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Could we control our climate?
Could we control our climate?

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4 Climate predictions and the media

The question ‘Should we engineer the climate?’ relies in part on public and policy-maker opinions about the topic. Does society think predicted climate change is an important risk? Do people trust climate model predictions of climate change (with or without geoengineering)?

The quality of media reporting is essential to this question.

The European project ice2sea [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] (Ritz et al., 2015) was tasked with predicting sea level rise from Antarctica over the next two centuries and held a press conference in May 2013 announcing their new results to journalists. The press release had the headline ‘Sea-level rise from Antarctic collapse may be slower than suggested’. But Figure 9 shows how the headlines that resulted reflected different media narratives about climate change.

Figure 9 shows two screen shots. The first is of the headline and sub-heading from a Buzzfeed article titles 'Sea level Rise from Antarctic Ice Melt May Not Be As Bad As Feared'. The text underneath states: ' A new study looking at thousands of models says that the worst case scenario might be lower than previously thought, and highlights the uncertainty in modelling ice sheets. The article is by Tom Chivers. The second is from the Environment section of The Times and is an article written by Ben Websiter, the Times' Environment Editor. The headline is: 'Threat of melting Antactic ice has been exaggerated'. The text shows reads: 'The risk of the Antarctic ice sheet to collapsing and flooding coasts around the world has been exaggerated, according to researchers. Previous studies had claimed that melting Antarctic ice could contribute 1 metre to the rising sea levels by the end of the century, flooding the homes of 150 million people and threatening dozens of coastal cities.'
Figure 9 Reporting of Ritz et al. (2015) by (a) BuzzFeed and (b) The Times in November 2015.
  • How different are the tone and implications of the messages communicated by the two headlines?

  • The BuzzFeed headline communicates a reasonably neutral message, using the word ‘may’ to indicate scientific uncertainty, though the words ‘bad’ and ‘feared’ are emotive.

    On the other hand, The Times headline stating ‘has been exaggerated’ implies a possible intention by scientists to mislead, contributing a far more negative message.

The BuzzFeed article is an accurate representation of the press release and study; in contrast, The Times implies that ‘has been exaggerated’ was a quote from the scientists (which it was not).

Clearly this kind of media environment is something for both the public and policy-makers to be aware of, especially so for the even more sensitive topic of global geoengineering. No wonder the public sometimes feels confused.