21 February 2007

Climate porn

By
Cosmos Online
Headlines scream of rising seas and violent weather, the terrifying upshot of human-caused climate change. But are such dire predictions scaring the public into cowering inaction?
Climate porn
“The impact [of climate change] will be catastrophic, forcing hundreds of millions of people to flee their devastated homelands, particularly in tropical, low-lying areas, while creating waves of immigrants whose movements will strain the economies of even the most affluent countries.”

- (U.K.) Observer, Sunday, January 21, 2007

By doing what they do best, the media have taken hold of the climate change debate and placed it firmly in the public and political psyche. However, its predominantly gloomy spin does not appear to have had a significant affect on our day-to-day behaviour; for the majority of people it’s business as usual.

The alarming way in which climate change is presented to the public was referred to recently by a leading U.K. think-tank as ‘climate porn’. It has been described as unreliable at best and counter-productive at worst. Perhaps, then, we need to ask why this language of fear and catastrophe is failing to translate into action. Just how well are scientists, politicians, media and interest groups communicating the climate change risk, and how are the public reacting to the news that the end of the world could well be nigh?

The issue of ‘language’ in climate change reporting was apparent earlier this month as scientists and journalists wrangled over the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report, finally issuing a statement that global warming is real and that humans are very likely to blame. While the IPCC’s goal is to balance statements carefully against uncertainties, many scientists and interest groups feel the predictions do not go far enough. But the more alarmist views, typified by Tim Flannery’s hardline, high profile stance (catastrophe is imminent unless radical action is taken now; see Australia should lead the energy revolution, Cosmos Online) and pushed to even greater heights by a hungry media (“A disaster for life on earth”, The Age, February 3rd, 2007) may well be damaging the legitimacy of climate science and delaying positive action.

The vast uncertainties associated with climate modelling make fertile ground for sensational reporting – by scientists and the media. For example, a report published in the British journal Nature in 2005 described the effect that doubling the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere would have on temperature. It suggested that, overall, this would lead to an increase of about 3°C. However, a small percentage of the models produced by the study showed very high levels of warming – up to a startling 11°C. The related press release only mentioned the significance of the 11°C results, and led to hard-hitting and disturbing headlines, from “Global warming is twice as bad as previously thought” (The Independent (U.K.), January 27, 2005) to “Screensaver weather trial predicts 10°C rise in temperatures” (The Telegraph (U.K.), January 27, 2005).

Evidence for the negative effect of this ‘overselling’ of climate change can be seen in public surveys carried out by the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in the U.K. These show that while people have a strong idea of what climate change is about, it is seen as a distant problem, both in time and space. This is backed-up by other British and American research that shows disturbing public ignorance of the causes of climate change (many people still confuse ozone depletion with the greenhouse effect; see Lorenzoni et al., Journal of Risk Research 2006) and a feeling that it will affect far away people at some point in the future.

Daily news headlines of “globally catastrophic impacts”, “tipping points”, “devastation” and “collapse” have become familiar. Yet despite this vivid sense of impending doom, people are not changing their behaviour to reduce carbon emissions. The reason seems to be that many feel they do not have the power or resources to do what it takes to save the planet. ‘Shock’ may make compulsive news, but the vastness of its implications distances us from the reality of the risk. This phenomenon is not only seen with climate change; negative reporting of Third World conflict and famine on a biblical scale makes us think that there is little point responding because we are powerless to fix such a major problem.

So, paradoxically, while climate change ranks fairly high in people’s concerns, public response to the problem remains decidedly weak. It is easy to express concern for global environmental problems, indeed it is socially and politically unacceptable not to, however the problem at the moment lies in converting thoughts into action; and it is this dislocation that is of concern. As long as the language of chaos continues, it seems the public are faced with a threat that looms so large it is beyond their focus.

If we want to see real action, we need to stop frightening people into inaction. The solutions to such a vast and complex problem make the public’s response seem insignificant, futile and in some cases too late to make a difference. As Al Gore pointed out last year, we have moved from a position of “denial” (believing that there is no danger), to one of “despair” (believing that there is nothing we can do about it), without stopping in between. Now that scientists are 90 per cent certain we are causing climate change, perhaps it is time to stop shouting and to start taking action to address the problem.

Tom Lowe is a research fellow at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, and conducts research into the communication of climate change risk for the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, in the U.K.
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