The media’s role in climate change action

March 11, 2015, 9:52 p.m.

The illusion of a two-sided issue is one of the greatest downfalls of the media’s portrayal of climate change. Our press should be objective, unbiased and investigative, yes, but climate change skepticism is none of these. Giving climate  deniers an equal seat at the table is incompetent journalism and — worse — destructive.

As John Oliver famously stated on “Last Week Tonight,” “You don’t need people’s opinions on a fact…The only accurate way to report that 1 out of 4 Americans are skeptical of global warming is to say that ‘A poll finds that 1 out of 4 Americans are wrong about something.’”

Why is 1 out of every 4 Americans wrong about global warming? Simply put, we cannot process the complexity and enormity of the phenomenon.

“Social psychologists are aware,” writes Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, “of the difficulties that individuals and groups have in processing and responding effectively to the information surrounding long-term and complex societal challenges.”

As humans, we are impacted by the vividness of an issue, and it’s difficult to visualize climate change. The more specific the descriptions of its effects, the more we react. One example is the recent tumult over warnings that Napa’s wine industry will soon be threatened by temperature increases. With so many factors at play, precise, predictive models like these are often impossible for scientists to produce. Too often, climate change science cannot offer the exactitude people need to be engaged in action.

Climate change is also difficult for us to process because of something called the Identifiable Victim Effect. As Mother Teresa said, “If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.” When we see one person in trouble, we feel like we can do something to save them and our brain is flooded by positive emotion. The more people in trouble, the more negative the emotions involved in not being able to help all those people, until we’d rather not rock the boat.

Finally, “confirmation bias” describes how people look for information consistent with what they already know, believe or feel, which leads them to dismiss information that may change their minds or behavior. Confirmation bias can lead climate change deniers to over-interpret short-term cold swings in temperature as evidence against climate change, explains Debika Shome and Sabine Marx in “The Psychology of Climate Change Communication.” Media portrayal of climate change compounds the problem of skepticism by introducing uncertainty where there is none.

We are confronted with ambiguity at every turn. The IPCC’s “very likely” ratings, for example, can be interpreted in vastly different ways if not accompanied by an explicit probability range. There is a perception of expert disagreement, which is furthered by the media’s lust for conflict. On top of that is a general uncertainty in how we, as readers, should weigh each piece of information we are presented with.

Two major things happen in the brain when confronted with uncertainty, explains a 2005 study by Hsu et al.: The fear and anxiety region of our brain is activated (amygdala) and our reward system (ventral striatum) is deactivated. If people don’t see a way to change their actions so that fear is lessened, we “reduce the fear without reducing the danger,” writes Paul Stern for Nature, “perhaps by denying that there is anything to fear or concluding that the fear appeal was a manipulation attempt by an untrustworthy source.”

The basic premise of climate change denial is inserting doubts or critiques into the conversation, even if they are not proven, to increase the ambiguity of the “Oh! We should do something!” call to action.

This false balance of two sides to every issue is detrimental to climate change action because it increases a dangerous ambiguity surrounding the issue. At the end of the day, a balanced portrayal of climate change means two sides debating what to do about the problem, not whether or not the problem exists.

Reade Levinson ’16

Contact Reade Levinson at readel ‘at’


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