What the gilets jaunes and natural disasters have in common

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“Paris is Burning”

“France’s Civil War”

“Yellow Vests: Violence, Vandalism And Chaos”


What draws the gilets jaunes and natural disasters together is simple: the obsession with chaos, loss and destruction.

There is abundant media coverage of the gilets jaunes these days – but not the kind we need. We hear about the damage they are doing to the storefronts of Paris, historic monuments, tourism, the euro, and President Emmanuel Macron’s approval ratings. But that very coverage reveals how easy it is in times of crisis for media coverage to overlook the crux of the problem: climate change.

News coverage of the protests follows the classic natural disaster formula, reporting on physical damage, casualties and injuries – all direct consequences. But equally important is journalism that can step away from the mayhem and frame the issue within the larger context of climate change. In times like these, we would benefit from deeper, more reflective pieces that foster discussion long after the dust settles. As readers and viewers, we must question why these events are happening, what long-term impacts they will have, and how we can prevent them from occurring in the future. We are not passive receptacles of knowledge, we are agents of change.

When numbers and figures take precedence over environmental concerns, it becomes time to seriously reconsider our climate communication strategies. News outlets can start by fixing the inability to link natural disasters to a changing climate. 2017 was a record year for extreme weather events, but according to Media Matters, only two segments on ABC, NBC, CBS and FOX discussed climate change in the context of hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria. With the latest IPCC report and COP24 talks making headlines, the science is getting more established and less refutable by the minute. This means we are running out of excuses to omit climate change from the equation – no matter how hard it is to watch, write, read and talk about.

The same goes for the gilets jaunes. With the movement growing both locally and abroad, the connection to climate change is loosening. People are building on the momentum of the protests to champion their own causes, such as the minimum wage and the wealth tax. However, we cannot lose sight of what pushed people to take to the streets in the first place: Macron’s green tax, which would have hiked up the prices of fuel and affected the people who could least afford to give up their car. This is an opportunity for news outlets to explore what the French government could do to better assess the impacts of climate change policy. Better yet, to make the very important distinction that the gilets jaunes are protesting policy, not outright climate action.

When major events unfold, the content we read shapes our reactions and informs our conversations. With all eyes and ears glued to the media in times of crisis, the science of climate change communications is more important than ever. We have an opportunity to build on the media attention of these events and to counteract the “if it bleeds, it leads” tendency of telling a story, which consequently – possibly inadvertently – diverts the focus away from climate.

The images of the protests are striking, powerful, and memorable; some even suspect a yellow vest might end up in a museum. However, how will the legacy of the protests be tied to climate change, if at all?