In February 2021, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres lamented that "governments are nowhere close to the level of ambition needed to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement” (※1). In order to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement, which were established in order to rein in the progression of climate change by 2030, carbon dioxide emissions must be reduced by 45% from 2010 levels. A number of countries have set their own carbon dioxide emission reduction targets, but even if the targets set by each country were to be achieved by 2030, they would only amount to a 1% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions from 2010 levels.
Under these circumstances, it is worth considering how much attention the media pays to the issue of climate change, considering that the media has the power to influence governments, corporations, and individuals, as well as what is included in, and excluded from, the contents of the media coverage. In this article, we expand on GNV's 2017 analysis of the Japanese media’s coverage of climate change, tracking it from a long-term perspective.
The problem of climate change
Today, climate change is threatening the world with a variety of problems. Here are a few examples.
Let’s start with global warming. According to data released by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), 2020 was the warmest year on record, along with 2016. As of 2018, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported that the Earth is now 1°C warmer than the global average temperature at the time of the Industrial Revolution. Global warming is affecting the environment in various ways, including loss of wildlife habitat, loss of coral reefs, and an increase of health hazards.
Global warming is also causing ice sheets to melt around the world. In recent years, the Greenland ice sheet has been melting more rapidly now than at any time in the past 12,000 years. The rate of melting is to the point where the amount of snowfall that replenishes the ice sheet cannot keep up with the amount of ice that melts and flows out to sea each year. The melting of ice sheets in other parts of the world, including the Arctic and Antarctic, is also a major factor in the rise of sea levels.
Extreme weather events have also been exceptionally devastating. Climate change has been blamed as one of the causes of the record-breaking floods that occurred in Bangladesh in 2020, as well as other parts of the Bay of Bengal. In Bangladesh, heavy rains during the monsoon season inundated about a third of the country, affecting 5.4 million people. In India, similar flooding affected more than 14 million people. The floods killed more than 1,000 people in both countries. Also in 2020, several typhoons, including three major ones, made landfall in the Philippines and in Vietnam. This event resulted in a large number of dead and missing people, damaged infrastructure, and houses destroyed. Furthermore, the typhoons caused economic hardship for many of the victims. Since 2019, the East African region has also been hit by massive heavy rains. These torrential rains have had a huge impact on the spread of infectious diseases such as cholera, as well as causing food crises due to soil erosion in farmland. In 2020, the torrential rains also prompted the proliferation of desert locusts, which attacked farmland, further exacerbating the East African food crisis. The locust swarms also spread to the Middle East and South Asia, causing food crises in the respective regions as well.
Last but definitely not least, climate change is also closely linked to inequality and poverty. “Climate apartheid” is one such concept that describes this link. This term refers to the fact that the high-income countries which have caused climate change are able to mitigate the damage to some extent through their economic power, while low-income countries are unable to take measures due to their lack of economic capacity, thus suffering more damage from climate change. This has resulted in a widening the gap between high- and low-income countries. The floods in Bangladesh and India and the heavy rains in East Africa are clear examples of this trend. Bangladesh emits only about 1% of the world's greenhouse gases. Due to the impoverished condition they face, these countries cannot adequately combat the problems of climate change. They are thus more affected by the problems, and the problems further foster impoverished conditions, worsening the vicious cycle of poverty.
Trends in the past 35 years of climate change coverage
The examples above show how climate change is causing critical situations around the world. But how much has this issue been reported on in Japan? For this article, we surveyed the number of domestic and international articles mentioning climate change in the three major Japanese broadsheet daily newspapers (Yomiuri Shimbun, Asahi Shimbun, and Mainichi Shimbun) from 1986, when climate change began to first attract media attention, to 2020, and charted the amount of coverage by year (※2).
As can be seen from the graph above, there is no significant difference in the amount of coverage by the three newspapers. Let's take a look at what happened in the years when the volume of coverage increased.
Around 1990, climate change gradually started to be covered, with a slight increase in 1992. This is related to the adoption of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (Earth Summit) held in Brazil. The first major spike in coverage came in 1997, when the Kyoto Protocol was adopted at the third Conference of the Parties (COP3). The Kyoto Protocol set a target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by approximately 5% between 2008 and 2012 compared to 1990 levels, with high-income countries obligated to reduce their emissions by specific percentages. The reason for the sharp increase in media coverage compared to previous years can be attributed to the fact that COP3 was held in Japan. A similar trend was seen when media coverage of biodiversity increased at the time of the conference on the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP10), which was held in Aichi, Japan.
Since then, the amount of media coverage has fluctuated, but there was a dramatic increase in coverage from 2007 to 2009. This can be attributed to increased political debate over the potential renewal of the Kyoto Protocol or the creation of a new framework. Expectations grew for the United States of America and China to participate in the conference, as the former had withdrawn from the Kyoto Protocol, and the latter had not been obligated to reduce its emissions. To some extent, during this time period, there seemed to be some global momentum building in dealing with climate change. However, the 2009 COP15 held in Copenhagen, Denmark, failed to create a new framework. At the 2011 COP17 held in Durban, South Africa, three major greenhouse gas emitters, Japan, Canada and Russia, chose not to participate in the second period of the Kyoto Protocol starting in 2013. Despite this significant event of top emitters exiting from the Kyoto Protocol, media coverage of climate change went down sharply in 2011, continuing from the already downward trend in 2010. Since then, the amount of climate change coverage has been minimal, as if climate change was a hot topic that has since blown over.
In 2015, COP21 was held in Paris, France. Unlike the Kyoto Protocol, which imposed reduction obligations only on high-income countries, the Paris Agreement stipulated that all ratified countries promise to take action against global warming. In 2017, former US President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of the USA from the Paris Agreement, which attracted much attention, and the slight increase in media coverage in 2015 and 2017 can be attributed to these factors. The Paris Agreement received much attention around the world as an international agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol. However, the absolute number of news articles is small compared to the two major peaks in the graph, 1997, when the Kyoto Protocol was adopted, and 2008, the year the target period began, indicating the lack of attention paid to the Paris Agreement by the Japanese media.
Changes in the amount of media coverage over the past two years
Next, let's take a closer look at the trends from the past two years, 2019 to 2020. This time, we focus on domestic and international articles in which climate change was mentioned in the Asahi Shimbun, and analyze the amount of coverage by month for the two years of 2019 and 2020 (※3).
The Asahi Shimbun produced 106 articles in which climate change was mentioned over the two years examined, averaging only 4.4 articles per month. As seen from the 35-year coverage graph, 2019 saw the highest amount of coverage in the past decade. What is the cause of this increase in the first place? Comparing the amount of coverage by month, December 2019 has the highest number of articles (16), but this is due to the relatively high number of articles (13) about COP25, which was held that month in Madrid, Spain. There are also a number of articles that cover the words and actions of politicians and activists. Notable examples include articles on Shinjiro Koizumi, Japan's Minister of Environment, and Greta Thunberg, a Swedish high school activist. In fact, Koizumi attracted attention for his diplomatic debut at the UN Climate Action Summit, and there were three articles about him in the year 2019. Thunberg attracted particular global attention for her speech at the UN Action Summit in September 2019, and there were six articles about her in the year 2019. Considering that climate change itself is difficult to treat as news due to the fact that it is progressive in nature, as opposed to being a defined event, it is undoubtedly easier for the media to focus on coverage of governments and individuals. Even so, it can be said that there was very little coverage of the issues associated with, and impacts of, climate change.
In 2020, on the other hand, there was a significant decrease in the amount of media coverage. It goes without saying that this was caused by the media’s focus on the COVID-19 pandemic. But as pointed out in detail in past articles by GNV, there is a close relationship between the health hazards caused by rising temperatures, as well as the spread of infectious diseases caused by extreme weather. In other words, climate change and pandemics are not unrelated. In the year 2020, the amount of media coverage on climate change seems to have recovered a little by December, but in 2021, the monthly amount of media coverage decreased to one article in January, three articles in February, and four articles in March.
The Asahi Shimbun is a partner organization of the international movement Covering Climate Now. Partner organizations are presumed to be committed to increasing their climate change coverage. The Asahi Shimbun does indeed have reporters who are actively focusing on environmental issues. The newspaper also has a special feature for Covering Climate Now on their website, as well as social media posts. However, the results of our survey show little evidence of an increase in overall climate change coverage. Although there is a dire need to sound the alarm and demand rapid action from governments and corporations, the amount of coverage does not indicate that the Asahi Shimbun is adequately playing this role.
Climate change and international reporting
The analysis above included both domestic and international news. How does the coverage look if we limit analysis to only international coverage mentioning climate change? As mentioned above, there were 106 articles mentioning climate change in the two years examined. These can be divided into 42 domestic and 64 international articles. Of the international coverage, 15.5 articles (※4) were related to COP25 held in Madrid, Spain in 2019 and COP26, which was postponed to 2021 and scheduled to be held in Glasgow, UK. 35.5 articles (※4), more than half of the total international coverage, were related to climate change measures, including measures related to COP25 and COP26.
There are two major inferences that can be drawn from this analysis. The first is that the Japanese media, as expected, reports largely on government actions. During the month of the annual COP, the amount of media coverage on climate change increases considerably. However, as noted above, the content is limited to the actions of politicians and activists, and the fact that an international conference was held, with little coverage of the problems of climate change itself and its escalating impacts. There were only 7 articles in the relevant international coverage that mentioned the causes and effects of climate change in the two years examined. The current state of the media is as if they are simply waiting for the (reluctant) government to lead the way, instead of looking into the issue themselves and sounding the alarm through their reporting.
The second is that high-income countries are the ones who receive the most coverage. There were 15 articles related to the USA, 9 articles related to Spain, and 7 articles related to the UK. On the other hand, there was almost no coverage of low-income countries, despite the fact that they have been hit the hardest by climate change. This trend shows that we have a long way to go in solving the “climate apartheid” problem.
Expectations for the media
Japan was not given the opportunity to speak at the UN Climate Action Summit in 2019, as it was deemed to have not proposed any specific global warming measures or goals. In addition, Japan was not just once, but twice awarded the satirical “Fossil of the Day” award, given by the NGO Climate Action Network (CAN) to countries that have not taken sufficient action to combat climate change. In October 2020, in a policy speech during the 203rd extraordinary Diet session, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga declared that Japan will aim for zero greenhouse gas emissions and become a carbon-neutral society by 2050. Even comparing with other governments’ policies around the world, Japan’s attitude toward tackling climate change is nowhere near enough.
What is the Japanese media's take on this critical situation? The media is supposed to play a watchdog role by reporting on these problems, thereby raising the public's awareness of the issues, and calling for countermeasures by the government and corporations. At present, however, it is difficult to say that the media is fulfilling this role. Recently, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have been garnering attention in Japan, and we see more of them in the media and in society in general. However, it is clear that there has been no substantive increase in media attention to climate change, despite climate change being designated as a problem included in the SDGs. If this trend continues, the amount of media coverage is not expected to increase in the future. We look forward to the media in Japan changing its ways and taking a more active role in tackling the issue of climate change.
※1 The Paris Agreement is an international agreement reached in 2015 at the 21st Conference of Parties (COP21) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) with the goal of pursuing efforts to limit the increase in the global average temperature to 1.5°C after 2020, keeping it well below 2°C compared to pre-industrial levels.
※2 The number of articles published in the morning and evening editions of the Mainichi/Asahi/Yomiuri newspapers between January 1986 and December 2020 was calculated by using each newspaper’s respective database: Mainichi’s “Maisaku”, Asahi’s “Kikuzo II”, and Yomiuri’s “Yomidas”. Each database was searched for articles in both morning and evening editions in all sections of the newspapers with the terms “COP”, “climate change”, and/or “global warming” in the headline or text.
※3 The Asahi Shimbun’s online database “Kikuzo II” was searched for the number of articles published in the morning and evening editions of the Asahi Shimbun from January 2019 to December 2020 with the terms “COP” “climate change” and/or “global warming” in the headline.
※4 In order to count all article topics equally, in cases in which an article dealt with two topics, it is divided among the topics and counted as “0.5 articles” in each topic category.
Writer: Mayuko Hanafusa
Graphics: Mayuko Hanafusa
Translation by: Namie Wilson