Joe Smith has written a blogpost about climate science in the media based on his contribution to a debate at Imperial I ran last month. Smith suggests climate science is a bad fit for the mass media: too slow moving, too complex, too uncertain. Journalists try to spice things up and so reach for shouty, two-sided debates. To Smith, this is understandable though. Rather than complaining that the media gets things wrong, he says climate science needs to offer new, better stories.
Smith’s post comes in the wake of the interesting possibility of a new climate story: last week’s reports of leaked documents purporting to shine a light on the funding and public communication policies of the Heartland Institute. As Bob Ward notes, writing for the New Scientist, labels like “deniergate” and “scepticgate” are being passed around, as in many ways it seems to echo “climategate”. As Republicans for Environmental Protection put it in their press release at the weekend, it does feel like “the shoe is on the other foot”.
I suspect Smith would say the scepticgate line is too much of a riff on the same old tune. It hasn’t really sparked much as a news story, perhaps for similar reasons that the so-called “Climategate2” release didn’t make a huge dent in the news last year: a bit geeky, a bit obscure, a bit more of the bloody same. As Richard Black puts it, his BBC report on the topic is “for anyone who doesn’t spend every week up to their waists in the ordure of climate politics”, the implication being most of his readers wouldn’t have been keeping track. It feels ever so slightly like a really bad sequel. Climategate, glaciergate, climategate2, now scepticgate, deniergate and, according to the latest Heartland press release, fakegate. It’s all a bit like a parody of the sequel to a sequel of a horror movie which in itself was a parody in the first place. Which isn’t to deny the importance of any of the politics or science behind any of these -gates. It’s just that I can understand why the mainstream media haven’t covered the latest episode much.
I also think it’s interesting that, according to Spiegel, the author of a new German book arguing that an impending climate catastrophe is misleading justifies his work as an attempt to “revitalize the deadlocked debate.” Lots of people want to reframe climate communications, they just want to do it on their own terms. And some people find it easier to frame such debates than others. Simply, some voices are louder than others. This, for me, is why the Heartland story is so important. The truth of the allegations (or even truth of climate change) is almost irrelevant here: the key question is whether money and political connections gets your personal view on environmental politics more attention than it necessarily should.
When it comes to offering new stories, I sometimes wonder if climate science is especially badly served in terms of public relations compared to other areas of science. Smith talks about a time he sat next to someone from the IPCC press office at a conference and realised “to my horror that I was sitting next to almost all of the IPCC press office…”. Maybe climate science need to take a leaf out of high energy physics, poach some of the CERN communications team perhaps? Or maybe it’s unfair to compare climate science with high energy physics. Maybe more PR in climate science would just add to criticisms of spin. Maybe we need something else.
Personally, I think that if we’re looking to break any deadlock in climate communications we need to diversify. Instead of focusing on what scientists, politicians and television executives have to say to the public, I prefer a model of inviting people to be part of the ongoing process of learning about our changing climate and thinking about what we might do about it. As Matt Nisbet puts it, “scientists are better off as community-based diplomats than cable news and blogosphere culture warriors”. Go, count hedgehogs or spot contrails. Share and debate science as you do it. Let’s see what new stories we might unearth together.