Climate of opinion

When it comes to an issue as emotive as climate change, can we rely on journalists for accurate information? Here, two academics from the Cabot Institute, and four alumni working in journalism, campaigning and industry, discuss some of the factors influencing the portrayal of climate change in the media.

Tessa Mayes (BSc 1989), journalist, film director and producer

Tessa MayesAs the River Mole breaks its banks, flooding villages near my parents’ home, climate change is front-page news. So, too, are the confusing messages surrounding it.

In the first Prime Minister’s Questions of the new year, David Cameron said he ‘suspected’ that the ‘abnormal weather’ was linked to climate change, while critics called his comments ‘casual’. Lord Stern, author of the Stern Review on climate change, commented at the Davos World Economic Forum that he had ‘underestimated the risks’. And yet the UK Met Office has forecast that temperatures are unlikely to rise significantly until at least 2017.

You’d think by now that a subject with a long record of scientific scrutiny would be clear. But its politicisation – and the speculative nature of some scientific studies – makes it difficult for journalists to cover climate change accurately.

The way climate change is discussed is as controversial as the subject itself. Prince Charles, for example, is one of many to describe those who dispute climate change science as ‘deniers’. But rather than clarifying the debate, this label precludes discussion, leading to studies with less alarmist interpretations of the data being dismissed.

So how should journalists cover climate change? Like any news reporters, they should stick to the facts. I would also argue that they should have more expertise. Unless you know how UN climate reports are received by scientists and debated by politicians, how can you put them into context? Not all studies are equally valid, but how can journalists assess what’s important if they know little about the science? News articles can all too easily lead to scaremongering rather than enlightenment.

The media should air opposing views on climate change, but journalists should be expert enough to assess the scientific and political importance of those views without being accused of bias. Otherwise audiences will believe that all views are equally important when they aren’t. That’s propaganda, not news.

Overwhelming scientific evidence and mainstream political views dominate the media and so they should, but that doesn’t mean alternative views should be censored. Minority views may overturn orthodox thinking, and if and when they do, journalists will report that too. It’s not the place of journalists to predict the future, just report current truths. Anything else is campaigning journalism.

It’s hard reporting the truth. You have to put your prejudice aside. But it’s vital that news journalists are aware of the context and meaning of what they’re reporting so as to avoid creating panic and confusion. If not, how can we get accurate information? We don’t want to live in a world where people end up disbelieving all reporting because of the kind of hype expressed by one character in the movie Ice Age: The Meltdown: ‘The five-day outlook is calling for intense flooding followed by ... the end of the world! And a slight chance of patchy sunshine later in the week’.

Professor Richard Pancost, Director of the Cabot Institute and Professor of Biogeochemistry

‌Climate change is one of the most profound challenges facing humanity. However, it is one associated with uncertain and complex consequences, with the most pernicious concerns not necessarily being climate change itself but how it exacerbates other issues, such as extreme weather events, food security, access to resources, and the spread of disease and conflict. It cannot sit in isolation from the rest of the news, but demands nuanced exploration that facilitates the responsible formation of opinion and policy.

Experts, the public and the media form a triangle around policy-makers, influencing political decisions. Most government decision-makers want to enact beneficial policies, but they must do so in a storm of (mis)information, opinions, ideology and short-term political imperatives. We must therefore work together, and members of the Cabot Institute who provide advice to government should also help foster a political climate that encourages evidence-based decisions.

To ensure this, the media and the academics must improve how knowledge is shared. Debate is important but too often focuses on well-established physics rather than the wider issues. This has led the discussion to ossify into unhelpful patterns: scientists versus sceptics, environmentalists versus business. These are poor representations of the topic. Insurance companies are concerned about climate change. Our military believes it could exacerbate future conflicts. Religious leaders maintain that preventing climate change that disproportionately harms the poorest is an ethical issue. The media has a duty not only to report the debate, but also to frame it in a useful, enriching manner. Similarly, I would urge scientists to broaden their areas of expertise and build coalitions of knowledge with colleagues.

Another challenge is that the news cycle is fickle and climate change is often covered in an ad hoc manner. Climate change should not be sporadic headline news but a continuous part of the news cycle, reflecting its widespread impact on our lives. This also requires a change within academia. As scientists, we tend to think about engagement in the same way that we think about our other academic outputs – discrete results that lead to discrete press releases. With a few notable exceptions, we are less skilled in commenting on the wider issues. Reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change go some way to addressing this, but they alone are insufficient because they are an infrequent synthesis of the literature, making them less engaged with current events or ongoing policy decisions.

In short, academics who research climate change need to recognise their roles as well-informed experts and enter the debate. We should be injecting climate change into the conversation on topics as far-ranging as flooding, land use and planning, sustainable energy, global insecurity and agricultural strategies. We don’t have all of the answers. Sometimes our most important contribution is raising unasked questions. But no matter how we do it, we must work with all parts of the media to share what we have learned.

Dr Tony Juniper (BSc 1983, Hon DSc 2013), former Director of Friends of the Earth, writer, campaigner and environmental adviser

During many years of environmental campaigning I came to believe in keeping emotion on the right side of science. Straying across the line could invite negative consequences, including loss of credibility and momentum toward campaign aims. So it is that much of the campaigning on climate change has been about science, but times are changing.

Despite rising scientific evidence and political acceptance of the need to cut emissions, there has been a shift in emphasis. Political support for shale gas has risen, while support for renewable energy sources and policies for low-carbon living have diminished, in part propelled by media coverage of opinions expressed by climate change sceptics.

There are several reasons for this change, including the hostile editorial positions of several media organisations, the effect of recession and a change of government. Despite the temptation to raise the volume of emotional messages as scientific ones flounder, most campaign groups have remained faithful to the facts. But is this the best use of their time and resources? After all, many others now speak up for the science.

Indeed, it is notable how some of the most alarming messages on climate change now come from mainstream organisations. For example, in 2012 the World Bank published a report that pointed out how a failure to cut emissions would lead to unprecedented heat waves, severe drought and major floods, with serious impacts on the economy.

Another 2012 report from global management consultants PWC – hardly a voice for radical environmentalism – told of the dangers that would come with the six degrees of warming that could occur during the 21st century. And even Christine Lagarde of the International Monetary Fund said in 2013 that ‘without concerted action, the very future of our planet is in peril’.

Having raised the alarm to the point where the mainstream and science consensus is on their side, what should campaign groups do next? As damage from extreme weather becomes more pronounced, the science will become less important as societies struggle with how to stage an effective response. In turn, this will require an increase in public demand for low-carbon energy, food and transport solutions, and that is where more work is needed.

The challenge for campaign groups now is not only about winning technical arguments, but also about building cultural acceptance of the changes we need to make. It is not for lack of science that we are failing to change, but because that change is widely seen as being all about sacrifice.

Environmentalists are used to being led by science, but increasingly the work that must be done is linked more with communications and psychology than atmospheric chemistry. This is a hard nut to crack, not least because it is all about emotion, and thus outside many campaign groups’ comfort zones. So is it time to rebalance the effort, to see the need for more emotion and less science? I think it might be.

Angela Knight CBE (BSc 1972), Chief Executive of Energy UK

The climate change debate is a confused one. Media articles abound, with opinions ranging from denial through scepticism to alarmism. The one thing they have in common is insufficient scientific basis, with ‘public accessibility’ being the usual justification. This is a cop-out. It’s clear that climate does change – witness the vineyards planted by the Romans in York and the Victorian penchant for ice-skating on the frozen Thames. The question we should be asking is what to do about climate change, regardless of whether or not it is man-made.

Environmental campaigners have made their points, politicians have listened and with this winter’s flooding still a major concern, more action is inevitable. Energy companies are responding to the challenge to reduce carbon emissions – widely considered to be a prime cause of climate change – and have been for some time.

As CEO of a trade association that represents the industry, I can tell you that coal-fired power stations are being replaced by cleaner gas-fired facilities, nuclear plants are being rebuilt and wind farms are up and running. But no sooner than we attempt to tackle the UK’s carbon footprint, another set of conflicts arises, fuelled by the lack of clear communication about the complexities of meeting emissions targets and arguments about the benefits of renewables over other energy sources.

Members of the public, for example, may champion renewable energy but object to having a wind turbine behind their house. Many campaigners and journalists fail to explain that a wind farm doesn’t run all the time and so needs a conventional power station to back it up. Like it or not, nuclear power is one of the options we need to consider if we’re going to be able to support cleaner energy solutions.

And what about the cost? It will require a vast amount of money to ‘decarbonise’ the UK’s power-generation system. People may blame energy companies for their rising gas and electricity bills, but it’s impossible to make the changes needed without some sacrifice. Any business that has to invest in the future has to pass that cost on.

The problem is that the media is selective, and people are only ever told a partial story. Household bills are discussed in isolation from power-generation changes and yet they are linked; the wholesale costs of energy are primarily set in the international marketplace and are not controlled by governments or companies; policy-makers have driven carbon-reduction targets originally aimed at all industry but borne mainly by energy companies. Current energy policy was evidently never properly explained to the public when it was decided.

What we need is a more open and honest debate, not one that seeks to divide society into those who favour renewables (the good guys) and those who raise the questions (the bad guys). We need to put our emotions to one side and get down to explaining the practicalities of tackling climate change. I’m trying, but no one is reporting. Anyone out there?

Professor Stephan Lewandowsky, member of the Cabot Institute and Chair in Cognitive Psychology

Professor Stephan LewandowskyThe US Secretary of State John Kerry recently called climate change a ‘weapon of mass destruction’ – emotive words that hark back to the contentious rationale for the 2003 Iraq War and the misreporting that accompanied it. In an ironic twist, segments of the media are getting it wrong again when they report on climate change. Except that this time they are downplaying rather than exaggerating the risk.

Witness this Daily Mail headline: ‘And now it’s global COOLING! Return of Arctic ice cap as it grows by 29% in a year’. The fact is that Arctic ice has lost 40 per cent of its cover since 1980, and has likely been lower during the past few years than at any time during the previous 1,500 years. The media matters. And if it misinforms about climate change, that has consequences.

Research has identified people’s worldviews as the major determinant of whether they accept the basics of climate change. People who endorse unregulated free markets tend to reject the fact that the globe is warming. Their worldviews are more threatened by a possible response to climate change – which might involve taxation or regulation – than climate change itself. These people also choose to rely on media sources that are more likely to misinform about climate change than to disseminate scientifically accurate information.

Personal worldviews can therefore enter into a positive feedback loop, in which predispositions are reinforced by selective exposure to misleading media sources. Of course, the same feedback cycle can emerge among people with opposing worldviews, who also preferentially select their media sources, but these sources happen to be more likely to report accurately on climate change. The result: increasing polarisation on an issue of fundamental importance to us all.

The problem is compounded by the journalistic ethos to strive for ‘balance’.

A commendable goal in political coverage, it can lead to bias in coverage of science. USA Today recently fell into this trap when its editorial endorsement of the scientific consensus on climate change was accompanied by an opposing piece by lobbyists infamous for comparing people who accept climate science with the Unabomber. The same outfit attempted to sow doubts on the adverse health effects of smoking on behalf of the tobacco industry.

This so-called ‘balance’ in the debate on climate change has had identifiable consequences. It has misinformed the public about the strength of the scientific consensus: people tend to think that only around two thirds of scientists agree on climate change, when the true proportion is more than 95 per cent. The US National Academy of Sciences calls it a ‘fact’ that the globe is warming and that humans are responsible. These facts are accepted by around 97 per cent of scientific articles on this topic, and they require a mature discussion of how best to meet the challenges posed by climate change.

The media matters. And because it continues to get it wrong at times, we must approach its coverage with scepticism.

Rebecca Frayn (BA 1984), writer and film-maker

Rebecca FraynWhat do any of us in the media or arts have to offer but stories – in fact or fiction – told as imaginatively and compellingly as possible? The media has a duty to communicate climate change to ensure we have an electorate capable of making informed decisions, while those in the arts can help audiences imagine the unimaginable, through the magical realism of films such as Beasts of the Southern Wild, the biblical grandeur of novels like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, or the polemical passion of documentaries such as The Age of Stupid.

Yet anyone tackling climate change faces an immense challenge, because it is an abstract issue that can overwhelm and terrify us. We are all implicated in the problem and the solutions are not clear-cut. Not surprisingly, many of us find it easier to close our minds and simply hope for the best.

We Can, the environmental lobbying group I co-founded in 2008, wrestled with this dilemma. Environmental campaigners are often seen as young and radical, so We Can attempted to plug the demographic gap and give middle-aged, middle-of-the-road citizens a voice. And since we were film-makers, writers and journalists, we decided to use our skills to lobby the government to take urgent action on climate change in the run-up to the 2009 UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. But how best to achieve this was the subject of much debate.

We concluded that the younger generation was the most eloquent and touching embodiment of the future. So our children often accompanied us on vigils outside Parliament, even dressing up as endangered species to lobby MPs. We organised a competition, One Minute to Save the World, asking for short films on climate change, and showed the winning entries at the House of Commons. We got more press coverage than we expected to, but it quickly became apparent that association with celebrities was by far the best way to win the battle for column inches. Far fewer journalists would have attended our first vigil in Parliament Square had it not been for the bizarre rumour that Victoria Beckham was going to turn up to launch a new underwear range. And it wasn’t until a toothy celebrity agreed to put her name – and picture – to the article I had ghost-written that my long battle to get the Daily Mail to cover our campaign was won.

We Can ran its course and I soon became demoralised by how paltry my contribution felt. It was a wildflower scheme I helped establish in the London suburb where I live that inspired me to tackle climate change in other, more tangible, ways, and plant what seeds I could in a metaphorical sense too. So I accepted an offer to direct the Green Party’s political broadcast, before setting to work on a novel that obliquely tackles the theme.

Our individual contributions as storytellers may be modest, but climate change is the story of our times. So tell it straight or tell it sideways. Tell it long or tell it short. But tell it.

Back to Nonesuch Spring 2014