After years of being relegated to niche-issue status, climate change is now a daily feature in the media not just where you would expect it, but also in the tabloids.
This news coverage is hugely influential on public opinion. But while raising the profile of global warming is one thing, ensuring a straightforward, consistent telling of the story is another as the recent screening by UK’s Channel 4 of The Great Global Warming Swindle showed.
This documentary, widely promoted by Channel 4 as demonstrating that climate change is ‘a lie the biggest scam of modern times,’ generated mass newspaper and radio coverage, keeping the bloggers busy and the public doubtful during a time when the UK and EU were making major announcements about climate change initiatives.
In short, The Swindle‘s premise is that the world’s climate scientists are lying when they say that increased atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) is the cause of higher global temperatures when, in fact, increasing atmospheric CO2 is actually the result of rising temperatures. Furthermore, they do this for their own nefarious, research-funding purposes climate change having become a multibillion-dollar industry created by anti-development fanatics and supported by scientists who are trying to gobble up research money, backed by governments and the media.
It concludes by saying that there is no proof that CO2 affects global temperatures, and that unusual solar activity is far more likely to be at fault.
As evidence, The Swindle pitches graphs, statistics and scientists from various fields as being at odds with the accepted global warming science consensus. Many of the graphs and statistics used have previously been disputed or explained in various journals, and many of the scientists (some not climate scientists) have already been discredited inscientific journals or by being associated with anti-climate change institutes. One claims it was actually he, in fact, who was swindled during the making of this documentary.
Counterproductively for a doco which argues that climate change is propaganda-like bosh, The Swindle opens like a preview of a horror movie as the usual devastating weather events are overlaid with text stating: ‘The ice is melting. The sea is rising. Hurricanes are blowing. And it’s all your fault. Scared? Don’t be. It’s not true.’
The producer is experienced in this area in 1997, Martin Durkin produced a similar series for Channel 4 called Against Nature, which also maintained that global warming was a scam dreamed up by environmentalists. After complaints from his interviewees, the Independent Television Commission found that ‘the views of the four complainants, as made clear to the interviewer, had been distorted by selective editing,’ and that they had been ‘misled as to the content and purpose of the programs when they agreed to take part.’ Channel 4 was obliged to broadcast a primetime apology.
Recent criticism by two eminent British scientists about the accuracy of The Swindle culminated in an email exchange where Durkin told one to ‘go and f*&% yourself’ and informed the other, ‘You’re a big daft cock.’
So, with so much hot air rushing about, what do ‘real’ people think?
I watched the program and did not believe it as you would expect from someone with my background and current job but at the same time it raised questions, disputes in the science or tiny cracks in climate change fact which left me wondering what the correct answers were and how the criticisms might be rebutted. And when it comes to getting your media message across, that is all that matters and that’s why this documentary will set back climate-change education and action.
The Swindle gives legitimacy to the idea that there is somehow still a debate to be had. There is not. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) recent report on the science of climate change represents the view of the vast majority of climate scientists that it is ‘very likely’ that emissions of greenhouse gases have caused ‘most of the observed increase in globally averaged temperatures since the mid-20th century.’ This view is acknowledged to be a conservative verdict the review process was so rigorous that any research deemed controversial, not fully quantified, or not yet incorporated into climate models was not included.
Propagating the idea that there are two, evenly spread, equally qualified sides debating climate change unfairly increases the influence on the public of a tiny minority of scientists (who disagree with the IPCC), and massively decreases the influence of the well-researched, carefully crafted statements of the IPCC (which are supported by the majority of scientists).
The UK Environment Secretary, David Miliband, said in response to a question from BBC Radio Four’s Today program that, while he did not watch the The Swindle, ‘I promise you I will do a blog demolishing its contents’ and he did.
But who besides the die-hards will read it? Promoting disbelief in climate change makes the public question government measures that are being taken in the UK right now.
The UK Government already has a working emissions trading scheme in place (as part of European Union measures), it has an Office of Climate Change, and it recently announced initiatives such as targets for biofuels, increases to air passenger duty, and for all new homes to be ‘zero-carbon’ or carbon neutral within 10 years.
Importantly, in the same week that The Swindle screened, the Government introduced a draft Climate Change Bill which set a clear, legally binding target for a 60 per cent CO2 reduction by 2050 and a 26-32 per cent reduction by 2020. More announcements are expected this month. The EU recently pledged to cut emissions by 20 per cent by 2020 and will go to 30 per cent if other countries follow suit.
The public is naturally resistant to such moves, thinking climate change is a smoke screen for increased taxes. And The Swindle gives them an environmental fig leaf that allows them to not do anything at all.
This documentary is simply the latest way the mass media, intentionally or otherwise, has discredited the notion of man-made climate change. As we all know, to become news a story must be new or quirky, appeal to the reader or watcher’s interest and preferably be divisive in other words, a bad story is a good story for the media.
The claim from Channel 4 is that they are airing both sides of the debate. This is not unusual while the overwhelming scientific base agrees that human activities are causing global warming, much of the media continues to seize on every discrepancy to try and create or exacerbate conflict between the ‘two sides.’
The journalist’s ethic of airing the case for and against any story gives higher prominence than warranted to climate-change sceptics. Science is precise and convoluted. Judgement is reserved indefinitely until causal relationships are established with complete certainty, until more or better measurements are taken, or until theories have been adequately tested. This means great deb
ate over sometimes small differences which do not actually undermine the general theory being discussed. Unfortunately, the public and the media want simple facts and climate-change science is complicated and uncertain. Not a good match.
Furthermore, a news story can’t be dull or worthy. Media outlets have to sell sex, death, fluffy animals and conflict to thrive which is why a rudimentary flick through climate-change coverage presents you with a discourse of doom, death and destruction.
Compounding this, many of the messages coming out from climate change scientists are essentially anti-consumerist and this, obviously, does not appeal to the majority of the public. Look at the daily UK papers the Blair Government’s introduction of sustainable housing codes to reduce energy use ran wild in the Daily Mail as a ‘this will affect your house price’ story. Similarly, the papers devote a huge amount of attention to the Government’s increasing the incredibly low costs of flying to Europe through a flight levy.
Research shows that even if the public believe climate change is happening, earnest messages encouraging them to change their behaviour actually leads them to not change their behaviour. They think that they, as individuals, can’t do anything to help, that it’s too late to change anything anyway, and research has found that, in fact, showing bad behaviour merely reinforces it. People regard the environment as existing in their ‘sphere of concern’ but not in their ‘sphere of influence.’
Documentaries like The Great Global Warming Swindle just help delay an individual response to the problem a rudimentary blog search will show how happily the doco’s contentious themes were adopted as gospel. And the popular press were quick to splash this latest ‘conflict’ around, despite the broadsheets and some online sites like medialens engaging in some pretty serious demolition of The Swindle’s arguments.
But what can those in government and other organisations who are actually getting on with the job of adapting to the already unavoidable effects of climate change do to convince people of what is required? First, swiftly rebut the tiny number of vocal, proselytising sceptics showing that the facts are given and the debate is over is the only way to move onto solutions.
But secondly, get on with pitching our own information better.
Environmental campaigners, bodies and governments need to make it real by making it local and making it emotional. We must try to arrest any slide of public opinion into a negative ‘what can I do, mate’ state of mind. Current information, at least in the UK, is disparate and ‘bitty.’
And more importantly, don’t give credence to the program. Save energy by switching the TV (and the sceptics) off.
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