The Media and Climate Change
Littler, Jo, Soundings
Helen Bird, Max Boykoff, Mike Goodman and George Monbiot discuss media coverage of climate change with Jo Littler.
How has the media coverage of climate change changed in recent years?
Helen It's risen hugely up the agenda and is no longer in its little green box. There's more of a general consensus that climate change is happening, and that it's manmade, but areas of contention remain around how we actually tackle it.
Mike People are now confronted with climate change when they go to movies and watch TV, not just on the news, and this also raises a whole range of new political questions about its mediation.
Max It's primarily in the mid to late 1980s that it came into the public arena. This was when in North America, James Hansen - often considered the godfather of climate change - told the Senate it was time to take action, and in Britain Thatcher spoke of the need to respond at the Royal Society. Media coverage vastly increased in 2006 and 2007, but recently it's dropped off a bit. This is partly because of the focus on the recession, but it's also because of the emergence of newer ways of talking about climate change without discussing it explicitly - for example, in the broader frame of 'sustainability'. The way coverage is translated into content is another issue. The general trend has been to move away from scientific questions and into questions of impact, policy action and how it translates into our everyday behaviour.
George Climate change denial in the media has become simultaneously less pervasive and more prominent. What I mean by that is that you don't now get a situation where almost everyday on the BBC someone like Pat Michaels is given undisputed access without having to reveal their special interests, to claim that the science is unsettled and the debate still open. But at the same time, there's been a series of extremely prominent instances of denial, such as The Great Global Warming Scandal on Channel 4 and Christopher Monckton's major feature series in The Sunday Telegraph, which have increased doubt in the public mind about whether or not climate change is taking place. A couple of recent polls have shown clearly that more people believe that the science is unsettled today than they did five years ago. That's partly because of the tremendous publicity efforts that some parts of the media have invested in such prominent features.
Has the climate change denial industry expanded?
George It's hard to tell because, of course, one of the characteristics of the industry is that it doesn't publish annual accounts and is very careful to cover its tracks. In other words, it's very hard to know who's funded by whom, except when it comes to Exxon, which was foolish enough to publish its list of beneficiaries in its annual accounts. However, that they're better organised is unquestionable. They organise fake referenda, and major conferences where they assemble what they claim are 'the world's greatest climate scientists' to speak with one voice in dismissing climate science. And they've learnt what works best to seed public doubt. Every time I write about climate change in The Guardian, I'll get several hundred website comments vociferously denying that it could possibly be taking place. Of those, how many are sponsored? I haven't the faintest idea, and, in common with all other websites, The Guardian's policy of allowing anonymity creates tremendous scope for inserting yourself into a debate and representing unacknowledged interests.
Max They're better organised in that they've abandoned the issues that make them look like real fossils. When they raise doubt over the existence of climate change they simply demonstrate their own ineptitude. Where they are getting better organised, as Eric Pooley points out, is by pushing the idea of the 'economic costs' of green policy (which overlooks the real economic costs of negligence). It's very easy to raise a spectre of doubt, but much more difficult to cover the steady evolution of scientific understanding of human contributions to climate change. …