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What shall we tell the children?

Updated Friday 19th May 2006

The public have been badly served by politics and the media on climate change. The presence of a David Attenborough blockbuster on the topic in a primetime slot shows things have changed for the better in the past year or two.

Paul looks at the hockey stick graph Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Production team

But if the media and politicians are committed to seeing better understanding and action they need to stop treating the public like 1950s school children – telling them enough to inform their behaviour but protecting them from unpalatable truths. It’s now time to bring the public into a deeper debate about what choices in the present will mean for the future.

Let us make the brave assertion that politicians and decision-makers in the media want to see the public understand and debate climate change fully. What do the public need to absorb and debate over the next ten years? Where does ‘the truth’ lie on the issue?

Everyone agrees that the science of climate change is uncertain, but over the last fifteen years this saw the media treat it as a case of ‘believers’ versus ‘sceptics’ on climate change. Scepticism is a powerful tool for good research, policy and broadcasting, but it has served the reporting of the issue badly.

Thankfully the media have begun to recognise the mistakes of past coverage. Their reports didn’t show that the great majority of experts have been arguing that humans are changing the climate to a perilous degree. But now that the media are – on the whole – looking to tell the story more carefully, what should the story be?

Certainly citizens need to understand:

  • the science of causes and consequences of climate change
  • there is a clear consensus from the scientific community that climate change is happening and is propelled by human activity. However, the detail of the science will always be open to sceptical debate as part of a healthy scientific process
  • climate change is run through with uncertainty (although the uncertainty is shrinking fast)
  • policies will have to be made in the context of uncertainty

David Attenborough’s two programmes on climate change attack these tasks. But in coming months and years people are going to have to be taken further on their climate change journey. Some of the realities of climate change have been set to one side in the rush to attract attention to the issue, including real political headaches.

Some of the science and policy experts quoted by the media have sought to attract attention to the issue. They have emphasised hazards to British people in the near term, or emphasised the value of people ‘doing their bit’ to reduce carbon emissions. But the realities are more awkward in terms of sustaining popular commitment to action.

The realities of climate change
Acting to mitigate climate change is important for the future but may have little impact within the time-span of the next few parliaments. Politicians and the electorate think: ‘we won’t personally benefit from any sacrifices we make’.

In the short to medium term the impacts of climate change can be expected to be pretty modest in the UK (unless we lose the Gulf Stream, which would give the UK a very much colder climate). The worst effects will be felt by distant people and places around the globe that are already vulnerable to ‘acts of God’.

The future international politics of climate change adds yet more fuel to the fire of tensions between North and South. The South can argue rich countries are using climate change to ‘pull the ladder up’ before the poor can develop. Many countries in the South are pre-occupied with fighting poverty and consider tackling climate change a luxury, even though it is likely to affect them most in the long term.

There is a complex debate about how far we should try to mitigate the effects of climate change and how far we should adapt to it. This is particularly sharp in relation to poor nations which are urgently seeking economic development by the fastest route and cannot afford to adapt.

Getting these points across may be just as important as telling people the basics of the science if we are to win sustained action on the issue. But they need to be carefully and responsibly handled.

There are some dangers associated with the media and politicians’ ‘discovery’ of climate change. The media need to entertain and engage their audience; politicians need to respond to voters' short-term concerns. The realities mentioned above may do very little to satisfy these professional obligations. Weak audience numbers or limp focus group reactions to programmes or policy statements might disappoint them.

Perhaps as serious, some environmental issues that are arguably equally or more pressing might get squeezed out by epidemics of interest in climate change. Such issues include:

  • depletion of fisheries and forests
  • biodiversity loss (both species and habitats)
  • desertification
  • deforestation

All of these issues have enormous consequences for many people in the short-term, but receive little coverage. The interconnections between climate change and these other problems suggest that there isn’t a need to ‘do’ climate change. Instead we need to ensure that this many-tentacled subject is woven into a broader debate about what we want from ‘development’; whether it is in Britain or Bangladesh. Are we ready for this, or is providing better information about climate change the furthest we can go at the moment?

 
Paul looks at the hockey stick graph Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Production team

Climate change communications have tended to treat the public as 1950s parents would treat their children – guiding and manipulating them into ‘right’ actions. Linked to this there have been concerns about ‘what shall we tell the children?’.

"it is time the public stopped being treated like children"

Some of the awkward truths have been neglected in an attempt to whip up public support for action. For instance you hear little mention that some actions in Britain won’t make any difference to the climate for years, if at all, and that the impact of climate change in Britain may be quite modest. It is time the public stopped being treated like children. Protecting the public from difficult truths about the medium to long term will prove a costly mistake.

And there are things ‘opinion formers’ need to know about the public’s view of climate change. There is widespread awareness of global environmental changes, and how our individual actions are linked to this. The public are not an ‘empty vessel’, simply waiting for good quality information. They won’t wake up and act on the basis of authoritative statements or emotive appeals.

Many people have some understanding of the issues and the need for action to, for example, reduce carbon dioxide emissions. But they are sceptical of individual calls to action and believe that government and business carry the main responsibility to act.

There are also many different publics. I’ve followed media convention in referring to ‘the public’ – but if we want to connect to the range of voices and standpoints we need to refer instead to the plural: ‘publics’. We must think about creating a range of forums and modes of communication to allow all citizens a chance to understand, talk through and respond to climate change.

Everyone should be given the opportunity to consider how climate change demands a rethink not just of travel habits or loft insulation – but the whole trajectory of our economy and society, and our relationship to people distant in both space and time. These debates aren’t all about bad news: increasing the social cost of carbon in the economy would help some of Britain’s biggest businesses compete in what will be the carbon-efficient global economy of the future. But such investments for the future suggest forgoing the pleasures of cheap fossil fuels in the present.

People need good information about climate change at a pitch appropriate to their needs. The creative talent behind David Attenborough’s flagship statement of climate science have shown what can be done in this respect. But there is further to travel.

The media, experts, and our new-found political consensus on the issue can take people into an imaginative landscape to think through the emotional, philosophical and cultural dimensions of climate change. In doing so they need to go much further than telling a science story about climate change, and start to bring publics into a living story about what it is to act in a densely connected world. In other words climate change means it’s time we all grew up.

Further reading
The UK’s Sustainable Consumption Roundtable have recently published a report, I will if you will, that argues that people are looking for government action.

The Open University has published a book that captures both the science and politics of climate change:
Climate Change: From Science to Sustainability
S Peake and J Smith, Open University Press

A sparky journey through the connections between global climate change and everyday decisions (and how to change them) is offered in Dave Reay’s book:
Climate Change Begins at Home: Life on the Two Way Street of Global Warming
DS Reay, Macmillan

 

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

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