James Painter argues that a focus on risk, rather than uncertainty, could help bridge the partisan divide in reporting on climate change.
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….