It’s our planet: telling the Earth’s story in 2021

Recently, I came across an article that asked ‘does journalism actually make a difference?’ in addressing the climate crisis. Here, I look back on some interesting climate stories covered this year.

2021 has seen us reckon with the climate crisis, as the world slowly works to recover from the effects of the ongoing pandemic. If 2020 was a year for spotlighting racial injustices, then this has been one to highlight the severity of the climate emergency.

After being postponed a year ago, the COP26 conference finally took place this autumn. With it, world leaders met in Glasgow to discuss how they were going to address global warming and build a more sustainable world. You could say this was the highpoint of media coverage on the issue, as the eyes of the world were on the UK and Boris making 007 references.

Why climate journalism matters

I recently came across an article published a year ago asking: ‘does journalism actually make a difference?’ in addressing the climate crisis. For me it has. Reading all the coverage in the past year, having it punctuate my post-graduate life during lockdowns, is partly why I decided to get involved in the non-profit sector.

In his piece, Jonathan Watts describes the media as ‘part of a social nervous system, alerting the public to remote danger in the same way neurotransmitters tell the brain the tips of the fingers are being burned.’ He suggests a ubiquity in our existence, an interconnectedness between humans that requires unity to deal with crises like the one we face. In that sense, the COP conference was symbolic; governments met to address a global issue, one that cannot be solved by individual states. Journalists reporting on the climate crisis, and the environment as a whole, scrutinise these events and are constantly educating the public.

One earth

Perhaps the most iconic photograph ever taken, Earthrise, helps put Watts’ idea into perspective.

William Anders, of the Apollo 8 mission, took the photo on Christmas Eve, 1968.

Credited with spurring on the environmental movement, the image suggests something about the fragility of our life, while at the same underscoring its beauty.

If the Earth is one large organism, then any environmental action- any effort to help reclaim its purity- is in service of us all. Because, whether we love science fiction or not, we probably won’t be relocating anywhere else. The work of environmental journalism is in service of a larger, shared existence.

A picture is worth a thousand words

Tying into the theme of the above, here are some of the more impressive photo highlights of the year:

We didn’t start the fire

The economist Yanis Varoufakis weighed in on the wildfires devastating his native Greece. Looking back on what is now a systemic issue within the country, he laments the lack of accountability and meaningful planning that should have prevented more of these tragedies taking place; ‘Collective responsibility was the first casualty of every inferno.’

Varoufakis’s points are applicable across society, government, and business. People and organisations do not like to address issues if that involves shaking up the status quo and, therefore, costing them. This is one of the areas where journalism, public pressure, and focused activism can really make difference. In a world where efforts to combat climate change seem, to most people, the right thing, too often we see material gains pursued instead.

Exxon (now ExxonMobil), for example, knew about climate change, but kept this information to themselves.

Instead of encouraging the fossil fuel industry to assess its impacts, seeking out strategies for mitigation, they chose to wage a war of misinformation; creating enough doubt about the veracity of climate science to fracture public opinion. Still, to this day, the effects of these (ongoing) campaigns- like funds to thinktanks and political lobbying – are damaging our planet. Meanwhile, the fossil fuel industry and its beneficiaries are living like kings, dead or too rich to care.

But not all damage is done so intentionally- as Varoufakis points out, there is often a diffusion of responsibility. Costly solutions are avoided in favour of continuing a perceived normality.

Maps can save the world

On a more hopeful note, we have the story of a young climate activist, Molly Burhans, setting out to use the Catholic Church’s landholdings to combat climate change. This brilliant story, published in  The New Yorker earlier this year, tells of an outsider seeing an opportunity to use the untapped resources of one of the oldest and richest institutions in the world.

‘Burhans concluded that the Church had the means to address climate issues directly, through better land management, and that it was also capable of protecting populations that were especially vulnerable to the consequences of global warming.’

Her project, which aims to repurpose land and promote ecological stability- preserving species, connecting natural areas and habitats- is somewhat hampered by the Church’s sparse record keeping. Mapping out the Catholic Church’s assets serves as a vital necessity for the aims of her project, as well as being of great historical interest.

Why aren’t we doing more?

Kevin Keane, BBC Scotland’s environment correspondent asked ‘Why are people not doing more about climate change?’

In this reflective piece, Keane recognises that his own personal choices and habits are not quite as environmentally friendly as someone in his position would be expected:

‘I drive a diesel car, eat meat and just a few months ago had a gas boiler installed in my house, that’s quite an admission for an environment correspondent who reports on climate change. The problem is that greener options are financially out of reach for me and – it seems – most Scots.’

Shifting borders and more expensive coffee

It turns out that maps can also be problematic…

Because of melting glaciers, the Rifugio Guide del Cervino, a rustic hangout for skiers and mountaineers, may be located in Italy, Switzerland, or both.’

This New Yorker piece looks at one of the more bureaucratically annoying instances of climate change, making for an interesting story on the more unknown consequences of global warming.

Stopping for a cup of coffee is a must for skiers enjoying the mountain.

In 2009, Italy and Switzerland agreed that their border in the Alps would match the landscape’s shift- in other words, whatever happened to the melting glaciers would decide the location of border.

Lucio Trucco, the manager of the lodge maintains that it is still in Italian territory- citing Google Maps- despite (shifting) evidence to the contrary. Nonetheless, the matter has made it difficult to manage the place. Plans to renovate the rifugio have been hampered by perceived bureaucratic challenges; neither the Italians nor Swiss want to get involved. In other words, no one is willing to overstep their bounds- especially when they are not sure what they are.

Worried about the prospect of the lodge becoming Swiss, Trucco fears the increased cost of living: a coffee, he claims, would be twice as expensive.

What now?

COP26 has been and gone, so what’s next? This piece by The Economist Environment Editor argues that increased scrutiny and transparency will drive the way toward sustainable action in 2022.

‘As more and more companies adopt net-zero goals, there will be a push for better data and more transparency to ensure that progress towards decarbonisation is genuine.’

One of our recent blog posts looked at how Nottingham, and other cities across the world are disclosing their data in efforts to decarbonise. Now, the hope is that even more cities and businesses will continue to meaningfully plan and carve a future that prioritises sustainable, long-term aims. Profits, and the endless pursuit of them, are no longer acceptable. The public needs to be ready to keep protesting, because this isn’t over yet. The harsh, accusatory ‘blah, blah’ address by Greta Thunberg is, in many instances, likely to hold true.

But we know this isn’t the time to shut up. If anything, we need to make sure that all these conferences, all these grand policy aims- some far more unambitious than others- are not just empty words. We need to keep reading, stay engaged and tell these stories; just like the planet, they are ours.


Matthew Thomas, Community Development Assistant