09 July 2009

Media Gatekeepers Protecting You From Dangerous Ideas

An old question with many answers is, "what is the role of the media in highly complex and contested polictial issues?" One answer is that the media serves political power by cheerleading and gatekeeping. Another is that the media challenges established interests by opening up space for debate over ideas and competing political views. On climate change, it is clear that some prominent voices in the media see their job as to protect their readers from "dangerous ideas" that might challenge established interests.

In the Financial Times this morning the first paragraph of a story by Fiona Harvey and colleagues begins (p. 5 US edition),
The Group of Eight industrialized countries agreed to more stringent cuts in greenhouse gas emissions than ever before yesterday, ahead of the first big meeting of world leaders on climate change today.
It was thus interesting to see Fiona Harvey's comments on the FT Energy Source blog conveying a decidedly different and more pessimistic message,
But as of Wednesday, the target of halving emissions by 2050 looked to have been dropped from the MEF and G8 draft texts. . . And if the leaders cannot even agree on a 2050 target - 41 years away - then what chances are there of agreement on a target for the emissions cuts that we will need 11 years from now?
At Nature Jeff Tollefson reports on our recent joint essay on the need for a more direct approach to emissions reductions, and expresses relief that the current approach is not being broadly questioned:
An international crew of academics this week boldly declared that the world is headed down the wrong track in trying to put a lid on global greenhouse gas emissions. But with global leaders pressing the issue in Italy this week, it's not clear that anybody is listening. . .

Although the BBC posted a story and the New York Times' Andrew Revkin included a blurb in his blog, the paper hasn't garnered much traction. To be sure, Japan has lessons to teach the world, and carbon markets are unlikely to solve all of the world's problems. But like it or not, given the amount of time and political capital that has been invested in the current negotiations, there's little appetite for radical new ideas.

This perspective was nicely summed up in the BBC's coverage by Tom Burke of Imperial College. He acknowledged that many of the authors' criticisms are valid but suggested that "nothing could be more harmful" than the solution they propose, which is to reverse course.

So far, however, that doesn't appear to be a danger. On Wednesday, G8 leaders backed the establishment of a global carbon market as part of a commitment to curb their emissions by some 80 percent by 2050.
Whew, thank goodness's we avoided the "danger" of "radical new ideas." Nothing could be more harmful to bad ideas than radical new ideas. Tollefson provides no counter-arguments to our arguments that the current approach is fatally flawed or that a more direct approach would have a better chance of success, simply preferring to dismiss our proposals as suggesting a "danger."

And Roger Harrabin at the BBC does his part by setting up Tom Burke of Imperial College to play the part of straight man in a news story designed to editorialize,
The authors of How to Get Climate Policy Back on Course say the strategy based on overall emissions cuts has failed and will continue to fail.

They want G8 nations and emerging economies to focus on an approach based on improving energy efficiency and decarbonising energy supply.

Critics of the report's recommendations say they are a dangerous diversion.
Indeed, improving energy efficiency and decarbonizing energy supply are a "dangerous diversion" -- perhaps as dangerous as "radical new ideas." Of course, sarcasm aside, these are of course not new ideas, they are in fact the only way that emissions reductions will occur and are the focus of all major climate policies. So Harrabin's suggestion that they are a "dangerous diversion" is factually wrong. We simply prefer a much more direct approach to than being pursued under the Framework Convention and other indirect approaches.

Harrabin quotes Burke as follows,
Tom Burke, from Imperial College London and a former government adviser, said: "The authors are right to be concerned about the lack of urgency in the political response to climate change. They are also right to identify significant weaknesses in the major policy instrument currently being negotiated. But nothing could be more harmful than to propose that the world stop what it is doing on climate change and start again working in a different way,"
Since this is a rather major mischaracterization of our paper, I'll wager that Burke did not in fact actually read our paper before commenting, and instead simply provided a quote to meet the needs of the news story, which in this case was to dismiss out of hand any "dangerous new ideas."

I've emailed Tollefson, Harrabin, and Burke, and extended an offer to each to respond if they'd like to this post. However, from the evidence here, it seems clear that some in the media see their job to be facilitating the dominant approach to climate policy by helping to close down debate rather than open it up. As climate policies continue to fail, and our analysis suggests that it will, people will probably ask why we didn't recognize the failure sooner and do something about it, and the role of gatekeepers in the media will be one part of that story.