How the media can help us achieve a real and sustainable green recovery
Luna Williams reflects on some of the ways in which the media has chosen to report the positive environmental impacts of the pandemic.
As lockdown draws to a close in the UK, commentators have highlighted some of the positive impacts on the environment. As business closures, travel restrictions, and social distancing policies have been rolled out across the world, the Earth’s airways, seas and roads have been substantially cleared of human activity. With this, so have many of the unattractive elements of humankind’s presence on the planet.
Carbon and nitrogen oxide emissions have plummeted. In China, carbon emissions are down 25% compared to the same period last year, and nitrogen oxide levels dropped 50% in the same period. This story is much the same in other locked-down countries. Since the US implemented restrictions in March, cities around the country have seen massive reductions in pollution levels; New York alone has seen a carbon reduction of almost 60% in just over a month. Similarly, satellite imagery from NASA has shown visible signs of greenhouses gasses clearing across Europe and data has indicated significant drops in European countries’ pollution levels. In the UK, air quality has improved by up to 60% in some cities since the lockdown, and this is mirrored in Italy, Germany, Spain and France.
‘The Earth is slowly healing’ the media tells us
Mainstream and social media reporting has reflected this shift, with many reporters and members of the public coming forward to celebrate the idea that the Earth is healing while humanity hits the pause button. Images of formerly smog-filled cities, like Los Angeles, New Delhi, and Beijing, have surfaced across various platforms, accompanied by headlines and captions which revelled in this concept. “The Earth is slowly healing,” CBS News wrote, while The Guardian described “nature bouncing back” in their coverage.
Alongside this, other tales of a revived natural world have been popping up, forming one of the few so-called ‘silver-linings’ of the COVID-19 pandemic. From deer grazing in a housing estate in East London, to alligators roaming shopping centres in South Carolina, and cayotes at California’s famous tourist attraction the Golden Gate Bridge – pictures, videos and testimonials have excitedly described the presence of wildlife in formerly urban and human-dominated spaces.
Indeed, it makes sense that people are excited by these kinds of stories. With the news dominated by the loss, suffering, and economic hardship the pandemic has already caused, the idea that the world is in some way being revived by humanity’s absence from it has brought with it a ray of comfort for many, who would otherwise have little positivity to hold on to.
The media helps articulate a way forward after the pandemic
In fact, reporting stories like this is extremely important, not just so that we have something to motivate us through what is undeniably one of the hardest times in most of our lifetimes, but also so that we are able to understand just how much impact humanity’s actions do and can have on the world and also to answer questions about what we want a post-pandemic world to look like.
However, there is also a very real danger that discussions around the topic of climate change and the coronavirus can border on ethically dubious territory. When we stop celebrating the temporary revival of the planet as a side-effect of lockdown measures and start celebrating the pandemic itself, a dangerous narrative evolves. This is one that tiptoes into the realms of eco-fascism, a school of thought that dictates permanent, draconian restrictions on human life in the name of environmental revival.
But some newspaper headlines are far from helpful
There are numerous examples of media platforms slipping into this kind of narrative. The Sun, for instance, published an article at the beginning of May that described the fact that “coronavirus has saved [thousands] of lives” due to drops in pollution levels, while The Guardian published a headline (quoted from a UN representative) which stated that COVID-19 was nature’s way of “sending us a message”.
Although it is tempting to want to cling onto something positive at this time, we must remember – as members of the public and as reporters – that a global pandemic cannot and should not be considered a reasonable means of solving the climate emergency. Of course, we should celebrate the environmental changes we are seeing as a by-product of lockdown measures. But we should use the experience as a way of both understanding the importance humanity plays in preserving the health of the planet and forming new, sustainable environmental policies in the future.
The media has a responsibility to ask questions which reflect real, tangible and ethical change. We need more reporting which questions and analyses how we can achieve this. Can remote working become more widespread in a post-pandemic world, for instance? Or could we be effective in building up the renewable energy sector as we make the journey back towards normality? By asking these kinds of questions, the media can play its part in calling the government to action, so that this time can be used as a means of trialling and assessing how we can bring about real, sustainable environmental legislation in the future.
‘Returning to normal’ should be about learning, and finding new and improved ways of protecting the planet — without sacrificing human life or freedom.
Luna Williams is the political correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service. The IAS is an organisation that assists private clients, as well as asylum seekers, refugees and trafficking victims. It is currently working alongside charities on a campaign to encourage the government to call an amnesty for undocumented migrants.