Climate Change and journalists

Recovering, slowly, at the moment from a bit of a health thing. My tendency to over-do things has been a bit, umm, overdone of late.

I notice a debate starting to rage here and here about the “letting go” of Listener Ecological columnist David Hanson.

I know nothing about the particular case, but the debate around it raises some interesting issues around media coverage of climate change and related issues. Poneke considers the coverage of climate change by the media has been sensationalist and alarmist. I’m inclined to agree.

Journalists, as a group, are not good on issues to do with science and maths. Most of us – myself included – are people who gravitated towards subjects like English and History and – when we got to tertiary study – Politics, Philosophy and Sociology. The closest we get to anything science is economics, which isn’t science at all, although it does involve maths. Sometimes.

That has always meant that journalism, as a profession, is incredibly vulnerable to anyone who comes along with a plausible sounding story involving science. Its a vulnerability I feel we’re not sufficiently careful of.

This is most noticeable on any stories to do with medicine and health.

My own views on climate change? A qualified agnosticism. I’d break my views into four parts.

  1. My knowledge of history tells me the earth has been through periods of apparent warming (and cooling) before. But my knowledge of history also tells me that we have lived through a very unusual time. Over the past 200 years we’ve taken a whole heap of stuff out of the ground and converted it into energy, and shoved the waste from that into rivers and into the atmosphere. The chances of that not harming the atmosphere, and the waterways, strike me as being pretty slim.
  2. Which means that, just like we don’t shove stuff into rivers with anything like the abandon we did a couple of generations back, we should be a lot more careful about what we shove into the atmosphere. Reducing emissions, in other words, seems to me to be a sensible thing to do.
  3. Climate Change itself? Don’t know. We won’t know until its too late to do anything about it.
  4. Kyoto Protocol? Very very dubious about it. Grandiose schemes like this have never worked. It also seems to me to be primarily aimed at reducing economic growth.

But to return to the issue of media coverage of the issues: If I was running journalism training I would be pushing very hard to recruit more people who can understand scientific issues. It strikes me that, whatever your views on climate change, we’re being a bit short-changed as far as quality coverage is concerned.

2 thoughts on “Climate Change and journalists

  1. Rob The information about climate change is out there. We only need to do our homework to catch up. Even better, the keys points in the arguments for each side have now been refined to a level of clarity that makes it possible to come to a conclusion fairly quickly. Your assessment of journalists and science may be correct, but it does leave me wondering why anyone would write an editorial on the topic if they hadn’t done their homework. At this point I think it worth distinguishing between straight news and (supposedly) informed opinon. On many issues I can think of, uninformed opinion would appear to be a major chunk of editorial output. I think of the atmosphere this way: the part we breathe is barely 3kms thick from top to bottom…and top 1km isn’t very comfortable. It’s pathetically easy to fill that shallow column with crap until it’s hard for many people to breathe. Many big cities manage to do it most days. We are now 6.7 billion on a smallish planet with barely 2kms of breathable air above us. We burn a LOT of stuff….and more and faster every day. Kyoto was an attempt to use market forces to control CO2 emissions. If anything, what it has highlighted is how weak and susceptible to perversion and corruption markets are. We will one day eith find we are simply compelled to comply or we will pay the price of adapting to whatever pops up. When you think about it, we have been UN-sequestering the carbon that over a hundred million years of plant growth had tucked away. Maybe the cooler, drier planet we now live on is the product of that sequestration….and in releasing the CO2 we may be turning the clock back to the warm and steamy days when the dinosaurs walked the Arctic jungles. Maybe a beach bach on an Arctic or Antartic coast, surrounded by date palms, lies in the future of your descendents and mine. Seems to me maybe it isn’t the outcome of climate change we have to fear. It’s the pain of the transition….with millions of people dying and mass extinctions of other species.

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  2. It’s also very difficult to develop as a science writer on this particular topic because the woods are filled with acolytes on all sides, equally willing to grind an axe in one’s face.

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