There was a small flurry of activity last week when the report “Warm words: How are we telling the climate story and how can we tell it better?” was released by the IPPR (a UK based left-leaning think tank). Most of the attention was focussed on their attention-seeking description of the more breathless media depictions of climate change as ‘climate porn’. However, the report was actually more interesting than just that, but possibly in ways that the authors didn’t intend.
The basic point of the report was to present a textual analysis of the kinds of language (‘repertoires’) used in the media when discussing climate and to associate the different repertoire with the advocacy position of the users and the likely effectiveness of that language in swaying opinion. The report only examined the UK print media, but the classification system could certainly be used for the US, Canadian and Australian press as well, and potentially, more widely still.
The classifications will be familiar (in concept, if not in name) to anyone who has been following the climate story in the media. I paraphrase a little, but the basic outlines are split between the repertoires that accept the basic science:
- Alarmism (‘It’s the end of the world’): Recent examples concern the apparently imminent death of the Amazon, the imminent 20ft rise in sea level, the impending collapse of the North Atlantic circulation etc.
- Techno-optimism (‘we’ll work it out when we need to’): This can range from Patrick Michaels’ position (‘technology will make the whole issue moot’) to oil companies demonstrating their green bona-fides to hopeful calls for the innovative capacity of the population to come forward to deal with the issue.
- Small actions (‘save the world by recycling and buying a hybrid’): This comes up repeatedly in the ‘what can you do’ sections at the end of special issues and documentaries.
and the various forms of denialism:
- “It’ll be alright”-ism (strangely described as ‘Settlerdom’ in the report): Nothing to worry about, just the same old stuff ‘they’ are always pushing. The ‘common-sense’ man on the street attitude. Op-eds in the more tabloid papers mainly.
- Comic nihilism: This is a predominantly British trait, but there are connections with, for instance, Jon Stewart. The examples seen in the report were fundamentally dismissive of the case for climate change, but I think this can go both ways. Satire can be quite a potent weapon whether directed at over-excited advocates, industry shills or self-important novelists.
- Rhetorical scepticism (‘It’s a vast conspiracy’): Almost anything written by Sen. Inhofe or Melanie Phillips for instance.
- Free market-ism (‘The economy must come first’): Slightly more respectable than the other denialists and is used by frequently in the US in relation to the Kyoto Protocol and lies at the heart of the Lomborg’s ‘Copenhagen Consensus‘.
- Expert denialism (‘It’s the sun! or the urban heat island!’): This is the kind of stuff peddled by the think tanks (CEI, Marshall Institute etc.) and which occasionally makes it into the main stream press as second or third hand quotes in op-ed pieces. Mostly a web based phenonemon though.
- Warming is good (‘Hooray for Global Warming‘): Some overlap with the expert denialists (as a back up strategy mainly), but heartily pushed by the (now defunct) Greening Earth Society and particularly by the Idso’s
In reading this list, I can find many examples of pieces that fall neatly into the boxes. But it strikes me that there is a huge missing category – and indeed one in which I think RealClimate might fall (along with some of the best reporting on the issue – Andy Revkin’s pieces for instance). That category is the straight ‘It’s serious (and interesting) but don’t panic’ repertoire. This is the language most often heard at scientific conferences and it surprises me that the IPPR authors didn’t find enough examples to give it a description all it’s own.
One reason why that is missing is probably because the focus of the authors was mainly on how discussions about climate change are used for advocacy purposes rather than simply informational ones. Thus straight science not used to advocate for any particular course of action gets ignored or mis-classified. For instance, a letter (third one down) from Tom Crowley complaining about some alarmist points in a piece by Lovelock is taken to be from a ‘warming is good’ advocate – certainly a classification Crowley (or most people reading his letter) would not agree with. This is, unfortunately, to be expected in a ‘scientized’ debate. Any criticism of a scientific argument used to support any particular action is taken to imply advocacy of the opposite action.
The conclusions of the report are directed towards the advocates rather than the scientists (the IPPR is a political institution after all). They suggest (I think correctly) that the denialist repertoires are having a decreasing influence and aren’t worth addressing head on – especially the wilder rhetorical stuff. We occasionally do tackle these issues here, because the points sometimes provide a useful lead-in to an interesting piece of science and can help prevent confusion among lay readers. But if we were political advocates we probably wouldn’t bother!
However, the IPPR’s more serious conclusions are that the ‘alarmist’ repertoire mostly breeds hopelessness or backlashes and that the range of ‘small actions’ being pushed as potential solutions are not matching the seriousness of the issue and hence lead to trivialisation of the problem among readers.
I think that we would concur that the more excited style of journalism (which is not universal by any means) doesn’t help foster understanding – but it can raise interest. And like the denialist pieces, it can serve as an entry point to a serious discussion (for instance on climate sensitivity in the wake of the ’11 C’ warming headlines a while back, or the Amazon drought recently). The increase of cynicism though probably outweighs the provocation to find out more.
When it comes to advocating solutions that match the degree of the problem, all of the repertoires are found lacking. That’s because reducing emissions is a difficult problem with myriad causes and there won’t be a simple straightforward fix. This is the hardest kind of problem to deal with in the media because it is inherently complicated and involves almost all sectors of society. At this point as well, the scientists (like us) who have lead the debate up to that point, generally step aside – since macro economic policy, international diplomacy and energy infrastructures are not their forte. (As an aside, the role for scientists doesn’t end once a problem has been identified – their contributions are required in order to assess the effectiveness of proposed policies – such as geo-engineering ideas, or balances between air pollution control and climate).
This lack of serious discussion about solutions may however be changing if these recent MIT Technology Review or Energy Journal (subscription) special issues are anything to go by, and as more people and institutions start to think about the problem. This was always going to be the hard part though.