Across the sceptical divide: Language and lobbying

Lord (Nigel) Lawson Lord Lawson's GWPF dominated "sceptical" commentary in the UK, the report found

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.

Dead animal in East African drought Where people live close to the land, climate scepticism appears to be scarce

"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.

Richard Black Article written by Richard Black Richard Black Former environment correspondent

Farewell and thanks for reading

This is my last entry for this page - I'm leaving the BBC to work, initially, on ocean conservation issues.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    Even if you doubt the evidence there is a simple risk exercise that can clarify the situation.

    Which is worse?

    Do nothing and be wrong
    Do something and be wrong

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    ref 9#
    What was wrong with posting.. An article by Prof Richard Betts (MET OFFICE) about 2C and whether it was dangeorus or not, posted at the sceptical Bishop Hill blog. I thought this would be of the BBC's interest?
    Very on topic, ie a sceptical voice, non lobbyist?

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    just to expand on 22, Richard Betts, head of climate impacts at the Met Office

    Worth a read

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    The only thing that matters is the science. In the end it will prevail. There are already signs that the alarmist position is starting to wane. See post by Richard Betts at Bishop Hill

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    If it wasn't for the fact that the science wasn't politicised right from the start by the likes of Hansen and Gore - English-speakers - there probably wouldn't be so many sceptics around.
    I lived in Africa for a long time, and droughts, floods etc have always been a fact of life there, so I don't know where that 'regular seasonal rain' bit comes from.
    I think you're clutching at straws now.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    There is nothing scientific about this "toe-dip into media coverage". There is no control for the results for any confounding factor. Vic Smith (#3) is right, nobody can conclude anything at all.

    Amazing how people that claim to be supporting science against the assault of "skeptics", have no qualms to avoid science altogether in the course of trying to come to some "conclusions".

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    - SeasideSteve (13) - since when is free-speech considerd to be a specially English-language attribute? The French, Germans, Italians, Scandinavians, Greeks, Spanish, etc would be rather suprised! It's as if you associate English-speaking with the developed west?
    - the mRev (12) - you ignore the carbon taxes that exist in many other non-English speaking parts of the western world!

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    The Republicans will just eliminate the Dept of Energy and the EPA and then we will not have to worry about global warming.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    Unfortunately, between the science and the part where anyone does anything about it are polititians, who work on (hopefully) the science but also public opinion, so it's very interesting to see how science is being presented to the non-scientist population. Would be interesting to see where the money comes from for all GW commentators, ie if from lobbys/government grant etc

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Perhaps you could suggest to Chris Mooney (author of "The Republican Brain") that speaking English should be added to "brain scans, polls, and psychology experiments" to explain climate scepticism.

    Or we could put it down to the superb Anglo-Saxon irreverence for experts pushing pet catastrophic theories (Y2K, Bird Flu, CAGW, etc). So far sceptical people have beaten fanatical experts every time.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    What Richard describes is certainly consistent with media coverage here in Sweden. Sceptical perspectives are aired less often and without the extreme vitriol I see in English-language sources.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    So, the Al Gore hypothesis, that climate scepticism is all down to 'Evil Lobbyists'.

    Apocalyptic photo: "Where people live close to the land, climate scepticism appears to be scarce".

    Yet a recent survey of farmers in Iowa says: "Still, only 10 percent of farmers said they believe climate change is caused mostly by human activities, even though that is the consensus in the scientific community."

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Isn't this what we would expect though. Free speech is a fundamental right in much of the English speaking world. Everyone has the right to express their view, however much the majority and or government might disagree with it. As much as I disagree with the sceptic view I absolutely support their right to be heard.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    I think the main reason is not language but taxes; the UK and US governments have been using climate change to raise taxes to a much greater extent than in the developing world. When climate is used as the excuse to put more than 150% tax on fuel, it makes one rather skeptic.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Tend to crank an eyebrow on a scientific basis when articles revolve around such as 'may' and 'could' or 'is it possible?'.

    When they also deploy inclusive words such as 'we' on already speculative premises when it seems I have not been consulted, science or not, I end up like Mr. Spock.

    Given a choice I'd opt out of such inclusion but uniquely in some British cases, I am not able to.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    I'm a physicist. Climate change is defiantly occurring. However if I had a similar amount of evidence to conclusively prove a physical theory as there is to "conclusively" prove climate change is man made I would be laughed out of the room. Oil will run out so we may as well start developing alternatives

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    This might be of interest tothe BBC.
    Prof Richard Betts (Met Offic , Head of Impacts, & IPCC) on 2C dangerous or not....
    Most sceptics would seem to think this a sensible scientist.
    No coincidence he writes it at the sceptical blog Bishop Hill, and not at the BBC?

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    To make it simpler;

    The AGW idea defies common sense AND has no rational basis. For these reasons, there will always be a substantial core of people who will not accept it, no matter how much you attempt to marginalise them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    And how many times are Greenpeace, WWF, Friends of the Earth mentioned, very, very many more. I think any rational person would agree that they are powerful lobbyists with an income in the billions vs the GWPF's 500k last year..

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Anything that requires an arguement requires a difference of opinion, and as such requires 'facts' that back up those opinions

    Opinions are like A-holes - everybody has one. It's called politics, and has hee-haw to do with science. Therefore we can safely ignore it


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