Hidden Agendas Behind the News Are Undermining Progress on Climate Change

Photo: Jeremy Bishop/Unsplash

Photo: Jeremy Bishop/Unsplash

The story, “The Media is Contributing to Climate Silence”, in our June newsletter, raises compelling questions about the quality and independence of the information we receive. In particular, the role that political polarization and vested interests play in obscuring science and obstructing action towards real solutions for climate change and biodiversity loss. 

An initiative by the Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation, called “Covering Climate Now”, is a courageous effort to rebalance US and global media coverage on the climate crisis. It is intended to help citizens make more informed decisions while challenging legislators to address the issue. The twin imperatives of the climate crisis and biodiversity loss are global problems that require global solutions, but most of the action, or inaction, is at the level of national governments. 

Informed public opinion and astute policy-making on these twin challenges will not magically materialize.  More prominent and better quality media coverage on the issues will help restore the balance. 

What keeps getting in the way?  Three themes:  bitterly partisan political polarization; the undermining and denigration of science; and disinformation by vested interests. 

Firstly, political polarization in many nations is undermining effective debate on policy options. 

In Canada, voters will go to the polls this fall in a federal election that will be dominated by issues such as pipelines, carbon taxes, and conflicting approaches as to how to meet the Paris climate goals for reducing GHG emissions. Political opportunism has created a divisive environment in which several provincial governments are suing the federal government over carbon taxes, and climate change policies are being unwound.  Real progress requires progressive policies, irrespective of political stripes, to address the long-term impacts of climate change; not gaming the system for short term political advantage. 

Two recent studies cited by The New York Times, show that nations with a higher carbon footprint and economies highly dependent on fossil fuels had higher levels of climate science skepticism. These included the US, Canada, Australia and Brazil.

The US appears to be the most divisive and polarized and, as a result, unable at the federal level to effectively address climate change.

Climate change expert Katharine Hayhoe, of Texas Tech, said that the number one predictor of US and, increasingly, Canadian opinions on climate change depend not on how much we know but on where we fall on the political spectrum. US opinion polls show strong divergence of views on climate change based on political party affiliation. Despite rising concern about the dangers of climate change among Americans, Republican voters show much higher levels of climate science skepticism than Democrats.

Secondly, the dangerous trend of denigrating science.  The Trump administration openly wears its denial of climate change and its disdain for the supporting scientific evidence.  Here are three recent examples:

1. Arctic regions are warming at two to three times the rate of the rest of the planet and melting ice caps and permafrost will have devastating impacts. At a meeting in May of the Arctic Council, a group of eight Arctic countries, the council was unable to issue a joint declaration setting out priorities because the US refused to consider any reference to climate change and the Paris agreement.

2. The New York Times recently reported that the Trump administration is restricting what evidence government scientists are permitted to report on climate change as well as how they model and predict the impact on climate change beyond 2040.  A scientist on the review panel for the US National Climate Assessment, Philip Duffy, President of the Woods Hole Research Center, said the restrictions showed a blatant attempt to politicize science and that “it reminds me of the Soviet Union.”

3. And this disdain for science was on full display when the lead scientist of both the UN IPCC Climate Change report and the recent UN report on Biodiversity Loss appeared before Congress.  Sir Robert Watson was pilloried by “experts”, often featured on Fox News, who deny climate change and were skeptical of the science behind the threat of biodiversity loss.

Thirdly, vested interests — for example, fossil fuels and animal agriculture, two industries with the largest carbon footprints — deploy sophisticated, well-funded lobbying and disinformation campaigns to defend their economic interests threatened by legislative and regulatory actions designed to address climate change. We will discuss this in a future blog. 

The way to break through this fog of disinformation is to have a more informed electorate, holding policy makers to account, all of it supported by comprehensive, science-based, prominent media coverage of the climate crisis and biodiversity loss.  The Covering Climate Now initiative is a significant step in the right direction.

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