Bangladesh can teach us to talk about climate change


AAll the lights are on here in my hometown of Dhaka as I write these words. Cyclone Sitrang knocked out power in Bangladesh’s capital, plunging the city of 22 million into darkness.

But one thing we Bangladeshis are not in the dark is climate change. We understand that the overheating of the planet has made cyclones – or hurricanes, as they are called in other parts of the world – stronger and more destructive. We know this largely because our media has long treated climate change as a major news story that the public needs to know about.

With the crucial United Nations climate negotiations taking place this month in Egypt, I hope the media in the United States and other powerful countries will follow Bangladesh’s lead. As record heat, drought, fires and floods afflict more and more of humanity, it is clear that our planetary home is on fire. There are many solutions, starting with phasing out fossil fuels quickly and electing politicians who will get there. But our experience in Bangladesh shows that more and better media coverage is also a critical climate solution, as it fosters widespread awareness and public pressure on governments and powerful interests needed to put out the fire.

Unfortunately, the mainstream media in the United States has a long history of downplaying or misrepresenting the climate story. During Barack Obama’s presidency, US media devoted forty times more coverage to the Kardashians than to how global warming was superheating the oceans, according to an analysis by nonprofit watchdog Media Matters. During nationally televised presidential election debates in 2008, 2012 and 2016, moderators did not ask candidates any questions about climate change. Coverage has increased slightly in recent years, but in 2021 climate stories still accounted for just 1% of total news coverage by ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox News.

This is not the case in Bangladesh. Located on the delta of two of the largest rivers in the world, the Ganges and the Brahmaputra, Bangladesh has a very low-lying coastal region that overlooks the Indian Ocean. Tens of millions of people live in this coastal region, where they are threatened by flooding rivers as well as ocean cyclones and rising sea levels, which are gradually sanitizing coastal soils and endangering rice yields.

Climate change is therefore a matter of life and death for Bangladesh, and our media covers it accordingly. Most media outlets – television, radio, print and digital media – carry climate-related stories regularly. And they play the story big. State-owned channels such as Bangladesh Television as well as private competitors such as Channel I air knowledgeable climate reporting at the top of their shows and explore the issue further on popular talk shows.

Bangladeshi journalists and newsrooms have become aware of the climate story because they have been solicited by experts and, above all, by reality.

I was one of four Bangladeshi climate experts who contributed to the authors of the third assessment report of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, published in 2001. At that time, awareness of the climate change was very low among policy makers and journalists in Bangladesh. So, together with my colleagues Atiq Rahman, Mizan Khan and Ainun Nishat, I reached out to inform them. The media covered increased slightly.

Meanwhile, extreme weather events continued to illustrate our nation’s vulnerability. Cyclone Sidr, a category 5 storm that struck in November 2007, particularly caught the attention of the editorial staff. The IPCC had published its fourth assessment report six weeks earlier. Because of our previous briefings, Bangladeshi journalists were now bombarding us with requests for interviews, wanting to understand the link between cyclones like Sidr and global warming, so that they, in turn, could inform the public.

Over the next fifteen years, the combination of more extreme weather and the publication of more IPCC reports has led more and more Bangladeshi media to devote significant and sustained attention to the climate story. When world leaders met at COP26 in November 2021, three Bangladeshi television stations traveled to Glasgow to report live on the deliberations. During almost all eleven days of the conference, they broadcast several reports summarizing the main developments and analyzing their implications for Bangladesh and the world.

Among Bangladeshi print and digital media, the Dhaka Grandstand, Prothom Alo and other major newspapers publish in-depth reporting and frequent opinion pieces on various aspects of the climate challenge. I myself contributed for a long time to a weekly column on the climate in The star of the day, the country’s first English-language newspaper. Colleagues in news outlets that publish or broadcast in Bengali, the main local language, often use the information and ideas from my columns in their own coverage that reaches a wider audience.

As a result, the average person in Bangladesh is quite knowledgeable about climate change and what can be done about it. Public opinion polls across Asia by the BBC’s Media Action Foundation have revealed that Bangladeshis are by far the best informed on the issue. Because our media also reports on climate change abroad, Bangladeshis know full well, for example, who Joe Manchin is. They followed how Manchin sunk President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better climate legislation and how Manchin and Biden later agreed on the Reduced Inflation Reduction Act.

The contrast with the United States is striking. When American television networks cover the appalling heat, drought and storms plaguing so much of the world these days, they usually fail to mention that global warming is fueling such extreme weather – a glaring oversight. When Hurricane Ian hit Florida, only 4% of the initial US national TV coverage even mentioned climate change.

Is it any wonder, then, that the average American knows so little about climate change? Only 39% of Americans know most scientists agree that climate change is happening today, and only 50% know it’s caused by human activities, according to surveys from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.

This lack of public understanding helps to perpetuate the political status quo. If more Americans voted as if they understood the climate emergency, the Republican Party would either be swept from power or would have to drop its opposition to taking serious action.

I am hopeful that the American press agencies will do better. Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of hundreds of media outlets committed to better coverage of climate change, has helped newsrooms realize that serious journalists simply cannot ignore the defining story of our time. Using an approach strikingly similar to that my fellow experts and I employed in Bangladesh, the journalists who run Covering Climate Now offer briefings and story ideas that help newsrooms improve their climate coverage. They also correct the outdated impression that climate coverage is distracting the public, pointing to survey data showing that most people are concerned about climate change and want action taken, especially by governments.

I have attended the previous 26 UN climate conferences, and at COP26 I have noticed an increase in US media attention: more reporters and camera crews in the hallways, more interview requests, more US media articles in my daily world news summaries. Empirical analysis confirmed my anecdotal impressions. Usually fiercely critical of American media coverage, Media Matters said that “morning and evening news shows on ABC, CBS and NBC, as well as the evening news program on PBS NewsTimeaired no less than 53 segments on climate change… while the first week of [COP26] began.

Now the American media must redouble its commitment. Humanity cannot defuse the climate emergency without much more ambitious action from the United States, which remains the world’s largest economy, not to mention its largest historical source of emissions. More and better media coverage does not in itself guarantee victory, but it is essential for our chances of turning the tide before it is too late.

Huq is interviewed in ‘Burning Questions’, an hour-long special produced by Covering Climate Now, available from October 25 on public television’s WORLD channel

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