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Climate Change: who’s talking

Climate change, also referred to as global warming, affects every living being on Earth. In our opinion, that makes it an important topic of discussion for everyone. Aren’t you worried about the future of your children? The world they will live in? And what about your own future?

Over the years, the topic of climate change has only but increased in popularity. Within science, more and more research is conducted to increase our knowledge and enhance our ability to predict future changes. It has also gained a tremendous amount of press coverage, and it has often been a topic of political debate.

But where do you get your information?

From the news on tv? The newspaper? Or from just about anyone on the internet?

In a previous post we explained the meaning behind climate change. Here we want to explore how your opinion about climate change and its credibility is influenced by these sources of information and more.

 

Snowy area in Scandinavia
© Evert Mul

 

Two factors

Essentially, there are two factors that strongly influence the point of view of the general public on climate change. The first one is the influence that climate skeptics have had over the years. The second factor is the media and how they generally represent science.

Below, I will explain and substantiate by use of scientific literature as to why I think these two factors have been able to highly influence your opinion on climate change.

 

Skeptics tend to fall back on the same strategies

Climate skeptics, arguably, most strongly affect people’s opinion on whether to believe climate change is genuine, and whether or not action is required. When the results of scientific studies have the potential to severely affect our society as we know it, you can count on a group of skeptics trying to publicly discredit it.  

Some of you might remember the debate about and subsequent ban of the use of the pesticide DDT, way back in the 60’s and 70’s. Well, the same is the case for climate change. There is a large number of people organized in groups that aim to discredit climate change as presented by scientists.

Each time a public debate between scientists and skeptics arises, skeptics defend their point using the same two arguments. At first, they outright oppose the scientific results and refer to them as dubious.

Their second step is to acknowledge the existence of the problem but continue to question its magnitude, importance and et cetera. This results for example, in them stating that the costs associated with the mitigation of climate change outweigh the benefits1)Stern, P. C., Perkins, J. H., Sparks, R. E., and Knox, R. A. (2016). The challenge of climate-change neoskepticism. Science, 353(6300):653–654.

The same has happened surrounding the climate change debate.

 

Factory

 

From straight up denial to disempowerment

Climate skeptics initially straight-out denied any scientific proof provided for the existence of climate change. They recently however changed their direction.

Skeptics finally tend to agree with the fact that climate change does actually occur. Their new approach is now discrediting the severity and cause behind climate change.

Some often heard counter arguments are for example 2)Monckton, C., Soon, W. W.-H., Legates, D. R., and Briggs, W. M. (2015). Why models run hot: results from an irreducibly simple climate model. Science Bulletin, 60(1):122–135. 3)Koonin, S. E. (2014). Climate science is not settled. The Wall Street Journal. :

  1. climate change is a natural phenomenon and is not caused by humanity;
  2. the costs of mitigating climate change do not outweigh the benefits;
  3. the uncertainty present within climate models is too high to justify any mitigation measures.

If you follow any news surrounding climate change, you’ve probably come across at least one of these.

A final frequent counter-argument has a different target. Conservatives (which constitute the majority of the climate skeptics) see climate science as yet another way by which the government can increase its reach, and try to argue from this point of view.

 

Climate scientists or skeptics

Being skeptical towards climate change, or any other scientific outcome for that matter, is in itself certainly not the problem. Questioning results from scientific studies is generally healthy for science 4)Dunlap, Riley E., and Aaron M. McCright. “14 Climate change denial: sources, actors and strategies.” Routledge handbook of climate change and society(2010): 240..

Normally however, results are discussed and argued about between scientists with the same expertise. Thus climate scientists with climate scientists. This is however not the case here.

Climate skeptics, and studies that oppose climate scientists, are generally not climate scientists and thus not experts on the matter. Koonin, S. E. for example wrote a well-known skeptic article in the Wall Street Journal 5)Koonin, S. E. (2014). Climate science is not settled. The Wall Street Journal. . The only thing Koonin did in his article, was present a self-made misconstrued view of climate scientists to then tear it down.

As most climate skeptics, instead of presenting counter arguments against the actual science behind climate change, Koonin simply tried to make climate scientists look bad with misinterpreted information on their current point of view.

 

It’s all about the money

Besides lacking the expertise to comment on the science, it is also found that skeptics are often driven by material needs and ideological ideas rather than sound scientific research6)Dunlap, Riley E. “Climate change skepticism and denial: An introduction.” American behavioral scientist 57.6 (2013): 691-6987)Dunlap, Riley E., and Aaron M. McCright. “14 Climate change denial: sources, actors and strategies.” Routledge handbook of climate change and society(2010): 240.  Conservatives for example, who instead put their focus on the government among others.

Generally, two types of organizations are responsible for the circulation of information that opposes climate science. The first are conservative think tanks, and the second is the conservative media. These conservative think tanks are found to be almost exclusively responsible for all studies contradicting climate science 8)Hmielowski, Jay D., et al. “An attack on science? Media use, trust in scientists, and perceptions of global warming.” Public Understanding of Science 23.7 (2014): 866-883 9)Dunlap, Riley E., and Aaron M. McCright. “14 Climate change denial: sources, actors and strategies.” Routledge handbook of climate change and society(2010): 240 10)Dunlap, Riley E., and Aaron M. McCright. “Organized climate change denial.” The Oxford handbook of climate change and society (2011): 144-160.

As with every organization, these conservative think tanks have to get their money from somewhere. If any mitigation actions against climate change would occur, the fossil fuel industry amongst others would be highly affected. Whenever there is money at stake, companies are willing to invest. This has resulted in funded research opposing climate change 11)Oreskes, N. (2010). My facts are better than your facts: Spreading good news about global warming. In P. Howlett & M. S. Morgan (Eds.), How well do facts travel? The dissemi- nation of reliable knowledge (pp. 135-166). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. As a result, the studies opposing climate change are highly subjective.

Whatever the drive behind climate skepticism, the combination of funded research to oppose climate change combined with the control of the conservative media causes climate skeptics to have a strong grasp on people’s opinion on climate change.

 

News article about climate change

 

How did you obtain your knowledge?

The second factor that has a strong influence on the public’s opinion on climate change is the media. If you would take a second, and think about how you obtained your current knowledge about trending scientific subjects in general, or climate change in particular?

Got it?

There is a good chance your answer will either be the news, an article in some popular magazine, or, which has largely increased in popularity over the last years, the world wide web 12)Brossard, D., & Scheufele, D. A. (2013). Science, new media, and the public. Science, 339(6115), 40-41 (like this blog post). However, your knowledge will most likely not have directly been obtained from scientific literature, such as journals like nature and science.

 

Inaccessible literature

For most people, scientific literature is quite inaccessible. This causes scientific results and conclusions to be mainly conveyed to the majority of the people through media rather than scientific articles13)Corbett, J. B. and Durfee, J. L., (2004). Testing Public (Un)Certainty of Science, Science Communication, 26(3), 129-151. 14)Brossard, D., & Scheufele, D. A. (2013). Science, new media, and the public. Science, 339(6115), 40-41.. As a result, the media are able to strongly influence people’s opinions on scientific topics such as climate change 15)Fjæstad, B. (2007). Why journalists report science as they do. Journalism, Science and Society, chapter 12, 123-131 16)Feldman, Lauren, et al. “Climate on cable: The nature and impact of global warming coverage on Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC.” The International Journal of Press/Politics 17.1 (2012): 3-31 17)Weigold, Michael F. “Communicating science: A review of the literature.” Science communication 23.2 (2001): 164-193 18)Hmielowski, Jay D., et al. “An attack on science? Media use, trust in scientists, and perceptions of global warming.” Public Understanding of Science 23.7 (2014): 866-883.

The media can control what they decide to share and this will in turn be influenced by their opinion on the matter at hand.

But what does this mean for the opinion people hold about climate change? Doesn’t the media just present us with the conclusions of scientific research?

 

Sensation and action

Well, not really. Many scientists often aren’t satisfied with how their work gets portrayed by the media 19)Fjæstad, B. (2007). Why journalists report science as they do. Journalism, Science and Society, chapter 12, 123-131 20)Weigold, Michael F. “Communicating science: A review of the literature.” Science communication 23.2 (2001): 164-193. The media does not accurately represent scientific studies, their result, and point of view.

The general public loves sensation and action. Not a dull story about a newly discovered species of bacteria. That is what the media thus aims to present you. How else can they keep afloat?

The media are thus rather focused on presenting sensational and interesting stories, than telling the actual truth. This results in the underreporting of important scientific progress21)Fjæstad, B. (2007). Why journalists report science as they do. Journalism, Science and Society, chapter 12, 123-131  solely because it does not make for an interesting story.

 

Written by laymen

Besides the need for sensation, the misrepresentation by the media can also be ascribed to the fact that most people writing the content lack a scientific background and education on the subject 22)Fjæstad, B. (2007). Why journalists report science as they do. Journalism, Science and Society, chapter 12, 123-131.  Content makers are often far from being experts on the matter at hand. How could they even be? You cannot expect one writer to be an expert on the wide extent of topics covered by science. Even scientists themselves are often just specialists within one microscopic part of science when considering its full extent.

 

Newspaper with a title related to climate change

 

It is not just the organizations and journalists. Nowadays, since most people get their information from the internet23)Brossard, D., & Scheufele, D. A. (2013). Science, new media, and the public. Science, 339(6115), 40-41, the spread of misinformation is as easy and big as ever. Everyone can easily share whatever they want on the internet without the need for any credentials. There is no control on who publishes what on the internet, everyone is free to do as they like.

Besides media that misrepresent science due to miscommunication and such, as previously mentioned, a large part of the media is controlled by conservatives 24)Feldman, Lauren, et al. “Climate on cable: The nature and impact of global warming coverage on Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC.” The International Journal of Press/Politics 17.1 (2012): 3-31 25)Hmielowski, Jay D., et al. “An attack on science? Media use, trust in scientists, and perceptions of global warming.” Public Understanding of Science 23.7 (2014): 866-883. Fox news for example, is known for their conservative point of view on matters26)Feldman, Lauren, et al. “Climate on cable: The nature and impact of global warming coverage on Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC.” The International Journal of Press/Politics 17.1 (2012): 3-31.

 

An example: scientific consensus vs media

An important but easy example of how science is misrepresented in the media is to look at how the scientific consensus on climate change is presented by the media. This is quite an important factor as it has been observed that the public’s opinion is highly influenced by whether or not there is a scientific consensus27)Brossard, D., & Scheufele, D. A. (2013). Science, new media, and the public. Science, 339(6115), 40-41.

In the media, skeptics have often stated that scientists are supposedly divided on the fact the climate change is real or not. Skeptics unfoundedly argue that only part of the scientists corroborate the existence of climate change.

Refuting this argument is actually quite easy.

Over the years the existing literature written by climate scientists has often been reviewed by several people. Each time, the result was that within the scientific community associated with climate change, 90% to 100% advocates for the existence of climate change 28)Oreskes, N. (2004). The scientific consensus on climate change. Science, 306(5702):1686–1686 29)Cook, J., Nuccitelli, D., Green, S. A., Richardson, M., Winkler, B., Painting, R., Way, R., Jacobs, P., and Skuce, A. (2013). Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature. Environmental research letters, 8(2):024024 30)Carlton, J., Perry-Hill, R., Huber, M., and Prokopy, L. S. (2015). The climate change consensus extends beyond climate scientists. Environmental Research Letters, 10(9):094025. 31)Cook, J., Oreskes, N., Doran, P. T., Anderegg, W. R., Verheggen, B., Maibach, E. W., Carlton, J. S., Lewandowsky, S., Skuce, A. G., Green, S. A., et al. (2016). Consensus on consensus: a synthesis of consensus estimates on human-caused global warming. Environmental Research Letters, 11(4):048002. . Simply put, there just is no disagreement within the scientific community associated with climate change, the community fully believes climate change to be a genuine phenomenon.

The key point here is where you look for information. Skeptics tend to obtain their information from scientists in other fields than climate science. However, if you want to know whether the scientists that actually study and specialize in the field agree, you have to ask them.

 

Scientific consensus but still a rise in skeptical articles

An analysis of the British and German newspapers showed that there still is a rise in articles holding a skeptical point of view towards climate change over the past few years32)Kaiser, J. and Rhomberg, M. (2015). Questioning the doubt: Climate skepticism in german newspaper re- porting on cop17. Environmental Communication, pages 1–19. 33)Painter, J. and Gavin, N. T. (2015). Climate skepticism in british newspapers, 2007–2011. Environmental Communication, pages 1–21. 34)Schmid-Petri, H. and Arlt, D. (2016). Constructing an illusion of scientific uncertainty? framing climate change in german and british print media. Commu- nications, 41(3):265–289. . As explained previously, there is a strong scientific consensus among climate scientists, who all advocate the existence of climate change35)Oreskes, N. (2004). The scientific consensus on climate change. Science, 306(5702):1686–1686. 36)Cook, J., Nuccitelli, D., Green, S. A., Richardson, M., Winkler, B., Painting, R., Way, R., Jacobs, P., and Skuce, A. (2013). Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature. Environmental research letters, 8(2):024024. 37)Carlton, J., Perry-Hill, R., Huber, M., and Prokopy, L. S. (2015). The climate change consensus extends beyond climate scientists. Environmental Research Letters, 10(9):094025. 38)Cook, J., Oreskes, N., Doran, P. T., Anderegg, W. R., Verheggen, B., Maibach, E. W., Carlton, J. S., Lewandowsky, S., Skuce, A. G., Green, S. A., et al. (2016). Consensus on consensus: a synthesis of consensus estimates on human-caused global warming. Environmental Research Letters, 11(4):048002. .

So why is this not presented by the media?

Due to funding and connections and etcetera, skeptics are far better in controlling the media than scientists are. Their capacity to spread the story they want to tell is way stronger. This results in an overrepresentation of their viewpoint compared to that of actual climate scientists.

 

A grey seal in the water
© Evert Mul

 

We have a global responsibility

Climate change is a global phenomenon at the largest scale. Because of this countries need to work together in order to be able to tackle its possible severe consequences. The demand for global cooperation arguably makes climate change one of the most difficult problems to solve.

Besides the need for global cooperation, these discussions are also obstructed by a displacement between cause and effect. Climate change is foremostly caused by the wealthier countries. Its consequences are however mainly felt by third-world countries situated in the critical regions on Earth – such as near the deserts and other water limited areas.

If all of that is not enough yet, the discussions are as I presented above, thus also heavily impaired by the share amount of misinformation spread by climate skeptics and the general media. The climate skeptics’ strong grasp on the media, combined with miscommunication between scientists and content creators, be it online or via the news, creates a skewed picture of the (f)actual current knowledge about climate change for the public.

Not only does the spread of misinformation influence the decision makers, but also the general public, who in turn elect the people in charge.

Though I tried to separate these different sources that most strongly affect the opinion people hold. As  you may have noticed, they are highly interconnected.

As many other studies have also noted 39)Brossard, D., & Scheufele, D. A. (2013). Science, new media, and the public. Science, 339(6115), 40-41. 40)Fjæstad, B. (2007). Why journalists report science as they do. Journalism, Science and Society, chapter 12, 123-131. 41)Weigold, Michael F. “Communicating science: A review of the literature.” Science communication 23.2 (2001): 164-193., it is important to improve the communication between scientists and the media. In turn, people will be better informed on the progress and current knowledge that is available on contemporary topics of discussion

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Stern, P. C., Perkins, J. H., Sparks, R. E., and Knox, R. A. (2016). The challenge of climate-change neoskepticism. Science, 353(6300):653–654
2. Monckton, C., Soon, W. W.-H., Legates, D. R., and Briggs, W. M. (2015). Why models run hot: results from an irreducibly simple climate model. Science Bulletin, 60(1):122–135.
3, 5. Koonin, S. E. (2014). Climate science is not settled. The Wall Street Journal.
4. Dunlap, Riley E., and Aaron M. McCright. “14 Climate change denial: sources, actors and strategies.” Routledge handbook of climate change and society(2010): 240.
6. Dunlap, Riley E. “Climate change skepticism and denial: An introduction.” American behavioral scientist 57.6 (2013): 691-698
7. Dunlap, Riley E., and Aaron M. McCright. “14 Climate change denial: sources, actors and strategies.” Routledge handbook of climate change and society(2010): 240
8, 18, 25. Hmielowski, Jay D., et al. “An attack on science? Media use, trust in scientists, and perceptions of global warming.” Public Understanding of Science 23.7 (2014): 866-883
9. Dunlap, Riley E., and Aaron M. McCright. “14 Climate change denial: sources, actors and strategies.” Routledge handbook of climate change and society(2010): 240
10. Dunlap, Riley E., and Aaron M. McCright. “Organized climate change denial.” The Oxford handbook of climate change and society (2011): 144-160
11. Oreskes, N. (2010). My facts are better than your facts: Spreading good news about global warming. In P. Howlett & M. S. Morgan (Eds.), How well do facts travel? The dissemi- nation of reliable knowledge (pp. 135-166). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press
12, 23, 27. Brossard, D., & Scheufele, D. A. (2013). Science, new media, and the public. Science, 339(6115), 40-41
13. Corbett, J. B. and Durfee, J. L., (2004). Testing Public (Un)Certainty of Science, Science Communication, 26(3), 129-151.
14, 39. Brossard, D., & Scheufele, D. A. (2013). Science, new media, and the public. Science, 339(6115), 40-41.
15, 19, 21, 22. Fjæstad, B. (2007). Why journalists report science as they do. Journalism, Science and Society, chapter 12, 123-131
16, 24, 26. Feldman, Lauren, et al. “Climate on cable: The nature and impact of global warming coverage on Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC.” The International Journal of Press/Politics 17.1 (2012): 3-31
17, 20. Weigold, Michael F. “Communicating science: A review of the literature.” Science communication 23.2 (2001): 164-193
28. Oreskes, N. (2004). The scientific consensus on climate change. Science, 306(5702):1686–1686
29. Cook, J., Nuccitelli, D., Green, S. A., Richardson, M., Winkler, B., Painting, R., Way, R., Jacobs, P., and Skuce, A. (2013). Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature. Environmental research letters, 8(2):024024
30. Carlton, J., Perry-Hill, R., Huber, M., and Prokopy, L. S. (2015). The climate change consensus extends beyond climate scientists. Environmental Research Letters, 10(9):094025.
31, 38. Cook, J., Oreskes, N., Doran, P. T., Anderegg, W. R., Verheggen, B., Maibach, E. W., Carlton, J. S., Lewandowsky, S., Skuce, A. G., Green, S. A., et al. (2016). Consensus on consensus: a synthesis of consensus estimates on human-caused global warming. Environmental Research Letters, 11(4):048002.
32. Kaiser, J. and Rhomberg, M. (2015). Questioning the doubt: Climate skepticism in german newspaper re- porting on cop17. Environmental Communication, pages 1–19.
33. Painter, J. and Gavin, N. T. (2015). Climate skepticism in british newspapers, 2007–2011. Environmental Communication, pages 1–21.
34. Schmid-Petri, H. and Arlt, D. (2016). Constructing an illusion of scientific uncertainty? framing climate change in german and british print media. Commu- nications, 41(3):265–289.
35. Oreskes, N. (2004). The scientific consensus on climate change. Science, 306(5702):1686–1686.
36. Cook, J., Nuccitelli, D., Green, S. A., Richardson, M., Winkler, B., Painting, R., Way, R., Jacobs, P., and Skuce, A. (2013). Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature. Environmental research letters, 8(2):024024.
37. Carlton, J., Perry-Hill, R., Huber, M., and Prokopy, L. S. (2015). The climate change consensus extends beyond climate scientists. Environmental Research Letters, 10(9):094025.
40. Fjæstad, B. (2007). Why journalists report science as they do. Journalism, Science and Society, chapter 12, 123-131.
41. Weigold, Michael F. “Communicating science: A review of the literature.” Science communication 23.2 (2001): 164-193.


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