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Science sceptics

‘Part of the problem is that we’ve wasted 20 years: when we should have been tackling the problem we wasted our time debating with deniers – now the only debate left is what we’re going to do about it and if there is time,’ Franny Armstrong, director of the climate catastrophe documentary The Age of Stupid, said to me, as I was interviewing her for Canadian film magazine POV a few weeks ago. ‘We have to stop giving them any air time whatsoever – including your article,’ she scolded.

You’d think that given the overwhelming scientific consensus that climate change is already happening and that humans are to blame, she wouldn’t need to remind (or scold) journalists to not give climate change ‘sceptics’ a voice in the media – but unfortunately, she does. 

Not just because of the considerable damage that they did in the past to public awareness of the reality of climate change (and thus the political will to deal with it). But because deniers and sceptics are still – amazingly – alive and well, and even seem to be on the increase.  

And with the UN climate change conference in Copenhagen just over a month away, they are likely to show up on the media radar more than ever. Expect to see notorious deniers like Christopher Monckton and Steve Milloy, more and more, and especially expect to see media-friendly ‘moderate voices’ like Bjorn Lomborg, who claim that climate change, though real, is simply too difficult or expensive or unimportant to prioritize (and those crazy environmentalists are being hyperbolic and alarmist anyways). 

In an unfortunate coincidence of fate, at the precise time when we most crucially need media outlets to responsibly and accurately report on the science of climate change, they are far less likely to do so. According to a feature in The Nation, as mainstream media outlets across the US have made cutbacks, dedicated and experienced science reporters – the very people who could capably report on climate change – are among the first in the firing line. From 1989 to 2005, they report, the number of newspapers in the US that featured weekly science sections dropped to 34 from 95. 

‘Here an obvious question arises: if the Internet is most directly responsible for the decline of newspapers, then can science blogs and science-infused websites fill the gap?’ the authors ask. ‘Undoubtedly, one can find excellent science information on the web, but the question is whether most people will find it… Accurate science and the most stunning misinformation thrive side by side… global warming deniers all have highly popular websites and blogs, and there is no reason to think good scientific information is somehow beating them back.’

There is in fact little reason to think good scientific reporting is winning. At the 2008 Weblogs, wattsupwiththat.com – which consistently questions and undermines mainstream climate change science, won by popular vote for Best Science Blog. And according to a Gallup poll conducted this year, 41 per cent of Americans think mainstream reporting of the threat of climate change is exaggerated – a record high, even higher than 10 years ago.
Journalists and major media outlets, not the public, are to blame: for decades they gave climate change deniers and genuine climate change scientists equal air time, leaving the voting public with the impression that the two positions had equal merit. Well-intentioned but scientifically untrained reporters did so in the name of ‘balance’, despite the fact that well over 99 per cent of scientists who actually research the topic asserted that climate change was real – and ‘experts’ who disagreed seldom conducted atmospheric research themselves (and were almost invariably funded by oil and manufacturing interests). 

We may never understand the true scope of the damage: scientists have known about the effect of our greenhouse gas emissions since the 1950s, and since the 1980s the scientific consensus has been impossible to deny, but political action has stagnated, our emissions continued to rise, and the pace of climate change has accelerated: every subsequent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report has predicted higher temperature increases and higher sea level rises. Armstrong’s documentary paints a dark vision of the future based on the worst-case projections of the IPCC as they stood in 2005 – those worst-case scenarios are now considered medium-case scenarios. 

Now the mainstream media (or what’s left of it) is doing a much better job of covering the science accurately, but we have a much more severe situation on our hands to deal with than we would have if they had reported on the science accurately two decades ago. 

And with the disappearance of dedicated science beat reporters (and with the economic crisis obscuring the climate crisis in the headlines), there is a serious risk that climate science will again be underrepresented and misreported. In the run-up to the UN conference in Copenhagen, ‘there will be prominent deniers out there undermining the science,’ predicts Jim Hoggan, founder of desmogblog, to ‘clear the PR pollution that clouds climate science’. 

‘They will chip away at the science, create doubt over how reliable the science is and the seriousness of the problem, undermining any traction and momentum that would drive public policy.’

Copenhagen is considered to be our last chance to sign a deal that could avert ‘runaway climate change’. How does the momentum to drive public policy look? 

Already there are clear signs that whatever is agreed at Copenhagen will not feature ambitious (read: effective) targets – from the UN itself.

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