Across the sceptical divide: Language and lobbying
- 10 November 2011
- From the section Science & Environment
The world wide web, where climate change is most vociferously debated, is predominantly an Anglo-Saxon medium.
For we native English speakers who've never needed to become fluent in other tongues but speak the language of climate change daily, this raises an intriguing question: is it possible that we're getting a distorted view of the "climate debate" globally, simply because we're missing what's going on elsewhere?
According to the latest report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ) at Oxford University, it is eminently possible.
Media coverage in countries that speak tongues other than English, it says, is very different.
The report - Poles Apart: the International Reporting of Climate Scepticism - can't be considered a truly comprehensive global snapshot in that it's looked at only six countries, albeit important ones - Brazil, China, France, India, the UK and US.
Lead author James Painter, a former editor of BBC output to Latin America, selected two newspapers from each country, trying to find one broadly left-wing and one broadly right-wing.
So there's another caveat - this is a toe-dip into media coverage rather than a comprehensive survey. And as James acknowledges, in the case of China the distinction between left- and right-wing isn't terribly useful.
When RISJ last dipped into this issue about a year ago, it found that journalists from major developing countries such as Brazil, China and India had outnumbered their western peers in the chilly halls of the UN climate summit in Copenhagen - and had hardly reported anything of the "scepticism" demanded by editors of publications in the US and UK.
The new report compares and contrasts coverage in the six countries I mentioned above, in two periods.
The first fell in 2007 - the year of the last major Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report - and the second was in 2009/10, just after Copenhagen and the "ClimateGate" revelations.
Even given the caveats over the nature of the sample, some of the conclusions are stark.
- The four papers surveyed from the US and UK aired sceptical voices much more often than the other eight, accounting for 80% of all the articles in the sample
- The frequency of sceptical voices after "ClimateGate" increased in all but one paper; but far more so, and from an already higher base, in the UK and US
- A much greater proportion of sceptical statements in US and UK papers came from politicians (as opposed to scientists) than in the other four countries
- The type of scepticism reflected in papers other than those in the UK or US was almost invariably of the "it's not that important an issue" or "the human component is over-stated" variety rather than "it isn't happening"
The point about the relative oddness of the US/UK approach (and you'd have to throw Australia into that mix as well) has been made in other forums as well.
One of the most telling voices in the RISJ report is that of Cardiff University researcher Adam Corner, who speaks of his work in Africa:
"In Uganda... climate change scepticism is nowhere to be seen.
"The seasonal rains that once arrived with precision are now erratic and unpredictable. When your living depends on the fertility of your farmland, the climate is vitally important."
Assuming that news media reflect social discourse would be a dangerous thing to do, admittedly; but the view that in this case it might it is given some shrift by these comments, as well as by global surveys indicating more concern in developing countries than, say, the US.
But it's not just the developing world that leaves sceptic voices aside.
Even in France - home to an active climate-sceptical lobby linked to former minister Claude Allegre - voices opposing climate action or questioning climate science were largely absent from coverage.
Trying to understand why there should be this difference between the English-speaking samples in the report and everyone else is not simple.
The notion RISJ suggests is political lobbying. The US, it argues, has a culture of lobbying that is deeper, richer and more ingrained than anywhere else; and the lobbying industry encompasses journalists and newspaper proprietors.
Has this spilled over into the nation sometimes dubbed the 51st State as well?
Clues come in an additional chapter in the report, which looks at 10 UK newspapers - virtually all the national dailies, in other words.
Among other things, it shows the success that the the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF) has had in inserting itself into national discourse since its establishment in 2009 - a success noted this week by the conservativehome blog, which describes it as "one of the most important think-tanks in Britain today".
"The two most quoted sceptics by far in the second period (2009/10) were (GWPF founder and director, respectively) Lord Lawson and Benny Peiser (more than 80 times between them)..." concludes the RISJ analysis.
The next most frequently quoted was geologist Ian Plimer. He is not British, but came to the UK at an opportune time - in the wake of "ClimateGate" - to promote his book Heaven and Earth.
And he mustered a mere 13 references.
In other words, the political lobby garnered more appearences - many more - than scientists. It was also far more prominent than academics questioning other parts of the "establishment" position, such as the economics of tackling climate change.
An additional RISJ finding is that in both the US and UK, right-wing papers reflected sceptical positions more than left-wing ones and increased their sceptical coverage more after "ClimateGate".
Poles Apart doesn't nail the issue completely, but its broad conclusion may be familiar to many:
"The weight of this study would suggest that, out of this wide range of factors, the presence of politicians espousing some variation of climate scepticism, the existence of organised interests that feed sceptical coverage, and partisan media receptive to this message, all play a particularly significant role in explaining the greater prevalence of sceptical voices in the print media of the USA and the UK."
To those who despair of the success of sceptical lobbying, the message is clear: learn one of the languages of Brazil, China or India.
Even French might do at a pinch.