[QODLink]
Opinion

Why the media has gone silent on climate change

Climate change deniers have been waging a PR war on scientists who promote a path towards a post carbon economy.

Last Modified: 10 Oct 2013 11:41
Hilal Elver

Hilal Elver is Research Professor in Global Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Co-Director of the Climate Change Project.
Email Article
Print Article
Share article
Send Feedback
"While climate sceptics are attacking the IPCC report for being alarmist... environmentalists are complaining that the panel was too intimidated by the deniers, and understated the dangers," writes Elver [EPA]

After six years of work, a week-long final review session in Stockholm, invloving more than 200 scientists from 39 countries, the UN's influential scientific body IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), which is investigating climate change, released a 36-page summary of their latest work.

Gradually, the IPCC will make public four volumes of additional reports and suggestions to policy makers. Somewhat surprisingly, the report was not treated as "breaking news" by the mainstream media. There are several reasons for this. First of all, a few months ago the draft version of the report had been leaked via the internet, and was widely commented on. Many experts, journalists, policy makers worked on this unofficial version of the report to discover what is new, what is missing, and what to expect. It turned out that the actual report is no different from the draft version.

Secondly, climate change deniers already started to attack the report before its formal release, saying that there was no "smoking gun", and nothing new to worry about. They spread a rumour that global warming had slowed during the past 15 years. The work of the deniers is disturbingly successful with the ordinary public and conservative governments. Contrary to what the deniers would have us believe, the IPCC report clearly confirmed that climate change is with 95 percent confidence a real phenomenon and due principally to human activity. On this crucial point the report increased its level of confidence from the 90 percent level that it had declared in its earlier prediction of 2007.

Scientists will not go further than this on the basis of existing evidence. The report definitively concludes that the average earth temperature has risen almost one degree Celsius in the last century and is set to rise another half-degree during the next 20 years. It also warns that without strong action to limit carbon emissions, temperatures could rise by 4 degrees C by the end of the century.

The IPCC clearly indicates that "the atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, sea levels have risen, and the concentration of greenhouse is at the highest level in 800,000 years". Moreover, the most extreme IPCC scenario points to an average warming during this century of 3.6 degrees C, which many experts believe would be catastrophic.

Republicans have accused President Barack Obama's administration of waging a "war on coal", by supporting alternative green energy and by requiring coal plants to install cleaner technology. The American public is presently attuned to "war," and so, this seems to be another war in the offering, but perhaps with more at stake.

The panel of climate experts also endorsed a "carbon budget" for humanity, placing a limit on the amount of the carbon dioxide that can be prudently produced by industrial activities and the clearing of forests. The limit is one trillion metric tones. Over a half-trillion tons have already been burned since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

Framing the situation as war

When the ceiling is reached there will be an urgent need to shift societal energy consumption to a non-carbon economy. When this moment arrives there will be no choices to be made. Republicans have accused President Barack Obama's administration of waging a "war on coal", by supporting alternative green energy and by requiring coal plants to install cleaner technology. The American public is presently attuned to "war," and so, this seems to be another war in the offering, but perhaps with more at stake.

The Guardian contends that the IPCC report came at a time when growing numbers of people are in varying degrees of doubt about the reality and threat of global warming. A recent survey in the UK indicated that the percentage of the British people who do not think the world's climate is changing has almost quadrupled since 2005. A similar survey in the United States shows an even greater rise in climate scepticism.

The survey indicates that public belief in climate change is only widely supported when extreme weather events have freshly occurred, causing widespread societal distress. At the same time, President Obama is being harshly criticised by the powerful lobby of climate change deniers for endorsing this linkage.

Bjorn Lomborg, the leading unofficial voice of climate change deniers, echoes this criticism, insisting that there is no evidence demonstrating that a warming climate produces "more extreme drought, floods, wildfires and hurricanes". According to Lomborg, it is scientifically irresponsible to connect these two realities given the information currently available. Climate change deniers emphasise that there is a warming climate in cold places, and carefully using language to interpret this impact concludes that the "overall impact will probably be slightly more extreme". Playing around with the statistics and accentuating the uncertainties in scientific research, allows Lomborg a smooth entry for the delivery of his core message: "Global warming is real. It is partly manmade. It will make some things worse and some things better. However some of the most prominent examples of extreme weather are misleading." This message was repeated to different audiences, and heard often, especially after super-storm Sandy devastated the Jersey shore in northeastern United States.

In the developing world the discussion is not so sophisticated as yet. It is rare to hear a debate about differing views of scientific knowledge as it bears on climate change, and disagreements tend more to revolve around policy priorities, and the primacy of maximising economic growth. Moreover, citizens of the developing world, if they do not live in an immediate danger zone, tend to ignore global warming, being understandably preoccupied with the ordeals of daily life.

Lack of governmental action

Additionally there are many governments that oppose making mandatory commitments to reduce carbon emissions. For instance, Australia and Canada have interpreted the lPCC summary document as vindicating an attitude of climate complacency. Such a stance was encouraged by right-wing newspapers in the Murdock network putting out such discrediting headlines as "The IPCC got it wrong". In like manner, the tabloid Daily Telegraph of the UK seeks a sensationalist reaction with the following headline: "Top Climate Scientists Admit Global Warming Forecasts Were Wrong." Even though the IPCC issued a press release refuting such an allegation, the message was ignored in the mainstream media and by the general public.

Climate scientists clarify that the short term warming and cooling does not make a big difference in the big picture, if gradual and consisting warming is detected on a global scale. For instance, the IPCC report provided a persuasive explanation for the absence of warming trends during the past 17 years: the added heat is hiding in the deep ocean. This observation by the IPCC gave rise to a further attack on the report by climate change deniers.

The voice of the scientists in the new IPCC report is neither incredibly loud, nor incredibly scary. They deliberately used cautious unalarming language and hesitated to delimit the most extreme dangers of climate change.

These attacks are not new. In 2007 when IPCC's 4th assessment report was issued, its finding were viciously attacked by climate change deniers, who honed in on a typo implying that the Himalayan glaciers could completely melt by 2035. The deniers publicised this error over and over again with the false implication that the entire report was erroneous in its findings and prescriptions. The deniers spread their discrediting message to a media around the world receptive to controversy.

Thirdly, the scientists of the IPCC were under severe pressure from many sources not to use "alarming" language. The new IPCC report clearly acknowledged that climate science contains uncertainties. However, those uncertainties could go in either direction, and might just as well be underestimating the harmful consequences of allowing the carbon buildup to continue. Therefore, the only prudent way to limit the risk to humanity's future is to limit emissions as much as possible.

Science does not make value judgments, and words like "dangerous" and "threat" are obviously uncertain and depending for their meaning on the specifics of where and who is at risk.  If you live in one of the small Pacific islands, such as Marshall Islands, or the low lying coastal region of Bangladesh, and if you are not part of the 1 percent of the fortunate wealthy, climate change is already a matter of survival, and it can have a life or death effect. The degree of danger or risk changes depending where we are, how we live, how good our early warning systems are, and what political and scientific capabilities we have at our disposal. At the same time, there is no place on the planet that is fully insulated from potential catastrophic harm attributable to climate change.

The voice of the scientists in the new IPCC report is neither incredibly loud, nor incredibly scary. They deliberately used cautious unalarming language and hesitated to delimit the most extreme dangers of climate change.

While climate sceptics are attacking the IPCC report for being alarmist and exaggerating the threats, environmentalists are complaining that the panel was too intimidated by the deniers, and understated the dangers. These observers point to the worries of farmers in South Africa, Asia and Latin America who are experiencing rising temperatures and extreme weather. After all who will be more invested in accurate observations than farmers whose livelihood is directly affected. John Vidal of The Guardian wrote that "small scale farmers around the world are telling us, that seasons are changing, weather is increasingly extreme and unpredictable making it tougher to feed the families."

What shall we expect?

 In two months the 19th annual meeting of the UN Climate Change Convention will be held in Warsaw. The IPCC is supposed to give scientific evidence to diplomats to facilitate policy decisions that will safeguard our future. A new legal commitment with respect to carbon emission is scheduled to be in place by 2015. Yet so far no significant steps have been taken by world political leaders to raise awareness or to give us hope that a responsible approach to climate change will be taken by cooperative action by the governments of the world.

There is a consensus among many countries that the time is ripe to shift towards a post carbon economy given the conclusions reached in the new IPCC report. However, there is no significant political will present to plan for a smooth transaction that will require a massive coordinated effort to avoid societal breakdowns. At present there is not even a global commitment to make mandatory reduction of carbon emissions.

There is a great civilisation drama unfolding that pits the force and power of science and reason against the arrayed influence and power of money and vested interests in sustaining a petroleum-based economy long beyond its useful life expectancy. We, the public, have a great stake in the outcome of this struggle, and must not be content to stand meekly on the sidelines while the gladiators do battle.  

Hilal Elver is Research Professor in Global Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Co-Director of the Climate Change Project.

2169

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

Source:
Al Jazeera
Email Article
Print Article
Share article
Send Feedback
Featured on Al Jazeera
UNHCR says hundreds of people trapped in Yaloke town risk death if they are not evacuated to safety urgently.
'Justice for All' demonstrations swell across the US over the deaths of African Americans in police encounters.
Six former Guantanamo detainees are now free in Uruguay with some hailing the decision to grant them asylum.
Disproportionately high number of Aboriginal people in prison highlights inequality and marginalisation, critics say.
Featured
< >