Based on measurements for the first ten months of this year, 2010 is now reckoned to be tied with the scorching 1998 as the two hottest years globally since reliable record-keeping began in 1850. This of course is on top of the decade 2000-2009, which has already been confirmed as the hottest yet recorded. Or put it another way: every single year from 2000-2010 inclusive has been hotter than any other year recorded since 1850, with the solitary exception of 1998.
These unequivocal scientific facts come against the warning from UN under-secretary, Robert Orr: “As preparations are underway for the next IPCC report, just about everything that you will see in the next report will be more dramatic than the last report, because that is where all the data is pointing.”
Climate deniers constantly complain that the IPCC’s AR4 in 2007 got it wrong. Turns out they may have a point, but in precisely the opposite direction than the Pollyanna projections from the Tolborg wing of climate disinformation.
Communications expert and author, Prof Justin Lewis of the University of Cardiff was in Trinity College Dublin last night as one of a panel of speakers at the Earthtalks event, the theme of which was to look critically at the role and performance of the media in covering topics from climate change to sustainability, resource depletion and green energy.
So, how have we been doing then? The first hint is that you won’t find a line about last night’s meeting in any of today’s papers. You might say we’re now so collectively preoccupied with worrying about the plummeting value of our White Star Line shares that we’ve abandoned the crow’s nest and taken our eyes off the icebergs.
“We live in a risk society”, Lewis mused. “We worry about things like our kids being abducted by paedophiles, things that are extremely remote possibilities, but when faced by a huge crisis like climate change, which will lead to the deaths of hundreds of millions and potentially billions of people, most people just shrug their shoulders and say ‘a bit warmer is OK with me'”.
The media, he acknowledges, has and continues to be more a part of the problem than the solution, and by and large, serious media coverage of climate change, from a peak in late 2007, has fallen away at precisely the time that the scientific evidence has been strengthening and its implications have become ever more alarming.
Globally, the advertising business is now worth $445 billion a year, and advertising spend has increased an astonishing 60-fold since the 1950s. “Advertising now colonises every cultural space in society”, Lewis pointed out. “We regard advertising as apolitical, but collectively, it is deeply political, selling the message that happiness and satisfaction comes from buying something. In a world of over-consumption, that is a deeply political message”.
He pointed out the basic axiom that for every newspaper article or TV programmed pointing out the dangers of climate change and resource depletion, there are tens of thousands of adverts (and plenty of editorial too) selling the precise opposite message.
The function of news should, he added, be to create and nurture an informed citizenry. “The 24/7 news culture means that news rapidly becomes obsolete – what’s important is what’s current, up to date; it’s not surprising in this context that the media is not doing a good job on reporting climate change”.
The media’s determination to ‘cover the controversy’ has led to massive skewing of coverage. A relatively minor typographical error about the expected date by which the Himalayas are expected to lose their glaciers received blanket media space, he pointed out, “those few lines probably got more coverage than the 3,000 other pages in the report”.
The news media’s frame of ‘balance’ is paradoxically a major contributor to imbalance, with the skeptic/denialist position enjoying practically zero support among the scientific community but given massive uncritical coverage (and credibility) by the media, in the interest of a meaningless construct called “the debate”.
“With its focus on techno-fixes, the media displays a consumerist attitude to climate change, rather than querying the consumerist credo itself. On our attitude to growth, there is an increasing body of opinion that economic growth is not all it’s cracked up to be, yet the idea that we should even question ‘growth’ is not even being raised (in the media). In this context, it’s very hard for us to even imagine a world in which there could be balance rather than constant growth”.
Seamus Dooley of the NUJ also made a useful contribution to the debate, admitting that “the media is (lagging) behind everyone else when it comes to climate change”. An over-dependence on advertising, especially property advertising, “compromised the ability of journalists to do their jobs”.
The recent wave of redundancies and out-sourcing has led to a collective loss of experience and expertise in many newsrooms, with fewer inexperienced journalists now expected to produce more and more articles. Many environmental stories are complex, and evolve slowly, and they require in-depth understanding among reporters that more often than not is simply not there, said Dooley, who strongly advocates for ‘in-service’ training for journalists of all grades to ensure their skills are keeping up with the issues they are required to cover.
The human dynamo that is Communications Minister, Eamon Ryan last night had the demeanour of a man who hadn’t slept properly in a month, but to his credit, he made an unscripted contribution and stayed for the full debate. He spoke of his passion for ecology being awoken as a 15-year old. “I’ve tried everything (to get people to understand climate change) but no matter what you say, the headline still says ‘shock, horror, the Greens have put up the carbon tax”.
And before you nod off, what about that Climate Bill, Minister? “I believe it will be published, I hope we’ll get it through in January – this legislation is the legacy we’d like to leave”. Molly Walsh of FOE put it well earlier today: “When John Gormley and Eamon Ryan were recommending going into Government to their members in 2007 they said they knew it was a deal with the devil. But they said that the urgency of climate change meant it was worth it. It was why they went to planet Bertie, to save planet earth from the climate crisis….Leave without it, and they will have been to planet Bertie and back, and failed on the aim of the mission”. Hear hear.
Two nights earlier, the redoubtable Mary Robinson delivered a superb contribution to a packed audience in the Round Room of Dublin’s Mansion House. Her topic, in the EPA climate change series was: “Reshaping the debate on climate change”, and she pulled few punches.
There are, she pointed out, “powerful media figures giving oxygen to the (climate) deniers”. The main motivation of the media in this instance was, she argued, “of wanting a particular approach to governance” (i.e. laissez-faire economics). “Some within the media are very big players – Mr (Rupert) Murdoch is a problem – let’s call him by his name”, she said, to sustained applause.
The Murdoch press, notably Fox News in the US, has done untold damage to the fight against climate change and its toadying to corporatism; its media tentacles here in Ireland are extensive, from Sky News to the Sunday Times, The Sun and of course the News of the World (home of “columnist” Bertie-in-the-cabinet Ahern).
Echoing Justin Lewis’ points, Robinson stated bluntly: “we’ve reached the limits of the the world’s development space”. Despite the current media-stoked spasm of denialism, “as climate events proliferate, their man-made causes will become ever more difficult to deny”. The current level of global economic growth of around 2% per annum “is simply not compatible with the urgent need to reduce emissions – even with a revolution in green technologies, it’s clear that stark choices lie ahead”.
As the atmospheric carrying capacity for CO2 is at or approaching critical levels, “the space for carbon-driven development no longer exists for developing countries. We’ve used up the (atmospheric) space for a safe world….we’ve been using it in a greedy way, we have confiscated this development space from the poor, and the poor are further paying for the ravages of climate change that they contributed little to create”.
We live, she added, “in a world of increasing intimacy; my carbon-rich lifestyle directly contributes to floods and droughts elsewhere…the good life we still enjoy here in Ireland has been built in part on the precariousness of the lives of climate refugees in Bangladesh”.
Despite the media panic-driven coverage of the very serious economic crisis in Ireland, “we don’t have the luxury of not attending to the longer term”, Robinson reminded her audience, in what was a commanding performance from a woman whose powers of reason, passion and persuasion remain undiminished after more than four decades of fighting the good fight.
She moves back to Ireland permanently next month. It can’t come a moment too soon.