This is the first in a series of guest blog posts by leading climate scientists, science writers, policy makers and others involved in the ongoing debate about climate policy. We’ll be hearing from these guests regularly leading up to COP15 in December.
Political action to address climate change is lagging far behind the scientific knowledge of the threat.
By Mike Shanahan
Climate change topped the agenda at the 6th World Conference of Science Journalists which took place this month in London. As temperatures outside soared in a mini-heat wave, delegates inside were brought up to date with the latest science and politics of climate change before plunging into intense discussion about how the media is telling the biggest story of our times.
Chris Rapley, director of the Science Museum and former director of the British Antarctic Survey, and John Mitchell, head of climate science at the UK Met Office kicked off proceedings at a pre-conference workshop aimed at supporting journalists from some of the countries most at risk from climate change in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East.
The two climate scientists spoke about the need for scientists and journalists to come together to explain to the wider public just how serious the threat was, but stressed the difficulties of explaining risk and uncertainty when media outlets want hard news headlines.
The UNESCO funded workshop then heard from three speakers who were focusing on solutions. Liz Kalaugher, editor of environmentalresearchweb.org covered renewable energy and Gustavo Faleiros, a journalist with the Brazilian website O Eco, spoke about efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by reducing deforestation.
Saleemul Huq from the International Institute for Environment and Development spoke about how societies can and must adapt to changes that are already inevitable. He pointed out that although the poorest nations were most vulnerable they had at least almost all carried out a detailed national plan to identify urgent adaptation needs, while the rich countries had yet to face up to the need to do so.
The workshop got everyone geared up for the conference itself. At the opening plenary Dr Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and Sir David King, former chief scientific advisor to the UK government, didn’t mince their words in warning that political action to address climate change was lagging far behind the scientific knowledge of the threat.
Rather than dwell on the negatives though, they both spoke about the benefits that society will gain from tackling climate change. Pachauri pointed out this would mean less air pollution and better health, as well as improved energy and food security. Together these efforts would make our world “a better place to live”.
King predicted fast rail networks in place of short-haul flights and improved building designs with features such as direct solar lighting instead of wasteful electrical lights. He warned though that a major challenge lies in changing attitudes, and that people must realise that “wellbeing is not served by massive consumerism”.
Two sessions later in the conference looked at how the media tells the climate change story. The first compared media coverage in settings as diverse as China, Norway and Uganda. In each case, what was most lacking was any detailed investigative journalism or coverage of adaptation to climate change.
The second looked at the “messy marriage of science, policy and politics“. Among other things, speakers focused on how journalists could keep telling the story of future climate change impacts during an economic crisis that is creating more immediate concerns among politicians and the public.
If there was a single message that emerged from the conference it was that journalists the world over are gearing up to report on climate change but need considerable support from their editors, first to see that climate change is a story worth telling, and second to keep on telling it in new and engaging ways. As Andy Revkin of the New York Times warned: “Editor fatigue becomes reader fatigue.”
Mike Shanahan is the press officer at the International Institute for Environment and Development. He was on the organising committee for the 6th World Conference of Science Journalists and co-produced the workshop and one of the sessions on climate change. He is a former science journalist and a founder member of the Climate Change Media Partnership, which trains journalists from developing nations to report on the UN climate change negotiations.