Hulme in Nature on climate change headlines

March 5, 2007 at 4:45 pm | Posted in America, Britain, Climate change, Cultural differences, Environment, IPCC, Languages, Linguistics, Newspapers, Science, Tyndall | Leave a comment

This recent story from the Tyndall Centre reflects my concerns about the language used in climate change discussions, as well as the ways in which schools teach students to write persuasive essays and science reports nowadays.

I would be interested to hear your response to Mike Hulme’s letter below. I agree with his observations on the use of language, and concur with his concerns for effective policy implementation.

The apocalyptic front pages seen in British newsagents have surprised and shocked me with their intensity, but my online reading has given me the impression that UK sources were toned down from the printed versions appearing on news stands. I think at least a couple of online copies were updated during the day after publication, so the Google cache used stronger language than the actual page as it appeared online later. Hmmm …

What about the paper versus e-reports from the same mainstream media you see in the States? Does it surprise you that the UK appears to be describing climate change in much less measured tones than you may think, reading across the pond?

News reports on the next IPCC WGII and WGIII Reports, due out in April and May 2007 respectively, will be worth assessing for language usage, as they go beyond the science to inform policymakers on ways to address our climate challenge. With even more human interest and human impact, I expect we’ll see even more emotional language in use then.

The rest of this post is copied from the introduction to this letter on Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research Latest Stories and the image I cropped from this PDF of the relevant Nature Letters page.

***

Why the scary headlines?

catastrophic

shocking

terrifying

devastating

disaster

Does the frenzied reporting of climate change science generate urgency or apathy?

Professor Mike Hulme compares for Nature the newspaper reporting of the recent major assessment from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. All UK newspapers introduced doomsday adjectives, yet they exist nowhere in the report or were said at the press conference by the scientists. What reaction will the British public have to such loaded reporting of science?

Mike Hulme letter to Nature about language of climate change newspaper headlines

Newspaper scare headlines can be counter-productive

SIR — Your coverage of the report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) working group included some exemplary Editorial and News headlines: “Light at the end of the tunnel”, “What we don’t know about climate change” and “From words to action” (Nature 445, 567 & 578–583; 2007) . These convey the message about knowledge, ignorance and action that would be expected from a leading journal writing for a scientific readership.

Communicating science to wider, public audiences, however — in this case on matters of important public policy — is an art that requires careful message management and tone setting. It seems that confident and salient science, as presented by the IPCC, may be received by the public in non-productive ways, depending on the intervening media.

With this in mind, I examined the coverage of the IPCC report in the ten main national UK newspapers for Saturday 3 February, the day after the report was released. Only one newspaper failed to run at least one story on the report (one newspaper ran seven stories), but what was most striking was the tone.

The four UK ‘quality’ newspapers all ran front-page headlines conveying a message of rising anxiety: “Final warning”, “Worse than we thought”, “New fears on climate raise heat on leaders” and “Only man can stop climate disaster”. And all nine newspapers introduced one or more of the adjectives “catastrophic”, “shocking”, “terrifying” or “devastating” in their various qualifications of climate change. Yet none of these words exist in the report, nor were they used in the scientists’ presentations in Paris. Added to the frontpage vocabulary of “final”, “fears”, “worse” and “disaster”, they offer an insight into the likely response of the 20 million Britons who read these newspapers.

In contrast, an online search of some leading newspapers in the United States suggests a different media discourse. Thus, on the same day, one finds these headlines: “UN climate panel says warming is manmade”, “New tack on global warming”, “Warming report builds support for action” and “The basics: ever firmer statements on global warming”. This suggests a more neutral representation in the United States of the IPCC’s key message, and a tone that facilitates a less loaded or frenzied debate about options for action.

Campaigners, media and some scientists seem to be appealing to fear in order to generate a sense of urgency. If they want to engage the public in responding to climate change, this is unreliable at best and counterproductive at worst. As Susanne Moser and Lisa Dilling point out in Creating a Climate for Change: Communicating Climate Change and Facilitating Social Change (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007), such appeals often lead to denial, paralysis, apathy or even perverse reactive behaviour.

The journey from producing confident assessments of scientific knowledge to destination of induced social change is a tortuous one, fraught with dangers and many blind alleys. The challenging policy choices that lie ahead will not be well served by the type of loaded reporting of science seen in the UK media described above.

Mike Hulme
Tyndall Centre, School of Environmental Sciences,
University of East Anglia, Norwich NR4 7TJ, UK

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