Not telling it like it is – media reluctant to face up to climate crisis

By Bryan Walker 09/08/2013

The news media, with some outstanding exceptions, has monumentally failed to communicate to the public the magnitude of the threat of climate change to human society. Depressed, I tried recently submitting an opinion piece to the Herald dialogue pages on the subject. It was rejected. It’s hardly the sort of thing that needs writing for Hot Topic readers, but there may be interest in seeing what the Herald turns down. And it’s not because they were besieged by material: there were a couple of obvious fillers from overseas newspapers to occupy the space in the same week.  Here it is:

The mainstream news media continue to serve the public poorly on the question of climate change. The magnitude of the threat revealed by scientists engaged with climate science and related disciplines is rarely conveyed in news reports, and even more rarely followed up in any considered fashion.  Yet stark realities are already apparent in more frequent extreme weather events, the ominous warming in the Arctic region, the growing acidification of the oceans, the increased rate of sea level rise and much else which bodes ill for human society. Reports from biologists indicate that the process of change is happening at a rate too rapid for many species to adapt. Mass extinctions are clearly likely.

All of this one would imagine would be treated as important news, frequently prominent in the headlines, often canvassed in editorial discussion, with regular comment sought from leading scientists on the implications of what is happening and expected to happen in the time ahead. But that doesn’t occur. Occasional items appear, sometimes well reported and thankfully these days less likely to be “balanced” by reference to climate change deniers, but the overall media response is muted at best, with a few notable exceptions such as the UK’s Guardian newspaper.

Presumably there are judgments being made at editorial levels which account for this evasion of responsibility. Maybe scientific ignorance prevails in such circles and there is simply no understanding of how solid the scientific consensus is on the basic elements of human-caused climate change. Perhaps they still buy the spurious claim made by deniers that there is serious division among climate scientists about these basics. Maybe they just feel that it is inconceivable that humanity should be bringing about such vast changes to the workings of the global climate, no matter what the scientists say. Maybe they think that their audience doesn’t want to hear bad news and make a commercial decision to ignore it.

Whatever the reasons, the media’s neglect is dangerous for society and it’s high time the public was given well-resourced information on a regular basis. It’s not difficult to supply. Kathryn Ryan’s recent National Radio conversation with Professor Daniel Pauley, Director of the Fisheries Centre at the University of British Colombia, on the implications of the world’s fish moving to cooler waters as oceans warm up was an example of how quickly an expert, when intelligently interviewed, can convey the magnitude of a climate change impact. There are a great many scientists similarly well placed to explain the results of their research in a variety of settings. The current economic excitement because the retreat of Arctic sea ice promises access to drilling for oil and shorter passage for shipping would be considerably dampened if the public was fully informed of the fears of Arctic scientists. They realise that the warming of the area may lead to substantial methane release from the offshore permafrost. This would increase global warming significantly and lead to costs to the global economy far outweighing the benefits now being touted. Arctic expert Professor Peter Wadhams, head of the Polar ocean physics group at Cambridge University, affirmed recently in a Guardian interview that rapid methane release from the Arctic seabed is not a low probability event.

By any measure reports from active scientists which bear upon such widely significant possibilities are newsworthy. Added to the full range of climate change impacts they absolutely demand full attention and appropriate action. It may already be too late to prevent a global temperature rise of at least two degrees, which in itself will at very least require expensive adaptation measures. But if the burning of fossil fuels continues as usual we may well even this century be looking at a three or four degree rise, with enormously painful consequences for human society.

That’s the picture responsible scientists are presenting. Surely it’s more than enough to galvanise the news media to ensure that what the science has to say is adequately conveyed to the public and brought to the centre of public discourse.