Apocalyptic claims and counter-claims have typified the climate change policy debate in Australia, leaving the public confused and mistrustful. Often, the news media hasn’t always helped clear up that confusion.
For instance, in recent years Coalition MPs have claimed that the carbon tax spelled “the annihilation of the domestic coal industry” (then opposition leader Tony Abbott in 2012) and would mean “the end of our beef industry … Then it’ll be our sheep industry. I don’t think your working mothers are going to be very happy when they’re paying over $100 for a roast” (Barnaby Joyce in 2009).
On the other hand, Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd went from proclaiming before the 2007 election that “climate change is the great moral challenge of our generation”, to pledging before the 2013 election that his government would “terminate the carbon tax to help cost-of-living pressures”.
After so many shifts on policy, sudden party leadership changes on both sides, and so much overblown rhetoric, most Australians could be forgiven for struggling to keep up.
With some notable exceptions, the news media’s coverage of climate policy in recent years has left a lot to be desired. But it’s also not all the media’s fault; in fact, it’s a problem we all have some responsibility to fix.
No time for complexity
One of the great journalistic challenges of our time is the vast complexity of many policy issues, particularly when science is involved. Newsrooms in Australia, as elsewhere in the world, are woefully lacking in specialist correspondents who can authoritatively engage with the subtleties of much of the scientific data behind these debates.
Amid tightening budgets and waves of redundancies, few of our major newspapers or commercial news outlets even have a science reporter, though a few more environment reporters have survived. The loss of specialist journalists isn’t just happening here either, as The Australian’s last science editor Leigh Dayton (who took redundancy in 2012) has lamented on Crikey:
As Christopher Zara wrote earlier this year in the International Business Times, science journalists are tumbling out of jobs in the US. He cites telling statistics. In 1989, there were 95 newspapers with weekly science sections. Today there are 19. The UK is experiencing a similar decline, as science writers get pushed from their perch in the daily papers to make way for cheap general reporters and teams of online staff.
It’s a problem that could be addressed through active hiring strategies in media organisations. But that’s only likely to happen if readers make it obvious – through our clicks and comments – that the demand for science news warrants the spending.
Improving how we tell science stories
This is also a challenge for journalism educators. Science journalism should be given more emphasis in higher education curricula, in the same way as we should teach basic literacy in business or politics. And we should be working to attract more more science, technology, engineering and mathematics graduates into journalism courses.
At the same time, scientists must get better at communicating their findings to lay audiences. Science communication is an expanding area of study in many Australian universities, in recognition of the challenge posed by our hyperactive media environment to the public understanding of technically complex issues.
In a media culture of short soundbites, photo-ops and click bait, scientists must get better at translating their work into everyday language.
But even if they could do that, and even if journalism in Australia were better equipped to deal with the claims and counter-claims surrounding a debate such as climate change, the public would continue to confront subjective and often contradictory interpretations of “the facts”.
There are lies, damned lies and statistics, an aphorism that sums up the difficulty inherent in communicating supposedly objective numbers to the public.
Conflicting interpretation of stats and measurements – in this case, the costs of action or inaction on climate change – is inevitable. Moreover, there are legitimate areas of policy debate, particularly the consequences and costs of climate change, and how best to address these from a global point of view. The media have a duty to acknowledge these debates, where they are conducted in good faith and supported by evidence.
Commercial media outlets will often take sides, while the nation’s most important journalistic organisation, the ABC, is bound by impartiality requirements which prevent it from being seen as biased for or against the government of the day. It must therefore tread carefully in its approach, especially in the face of a relatively hostile government.
There are a number of fact checking outlets now operating in the Australian media, including the ABC’s Fact Check and The Conversation’s FactCheck. They and Politifact Australia performed an important role in the last election campaign, and they can do so on this issue too. But of course they are also subject to partisan interpretation of their motives and methods, with few fact checks not open to some form of dispute.
In two minds on cutting emissions
As a relatively recent arrival on these shores from Europe, it seems to me that there is a deeper issue at play in Australia – one that subtly influences some of the media coverage here, but also the broader public conversation on responding to climate change.
Economic growth in Australia has become heavily dependent on mining, particularly exports.
We know the current mining boom won’t last forever. And we’ve known since the 1980s that we should be doing more about global warming and rising greenhouse gas emissions.
Yet successive Australian governments have shied away from dealing with the long-term implications of that fact. It is as if they think that to be seen to be too concerned about global warming might be regarded as biting the hand that keeps Australia well-fed and prosperous.
In the short-term, many households will welcome saving $550 a year on household bills – if that is indeed the outcome of Abbott’s carbon tax repeal.
Has the media focused too much on those costs, at the expense of discussing the costs of no longer having any national climate strategy in place? Perhaps. But only the Australian people can fundamentally alter the terms of the climate change debate in the Lucky Country.
It may require yet more extreme weather events, yet more evidence of anthropogenic climate change threatening future generations, before that cultural shift happens. By then, unfortunately, the costs of addressing the problem will be many times greater than now, and we will wonder what all the fuss over perhaps $550 a year – or $9.90 a week – was all about.
Brian McNair is a professor of journalism, media and communication at Queensland University of Technology.
Brian McNair receives funding from the Australian Research Council.