Communicating Science Without Catastrophe

By | 2019-05-28T13:40:32+01:00 May 21st, 2019|

Author: Prof. Kevin Noone

Professor of Chemical Meteorology at the Department of Environmental Science and Analytical Chemistry (ACES) at Stockholm University & Chief Scientific Advisor to RE-DEFINE

Two major international scientific reports were published recently, both describing the state of the Earth’s climate, ecosystems, and biological diversity. Both told very serious, sobering stories: Humans are changing our entire planet at a fundamental level and at an unprecedented pace. The consequences of these changes will be critical to our wellbeing and to the wellbeing of the ecosystems on which our economy and society are completely dependent. Yet some of the media coverage of both was reminiscent of an ad campaign rather than coverage of serious scientific issues with unprecedented socio-economic consequences.

The scientific facts and information contained in these reports have great dignity, given what they imply for our society and its future. People need to know and understand this stuff. Mainstream media acts as our fifth estate, being a mediator that deciphers the key messages from the publications. If the dignity of the scientific knowledge of these reports is to be respected, their messages need to be conveyed in ways that reflect their scientific nature and quality of the information, as well as the seriousness of their implications. At the same time, the presentation should not sensationalise and misrepresent the information simply to gain attention. So how are the main media organisations faring so far?

The most recent report from early May this year comes from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). The report assesses changes in the biosphere over the past five decades and provides a comprehensive picture of the relationship between economic development pathways and their impacts on nature.

Sir Robert Watson, Chair of IPBES said about the report that “we are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.” He went on to say that “the Report also tells us that it is not too late to make a difference, but only if we start now at every level from local to global.”

How were the findings of this report presented in mainstream media? The Guardian’s headline was “’We are in trouble: Human society under urgent threat from loss of Earth’s natural life.” The New York Times wrote that “Humans Are Speeding Extinction and Altering the Natural World at an ‘Unprecedented’ Pace”, while the BBC went for “Humans ‘threaten 1m species with extinction’”. Even Vogue weighed in with “Did You Miss This Landmark U.N. Report on Biodiversity That Says 1 Million Species Face Extinction?” No. We did not miss it – but thanks, Vogue, for the heads-up.

These headlines were pretty accurate representations of the content of the report – but do they connect knowledge to meaning? What does it mean if one million species go extinct? Does it matter to me? One headline that tried to make this link came from Business Insider on May 6th: “Up to 1 million species are facing extinction, according to a new UN report. Without them, we could run out of food.” That might give you a jolt, if you think about the future at all. It is also perhaps a fairer reflection of the totality of the findings.

The other report was released in October last year. It came from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the condensed version of the title being “Global Warming of 1.5°C”. It too contained very sobering results. Humans are warming the Earth. The consequences of warming our planet 1.5°C above pre-industrial temperatures are already very substantial. While it may not sound like much, going to 2°C increases the likelihood of nasty things happening by quite a lot. Hans-Otto Pörtner, Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group II remarked that “Every extra bit of warming matters, especially since warming of 1.5°C or higher increases the risk associated with long-lasting or irreversible changes, such as the loss of some ecosystems.”

One of the many conclusions from the report was conveyed with high confidence, but written in somewhat impenetrable science-speak: “Human activities are estimated to have caused approximately 1.0°C of global warming above pre-industrial levels, with a likely range of 0.8°C to 1.2°C. Global warming is likely to reach 1.5°C between 2030 and 2052 if it continues to increase at the current rate.” On the surface, that seems to be a fairly bland statement. But how did media represent the findings?

The Washington Post headline read “The world has just over a decade to get climate change under control, U.N. scientists say”. The Guardian led with “We have 12 years to limit climate change catastrophe, warns UN”, and Newstalk ZB in New Zealand wrote “Climate Change – Ten years to save the planet.”

Somehow, the results from this sobering IPCC report lent themselves to more sensationalized headlines than did the sobering results from the IPBES report. I cannot help but think that while the attention level for the climate report was generally higher, the presentation was somewhat detrimental to the dignity of the results themselves.

For one thing, the planet is not going to implode ten years and one day from now. The planet itself will keep orbiting the Sun just fine even eleven years from now, regardless of the choices we make.  Yet the media reporting keeps lacking a wider contextualisation of the knowledge provided by the reports, leaving the readers with basic facts that resemble catchphrases rather than meaningful knowledge that enables more informed thinking about the issues.

The real questions that should have been posed or encouraged are ones like: How many problems and how much pain will we choose to cause ourselves by not properly caring for and valuing our ecosystems, and by not respecting how the climate system works and how we influence it? How far into the risk zone of irreversible planetary change are we willing to go through our activities? How many species are we willing to sacrifice to maintain an inequitable status quo?

These questions do not need to be sensationalised, but they do need to be asked and they do need answers.

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