Climate change: should we blame the media?
I`ve recently been to a very interesting and inspiring lecture organized by the Cabot Institute and part of Bristol Festival of Ideas.
It`s true that lots of interesting things happen everyday in Bristol, especially now that we are still celebrating this beautiful city as European Green Capital, but this one was of a particular matter to me as it concerned the role played by the media in the fight against climate change.
Led by Jonathon Porritt, outstanding environmentalist and key figure in the communication of global warming and ecological-related issues, the lecture hosted at the University of Bristol saw among its large audience journalists, media operators, students, environment-related officers and ordinary people: a very different audience for an excellent debate.
After having been introduced by the other speakers (Jonathon was – hilariously for a European Green Capital - stuck in the traffic struggling to make it on time), the prominent and most recognised environmentalist in the UK listed a series of problems and “malpractices” that the media industry had been facing and following whilst communicating climate change in the last few decades, and that had contributed to a “misleading dis-information” around one of the most controversial topics of our modern times.
He started making a very good point. First of all, the main problem of communicating climate change is that every fact connected with it is, of course, a scientific fact, and, as we know, science is itself an uncertain discipline. The problem with that is quite straightforward: how can we convince people that there`s something wrong going on on our planet, and that the principal cause of all the disasters and diseases that we increasingly see spreading around is us, if the facts we`re basing our statements on could be reviewed by a different scientist in a couple of years time? Could anyone argue that climate change has nothing to do with the way we are exploiting our planet? Well, actually someone did. This very first aspect leads to all the following problems.
Second point. The thing with climate change and environmental-related campaigns, is that during the last decades they have been cleverly painted as causes for “greenies”, hippy and “alternative” people. The media built a very peculiar frame around the issue, and consequentially all the stories concerning it have been taken for ages like “stories for greenies”: in other words, something ordinary people shouldn’t care of and something built up for left wing people always looking for something “abstract” and different to complain about. This brought all the others (right-wing orientated people belonging to different social spheres) to reject the idea of climate change as a conspiratorial theory, and led them to the point to assume a denial approach: climate change doesn`t exist, at all. Why this happened is quite clear if we consider the politics-media-business triangle of power asset and the connection between money and power: left wing people generally aim to and want to decrease energy consumption, move to renewables and exploit less. A nightmare for powerful and rich corporations. Although thinking about it we cannot “depoliticize” climate change, we can understand how it came that the debate took this way.
Third in the line: balance. For years media have been carrying on the debate about climate change and similar issues trying to provide a proper coverage avoiding any partaking on the matter, doing their best to find the opponents to climate change scientists in order to present the most comprehensive approach they could, struggling to find a second-version and second-opinion on the same matter. And we know: any idea has its supporters and opponents, so whenever you want to find A to dismantle B, you will. Maybe this over-zealous way to analyse the topic, this kind of “obsession” for balance, brought on the scene funny anti climate change ideas and improbable characters that added nothing to the general debate but “a bit” of confusion.
Last but not least: fear. Fear of ridicule and fear to lose their jobs prevented journalists finding the right way to communicate climate change. Scientists have been attacked by right wing representatives trying to destroy their reliability and objectivity for years, and the same story for any other professional trying to raise awareness about climate related aspects. In other occasions, brave journalists have been discouraged by their editors (and investors?), who didn`t want “politically incorrect” statements to appear on their first pages. Who should be then the first one to be blamed?
At this point, blaming the media industry and only it, not only doesn`t help with analysing the problem, but doesn`t bring us any closer to finding a solution to it.
All this said and acknowledged, we should now find alternative and more effective ways to build and communicate a successful climate change-awareness and consciousness campaign. What Jonathon Porritt pointed out is something I personally strongly agree with: we need to get creative. The worst thing we can do when we present something to a wider audience who hasn`t got the necessary knowledge to understand and digest it, is not to change the framework and adapt the subject. In this particular case, the lack of creativity of the media industry hasn`t helped climate related issues to reach the surface and generate a reaction from the public: we need to find a different, alternative, more efficient way to communicate with people and get not only to their minds with tons of technical data and numbers, but at their hearts and human souls, engaging them with real stories and narratives, making them feel like they belong to something they not only should, but WANT to belong to.