakdown an existential threat and noted the necessity of covering it:
And as far as the climate stuff, John, sometimes it’s just so overwhelming. I mean, it’s truly such an existential threat that it makes you want to turn away from the news because what can you do? But we can’t do that. I mean, we actually have to keep covering it.
In fact, the term “existential threat” was applied to the climate crisis on only 7 television news segments in all of 2018, despite another year of apocalyptic climate events and dire warnings from the scientific community. Two of those mentions were by Tucker Carlson, who was mocking the idea.
Public Citizen recently found that only 50 segments on major television news networks used the words “crisis” or “emergency” when reporting on climate impacts or talking about the issue in 2018. We looked at coverage on ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC and NBC.
Far fewer are uttering the phrase “existential threat” – one that experts, scientists, and even policy-makers are increasingly using to send a clear signal regarding the scale and seriousness of the threat. A new analysis published last month describes the climate crisis as “a near- to mid-term existential threat to human civilization” and urges a response “akin in scale to the World War II emergency mobilization.”
All this said, there has been a five-fold increase in the use of “existential threat” in the first four months of 2019 compared to all of 2018. Thirty-six segments have referred to climate change or global warming as an existential threat through April of this year. Fox News is responsible for 19 of those references, or 53%.
Nine of those 19 references occurred during discussions of the Green New Deal.
If one excludes Fox News, the use of “existential threat” still nearly quadrupled. Among other networks, the use of the phrase went from five mentions in all of 2018 to 19 in the first four months of 2019. A substantial majority of those references – 68% – were related to the Green New Deal.
The percentage of references to the climate crisis as an existential threat is still extraordinarily low when considering that there have been nearly 800 segments across all networks mentioning climate change or global warming since the beginning of the year through the end of April.
“Existential threat” is a phrase that should not be applied lightly. The designation should be backed up by expertise and evidence. And when accurately applied, it should be met with the most serious responses.
It should rally us, and our institutions, to confront the threat. And it should ignite a national conversation introduced and sustained by our news sources.
With the media failing to communicate the urgency and severity of the climate crisis, the public will take longer to treat it like one – and to demand action from policy-makers.