Sceptics, climate change and the media

newspapers detailThis is a guest post by James Painter of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism

It’s nearly Christmas, so it must be the end of another round of UN climate talks.  One of the less reported aspects of this annual meet-up is that the 190-odd delegations often come from quite different backgrounds when it comes to popular views about climate change in their home countries.

For example, surveys show significant differences between countries as to how much people believe that mankind’s greenhouse gas emissions are the main driver of climate change.

At first this might seem odd. After all, reports from the IPCC and others are pretty good at laying out where there are core certainties and residual uncertainties.  And these reports get widespread coverage in most countries of the world.

Difference of opinion
But in a recent AXA/Ipsos survey of 13,000 internet users in 13 countries, the USA and the UK showed much lower agreement than other countries with the statement that ‘human activity is mainly responsible for climate change’.

In the US, 58 per cent agreed with the statement.  In the UK it was 65 per cent.  All the other countries (Belgium, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Spain, Switzerland and Turkey) were 78 per cent or over.

In fact, the USA often appears near or at the bottom of the list of countries believing in man-made climate change.  It was only in September this year that for the first time since 2008, more than half of Americans (54%) said they believed global warming is caused mostly by human activities.

Climate of scepticism?
Is there any link between these lower levels of belief in human-made climate change and the stronger presence of climate sceptics in the media?

It goes without saying that a whole range of factors influence people’s beliefs about climate change, from their cultural and political values to direct experience of a changing climate.

But it would be hard to argue that the media have no influence, when it is there that most lay people get their information about science.

There are certainly important differences in the amount of space the media in different countries give to sceptic voices. We recently carried out research of the print media in six countries, which clearly showed that newspapers in the US and UK tend to provide much more room for sceptical voices on climate change than those in France, Brazil, China and India.

This has prompted some to ask whether climate scepticism is principally an Anglo-Saxon phenomenon.

It was interesting to find that the ‘trend sceptics’ (who deny the global warming trend) are almost exclusively found in the US and UK newspapers.  Sceptics who challenge the need for robust action to combat climate change also have a much stronger presence in the media of the same two countries.

So in the UK, the Global Warming Policy Foundation, which is seen mostly as a policy sceptic organisation, has achieved a major presence in the media since its formation in November 2009. The two most quoted sceptics by a huge margin were the two leaders of the GWPF, Nigel Lawson and Benny Peiser.

Poles apart
The core data came from a study we did at the Reuters Institute last year called Poles Apart.  In it, we also looked at all ten UK national newspapers.

In the period from mid-November 2009 to mid-February 2010, around half of all the articles in the Mail and Express about climate change included some mention of sceptical voices.   This was a significantly higher proportion than the other newspapers, which were mostly in the 10 to 30 per cent range.

We also concluded that much of the unchallenged climate scepticism was found not so much in the news reports but in the opinion pages of right-leaning newspapers, and particularly the Sun, Express and the Daily or Sunday Telegraph.

You would expect a lot of scepticism in this period as it included ‘Climategate’ and the questioning of some aspects of the IPCC reports.   But what’s happened since then?

New data
We are still crunching the numbers from the period mid-November 2010 to mid-February 2011.  Preliminary findings suggest that – unsurprisingly – the total number of articles about climate change dropped significantly compared to the 2009/10 period.  But expressed as a percentage of all articles about climate change, the incidence of sceptical voices seems to have remained much the same.

The Express remained the paper where climate scepticism was most apparent.  The Telegraph, Express and Sun continued to publish regular unchallenged sceptical opinion pieces authored by some of its columnists.

This research prompts an array of interesting questions.  One is the obvious and oft-asked one of why climate scepticism is more of a right-wing phenomenon both in the media and in wider society.

But it is also worth asking what the main drivers are of climate scepticism in the media.  Is it newspaper owners or editors pushing an agenda?  Is it journalists concerned with ‘balance’? Or is it the decline of specialist environment correspondents, who have an understanding of where mainstream science consensus lies?

Or are the media merely reflecting wider society, where there are loudly sceptical politicians and lobby groups?

At a time of questioning of journalistic standards in the press, it’s worth wrestling with these questions more.


  • Reblogged this on patricktsudlow and commented:
    An article going some way to explain why the UK has not really moved forward on climate change and not wholeheartedly embraced renewables and energy efficiency. Which would not only mitigate against climate change but reduce our consumption of finite resources.

  • The idea that environmental journalists have anything to add to the climate debate is, on the face of it, presposterous. Global warming encompasses two areas – science and economics. It should therefore be covered by science journalists and economics correspondents. I’m not aware of a single UK environment journalist who has any scientific background at all. They are cheerleaders who would better be described as “environmentalist journalists”.

    This might explain why they are in decline.

  • That the media provide a platform for views challenging the conventional wisdom is healthy. But to do so, and especially to give positive support, where such views have little or no sound basis is irresponsible. Sometimes this is of course mere populism. Instead of developing and installing renewable technologies for the benefit of future generations, we could spend on ourselves all the money that is – arguably – unnecessarily wasted on these precautions. But at a more worrying level I believe the excessive airing of sceptical views is the result of the failure of a large body of people, who are in most respects considered well educated, to comprehend what the scientific method is all about.
    The advance of science entails the collection of evidence, the postulation of a theory that brings some order to that evidence, and testing the theory by making predictions from it and seeing whether they can be found. Readers will recall the recent search for the Higgs boson. But even if the theory stands up to the test, it is still no more than that, and any scientist worthy of the name will accept that contrary facts may emerge at any time that require the theory to be modified or even abandoned. One of the best known examples is perhaps that of Newtonian mechanics, ground-breaking when first formulated, and of course still immensely valuable in everyday situations. But Newtonian theory could not sufficiently explain the extent to which the planet Mercury slowed down as it neared the sun (technically, the precession of its perihelion), and it took Einstein with his theory of relativity to explain it, with delightful precision. It was indeed that very precision that in turn helped to substantiate his new theory.
    Thus, in essence, science is no more than a bundle of working hypotheses, none of which are 100% certain; scientists are perfectly used to and comfortable with working on the basis of presumptions, albeit desirably those in which they can have a high degree of confidence. In particular, scientists do not “believe” in any theory (anthropogenic global warming is no exception) – faith plays no part in the scientific process. The most they will, or at least should, say is that the preponderance of the evidence favours a particular conclusion, and that there is none that makes that conclusion untenable.
    This relative lack of conviction, in contrast with the outward self-assurance of politicians and other would-be opinion formers, is alien to many, especially those in the media. The communications industry naturally attracts arts graduates, few of whom, at least in the UK, will have done any more science than they absolutely had to at school, maybe some nature rambles or burning holes in an optics text book with a magnifying glass. All too many have no way of appreciating whether or not facts that may be asserted to be inconsistent with, for example, accepted climate change theories, are significant or not. Most non-scientists look for certainty, and if they cannot have it, are at a loss. The media will seek to entertain them by pitting people with contrarian views against “establishment” figures, with the implicit message that there is an equal chance that either party might be right, irrespective of the weight of objective scientific opinion. Such confrontations are rarely instructive.
    Thus many purported sceptics seek to chip away at the claim that we are experiencing anthropogenic global warming by pointing to specific facts that are arguably not, or are at least not wholly, consistent with it, or that suggest other mechanisms. There were, for example, periods of warming in previous centuries, well before the industrial revolution. The UK still has seriously cold winters from time to time. More frequent floods in Bangladesh may be due, not to sea level rises, but to the sinking of the land. Solar activity may be a confounding factor. A gift to them is any scientifically unjustified claim by over-enthusiastic global warming advocates; this will be torn to shreds with relish and the inevitable message that the entire theory is equally wrong-headed. It is of course entirely proper to challenge climate scientists with such matters, so far as relevant, but to present them to a lay public, without more, as grounds for supposing the basic hypothesis to be faulty, can only be done by those who are either woefully ignorant or wilfully irresponsible.
    That the media persist with this is, I suspect, an aspect of the adversarial culture that is particularly prevalent in the UK and the USA. Our politics often seem to consist of little else, providing the media with a precedent for covering with other disputed matters. It appears that climate sceptics are invited on to programmes to provide a semblance of objectivity and balance, when in fact they merely parade ignorance and confusion, at least to those who are aware of the facts. Such programmes evidently attract worthwhile audiences, so giving the great majority of sceptics undeserved exposure.
    I have no easy solution, other than to put pressure on the broadcasters to ensure climate change issues are presented by people who properly understand the arguments, and can ensure they are addressed sensibly and constructively; it is not enough for them to behave like referees in a game of tiddlywinks. Those seeking to counter climate sceptics must seek to get over the point that their views are scientific, based solely on evidence and not influenced at all by personal beliefs. They must avoid exaggerated statements that can, and will, be shown to be false, and perhaps concentrate on the broad consensus among the vast majority of scientists that greenhouse gas concentrations continue to increase towards highly dangerous levels last present many hundreds of millennia ago.

  • Pingback: Climate Change Sceptics ? Media Analysis | a calculated lifea calculated life

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