Not going back to the way things were: climate change and Covid-19 recovery

Over the past year, the Covid-19 crisis has caused us to reflect on how we interact with our natural environment. As the world plans recovery from the pandemic and this November’s COP26 Climate Change Conference looms into view, now may be a key juncture in understanding how to best align these priorities – something that could have implications not just for the world in general, but for the media too.

News of cities around the world with cleaner air has aided some of this reflection, while reports citing the largest drop in carbon emissions since the Second World War have indicated the positive side-effect of lockdowns.

But this is set to be only a temporary reprieve without a concerted effort to hold onto these gains. Some evidence has shown that emissions are on the rise again. And the ‘Lancet Countdown’, an international collaboration that tracks progress on health and climate change, highlighted that its 2020 data showed “the most worrying outlook reported” since its establishment in 2016.

Observers refer to a need to firm up the links between the health and climate crises to build back better, and as we grow increasingly aware of the potential for conditions propagated by climate change to overwhelm health systems.

Marina Romanello profile pictureDr Marina Romanello, data scientist in the Institute for Global Health at University College London on the Lancet Countdown team: Climate change is still not homogenously accepted as a fundamental health threat, and we’re still not seeing the full response that we need from health systems and professionals in taking this forward. We really need to ensure that the whole world is in this together.”Read the full interview

A vested interest

Apart from the indirect health benefits of facing the climate crisis head-on, there is also a direct reason why the healthcare sector has a vested interest in this – namely that, according to the Lancet Countdown, that sector alone was responsible for 4.6 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2017.

Dr Romanello says Covid-19 gives pause for thought on how to better organise health systems, harness more reusable equipment and incorporate activities like ‘green prescribing’. Covid-19 has also elucidated potential pathways towards cutting carbon output, such as remote care.

Indeed, despite the struggle that many nations have faced to keep emissions targets on track, the report says some of the key progress last year was seen in the health profession’s engagement with climate issues. Spending on climate change adaptation in the sector rose 12.7 per cent to €15.2 billion in the 2018-19 fiscal year, and health services in 86 countries are now connected with their meteorological services to assist in health adaptation planning.

In addition, right amid the pandemic, the UK’s National Health Service outlined its aim to become net-zero in carbon emissions by 2045. Along with wider EU and World Health Organization plans to invest in green recoveries, such moves are promising, said Dr Romanello. However, she added, the hard work starts now, to avoid a regression as the world rushes towards economic recovery: “The question now is, how is that going to be followed through?”

Dr Marina Romanello: “We’re in a quite critical moment now, in which we’re still in the pandemic but we’re starting to shape and draft what recovery looks like. It’s precisely now that we have to put the focus on what will come out of this.”

Media parallels

Aside from the clear direct links between climate change and health, there are also parallels in media reporting on the two issues – as well as potential challenges in generating stories that cut across both topics and prioritising each in the news agenda.

One recent analysis of climate reporting over the past 30 years in Finland’s most widely read newspaper, Helsingin Sanomat, found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that coverage of climate change fell sharply in the early phase of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Yet at the same time, last March’s monthly decline by 38 news items from over 100 before was not an ‘unprecedented’ drop. Coverage in the ensuing months also, nonetheless, remained above that of many years in the 2010s, indicating a still increasing general trend alongside rising public consciousness.

Furthermore, compared with previous epidemics, the analysis highlights a significant rise in climate-related news items that also mentioned the health crisis. It found none that covered both during SARS in the early 2000s, and just five for swine flu in 2009 to 2010. In stark contrast, 20 per cent of climate-related news items in the early stages of the current pandemic also covered Covid-19.

Jari Lyytimäki profile pictureHowever, Dr Jari Lyytimäki, senior researcher at the Finnish Environment Institute (SYKE) and co-author of the study, says: “I think there is a need [for more coverage] 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.”Read the full interview

Dr Lyytimäki points out that the current research does not cover the proportion of Covid-19 stories that refer to climate, which he thinks would be a very useful study for the future. In addition, the research focuses on Finland, an already advanced country in terms of climate awareness.

New intersections

However, the Media and Climate Change Observatory (MeCCO), which monitors global climate media and in which SYKE collaborates, notes a “new understanding” of “intersectional” challenges between climate and topics such as health in its 2020 review.

On top of that, MeCCO’s statistics show that despite a 23 per cent year-on-year fall in media attention on climate change in 2020, coverage was still at the second-highest annual level since the organisation began its monitoring in 2004. This reflects a growing long-term rise, even in light of new headline-dominating global events.

Another example of climate’s mainstreaming into the public consciousness highlighted by the SYKE study is the assimilation of phrases used in Finnish language for climate change into phrases relating to Covid-19, such as ’climate crisis‘/ ‘corona crisis, ‘climate anxiety’/‘corona anxiety’, and ‘climate refugee’/‘corona refugee’.

Yet, despite promising signs for growing connections being made between Covid-19 and climate issues, as well as increasing crossovers even with culture, sports and finance news, Dr Lyytimäki says health can sometimes still be an isolated topic. This has to do with the sector’s focus on clear causes for conditions, and other journalism-specific issues such as deadline pressures when reporting on short-term emergencies.

Portraying the links between the two more closely could help avoid painting a picture in the post-pandemic euphoria that we can just return to our old ways, Lyytimäki says. “Unfortunately, that is not a realistic scenario if we want to address the problems,” he says. “Nasty things don’t disappear if we don’t talk about them.”

Long- versus short-term

A key issue highlighted by his study is how to frame more abstract, global long-term climate phenomena within short-term, immediate news reporting on crises such as Covid-19. “The challenging new task for news media is to bridge these two ends of the temporal and spatial spectrum in a way that informs and inspires key actors,” it says.

This is a theme that UK economist, journalist and broadcaster Tim Harford picks up on. He notes the relative ease and logic of daily reporting of coronavirus cases and deaths, compared with pinpointing climate change as a cause of death. This means, he says, that a lot of news is ‘proxy’ – indirect – reporting, while stories such as a recent article on a glacier melting in Uganda tend to be longer-form news or features.

Jari Lyytimäki profile pictureTim Harford, UK economist, journalist and broadcaster, and author of books including How to Make the World Add Up: “We’ve been trying to cover climate science since the 1960s and certainly with some considerable attention since the 80s or 90s, whereas the whole coronavirus pandemic is only a year old. That timescale, I think, really matters and makes the challenges of reporting very different.”Read the full interview

One learning that Harford thinks can be transferred between the two crises is that technology is a way to do things, whether it’s solar energy batteries or a vaccine for coronavirus. “That’s what we’re looking for in environmental policy – what are the technologies that mean we don’t really need to change anything very much [in our lives]?”

But one other, more behavioural learning apparent from Covid-19 that Harford raises and that may provide a takeaway to ponder for dealing with the climate crisis is: “We can make drastic changes to our lives and we’re willing to do that if we can see a reason.”


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