All lights are out here in my home city of Dhaka as I write these words. Cyclone Sitrang has knocked out the electricity in Bangladesh’s capital, plunging this city of 22 million people into darkness.
But one thing we Bangladeshis are not in the dark about is climate change. We understand that overheating the planet has made cyclones—or hurricanes, as they’re called in other parts of the world—stronger and more destructive. We know this largely because our media have long treated climate change as a major news story that the public needs to know about.
With crucial United Nations climate negotiations taking place this month in Egypt, I hope news outlets 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 house is on fire. There are many solutions, starting with rapidly phasing out fossil fuels and electing politicians who will make that happen. But our experience in Bangladesh illustrates that more and better news coverage is also an essential climate solution, because it fosters the broad awareness and public pressure on governments and powerful interests that’s needed to put the fire out.
Unfortunately, mainstream news outlets in the U.S. have a long history of downplaying or misreporting the climate story. During Barack Obama’s presidency, U.S. news outlets devoted forty times more coverage to the Kardashians than to how global warming was overheating the oceans, analysis by the nonprofit watchdog Media Matters found. During the nationally televised presidential election debates in 2008, 2012, and 2016, moderators asked the candidates not a single question about climate change. Coverage has increased slightly in recent years, but in 2021 climate stories still accounted for a mere 1 percent of total news coverage by ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox News.
Not so in Bangladesh. Situated on the delta of two of the world’s biggest rivers—the Ganges and the Brahmaputra—Bangladesh has a very low-lying coastal region that fronts on the Indian Ocean. Tens of millions of people live in that coastal region, where they are threatened by flooding from the rivers as well as cyclones from the ocean and sea level rise, which is gradually making coastal soil saltier and endangering rice yields.
Climate change is therefore a life-and-death issue for Bangladesh, and our media cover it accordingly. Most news outlets—TV, radio, print, and digital—run climate stories on a regular basis. And they play the story big. State-run channels such as Bangladesh Television as well as private competitors such as Channel I run well-informed climate stories at the top of their broadcasts and further explore the issue in popular talk shows.
Bangladeshi journalists and newsrooms woke up to the climate story because they were lobbied by experts and, not least, by reality.
I was one of four Bangladeshi climate experts who served as contributing authors to the Third Assessment Report of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, published in 2001. At that time, awareness of climate change was very low among both policymakers and journalists in Bangladesh. So I, along with my colleagues Atiq Rahman, Mizan Khan, and Ainun Nishat, reached out to brief them. Media covered ticked up slightly.
Meanwhile, extreme weather events kept illustrating how vulnerable our country was. Cyclone Sidr, a category 5 storm that struck in November 2007, particularly got newsrooms’ attention. The IPCC had released its Fourth Assessment Report six weeks earlier. Because of our previous briefings, Bangladeshi journalists now bombarded us with interview requests, wishing to understand how cyclones like Sidr were related to global warming, so that they could, in turn, inform the public.
Over the fifteen years since then, the combination of more extreme weather and publication of more IPCC reports has led more and more of the Bangladeshi media to devote significant, sustained attention to the climate story. When world leaders met at COP26 last November 2021, three Bangladeshi TV channels traveled to Glasgow to report live on the deliberations. For almost all eleven days of the conference, they broadcast multiple reports summarizing the key developments and analyzing their implications for Bangladesh and the world.
Among Bangladeshi print and digital outlets, the Dhaka Tribune, Prothom Alo and other leading newspapers publish in-depth news stories and frequent opinion articles about various aspects of the climate challenge. I myself have long contributed a weekly climate column to The Daily Star, the country’s leading English language newspaper. Colleagues at news outlets that publish or broadcast in Bangla, the primary local language, often use the information and ideas in my columns in their own coverage that reaches a larger mass audience.
As a result, the average person in Bangladesh is quite well informed about climate change and what can be done about it. Surveys of public opinion across Asia by the BBC’s “Media Action” foundation found that Bangladeshis are by far the region’s most knowledgeable on the issue. Because our media also report on climate developments abroad, Bangladeshis know perfectly well, for example, who Joe Manchin is. They followed how Manchin sank president Joe Biden’s Build Back Better climate legislation and how Manchin and Biden later agreed on the scaled-back Inflation Reduction Act.
The contrast with the U.S. is stark. When American TV networks cover the punishing heat, drought, and storms afflicting so much of the world these days, they usually do not mention that global warming fuels such extreme weather—an egregious oversight. When Hurricane Ian was bearing down on Florida, only 4 percent of U.S. national TV networks’ initial coverage even mentioned climate change.
Is it any surprise, then, that the average American knows so little about climate change? Only 39 percent of Americans know that most scientists agree that climate change is happening today, and only 50 percent know that it’s caused by human activities, according to surveys by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.
This lack of public understanding helps to perpetuate the political status quo. If more Americans voted like they understood the climate emergency, the Republican party would either be swept from power or have to drop its lockstep opposition to taking serious action.
I am optimistic that U.S. news organizations will do better. Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of hundreds of news outlets committed to better coverage of climate change, has helped newsrooms understand that serious journalists simply cannot ignore the defining story of our time. Using an approach strikingly similar to the one my fellow experts and I employed in Bangladesh, the journalists who run Covering Climate Now provide briefings and story ideas that help newsrooms improve their climate coverage. They also correct the outdated impression that climate coverage turns audiences off, pointing to survey data showing that most people are concerned about climate change and want action taken, especially by governments.
I have attended all 26 previous UN climate conferences, and at COP26, I noticed an increase in U.S. media attention: more reporters and camera crews in the corridors, more requests to interview me, more articles by U.S. outlets in my daily global news summaries. Empirical analysis confirmed my anecdotal impressions. Usually a fierce critic of U.S. media coverage, Media Matters gushed that “Morning and evening news shows on ABC, CBS, and NBC, as well as PBS’ evening news program NewsHour, aired a whopping 53 segments on climate change … as the first week of [COP26] got underway.”
Now, U.S. news outlets must redouble their commitment. Humanity cannot defuse the climate emergency without much more ambitious action by the U.S., which is still the world’s biggest economy, not to mention its largest historical source of emissions. More and better news coverage does not by itself guarantee victory, but it is indispensable to our chances of reversing course before it is too late.
Huq is interviewed in “Burning Questions,” a one-hour TV special produced by Covering Climate Now, available starting October 25 on public television’s WORLD channel