Note to editors: yes we do care about climate change

On The Press: Never mind the dying planet, read all about Camilla's disappearing poppy
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The Independent Online

When (and if - OK, Melanie?) global warming wreaks its devastating effects on the planet, there will be no selection. Greens and sceptics, Sir Nicholas Stern and Melanie Phillips, Independent readers and Express readers, all will suffer the consequences of reckless carbon emission. There is not an easy left/right divide on every issue, nor a quality/tabloid level of interest. Some things are more important than that, though you might have thought otherwise reading the coverage of the report that Tony Blair described as the most important document to cross his prime ministerial desk.

You might have thought, reading the papers, that greenhouse gases were a class issue - one for the well educated and affluent, too complicated and dull for the workers. I don't believe it. Polls show that a great number of us, from all areas of society, are concerned about the environment. It is not the minority issue it once was, when greens were mocked and the sandal seen as their badge. Greens wear suits now.

David Cameron has realised that. Many newspaper editors have not. Environmental issues are on the agenda much more, but the variation of approach is more evident in the press than among the public. The treatment of the Stern Report demonstrated that. It was hardly surprising, given their records and readership, that The Independent and Guardian spread their coverage over 12 and 14 pages respectively, concentrating on the report's content rather than spinning it in a party-political way.

The same day, the Daily Mail thought "Human liver grown in a lab" was a more important story to dominate the front page, while the Daily Express, inevitably, led on "Islamic" Camilla removing her poppy during the royal visit to Pakistan. "Emblem of our heroes gets in the way of her Muslim scarf" was judged to be the story of greatest interest to readers. And The Sun chose to "reveal" that the "terrorist son of hook-handed Abu Hamza" had been working on the London Tube.

These papers covered the ominous report, but pushed it deep into the inside pages and emphasised the tax threat rather than the threat to the planet. The Sun warned of the "climate tax bombshell", the Mail of a "green supertax that will hurt only the poor".

Is this because the Mail doesn't believe in the dangers of global warming? Its leading columnist, Melanie Phillips, is a sceptic: writing on the morning of the report's publication, she said the science on which Sir Nicholas Stern based his "dire predictions" was "flaky". This was a "scientifically unproven panic". I wish I could find her words reassuring. Her Mail on Sunday colleague Peter Hitchens takes the same view.

The popular newspapers have a problem, but one I think they exaggerate. They doubt their ability to make a complicated, essentially scientific story accessible or appealing. Editors believe readers prefer an inconsequential story about a royal poppy to the most vital issue of our time.

Admittedly the presentation of the Stern report represented a greater challenge than most: a combination of economics and science, with a shot of politics. And as celebrities go, "one of the world's most respected economists" is not necessarily a draw, although Sir Nicholas was followed by a Gordon Brown speech so impenetrable that his own seemed almost knockabout.

But the art of popular journalism is to rise to such challenges, as historically it always has. These days the agenda is different, the mission to explain simply absent. Once, the Daily Mirror fulfilled this mission, and it was the one popular paper to lead on Stern. The "Wake Up World" headline had echoes of the great days. But the presentation of actress Julie Goodyear's memories of "the day I became a lesbian" was, sadly, more convincing than that of the dangers to the planet.

Of course times change. But I often wonder if the decline (with the exception of the Mail) in sales of popular papers owes something to underestimating readers. They care more about global warming than, it seems, the editors give them credit for.

Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield

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