Don’t Listen to the Newspapers

This article of mine was published in the newsletter of Sisters of Our Lady of the Missions, a Catholic group that is doing a great deal of work in sustainability issues. Enjoy!

The mainstream media portrays the existence of human-caused climate change as a much fiercer scientific debate than it actually is. Scientists are still working out the details of how much warming we can expect, how it will be distributed, and what the consequences will be. However, the “big questions” have very solid answers. The idea that emissions of carbon dioxide from human activities would eventually warm the planet was first proposed in 1896, and since then, agreement on the issue has grown to a staggering level: 97.6% of publishing climatologists, 100% of studies in scientific journals, and every scientific organization in the world now agree that humans are changing the climate.

Compare this to the media coverage of climate change. The majority of articles in respected newspapers like The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal give roughly equal time to the “two sides” of the so-called “scientific debate”. Balance in journalism is all very well when the issue is one of political or social nature, but for matters of science, giving fringe opinions the same weight as a robust consensus is misleading. Being objective is not always the same as being neutral.

Over the past year, climate change reporting has taken a disturbing turn, as attacks on the integrity of individual scientists have been spread by nearly every media outlet in the developed world. Private correspondence taken out of context (in which the scientists involved have subsequently been cleared of any wrongdoing, by five independent investigations) as well as minor referencing errors in a scientific report (the worst of which gave the wrong date for when a specific glacier was expected to melt) led to widespread accusations of fraud and conspiracy by advocacy groups opposed to climate change action. Rather than investigate these potentially libellous claims, the media repeated them. As a result, many scientists have received death threats, and countless others have been subject to hate mail. One scientist in particular has had a dead animal dumped on his doorstep, and now travels with a bodyguard. Although their scientific reputations have not been damaged, the personal lives of these innocent men and women have been forever altered.

As the popular press reinforces myths and misconceptions about climate change, public understanding of the issue has fallen apart. Only 61% of American adults think that the Earth is warming, and only 50% think that it is caused by human activity (up-to-date Canadian statistics are not available). Most worryingly, only 34% are aware that most scientists think climate change is happening. A vast chasm has opened between scientific and public understanding of climate change, and powerful forces are at work to keep it open.

As we live in a democracy, action on climate change will only happen when voters demand it – and they won’t demand a solution if they don’t understand the problem. The best thing that you and I can do to stop climate change is to spread around accurate information. Scientific reports are often too technical for easy understanding, but major journals, such as Nature, often have a news section where they summarize new studies for the public. Many scientists are also stepping up to the challenge of climate change communication, and casting light on common misconceptions. A website called Skeptical Science is one of the best sources. There are many people working to fix this problem, but we need many more. Slowly but surely, the tide will turn.