Who Speaks for the Climate?

boykoff Rating: ★★★★☆

Boykoff MT. 2011. Who speaks for the climate? Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0978 0 521 13305 0

If we look back about 40 years ago, it was possible to teach environmental science with the one of two books available (and get a good understanding) and the guide to UK conservation groups was a slim publication. Both aspects have now been expanded to an extent inconceivable at the time. This is not to say that things should return to the past but it does mark a new relationship with information and knowledge. 40 years ago we assumed that the environmental issues we faced would be easily solved with a few ideas and a model. We now know that even a simple pond ecosystem is far more complex than we could have envisaged. Having seen these changes at first hand, it strikes me that there is another change, less easy to grasp, coming our way.

Climate science has never been a simple topic but it has reached a stage where there is a real division in the subject and one that is doing the science no favours. I wonder if there is a progression here? We start with texts that attempt to explain the mechanisms of a subject (let’s keep to the climate case here, so we are talking about basic meteorology). This becomes more complex and soon, it is not possible for the lay person to make much headway. Traditionally, at this stage, it would become the preserve of the academic community. What has happened now is that commentators come along and try to make a summary of the key aspects. This can be very useful (most textbooks seek to make complex ideas, simple for their younger readers). However, it can also be used to convey a particular position because too few would be in a position to combat the information given. Many writers have used the term “wicked problems” to denote cases of such complexity that any change in the system is as likely to cause harm as good. Climate change is one of the best examples and not just for the complexity of the science and the intractability of finding a solution. It also gets attention because it is one of the first sciences to attract considerable media attention and concomitant rise of  commentary. 15 years ago, climate science books were just about that. By the mid 1990s, books were also being produced which attempted to analyse the discussion surrounding the debate. Today, we have a sub-field dedicated to such analyses which highlights the pressures on both sides of the debate and the importance of the topic in hand.

To understand climate change one needs more than science. One now also needs to interpret writing about climate change. We have gone from pure science to scientific literacy to science politics in a very short time. Ecologists and Environmental scientists now need to understand media every bit as much as the science that’s reported. Why else do so many of the “learned societies” have media officers and even media training units? The complexity of the science has outrun the ability of the lay person to grasp fully the implication of a given piece of science. Currently, media have outrun the ability of science to understand and use it. This text seeks to redress the balance by showing how our science stories are made and distributed.

This book is not a climate science book; it’s a book that aims to show how the print, visual and electronic media seek to report climate change. The opening chapter looks at the development of climate change and the reaction of the media. It is made clear that it is not “just” about climate change but an environmental issue on a broader canvas. Climate change (or global warming if you want another set of value-laden words!) has become for the C21st what pesticide-poisoned birds were in Carson’s 1960s. The “old” media have been joined by an array of newer forms, often where the ability to publish is the only criterion – knowledge and ability are not pre-requisites (and yet these new forms often have impacts far beyond their importance). Chapter two focusses on the history of climate change reporting to provide a context for further work. Chapter three starts to take the task in hand. The title ‘Fight semantic drift’ sums up the main issue we face. Most people do not get their news from climate journals but from radio, television and the internet (and paper sales are declining so print media have less impact). This already starts to dilute the debate. The natural language of science is measured. Uncertainty is part of the scientific understanding and yet, to a climate change sceptic, “uncertainty” can be translated as “not happening”. This tends towards a semantic “arms race” where each side seeks to discredit the other. Should climate scientists give the worst possible case to alarm the public into action of give a blander report that might not get the publicity. Might an alarmist report have the counter effect of people giving up? Moving on from here, does the actual topic lend itself to discussion? Climate change takes place over the long term – it’s too easy for people to assume it won’t affect them (and they might well be right!). To this we can add the actual journalistic process whose job is to report stories in such a way as to generate sales.  Ironically, by trying to get “balanced” coverage, reporting might actually be making the case worse. Two final chapters look at the way in which media is consumed and the impact it has on the public and the development of climate/media relations.

There are two key points here. Firstly, climate science is a complex subject whose concepts require a high level of understanding. Secondly, scientists are often not the best at representing their case! If we add these together we get an excellent reason for reading through this text. Science students need to better prepare their case and understand the complexities of the media they need to work in. It’s no coincidence that many societies now have press officers; if a world of instant change, a professional face is essential. At the same time, this book gives us a chance to analyse other environment/media spheres and see what is happening there.  This book opens up the debate about science and communication – it demands we take a more detailed look at the subject; we can no longer assume that just because it’s science it will be accurately reported.

Overall, a great text. Boykoff covers impressive ground and provides us with a way to deal with media but also a way to analyse what is happening. Given our current conditions, this book deserves the widest readership.

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