You’ve seen your peers vilified, their emails hacked into, pilloried in the media and sent death threats. Your discipline is continually accused of being alarmist, of exaggerating their results, of scaremongering and misleading the public. So, when you come to release the results of your latest study, you’re careful not to speak much about the most disturbing or severe implications of your work. However, even if you’re moderate about it, your results still look worse than what most people consider the ‘normal’ picture of global warming.
The paper comes out. You’re accused of being a doomsayer with bad intent. The life of a climate scientist isn’t a happy one at the moment.
OK, sounds pretty bad. But is it really happening? In a recent peer-reviewed article, William Freudenburg and Violetta Muselli argue that the media representation of climate science is not just affecting the public’s perception of global warming and the scientific community, but also the scientists themselves.
The general frame of the media coverage is ‘consensus science, such as the IPCC, says climate change is bad, but some people think it isn’t.’ Because scientists are generally open to (at least) hearing out such claims, or contributing to such stories, this has become the accepted framing of the issue by the media.
Media-active scientists have become used to this; rather than having to argue against someone who says the problem is worse than they think, they find themselves arguing with someone who denies there’s a problem at all. In that situation, rather than quoting the most worrying aspects of climate science, they’re left repeating the basics over and over. People watching or reading conclude that the truth lies somewhere on the spectrum of ‘no problem to moderately bad problem’.
However, according to Freudenburg and Muselli’s analysis, new scientific findings overwhelmingly reveal global warming is proceeding worse than thought. In other words, the scientific frame is ‘the IPCC says climate change is bad, but almost all scientific research since then indicate the problem is worse than commonly stated.’
In short: in the media, it’s “IPCC says it’s bad, but it might not be” while in science, it’s “IPCC underestimates the problem.”
The consequence of this mismatch is that it appears scientists are being doomsayers. They’re routinely accused of being ‘alarmist’, especially the IPCC in the wake of the email scandal last year, when in fact the IPCC’s 2007 report is actually a soft touch.
That’s really worrying. Freudenburg and Muselli’s media analysis wasn’t exhaustive – instead, it was focused on specific US newspapers in two time periods – but it’s a valid point to raise. If public perception doesn’t shift past the ‘IPCC are a bit dodgy, let’s ignore climate change’ stage it seems to have settled in recently, the next Assessment Report, due in 2014, is going to catch a lot of people by surprise.
It won’t be a good, birthday-party surprise. It’ll be a “Oh, damn… we’re screwed” kind of surprise. The kind of surprise felt by a driver speeding toward a bridge, ignoring warning signs to slow down, only to discover (too late) that the bridge has collapsed and they’re going to plunge headlong into the abyss.