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Who gets to decide how the media talks about climate change?

If you want to get inside how the media frames and shapes our collective understanding of climate change, there’s one person who understands it best: British environmental campaigner George Marshall.

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay George Marshall
12 April 2016
George Marshall 2.jpg

George Marshall

Sometimes, it's simple. Sometimes, a newspaper editor gives their coal-baron buddy a column from which to repeatedly deny the climate science whose conclusions threaten his wealth. Or they imply the dubious claims of a report from a dodgy anti-science 'think-tank' are 'peer-reviewed'. Or they launch a smear campaign against climate scientists, trying to 'prove' that normal statistical techniques amount to 'doctoring data'.

Usually, though, the way that the media influences our understanding of climate change is more complex. Usually, newspapers and broadcasters in Britain accept the basics of the science. It's what they then say about it, how they frame it, which shapes our collective understanding of one of the biggest problems we face. And to understand that, there's one person above all who it seemed most sensible to talk to.

George Marshall is one of the legendary figures of the climate movement. In particular, he is known for his analysis of the ways climate change is talked about. His recent book Don't Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change has become a key text for climate campaigners across the globe.

“We need to recognise that the media and the political class have class interests,” Marshall told me in an interview for openDemocracy’s Climate Unspun project over Skype. “It's always very underrated. “And so it's very crude to somehow suggest there is some conspiracy where they all get together, and they say 'there's this climate change thing, let's talk about it this way'. It doesn't work like that, it's something a lot more subtle.”

Marshall gives an example, which he doesn't want me to quote directly. Someone he spoke to recently justified taking sponsorship from a major oil company for an exhibition on climate change because they'd had a very nice conversation with a guy from Shell Oil, and he was “a very decent fellow” and he “really had thought long and deep about climate change”.

“This”, Marshall says, “is class interest. This is basically, 'nice fellow, he's a decent kind of chap, yes, we can get along very well’”.

He says it’s important not to underestimate this kind of thinking at the senior editorial level in newspapers.

“I have no doubt that if we were to map the movements of these people, we'd see that there's a lot of overlap at the same parties, and the same social circles, and the same schools, between the people who hold senior positions in oil companies and the people who run newspapers.”

One thing openDemocracy’s Climate Unspun research around the Paris climate conference last December picked up was that oil companies had disappeared from media coverage. This, as Marshall pointed out to me at the time, is a bit like talking about drug abuse without mentioning the dealers.

I was at the Paris climate conference reporting in December, and went to the main oil industry event. I was amazed to find that only three journalists were there: me, a friend from DesmogUK, and one woman from Switzerland. It reinforced a sense I've had throughout my entire experience of the climate movement: people think we need to win everyone over, and so we can't be too controversial. And as soon as we say anything which is challenging significant bodies of power, that's likely to be controversial, so we can't say it.

“You are right that there is an avoidance of this kind of controversy and conflict,” Marshall tells me.

“But also, once you start on this process, when you go in this direction, what you do is you amplify these frames, which then go further to define the issue in a certain direction…It becomes controversial to blame oil companies because of the way we think about climate change. If climate change is talked about as an issue that's about changing your lightbulbs, it seems ridiculous to say that it's the fault of global capitalism.”

But to what extent is this framing a product of the media itself, rather than just repeated by it?

“I think you need to look at the structures of ownership and the interests within that: the process by which the media produces its product. It tends to respond to short-term issues, rather than long-term,” Marshall says. “You also have to look at…the entire process of socially constructed bias within the media. Who gets to decide what goes where and what gets covered?”

He cites a current example of the kind of reporting he is talking about: “We have several, closely related issues which get covered entirely separately. The wars in the Middle East and our involvement in them are treated in one department. The world oil price is treated in another department, and the hottest year on record and the freakishly warm – and certainly the wettest – December on record in another. I think to some extent they then become created as compartments within people's brains. Part of the challenge is to break out of that.”

Another framing problem, Marshall notes, is “when you decide to go and argue with someone about an issue, you say 'there are very strong economic reasons why we should shift to renewables'. You therefore establish the terms under which you're going to lead the debate.” This is part of a compartmentalisation that happens right across the board, Marshall says.

“Climate change particularly suffers because it's defined within the bounds of this environmental sector. You have 'the big boy stuff’. Big boys deal with conflict, war, defence, and money. And over there, you have the sort of flippy-floppy, fantasy, utopian, let's face it, the 'girly' areas, where you work with fluffy things, and care and stuff.”

Hack reports to Fukushima: the coverage cycle

“One argument says that the media is basically a consumer driven industry that reflects the needs of the consumers or will go to the wall. Then there's another one which says no, it's a politically driven industry which serves politics up to people, in ways that are in the interests of the owners, and the people who pull the strings,” Marshall tells me. “And the truth is that it's both. It is a cyclical negotiation between those interests. But it's made more complex by the fact that the media, uniquely, has the capacity to shift the ideological bias of its audience.” 

Which all begs the question: in the last 20 years or so, how has the media influenced opinion on climate change? And which of those factors has driven that?

“There is a cycle of environmental coverage which has been running fairly consistently since the 1960s. And it goes up and down and up and down. And it has, let us say, a 10-year cycle.

“To some extent it follows economic cycles. But also, it tends to have an internal media cycle, which starts off with probably, 'if it bleeds it leads'. So it starts off with bad news, and runs with that for a little while. Then for a while it is quite generous with people who are expressing that bad news and campaigning for change.” 

But then this starts to shift, in part, for political reasons, Marshall argues, which are that the press feels uncomfortable giving too much support for that particular group. But also partly because the media is looking for new territory... It knows it can't keep telling the same story over and over. Or, it can, but it likes not to: revisionism seems quite appealing.

“So, on climate change, when the cycle started, the British media was a bit quiet about it, and as it picked up through the ‘90s, I'm not sure that there was a particularly marked difference in the way that the different parts of the British media were covering climate change or, more to the point, not covering it, through the ‘90s, and as we come into the 2000s.”

Then came the shift, when the media coverage ran “for a surprising while on things you can do and save the planet. Again this was covered uncritically across the media. You'd find that The Daily Mail would cover that just as easily as The Independent.” Part of the reason for that, Marshall argues, was that “it was a way that this hard news stuff could spread out into the much more lucrative lifestyle sections.”

To clarify, by “things you can do”, Marshall is talking about what I would call individual or consumer action: change your light bulbs, insulate your house, and so on. Was the promotion of this actually unhelpful?

“Part of the problem is that this stuff is immediately cheapened by these, you know, hack reports: ‘10 easy things you can do to save the planet'. That cheapens the whole discourse.

“In my book, I talk about the remarkable energy savings that were made in Japan, especially Tokyo, when Fukushima went down – the government said 'do your bit for the greater good by turning off your air conditioning' and right across Tokyo in the summer, people voluntarily turned off their air conditioning. So, people will do it. But they'll do it because they feel it's being part of the wider good.”

The problem, Marshall observes, is when it’s not felt to be part of a wider social contract, and when there is a toxic convergence with a parallel pattern of consumerism, that environmentalism is itself some kind of niche market.

“You had these product and lifestyle pages meeting with this major issue of climate change, creating this very unhealthy alliance, saying 'do your bit, buy this product, do the green thing'”, he explains. “It's not helpful, and really undermines popular support, because it makes it seem really elitist and irrelevant. And, of course, the reality is that it doesn't do anything for climate change as any cynic would point out.”

After this, you get the revisionism, “the people coming in and saying 'don't tell us what to do, that was all bollocks anyway, this is all a lie',” as Marshall puts it. “My impression is that it started to really get going around 2005, then really started to build up steam around Copenhagen (the climate conference in 2009). The coverage of the UEA hack, that was great for the media, it was a new angle. They're all looking at, 'is there a new way to look at this thing'? And, over time, if we're looking at public attitudes, this is something interesting, the media both fuels public attitudes and responds to them.”

A moral issue that can be measured to the gram

Obviously, a comprehensive study of who is culpable for climate change would be hugely complex, but in terms of message and framing, you could either say what the fossil-free campaign is saying right now – that the fossil fuel industry is to blame – or you can say, 'you, the individual consumer/worker/voter are to blame'.

Throughout the 2000s, when personal carbon reductions were in fashion, it felt to me like this communicated an implicit message of ‘you are to blame for climate change’, which alienated huge numbers of people: blaming the general public is a terrible way to get them on board. But it felt like many preferred to do that than risk blaming powerful fossil fuel companies. I ask Marshall if it was a fair characterisation? Is there a reason the media would focus down on individuals rather than asking various other structural questions about power?

He explains that climate change is a very unusual issue for a couple of reasons: “The first is that it has no intentionality. It has no clear responsible cause such that you can say, ‘you're the ones who are doing this’. He adds that even when you can nail down a cause “there is no intention.”

“When we look at very salient political issues such as terrorism, for example, there is enormous intentionality, and stigmatisation – you can say 'this is a group who are doing it'. And if you get the group wrong and you say 'Muslims are doing it', you can have a whole debate.

“But climate change is challenging because of that lack of intention – and is unusual because it can be measured down to the last gram.”

There is no other moral issue, Marshall says, which can be calculated so mathematically. “You can slice the emissions cake any kind of way – by personal decisions, by business, by sector, by fuel, any way you want… you can be incredibly accurate. You can appear to speak with all this authority about responsibility, while hiding all the bias you bring to how you slice up those emissions.

“I don't think it's that people want to blame consumers, but it's obviously in business interests not to want to carry the burden. And it's also in businesses’ interests to find ways of selling new crap to people, so business is very interested in this kind of 'things you can do' argument.”

But bias runs both ways, Marshall warns. “I've long argued that the left is way too keen to say the fault of this lies with business, without recognising that there is a collective responsibility,” he says. “Naomi Klein and I go to Australia, and the only way that, as people with families, we can even think of going to Australia to talk about our respective books, is because we can travel on a plane which is powered by kerosene, which is supplied by an oil company. We are therefore involved. We can have our own little narratives of personal innocence, but there's no real way out of it.”

Even the maxim of ‘think globally, act locally’ is a problem. “Sometimes we need to think locally and act globally,” Marshall says. If you ask people what the main problems are in their area, he says, climate change doesn't feature. But if you ask people what the biggest issue for the world in the future is, climate change often comes out top.

The media coverage reflects that, and as Marshall points out, some of it is sheer laziness. “There isn't a real understanding of what images go with climate change. There isn't really a convenient image. So they all go and stick an iceberg on it, they stick a polar bear on it. And every time they do that, it reinforces the frame of psychological distance.”

Complex problems without simple solutions

2015 was the hottest year on record. Climate change is no longer a question about the future: it is unfolding around us. That this has been allowed to happen is evidence of a whole cornucopia of deep and systemic problems with our civilisation. But not least among them, it tells us that the media – which ought to be mediating our conversations about the most serious issues we face – has failed us in some profound, if not entirely tangible way.

Perhaps none of this is surprising. The media itself is also enduring an ongoing crisis: traditional funding routes have dried up, reporters have been laid off, and, right on cue, the UK paper which once took climate change the most seriously, The Independent, has been removed from the newsagents' stands. And in any case, The Independent had written less about the issue since its takeover by Alexander Lebedev, who has multi-million dollar stakes in the Russian aviation industry.

The media seems, to me, less likely to frame things in ways which we know are more effective at getting people to care about and act on climate change, because to do so would be ruffling the feathers of the biggest birds of prey around us. But for Marshall, the reasons are complicated. “We, the left-leaning environmental opposition, whatever we are, don’t actually understand the culture of the people we are opposing. Part of that is a mutually held delusion that business operates on a pure and self-interested profit motive. I think that both sides like to keep that in mind,” Marshall says.

“Business likes to have the profit motive in mind because it looks professional and sensible and rigorous, and also detaches them from the moral implications of what they are doing. They can say, 'I'm sorry we're driven and blown by the markets, I'm sorry you're all out of work'. But I think environmentalists like to do it because of their own negative reasons. They think businesses are indifferent to people's suffering,” he says.

“I don't think either…is true. I think that socially formed collective culture is much more powerful than we reckon. We know businesses will quite often do things which simply do not make business sense.” Complex problems without simple solutions, as Marshall would say.

Adam Ramsay is a trustee of Climate Outreach, the think-tank for which George Marshall works.

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