Despite scientists issuing dire warnings about us being us on a path toward an unliveable world, climate action is often met with shock and concern in the media. This week The Dominion Post decided to flip the script with a campaign to cut transport emissions.
UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres delivered a dire warning on the reality of the climate emergency, in a statement accompanying the release of the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
“This report… is a litany of broken climate promises. It is a file of shame, cataloguing the empty pledges that put us firmly on track towards an unliveable world,” he said.
The report urged governments to enact a host of policy interventions in response to that global threat.
Those include making major reforms to the world’s fastest growing source of emissions: transport.
It recommended building high density housing near jobs and public transit and investing heavily in walking and cycling.
That creates a challenge for governments used to coasting in a car-centric status quo.
But it also opens up potential lines of inquiry for the media.
If our governments have put us on a path toward an unliveable world, it would make sense for reporters to push them toward a different route.
In other words, they could push for that high density housing. Ask why there aren’t enough bike lanes? Why we are not doing enough to – in the words of one of Stuff’s old climate change campaigns – save the planet?
But it’s not necessarily the norm.
Instead, despite our news companies’ almost universal insistence they’re taking climate change seriously, potential climate action is often covered as an extraordinary step.
But watching an unfurling global catastrophe and refusing to make significant changes in response is arguably even more radical than allowing three-storey housing or removing car parks on 3.25% of Auckland’s roads over a decade.
This week, one major media outlet adjusted its editorial line to reflect that line of argument.
On Monday, almost the entire front page of the Dominion Post was covered with an image of a woman on a bike, accompanied by the headline: “We need to change to protect our planet. The only question is how.”
The paper has followed that with an editorial rebuffing Wellington Airport for its attempts to legally block a pedestrian crossing on Cobham Drive and commentary putting the case for low traffic neighbourhoods.
Anna Fifield, the Dominion Post’s editor, is driving this editorial direction as part of a campaign called ‘Mode Shift’.
She said it’s motivated by both personal and professional concern. She’s a cyclist (as well as a driver) who often feels unsafe on Wellington’s roads, and is also increasingly concerned over the urgent warnings from the IPCC.
“The climate change science is really clear and the warnings have become ominous in terms of the existential challenge our planet faces,” she says. “I think our coverage can be led by the science and these international examples.”
Those case studies include that of the Netherlands, which had a car-centric transport system and widespread opposition to bike lanes in the 1970s.
It now has the largest network of cycle lanes in the world, and overwhelming public support for that transport system.
Fifield said she wants to draw attention to these sorts of examples, along with academic studies on the actual effects of bike lanes and pedestrian upgrades on things like business, as a way of injecting facts into an often emotive debate.
She sees her stance on transport reform as a logical extension of Stuff’s official editorial position accepting the reality of climate change.
“If we look at how Stuff has changed its reporting on climate change, we have said that we accept that climate change is a given and we give very little to no space to climate change deniers. I’m applying a similar lens now to our coverage of transport in the Wellington region. Of course we will continue to be balanced and fair and be a forum for all sorts of voices but we’re saying climate change is a given. Transport is the biggest source of our emissions. Therefore we need to act and we will frame our coverage around that.”