TV3′s The Nation: Antarctica and public understanding of climate change

By Bryan Walker 24/04/2014

antarcticaA few days have passed since Lisa Owen’s interview with Antarctic scientists Chuck Kennicutt of the US and Gary Wilson of New Zealand on TV3’s The Nation but I hope it’s still worth drawing attention to. Programmes like The Nation tend to focus on immediate political excitements. It was therefore a pleasant surprise to see an interviewer who was reasonably well informed of the issues surrounding the effect of global warming on the Antarctic and who allowed the two scientists space to explain the far-reaching planetary consequences of Antarctic melting.

I won’t traverse the content of the interview here. It was familiar enough material to anyone who follows the science. The scientists were restrained and objective, almost to a fault. But their observations were stark enough. Gary Wilson observed that looking back in geological time we know that the last time carbon dioxide levels were at 400 parts per million the end solution of a prolonged period in that state was that the West Antarctic ice sheet retreated.

Beyond expressing pleasure at the quality of the interview and the fact that it was undertaken my main purpose in this post is to draw attention to the contribution of one of the panellists who subsequently discussed the interview (3 minutes in).

The panel discussion itself was worthy of the interview. Rob Fenwick underlined the crucial importance of what happens in the Antarctic, but it was the contribution of Jonathan Milne, deputy editor of the Herald on Sunday, which I want to dwell on. He said he thought his fellow panellists were underestimating the level of ignorance out there in the wider public. “I’m including myself in this. I really don’t think we know the importance and significance of Antarctica. I don’t think we know what’s happening with climate change.”

He went on to say that he thought we’re driven by our views on politics rather than the science in reaching our views on climate change. He instanced ACT members. “They’re not listening to the science. They’re listening to the politics.” His conclusion: “I think scientists have an enormous battle on their hands.”

I agree. I do not think there is widespread understanding of the science. There can’t be, for if there were we would be demanding action from our politicians, not taking our cue from them. Ever since I began to understand the magnitude of the effect our burning of fossil fuels is having and will continue to have on Earth’s climate it has seemed to me obvious that the general populace has not been given the opportunity to understand the message from the science. I’m not a scientist and I had to chase down books and publications which explained the issue. I was retired and had the time to do so as well as a lifelong habit of reading. Most people are not in this position. They depend on the news media, which by and large, at least in this country, have not so far been up to the task.

I hope Jonathan Milne goes back to his desk determined to help remedy the neglect. It’s not difficult, as The Nation’s segment illustrated. All it needs is a readiness to allow climate scientists to communicate the import of their work and a weighing of the importance of the issue which means that it is regularly and prominently in the forefront of the news.