Fair play to Duncan Stewart. He was in combative form on Saturday’s Marian Finucane Show on RTE radio. The subject of his interview was the one hour documentary film special, ‘A Burning Question’, which airs this Tuesday (29th) at 10.10pm on RTE 1 and featuring many of the great and the good in the field, from the UN’s Ban Ki Moon to Mary Robinson, Prof John Sweeney and economist and late eco-convert David McWilliams (I’m in there somewhere among the interviewees). Click here to view the film online (in two parts).
The documentary promises to take a forensic look at the ever-expanding chasm between what the science of climate change is telling us and how this critical issue is being presented (and misrepresented) via the media. Among Stewart’s interviewees on the programme are Prof Justin Lewis of the University of Cardiff and media advisor on climate science to the BBC.
Lewis co-authored an extremely valuable book, ‘Climate change and the Media‘, which was published in recent months. In this book he argues strongly that climate science is being hideously misrepresented in the lay media, and much of this is as a result of the media’s own commitment to the principle of ‘balanced reporting’.
As they put it: “despite worrying about all kinds of risks that are unlikely to materialise, when faced with one of the most carefully assessed and well-researched threats of recent times, we appear to dither and stall, inching towards half-measures with little sense of urgency”.
Balanced reporting is all fine and dandy in theory, but in the case of environmental issues, unless the coverage is informed by the best available and most reputable scientific advice, the ‘debate’ risks being hijacked by right wing zealots and energy industry stooges flooding the media by trotting out well-practised variations of denialism along the arc of:
- (a) it isn’t happening;
- (b) maybe it is, but it’s nothing to do with human activity;
- (c) maybe we are causing is but hey, CO2 is plant food!;
- (d) well, maybe CO2 isn’t so good after all, but it’s too expensive to stop burning fossil fuels, so let’s buy mosquito nets instead (á la Tolborg);
- (e) whoops, it looks like we’re cooking the planet after all, but haven’t you heard, there’s a recession now, and since we can’t afford to fix it, burn baby burn!
- (f) it’s too late now, so why bother even trying?
What all six positions (there are as many variations on the above from the denier camp as you’ll find in the Kama Sutra) have in common is the magic phrase: Do Nothing. And this is precisely what the trillion-dollar energy industry has been praying – and paying – for. Scientific American has an excellent guide to dealing with what it labels ‘Climate Contrarian Nonsense‘ here.
Climate denialists “demonstrate the vulnerability of the scientific process, which is deliberative and hypothesis-driven, to outright misrepresentation and distortion”, in the expert opinion of Dr Peter Raven, President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
In 2006, the Stern Report on the economics of climate described climate change as the greatest market failure in human history. In 2010, we can add to that epitaph that this issue has now become the world’s greatest collective media failure. Ever.
All of which makes Duncan Stewart’s documentary as welcome as it is rare. Mainstream media coverage of climate change has atrophied in the last six months, and has now fallen back to its lowest levels since the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment report was published in late 2007. This depressing situation has been mirrored by a similar decline in public awareness and concern about the threats posed by climate change.
While the broadsheets and RTE now more or less ignore the issue (or stick it onto the ‘weather’ page), the right wing press – notably the Oirish editions of the Daily Mail, Sunday Express and Sunday Times) continue to trot out the denialist line, exactly as might be expected when the commercial interests of their corporate owners are taken into account.
“You can’t deny people the right to express their views, even if you disagree with them”, was how Finucane put it to Stewart yesterday. She went on to point out how viscerally she is uneasy with his advice to be wary of and NOT read denialist literature. As a journalist, I can entirely relate to her suspicion of anyone suggesting we shouldn’t hear the other side.
The primary issue is not one of balance; in my view, the problem is that the vast majority of non-specialist journalists quite honestly don’t know which ‘side’ is right, and are fundamentally unaware that the ‘debate’ is phoney and that their attempt to be balanced is being used against them.
For example, if book (a) is an honest attempt to explain the climate issue, informed by the best available science; and book (b) is an anti-science polemic by a mining industry hack and “egotistic charlatan and fraud” – as Climate Scientists Australia describe Ian Plimer (our own Pat Kenny thinks said Plimer is a “top expert”) that is roundly condemned by real scientists, should journalists seriously give equal time and credibility to both books?
Journalists, editors and broadcast producers are experienced at deciding, say in politics or business reporting, how to weigh up the relative merits of various sources, and to active discriminate in favour of the more credible. Science reporting is different. Few in the media understand the basic science, and many are highly susceptible to pseudo-science peppered with sciency looking references and footnotes. Especially when these Pollyanna merchants appeal to “common sense” reasoning on the part of journalists, rather than insisting they be guided by boring and inflexible “scientific facts”.
Bjorn Lomborg has brilliantly shown up this massive failure on the part of the media to smoke out a plausible phoney for the best part of a decade. It’s hard to believe such a chancer could have gotten away with it for so long in an area the media actually understands.
So roll on tomorrow night. As a curtain-raiser of sorts, BBC Panorama has a film this evening night called ‘What’s up with the weather? Not sure whether this is going to be a piece of investigative reporting along the lines of Duncan Steward. The BBC website promises some “surprising findings”. Let’s hope this isn’t code for throwing more mud in our eyes about climate science.
Postscript: having watched the Panorama piece last night, it’s indicative of the sad decline of that once landmark programme. Their chief ‘prop’ was to have their reporter drive around in a tiny G-Wiz electric car – ‘cos this “green” stuff, like the G-Wiz, is a bit of a joke, right? That set the tone. The scary music and menacing overhead shots of the University of East Anglia would lead you to believe they were manufacturing Dirty Bombs there. But nooooo, it’s those stolen emails again. The whole saga about “tricks…to hide the decline” was then dragged up all over again.
This has been examined – and exonerated – in a House of Commons investigation. The language in question is scientific terminology. The phrase “trick” for example, is widely used in published scientific papers. It’s a synonym for ‘technique’. Either the BBC reporter didn’t know this (which is unforgivable) or, more likely, thought it was juicier just to repeat the smears as if they hadn’t been debunked. The scary music wouldn’t have worked with a rational explanation, now would it? And speaking of rational, for the BBC to trot out our old friend the thoroughly debunked Bjorn Lomborg as an “expert” in June 2010 is just plain frightening. Shame they didn’t go the whole hog and get on Lord Christopher Monckton to froth and foam about the environmental ‘Hitler Youth’, etc. etc.
Here was an opportunity for the BBC to deliver on its public service remit and deliver an informed, nuanced spin-free analysis. They blew it with both hands. Hopefully RTÉ will wipe their eye later this evening.