“The single most prominent feature of climate change is complexity. This is not a global pandemic that paralyzes the whole world in a few months with cascades of newsworthy events flooding every editorial desk. Climate change is slow and lacks concrete incidents directly linked to global warming.”
Søren Linding, former Constructive Institute Fellow and Editor & Business Columnist at Finans
In his report, Søren Linding aims to identify a feasible formula for business media when covering the role and responsibilities of businesses with regards to climate change. Linding calls for the need for a more competent, critical and constructive coverage. The Finans editor has developed six guiding principles for business news media, based on qualitative interviews with 14 leading stakeholders.
Business journalism has to tackle this new challenge, which for decades has been put in the more abstract category of corporate social responsibility (CSR). It has been an issues of minor interest for traditional more financially oriented users of business media. This makes sense commercially but responsible journalists and newsrooms must also consider how business media, and media in general, can contribute to the green transition of the economy and to promote more sustainable business models.
This project aims at extracting a feasible formula for climate journalism in business media with particular interest in the coverage of non-financial companies. The groundwork is based on qualitative interviews with 14 leading stakeholders spanning executives, academia, consultants, media persons and investors. Their identity is publicly known but the use of quotes in this white paper have been given based on anonymity.
It should be stressed, that the six guiding principles are in a sense like the SDG’s. They are integrated and interconnected and balance four of the key components of great journalism – competence, independence, constructiveness and critical approach.
Six Guiding Principles
1. Competence. Understand the numbers, not only the text.
2. Integration. No special treatment, the honeymoon is over.
3. Constructive. Show nuances and the big picture, no to missionary or apocalyptic activism.
4. Critical. Call the bluff on greenwashing, but give credit to those with the courage to transform.
5. Time. Make the abstract concrete, and demand milestones on the way to the net zero emissions economy.
6. Community. Find better sources, build networks and create loyalty.
CHANGE IS COMING
It is mind blowing looking back in the history of geology. The last time levels of carbon dioxide were at today’s levels of around 415 ppm was three million years ago. At that time, the Earth’s global mean temperature was 2–3°C warmer than today and sea level was nearly 20 meters higher. It requires no vivid imagination to picture the devastating effects on currently low-lying cities such as Alexandria, Amsterdam, Cape Town, Copenhagen, Guangzhou, London, New York, Osaka and Rio de Janeiro. That was long before the existence of homo sapiens but even current greenhouse gas levels, if sustained for longer periods, must be considered dangerous for human civilizations that are adapted to the relatively stable climate, that existed for the 10,000 years before the industrial revolution.
It is evident for policy makers around the globe, that a sustainable global future is only possible with transformative change that tackles more than the direct consequences of the climate change, meaning the root causes addressed in the globally agreed 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). But progress on these goals lags behind, replicating the last century of discouraging dynamics: industries knowingly pollute; scientists investigate the extent of the pollution and propose solutions; industries, often with political approval, deem mitigation too expensive, while scientists are starved of resources and the problems are ignored.
Change though is coming, and it has been reinforced by the corona pandemic.
Change though is coming, and it has been reinforced by the corona pandemic. This health crisis constitutes a wake-up call to governments and companies towards the danger of ignoring external risks and adequate mitigation. Warnings of global warming’s consequences are long lived and have been repeated by experts endlessly, recently confirmed in the Sixth Assessment Report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), but now especially the business environment takes steps in coping with the challenges. These years could be pivotal in the fight against climate change seen in an increasing number of companies promoting their environmental, social and governance (ESG) standards. This is exacerbated by the Big Money also driving the ESG agenda, headed by Larry Fink, the chief executive of Blackrock. The world’s largest asset manager will use active ownership to push companies to achieve net zero emissions by 2050.
This is an increasing reflection upon the deficiencies of political action on a coordinated global scale towards what is now considered a substantial investment risk. It means that what started as a future exogenous event being addressed by society and political actors, is now being internalized by companies into concrete policies and strategies in an effort to tackle their own destiny. For the majority the required changes constitute a transformation of the business model based on a risky, long term planning involving all stakeholders.
PRINCIPLE 1 – COMPETENCE
Climate journalism is not only a new genre for the traditional media, it is also relatively technical and complex, covering a wider range of disciplines. These specific characteristics collide to a huge extent with the challenges of journalism in general, leaving declining space for specialization, immersion and learning to enhance competence. A successful coverage therefore requires not only dedicated and capable journalists but also adequate resources.
The knowledge gap between journalists and sources risks being too big, giving certain companies, institutions and academia the task of teaching and educating journalists.
The climate journalism field evolves continuously with new knowledge, shifting reporting standards, and cutting-edge technologies emerging on a global scale. The knowledge gap between journalists and sources risks being too big, giving certain companies, institutions and academia the task of teaching and educating journalists.
“We are also damn ungrateful, expecting everyone to be as updated as us on the latest developments. That is certainly a minority, so we have to invest more in giving background information to the journalists.”
“The journalists have to be better at reaching out, requesting the knowledge needed and invest time and energy in understanding complicated structures and solutions to diverse problems.”
The relationship is certainly reciprocal, many green companies need the media to translate the multitude of technical solutions into something other stakeholders, like politicians and customers, can understand, only then can they be promoted to a broader audience. For their part journalists should be given the necessary skills and insights to stay updated and ahead of the development in order to push the green agenda forward. The lack of knowledge, also in the business and financial sector, is so evident, that a knowledge sharing program in which journalists can participate is desirable.
“The role of the media is to be able to question and differentiate the impact of what actually moves the needle.”
An obvious ambition is for all business journalist to be able to read and understand a sustainability and a climate report so the results can be reported as fast, accurately and reliablly as a financial report. This is a challenging task, when the absence of common standards and lack of data makes comparability between countries, cities, industries, companies and products impossible at this stage of time. Until now lyrics in these reports have reigned on behalf of hard data, but it is about to change. The creation of more data and more competent report users will help journalists to ask the right questions and find better and more relevant stories, particular in discovering possible inconsistencies between financial and sustainablility performance.
“We want to be transparent. We believe that the sustainability report in the future will be at least as important as the financial report.”
Again, the business community sees the business media as a key player in offering credibility to the documentation behind claims on progress in fighting climate change.
“The biggest push back is the lack of confidence in these numbers. Perhaps the media can help gaining trust by being critical and consistently following the developments.”
Once common standards are agreed upon and implemented, climate and sustainability reports will offer valuable analysis.Until then they areareuseful resources and aaid journalists in interpreting the efforts in the fight against climate change. That said, climate change is not only about reducing CO2 emissions. The extinction of species, the decline of biodiversity and fresh water resources are important elements as well.
The EU taxonomy for the financial sector, the upcoming directive for disclosure for non-financial information and the rise of new reporting standards (GRI, SASB and SBTi) demands a marked effort by journalists in order to understand the matters in depth. However it also holds an opportunity to be a frontrunner in adding value by assessing more correctly the winners and losers in the race to combat climate change.
“Enhancing competence is important. There is a certain fatigue in matters of sustainability in the board rooms, as the subject has been on the agenda for ages. It is time to focus on the magic of the numbers and avoid being seduced by the lyrics.”
PRINCIPLE 2 – INTEGRATION
There are strong arguments for insisting, climate journalism is a separate discipline and should be treated as such. Especially in recent years many media houses are eager to show responsibility and public engagement by creating a visible profile in the area of climate change.
But there is a – perhaps less, commercially viable – alternative of dealing with climate journalism. In the business environment sustainability issues are now increasing being dealt with as an integrative part of strategic planning as a way of moving towards a truly sustainable business model. The former office of corporate social responsibility (CSR) down the hallway with roughly speaking the only task of writing the annual CSR report is past history. The consequence is on the same wavelength of what has happened to the theme of digitization and the fourth industrial revolution. It simply becomes integrated in the overall coverage of business news on the same principles of traditional journalism and news criteria.
”Climate change is important, but it has the same characteristics as the EU. It has to be incorporated on equal terms in the day-to-day journalism. It has to be part of our reality, but it could – on the other hand – be commercially unsound.”
To avoid the looming fatigue of sustainability journalism a more stringent focus on the value creation part of a sustainable business model appears valid.
This is an important takeaway. The nature of climate change is, that it is such a slow process. It gets very abstract and the storyline tends to repeat itself when it has to be a sustainability labeled feature like a separate supplement or section. To avoid the looming fatigue of sustainability journalism a more stringent focus on the value creation part of a sustainable business model appears valid.
“The link to the bottom line is a good way of attracting readers. Climate changes challenge the value of all assets in a new way. No one get tired of reading about value creation.”
The sector for sustainable pure players like the greentech companies is ready for a more traditional, lean and critical treatment in the business media. The industries have matured and have to a large degree to be competitive in a market based economy free of state subsidies.
“The honeymoon is over. Our products have to compete on liberal, free market conditions. That changes the dynamics and the requirements from different stakeholders towards us. But we are ready, and we welcome that development.”
PRINCIPLE 3 – CONSTRUCTIVE
Expectations of the news media supporting the fight against climate change are huge. The policymakers talk about “leaving no one behind”, and it requires a full blown support from the public, the world of finance, the business environment and the vital institutions. Certain observers have directly called it a defining moment for the media to show that they are still relevant. That indicates a more activist approach towards climate journalism, which certain more centre-left oriented media have chosen.
Among corporate leaders, it does not make sense. Though climate change is among, if not the most important subject for the next generation, journalism must not assume a missionary rhetoric or an apocalyptic tone, risking scaring or not antagonising its core audience. Good journalism never becomes patronizing, but is instead informing, engaging and involving. When it comes to climate change and the significant cost of abating the threat, it is even more essential to educate audiences so that anyone can take qualified decisions to cope with complex challenges.
“Climate change is not another news story. It will set the scene for the perception of the relevance of the media in the future.”
The relevant, critical sources for a nuanced coverage reject being part of a journalism, which is screwed towards predetermined angles and simplified conclusions. On the other hand, there are no objections towards opposing views in editorials, columns and opinion related features. One of the most mentioned corporate wishes for climate journalism is to aim for the big picture. Climate change is so complex, so contradictory and so constantly evolving. It calls for long reads and series of structured articles that are well researched and well written.
“For the time being it’s more on a piecemeal basis. It does not create a momentum of how to invest, how to adapt and how to deal with climate change”
It is not the task of the media to persuade anyone of a certain ideology or set of values but to hold government, authorities, businesses and citizens in general accountable for what we as a society have agreed upon.
The heavily discussed theme of activism or not in climate journalism can be understood in a constructive way. It is not the task of the media to persuade anyone of a certain ideology or set of values but to hold government, authorities, businesses and citizens in general accountable for what we as a society have agreed upon. In this way the media offer society the tools and knowledge to be accountable for their own promises, the business environment included.
“You should put external checks and balances to our system, based on some sort of defined values or moral code of a desirable society and the fact that society has not fully acknowledged its own fate, and that the way we run our companies do not work. It is just an extension of that principle. You are just trying to question the companies in a way, so humanity can exist in the long run.”
The mitigation and adaption to global warming are often described as a win-win scenario. It indicates the possibility of transforming society and business in a way to do good for the climate without sacrificing welfare or profits. That is certainly true for a variety of businesses, but for the majority a significant cost is required to implement the needed change on the short term. Climate change affects all and everyone and it would be a false narrative to assume no additional cost. The transformation is brutal resulting in closures, downsizing and huge losses for some on one hand and opportunities for new innovative start-ups, successful transformations and increasing profits for the sustainable pure play companies on the other hand.
“Few understand how businesses create value for society. It is a narrative that is accentuated by the climate debate, where companies can and shall do more than the most.”
Climate journalism can for the same reasons not be seen isolated. It is a symptom of a new type of journalism, as climate changes involves so many other challenges. It adds to the complexity, which only underlines the inevitable task of simplifying in order to convey the important messages of how to tackle climate change.
PRINCIPLE 4 – CRITICAL
There is an urgent desire for the media to be the watchdog to secure the green transition of the economy. The risk of being shamed goes hand in hand with false green promises or inadequate responses to the challenge of adopting to more sustainable business models. Obviously, it takes profound research and solid sources to reveal the green washers. In a time where money is cheap and capital keeps pouring into sustainable finance at an accelerating pace, the hype of green assets risks leading to bubbles and overly optimistic valuations.
“It is time to call the bluff. It would be prizeworthy, if someone had the courage and the competences to uncover the huge amount of greenwashing going on.”
There is an overwhelming appeal to reveal governments, mayors and CEO’s or other prominent characters creating a green profile but simply not delivering the substantial results, investments or initiatives to support their statements. But it is a thin line. Climate change being so complex, nearly anyone can be accused of green washing, especially when bearing in mind the lack of standards and the risks associated with a rushed transformation of business models.
”We have to take care, not to state that everything is cheating. It risks undermining the support for change, if the sceptics are confirmed in their resistance.”
Here is another appeal to the media, focus on commonly agreed denominators for success and therefore who to give the credit.
The abundance of data, standards and confirmation bias underscores the need for obtaining credible science based documentation on the progress specific businesses have towards operating more sustainably. Here is another appeal to the media, focus on commonly agreed denominators for success and therefore who to give the credit.
“The media can help us in reporting from our journey to a more sustainable future, holding us accountable and being a kind of guarantee, that we get there. But it requires robust data, stakeholders can trust, and we need the media to help with that.”
The reporting of the emissions in a certified manner, setting specific goals for the future levels of cardon dioxide from the whole value chain (called scope I, II and III) and fulfilling the EU taxonomy should be the minimum starting point. Looking forward typically to the ambitions set for 2030 and 2050 requires a substantial set of strategic initiatives to change the business model. Now. Certain critical, but simple questions should reveal the substance behind the ambition.
Many Danish companies are eager to get credit for their achieved progress. To give a fair and balanced perspective of the stage of development towards zero carbon activities, an international comparison is relevant. It would not only rank the Danish companies on an internal level but put the Danish efforts on a global scale.
PRINCIPLE 5 – TIME
Climate change is a slow process. The potential consequences of global warming are for the most people on Earth distant and will first become critical in time of the next generations. The rising temperatures do result in more extreme weather events, floodings, wildfires and droughts. But the effects of global warming on biodiversity, water resources, living conditions and food supply are only gradually deteriorating.
News journalism is on the other hand very concrete. The long term effects of climate change and the need for concrete events to base news stories upon constitutes a challenging dilemma. The same goes for business media, covering the initiatives companies launch to mitigate and adapt to the global warming. The targets are typically set for 2030 and 2050, that is 10 and 30 years from now, leaving little room for potent punchlines and headlines.
“Having such a longtime horizon, specific milestones must be set along the journey. If you set ambitious targets, you must have an idea on how to get there. It’s the good ones, who dare and the rest who hesitate.”
The road to zero emissions is made of a patchwork of new investments, new initiatives, new materials and probably new ways of organizing businesses. It requires decisions to be made within the next years to reach the targets set. The overview and control of securing this development is rooted in the boardroom but the majority of today’s directors will be out of office, when the promises have to be fulfilled.
“It is not the short-term profit against the long term value creation, it has to be another debate.
Who is in charge of making those decisions, where the effects only appear in many years from now? The general perception is, that it is only the financial results of the next three months which absorbs us. That is wrong.”
The strong momentum in sustainable finance results in an intensified pressure on ESG regulated investing and for companies to mitigate, to adopt and to show accountability to its stakeholders. Having no plan towards zero emissions is no longer an option giving more room for journalists to challenge the sustainable roadmap. Another appeal to the media is patience to accept, that the way to sustainability not always is linear and that there needs to be credit for trying.
“For many, we are talking early days of how to understand these matters and make concrete promises. There is a lot of anxiety around these issues.”
The extraction of the Earth’s resources has reached such unsustainable levels, that the global warming is only a fraction of the problems facing humanity.
Giving the abstraction of climate change, many are starting to change their time perspective on global warming. The challenge is not only about carbon emissions, which would give a too partial coverage of the risks. The extraction of the Earth’s resources has reached such unsustainable levels, that the global warming is only a fraction of the problems facing humanity.
“Climate change is as acute a problem as the Covid-19 disease. It’s a mistake to believe, climate change is something happening long term. It has already huge implications on what is going on now as well as what will happen in the future.”
PRINCIPLE 6 – COMMUNITY
Climate journalism is in many senses more integrative, more complex and more contradictory than other editorial disciplines. The prerequisite of solid, insightful and credible sources only becomes more vital for delivering journalism of great quality and informing, engaging and involving the business environment and its most important stakeholders. The act of balancing opposing views in how to fight climate change calls for better sources than the spokespersons being currently offered.
“Expert comments have always been a problem. You have some, who earn their living being quoted in the media, making their views on everything available for everyone for free, often based on superficial insights and inferior knowledge. It ends up backfiring and ruining your journalism.”
Finding, recruiting and retaining the best sources within climate change and sustainable business models is pivotal for upgrading climate journalism in business media or any other media. It is crucial to spend the necessary resources to attain the confidence of exclusive sources to participate and be quoted. Ambitious aspirations are worthless without an extensive plan for obtaining the best sources available for business media.
“One idea could be to start creating a network of gifted people, who want to be quoted. They should in some way be part of a dialogue with you, rendering mutual benefits.”
The best sources would eventually feel a need for participating in the debate by themselves through their own written comments, podcasts or discussion panels. The particular field of ESG investments, ratings and consultancy opens a variety of new sources of various credibility, insights and availability. It also offers, in these early days of sustainable business, scope for new voices, new perspectives and a constructive push for a greener agenda.
The complexity of climate change calls for a deeper understanding of the possible solutions for the society to mitigate and adapt.
The complexity of climate change calls for a deeper understanding of the possible solutions for the society to mitigate and adapt. There are high hopes for technological break throughs, but existing technologies only offer valid alternatives, if they can work efficiently with politics and market forces.
“Journalists should draw themselves a bit closer to the real world realities and see what already works.”
The single most prominent feature of climate change is complexity. This is not a global pandemic that paralyzes the whole world in a few months with cascades of newsworthy events flooding every editorial desk. Climate change is slow and lacks concrete incidents directly linked to global warming.
This white paper outlines six principles for business media to cover climate change more competently, critically and constructively. Through these principles journalists can contribute to a more efficient green transition of the economy and promote more sustainable business models in enterprises. This paper does not claim to be a factbook but a guiding hand in the years to come that probably could turn out to be decisive for the fight against climate change.
The principles follow the nature of good journalism; being balanced, credible and independent.
The principles follow the nature of good journalism; being balanced, credible and independent. It goes without saying, that business reporting on climate change needs to be competent, critical and constructive without falling into the pitfalls of missionary or apocalyptic activism. Climate change and sustainability should be integrated in the main coverage of business on a similar footing to digitalization, EU or any other cross sector subjects. Climate related stories should be assessed, edited and published on equal terms in their own right. The time perspective is particularly challenging when the consequences of climate change – especially on these latitudes – are barely visible. The same goes for long term plans and promises towards 2030 and 2050 to adapt to and mitigate the effects of global warming.
Without specific milestones, accountability becomes irrelevant and responsibility is easy to ignore. Good climate journalism needs better sources, and it requires a closer dialogue with gifted, competent and skilled experts.