Tipping Point for the Climate Porn Industry

Posted by admin on September 13, 2009
Sep 132009

Headlines don’t get much more alarmist than this…

As Tory Outcast points out, the story that the Independent Newspaper thinks a catastrophe is in fact far more mundane:

The article by Tony Patterson tells the story of two commercial vessels which have managed to navigate the North East passage and uses their success as irrefutable proof that we are all going to die.

Such high-pitched tabloidism from the ‘Independent’ is nothing new of course. It epitomises what a think-tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), called, in 2006, ‘Climate Porn’. A BBC article at the time, picked up the story, and quoted IPPR’s head of climate change, Simon Retallack:

“It is appropriate to call [what some of these groups publish] ‘climate porn’, because on some level it is like a disaster movie,” Mr Retallack told the BBC News website.

“The public become disempowered because it’s too big for them; and when it sounds like science fiction, there is an element of the unreal there.”

Later that year, the then Director of the Tyndall Centre, Professor Mike Hulme warned that the language being used – not just by the media, but also by politicians, campaigners, and scientists – in the discussion around climate change was increasingly removed from anything scientific, and was likely to encourage people to switch off:

But over the last few years a new environmental phenomenon has been constructed in this country – the phenomenon of “catastrophic” climate change.

It seems that mere “climate change” was not going to be bad enough, and so now it must be “catastrophic” to be worthy of attention.

The increasing use of this pejorative term – and its bedfellow qualifiers “chaotic”, “irreversible”, “rapid” – has altered the public discourse around climate change.

[...]

The language of catastrophe is not the language of science. It will not be visible in next year’s global assessment from the world authority of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

To state that climate change will be “catastrophic” hides a cascade of value-laden assumptions which do not emerge from empirical or theoretical science.

Three years later, the BBC reports this week from the British Science Festival:

The British public has become more sceptical about climate change over the last five years, according to a survey.

Twice as many people now agree that “claims that human activities are changing the climate are exaggerated”.

Four in 10 believe that many leading experts still question the evidence. One in five are “hard-line sceptics”.

The survey, by Cardiff University, shows there is still some way to go before the public’s perception matches that of their elected leaders.

Psychologist Lorraine Whitmarsh, who conducted the research while at the Tyndall Centre, doesn’t seem to have paid much attention to the words of her former boss. As with much social science dealing with matters of climate change, the survey seems to have less to do with shedding light on public attitudes and behaviour and more to do with trying to change them:

“Unfortunately, some people latch on to this uncertainty and say ‘let’s carry on as we are’.”

She feels that many people are not “playing their part” in reducing humanity’s impact on the environment.

[...]

“In general people are showing little willingness to change their lifestyles.

“They will recycle, unplug the TV and change their light bulbs; but they won’t change how they travel or how they eat.

“These are the things that are going to make the biggest difference”

It’s interesting that Whitmarsh’s case seems to be reliant on the same outmoded notion of science communication that social scientists have been instrumental in dispelling. The ‘deficit model’ holds that public opposition to certain scientific developments and technologies is simply the result of scientific illiteracy. Get the public up to speed, it says, and they will surely make the ‘right’ decisions. We’ve mentioned before that, while the deficit model and the push for ‘public understanding of science’ have generally been supplanted by strategies of ‘public engagement’ and ‘upstream engagement’, and science academies and governments seek dialogues with the public on everything from nanotech to genomics, climate change is the subject of decidedly one-way conversations. Which is hardly surprising, given that climate change mitigation is central to all parties’ manifestos while at the same time being the source of significant distrust on the part of the electorate.

Whitmarsh does attempt to distance herself from the deficit model:

we argue that there is a need to avoid a ‘deficit model’ in relation to carbon literacy, and to explore situated meanings of carbon and energy in everyday life and decisions, within the broader context of structural opportunities for and barriers to low‐carbon lifestyles.

But that all goes out of the window when it comes to how to get people to do the ‘right’ thing:

Together this evidence indicates that individuals would benefit from education to promote understanding and skills to manage their carbon emissions, as well as structural measures to enable and encourage carbon capability. Our survey showed that misperceptions exist which may be addressed through informational approaches (e.g., highlighting the contribution of meat production to climate change). However, the low uptake of alternatives to driving and flying, and of political actions, likely reflects broader structural and cultural impediments to behaviour change noted elsewhere.

She says as much, too, in her comments to the BBC:

But I think what we have to get across is that residual uncertainty in science is normal.

‘Residual uncertainty’ has nothing to do with it. The problem for Whitmarsh, and other academics who fail to identify the difference between activism and research, is that the over-statement of ‘the science’ is not normal, and the public are actually rather more clued up – even if only instinctively – than she gives them credit for. And in fact the public seem rather better informed than her.

As we saw, the IPPR and the Director of the UK’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research – none of them sceptics – were warning back in 2006 that the climate change pudding had been over-egged, and was likely to damage the possibility of reaching the public. Mike Hulme, as director of the Tyndall Centre, would have been Whitmarsh’s boss. It’s not as if Whitmarsh could possibly be unaware of the criticisms of the over-statement of climate change.

Yet she searches for ways in which the public might be force-fed ‘carbon literacy’ programmes.

There exist several non-climate-sceptic explanations for the public’s reluctance to absorb the climate change agenda that didn’t appeal to clumsy hypotheses about disparity between official scientific truth and public opinion. These explanations credit the public with sufficient intelligence to have identified the tendency of many politicians, scientists, campaigners and journalists to exaggerate climate change with stories of ‘tipping points’, ‘N-year windows to save the planet’, and ‘inevitable catastrophe’. But Whitmarsh seems to ignore these far more simple accounts, and takes the view that a new way of conveying the same imperatives to the public is needed, rather than reflecting on the possibility that the public have, in fact, well understood the message and found it wanting. That is to say that it is possible to believe that climate change is a problem, while believing that the politics, posturing and glib copy that is produced seemingly in order to address the problem in fact plainly demonstrate a self-serving and cynical view of the public. Indeed, the ‘man in the street’ seems able to see in the environmental psychologist what the environmental psychologist can’t even see in herself. This inability to self-reflect is the defining characteristic – the symptom – of the entire climate change movement and those who uncritically engage in climate politics. With just a few, largely ignored exceptions, they will criticise anyone but themselves in reflecting on their own failure.

Back in 2006, in the BBC article featuring the IPPR’s criticism of climate porn, the Independent’s deputy editor, Ian Birrell defended his paper thus:

If our readers thought we put climate change on our front pages for the same reason that porn mags put naked women on their front pages, they would stop reading us

No sooner than his words were spoken, the readers of the Independent decided to express their own independence:

In fact, our models suggest that the Indy will go into negative circulation in Summer 2018:

But scientists predict the tipping point may have already passed sooner than will would have was been previously thought.

  12 Responses to “Tipping Point for the Climate Porn Industry”

  1. LOL. Loved the bit about models predicting negative circulation.

    People have developed an instinctive scepticism about politicians in general and doomsday scenarios in particular.

  2. “The survey … shows there is still some way to go before the public’s perception matches that of their elected leaders.”
    Or perhaps that our elected leaders have still some way to go before they match the public’s perception, both of global warming and of them!

  3. Editors, I think you are absolutely right about the social scientists’ inability to self-reflect – there seems generally to be a sort of Borg mentality at work among them. “The science is in – now you must comply. Resistance is futile…” Some day, someone should write a book about the way psychologists, such as Lorraine Whitmarsh, have so eagerly and so uncritically thrown their professional weight behind the forces of alarmist control-freakery.

    They still don’t get it, do they. Are we, the sceptical public:

    a) confused, poor things, and need to be educated a little more about the terrible importance of climate change, or

    b) just being selfish spoilsports and need to be shamed into mending our ways and doing the right thing, or

    c) so terrified of climate change that our tiny minds cannot handle it and we must deny its very existence (or go to pieces, presumably), or

    d) able to make up our own minds about the subject without being subjected to ever more extreme forms of end-of the-world titillation and ever more intrusive lecturing about our travelling, spending, lifestyle and eating habits?

    We know it’s (d), but do they?

    Here’s to Climate Resistance (never futile), a questioning attitude and a refusal to be quietly assimilated!

  4. What’s the evidence that most AGW sceptics are of category (d) rather than of category (c) ?
    I think (c) is easier to buy than (a) or (b)…

  5. Its the language these pseuds use that gets up my nose ” we argue that there is a need to avoid a ‘deficit model’ in relation to carbon literacy, and to explore situated meanings of carbon and energy in everyday life and decisions, within the broader context of structural opportunities for and barriers to low‐carbon lifestyles.” It reminds me of the now defunct magazine “Artscribe” pompous poseurs saying “Me smart”, “You dumb”. YUK.

  6. The phrase “carbon literacy” almost has “deficit model” built into it since it implies the public currently have a certain level of illiteracy.

    Another excellent article from the Editors. While Whitmarsh may want to try to steer away from the faintly elitist phrase “deficit model” she still seems wholeheartedly to hold a belief in it.

    If, for example, she were talking about a deficit model about the public’s understanding about the connection between lung cancer and smoking it could be possibly be used fairly enough. Because if members of the public so desired (we can’t coerce them – yet) then there would always be an unambiguous path to follow to help reduce the public’s knowledge ‘deficit’ on this subject.

    However it could start looking fishy when used about the public’s deficit of understanding of “carbon literacy”: a fairly recent made up catch phrase as far as I know. I know they don’t mean organic chemistry or carbon mineralogy or even carbon dating. I suspect “carbon literacy” means something like an utter certainty of humankinds contribution to CO2 being the main driving cause of devastating climate – something that even the IPCC leaves some wriggle room of uncertainty about.

  7. George, that’s an interesting point. There are polls which suggest widespread doubt about AGW, but are there polls or studies that go deeper, i.e., to find out what motivates people to be sceptical of AGW? None that I’ve found so far.

    So yes, I could well have been overstating the case when I wrote “We know it’s (d)…” I’m confident that the reason I’m sceptical is not because I know it’s true and am terrified of admitting it to myself. But there could be people in that category. Who would know? They might not admit to it, or hint at it, in a survey. And a psychologist of the psychodynamic persuasion could argue that any of us could be consciously sceptical, but unconsciously terrified.

    Good point, and food for thought.

  8. Sceptical v Don’t give a monkeys v Alarmist

    I may be a sceptic and most of the people I know who actually research this whole issue themselves become a sceptic…however I would say the vast majority of the masses fall into two other categories:
    1. I haven’t a clue about climate change, nothing seems to have changed so quite frankly I don’t give a monkeys
    2. I haven’t a clue about climate change, however the media and ‘the scientists’ think we’re all going to fry and every weather event is due to climate change so lets get on the band wagon.

    I would say in my humble opinion that the vast majority of people fall into group 1., then next largest group of folk into group 2. Us the sceptics are a far smaller (but determined and usually well read) group. The group 2 lot have fallen foul to the constant barrage of mainly media buy into to climate alarmism…with words like sustainability, carbon this that and the other (not CO2 note), eco this, enviro this being important to them because that what eminates from the BBC, Guardian, Independent etc.

    The one group I have of course missed out are the activists, the true believers. THey of course are trying to convert via guilt, the laws and by shear persistance etc group 1 into group 2. Unfortunately for them they are fighting apathy and the fact of course that we aren’t yet frying. The race now is whether the activists can get all their eco measures into law in god time versus nothing actually happening. So climate porn we have for a few more years.

  9. If I may take a cue from Derren Browns rather lame attempt to use the “Wisdom of Crowds” to explain his split screen lottery trick. I think there should be an (e) in that list of Alex Culls.

    The sceptical public:

    (e) Know damn well that the most vocal alarmist proponents just don’t live up to their own rhetoric. Why should we be coerced to act in a way that they clearly don’t?

  10. You and http://www.toryoutcast.com/ were not the only ones on to the story. The overhelmingly sceptical commenters to the Independent story linked to other interesting comments at:
    http://eureferendum.blogspot.com
    http://www.anenglishmanscastle.com/archives/007753.html

    Herein lies the deep weirdness of the story.
    The Independent, like the Guardian/Observer, is losing readers and money.
    Both papers are going hell-for-leather after the committed green readership with stories like these.
    Yet reader responses to articles on global warming suggest that, among readers of these papers, sceptics outnumber believers by something like 5 to 1. (this suggests that scepticism is greater among readers of the Guardian and Independent than among the public at large!).
    What’s going on? Are Britain’s two centre left newspapers bent on suicide?

    Alex Cull at #7 asks a pertinent question about opinion polls, and Ben at #8 gives the outline of a response. If you transform his 3-way split of “Sceptical v Don’t give a monkeys v Alarmist” into a 4 -way (2X2) split of sceptics v. alarmists, and informed / opinionated v. uninformed / don’t-give-a-monkeys, you have a schema which I think might help to explain a lot, including the (to me) disturbing fact that activist scepticism about global warming is to be found mainly on the far right.

    The opinionated / “don’t-give-a-monkeys” division has been used to great effect by the French sociologist Emmanuel Todd, who was practically the only analyst who predicted the electoral success of Jacques Chirac. The fact he spotted was that opinion polls on hypothetical subjects (“who might you vote for in an election in the distant future?”; “Is Ed Milliband doing a good job?”) attract responses from those who have an opinion ready-made on every subject – the chattering classes, in other words. The majority of people, who don’t feel the need to devote their lives to the creation of a coherent philosophy to support their Weltangschauung, give sensible responses to concrete questions, like: “Who are you going to vote for?” Otherwise, they’re don’t knows.
    One of the historical weaknesses of the left, it seems to me, is that it has been unwilling to face the fact that the mass of left voters don’t actually spend much time bothering about the things which obsess intellectuals. When push comes to shove (over apartheid, or Palestine or any other subject involving what Orwell termed “basic human decency”) most people vote for decency. But, unlike you and me, they don’t think about it much in their leisure moments. It is the fact that they are not responding to Global Warming as the warmists would like that has pushed certain journalists on the Guardian and Independent into Pol Pot mode.

  11. StuartR, my way at looking at your point (e) is something like “We already have nuclear power, which produces the massive quantities of energy without CO2 emissions. If the threat of climate thermageddon was real, how may more Chernobyl disasters would be a reasonable price to prevent it?”

    In my view, quite a high number. And since Western nuclear reactors don’t even have the inherent flaws that made the Chernobyl disaster possible, it made me suspicious.

    Why haven’t governments declared martial law and started building nuclear reactors as fast as possible, with any anti-nuclear protesters being simply shot? If the climate catastrophe threat was real that’d be the obvious thing to do.

    It looks like the goal of the climate campaigners is to reduce our energy production, not our CO2 production, but why?

  12. Geoff

    Your point…

    One of the historical weaknesses of the left, it seems to me, is that it has been unwilling to face the fact that the mass of left voters don’t actually spend much time bothering about the things which obsess intellectuals. [...]It is the fact that they are not responding to Global Warming as the warmists would like that has pushed certain journalists on the Guardian and Independent into Pol Pot mode.

    …perfectly sums up my own personal attitude and most people I know about this whole climate change obsession.

    The above point (e) by StuartR is also right on the money.

    I’m personally fed up with having climate change shoved down my throat at every opportunity, and the point about whether there is actually a problem gets lost in the rhetoric.

    You may all have seen this before, but this is a great page:

    http://www.numberwatch.co.uk/warmlist.htm

    Happily entitled “A complete list of things caused by global warming”

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