The media, especially in the Anglosphere, are making a mess in their reporting on climate change. You knew that already. But what is truly shocking is the degree to which climate change sceptics are still controlling the way the topic is framed and discussed in the media. How? By playing on one of our biggest weaknesses: uncertainty.
Evidence shows uncertainty is one of the biggest psychological barriers to engaging in climate change. Humans have a huge problem with uncertainty. We like to know exactly how things work and exactly how to influence them. If we don’t have certainty, we get nervous. And if something feels completely out of our hands, we switch off.
The problem is climate change isn’t uncertain. Nor is it out of our hands. The latest IPCC report put the certainty of human-induced climate change at 95%. As a scientific comparison this is similar to the certainty that smoking causes cancer or that vitamins are good for your health.
Yet the media have a habit of injecting undue uncertainty into nearly everything we hear on the issue. This ranges from simply over-using the language of uncertainty in climate stories (a recent Oxford study on media coverage of climate change found that 80% of articles covering the topic contain uncertain language) to explicitly exaggerating doubts surrounding scientific instruments, academics, and even the scientific method itself.
Last year the Telegraph broke a major announcement that “Top climate scientists admit global warming forecasts were wrong”. An important finding, no doubt, yet the details of the article were underwhelming. What had actually happened was that the IPCC’s decade-to-decade warming trend underwent a miniscule 0.01°C downgrade – from 0.13°C to 0.12°C. In other words, overstatement of the century.
The disproportionate representation given to sceptic spokespeople in the media is a topic in itself. A recent example is the recent BBC Radio 4 debate on climate change and flooding in SW England, between Sir Brian Hoskins, a member of the Committee on Climate Change, and Lord Nigel Lawson, founder of the sceptic Global Warming Policy Foundation. Within a minute of speaking Lord Lawson had used the phrase “nobody knows” three times, as if frantically trying to hit a quota during air time.
All in all, the line that seems to be taken in the sceptic camp is that ‘any uncertainty about climate change is too much: until we know precisely how far the climate is warming we shouldn’t bother investing in action to try and mitigate it’. And, as in the Telegraph headline above demonstrates, it is normally the integrity of climate models and forecasts that comes under direct attack – with tiny imprecisions blown up to cast uncertainty over the whole science.
Suspiciously, climate change models are the only type of long term forecasts that receive this negative press. We never hear economic forecasts derided as ‘mumbo jumbo’ or ‘hocus pocus’ in the papers. Yet when you pit climate forecasts the key forecasts used by the media and in government decision-making it becomes clear that climate change models from the IPCC are surprisingly accurate given the bad press they get.
Last week I published a paper highlighting this double standard. We compared the accuracy of climate forecasts made twenty years ago by the beleaguered IPCC to that of some of our most trusted and respected economic forecasts over the same time scale. And the results speak for themselves:
Over the past twenty years, the climate has changed within the parameters set by the IPCCs original forecasts. Our economy, on the other hand has dodged expectations entirely.
With all this in mind it seems that uncertainty in our media is not only misplaced, but little more than denialism by another form. So let’s call it what it is, scepticism by stealth, and no longer tolerate its creep into media coverage of climate change.
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