Another week, another succession of damaging moves from the so-called EPA to silence climate scientists and galvanize the populist agenda of muting the discourse of climate change entirely.
— Sheldon Whitehouse (@SenWhitehouse) October 25, 2017
I have been tracing climate news and views on Twitter for over a month now. Some weeks, dependent on whether the mass of climate catastrophe outweighs President Trump’s garbled ineptitude, there is more Twitter rhetoric to analyse than others. Some weeks, I have to forage for other ugly anti-science rhetoric. But as the weeks go by, no matter what the current events, I have identified certain persistent themes in the climate “debate” that I find as disturbing as they are tedious and repetitious.
Firstly, there is the portrayal of a debate in the first place! The old journalistic norms of “objectivity” and “balance” seem to force decidedly un-objective and imbalanced portrayals, language, reporting and visual rhetoric. If there’s a climate scientist illuminating empirical fact on your TV screen, or on your stream, then the offending provider usually feels obliged balance the visuals by including a science denier alongside. 50:50. Fair and balanced. Except it is neither fair, objective nor balanced. An accurate portrayal, a fair “debate” representative of the true situation, would be around 49 highly qualified environmental scientists challenging 1 solitary, ambivalent scientist. That’s not to say this solitary, put-upon chap is even a climate denier. Often, the lady or gentleman is question is merely a graduate of The Old School of Empiricism who feels that their fealty to science demands a staunch and reasoned hesitance to accept mere overwhelming consensus, preferring to wait until the totality of results have been realized. (Unfortunately, once the totality of these results have been realized, we’ll be confirming the findings in the ashes of our new schools).
Bill Nye calls this journalistic tendency towards balance a “disservice” to climate science. I call it willful inaccuracy, and a dangerous tendency towards misrepresentation and the perpetuation of obvious fallacy. But I’m more verbose than Bill.
— Rob (@Unpersuaded112) October 26, 2017
This tiny red line is how many scientists deny climate change. Yet news shows give same amount of airtime to both sides as if they’re equal. pic.twitter.com/rWnYLZ8jRM
— Lee Camp [Redacted] (@LeeCamp) October 26, 2017
Good risk communication demands not just accurate threat information, but actionable efficacy also. With that in mind, and having been clear about the risk of widespread misinformation delaying appropriate climate mitigation, I feel duty bound to suggest a potential positive response…
Except it’s not that easy!
What can any average person really do about the mass-media except sit around and watch? Donald Trump is the president of the United States (sorry) and he has a bone to pick with mass-media himself. But even his anti-press rhetoric has been quite ineffectual so far. In pre-Trump America, the mass-media was much maligned for inaccuracy. But in a fast-encroaching age of truthiness, fake news and false-facts, publics have suddenly rallied around established news agencies, like drowning sailors to a bobbing buoy. Perhaps it’s a need for familiarity in uncertain times, or perhaps we’ve started to believe the whole “holding the powerful accountable” and “democracy dies in darkness” rhetoric? Perhaps we need reminding that the press is power also, and must be held accountable. The enemy of our enemy is not necessarily our friend!
If we are to combat misrepresentation, we must continue to share the facts about climate change and to, like Bill Nye, call out those that would portray and perpetuate “balance” on a decidedly unbalanced issue.
This leads me to the second perturbing theme I have noticed on Twitter: The propensity to share all the heart-breaking news concerning extreme weather events, Scott Bloody Pruitt, apocalyptic predictions and imagery, without offering anything in the way individual or external efficacy. Knock, knock, knock—that’s the sound of another nail being driven into your coffin while you lay there in the dark, flabbergasted. It’s all so overwhelming. And there’s no doubt that a dire situation is upon us, and worsening.
But still, is that a fair representation? I searched “climate change” on Twitter the other day. And, as I scrolled down the stream of ghastly end-times imagery punctuated by Pruitt’s pugnacious, mottled boat-race, I decided to perform an ad-hoc content analysis. Out of all the aggravated Tweets from climate enthusiasts, and the mainstream-media headlines and stories, I found only around 1 in 10 contained any—even the most perfunctory—efficacy information at all. (If some enterprising digital communications scholar just got an idea for a conference paper, then have at it).
— Rob (@Unpersuaded112) October 25, 2017
I do not believe that this is a manifestation of our society-wide polarization and pessimism (although it could well be), because even recent studies into the handling of threat and efficacy in leading newspapers (Feldman, Hart & Milosevic, 2015) found that climate science was poorly benchmarked, and impact frames were far more prevalent than action and efficacy frames. Even when efficacy was included in stories, it was rarely contained within the same stories as relevant threat information. If that’s any use to you?
So, is the pessimistic affect more attractive to us as humans? Does hope not ring a loud enough bell in us, cognitively?
These are questions for another day. But having outlined yet another threat, it would be remiss of me not to include some efficacy information here at the end. Because, and let me be clear, THERE IS HOPE! There are actions you can take or force and individual or governmental levels. The fight is only just beginning. Please don’t believe the headlines, or succumb to nihilism. Click on the links and be saved from the dinginess of realization.
Feldman, L., Hart, S. & Milosevic, T. (2015). Polarizing news? Representations of threat and efficacy in leading US newspapers’ coverage of climate change. Public Understanding of Science, 26 (4), pp. 1-17. doi: 10.1177/0963662515595348