Despite the findings of a new report, I wouldn’t bet on it
UPDATE 10/16/10: I’ve added some comments from Judith Curry, a scientist at Georgia Tech and author of a new blog, at the end of this post. As I get more comments from scientists, journalists and others, I’ll post them there as well. Also, see the comments section for thoughts from Bud Ward, editor of the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media, and Randy Olson, a scientist turned filmmaker.
Update 10/18/10: See the bottom for some comments from Seth Borenstein of the Associated Press.
A new study has found that just 10 percent of the journalistic coverage of the Copenhagen climate negotiations last winter actually focused on science. And the author, James Painter, doesn’t seem terribly happy about it.
In the report he argues that as the frequency and severity of extreme weather events increases, there is “a pressing need for more public understanding of the science.” The task of educating the public largely falls largely to journalists, he says, but we’re not doing our jobs adequately.
“The fact that the world’s media spent vast amounts of money and time concentrating on the drama of climate change negotiations at Copenhagen and under-reporting the science is yet more proof of how difficult a challenge this is going to be,” Painter writes.
The report, titled “Summoned by Science: Reporting Climate Change at Copenhagen and Beyond” and published by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford, runs some 148 pages. There’s a huge amount of useful material here, and I look forward to reading the entire report in detail. But from what I’ve read so far, it seems clear that Painter somehow believes that if only we could get more and better journalistic coverage of the science of climate change, international negotiations to cut carbon emissions would stand a greater chance of success.
I’ll be curious to hear what readers have to say about this. I believe this is a naive view that ignores the reality of why COP15 failed, and why future negotiations stand a high chance of failing as well.
Science journalism (or the lack thereof) had very little to do with with the collapse of the Copenhagen talks, and more of it in the future is exceedingly unlikely to lead to a different outcome
Secret recordings obtained by SPIEGEL reveal how China and India prevented an agreement on tackling climate change at the crucial meeting. The powerless Europeans were forced to look on as the agreement failed.
Writing in the Guardian, Mark Lynas told a similar story:
The truth is this: China wrecked the talks, intentionally humiliated Barack Obama, and insisted on an awful “deal” so western leaders would walk away carrying the blame. How do I know this? Because I was in the room and saw it happen.
No amount of science reporting from the COP would have altered that outcome — not even if climate change science had comprised 90 percent of the stories written at the meeting.
I also fail to see how more science reporting about climate change is going to alter the underlying geopolitics. Developing countries have contributed the least to the climate change problem so far and yet are the most vulnerable. This has not exactly made them eager to sign off on a treaty.
Moreover, both China and India face huge increases in demand for energy as their populations seek a higher standard of living. Will more science journalism in those countries modify this reality? Somehow, I doubt it.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not at all arguing that reporting on the science of climate change is irrelevant. I believe that more and better coverage is certainly in the public interest. But that alone is not going to change policy outcomes.
What do you think?
Judith Curry responds:
Well, in my engagement with the denizens of the climate blogosphere (the more technical threads), you have a bunch of very educated people with graduate degrees in science and engineering plus lawyers and medical doctors becoming interested in the issue of climate change, and after investigating, they land on the skeptical side. So I am not sure what “well educated” is going to accomplish in terms of pushing this particular agenda.
The problem doesn’t seem to be a fundamental lack of education. It is the oversimplificattion of a very complex issue (climate change) with a magical silver bullet solution (no more fossil fuels) that isn’t technically feasible in the medium term, let alone politically feasible. Trying to “communicate” and bemoaning the lack of education won’t make it past the major structural problems with the overall argument (problem and solution). The uneducated people on the fringes pick up on the dissent and then just lose trust in scientists when something like climategate comes along. Its the wicked problem syndrome, rather than lack of education, as far as I can tell.
Roger Pielke, Jr. finds a mixed message in the report:
On the one hand the report says: ”It is worth stressing that this publication has not been about the best way of communicating science in order to change people’s minds or behaviour.”
And yet, the report is shot through with exactly that message — that it wants to change people’s minds, and specifically to defeat the skeptics and other voices of unreason. For instance, it explains: ”Print media have a strong agenda-setting influence on policy-makers and other elites”
“Editors and journalists often admit that climate change gets pigeon-holed or dismissed as an ‘environment story’, when it has huge implications for energy policy, food security, water supplies, economic development, poverty alleviation, health spending, international relations, technological initiatives, internal and foreign migration, and security issues – to name but a few”
It cannot be both ways — if reporting has “huge implications” for policy, then it cannot at the same time be claimed to be blind to those implications while expressing a preference for certain political outcomes. This is the old fallacy . . . that “better” coverage of science (whatever that means) will lead to certain, predictable outcomes in policy.
The report, however well intended, is a recipe for a further politicization of science and the media.”
Charlie Petit of the Knight Science Journalism Tracker has this to say about the report:
If it implies that 10 percent is too low a figure for the share of coverage given explicitly to scientific data and theory, then I’d reply that’s about right. Sports writers at the World Series don’t devote much of their copy to the history and rules of baseball, they report what happened in the game. No new science came up at Copenhagen, ergo not much of a story there. Aside from that, the meeting’s outcome seems to have been driven internally, not by press coverage. It may have been an educational opportunity for reporters to take advantage of readers who had never bothered previously to pay much attention to climate science, but the delegates had heard it all. The job of a reporter is not education per se, but to report the news. The news was political.
From Seth Borenstein, a reporter with the Associated Press, adds this:
The study missed that there were science journalists in Copenhagen — and I was one of them. So was Cheryl Hogue of Chemical and Engineering News, Andy Revkin of the New York Times, and many others. Perhaps the study wasn’t comprehensive enough. For example, The Associated Press had one of the largest media contingents there, yet was only mentioned twice in the report, one of them in a footnote and the other in a paragraph about methodology. Further, this was a policy summit that had science underpinnings. But it wasn’t a meeting of scientists. It was a meeting of policy people. Witness the more than 100 political leaders who met there. It wouldn’t have been news had it been more than 100 science advisors.