By Emily Arlidge for JAC

Once upon a time there was a global crisis called climate change. Apparently. So some people have said. Like Tim Flannery. And Clive Hamilton. And not The Australian newspaper.

If you’re undecided about climate change, as statistics indicate many of us are, you might be comforted to know that scientists are as well. If you take Australian media’s word for it, one half of scientists think there’s a problem and the others say nay.

Every now and then, Australia’s national broadcasters might let environmentalists stress to the public that “97 per cent of climate change scientists believe in global warming, only three per cent don’t”. But just because you are being presented with a statistic like that, doesn’t mean it skips the “99 per cent of statistics are made up” basket. At least that’s what commentators like Keith Orchison say. If he were adjudicating the climate change debate, chances are that statement would be off limits.

Other days, the media will give voice to people like James Taylor, who fails to mention in his bio in this article published by Forbes.com that he’s an “energy and environment writer” associated with the Heartland Institute, an American political organisation which strongly advocates climate change denial. Unfortunately, it’s not required that people state their full occupation, political standings and views on climate change when they publish these types of articles. If they did, we might be one step closer to being able to draw our own conclusions. You can see full details about my sources here.

Orchison says he’s not to be mistaken as a climate change sceptic. If you’re on the fence and looking for some remnants of objectivity on this subject, think of him as someone who strives to look at all the angles. Orchison is a communications commentator with a background in energy. He was formerly managing director of the Electricity Supply Association of Australia.

While climate scientists and journalists might not care for some of his opinions about climate change, it’s fair to say that he summarises their problems with communicating the issue very well.

Orchison says two questions should be considered: first, what is really going on with climate change? “Only the scientists can tell us and we need to be aware that whether or not global warming exists, our communication of it is only getting worse.” Second, how is it being conveyed to the Australian public through the media “and what impact is that having on policy-making?”

Bored yet? Peta Ashworth is a lead researcher at the CSIRO. She says that the level of interest and engagement held by people on scientific issues such as climate change or coal seam gas is dependent on how close that issue is to the individual. See more on public engagement with science through social media here.

So how much do you really care? Is the media responsible for you dozing off while watching ‘An Inconvenient Truth’? If the media were getting it right, would we be any closer to saving the world’s glacial ice, or securing a future for your children’s children?

Orchison has an opinion on the way newsrooms run and how that affects climate change communication. “I think all publications should have a clear understanding that in the sort of the world we live in where communications are such an important part of our lives, they can’t afford to be lazy. They can’t afford to play games with information. They can’t afford to pretend that what they’re doing is providing balance when all they’re doing is providing biff and bash.”

Why they do the things they do

Journalists are concerned with ratings – who is looking at/reading what they present. Thanks to the digital age, every time you change channels or switch pages, the media companies know it. They live for you to turn back on again. If you’re going to switch off mid-climate change story, there is a strong disincentive to cover it. If they put Tim Flannery on the telly and you know that Flannery tends to make problematic television talent, then you’ll keep watching. And they will keep giving him airtime. Suddenly, he’s the go-to guy for climate change stories. But, as Orchison points out, he’s a palaeontologist, not a climate scientist.

Second argument for journalists is the rule you’re taught the moment you step into a newsroom – if you want to be considered as a balanced reporter, you must seek out both sides of the story.  This is where scientists who believe in climate change feel let down.

Dr Nigel Beebe is a senior science lecturer at the University of Queensland who is affiliated with the CSIRO. When asked his opinion on science versus journalism, he’s quick to stress that that’s not the way to look at it.

“I see it as two areas that need to be much more compatible,” Beebe says.

But Beebe’s main contention with science communications in mainstream media lies where the two professions’ methodologies are fatally different.

“Journalism is about weighing up one against the other and quite often when you’re telling a narrative about science, there may not be another side to that narrative. The journalist has to bring that into the conversation, whether it exists or not. I think a journalist needs to understand the process of science. You don’t need a science degree to understand that.”

There is just one angle where all evidence from all parties points to the same conclusion: that journalists don’t get the time to build a story properly… which is exactly what balanced, objective climate change reportage needs according to all of the experts I spoke to.

Like Beebe, Orchison doesn’t think science reporters need to have science degrees. Climate change “has been badly conveyed and it’s creating confusion and confusion leads to poor policy-making.”

Way back when, says Orchison, “when journalists wrote something, behind them was a news editor and sub editors who turned around and questioned what they were writing before it got published.” He says good education never hurt any journalist.

Unfortunately for you sitting at home scratching your head and wondering how it all went wrong, it seems that no one is optimistic, especially Beebe and those on the climate change action side of the debate. Beebe doesn’t see things improving.

“We (scientists) rely on evidence to make the next call where the rest of the world likes a tight story: a beginning, middle and an ending. The reader doesn’t know what’s behind the story and if there’s a different motivation there.”

Beebe refers to the statistics which have confused most people from the start: “97 per cent of scientists who work and publish in the field believe in climate change and it’s journalists who have to talk to the other three per cent.”

Orchison’s view on statistics evokes Gallileo, who he notes was once the only scientist who believed that planets travelled around the sun. “There is no such a thing as a view settled by the preponderance of scientific opinion,” he concludes.

So, we’re back to the fairytale – where the reality is that no matter what you think, if you live on Planet Earth and absorb mainstream media, there’s a high chance you’ve been confused by climate change activists and the denialists and – most of all, perhaps, by statistics. The writer Mark Twain once said “there are lies, damned lies and statistics.”

Either side of the climate debate, experts are shooting at the media, claiming  misrepresentation. Both sides agree that misrepresentation can only lead to confusion and poor policy. But what constitutes fair and accurate representation? You tell me!


One thought on “Climate change: what is really going on?

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