Are the media creating a Climate of Denial?

Climate change is an extremely complex problem, which often renders international negotiations aimed at dealing with it perceptibly difficult and excruciatingly slow. But as with all threats facing the global community, the populations of the world need to be properly informed about the threat of climate change to be willing to respond to it. The media thus have an important role in informing and raising awareness of the problem of climate change and communicating the advice and evidence coming from the scientific community. However, while awareness of the problem has certainly risen in developed countries, whose participation in international climate negotiations are vital, it hasn’t resulted in positive willingness to act to combat it. This reflects the inability, or in some cases even refusal, of the Western media to accurately report on the scientific opinion concerning global warming and highlights the influence the media can have on global politics.

The fact that public awareness of climate change has improved through greater media coverage is well-documented. According to Eric Knight, author of Why We Argue About Climate Change, media coverage on global warming picked up after climate change research started getting public funding across industrialised countries in the 1980s, and it has risen steadily ever since. Data kept by Google on terms plugged into search engines showed that greater interest in “global warming” or “climate change” corresponded with the increased supply of news stories about them. In the US, Gallup polls have tracked public understanding on the issue for two decades and found that the number of Americans who thought they understood the problem fairly well or very well jumped from 53% to 80% within this period. This pattern has been replicated across most of the developed world.

But raised awareness hasn’t equated to a better informed public across the global community. Although there is an overwhelming consensus in the scientific community that global climate change is human-induced, public opinion hasn’t followed suit. An analysis, conducted by an international team of researchers headed by the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland, of the personal opinions of scientists, the conclusions of relevant peer-reviewed journal articles and the beliefs of the scientists who authored them have consistently generated the same proportion of scientific agreement that global warming is happening and is man-made: 97%.

Yet across the developed world, large numbers of citizens either disagree with or are unaware of this scientific consensus. Across all but one of the members of the “Umbrella Group”, a loose coalition of non-EU developed countries that often cooperate in global climate change negotiations, public opinion is split as to whether climate change is man-made, despite the scientific consensus suggesting it is. In a worldwide Gallup poll conducted between 2007 and 2008, all but one of the members of the group (the one being Japan) – which includes the US, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Norway, Russia and Ukraine – floated around the 50% mark when it came to public opinion over the human influence of global warming.

Newspaper coverage of climate change rose steadily up until 2009, but then declined (source: Center for Science and Technology Policy Research). Some say climate change fell off the global media’s radar after a disappointing end to the much anticipated UN climate change Summit in Copenhagen and the “Climategate” scandal, a conspiracy which has since been debunked, both occurring in 2009.

The media are largely responsible for this dissonance between the scientific community and the public. It is, after all, the media’s responsibility to inform the public about how greenhouse emissions are contributing to global warming. Because it is such an abstract phenomenon that people can’t actually see occurring around them, it is difficult for the average person to get their head around the issue. Rather, the evidence for whether anthropogenic (man-made) climate change is occurring, and what its effects are likely to be, is most surely found studying statistics and climate models. Unfortunately, people don’t have the time, motivation nor means to seek out experts to explain to them the science behind climate change and then offer them policy advice. Their only readily accessible and convenient avenue for information on the issue comes from mass media. The way the media inform the public shapes how it views climate change.

Different socio-cultural values create diverse media practices across regions, resulting in varying public beliefs with regard to climate change. Take the example of the perception of “objectivity”. In the US and even in Canada, New Zealand and Australia, journalists aspire to maintain “balance” in stories and therefore give as much coverage to climate change contrarians as to believers, giving the impression that there is a split debate. The Japanese press, in contrast, has been characterised as focusing more on presenting facts and avoiding any interpretation. Interestingly, increased Japanese media coverage on climate change has correlated with greater public concern over it, and Japan ranks among the highest in the world for public understanding of climate change. Alternatively, the European press, who are known to be more politically partisan, no longer shine the spotlight on the scientific debate over whether global warming exists, but rather on the political debate over how to respond to it. Consequently, European countries are generally more supportive of the idea of man-made climate change and policy aimed at mitigating it.

But more disquieting is the editorial influence of climate change deniers in Western media. Only recently, Reuters has come under the spotlight after three environmental reporters resigned, one of whom publicly denounced the organisation for deliberately delegitimising climate change as a news topic. He claimed the company’s coverage of climate change changed with the introduction of new managing director, who was an admitted climate skeptic. News Corp is another organisation that has been criticised for poor climate change reporting. In a report labelled “Is News Corp. Failing Science”, conducted by the Union of Concerned Scientists in the US, more than 80% of stories on climate change from selected US News Corp outlets were considered “misleading”. In a geographical review of the media coverage of climate change science, human geographer Liisa Antilla surfaced numerous other studies revealing “a highly organized and well-funded group of deniers of climate change has been exploiting the media in order to insert climate myths and questionable economic theories into the public dialogue”, finding many links between individuals in the media and fossil fuel industry and free market lobbies.

A study published in the journal Public Understanding of Science last year showed that the more Americans consumed conservative media, the likelier they were to distrust the scientific consensus on climate change. In a recent post, I wrote about the link between political ideology and climate change belief.

The way the media communicate the scientific consensus is of critical importance to global climate negotiations. Researchers from George Mason, San Diego State, and Yale Universities found a direct correlation between perceptions of the scientific consensus on climate change and public support for policy and societal action to mitigate climate change. In a report published in Nature Climate Change, they found that the less people believed in, or were aware of, the scientific consensus on climate change, the more likely they were to oppose any political or societal move to combat global warming. Crucially, a 2012 poll conducted by the Pew Research Centre found 57% of the American public either disagreed or were unaware that scientists generally agree that the earth is very likely warming due to human activities.

All across the developed world, the amount of concern people had about climate change did not increase substantially during the same time people thought they understood the problem better. Moreover, support for domestic policies aimed at addressing the issue hardly rose either. This shows that while media coverage on climate change rose quantitatively, it hardly improved in communicating the message of the scientific community. As a result, there has been no pressure on the governments of developed countries to raise the standard of their climate change mitigation commitments and expectations, resulting in less urgency in climate negotiations.

An international agreement is largely dependent on the involvement of such developed countries, who are most responsible for historical emissions contributing to global warming and financially capable of responding to the problem. Without their pledged emissions reductions commitments and financial assistance to developing countries who need to achieve sustainable development in the least carbon-intensive way possible (an extremely hard task without assistance), any future climate agreement will be bound to flop. Already, a number of important developed countries have done away with the Kyoto Protocol, the current agreement which is set to conclude at the end of this decade. The US, Canada, New Zealand, Russia and Japan have all declined to continue on into the Second Commitment Period of the Protocol. Australia has decided to continue ratifying the treaty, but only with meagre commitment targets.

As the media are the general population’s principal source of information regarding climate change, they are crucial in shaping public opinion on it. With public opinion shaping domestic policy, which in turn affects diplomacy, the media have a huge role in influencing international climate change politics. A future agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol is set to be organised by 2015, so the next couple of years are crucial. The way the media behave throughout this time may therefore be critical for the future of the international climate regime and in achieving the global goal of limiting the rise of the global average surface temperature to 2 degrees Celsius.

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