Incovenient truth, but truth it is

By Pascale Palmer
November 23, 2010

It's coming to that time of the year again when climate change comes back into the news cycles in a big way. The next United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference of Parties, or UNFCCC COP16, kicks off in the Mexican holiday resort of Cancun next week and it's set to be a very different beast to last year's Copenhagen summit.

2010 has been an interesting time for climate change and a difficult one for those who are working towards a binding and fair deal for the poorest nations. While evidence of changes in climate abounded - Russia's crops withered, monsoon rains devastated Pakistan, the United States set nearly 1500 temperature records, a cold snap in Latin America killed people and livestock - scepticism over climate change soared due to the ClimateGate "scandal" at the University of East Anglia.

And of course we've been mired in a recession and so much of the conversation about action on climate change involves cash - very large amounts of cash - that will help the poorest nations, who have done least to cause climate change, adapt to the changes in their environment and set their economies on green pathways.

I've said this before on Ekklesia's pages, but one of the biggest problems with climate change is how it is communicated and while you would have expected the issue to have had one more year to mature and solidify in the minds of the UK public and politicians, it almost seems to have regressed into an even more volatile and controversial topic.
And this has happened alongside the amassing of further scientific evidence that proves again and again that human-induced climate change is fact. It's maddening that I even have to write that down because scientists are already building on the fact that human-induced climate change is happening.

None of us were around to witness how Darwin's 'On the Origin of the Species' went down when first published in 1859, but newspapers of the time report one heck of a hullaballoo, with some famous lampooning from satirists of the day. Yet Darwin's theory of evolution was largely accepted by the scientific fraternity and the general public by the time he died in 1882. Now I don't know whether accepting that humans came from apes and the idea of natural selection is easier to get your head around than human-induced climate change, but perhaps we need to have a long hard look at just how much progress we've made, as a society, since the Age of Reason.

At a panel discussion last week held at the British Council in conjunction with the University of Oxford and the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism the topic of climate change reporting was bounced around to great effect. There were a couple of ideas that I thought very interesting indeed and which I would like to share.

Many people who write about climate change from an impassioned and often campaigning or lobbying point of view talk about "believing" in climate change, and what the panel - made up of climate scientists and journalists - pointed out is that the link between greenhouse gas emissions from human activity and climate change is not a "belief system" - this gives the impression that you can pick and choose parts of the science to believe in - it is actually a set of facts. In the same way that the scientific link between smoking and cancer does not need to be believed in, it just is.

The panel also talked about the problem of accuracy versus impartiality in climate change reporting. The BBC has received most of the flack over this issue, but others are also implicated. The overwhelming majority of climate scientists have reached consensus on climate change and that consensus was reaffirmed and confirmed by the latest data. This consensus is what can safely be called the truth. Now that truth will change over time - just as neo-Darwinists have shown that 'survival of the fittest' didn't take sufficient account of random extinctions due to environmental changes that then put weaker species in the evolutionary driving seat. But that doesn't mean we rubbish the whole theory – that is merely the process of science and learning: we must always stand on the shoulders of giants.

But what media outlets have introduced into their coverage of climate change is the idea of "impartiality", as if scientific evidence on climate change is subjective. Offering both sides of an argument is massively important on many issues - such as should we or should we not have troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, should voluntary euthanasia be legal in the UK, should students be facing massive debt on graduation, etc.. But the media has a responsibility to offer the public accurate reporting on issues that are not up for debate.

Let me return to cigarettes and cancer - when journalists receive new peer-reviewed research data about our increased understanding of the effects of smoking on the human body, health reporters don't go and find a nay-sayer to diss the idea that smoking causes cancer. The same could be said about the link between HIV and full-blown AIDS - the science is in place and the media reports the facts and scientific progress. By following a doctrine of "balanced reporting" for climate change, media organisations are allowing the sceptics to have a presence that is represented as legitimate as the climate scientists. This does a disservice to the public, while damaging the potential for action and progress on climate change.

The Cancun climate talks have been heralded as the forum for incremental rather than step change and perhaps the quiet after the Copenhagen storm of last year is a good time for some of the media to find a new approach to climate change reporting. I hope that by this time next year, when we're battling it out at COP17 in South Africa, climate change will be closer to being a universally acknowledged truth.


(c) Pascale Palmer is CAFOD's Advocacy Media Officer.

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