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Media attacked for 'climate porn'

The apocalyptic vision of climate change used by newspapers, environmental groups and the UK government amounts to "climate porn". That is the conclusion of a report from Labour-leaning think-tank the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR).

It says that the over-use of alarming images is a "counsel of despair", making people feel helpless.

The IPPR says newspapers use cataclysmic imagery partly through commercial motives. It also criticises the reporting of individual climate-friendly acts as "mundane, domestic and uncompelling".

"The climate change discourse in the UK today looks confusing, contradictory and chaotic," says the report, entitled Warm Words.

"It seems likely that the overarching message for the lay public is that in fact, nobody really knows."

Alarm and rhetoric

IPPR's head of climate change Simon Retallack, who commissioned the report from communication specialists Gill Ereaut and Nat Segnit, said: "We were conscious of the fact that the amount of climate change coverage has increased significantly over the last few years, but there had been no analysis of what the coverage amounted to and what impact it might be having."

They analysed 600 newspaper and magazine articles, as well as broadcast news and adverts.

Coverage breaks down, they concluded, into several distinct areas, including:

  • Alarmism, characterised by images and words of catastrophe

  • Settlerdom, in which "common sense" is used to argue against the scientific consensus
  • Rhetorical scepticism, which argues the science is bad and the dangers hyped
  • Techno-optimism, the argument that technology can solve the problem

Publications said often to take a "sceptical" line included the Daily Mail and Sunday Telegraph.

Into the "alarmist" camp the authors put articles published in newspapers such as the Independent, Financial Times and Sunday Times, as well as statements from environmental groups, academics including James Lovelock and Lord May, and some government programmes.

"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."

'Horror film'

No British newspaper has taken climate change to its core agenda quite like The Independent, which regularly publishes graphic-laden front pages threatening global meltdown, with articles inside continuing the theme.

A recent leader, commenting on the heatwave then affecting Britain, said: "Climate change is an 18-rated horror film. This is its PG-rated trailer.

"The awesome truth is that we are the last generation to enjoy the kind of climate that allowed civilisation to germinate, grow and flourish since the start of settled agriculture 11,000 years ago."

Ian Birrell, the newspaper's deputy editor, said climate change was serious enough to merit this kind of linguistic treatment.

"The Independent led the way on campaigning on climate change and global warming because clearly it's a crucial issue facing the world," he said.

"You can see the success of our campaign in the way that the issue has risen up the political agenda."

Simon Retallack, however, believes some newspapers take an alarmist line on climate change through commercial motives rather than ideology.

"Every newspaper is a commercial organisation," he said, "and when you have a terrifying image on the front of the paper, you are likely to sell more copies than when you write about solutions."

Ian Birrell denied the charge. "You put on your front page what you deem important and what you think is important to your readers," he said.

"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.

"And I disagree that there's an implicit 'counsel of despair', because while we're campaigning on big issues such as ice caps, we also do a large amount on how people can change their own lives, through cycling, installing energy-efficient lighting, recycling, food miles; we've been equally committed on these issues."

Small is not beautiful

The IPPR report acknowledges that the media, government and NGOs do discuss individual actions which can impact greenhouse gas emissions, such as installing low-energy lightbulbs.

But, it says, there is a mismatch of scale; a conclusion with which Solitaire Townsend, MD of the sustainable development communications consultancy Futerra, agrees.

"The style of climate change discourse is that we maximise the problem and minimise the solution," she said.

"So we use a loud rumbling voice to talk about the challenge, about melting ice and drought; yet we have a mouse-like voice when we talk about 'easy, cheap and simple' solutions, making them sound as tiny as possible because we think that's what makes them acceptable to the public."

"In fact it makes them seem trivial in relation to the problem."

Simon Retallack believes his report contains important lessons for the government as it attempts to engage the British public with climate change.

"The government has just put £12m into climate change communication initiatives," he said, "including teams which will work at the local level.

"It's vital that this motivates and engages the public."

Editorial Notes: UPDATE (Aug 4). The study that is the subject of this BBC article is now online at the IPRR website: Warm Words by Gill Ereaut and Nat Segnit (PDF of the entire report, 32 pages) `Climate porn' turning off public from action (press release from IPRR who commissioned the report) ---- It's hard to tell what the report really says from this brief BBC article. There's no question that the level of discourse needs improving, but the report seems to be blaming the messenger. The "alarmist" camp encompasses a wide spectrum - it's a camp I might be proud to belong to:
articles published in newspapers such as the Independent, Financial Times and Sunday Times, as well as statements from environmental groups, academics including James Lovelock and Lord May, and some government programmes.
The Independent has been a leader in bringing environmental news to public attention. I can't think of any mainstream newspaper that equals it. It will be interesting to see what the report really says; it doesn't seem to be online yet at the IPPR site. A similar report on how to communicate climate change was published last year - Americans and Climate Change: Closing the Gap Between Science and Action (220-page PDF) - insights and recommendations from the 2005 Yale Forestry and Envrironmental Studies Conference on Climate Change. -BA

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