Climate Science is one of those nasty topics to touch on because it’s complicated and serious and has major ramifications for the real world, which makes it damn challenging to convey information about it quickly. Even the simplest version of the topic – the climate is changing and it seems really likely that it’s our fault – can be a few words too long for people. It gets pared down to the climate is changing, and discuss why that might be (we kind of already know, as the rest of the sentence suggests) or it seems really likely and then they start to talk about why scientists can’t just say things nice and simply.
These issues are made more complicated by who they get to care about them. Climate scientists are scientists. Environmental advocates are advocates. Both of these groups are ones that a confident middle and conservative political climate can dismiss – it’s even to the point where many political operators can increase their votes by running against their own left flank. This strategy is known amongst online operators as Kick the Hippy, perhaps brought to the modern attention by Rachel Maddow on her show on MSNBC. Running against the idealistic minority is basically a win: You get to look stern, and provided you aren’t worse on the topic than your opponent, you don’t even lose that minority’s vote!
I feel like I’ll always have a Dara O’Briain quote for every situation, but let’s quickly talk about balance:
This is really a byproduct of an overly exported idea, this strange sort of democratic thinking Isaac Asimov once disparaged with this beautiful simple summary:
“Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’”
This idea is perfectly democratic, to its detriment. It’s an outlook that says that a climate scientist’s opinion, as a single individual entity, is entirely equal to someone without any such qualification or expertise. In a narrative-driven journalistic pursuit, you don’t have time to interview fifteen hundred people and break that information down: You instead create a simple story which is about one or two people.What results is that you present ‘both sides’ fallaciously. Why, do we have a Youtube clip about that?
It seems we do!
Why is it that I have comedy clips I just know about that skewer this idea? Well, let’s cast our minds back to Kath’n’Kim – where we asserted that comedy derivces heavily from the subversion of the expected. When the media has failed, so persistently, so grossly, then, comedians have a rich vein of expectations that are wonderfully subverted. The media should be providing real information, but what are they doing? Not providing real information. There you go, nice and easy!
Now, in the instance of Climate Science, there are a number of possible causes for people to disagree with them. Some are outright Dominionists, believing that Global Warming being true would be a counterpoint to a religious outlook. Some have commercial outlooks that are incentivised to dismiss the idea. Some are even just ignorant, and victims of this two-sides approach of information distribution.
Here’s a dark greasy fingernail of the grasping hand of News Values: Without any reason to incentivise otherwise, the media will headlessly use the easiest tools they have. When you touch on a tough topic like this, it means that the information in support will be bad (Day After Tomorrow, anyone?), and that complexity means it’s easy to attack. There’s narrative when you say ‘This small number of elites are trying to fool the world.’ There’s much less narrative in ‘Ten billion humans over a hundred years have started to shit up the environment in a big way.’
This is true for almost all science reporting, by the way.
The False Balance Paradigm doesn’t stop there, though! In Political news in the United States, ‘both sides’ are seen as bad and equal on all issues; that sure, one side are heartless, but the other side are spineless. That meme is easily thrown around, it’s classic politics, and it’s even promoted by the worse of two sides to diminish the difference between them and their opponents. Just for an example, the Violence Against Women Act was passed in the House of Representatives this year, only to fail in the Senate (at first) due to filibustering. People complained that it showed Congress as unable to do anything, assuming that nobody could come together, except that all 138 votes against the bill were Republican.
Was the narrative ‘Republicans block Violence Against Women Act?’
Nope. ‘Violence Against Women Act Dead In Senate.’ What’s worse, the head of the Senate – Harry Reid, a Democrat – was shown alongside this headline! He didn’t block the act – he was pushing it forwards! Heck, if not for opposition from the other side – extraordinary opposition – Reid would have been celebrating the passage of the bill!
Let’s go back to Climate Science, where, to quote from The West Wing: “lunacy is a nation of SUVs telling a nation of bicycles that they have to change the way they’ll live before we’ll agree to do something about greenhouse emissions.” Small nations near sea level are impacted by climate change increasing sea levels. Cultures in cold regions like Nunavut in Canada are being impacted by the change in animal migration. Poor farmers in Africa and South America are being further impacted by the slow change in seasonal shifting – the hotter summers reducing crop yield.
Meanwhile, Australia, a nation in the top twenty of global economies, with monstrous fossil fuel reserves, and whose population mostly live in coastal regions with heavy infrastructure, sit around bickering about how little we should be trying to pay for carbon emissions.