Don’t shoot the pianist: offer a new tune (or, climate science, politics & the media)

A couple of weeks ago I contributed to a panel discussion “How can we talk about uncertainty about climate change?” at Imperial College London as part of the important new pilot Horizons course being put together by Alice Bell and co. The course helps science, technology and medical students connect their work to real world global challenges. My contribution to the debate focused on climate science as TV storytelling on account of there being two print and one radio journalist on the panel (Louise Gray from the Telegraph; James Randerson, Guardian and James Painter, BBC World Service now Reuters Inst. Oxford). But time was pretty tight, so here are some of my notes expanded and a few further thoughts added. I dont focus on broadcasting exclusively in these. Im working on a paper on climate change and TV but thatll take a while yet.

A leading TV exec once said: ‘if you didn’t see it – it didn’t happen’. It is true that good quality TV coverage remains an important element of broad public debate of any topic. In the UK I reckon the public service broadcasters (PSBs) have tended to do good job of an almost impossibly difficult topic. I’ve been proud to be involved in a small portion of that work as an advisor on material across TV, radio and the web. But I also feel that there are some characteristics of the issue that have led to some wrong turnings. These have left many people feeling ambiguous and a substantial minority of ‘the people formerly known as the audience’ feeling actively sceptical of climate science and policy. Here is a very crude summary of what I think has happened over the course of a decade:

  1. Media culture needs movement: TV broadcasting, particularly news, exhibits an extreme form of the appetites of all media for conflict, event and personality – and it needs moving pictures.
  2. Climate science wasnt made for this game: Climate change science is looking at the long term, slow moving, run through with uncertainty and is served by one of the most ‘epistemologically conservative professions’ (i.e. in TV terms unreportably dull…). Climate science isn’t finished. It isn’t unfinished. It is, at least for the foreseeable future, unfinishable. It represents one of the most ambitious intellectual projects of our time. It is our moonshot. It tries to knit together an understanding of how bio, geo, atmos and human spheres interact, and seeks to continue to make sense of these dynamic interactions far into the future. There are good stories here, but hardly suited to news media.
  3. So media spice it up: Factual content is often best animated by two sided debate formats. In climate change reporting, particularly in the US, the result has too often been a distorting lens on the subject where it was presented as an ‘is it or isn’t in happening’ contest. This largely disappeared from PSBs in the UK in the late 1990s, but returned here and there late in the 2000s.
  4. So climate science gets shouty (all tactics no strategy): The interaction of 1, 2 and 3  in the early 2000s led some to start to use short-cut phrases like ‘the science is finished’ and ‘the debate is over’. Even those doing it probably knew that this was a poor way to represent the complexities of the science. But it was a good way to summarise the centre of gravity of opinion within the tight spaces afforded by the media. This was a tactical move (a white lie even?) designed to cope with the media’s irritating habit of approaching even inappropriate stories by ‘balancing’ several thousand people from the diverse and hard-debating climate science community with a handful of climate contrarians (only very few of whom had legitimate scientific authority on the topic). A very weird caricature of the IPCC process emerged whereby a complex review process of (almost entirely) already peer-reviewed material began to be presented as the ‘IPCC consensus’. The biggest peer review process in human history started to be framed as a handful of very distant scientists agreeing on ‘their version’. The very limited media-handling capacity of the IPCC didn’t help (I knew the communication of climate science was in trouble quite a few years back when I sat next to someone from the IPCC press office at a conference and realised to my horror that I was sitting next to almost ALL of the IPCC press office).
  5. The public nose for authenticity: Many people must have had a sense that the tight lipped ‘consensus’ on climate change didn’t really tell the whole story about the science: ‘common sense’ told them that weather forecasting was tricky a few days out let alone predicting climate 50 or 100 years out. And they were getting plenty of signals about what climate change policies were likely to mean (government talk of taxes and regulations, and the environmental movement didn’t make it sound like much fun to say the least). Most people were convinced climate change was serious, but ambivalent about actions.
  6. Silent political consensus on risk: At a time when political courage of any description about difficult topics (growing welfare or defence budget costs; banking; pensions; MDCs and so on) had been in mighty short supply the policy and political community shielded themselves behind this apparent scientific edifice (4). The argument ran that science had defined climate change as dangerous and therefore they had no choice but to act. Indeed other than Margaret Thatcher’s early leadership, which interestingly was framed in terms of risk along the lines of ‘we’re running a massive experiment with the planet’, politicians did no real public politics with the issue. This was a critical failing. The media and audiences didn’t really have a chance to engage with the fact that since the early 1990s there had been a political near-consensus across most of the developed world that had concluded that climate change was a major risk management challenge. But all too few people in climate policy or research – let alone the media – framed the story in that way.
  7. Sour cherry-picking: At the same time, lurking out there were hundreds of thousands of hacked (er, stolen) emails that included private exchanges that contained some careless phrases (AKA ‘climategate’). The arrival of social media had already made space for a small number of people who had felt excluded by the ‘science is finished’ message to scurry around sour cherry-picking from the vastness of climate science. Technology allowed the likeminded to gather at poles of dissentient opinion online. There they could nourish each others prejudices with little or no contact with the professional research community. These bloggers knew exactly what to do with that handful of careless phrases. The formal processes that have exonerated those headlined in ‘climategate’ mean little to people who have been left suspicious of all that’s gone before.
  8. Sceptic David & climate Goliath?: When the politics got more evidently difficult in 2009 and it turned out that the account of the science had been ‘foreshortened’ a good chunk of a bored and irritated US and UK media enjoyed reframing climate change as a  ‘David & Goliath’ yarn of plucky sceptics vs heavy footed orthodoxy. Indeed Ofcom’s judgement on C4’s Great Global Warming Swindle accepted such a public service broadcast broadcast, for all its inaccuracies, in precisely those terms.

I’ve implied above that climate change science was poorly represented by the suggestion that it was somehow ‘finished’. However I do think that it presents humanity with one of its greatest current challenges, where it seems likely that we can dramatically reduce the enormous risks if we act decisively and soon. So how can media coverage improve? I don’t think it makes sense to ‘challenge’ the media with their social responsibility to tell dull or difficult stories more often just because experts think they are important. The increasingly competitive media environment puts paid to that idea. The media will only take that kind of cue from the wider culture.

Moreover responsibility for the weaknesses of climate change story telling doesn’t lie at any one door: current media, research and political cultures have all played a part in stalling this story. But no one party should be too hard on itself or anyone else. We’ve not been here before – this is difficult (see my last post on why the cultural politics of climate change is so distinctive).

Here are some practical suggestions for next steps: the cast list / media contacts book needs to be opened up. Different – and more – people should talk to a wider range of tones and topics. Some of the topics won’t look or feel like ‘climate change’. Indeed some of the best media on the topic does tend to background the broad topic to chase a detail or related point, or embed it in another storyline. Lets make the science more interesting. Lets make the politics more political – and urgent. Lets be clear about when the science and politics are different topics. But we should also get comfortable with the idea that there are questions where they do bleed into each other. However climate change storytelling is about much more than science and policy. Fashion, architecture, design, industrial production, services industries and a whole lot of other things are looking at how their work relates to climate change. In almost all cases, they anticipate making the world we’re heading for better than the one we’re in. And lets look to the ways that a multiplatform media environment, and particularly the web open up new opportunities to play with demanding topics.

A significant portion of the public have been left feeling that there is a (probably lefty) plot to ration access to some of the good things in life in the early twenty first century, and all on the basis of what they perceive to be ‘dodgy science’. There is a need to invite this influential minority of opinion to give up the idea that ‘warmists’ are trying to enrol them in a plot hatched in Al Gore’s kitchen. Environmentalism was an incredibly successful issue entrepreneur but deployed a very narrow emotional range: ‘I’ll frighten you; then I’ll make you sad; then I’ll frighten you again.’ Its long overdue that the much, much broader body of people and opinion involved in climate related science, engineering, policy, design, social research and more tear up some of these inherited scripts and write their own.

PS: People knock the media all the time, but I’ve worked enough around journalists and broadcasters to recognise that telling stories well in the media is far from an empty skill. Sometimes I’ve only understood the wisdom or necessity of decisions I disagreed with long after the event. It is worth stopping for a moment to think about the core of the job: to tell stories that keep us reading, listening or watching. The spaces are very tight. The next time the students amongst you write an assignment try translating it into a 2 minute broadcast slot, with half of that taken up with interview content. Researchers could try the same with an 8000 word paper. Business people and civil servants might try squashing a 20 slide powerpoint into the same. Your story has to respect complexity and entertain the average bus queue. Not easy is it?

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