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Exclusive: Former correspondent and editor explains the drop in quality of BBC’s climate coverage

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Shocker: For 2011, BBC has “explicitly parked climate change in the category ‘Done That Already, Nothing New to Say’.”

This past Monday night, discussing climate change at a very poorly-attended (as usual, when the subject is global warming or peak oil) screening at the Frontline Journalists’ Club in London of the movie Collapse with Michael Ruppert — yes, flawed, but with much sound analysis about oil and energy — I heard from a former BBC producer colleague that internal editorial discussions now under way at the BBC on planning next year’s news agenda have in fact explicitly parked climate change in the category “Done That Already, Nothing New to Say.”

Deep in the comments for “Exclusive: Journalism professor Jay Rosen on why climate science reporting is so bad” was an amazing perspective by former BBC correspondent and editor Mark Brayne.  It seeks to explain where the BBC is coming from on climate, though it applies more broadly to Western journalists.

Having been raised by journalists, I held the BBC in the highest esteem for most of my life.  I suspect most CP readers have, too.  Recently, though, the quality of their coverage of climate change has declined catastrophically, as I and others have noted (see “Dreadful climate story by BBC’s Richard Black” and links below).  So I asked Brayne if he would revise and extend his remarks, and the result is below.

UPDATE:  He adds more thoughts in the comments here.

His three decades as a journalist make this sobering analysis a must-read for anyone wondering why British — and American — reporting on climate change has declined in quality recently:

As a former BBC foreign correspondent (Moscow, Berlin, Vienna, Beijing) during the Cold War, and former World Service editor now struggling with the monumental failure of contemporary journalism on climate change (Nicholas Stern’s 2007 comments about the market are just as relevant for the news media), I have to agree with recent commentators on Climate Progress who see the roots of this failure more in newsroom culture and subtle peer expectation than in a direct and explicit response to political or commercial demands (although those play their part, of course).

My former colleagues at the BBC, including Richard Black and others whom I know as good men and women all, remain trapped like most Western-style journalists in the old paradigm of news as event, not process, always needing to be shiny, new and different.

As a correspondent, and later at every nine o’clock morning editorial meeting at the World Service on every weekday through the 1990s, I and my colleagues would grapple with this – how to tell a complex story in just a few lines, with enough of a news peg to interest our listeners. And listeners, viewers and readers have short attention spans – they’ll tune out if they sense it’s just the same old stuff.

So, in order to sell and appeal, whether public service or commercial, journalism needs events. We need clear causes, agents and forces to be visibly responsible. We need (not that we put it like this) a narrative of baddies and goodies. Where the climate is concerned, things are slow-moving, complex, and what’s more, we ourselves are the baddies. That’s not something listeners and viewers want or wanted to be told.

Given our human evolutionary need for primal reassurance that we are safe, and that bad things are happening over there and not here, the events that journalism reports tend to focus mainly on conflict, ideally involving stories of the dramatically dead. World Service news bulletins would often drip with blood, as do the standard news agendas of most Western media. If it bleeds, I’m afraid it does lead.

That’s factor one. Consider then how the editorial decisions of each news editor are taken in the context of those made by his or her immediate predecessor on the last shift, and by the shift and the week and the months and the years before that. As I know from my years in the field, it’s very, very hard to go against the received news agenda wisdom.

Add in, as a third factor, the post-1960s, post-modernist, post-Watergate (especially) but actually quite arrogant self-belief of Western journalists as brave, embattled warriors fighting for truth against devious authority, and I’m afraid it doesn’t surprise me that the news business finds the climate story so hard to tell.

Bear with me a little longer to see how this all plays especially at the BBC, as a public service broadcaster funded by a domestic licence fee that’s essentially a tax on anyone with a television. (The World Service is funded directly by the Foreign Office.)

At the Corporation, despite its fiercely-defended principles and charter of journalistic independence, the sense of ordinary journalistic embattlement is compounded many times over by pressure (think Tony Blair and the Iraq war, or, even harder to deal with and much more relentless, think Israel and Palestine) from very vocal, insistent and well-organised interest groups.

The BBC’s programmes, domestic and international, are under quite extraordinarily intense daily scrutiny. Editors and journalists respond, both consciously and less so, with a desperation to appear balanced, and fair, and objective.

On climate change, that BBC journalistic urgency to be seen to be fair now means, after a period between Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth and the disaster of Copenhagen when global warming was everywhere in the output, that the Corporation has been bending over backwards to reflect the opposite, sceptical view.

Journalists at the BBC know that the mood has shifted – for the time being, anyway. My old colleague and the Corporation’s first environment correspondent Alex Kirby emailed me this week to agree that Richard Black, sharply criticised elsewhere on CP for his recent reporting of the current state of Arctic sea ice, was most probably, as Alex put it, “a victim of the BBC wishing to demonstrate its ‘even-handedness’ by being, if not sceptical, at least much more questioning about the science, even though 99% of it stands up.”

(The determination to be “fair” to all sides on all stories can at times go to such absurd lengths that Allan Little, one of our best reporters with hard experience of covering Sarajevo in the mid-90s and much more, speaks of the analogy of two men at a bar, one saying that two plus two equals four, and the other that two plus two equals six. The BBC solution to this disagreement? Put them both on the Today Programme, and the answer clearly lies somewhere in the middle.)

This past Monday night, discussing climate change at a very poorly-attended (as usual, when the subject is global warming or peak oil) screening at the Frontline Journalists’ Club in London of the movie Collapse with Michael Ruppert – yes, flawed, but with much sound analysis about oil and energy — I heard from a former BBC producer colleague that internal editorial discussions now under way at the BBC on planning next year’s news agenda have in fact explicitly parked climate change in the category “Done That Already, Nothing New to Say.”

Coming towards the end of these thoughts, I quit daily journalism in 2002 after 30 years to work as a psychotherapist (same job, listening to people, but where I get to stay with the story week after week without having to simplify it beyond recognition for the evening bulletin).

As such, I often ask myself — and, obsessively, others — what it will take to get Western-style, ratings-and-profit-led journalism, reflecting as it does the emotions of politics, economics and public opinion, to take climate change and sustainability as seriously as it deserves, as a present, existential threat to the very survival of our species.

Putting it bluntly, I regret to have concluded that this will only happen once very large numbers of people start dying. As in, hundreds of thousands to millions, and quite clearly climate-change-related.

The Pakistan floods were shocking, as were the Russian summer peat fires and the landslides in China. But in order for enough of humanity to wake up (as we all ultimately, or course, will), not enough people died. Ouch.

This is how we are programmed by evolution, to pay attention or not. It has to be personal, people-related. And for most of us, including our newsrooms, things just aren’t hot enough yet, or sufficiently and personally uncomfortable. (Ecocide of almost every other species and the collapse of ecosystems already observable doesn’t, I fear, hit home emotionally.)

Until something Very Very Big happens (we must hope, in Sir Crispin Tickell’s description, for catastrophe that is benign), I do not believe that mainstream journalism, as indeed mainstream politics and economics, will change. The financial crash wasn’t big enough. Nor was the Eurasian summer of 2010. One shudders to think what might (and will) be.

One does shudder.  I guess I’ll have to update my post What are the near-term climate Pearl Harbors? Things will have to get worse than I thought — or, perhaps the way to look at it is, things have gotten much worse, much faster than I thought they would, but it still hasn’t motivated the necessary action.

Of course, it isn’t just that a disaster has to happen — the media has to report on that disaster and explain either the link to climate and/or why this type disaster is going to become commonplace and more extreme if we stay on our current emissions path:

The notion the one of the leading news organizations in the world may have already decided that the public knows all that it needs to know about  human-caused global warming is as stunning as the March 2010 assertion by John Horgan, a former Scientific American staff writer who directs the Center for Science Writings at Stevens Institute of Technology, that “Two sources at the Science Times section of the New York Times have told me that a majority of the section’s editorial staff doubts that human-induced global warming represents a serious threat to humanity.”

This suggests a deep ignorance of just how devastating unrestricted emissions of greenhouse gases will be to our children and grandchildren and countless future generations (see “An introduction to global warming impacts: Hell and High Water“).  Even today, I don’t meet one person in 50 who truly understands what’s coming.  And if seasoned journalists and their editors don’t get it, then we are in double trouble, since they are the ones who have traditionally been the intermediary or gateway for communicating the science to the public.

I welcome comments from journalists and nonjournalists alike about what can be done to rectify this dangerous situation — or to bypass it.

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86 Responses to Exclusive: Former correspondent and editor explains the drop in quality of BBC’s climate coverage

  1. Colorado Bob says:

    Experts: Caribbean corals could face record bleach

    This week, water temperatures surpassed those recorded in 2005, said Eakin, who blamed a mild winter and a second straight year of El Nino, a weather phenomenon that leads to unusually warm waters. A larger area also is being affected this year than in 2005, he said.

    Scientists swimming in warm waters are reporting that chocolate-brown corals are turning shades of tan and gold, a precursor to bleaching. But they are celebrating that the reef-building elkhorn and staghorn corals have not yet been affected. They are the first corals to be listed as threatened under the U.S. federal Endangered Species Act.

    http://www.newsvine.com/_news/2010/09/21/5152351-experts-caribbean-corals-could-face-record-bleach

  2. NeilT says:

    Of course Mark Brayne failed to mention the other part of the picture. The UK political agenda does have climate change on as a priority, but it’s not on the front burner. They have other fish to fry right now and they’re more urgent in political terms.

    Sad but true.

    You might wonder what is more urgent than the, relatively, imminent demise of your species?

    To a politician?

    Getting re-elected next time……..

  3. Neot says:

    Well at least we can start being more reality based in strategies. 350.org is building a global movement with almost zero coverage in mainstream media, and while that is not enough, it needs to be considered that the upcoming generation that is going to meet this head on already views tv and print as an anachronism. People will always crave news but I fear that there will be no common ground where opposite ends of the spectrum connect such as we have with mainstream news. It will be a series of balkanized sites such as Drudge, Dkos, HuffPo, FreeRepublic etc. I personally feel that organized communication efforts need to target the commons to be worthwhile. We should start buying billboards and banner ads and support organizations that do this.

  4. homunq says:

    It sounds as if we need three different strategies:

    1. Somehow, convince the journalists that the threat is absolutely serious. It’s a delicate balance, because talking about possible-but-unlikely scenarios of human extinction just make them dismiss as Cassandras all the serious risks of gigadeaths. (But of course, Cassandra was right.) So, should there be some charity which pays mainstream journalists to attend real climate conferences? Some kind of “embedding” in research labs?

    2. Overcome the one-step-forward-one-step-back newsroom inertia which prevents moving the tenor of climate coverage as fast as events are moving. Partly, it’s a matter of making a lot of noise. Polluter trolls are a dime a dozen; we need to be writing letters to the editor in volume too.

    3. Provide some human “storyline” on which they can cover “both sides” without trampling the science. I think that the answer is to emphasize the links between polluters and deniers; let them deny that for a while, instead.

  5. mike roddy says:

    Mark and Jay may be unconsciously trying to let their former colleagues (including editors) off the hook. A reporter has a personal responsibility to communicate facts that indicate public endangerment. The profession let us down on Iraq and Vietnam, too, and didn’t see things clearly until the body counts accumulated.

    Meanwhile, there were always a few who saw and communicated the truth- Halberstam in Vietnam and Koppell in Iraq, for example. Lesser known reporters with little job security got the message, and stuck to the government line.

    The same thing is happening now over global warming. That’s why we have Revkin and Tierney at the New York Times- not because they are careless and incompetent, but because, consciously or not, this is what pleases the editorial and business sides of the paper. And the Times is one of the better ones- let’s not even talk about the TV networks or USA Today etc.

    Global warming is going to kill vastly more people than the wars in Vietnam and Iraq ever did, in even more savage and hideous ways. Journalists have a responsibility to communicate the facts to the public, and both they and their editors have abdicated that mission. Richard Pauli is a former working journalist- and CP commenter- who agreed with these thoughts in his prior comment.

    Body counts will begin to get big in a decade or two, when drought, flooding, and famine create unimaginable numbers of refugees and corpses. If Americans continue to accept instructions from the oil and coal companies and massively burn their products in the meantime, we have locked in far more carnage in the coming decades.

    Scientists, and those of us who have taken the time to study the evidence in detail, don’t really want to hear journalists’ excuses about ego, ambition, and habits. Climate scientists have endured ridicule and death threats, and are unafraid of the truth themselves. Providing psychological or habitual explanations is another way of saying that most members of your profession are cowardly and trivial people. If that is the case, the quality journalists- and some remain- must change things from within. If it puts their jobs at risk, they need to start new newspapers and television stations, and insist, as a matter of principle, that we have no choice.

  6. PurpleOzone says:

    Somebody ought to start an “Extreme Weather” blog, featuring the unusual and violent weather of the week — or day. Reserved it only for events that challenge the historical records.

    Today’s event:

    Hurricane Igor leaves widespread damage in Newfoundland, historic barn swept to sea, so was a man in his driveway. Rainfall total: 8 inches.

    http://www.montrealgazette.com/news/Newfoundland+begins+cleanup+after+Igor/3562667/story.html

  7. Colorado Bob says:

    Democrats fighting election battles ask environmentalists, ‘Where are you guys?’
    Energy companies and businesses are ramping up spending on candidates and issues, while environmental groups face lagging donations and enthusiasm for campaigns key to climate change action.

    http://articles.latimes.com/2010/sep/21/nation/la-na-environmental-election-20100921

  8. BB says:

    As a journalist…Unfortunately the ratings play a large part of the game. I think folks give too much credit out there to the agenda-setting function of the news, whereby it’s assumed the viewers will always be there, always consuming, all the producers need to do is tell them what is news, and what to think about it.

    Indeed, when a show comes to fruition from the drawing board, a ton of research goes into best positioning it to be a (ratings/profitability) success, which time slot it should be placed in, and what program should be its lead-in. After heavy promotion that this is THE must-see TV event of the year, all that’s left is to hope the viewers agree. If it were guaranteed that the viewers would be there, then there could be a more reasonable expectation of content control. But it’s not.

    Judge Judy is up, local/national news is down. You’d like to ascribe shoddy reporting as the reasons why people decide to get their news from other sources, but that’s only in cases where people can (AND DO) go somewhere else to get ‘the truth’. I think it’s more passive than that. People want to be stimulated more directly, and moved to emotions more instantly. The most erudite of folks will probably still keep their eyes glued to yet another live-action car chase on the evening news. It’s not a ‘chicken vs. egg’ debate. The newsies pick the stories they think will be compelling to their viewers who watch, not what ‘should’ be compelling.

    I think the assessment is correct here, that it just might have to be that people will need to die in a clearly caused manner before climate change issues become a larger part of the consciousness. Under the dire-predictions/projections out there the compellingness of the story is clearly possible, but fatigue will inevitably set in if there’s no new compelling wrinkle (and inventing one will prove disastrously counter-productive).

    Think about the last hurricane that was churning toward the coast. Folks were already sick of hurricane Earl coverage even before the storm got anywhere. They would watch all day if there was live-action destruction, but going on and on about something that might (or even will) happen 7 days from now gets viewers frustrated. I can imagine there’s a similar response if something on the level of impending doom of the planet is not going to occur the day after tomorrow.

    It’s one thing to be the bell-ringer for the impending demise of the planet on the front page of the paper every day, but in the minds of those that run the business, it’s the subscribership numbers that what matter…because that’s the sustaining feature. And the eyes are built up (or wasted away) in response, rather than always guaranteed or required to be there.

  9. Peter Sergienko says:

    I can think of two important and non-catastrophic events that would make news and possibly begin to change this unfortunate dynamic.

    The first is large rallies and organized events such as the 10/10/10 Global Work Party. Events such as these demonstrate that many ordinary people do understand the risks of emitting greenhouse gases under a business as usual scenario, even though some of the ultimate and most damaging harm may be distant. They also show that ordinary people are ready to work and to call out their political leaders on these issues.

    The second, which should more readily occur if the first types of events gain momentum, is for major public figures who understand the risks to speak out. Sadly, it isn’t enough for those who’ve understood the risks for years or decades to speak out. When Al Gore, John Kerry or Nanci Pelosi gives a speech or holds an event it triggers the right wing noise machine and is covered as partisan politics and balanced with opposing viewpoints. However, it would be news if President Obama gave a prime time speech or series of speeches on climate and energy. It would also be news if leaders from various sectors that are not traditionally associated with action on climate disruption, such as big business and conservative religious leaders spoke out. It would be news if a prominent skeptic became an advocate for action. Let’s hope it doesn’t take a catastrophe leaving millions of dead in its wake for our so-called leaders to lead.

  10. Peter Bellin says:

    In the United States, the current political climate is a real impediment to effective action. The deniers are tuned in to a plan to get elected or re-elected at any cost. I think they truly believe their denialism, and their mindset blinds them to scientific fact.

    The level of science reporting is abysmal. The comments in this post highlight the problem that news reporting is as much marketing as distributing news. This is clear from the extreme focus on the ‘story’ of the day or week, from OJ Simpson to the baloon boy to Paris Hilton. Since modern media focuses on how to sell news rather than reporting it, the stories presented focus on topics that arouse emotions.

    So, what can we do? Posts so far cover some of the ground: strongly support those who promote climate action, such as Barbara Boxer. Write letters to the editor, respond to the inane comments from deniers – even when exhausted by hearing the same disinformation repeatedly. Vote. Vote in every election for every contest. Vote for people who will work to promote effective action on climate and related issues.

    I agree, however, that things will have to get a lot worse before the media, the general public and the political establishment wake up. I fear for my daughter’s world.

  11. I’m a journalist and mainstream media simply aren’t interested in the stories I want to write. Ten years ago they were keen, no longer. What’s the way forward for real environmental journalism? Community Supported Journalism
    http://stephenleahy.net/community-supported-journalism-help-fund-these-important-stories/

    It has been a struggle to get people to understand that they have to support good journalism directly with their dollars. And its been a long ethical tussle for me. But my choices are: ask for help to do the work I think is important or give it up, go into PR and no longer worry about how to feed my family.

    Joe you jumped all over Black (Dreadful climate story by BBC’s Richard Black) and I strongly disagreed in my comment. I was able to cover the same story but in a very different way because I have the freedom and space at IPS to do so. However that freedom comes at a cost — a week’s work for $150 fee)

    “Arctic Ice in Death Spiral” http://ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=52896

    [JR: That is a great story, which I'm about to cite.]

  12. Brian N says:

    Like a frog in very slowly boiling, we keep changing baseline to fully comprehend each advance in abnormal patterns. I guess we will habituate to a continuum of dire events and care less as fatalities increase even when occurring in America.

  13. richard pauli says:

    Thanks Mike #4 – (Author of the 14 Climate Villains)… Joe, you are attracting some wonderful people to CP. I must praise WitsEnd – also a formerly-paid, full-time journalist – for her enthusiastic and brave blogging. http://witsendnj.blogspot.com/ She is breaking stories on ozone damage that mass media is missing. Also commenter Richard Brenne – now writing a book, and blogger Jim Galysyn of Desdemona Despair – I know there are so many other alternative journalists that CP attracts.
    Thanks for hosting this kind of discussion. This is key.

  14. Some European says:

    Terrific post! Every single day I try to imagine people in the future stumbling upon these articles and saying: “Hey! These guys knew it from the beginning! Why didn’t they manage to alarm the world?”

    On the 1 out of 50 thing: I live in Belgium and I work in the street for Greenpeace for four days a week. I sincerely think it’s less than 1 in 1000. I personally know about 3 persons who understand what’s ahead.

    Suggestion: I’m planning a pamphlet action. If the papers don’t write the news, we must bring the news to the people. Remember the action in New York with the fake NYT’s that were distributed? We should be doing that kind of stuff monthly around the world.

    I often hear from specialized communicators that our goal shouldn’t be to bring information, that it’s enough if we can appeal to the people’s feeling for justice. Nobody’s ever quite convinced me of that, yet. I really think it’s an information problem. But to thoroughly understand basic climate science, geopolitics and other aspects of the problem, you need at least 50 hours of introduction. If only we could get just one hour of people’s attention…

  15. JonS says:

    A central issue is that the news generally publishes ‘what is’ not ‘what ought to be’. An example is in Mike Roddy’s comment, ‘Global warming is going to kill vastly more people than the wars in Vietnam and Iraq ever did, in even more savage and hideous ways.’

    The key phrase here is ‘is going’. A journalist can validly report that an earthquake ‘has killed’ a number of people, but it is difficult report that an earthquake ‘will kill’ a number of people. The news cannot predict, only report what has been.

    This is not a failing of the news, but a reflection of our culture. It has been said that those that do not remember the past are doomed to repeat its failings. The news has no past or future, only what has happened: that is our failing.

    Direct reporting is always ‘a posteriori’; what has happened. With global warming we have the science, the runs on the board, the predictive capacity to be ‘a priori’, but the news cannot say that.

    How many people are homeless in Pakistan? The news can report estimates that *have been made* (‘a posteriori’), but cannot make its own.

    Any person deeply concerned about global warming can see how events will pan out (AR4 etc.), these predictions are clearly based on sound science but are, in essence, ‘a priori’. There is nothing wrong with that (except at a philosophical level), as much real day-to-day science is ‘a priori’.

    But for journalists that is not news, that is speculation. The apparent decision by the BBC to park climate change is pragmatic. When I did journalism, I was taught that any issue has a life of three weeks, top. People are not concerned about the future but about when they will next eat. The reality here is ‘shifting baselines’, not ‘intergenerational equity’.

    Within the BBC I suspect that there are denialist warriors, however, the downgrading of the most serious threat to life on Earth as a news story is probably simply pragmatic. ‘Flogging a dead horse’ is mediaspeak for a story that consumers have heard of too much already.

  16. john atcheson says:

    Once again, I am reminded of the last line from Elizabeth Kolbert’s Field Notes from a Catastrophe:

    “It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of doing.”

    And those who should be sounding the alarm are busy covering the Tea Party. Kurt Vonnegut was rumored to have said it was good that he was dying — the world had become too crazy to effectively satirize it; too bizarre to make a parody of it; too strange to use irony in portraying it.

    We are doomed to leave this world a poorer place with less opportunity, less wealth, and less freedom, and we’re too stupid as a species to even know it. Perhaps that is a good thing, but as a parent, it doesn’t feel very good.

  17. Andy says:

    People also pay attention when animals die. More stories on stranded polar bears, walruses, “Nemo’s Reef is Dying” sort of stuff may attract enough listeners/viewers to make the news.

    Also, like the BP Oil Spill, the loss of livelihoods of those people consider the “salt of the earth” seems to matter. Whether it is fishermen or loggers, the loss of their natural resource base should make the news.

  18. Catchblue22 says:

    One problem with your conclusions. When you speak with phrases like “programmed by evolution”, I believe you fall into the trap of the social sciences, by ascribing a particular negative characteristic to “human nature”, and then passively shrugging your shoulders and saying that this characteristic is inevitable. Thinking like this encourages passivity. Instead of trying to rise above our weaknesses, we tend instead to wallow in them, to passively accept them. I know that in many ways your activities on this site aren’t passive. But I do have problems with the subconscious assumption that we should just accept our negative characteristics as inbuilt and inevitable. We can rise above ourselves. Most readers here have done just that.

  19. Andy says:

    Re: JonS – But the plethora of stories on California’s San Andreas Fault or “When Will the Big One Hit” would seem to make your point invalid. Reporters often do stories on earthquakes that haven’t happened yet. The intense news coverage of scientist’s predictions for future earthquakes lead to California adopting better earthquake resistent building codes and upgrades of bridges which then saved many people during the subsequent North Ridge Earthquake.

    No. There is something more to the problem of global warming and its reporting. Reporter reluctance is deeper based than simply catering to their audience.

  20. MapleLeaf says:

    Dr. Romm,

    Thank you so very much for drawing attention to this, and thanks also to Mark Brayne for his candid and insightful comments.

    I and other shave been incredibly perplexed by the poor form of the BBC of late, and this helps explain what the problem is.

    Thanks again to both of you.

  21. MapleLeaf says:

    Stephen @10,

    Please keep up the great (and important work). I encourage readers here to support Stephen’s work. Real journalists like he are rare nowadays.

  22. Dan Reynolds says:

    Thanks for the great work, Stephen. It’s always refreshing to see someone that spends their time crafting stories that make the world a better place, rather than appealing to whatever viewers want and producing the type of content that’s so prevalent today.

    I think the other posters summed up why the BBC is dropping their coverage of climate change — it’s a harder story to sell now, since it’s so long term. Even though they’re a public channel, they still have ratings and viewers to think about. More than a little sad really, since it’s such a big deal.

  23. Thanks MapleLeaf@18. We are all in this mess together.

    I interviewed Clive Hamilton about his new book “Requiem for a Species” last nite, His summary re inaction: “We’re much less rational than we pretend to be.”

    JonS @14 pegs the media situation pretty well except for those media like Fox which are operating under a different set of rules

  24. Jeff Huggins says:

    Well . . .

    Recent guest posts on the media problem (including this one) have been great, and I appreciate them.

    But, as good and helpful as they’ve been, I’d like to add a comment or two involving a matter on which they may have left us making an incorrect assumption or coming to an incorrect conclusion.

    Let’s assume these points, for sake of discussion:

    * The news media are blowing it, presently, and the cause of this is deep within some of their paradigms (combined to a degree with commercial pressures). The assertion — a plausible and likely and accurate one — is that they won’t change until Big Disasters strike, and even then the change may still be an after-the-fact change, modest and fleeting, and still (possibly) insufficient to bring about the public wisdom necessary to face and address the underlying climate and energy problems before larger Disasters strike. In other words, the media are stuck in their status quo.

    * Humans are products of evolution and have all the imperfections, idiosyncrasies, blind spots, short-sighted-ness, and so forth that we all know about. On some sorts of matters, we are very slow learners. We don’t change unless we’re clobbered over the head by something, sometimes. So, problematic media paradigms, combined with public imperfections and slowness, all in the context of the nature of the climate problem, make for a problematic situation.

    So, we read, we’re going to have to experience some Major Disasters before the news media change. That will take time and cause great harms to millions of people. And as time passes, the larger situation gets worse. More people will suffer during that period and after that period. And so forth.

    Here is the problem, and it’s an intellectual and (unintentional) ethical one:

    It is simply not sufficient — intellectually or ethically — to allow great and deep harms to occur to hundreds of thousands, millions, tens of millions, etc. of people, and to other species, and to future generations, because of the way that the media and journalists “are”, while tolerating the status quo situation as the harms and likely harms to others mount. Dante had words to say about indifference and passivity in such situations.

    For one thing, the (in some cases) private owners, board chairpersons, and managing editors of all the major news organizations in the U.S. could fit into a single modest-sized room. It is, I would argue, not the right or healthy or responsible choice to simply let time pass if and as the unwise paradigms (not suited to the unfolding problem of climate change) of less than a hundred people place the lives of millions and millions of people in jeopardy. No way.

    IF the most likely conclusion is that “the media won’t change until Big Disasters happen, and even then the degree they change will be uncertain”, and if that seems to be the case, and if the media continue to demonstrate that unfortunate pattern, THEN it falls upon all the rest of us to do what it takes — huge boycotts, massive events, naming names, shouting “mad-as-hell-not-gonna-take-it-any-more” out the windows, and so forth — to bring about the necessary changes BEFORE millions of people die, species go extinct, the climate situation gets closer to possible tipping points, and the living conditions of future generations become increasingly compromised.

    In other words, it is NOT an acceptable answer — intellectually or ethically — that we’ll simply have to wait for Big Disasters to happen in order for the media to decide to improve themselves. Life is action. Sometimes action becomes necessary. If the scientists are right — and of course that is almost certainly the case — then we are already probably ten years PAST the time when we should have been acting (in the ways mentioned) to prompt the media, politicians, and many corporations to enhance the responsibility with which they are facing and dealing with climate change.

    To be clear, I appreciate — and largely agree with — the sort of assessment offered in the present post, EXCEPT to the degree that it can be taken to mean that we’ll just have to wait for Disasters in order for the media to improve. Unfortunately, we can’t wait for Disasters in order for the media to improve, as easy as that might be (except to those who suffer from the disasters!). It falls upon us to PROMPT the media to improve. The sooner we see that, the better for everyone — including (counter-intuitively, perhaps) for the media themselves.

    The media’s paradigms and profit pressures do not “trump” science, nor do they trump sound ethical thinking and basic human responsibility. Nor do they provide excuses sufficient to “sit and wait” while Disasters happen. Nor do the media’s problems and paradigms provide excuses for the rest of us not to take action. It will do little good, to other species and to future generations and to victims of disasters, if the best that we can do is to blame the media for society’s inaction, after the fact.

    A commenter named Anna asked the right question, if I remember correctly, a few days ago: In essence: What do we need to do to prompt the media to become responsible and effective? The question is not whether to try, but how to do it. Letting a tragedy unfold is simply not an answer. If you are walking along a lake and you see a young child drowning, you jump in and do what you can to save the child. Sitting on the sidelines while the media fumbles and climate change progresses is not an answer.

    (Of course, I’m not implying that it will be easy!)

    Cheers,

    Jeff

  25. One problem, of course, is that we can’t wait for millions to die if there’s to be any hope of avoiding countless more deaths beyond those. This is the fundamental challenge we face as a society. Either we will learn how to handle issues with long time constants like climate or the future will be a very bleak one indeed.

  26. John Mason says:

    I too thank Mark Brayne for that important contribution. It makes a lot of recent BBC content the more understandable. This seemed to start after the CRU hack – and not just in terms of the BBC. I felt very alone battling away on the internet in the UK in defence of Phil Jones, for example – even Monbiot was calling for his resignation back then. But you have to hold true to your core principles and instincts, and one of mine was that Jones was one of the good guys. It remains the same today.

    Stephen – you may have seen my weather-diary – click my name and you land on it – it includes the odd bit & piece climate-wise. I come at the climate from a geological perspective. If I get faced by a ranter going “the climate’s always changed” ad nauseum, then I have the detailed knowledge of approximately 650 million years of change – some abrupt, some subtle – that Wales has seen since it first emerged as part of a volcanic arc off the northern margin of Gondwana, low in the Southern Hemisphere. But there is superb undeniable evidence of climate shifts in just the past 12,000 years all around here. Must be the same for many of us in Northern latitudes. How can we put that knowledge to use at the same time as paying the bills? I’m open to ideas!

    It’s big stuff. You sit there on the beach at Tonfanau, amid slabs of Jurassic limestone torn by a huge glacier from the bed of the Irish Sea, and try to imagine what it was like back then. Wales – my home – uninhabitable. Likewise a day on the beach at Borth, where ancient tree-stumps protrude from a bed of peat atop grey clay, 6-7000 years old. A forest lost to the sea. It makes the “climate changes all the time” mantra sound so glib and uncaring, and it makes me wonder, had we been gifted with universal knowledge of the importance of climatic stability, how we may have organised civilisation compared to what we have done.

    All the best – John

  27. Sasparilla says:

    #10 Stephen, outstanding piece of work (totally frightening as well – I’d already figured the arctic was lost, but your article connected that melting / warming with the expected consequences according to top scientists on the subject. The direct / expected consequences rarely show in news articles on climate change, truly outstanding). Please keep it up.

    Joe, this is such and important piece you put up here and the comments by these folks involved in the media are so valuable, thank you.

  28. MapleLeaf says:

    Oh for %^&X sakes!!

    Please read this everyone:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/thereporters/richardblack/2010/09/something_new_and_not_altogeth.html

    I do honestly give up…..

    [JR: One of the most stunning things I've ever read from a professional journalist. His original article listed his email. What the heck was it there for -- only positive comments?]

  29. Hendo says:

    In OZ the news has been hijacked as a part of the stations weekly agenda. Accept that NEWS is more about ENTERTAINMENT than news, and also that SPORT is also entertainment, and all intended to keep viewers and listeners glued to the the station because that determines the advertising revenues (and media power). So news per se is not the motive, it is a support vehicle for the commercial welfare of the station. OK, they need revenue to live. But the trade-off (price) is journalistic integrity, and an erosion of the morality held by good journalists that newsworthy stories exist and that they have a responsibility/duty to air them.

    What to do? Murdoch (News Limited – ironic twist) is not about to “out” his empire, I expect the same for the media barons generally. I think it falls to journalists to get blogging (like Romm) and lay it out there. It falls to citizens to support and read blogs. Maybe over time an alternative news gestalt-blog could be organised to deliver a news service that is not manipulated by commercial needs. What would keep the audience riveted to these blogs? First some confidence that the new media they were reading was true, and an understanding that traditional mainstream media is compromised (do I mean corrupted?). And sadly, some serious gut-wrenching events suggested by Mark Brayne in his article. Something needs to galvanise people into action. Think “Network” – “I’m mad (sad) as hell and I ain’t gonna take it anymore” kind of rage or drive.
    Damn I sure hope it happens here…

  30. John Mason says:

    That is quite amazing. Thanks, ML.

    The comments beneath are less so – seen it all before etc.

    Richard’s email address was situated beneath the original piece, and for one I did not need it as we have corresponded before.

    Weird stuff…. but these are Interesting Times.

    Cheers – John

  31. adelady says:

    “… those of us who attempt to report on climate change objectively…”
    I presume that is code for ‘always find an avenue to express doubt or contrary views’ because that is what being objective, professional and even-handed means.

    “…further down the spiral of confrontation…” Does that mean that journalists don’t already drag the concept of confrontation in to even the simplest factual matters?

    Perhaps one reason why news organisations find disaster so compelling is that there’s no reason to juggle their reporting around balance or judgment. A ghastly headon collision demands no intellectual or ethical work. It just ‘is’.

  32. MikeB says:

    The BBC coverage has become ‘safer’ in the last couple of years, for which you should read ‘even handed to the point of idiocy’. Black is having a hissy fit over being pulled up on a pretty shoddy piece of work, Harabin seems to be away with the fairies, and the Today programme is simply dreadful – Webb and Naughtie have no clue whatsoever. There are one or two reports doing good work, but where is the leadership?

    Frankly, the BBC is either running scared or is terminally confused, or both. Be thankful that Nina and the Neurons go Eco still refers to climate change!

  33. climate undergrad says:

    Might I mention that genuine anger based on legitimate fear for our children and grandchildren is not the same as bought-and-paid-for anger based on maintaining short term profits or “the American lifestyle” (read: fat and lazy).

    Another 2 + 2 is somewhere between 4 and 6.

  34. MapleLeaf says:

    All,

    Yes, I am pretty disgusted by Richard’s latest piece. Also, IMO, it is rather poor form for him to be using the BBC blog to launch an attack on Dr. Romm.

    I encourage others to stem the tide of misinformation and anti-science rants going on in the BBC forums, including those of Richard Black.

    I was disappointed before. Now I am just plain mad. What on earth happened to journalism!?

    [JR: What is stunning to me is that he does not use the blog to refute a single one of my criticisms. Where I come from, that is typically taken as an admission that one can't defend oneself. I had been told that he was a pretty good reporter. Apparently, in his world, only those who are spreading anti-science disinformation get to complain about bad reporting.]

  35. MapleLeaf says:

    Joe,

    I agree with your inline comment above @33. One poster there has taken issue with his failure to refute your critique using facts.

    I really urge you to take this further. Also, it is in my opinion, highly unprofessional for Black to be attacking you using the BBC’s resources, not to mention their huge reach. He could have emailed you, or even phoned you to discuss this issue with you. A am tempted to report Black’s unprofessional behavior to the BBC’s ombudsman. I might not have time though, so maybe someone else might have the time and inclination to do so.

    Don’t read too many of the comments. The BBC forums have been dominated by ant-science trolls for some time now.

    That said if anyone wants to try and add some balance to the misinformation being posted in the BBC’s internet forums please do go ahead.

    [JR: I'll do a response. One that I hope will be seen as more civil than Black's. I must say that the double standard he proposes is something I can't fathom.]

  36. Richard Brenne says:

    Great comments all, by Richard Pauli and Jeff Huggins as always, and especially Mike Roddy’s (#4) and Stephen Leahy’s (#10).

    Note the tone of Mike Roddy’s comment – this is exactly the candor, conviction, moral courage and strength of statement we need.

    Stephen, the article you link to at (#10) is amazing – the best single piece about all the implications of Arctic sea melt I’ve read. It put it all together in an amazingly concise way, and does what the mainstream media rarely does, give the proper context.

    The only thing to think about for the future is maybe considering another tone. I know your outlet there wanted a conventional reporting piece (please go to the link and compliment Stephen to his editor as I did) and you did this with the best of sources and quotes – in fact the best quotes in one piece I’ve ever read.

    But because of the conventional reporting style it is forced to read a little like the stock show’s annual cow count report or any other conventional story, when in fact you’re talking about the potential extermination of the majority of or all humans. Somehow this needs to be addressed in a different tone – something that contains the appropriate “Holy Sh*t!” tone that should be anyone’s normal response to this.

    We need to do everything we can to change the mainstream media, but not sit back and hope for it to happen. In fact I think out best chance of changing the media is to grow our own media outlet ourselves.

    IMAGINE:

    Climate Progress grows its audience. It does this through voluntarily subscriptions and donations. Readers become members in one way or another, and regularly donate when they have the resources to do so.

    It does exactly what it’s doing, with more and more televised clips that it not only shows from people like Peter Sinclair, but generating its own video by hiring people like Peter Sinclair (and many other regular contributors as it can afford to do so, including of course Stephen Leahy but also someday Gail Zawacki, Mike Roddy, Richard Pauli, Lou Grinzo, Jeff Huggins, etc.)

    It is always giving the proper context and always based on the latest science.

    It also is a top media critic, as it is now and also with humor as the Daily Show and Colbert Report are media critics, especially of Fox.

    In this way the “goodies and baddies” as our English friend says (to translate, the good guys and bad guys) are constantly known, because all media is primarily about character and story far more than anything else.

    It teams with good guys in all possible ways and encourages the bad guys to convert to reality and become good guys, which I firmly believe every human is ultimately capable of doing at some point (maybe after any number of Groundhog Day lifetimes, who knows).

    It uses humor whenever possible, with Joe and others already doing this.

    Beginning on-line with video and podcasts, it looks for broadcast outlets in TV and radio, building its audience all the time. At first the audience is rabidly loyal but relatively small, but it grows constantly.

    There are many forums for the audience to become involved in the communication, so every audience member feels their voice can be heard in a meritocracy. This has happened to me and many others here at CP as we’ve been invited to post.

    Ultimately it grows into a media giant, miraculously without losing focus on its mission to tell the truth and spur to action (this is the main challenge as any media entity grows).

    I hope someday you join us. . .

  37. Robert says:

    This spat seems counter-productive to me. Joe and Richard Black are basically on the same side, yet you have now both launched vitreolic attacks on each other:

    http://climateprogress.org/2010/09/16/richard-black-bbc-bad-climate-reporting/
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/thereporters/richardblack/2010/09/something_new_and_not_altogeth.html

    [JR: I try to report on what the science says. Don't quite see why that puts me on a "side."]

    Richard’s original piece started with this. It was really only the 4th sentence that caused the reaction – the rest was OK, if a little undramatic. I can’t see how going to war over it helps anybody.

    “Ice floating on the Arctic Ocean melted unusually quickly this year, but did not shrink down to the record minimum area seen in 2007. That is the preliminary finding of US scientists who say the summer minimum seems to have passed and the ice has entered its winter growth phase. 2010′s summer Arctic ice minimum is the third smallest in the satellite era. Researchers say projections of summer ice disappearing entirely within the next few years increasingly look wrong. At its smallest extent, on 10 September, 4.76 million sq km (1.84 million sq miles) of Arctic Ocean was covered with ice – more than in 2007 and 2008, but less than in every other year since 1979.”

    [JR: The failure to mention human emissions of greenhouse gases in that story is a pretty big omission, sorry. And the misreporting of the sea ice projections is, well, misreporting. He didn't rebut either of my criticisms, but apparently he can't take any condone criticisms from the climate science side of things. Who knew?

    Is it counterproductive? Maybe, but it is also quite informative. And we got that terrific post from Brayne out of it.]

  38. Robert says:

    MikeB

    “Frankly, the BBC is either running scared or is terminally confused, or both.”

    I think what’s really happening is that we in the UK are already in gloom-overload with our economy. Just yesterday our monthly public spending deficit was announced at 15.9 billion UKP, some 30% higher than predicted. That is like every man, woman and child’s credit card balance sinking a further £320 into the red in a single month, and with no obvious way of extricating ourselves from the abyss.

    The BBC’s mission is to “To enrich people’s lives with programmes and services that inform, educate and entertain.”, not get them to slit their wrists! When we’re out of the economic tangle I expect we’ll get back on message with climate change.

  39. James says:

    Hi Joe,

    I too was shocked that Richard did not mention any of your criticisms or indeed those that I and many others made subsequently. At the risk of sounding over-dramatising things I’ll fight tooth and nail to stop the BBC’s climate coverage approaching that of Faux News.
    To flatter my ego I’ll share my closing comments on Richard’s latest message with your readership:

    “Rather than answering these scientific points as I hoped, you chose to shoot the messenger and drift towards self-pity. Having taken the time to reiterate the genuine scientific concerns that many had about your article I would hope to see you address these real issues.”

  40. fj2 says:

    Joe Romm: “I welcome comments from journalist and non-journalists alike about what can be done to rectify this dangerous situation — or bypass it.”

    Continue to expand on the realities of the enveloping catastrophes and the critical paths to solutions which a very high focus on the human capital side such as described in Juliet Schor’s “Plenitute” and how people can take control of their lives and meet the challenges in simple, personally rewarding, yet very effective powerful ways.

    Realistic visions on how things can very positively work out are really important.

  41. DavidCOG says:

    Only today I attempted to find a climate science section by starting from the BBC news home page. I couldn’t find it. I guess I know why now.

    I’ve just read Black’s whine on his blog. Astonishing. It could have been penned by Watts. Lost for words.

  42. “Things will have to get worse than I thought — or, perhaps the way to look at it is, things have gotten much worse, much faster than I thought they would, but it still hasn’t motivated the necessary action.”

    Yes, exactly.

    I will even go further. The public conversation continues to move diametrically in the opposite direction from the balance of evidence! To some who things that there obviously should be some connection between evidence and opinion, this has been beyond astonishing.

    It means there’s a deep problem with the way this society (and most others to some degree) processes information. Clearly there is some failure of reason involved here. It scares me.

    Even if we somehow get climate under control these events show that we are in trouble. Fear and hostility and misunderstanding might take us out just as thoroughly as environmental degradation. Perhaps in the end we may not even be able to tell whether it was war leading to environmental decay or environmental decay leading to war. Either way, the picture is much more alarming than it was a year ago on several fronts.

    Fortunately it is funny. I recommend mocking the opposition for the next few weeks.

  43. Jonathan says:

    Brian N (#11) has the absolutely correct analogy using the boiling frog for the phrase Global Climactic Disruption (elsewhere on Climate Progress).

    I believe that climate skeptics are partly a reflection of the decreasing interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (sometimes called STEM) and scientific illiteracy in general.

    I know from my own personal anecdotes that the climate is changing because I have lived in Chicago for all but six years of my life (college + ages 30-31). Chicago never used to have “winters” that felt like only a colder version of autumn. It also never had the extended heat waves that we experienced this summer.

  44. This is probably one of the most disturbing posts I’ve read of yours Joe.

    From my limited work in getting stories published, news editors are always looking for a new angle. A comment made to me by a major editor was along the lines of “yes, yes – we all know climate change is a problem, but we need to know what the solution is.” Very very similar to what Mark Brayne is saying.

    I did manage to get this published on the Pakistan flood/climate change relationship, but I think that was more luck than anything:

    http://www.abc.net.au/environment/articles/2010/09/22/3018667.htm

    Steve

  45. David says:

    JR: I try to report on what the science says. Don’t quite see why that puts me on a “side.”

    My thoughts exactly. I noticed Mr. Black used the term “warmers” and “warmist.” This is exactly the type of dichotomy the delayers want. People like Judith Curry and Tom Fuller have lapped up this dichotomy and are trying to portray themselves as disinterested “lukewarmers.” It’s funny that Dr. Curry accuses others of forming tribes, when she’s the only one who looks at this as a tribal issue.

  46. CW says:

    Five thoughts to guide climate journalism. Last one in development so less committed to it, but it’s the most intriguing.

    |1| Tell the stories of progress MUCH more. Its the responsible thing to do after you’ve scared people silly. Those stories utterly captivate people and, I suspect, inspire people more to actually take constructive action. There’s no shortage of those stories either.

    One life-long environmentalist at least has moved this way. Anybody notice how Lester Brown is talking positive these days? A couple of examples: A, B. The Treehugger.com website is a rare example of significant positive content. Joe, you’re not bad, but, very respectfully, you could shift the emphasis a bit more IMHO.

    |2| Entertain and be more humorous. Not for all journalists obviously, but climate bloggers and columnists will greatly expand their reader/viewership this way and subsequently better serve the cause. Stewart and Colbert have a lot of viewers even though the underlying content of their show consists of a lot of crappy news. People come back and watch again and again despite this and they get what is being said about what to do.

    |3| Explore the new medium. The potential of the internet is far from realized. Someone once famously said “The medium is the message”. I never read that guy much past that quote cuz I don’t really like books. That’s in part because I figure the message of print, and TV, is probably that the reader/viewer is to be a passive participant in society and that authority is really fighting off the bogeyman. The internet changes things enormously. The message of that medium is still being unfurled, but probably has a more to do with the collective, interconnected capacity of engaged groups to do stuff. The link fundamentally says that the news is all interconnected and not discrete. You might even be able to access it. The web is built so that you can contribute and interact. Maybe a climate “wikiNews” might work. Not community supported journalism alone (see #10 above by the awesome Steven Leahy), but also community-created journalism? One good book on the Web 2.0 concept is What would Google do?.

    |3.1| Do more vlogging. Sub-part to thought 3 here. Everyone trying to help the climate through the net, make more video clips. Please. Good ones go viral.

    |4| Find angles to this ‘ultimate’ story that resonate with ‘the other side’. I know and respect Joe’s position that we can’t avoid talking about the elephant in the room as a way to get rid of it. I agree with it too. But as he and all the regulars on this site fully appreciate, climate change truly is the biggest story out there as, when you really start to think of it’s many interrelated elements, it adds an urgency and gravity in addressing a remarkably broad subset of humanity’s challenges. Indeed, given the huge number of angles from which one can approach climate change we can surely find some in common where we don’t even have to mention the word ‘science’. We need the fight for freedom from commonly despised, climate-related bogeyman on a 24/7 news cycle.

    |5| “Feminize” the news? When I read the post above and the article by the NYU journalism prof Rosen I thought, “How male”. I mean, it strikes me as male – in all the bad ways – to need to: i) be a player, or “have authority” as Rosen says; ii) talk about bogeymen and threats; iii) pit teams against each other; iv) make bets on political horse races; v) place oneself on no team so one doesn’t get too beat up by either of them (even it if means living, or rather dying, by the fallacy that the truth always lies somewhere in between); vi) place yourself on one team cuz you want it to win; and/or, vii) be best at telling stories about “deviant authority”, to use Ruppert’s phrase, or how higher ups in the hierarchy are misbehaving. I’m probably about to be condemned by some feminists (sorry!) but MAYBE the essence of ‘female’ journalism would be to be the opposite of these things. I live in such a macho-male culture I don’t know what the opposite of these things might look like although I suspect #3 provides a lot of clues in that regard.

  47. _Flin_ says:

    I think positive spin is needed. About how people save money with green energy, how jobs are created with green energy, the conservative notions of valuing our own landscape and our homeland and it’s products above all else.

    The media won’t care. The media is just victim of the professional agenda setters in PR firms and politics.

  48. Heraclitus says:

    A questionable piece by Roger Harrabin on BBC Radio 4 this morning reporting on calls for Pachauri’s resignation – comes on top of his dubious article extensively quoting Turnball http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-11303686

    Harrabin seemed to be saying that leading environmentalists had joined forces with sceptics in calling for Pachauri to resign, but after a quick search I couldn’t find anything saying this to allow me to confirm his interpretation. His take was that the only reason Pachauri wasn’t being called on to resign was to avoid awkward confrontation with India.

  49. tomfarmer says:

    “Nothing New to SaY” – sad admission that the next New will be what they (BBC) will not want to say.. anyway.

    So, after echoing mapleleaf above and noting Michael Tobis I’m wondering whether something truly original and using the full values range of the internet mightn’t be a way to go..

    A Court.. attendant its own law/s of common cause. Instance, nzbw.blogspot.com with something of the sort just beginning. Its tone to pass sentence by common sense after informing, determining and deciding — a form of reassurance highly relevant to Brayne’s ‘need of assurance’ and still held significant in the public mind, so to speak.

    Court, then, perceived as another proxy, dramatis personae, toward intelligent (informed) action. Replacing media though quite able take its contributions and evidence, as blogs regularly do.. or did.

    Alone, however, is not IMHO a good idea. Jamie Henn @ 350.org and your goodselves to remain very highly significant.. even contributory.. What say ye..?

  50. Ouch…
    So the BBC newsroom peers think “Done That Already, Nothing New to Say” and “plan” to park the issue for next year?
    Do they base this on their analysis of PDO prognoses? I doubt.
    No “shiny, new and different” events to be expected?
    Seems they haven’t watched the news these years…
    (Australian eucalyptus exploding in a fire storm not shiny enough? (Well stuff like that happens, it’s what eucalyptus does to extinguish fire… But what’s news-in-evolution is that forests usually don’t kill themselves… Oh, and the cuddly koala fleeing into the hands of hominids?). A year later to be contrasted with smoke over Moscow? Fascinating science on glitzy microbic phytoplankton? NASA reporting new data from a far detached planetary biosphere supposedly inhabited by intelligent life?)
    – There are gazillions of “sexy” news stories with fascinating science (but also simple math) to explain! (I decided early this year to collect some on my blog – but couldn’t catch up with all (avalanches in China? Skipped.)).
    … So, what demented statistics intuition for “rare” news do these BBC people have? Possibly 2011 will be tamer than this year, so perhaps leave some breathing and thinking space for relevant 21st century journalism…

    @MT: Unfortunately it is not really funny. I recommend mocking the opposition for the next few decades. Start with mocking certain well-known “economists” by throwing quotes at them.

  51. P.S.: I have been shouting for the psycho paramedics for quite some time. Seems like Mark Brayne has read my thoughts. What a relief you are here!

  52. Alex Carlin says:

    “what can be done to rectify this dangerous situation — or to bypass it.” Yes, rectify by bypass. The way to bypass is massive public clamor for a clear concise demand. We need a memorable mantra. My suggestion:”100 Miles of Mirrors” since merely a 100 miles by 100 miles area of solar thermal mirrors would completely replace coal for supplying 100% of the US electrical grid. The same is true in the other major world sectors – China, India and Europe. We don’t need to wait for any technological breakthrough, and its affordable. Of course we still need to overcome the problem that we still have no public consensus that we have a climate problem. But I think that the science is so clear and available now, thanks to people like Dr. Romm, that, despite the apparent confusion, the facts are seeping into everybody’s minds on some level, conscious or subconscious. And soon the deniers will fall like the Berlin Wall – they will be perceived as flat-earthers. At that point we will be short of time, and we will need a fast plan of action. My proposal is “100 Miles of Mirrors” Does anybody else have a better suggestion?

  53. Heraclitus says:

    Harrabin’s segment is available on ‘listen again’ here http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00tt47n/Today_23_09_2010/ starting at about 1:22:30 (is ‘listen again’ available outside the UK?)

    It seems his conclusions are based on his own ‘calling around’ of environmental leaders. The three people he quotes are Tim Yeo (conservative MP and chair of Energy and Climate Change Select Committee), Mike Hulme and Brian Hoskins – all perfectly reasonable on climate change, but Tim Yeo and Mike Hulme at least would neither be expected to be particularly supportive of Pachauri from previous comments.

  54. Heraclitus says:

    I forgot to mention that in looking for the Harrabin link I did find a nice little item the day before with Tony Davy from UEA explaining that analysis of spider orchids shows flowering occurs 6 days earlier for every degree (C) of warming. http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00tt47l/Today_22_09_2010/ from about 00:53

    BBC reporting isn’t all bad.

  55. jorleh says:

    True every word. Even the cleverest are idiots as to our greatest enemy, the climate change.

    They (99%) don´t know almost anything of the coming catastrophe, and worse, they don´t care.

    It would take some five hours to peruse the basic facts and understand fully the problem, but our intellectual people have something better to do than save their children and grandchildren?

  56. Jeff Huggins says:

    Two Ideas

    To follow up on Alex Carlin’s thought and idea in Comment 53 . . .

    I agree that memorable (and meaningful) mantras that capture key aspects of the situation — and (importantly) solutions — are vital.

    I like Alex’s suggestion: “100 Miles of Mirrors”

    I also like this one, as a descriptor of the situation that combines the science and the social/ethical reality, in simple terms: “Excuse me: You’re stepping on my climate!”

    Of course, at least in normal sequential terms, the situation comes before the solution (although it’s vital to convey the solution in parallel), so two compatible messages that convey key aspects of the matter, in simple terms, might go like this . . .

    * Excuse me: You’re stepping on my climate!

    * 100 Miles of Mirrors

    In any case, I think the simple mantra idea is a great one (hats off to Alex).

    The Beatles also provide great material (of course): Help! Here Comes The Sun And etc.

    Jeff

  57. MBrayne says:

    Again, posting way, way down a thread, but I now know that Joe certainly down this far.

    Can I just add warm appreciation from this side of the warming, rising pond to all above for such an intelligent debate. Some further brief thoughts from me on some of what’s been said.

    Joe, you say at the top that you don’t meet one person in 50 who truly understands what’s coming. I agree, and as Some European says (#13), it often feels like 1/1000. However, maybe there’s nuance in here.

    In my experience of often very ordinary conversations, it’s not that people don’t know, intellectually, in their left brains, that things are very bad. And likely to get worse. The problem is one of emotions, in that they don’t yet *feel* , in their intuitive, wiser, evolutionary¬ older right brains, how serious it is. So they push the thoughts to one side. As I said in my post, it isn’t yet personal enough. Change feels at the moment more like a challenge to lifestyle than to survival.

    That’s why, in brackets here and with regret, I now believe we do have to find ways of constructively frightening people. How to do it? I don’t know. But making climate change a somehow attractive, we-can-deal-with-this option won’t crack it.

    Mike Roddy (#4), I disagree that journalists (those of Richard Black’s calibre, anyway) are making excuses about ego, ambition, and habits. Most members of my former profession are emphatically NOT cowardly and trivial people. What they mostly are is ordinary, decent, flawed folk like you and me and those you meet in your own communities, loyal to and determined by their peer group, and the open and public values of their profession as currently determined.

    The big mistake in any discussion about journalism and climate change – and I should have flagged that up more clearly – is that we need to talk about ALL public and social institutions. Politics, business, schooling, social work, healthcare, the environmental movement even, you name it. All are focused, as human beings are by their evolutionary programming (more below), on the needs and desires of the moment, or the next sale, or the next election, or the next campaign.

    We as individual humans don’t unfortunately live long enough to have a true perspective on what’s sustainable. That’s not something we can change, of course, and it’s why we need and may expect a tipping point in what Carl Jung called the Collective Unconscious. Thinking trauma and survival/fight/flight/freeze (perhaps another post…), humanity’s collective amygdala, as a species, needs to fire, so that we all *feel*, as well as *know*, that it is indeed about our personal survival and that of our genes.

    Journalists and the media are a critical part of bringing about that tipping point. But only part.

    Catchblue #17, I do not agree with you about the ability of humans to rise above “weakness” in responding to the threat of climate change. In my original post, I was talking not social sciences but hardwired neuroscience. As a psychotherapist now, I work all the time with trauma survivors, and it’s not passivity or weakness that has knocked out their ability to function normally, but ancient neural programming, focused on survival with its balances of ardenaline and cortisole, and endorphins and serotonin. There are in all of us, Catchblue, what you call negative characteristics that are inbuilt and inevitable. There’s stuff we cannot “rise above”, but which has to be confronted and dealt with as is.

    Of course, as homo sapiens, we do have choices. But we are much less able to exercise them as a group than many assume – until, I emphasise it again, it’s literally about immediate survival. As Stephen Leahy says (#22), quoting Clive Hamilton, “We’re much less rational than we pretend to be.”

    A final thought about how to engage journalists. Please don’t go too sharply into attack, or assume they/we are just dancing to proprietors’ tunes, or ascribe generically evil motives. Yes, Richard Black’s post on Arctic Ice was very unfortunately two-dimensional, but he is passionately engaged and doing his best in fantastically difficult circumstances.

    As a journalist-in-recovery, may I appeal to all for polite challenge and argument, as is evidenced in most of this thread, as the way to secure individual journalists’ attention, and get these ideas reported.

  58. Leif says:

    Clean air is a human right.
    Clean water is a human right.
    Sustainability is a human right…

  59. Lars Karlsson says:

    Joe, Mark,
    I’m preparing a translation of Mark’s comment for the Swedish blog Uppsalainitiativet. Is that OK with you?

    [JR: Of course!]

  60. Mark says:

    No reporting is probably better than the lamentable reports we have had in recent years. The beeb is very sensitive on this subject and we have to try and get the science over in other ways.

  61. John Mason says:

    I popped in for a look at the discussion beneath the Richard Black piece.

    It mostly consists of someone pasting opinions of various “personalities” on AGW, one after the other. Hard work in other words!

    Cheers – John

  62. John Mason says:

    Mark,

    Rereading your first comment at the top of the page, I was struck again by this:

    “And listeners, viewers and readers have short attention spans – they’ll tune out if they sense it’s just the same old stuff.”

    This I do agree with, and I’m sure it is getting worse. Do you agree? If it is an increasing issue though, does pandering to it not in turn make the situation deteriorate further?

    That some people still retain a longer attention span is demonstrated by the fact that books still sell and our various blogs get read and remarked upon.

    Perhaps the Skeptical Science approach is what is required in the media – for each news story there is a Basic, Intermediate and Advanced version!

    Cheers – John

  63. spiritkas says:

    G’day,

    In line with what Mark Brayne was saying about the structural pressures jouranlists deal with in their jobs and lives when they work and in the internal and collective hardwired neuropsychic environment we all inhabit between our ears; there is a british news/media blog at http://www.medialens.org that does great work at constructively critisizing the media and peacefully and thoughtfully examining why this is the case.

    Also they are another great example of how difficult it can be to jump ship on the social and idealogical narrative of profesional mainstream journalism. It is easy to demand someone go start a new newspaper, but getting readership, capital, and people willing to work for a smaller paycheck is a tall order.

    It is indeed a resource issue, we don’t have dozens of billionaires willing to drop endless millions into loosing programs. The Limbaugh’s and Washington Times of the world didn’t make money for years and years and were running in the red before they captured an audience. The enviornmental movement is about 20 think tanks, 5 institutions, $200 million, and 35 years behind the business as usual crowd. I think we’re doing well considering. Still more than a lot remains to be done in the PR/information battle, the energy sourcing battle, the diet/food battle, the water battle, the poverty battle, etc. Luckily these problems are linked and can be solved together!

    Cheers,

    Spiritkas

  64. R.S.S. says:

    The BBC backed off climate change advocacy for the simple reason that they can no longer use their favorite mantra, “the world’s biggest polluter,” without mentioning that that is now China.

  65. MapleLeaf says:

    Hi Mark @58,

    Thank you for your comments here. I just want to reiterate what you said:

    “As a journalist-in-recovery, may I appeal to all for polite challenge and argument, as is evidenced in most of this thread, as the way to secure individual journalists’ attention, and get these ideas reported.”

    I tried to engage Richard, and I can only hope that I succeeded in meeting those goals, and encourage anyone engaging Richard Black to strive to do the same. Maybe if Joe is going to encourage people to provide a journalist or whoever with feedback in the future, then he should openly state that he encourages them to be polite, civil and to the point.

    Mark, if I may, I was meaning to ask you you opinion on two things:

    1) How does one critique Richard Black and others without having them taking offense? Joe can be terse (sorry Joe), but then again, Richard is a professional and an adult and I’m sure that in his field he is surrounded by people who speak their minds. So I’m perplexed why he took quantitative critique so personally. I would have thought the reaction of a journalist of Black’s pedigree would have been– “Damn I messed up. Here is what I meant to say”, for example. But instead, when the default is making generalizations about “mobs” and “attacks”, it seems overly defensive and may suggest to some that he has been caught doing something he knew was wrong.

    2) How does the BBC, CBC, ABC etc. avoid having their online posting forums (such as Black’s) being dominated by conspiracy theorists and the such. I though the point of those forums was for people to share information and to stay on topic. It seems that BBC, in particular, Black’s page and that of Paul Hudson, are now nothing more than a convenient meeting point for people in denial about AGW to gossip and spam the site with the latest mis-information doing the rounds on Marc Morano’s ClimateDepot. As Joe and John Cook and others can testify, it requires a great deal of time and rigorous moderating to stop threads becoming a food fight or dominated by a few people ranting on (like I am doing now ironically enough). Why do the BBC et al. open these forums when they can’t moderate them properly. The content of the forums for some time now has been contrary to the BBC’s claim that its mission is to:

    “To enrich people’s lives with programmes and services that inform, educate and entertain.”

    No worries if you are too busy to respond.

  66. MapleLeaf says:

    Heraclitus @49, 53,

    Thanks for this. I actually just saw the article by Harrabin this morning. Oh dear, he does seem to have an axe to grind with Pachauri.

  67. Robert says:

    As a Brit – and in defence of the British – we have not done a bad job in making and keeping our committments to CO2 reduction (if you ignore the fact that aviation is excluded and other fudge factors…). The BBC takes considerable credit for keeping the issue alive, having reported extensively on it over many years. By comparison the US has been going sideways from a very high per-capita baseline and other countries are just an unfolding disaster (China, India…).

    UK: http://cdiac.ornl.gov/trends/emis/uki.html
    US: http://cdiac.ornl.gov/trends/emis/usa.html
    China: http://cdiac.ornl.gov/trends/emis/prc.html

    This morning the BBC reported the opening of a major new offshore windfarm. It is part of the government stategy to get renewables up to 20% by 2020. I think we are doing “our bit” even if it is a drop in the ocean and won’t make any difference whatsoever to the global situation.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-11395824

  68. MBrayne says:

    I agree, John #63, that attention spans are getting even shorter. Why? The usual argument of the digital revolution, of course, with 24/7 news, instant video, mobile communication everywhere and the rest. But there’s also the much older, but perhaps once scarcity-managed, human reluctance/inability to delay gratification.

    Violence and conflict, and the urgency of Now, are like sugar, fat and salt. 200,000 years ago, all loomed very large in the awareness of early Homo Sapiens. Food might not be available tomorrow. And where there was violence, we needed to pay attention, NOW, in case that sabre-tooth tiger was about to attack.

    The problem in the fossil-fuelled present is, of course (and for the transient moment), that everything IS immediately available, in gross abundance. Hence McDonalds, and hence McNews.

    (Oh, how I lament the era when, as a correspondent, I could go off radar for days on end, and file considered, longer despatches at relative leisure. But of course these won’t come back.)

    That said, again, we have to work with, and parallel to, this real state of affairs, not against it. As best we can.

    And, thanks Lars, of course delighted for my original post to be translated.

  69. jcwinnie says:

    I noted and was disheartened that ThinkProgress The Wonkline had stopped listing news items under the Climate heading for a while. That, thankfully, has changed.

  70. John Mason says:

    Thanks for that Mark. I use fishing, gardening and weather-photography as an excuse to get away from the Internet!

    It’ll be interesting to see how Peak Oil changes things. A lot of fellow Transitioneers long for a slower world, although it’ll take a bit of getting used to.

    Harrabin article now on the BBC website:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-11395194

    I haven’t read it yet.

    Cheers – John

  71. Heraclitus says:

    And I see Harrabin’s work was picked up by the Telegraph in doubleplusquick time http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/environment/climatechange/8019691/Pressure-mounting-for-Rajendra-Pachauri-to-resign-as-IPCC-head.html
    Ah, how the misinformation can spread and amplify.

  72. Catchblue22 says:

    #58, MBrayne, I understand what you are talking about when you speak of neuroscience and natural tendencies in our psyches. And I understand that in living, thinking and generally using our minds, we are all playing similar instruments with similar weaknesses and strengths. However, I believe that in writing our nature in the stone-like medium of genetic or biological determinism, we are giving excuses to some to choose the easier path, to discard rational thought to assume a more comfortable reality. I think this is a core issue in the denialism that apparently pervades much of American society. I am not speaking here about those who have deeply engrained psychological difficulty. I am speaking instead of the average person (if that exists), who goes about working, living, procreating. I am speaking about the person who’s views about uncomfortable issues such as Global Warming could easily fall on either side of the issue. If that person’s worldview, their education indicates to them that thinking rationally is not important, that empirical evidence carries little weight, and that their purpose in life is self-gratification, then that person might be more likely to adopt the more comfortable option of denying the reality that their lifestyle will cause irreparable harm to their grandchildren. I understand why they might turn away from reality. But I don’t excuse their willful ignorance, nor do I think that it is honorable or admirable.

    I am scientifically educated. I have tried to learn the value of being rational. I have expended considerable effort educating myself, training myself to seek truth in the world through observation and logic. I am not perfect, and I do not consider myself to be perfectly rational. Looking at the uncomfortable reality of Global Warming is often not pleasant. But I do so because I feel that if we ignore empirical reality, then we will suffer as a species. And the well being of my society is more important than my individual comfort.

    If I had not received the education that I did, if I had not learned the values that I have, I could have easily become one of the comfort seeking denialists that many of us rail against on this site. My education had an impact. My choices had an impact. In essence, I had the ability to choose the ethical system that i have. We all have free will. We may be flawed creatures playing the flawed instruments that our minds are, but our choices can still have an impact. I believe that those who choose to ignore reality in the search for personal comfort are deeply unethical, and dishonorable.

  73. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    What you see with the BBC’s abysmal coverage of anthropogenic climate change is the same ideological bias that infects their coverage of everything. The BBC, after 31 years of Rightwing control, under Thatcher and Blair et al, covers every topic from precisely the same ideological point of view as does the UK press,and the Western mass media as a whole.
    One only need listen to the ‘World Service’ to understand the ideological uniformity. All stories regarding ‘enemies’ of the West, whether China, Venezuela, Cuba or Russia are negative, every last one. Stories covering the US range from the cringe-inducing sycophancy of a Matt Frei to general ‘more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger’ regret that the US is not living up to its mythical ‘high ideals’, in bringing morality and decency to the primitive regions of the planet. I would say that anyone to the Right of Tony Blair has long since been purged from the BBC, and climate change denialism is simply part of the Rightwing ideological orthodoxy. The BBC creeps are, typically, disingenuous and dissembling in their denialism, unlike the lunatic denialism of the Murdochian pathocracy, but they are denialists all the same. Don’t hope for a climate Pearl Harbor, because it will simply be dismissed as ‘natural variability’ and, if it just kills numbers of the global untermenschen, even in the millions, it will be of as little concern to Western elites as any other calamity befalling Kissinger’s ‘useless eaters’. In fact, I’m certain many amongst Western elites and Western populations will actually be pleased by such an outcome.

  74. confused says:

    …but wont somebody think of the children ? …

  75. Paulm says:

    A great post.

    Thank you Joe for addressing and highlighting this issue with the BBC.

    Richard black’s reporting has been notorious right from the start. It has basically been devious. I haven’t gone back over some of their post, but this trait has been there all along. And has been driving me crazy.

    What the reasons are are not obvious, but there seems to be a subtle agenda a playing down this issue. Which in it self is just unbelievable. One wonders how someone uniquely placed with his training, experience and exposure to the data and information has not realized what climate change means for us. And also the responsibility his position carries  in helping humanity address the problem.

    Please feel free to pick on key individuals and institutions. 

    Targeting like this does pay off. It certainly shows the public the short comings of the MSM and therefore forms an important part of solutions to XCC.

  76. Paulm says:

    Human’s inability to understand the exponential and how to manage risk….

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/blog/2010/sep/23/climate-change-psychology-response-

    …..a new paper entitled The Psychology of Global Warming, has just been published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. The two authors – Professor Andy Pitman, co-director of the Climate Change Research Centre at the University of New South Wales, and Dr Ben Newell, senior lecturer in cognitive psychology at the University of New South Wales – make the observation:

    Simply presenting the facts and figures about global warming has failed to convince large portions of the general public, journalists, and policy makers about the scale of the problem and the urgency of required action. From a psychologist’s perspective this disconnect is not surprising.

    It’s fascinating to see some of the “psychological phenomenon” that the authors highlight to help explain why so many people chose to reject climate change as a risk. I’ll list their headings here, but do try and read the paper (pdf) for the full explanations:

  77. Gary Paudler says:

    I’m slightly relieved as I was blaming Roz Atkins of the BBC’s “World Have Your Say” for “balancing” scientists with hacks from the blatantly right-wing, pro-business Kato Institute; now it’s clear that the problem is institutional and maybe Roz isn’t an idiot, his bosses are.
    So even the BBC, whose correspondents I admire and expect to question critically and not passively accept the nonsense spewed by the self-interested, is crippled by an insane notion of balance; I expect it from the usual US sources of noise, I mean news.
    What of Britain’s bass-ackwards libel laws? Mustn’t they play a role when any wealthy entity can sue anyone for saying something that affects the corporation’s revenue? Would the Beeb be able to report honestly and energetically if, as in the US, BP or Lord Monckton or Tony Blair had to prove malice to prevail in a libel suit?

  78. John Mason says:

    Link to the psychology paper in the AMS bulletin:

    http://journals.ametsoc.org/doi/pdf/10.1175/2010BAMS2957.1

    Cheers – John

  79. Robert says:

    The UK government is curently putting together a programme of public expenditure cuts in which departments are being asked to save a massive 25% to 40%. The BBC is funded from public money (albeit an hypothecated tax). I wonder what pressure they are under not to rock the boat at this difficult time?

  80. AnotherTom says:

    As a journalist myself, I think there is a slight confusion between the ideals of journalism and the reality. The reality of journalism is that it is an entertainment industry. The ideals of journalism suggest it is a vocation. In reality such a stance is unusual and even institutions such as the BBC that do not have to directly appeal to paying customers require audiences.

    Moreover, and not to suggest a stance, but everything to someone is the most important thing in the world that must be on the news every day. A good editor’s job is to balance these claims against the audience’s demands. The comments in the OP suggest the author does not appreciate this.

  81. Robert says:

    World’s largest offshore wind farm – in Britain

    http://money.cnn.com/video/news/2010/09/23/n_gb_off_shore_wind_farm.cnnmoney/

    “Enough electricity to power 200,000 British homes” (that’ll be 100,000 US homes!)

  82. JB says:

    Re comment 76

    “”Richard black’s reporting has been notorious right from the start. It has basically been devious. I haven’t gone back over some of their post, but this trait has been there all along. And has been driving me crazy.”

    If you really think this about Richard Black then I think he may have succeeded in driving you ,crazy’. Richard Black is an outstanding journalist who has been in the fore front of explaining global warming to the masses. He has doe more good in promoting the issues of man made global warming that most people I can think of. Get real

  83. Nathaniel Virgo says:

    How things have changed. I was put in mind of this post on the BBC’s ‘The Editors’ blog, from 2007, which clearly and thoughtfully sets out a positive direction for the corporation to take on climate change. One of its authors is Richard Black, no less. From the post:

    “We are still living with criticism over our coverage of MMR when we gave the impression that each side was underpinned by science of approximately equal weight. We must get it right on climate.”

    “Given the weight of opinion building up around the IPCC it makes sense for us to focus our coverage on the consensus that climate change is happening, is serious, but is manageable if tackled urgently.
    We do not need consistently to ‘balance’ the reports of the IPCC.”

    “We must also be smarter in the way we interpret the often vociferous views expressed on climate in our vibrant inter-active space. While welcoming a diversity of voices, we must make sure that we do not conflate self-selecting audience responses with a broad audience opinion.”

    If only the BBC had followed its own advice over the last few years, its coverage of climate change would be of a much higher quality than it is.

  84. MapleLeaf says:

    Very interesting Nathaniel. SInce then, the evidence in support of AGW has strengthened even more, and the ‘skeptics’ have lost even more credibility.

    Odd enough, despite Richard claiming that;

    “We must also be smarter in the way we interpret the often vociferous views expressed on climate in our vibrant inter-active space. While welcoming a diversity of voices, we must make sure that we do not conflate self-selecting audience responses with a broad audience opinion.”

    Richard’s blog has become a persistent and very loud echo chamber for the denialists and self-proclaimed skeptics. Maybe someone needs to remind Richard of his own statement made back in 2007?