A scientist’s opinion: Interview with Dr Jari Lyytimäki & Erkki Mervaala about climate change & Covid-19 recovery

Interview with Dr Jari Lyytimäki, senior researcher at the Finnish Environment Institute, and Erkki Mervaala, researcher at the Finnish Environment Institute.

In a recent study on the reporting of climate change in the Finnish media, you noted that coverage had seen a steep but not unprecedented drop during the early phase of the Covid-19 pandemic. What are your thoughts on the trends in levels of climate reporting before and during the pandemic?

Jari Lyytimäki profile pictureErkki Mervaala profile pictureWe can see, at least in Finland, a long-term trend of increasing climate reporting. When we have seen a radical drop in reporting in the past, it was caused mostly by the internal dynamics of the climate debate. We had, for example, climate meetings ending or people becoming climate-fatigued, whereby journalists and audiences were simply fed up with these issues for a while.

But this time it was clearly an external factor – Covid-19 – that interrupted climate reporting. Yet actually, the drop wasn’t so radical because it was expected to happen sooner or later, as in Finland, climate reporting about a year ago was on a very high level and we didn’t expect that to continue forever. Still, we are on a higher level than the 10-year average.

Do you think there’s still a call for more joint treatment of the two issues of climate and Covid-19?

Absolutely, I think there is a need for this – and maybe not just related to these two issues specifically, but more generally about the connections between health and well-being, and the different environmental pressures we have.

That probably is needed in order to avoid bad surprises because, as unfortunate as this Covid-19 situation is, it wasn’t something that came just out of the blue. There were warnings, but society was not clever enough to take them into account in this situation. I think that more interconnected or holistic reporting is one good cure for these kinds of risks and a means to avoid these issues.

Reporting that has related air quality to climate change during the pandemic is a good example of this. Also, if there is a forest fire, these kinds of news stories now tend to have at least a sentence or two about climate change. At least in Finland, we have better public awareness of climate issues than we used to, and we can assume that audiences can connect the dots, even with small hints about this phenomenon relating to Covid-19 issues.

In your study, you note that the situation during this pandemic has been different compared with previous epidemics such as SARS and swine flu. This time, far more articles in mainstream Finnish media mentioned the health crisis together with climate change, at least in the early phase of the pandemic. Have these links continued to be made in the media?

That was indeed our interpretation in the early phase of the discussion. There was overlapping, especially when you’re talking about Covid-19 and the whole climate impact of the pandemic, like air travel and the reasons of how the pandemic started – the whole wet market angle, and the buffer zone between wildlife and human consumption.

We haven’t analysed the more recent discussion, but based on anecdotal observations, my interpretation is that we still see this combined treatment, especially related to questions of how we use the Covid-19 recovery funding and on the European Green Deal [a set of policy initiatives aimed at making Europe climate-neutral by 2050] – as well as on things that focus on the management side and how we deal with the underlying problems. I think it’s really promising that we are talking more about the future rather than the past.

Do you think this increase in reporting on the two crises together reflects that climate and health are being seen more as joint issues now?

Yes – at least from the perspective of environmental journalism, but I’m not so sure about health communication and whether we see the opposite there. This certainly would be an interesting topic for future studies.

My impression based on the Finnish debate is that Covid-19 news stories contain references to environmental issues such as biodiversity maybe more often than they mention climate change issues. This can be considered a promising signal, as something that hopefully helps to increase awareness on the root causes of environmental degradation. But more of this is certainly needed.

There is quite a long trend in climate communication where climate issues are more and more addressed as social science and policy issues, and even related to arts, culture and sports – penetrating all sectors in society. For example, in Finland we worry about skiing and other winter outdoor sports related to climate change.

But when we think about health issues, I think there the focus of the media is less wide and it’s an isolated topic compared to climate issues. It’s interesting to see whether this unfortunate Covid-19 pandemic causes journalists to take a wider angle to see what kinds of factors are behind this disease.

Why do you think the focus can be narrower in the health field?

I think it’s probably principally because in the health profession, people are used to trying to find clear causes, and have the obligation to find out what’s the specific reason for certain conditions. But it’s not necessarily so simple in these cases: there are always different factors at play.

In reporting, there are also the pressures that journalists face for delivering the latest news, making it even more difficult. Yet maybe this Covid-19 crisis opens our eyes for the need for not having more rapid news, but news that’s deeper and capable of seeing the full picture.

We have now seen some good examples of how people can make really fast and radical changes in their lifestyle – with the rapid shift to teleworking, for example. There are problems in these cases of rapid changes, but they can also be opportunities.

The media, I think, has a key role in clarifying and spreading words about these new opportunities and how we can change our behaviour, and also in inspiring people and spreading news of good examples.

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