Not telling it like it is – media reluctant to face up to climate crisis

The news media, with some outstanding exceptions, has monumentally failed to communicate to the public the magnitude of the threat of climate change to human society. Depressed, I tried recently submitting an opinion piece to the Herald dialogue pages on the subject. It was rejected. It’s hardly the sort of thing that needs writing for Hot Topic readers, but there may be interest in seeing what the Herald turns down. And it’s not because they were besieged by material: there were a couple of obvious fillers from overseas newspapers to occupy the space in the same week.  Here it is:

The mainstream news media continue to serve the public poorly on the question of climate change. The magnitude of the threat revealed by scientists engaged with climate science and related disciplines is rarely conveyed in news reports, and even more rarely followed up in any considered fashion.  Yet stark realities are already apparent in more frequent extreme weather events, the ominous warming in the Arctic region, the growing acidification of the oceans, the increased rate of sea level rise and much else which bodes ill for human society. Reports from biologists indicate that the process of change is happening at a rate too rapid for many species to adapt. Mass extinctions are clearly likely.

All of this one would imagine would be treated as important news, frequently prominent in the headlines, often canvassed in editorial discussion, with regular comment sought from leading scientists on the implications of what is happening and expected to happen in the time ahead. But that doesn’t occur. Occasional items appear, sometimes well reported and thankfully these days less likely to be “balanced” by reference to climate change deniers, but the overall media response is muted at best, with a few notable exceptions such as the UK’s Guardian newspaper.

Presumably there are judgments being made at editorial levels which account for this evasion of responsibility. Maybe scientific ignorance prevails in such circles and there is simply no understanding of how solid the scientific consensus is on the basic elements of human-caused climate change. Perhaps they still buy the spurious claim made by deniers that there is serious division among climate scientists about these basics. Maybe they just feel that it is inconceivable that humanity should be bringing about such vast changes to the workings of the global climate, no matter what the scientists say. Maybe they think that their audience doesn’t want to hear bad news and make a commercial decision to ignore it.

Whatever the reasons, the media’s neglect is dangerous for society and it’s high time the public was given well-resourced information on a regular basis. It’s not difficult to supply. Kathryn Ryan’s recent National Radio conversation with Professor Daniel Pauley, Director of the Fisheries Centre at the University of British Colombia, on the implications of the world’s fish moving to cooler waters as oceans warm up was an example of how quickly an expert, when intelligently interviewed, can convey the magnitude of a climate change impact. There are a great many scientists similarly well placed to explain the results of their research in a variety of settings. The current economic excitement because the retreat of Arctic sea ice promises access to drilling for oil and shorter passage for shipping would be considerably dampened if the public was fully informed of the fears of Arctic scientists. They realise that the warming of the area may lead to substantial methane release from the offshore permafrost. This would increase global warming significantly and lead to costs to the global economy far outweighing the benefits now being touted. Arctic expert Professor Peter Wadhams, head of the Polar ocean physics group at Cambridge University, affirmed recently in a Guardian interview that rapid methane release from the Arctic seabed is not a low probability event.

By any measure reports from active scientists which bear upon such widely significant possibilities are newsworthy. Added to the full range of climate change impacts they absolutely demand full attention and appropriate action. It may already be too late to prevent a global temperature rise of at least two degrees, which in itself will at very least require expensive adaptation measures. But if the burning of fossil fuels continues as usual we may well even this century be looking at a three or four degree rise, with enormously painful consequences for human society.

That’s the picture responsible scientists are presenting. Surely it’s more than enough to galvanise the news media to ensure that what the science has to say is adequately conveyed to the public and brought to the centre of public discourse.

52 thoughts on “Not telling it like it is – media reluctant to face up to climate crisis”

  1. One rejected article does not make a summer, but I know what you mean. Sometimes, you need to shop around. Even some of the obvious candidates in the media have lagged a lot behind the science, but I’ve noticed things picking up lately. Crucial to this is scientists making ourselves available to the media, which I do when it comes to climate change and freshwater.

  2. Thank you for this timely column Bryan. An example that troubled me was the NZ Herald saying that Auckland would “enjoy” more days of >25degC (in their account of the Gluckman report). I don’t know if it will be all that enjoyable, and even if the weather is sometimes pleasant, it will come at a high price in terms of other people’s suffering.

  3. People don’t want to hear that their goose is cooked, or even half cooked, and the media don’t want to be told that they’re not doing their job either. Just have to keep at it.

    1. To me it seems it is going to be difficult for NZ papers like the Herald and Dominion Post to report objectively on the seriousness of the situation given their past and continued bias to the denier viewpoint. It would raise to be many hard questions about their actions, motives and capitulation to extreme right wing ideology. To my mind the media have lost all credibility and have totally failed in their duty to be fair, critical and independent.

  4. The NZ Herald is not doing enough on climate change but is is better than 90% of news papers world wide. The Guardian is one of the very few newspapers to have a dedicated environment section and does a good job so I get my news there..

    1. The Daily Telegraph has a dedicated Environment section online, and has had such in the print copy also. Trouble is that the papers editorial policy for so long seems to be to throw in any old reactionary tosh if it is anti renewables (particularly wind) and/or contrary to the evidence on climate change. Go look at some of the abuse against the ‘environment correspondents’ that is allowed to persist below the line should they stray from the Dellingpole/Brooker line. The indulgence that given to Monckton articles with no oversight from the Science Editor (Highfield then went on to the New Scientist) was telling. Editorials also crank out the same old tosh aimed at those desperate for any straw to clutch to (gosh, snow in winter; inefficient wind turbines owned by foreigners etc)
      It is not the presence or absence of an environment / science section, it is the editorial environment of the publication you should worry about. At the Telegraph that environment is all to clear from the licence given to Dellingpole.

  5. I wonder how much media silence is in order to avoid the angry tirade of denialist backlash. In New Zealand we don’t have a shortage of nutters willing to snap at the heals of the media industry, and the media may have just taken the attitude, bugger it we just won’t report it.

    That said, all you need is at least one staunch denialist and the remainder neutral/uninformed, and the whole network becomes biased in the wrong direction. Take NewstalkZB for example. They never reported James Hansen’s visit but they did Moncktons.

    1. That’s because they have that enlightened intellectual Leighton Smith as squark back host! amongst other prominent intelligensia. ZB is a true pearl of informed opinion equaled only by Fox News.

  6. Yes… when asked recently about the content of the 2012 “State of the Climate Report” I outlined how ocean heat storage is increasing, sea levels rising etc. The journalist responded “so there’s nothing very newsworthy in it then?”…. I told said journalist that climate change is the biggest issue facing humanity, the biggest issue we have ever faced, and it should be front-page news in every newspaper every day until we get some action!! The wonderfully weary response was “yeah, but the public is tired of hearing that.” Que sera sera, perhaps – or a call to redouble our efforts to get through to the public mind.

    And I have just heard Prof. Sir Peter Gluckman on Chris Laidlaw’s show this morning, telling off those naughty climate scientists who stray into advocacy on mitigation. Like those naughty cancer researchers who tells us to stop smoking. What we (or he) label advocacy is not clear. I believe in making information available in as accessible a way as possible – in the hope that policy-makers actually take action. It isn’t about overdosing on alarmism, it’s about getting a message through.

    1. There are several objections when scientists become issue advocates. One is that scientists are bad at comparative analysis because (like anyone) they magnify the problems they are closest and downweight the ones they are further away from. Another is that policies (ie solutions to problems) are always mixtures of facts, value judgements, norms etc and “science” is only ever a part of this. A third reason is that these issues undermine scientists’ independence in the eyes of passersby. etc.

      As for the claim that “climate change is the biggest issue facing humanity, the biggest issue we have ever faced” – really..? In terms of threats to *humanity* I’d put total nuclear, biological and chemical warfare top of the list. And I’d put asteroid strikes, supervolcanoes (it’s possible that the Toba event reduced the numbers of Homo sapiens to <10,000), epidemics and molecular warfare higher on the list than climate change. In terms of past threats to civilisation (not the same as humanity) one could argue that nazism and its bedfellows could be placed above climate change (since it aimed at enslaving or eradicating many peoples), and I'd note the decimation of the Americas following the Colombian exchange as being a hard act to follow. I think it's clear that climate change is the greatest endogenous threat to existing patterns of biogeography (etc). But it's hard to go from there to the idea that climate change is the biggest threat humanity has ever faced.

      And I don't see why anyone needs to go that far – it's a very real, very significant, very serious threat which is compounded by the incentives different communities face. That's plenty bad enough.

      1. Asteroid strikes and super volcanoes are pretty much out of our control and not an argument to be made in the context of AGW.

        But climate change, while in comparison gradual, is in its consequences in a 4 Deg and more warmer world extraordinary, long lasting and devastating. It is home made and every one of us through our lifestyle is taking part in making it happen. It can transform the Earth into very different planet than the one we inherited.

        Warfare certainly is a very real danger and without any doubt this danger will be amplified significantly through the upheavals cause by climate change. When people are en-mass forced from their lands though flooding, lack of water and failing harvests, conflict will be hard to contain and totalitarian leaders are sure to arise in the wake of all this.

        And unless scientists speak out, those in ‘Politics’ won’t get it as their actions are rarely based on matters of fact but on matters of will, economic interests and political power. But we can’t afford to carry on like this. So much must be clear.

          1. Yep, in a way of issues that we ‘could’ actually do something about if it was not for the ‘excuseivism’ of the ‘real-politicians’ thinking that they have a right to a ‘political reality’ that is quite different to the ‘factual reality’ as it is pointed out by those scientists who are not afraid to use their unique insights to speak out. The divorce between politics and science must end. And the sooner scientists have the courage to speak out and engage in the political process the better. Sorry, Mr. Frame….

            1. Well then you’ll be heartened to hear that I do “speak out and engage in the political process”. Lots. A friend of mine is a fairly libertarian Tory, and one of the world’s finest climate scientists. Would you have him “speak out and engage in the political process”? Or do you only admire of the courage of those who share your politics?

              The divorce between science and politics that I see is mostly driven by scientists’ determination to fail to understand how incentives work. The science of climate change is, by and large, consolidating around long-held beliefs. The international dimensions are playing out pretty much as predicted by the Schelling-Barrett-Victor strategy guys: basically, rational actors are reluctant to act given the scale of the problem, and given the fact that mitigation benefits are not captured by a country while mitigation costs are. *This is the problem: rational actors balk at strong action.*

              Hopefully that will change if we can change payoffs (via technology and/or policy) or if we can get more trust in the system. [Simply scaling the problem doesn’t obviously help – it may just intensify existing incentives.]

              My point here is that climate change is shaking down much as a “Houghton on science, Schelling on strategy” guy from the 1990s would have predicted. And on that reading the problem is the lack of incentive for rational actors to act. Things that address these incentives are constructive; things that argue for irrationality are (most probably) not.

              There is a gap (a huge one) between the worldviews of scientists and those of policy makers and strategists. For the most part, the more damaging ignorance, I think, is on the side of the scientists who blunder into policy with no idea of how they will be heard by people who have different values, norms and politics from themselves. Because that blundering has already alienated lots of people.

            2. David,

              I believe that there is just one problem with your analysis, and that is we do not have the luxury of time.

              Just to give you an analogy. You may be aware of a child with cancer that hit the spotlight recently. In this case the courts actually intervened. They could have adopted your approach and not hurt the feelings of the mother, and sure the child in the short term would have felt better with cosmetic alternative therapies. But I suspect the courts decided that they had a moral responsibility and took drastic action to ensure the child received the appropriate medicine, as ghastly as it would have made him feel in the short term, and to hell with the mother’s feelings.

            3. But in climate change there is no equivalent of the court.

              There is no coordinating authority and that’s why incentives matter.

            4. You are right David, we do not have a strong international binding agreement to fight climate change. And if we take that as an excuse not to strongly argue for perhaps creating one, then we will only get a prolongation of the current ‘lip service only’ attitude by politics towards limiting AGW as the ‘incentives’, which you suggest are driving everything, are persistently pointing towards today’s growth (read growing fossil fuel consumption) to be so much more appealing to our leaders than to actually address the core issues of AGW.
              Are you happy (or at least resigned) to carry on with this state of affairs?
              Would it not be better to join ranks with those who argue for change and for the establishment of that ‘court’ that hopefully saved that little girl’s life?

        1. “climate change is the biggest issue facing humanity, the biggest issue we have ever faced” –
          Well it is, in so far as it is the result of our capture and use of energy needed to sustain our population to present levels (including lifting people out of poverty). Because it involves what we consider legitimate activities (even celebrated -human birth, migration from resource less to resource more), we fail to act upon the causes; we have the left (as well as the libertarian right) to thank for that.

  7. I think Gluckman knows he is treading a fine line with the current government. I’m sure he understands the full implications of the climate changes we have seen to date but as their chief advisor and in their employ he cannot say anything that may threaten their business as usual mindset.

    I have no doubt that he recalls the example made of Salinger, who was given the push for stating the truth too boldly for the comfort of politicians and corporate interests.

  8. “I have no doubt that he recalls the example made of Salinger, who was given the push for stating the truth too boldly for the comfort of politicians and corporate interests.”

    I get it, so the people who actually know and understand the threat and are qualified to comment, are not allowed to. Only those people who are not qualified who can easily be discredited as not being qualified to comment. And then there are the politicians who just don’t give a rats and are buoyed by the unwavering support of the masses who don’t want to know. Which brings us back to the media who are more than happy not to inform them.

  9. Which brings us back to the media who are more than happy not to inform them.

    Which is odd when you think about it. There is the old cliche that bad news sells newspapers, in which case they should be doing a roaring trade in climate change reporting. In this case the news is apparently so bad that it is best not broadcast too loudly or too widely.

  10. It could be your piece is to ‘dense’ or ‘heavy’ – did you ask them? Sure its important stuff, but they’re trying to cut through a whole raft of information, and maybe the ‘fillers’ are what their audience wants. I don’t know, I’m not their audience, and they don’t cut through to me unless someone posts something worthy on facebook.

    I don’t think I’ll post this on facebook, I haven’t actually read it… I don’t have time and it looks too heavy…

  11. In terms of the breadth of the issue and the idea that climate change will affect all countries and all societies, I would still rate it as the number one issue, even though total nuclear war would have been a real bummer. The difference is that climate change is already under way, while the nuclear scenario never became (thankfully, and so far) more than a threat.

    But like you say Dave, it’s already a serious enough problem regardless of the label, or the ranking on the ladder. Best to just get on and take some action than to waste time trying to frighten ourselves.

  12. What really puzzles me is the fact that 90% of the media virtually world wide is treating this issue in the same manner, ignoring it basically. But then so are the majority of the public. Many are aware of the clamour on the sidelines and the repeated request to wake up and take this seriously. But they turn away and refused to acknowledge the magnitude of the problem.

    A definite human condition. Its almost like the whole world have become climate zombies.

    1. We believe what we are told is true by the mass media and by our mates, who get their wisdom from: the mass media or their favorite blogger….
      A free press in a capitalist profit driven environment will interpret that freedom as the freedom to make profit before anything else. In a ridiculous dance of ‘we must write what they like to hear so we can sell papers and make them like what we write…’ minor issues of ‘truth’ or ‘importance’ simply do not register much at all…
      With the exception of cause of Public Radio, one of the last bastions of sanity and obviously under attack constantly by the big wigs of the ‘free capitalist profit press’ and always at risk to entirely eliminated by the ‘Libertarian Bastard Brigade’ (LBB) in their ‘heroic battle’ with ‘them liberals’ and their ‘communist propaganda radio station’… 😉

  13. I was pleased, though, to hear Gluckman make the point that weather and climate are not the same thing. It is a small point but we don’t hear it stated nearly often enough in the media.

    I have personally found that few people seem to understand the difference and fewer still even know that there is a difference. I really do get frustrated at times trying to explain that just because it’s cold in Europe or the States on a particular day, that proves nothing about climate change.

  14. I am not a scientist but I do care about AGW and have been following the issue for years. Mr and Mrs Public look out of the window at the weather (yes, I know, weather is not climate) and see it’s business as usual. Their conclusion: “Climate change doesn’t seem to be happening here, and I can’t do anything about it anyway, so why should I beat myself up over it? I have more pressing matters to occupy my mind: my job, my children’s education, my retirement income,” etc etc.
    I don’t think it’s apathy but what’s the solution? I don’t know.

  15. There was an American PBS program several years ago on the 40th anniversary of Earth Day. In the program Dennis Meadows, co-author of The Limits to Growth made an interesting observation that for most of human existence long-term planning was not a prime survival characteristic; humans were geared to looking ahead only a year or two at most. Perhaps that explains our reluctance to face the long-term consequences of AGW.

    I recommend the 2 August 2013 issue of Science, which is a special issue devoted to climate change. It covers a lot of issues related to climate change, but it is not very happy reading.

  16. Regarding the absence of a central coordinating authority on climate mitigation, Thomas wrote: “Are you happy (or at least resigned) to carry on with this state of affairs?”

    I treat it as a constraint. I would like to see a strong, credible deal on climate mitigation.

    I’m kind of neutral regarding the question of legal form vs political deals – whichever works is fine by me. While I think institutional innovation might help, I don’t believe we have the time to wait for any sort of global government which might act as coordinating agent in this problem (and I find the idea of global government unattractive in any case).

    In this world (as opposed to the worlds in which the UN somehow “tells” sovereign states what to do), incentives continue to matter, since getting the major players to agree is essential to any comprehensive arrangement. That’s the political reality, and I don’t see any point in wishing it were different.

    1. In the wake of the discovery of the unilateral grab of extreme powers by the USA and the UK in particular in establishing an Orwellian empire that is occupying and controlling pretty much all of the virtual real estate of our modern global communications world, the internet in particular, one wonders if the reality of a global government is not already upon us, but in a rather different way than in a negotiated and transparent fashion as it might perhaps one day have come about though some form of extension of the powers of the UN.

      That aside, humanity will in my mind have to ‘grow up’ unexpectedly and substantially for me to place much hope at the moment in coming together in some voluntary fashion to make a measurable dent into AGW through the political processes without strong and binding internationally governed and policed agreements.

      1. But if voluntary arrangements are insufficient then what? Because the UN is simply its member states. It has no powers of its own, and major countries would have to surrender powers for it to be able to compel very strong mitigation policy. That’s not remotely a realistic proposition. So who – other than major powers – specifies the terms of the deal, and who enforces it?

        Seriously, waiting for the UN to exert its mighty powers to force the major powers to comply is like waiting for the guy down the road to turn into Batman: some people find it a nice idea, but it’s not obviously legitimate, and it certainly isn’t realistic.

        1. I agree. At the moment its unrealistic at to hope for a binding agreement from the UN to actually reduce co2 emissions. Any reductions so far have been incidental to a switch from Coal to Gas thanks to fracking. Not actually a reduction in the reliance on and use of fossil fuels.
          This leaves us I believe at the position that we (as in the majority of people) are still not recognizing AGW for what I believe it constitutes – a grave danger to the sustainability of a civilized world and a grave danger to large parts of the ecosphere. And therefore I do not think that Science has been heard sufficiently to end denial, evasion and procrastination. In this phase I do not think that ‘honestly brokering’ half baked agreements that somehow deal and wheel until it looks like we are making progress is going to get us anywhere to saving the bacon.
          I therefore believe that activism is still necessary to get us to the place where we can make factual progress though policy design. At the moment much of the policy enacted is nothing more than shifting hot potatoes around while none are dropped…. Not a process that I can subscribe much hope to at the moment.

          1. The methodology for change may be outline here:


            Some of the key points to note are that the movement most likely involved a small and vociferous minority at the time armed mainly with moral right.

            Secondly, despite their strongest efforts, change only came about after many decades, and good to see that New Zealand was among the first countries with the vision to do the right thing.

            Thirdly, we don’t have many decades for change.

  17. “So who – other than major powers – specifies the terms of the deal, and who enforces it?”

    Change must come from the good will of people or not at all. If change requires a heavy handed military intervention, then we may as well not bother. Once people realise that there is light at the other end of the tunnel of change, we might start seeing a cascade effect. So far we have seen very few role models willing to step forward and take up the challenge.

    I think also that people have no comprehension of the complexity of biological systems. As a scientist I have learnt that even at the sub-microscopic level, what we think should be simple and or straightforward ends up being 10 times more complex than originally believed. As a general rule of thumb in biology, if it looks simple you can be assured it will be difficult, if it looks difficult then its going to be almost impossible.

    Now extrapolating that to the macroscopic level, we have so many variables in our climate, and many we are already losing control of. If we think that containing global temperature to 2 degrees should keep the global climate stable, you can almost guarantee that the effects will be worse than we can imagine, and there will be a host of unexpected adverse effects a long the way that no one foresaw.

    I think there is a major disconnect between what the public understands and how biological systems actually operate, and moreover, how fragile the earth’s ecosystem actually is. The perfectly balanced ecosystems of tropical rainforests are an example of high biodiversity and sustainability, which is how life existed for millions of years before the pest species such as rabbits, ferrets and humans took over.

  18. I’ve been mulling over the notion that adaptation could provide incentive to mitigate, and the earlier references to incentives but here I’m not discussing carbon taxes.

    I could support the argument like this:
    Mitigation is much cheaper than Adaptation essentially Stern’s argument. Hence an awareness of what the world will become, and what that would take, is an incentive toward mitigation.

    This is not just a money argument, adaptation is a matter of plans, effort, resources and opportunity. So tell it like it is and get down to detail, spell out the long term consequences so the incentive to mitigate becomes compelling, and do not leave out the interim effect of extremes on food and infrastructure which could isolate cities and communities to the point of complete inability to adapt. This argument I see as one reply to the shrug one gets when discussing the timeline of sea level rise. A problem is to get it down to details so I’m all for improving crystal balls.

  19. Of course i understand that mitigation is now whereas adaptation is regarded as being sometime in the future, therefore not my problem. There is ample evidence that adaptation is now too but how developed is the vision and the ability to respond (responsibility)?.

    1. Bottom line businesses do not see reason to mitigate if that stands in the way of profits and bonuses now, nor do Jack and Jill citizen feel capable of acting on the scales required so both would rather civic and state authorities did the adapting of infrastructure so where does mitigation get a look in? That’s easy, adapt and charge it against carbon emitters pro rata.

  20. Uhm, Tony, the site you linked to is a ‘Chem Trailer’ conspiracy barn. Complete with ‘Free Energy’ inventions and bunch of other crack pottery. In other words, zero credibility website, reader beware…

    The sea ice extent chart ‘was’ a snapshot from a Danish legit cite a few days ago, but their graph now is less dangerously imploding, while still, a new minimum can’t be excluded totally, it looks unlikely for 2013.

  21. Thanks Thomas.

    I didn’t look too closely at the detail as I figured that someone would have to go to a lot of trouble in order to mix fact with fiction. with more emphasis on fiction. But there you go someone has lied on the internet, who would have thought.

    I know Gareth has links to most of the reputable sites, is there a similar list of crank sites somewhere? If not there should be. It would save us alot of time wading through nonsense.

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