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

Share
Related Topics

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

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Recruitment Genius: General Factory Operatives

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

If I were Prime Minister: Every privatised corner of the NHS would be taken back into public ownership

Philip Pullman
 

Errors & Omissions: Magna Carta, sexing bishops and ministerial aides

John Rentoul
Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee