Blog post

Risk & ideology in the reporting of the IPCC

Oct 17, 2013 by | 1 Comment

In this guest blog, James Painter of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, points to the par­tisan reporting of the latest IPCC report in UK media and asks whether greater deploy­ment of risk (as opposed to uncer­tainty) lan­guage might help to bridge the polit­ical divide…

The first of the IPCC block­buster reports is now out, and media organ­isa­tions around the world have been care­fully pouring over the latest findings.

Or have they?  A pre­lim­inary look at the cov­erage by UK news­pa­pers sug­gests that all too often what mat­ters is not the sci­ence, but the dom­inant polit­ical leaning of the owner or editors.

For example, an edit­orial in the (left-leaning) Guardian high­lighted the cred­ib­ility of the report, emphas­ising the 95% prob­ab­ility that carbon emis­sions account for at least half of the observed increase in global warming since 1951.

In con­trast, the (right-leaning) Daily Mail focused on what it called the ‘extraordinary admis­sion’ by the IPCC that tem­per­at­ures have barely risen since 1998.  It called for a sim­ilar 15 year pause in paying what it called ‘ludicrous green taxes’.

Carbon Brief has already done some inter­esting ini­tial ana­lysis of UK news­paper head­lines.  Using a sim­ilar typo­logy to the one we used in a 2011 study on cli­mate scep­ti­cism around the world, Carbon Brief found that the right-leaning Mail, Times and Telegraphs exhib­ited a mix­ture of ‘impact scep­ti­cism’ (cli­mate change is caused by humans but we don’t know how severe the impacts will be) and ‘attri­bu­tion scep­ti­cism’ (we don’t yet know that it is mostly anthropogenic).

In con­trast, the left-leaning Guardian, Observer and Independent showed no such scep­ti­cism, mostly stressing the severity of cli­mate change and the need for action.

A not dis­sim­ilar left-right split can be seen in the US and Australian media too.  A study by Media Matters of the IPCC report found that although many of the major US news out­lets included attri­bu­tion scep­tics, the right-leaning Fox News and Wall Street Journal had by far the highest per­centage of ‘doubters’.

For example, 69% of the guests on Fox News were sceptics.

All of this is dis­tressing for those sci­ent­ists who want to see a sober assess­ment of the sci­ence, without it being inter­preted through the prism of polit­ical preferences.

It also leads to the obvious ques­tion of why cli­mate scep­ti­cism is largely a right-wing phe­nomenon in the press.  In our study we argued that the main drivers were the pres­ence of politi­cians espousing some vari­ation of cli­mate scep­ti­cism, the exist­ence of organ­ised interests that informs scep­tical cov­erage, and par­tisan media receptive to this message.

But of course it is also, to a cer­tain extent, about news­pa­pers reflecting the polit­ical, cul­tural and social values of their readers.

And here we move into ter­ritory ana­lysed by many com­mu­nic­a­tion scholars who argue that con­cern about cli­mate change is not only, or even mostly, a product of how much people know about the sci­ence.  Values or pre-existing beliefs come first, acting as a filter for the facts.  

Climate scep­tics in the media often focus on the uncer­tain­ties around the cli­mate sci­ence.  These are inev­it­able given the hugely com­plex cli­mate system and the dif­fi­culties of making accurate pro­jec­tions of likely scenarios.

In a book we pub­lished in September, we found that journ­al­ists follow prompts from the sci­ent­ists in reporting all the uncer­tain­ties.  Around 80% of the art­icles con­tained some sort of uncer­tainty.  And around half con­tained a quote from a sci­entist indic­ating some uncer­tain aspect of the science.

But one of the prob­lems with uncer­tainty is that many people prob­ably don’t under­stand fully that it is a key ele­ment of many areas of research sci­ence.  They often think sci­ent­ists should be cer­tain about things, and con­fuse their uncer­tainty with ignorance.

Several experts have sug­gested that risk lan­guage and con­cepts may be a more helpful way of presenting the inform­a­tion, par­tic­u­larly to policy makers who are very aware of weighing up the costs and bene­fits of dif­ferent actions (including doing nothing).

The classic example of this is from the insur­ance world.  Most people take out house insur­ance against low prob­ab­ility, high risk events like their house burning down.

Investors con­stantly use the lan­guage of risk, and one top UK banker at HSBC reacted to the latest IPCC report by describing cli­mate change as essen­tially an ‘issue of stra­tegic risk management’.

Lord Stern, author of the famous 2006 report on the eco­nomics of cli­mate change, is an admirer of risk lan­guage.   He likes to ask whether the world wants to play Russian roul­ette with one bullet or two.

And he argues that scep­tics have to show they have high con­fid­ence the planet is going to exper­i­ence only the lower end of pos­sible tem­per­ature increases for them to make their case that it is not neces­sary to take action to min­imise cli­mate risks.

Risk lan­guage is not a pan­acea – but it may help. After all, cli­mate models can now eval­uate how much man-made cli­mate change may have made an extreme weather event like a severe flood more likely.

Such risk assess­ments usu­ally include prob­ab­ility levels, and what degree of con­fid­ence sci­ent­ists have in their find­ings.   It would help if we were better at under­standing them – but maybe our values will still get in the way….

1 Comment + Add Comment

  • “It also leads to the obvious ques­tion of why cli­mate scep­ti­cism is largely a right-wing phe­nomenon in the press.”

    Why is belief a left-wing phenomenon?

    “They often think sci­ent­ists should be cer­tain about things, and con­fuse their uncer­tainty with ignorance.”

    They often think sci­ent­ists shouldn’t make up num­bers, gloss over flaws, hide data, or say ‘the errors don’t matter’. They think sci­ent­ists should care when accepted res­ults are shown to be wrong.

    “And he argues that scep­tics have to show they have high con­fid­ence the planet is going to exper­i­ence only the lower end of pos­sible tem­per­ature increases for them to make their case that it is not neces­sary to take action to min­imise cli­mate risks.”

    The burden of proof is the other way around. You have to show that the sci­ence is sound before we will let you spend tril­lions of dol­lars of Other People’s Money on fixing it. (You can spend your own money for any reason at all, of course.) Yes, it’s a ser­ious enough ques­tion to be worth invest­ig­ating. But there are pre­dic­tions of doom by the dozen. Why should we pay any atten­tion to yours?

Make a comment

Creative Commons 2011 - 2014, Talking Climate
A project by COIN & PIRC.