Recasting the climate change story that’s too often told: Fear, misery and doom

Elizabeth Arnold, Climate Change & the Media's Role in Public Disengagement - 11 May 2018
Elizabeth Arnold, Climate Change & the Media's Role in Public Disengagement - 11 May 2018

More than a decade of national media attention to the human impacts of climate change in the Arctic has largely framed communities as victims to sell the urg...

ICT editorial team

Indigenous resilience is missing from the narrow climate change narrative of gloom and doom

Mark Trahant

Indian Country Today

How do we journalists write about climate change? When we write about Native communities do we focus on danger, tragedy, the human toll? And, when we do, does that even move public policy forward?

The clarity of that debate is especially critical for Indian Country. So many Indigenous communities are dealing with the implications of climate change now, ranging from needing to build higher seawalls to the prospect of moving people’s homes and businesses to higher ground.

“In July of 2008, as a national broadcast correspondent, I reported on environmental conditions in Newtok, a remote community of roughly 400 Yup’ik people in Northwest Alaska. Newtok was losing forty to a hundred feet of coastline a year to erosion, and sinking because of “permafrost” that is no longer permanent, the direct result of a warming climate. Flooding threatened homes, the school, and the only supply of clean water,” writes Elizabeth Arnold in a new report, Doom and Gloom: The Role of the Media in Public Disengagement on Climate Change. “I chose to report on Newtok because the community was actively working on a relocation plan after voting to move to higher, more stable ground.

Photo credits: Diane Haeker and Cold Climate Housing Research Center (CCHRC) via the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard.

Reporting on a problem. And the resolution. But that wasn’t the story.

Arnold writes: “In the decade since my report aired on National Public Radio, news outlets from all over the world visited Newtok, Kivalina, Shishmaref, Shaktoolik and a dozen other Alaska Native communities forced to consider relocation because of the effects of climate change. The national stories all fit the same narrative pattern. With images of houses tipping precariously off cliffs, and phrases such as “impending doom,” and “cultural extinction,” the reporting paints a picture of tragedy and hopelessness, framing community members as victims to sell the urgency of mitigation to the public. As a CNN correspondent unabashedly reported, “a trip here is like a trip into a disturbing future.”

Even more troubling. “The repetition of this narrow narrative in national and international media for more than ten years has not resulted in a groundswell of support for mitigation or adaptation. Nor has it resulted in public policy at the state or federal level,” and, says Arnold, “It may have even undermined the ability of these coastal communities to help themselves.”

The report cites Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, who has been researching psychological, cultural, and political factors that influence our perception (and action) involving the environment.

Leiserowitz says when the media focuses disproportionately on impact, Americans tune out.

“Most journalists come in, they’ve already got the story written, they say I want to do a story about climate victims, climate refugees, and so I’m going to go to a place like Kivalina which is a poster child for vulnerability to climate change and I’m coming to tell that story,” he says in the report.

“I don’t think they spend the time with the people in those communities to understand the stresses they are facing and moreover, they’re not really interested in thinking about ‘how do we actually address these issues?’ That’s a different kind of a story, an increasingly important and more complex story that’s not just limited to people in Kivalina. You’ve got cities like Boston and Norfolk and Miami and New Orleans all having to directly confront these fundamental challenges because it’s at their front door now too.”

How many times will the same story be told? Arnold said her search found that the majority of climate change stories are not even about people “but rather about other aspects of the ecosystem, with sea ice, polar bears, walruses, and ocean temperatures chief among them. Of the 1,450 stories analyzed in our survey, ice is mentioned 4,559 times—an average of more than three times per story. Derivatives of “melting” are mentioned 1,178 times. Polar bears and walruses are mentioned nearly as often as Alaskans: Polar bears are mentioned 260 times and walruses are mentioned 206 times, while the word “Alaskans” comes up 289 times. Strikingly, the term “polar bears” is twice as frequent as the term “indigenous,” which only appears 118 times in the stories analyzed. Furthermore, when these indigenous communities are invoked, they rarely speak.”

And science is not much better than the media. Arnold’s research shows a similar focus in the academic literature.

From Arnold’s report:

Noor Johnson, a research scientist at the Science Diplomacy Center at Tufts University’s Fletcher School, conducted a study in Kangiqtugaapik, or Clyde River, on Baffin Island, of how Inuit knowledge about climate change in the community was being collected and used in decision making and policy.

Her study cites this exchange between an Inuit elder, Quqqasiq Apak, and an interviewer:

Interviewer: Did you used to use igloos earlier in your life more?

Apac: Yes, very much so, it was our main form of shelter when you are traveling. While you were out, as soon as it would start to get dark outside you would start searching for snow that was suitable for igloo.

Interviewer: Why don’t you rely on igloos anymore?

Apac: Because we have great accommodations from qallunaat (non-Inuit) such as tents and other items that are easier to use.

Interviewer: Is it more difficult to find the right ice and snow conditions to build the igloo now?

Apac’s answer was ignored. The interview was used in a legal petition to make climate change a human rights issue, in a section titled “Deteriorating ice and snow conditions have diminished the Inuit’s ability to travel in safety, damaging their health, safety, subsistence harvest, and culture.” Igloo building knowledge was presented as ‘an important component of Inuit culture’ and a crucial technology for safe travel on the land.”

So what’s the solution? In a word, resilience. Arnold quotes Bill Moomaw, a scientist who focuses on policy at the Tufts University’s Fletcher School, saying, “The subject is difficult to convey, it’s complicated. It has multiple dimensions and some of it is depressing. But I’d like to point out that there’s an optimistic side to this because there are ways for us to address this problem. I think it’s important for people to understand the urgency, but it’s the urgency to act and we have tools that we can use to act; that’s what I think is missing in the message.”

A great example is the Newtok community’s firm decision to stay as close as possible to its original site.

Or, as a resident of Quinhagak, said to the Alaska Institute for Justice, “Alaska Natives have gone through generations of great changes. In order to survive we have had to adapt to these changes. We have faced challenges: epidemics, cold winter months without electricity or stoves, and now climate change. We are still here. Even with the high cost of living in rural areas, we love where we live. That is why we will strive to live in the areas where our ancestors came from.”

Or as Arnold says: “If we journalists have self-corrected for false balance in climate change reporting, the challenge now may be to self-correct from a steady drip of catastrophic visions. Newtok is moving to Mertarvik. It may be slow and there have been setbacks, but this community ‘threatened’ by climate change, has long been eager to move and is adapting, one grant, one innovative idea, and one barge-load at a time. The people of Newtok are undaunted by the challenge and their community will not “cease to exist.” In fact, life just might be a little bit better on higher, more solid ground with fresh water. It’s a story worth writing and it’s a story that provides a “more complete view of society,” maybe even a story that is inspiring. Newtok has a Yup’ik word for the day when the whole community is finally moved in at the new site, Piciurtellruuq, it means, ‘it came to be.’”

Mark Trahant is editor of Indian Country Today. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Follow him on Twitter - @TrahantReports

Comments (3)
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David Hollenshead
David Hollenshead

When discussing major calamities like climate change, keep in mind what narrative is being pushed and who is pushing it. Western Europeans are alarmed at the effects of climate change, because many of their cities are doomed. But humanity is not made up of only Western Europeans, who can't live without electricity, cell phone towers, cars and food from the supermarket.

If the Yup’ik people have to move, they will move. They are threatened more by plastic bottles filled with cheap booze being smuggled in, than they are by our changing climate. They have lived through an Ice Age and the transition to an Inter Glacial Period, with the flooding that came with it. Of course modern tools, building materials & fuel will be very helpful, but they can live without it...


Significant draw backs by the housing insurance industry making broad exceptions when governments "action or inaction" combined with weather events are concerned. This is one of those situations in which everyone can actually see it happening and like the sitting duck, they all wait until they hear "the boom" before trying to fly away. The only ones who will be truly holding the bag and stuck with no options will be you, me and individuals who claim to be in the "dying" middle. Wealth concentration is the most important issue facing humanity in the 21st century. We can't afford to wait....on RE-publicans or politics as usual to get out of this mess.


+Litmus Test/Code of Leadership..@15.50-16.10..'efficacy' (After: Feldman et al 2017) - utility of the minimalist statement/unity of purpose, as broadcast by solutions journalism; clearly, 'domain manouvre' requires a new narrative - science communicators. Stockbridge Parallelism - Now!