Climate Feedback

Climate change and media, science and policy: is time on our side?

Posted by Olive Heffernan on behalf of Maxwell T. Boykoff

The climate talks at the G8 summit (see Olive Heffernan’s post on the G8 climate talks) have spurred a recent increase in media attention. At the center of this coverage is discussion of cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. Over the past week, proposals ranged from binding emissions cuts across all G8+5 countries by mid-century to ‘aspirational goals’ of cuts, decided on a country-by-country basis through talks over the next two years.

As these rival ‘visions’ of international policy action to combat anthropogenic climate change have been negotiated, the June 7 ‘agreement’ within the G8 put forward a simple plan: 50% emissions cuts by 2050. While this pronouncement has the makings of progress, one of the key yet unresolved facets of the agreements is that of time-scale. While Japan and the EU have pushed for 1990 as the baseline for the metric of 50% emissions, the US has proposed 2007 as the baseline. This tweaking of time scales has a real impact on the actual volume of greenhouse gas emissions that will be removed from the atmosphere, and/or prevented from being emitted.

This spate of activity at the international level provides a fresh opportunity to examine how climate science, policy actors and public interact via mass media. Through time, mass-media coverage has proven to be a key contributor – among a number of factors – that have shaped and affected ongoing interactions between science, politics and the public. While many discussions have examined impediments in communication between communities, one aspect of communication challenges that has often been subsumed is time-scale. Within studies of science-media-policy interactions, linear models (e.g. the deficit model of communications etc) have been largely deemed insufficient in capturing the multiple and non-linear influences and feedback that shape the dynamic process. However, the one overarching linear model that shapes all interactions is the presently inescapable forward march of time.

For climate scientists, it can often feel like an insurmountable challenge to effectively communicate scientific findings via mass media. Among the difficulties, scientists must compress the complexities of time-scale into succinct yet accurate ‘sound bites’ as well as crisply-worded commentary. While this process can seem akin to trying to adequately summarize the contours of paleoclimatology in the space of a picture postcard, this is the challenge at hand. In the spirit of writer John McPhee, these communications can be situated within the larger landscape of this geologic time. In Annals of the Former World, McPhee provides the well-known analogy that the 4.6 billion year history of time on Earth can be considered like distance from fingertip to fingertip with one’s arms spread wide. He writes that, ‘the Cambrian begins at the wrist…all of the Cenozoic is in a fingerprint, and in a single stroke with a medium-grained nail file you could eradicate human history’. Thus, it would merely take a fine-grained nail file to remove the history of science-policy communications and mass media.

Each community has developed varying conceptions of time-scale in their professionalized cultures, and this affects communications. In climate science, new insights are typically gained through longer-term iterative endeavors such as field research, modeling, and peer-review processes. In climate policy, political cycles, negotiations and mobilization of constituencies generally function in short- to medium-time scales. In journalism, ‘breaking news’, efficiency and profitability often pressure journalists to work on short-term time scales. Structural constraints also play a critical role in hampering effective communications between communities via the media. For example, in climate science – and more broadly, academia – historically, most reward systems have been structured such that little is gained professionally through increased ‘non-academic’ pursuits such as media outreach. In fact, the opposite has been true, as much could be lost, such as time spent in these endeavors. Moreover, much can be risked in terms of being misquoted about the implications of one’s research. In addition, that corrections in media reporting– crucial to the precision of climate science – are placed in following days without much prominence is disconcerting for ongoing interactions between communities.

Some argue that trends are changing and that increased visibility through accurate media coverage improves public understanding and engagement with scientific issues. Some also posit that these interactions increasingly increase collegial or social status and even enhanced funding possibilities for researchers and scholars. These latter benefits also hold for the University where they may be employed, thus providing a new and positive feedback loop. While media outreach may continue to get ranked routinely below many other pressures (such as grant funding and publishing) the increasing recognition of its importance has proven to be an encouraging sign for effective communication of climate science via mass media. But too much outreach can then effectively suffocate the research program activities that are presumably driving the reason for media attention.

Also, the environment is the foundation for these interactions. In policy communities (such as the G8) there has often been a focus on changes in the mean of particular climate characteristics over time, through assessments and syntheses such as those of the IPCC. Similarly, estimations of future temperature changes on the planet are widely considered through these mean global atmospheric temperature readings. This view has largely been picked up by mass media. However, through a focus on changes in global averages, this framing has run the risk in climate policy decision-making of minimizing considerations of potential non-linear and abrupt climate changes, and urgency may fade into the background of policy negotiations. Furthermore, policy considerations and media coverage of nature’s agency in response to human influences is then often subsumed by socio-political and economic concerns, such as how certain greenhouse gas emissions reduction efforts may restrict economic activities.

Overall, these time-scale discrepancies have contributed to divergent priorities and (troubles in) translations between climate science and policy via mass media. These interactions beg a number of questions. Among them, is this possibly glacial pace of ‘progress’ within and between these communities sufficient? In other words, is time on our side?

Additional links:

Maxwell T. Boykoff

James Martin Research Fellow

Environmental Change Institute

University of Oxford


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