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Whatever happened to climate change?

Despite the overwhelming consensus among scientists, the media are letting politicians off the hook – and the deniers are taking advantage

Whither global warming? Apart from a succession of puerile puns – fracking awful quips, as the Energy Secretary, Ed Davey, might have put it in his conference speech – the issue hardly raised its head at the Lib Dem gathering in Glasgow. It is not looming large on the Labour agenda in Brighton over the next few days. And David Cameron, who once bragged his would be "the greenest government ever", hasn't waved his eco-credentials for ages now.

There's irony, then, in the fact that more than 250 climate scientists meet in Stockholm tomorrow to finalise the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. When it comes out on Friday it will be the most comprehensive report on climate science ever published. It will show that scientists have upped from "very likely" to "extremely likely" their judgement that it is human activity, rather than natural variations, which have caused most of the rise in global temperatures since 1951.

Since we have the irony pot on the table, let's ladle out another helping: while experts have been becoming more convinced, the rest of us have been moving in the opposite direction. The number of people in the UK who think climate change is happening, and is caused by man-made greenhouse gases, is falling, polls show.

How have we arrived at the paradox of experts and public moving in opposite directions? There are two key reasons – the complexity of the science and the simplistic nature of much media reporting, some of which is wilfully ignorant.

Friday's report will show that the interaction of human and natural influences is more complicated than was previously understood. The temperature of the planet is still rising, but not as fast as earlier predicted. The relationship between carbon emissions and global warming is not as direct as was thought. The planet is a highly sophisticated system with myriad variables. Raised temperatures are being transferred between shallow and deep levels in the ocean in ways which were unforeseen. Some organisms are adapting to changing ecosystems faster than others: Atlantic lobsters are just moving north, but polar bears are being swept to extinction.

Sadly, the press is not always very good at making sense of all this. One paper recently pronounced "Now it's Global COOLING!" because ice-cover in the Arctic has increased this year over last, but it failed to mention that last year's ice-cover was extremely low – the sixth lowest since records began. It compared measurements that were not comparable. And it failed to take into account that ice-sheets can expand in surface area while thinning in depth, rather like a dropped ice-cream melting on a pavement.

The media are full of scientifically flaky, but superficially plausible, accounts. Some say the net impact of global warming will be beneficial till 2070. Others that global warming actually stopped 15 years ago. Reporters routinely cherry-pick data out of context, confuse weather with climate, assume events disprove trends, fail to disaggregate blips in statistics and confuse the medium and long-term, and focus on detail, ignoring the bigger picture.

A recent study by Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism showed that most media coverage of climate change emphasised uncertainty while a quarter focused on the supposed "positive opportunities" global warming would bring. Both these stand in stark contrast to the overwhelming consensus among scientists – 97 per cent of whom, by various measures, agree that global warming is real and a major threat.

Unsurprisingly it is the media rather than the science that is influencing public opinion. The general public finds scientific uncertainty difficult to understand. It is confused between freak weather, natural cycles and climatological changes. It cannot be expected to know that 1998, the baseline year for IPCC data, was unusually warm. Nor is the public sophisticated in its understanding of the difference between correlation and causation, between direct causation and systemic causation, or even the basic statistical principle of regression towards the mean.

So the public is swayed by media agendas. Rupert Murdoch, a man who believes what he reads in his own newspapers, from the Wall St Journal to The Australian, has been tweeting against climate change and in favour of fracking. Small wonder that Australia’s new prime minister, Tony Abbott, who once dismissed evidence of climate change as “absolute crap”, has on Day Two of his premiership, disbanded a key climate change agency. Meanwhile here BBC news outlets – normally a voice of sanity on science – are paralysed by their adversarial paradigm of giving “equal space” to both sides. Faced with the prospect of having to give climate change deniers the same airtime as the 97 per cent scientific consensus the BBC has largely descended into silence on the issue. The BBC has a bigger responsibility than balance here.

In the background the real experts continue their endeavours. Researchers from the Brooks World Poverty Institute at the University of  Manchester last week delivered a high-level briefing to policy-makers on their pioneering work among poor people affected by climate change in Bangladesh. They suggested that the West’s aid funding for climate change adaptation should be refocused from rural to urban areas. Alexander Temerko, a big investor in offshore wind turbines – and a major donor to the Tory party – has broken ranks by publicly condemning David Cameron’s government as “hypocritical” and demanding that real policies are put in place to encourage renewable energy.  

The truth is that politicians of all parties have been distracted by the short-term exigencies of the recession and taken their eye off the biggest challenge.

Climate change is even more complicated than we had previously thought. And it is even more urgent. Our grandchildren will not thank us for our inaction. Perhaps not even our children.

Paul Vallely is visiting professor in public ethics and media at the University of Chester