Recently, U.S. President Barack Obama called climate change deniers a “radical fringe” and compared them to people who believe the moon to be made of “green cheese”. In frustration, Obama remarked, “It's pretty rare that you'll encounter somebody who says that the problem you're trying to solve simply doesn't exist,” said Obama (see: “Obama knocks climate change deniers: Like telling JFK 'the moon is made of cheese'”, Evan McMurray, Mediaite, June 14, 2014).
Yet, climate change denial is both real, and dangerous. Denial has created a false impression with the public that the science of climate change remains unsettled. For too long, the conversation in the media has been focused on the question, “is it happening?” and not “what can we do about it?” In an effort to shape public opinion, deniers cynically attack established climate change science, along with the scientists and academic institutions engaged in research.
The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 5th Assessment Report, released last year, identified an overwhelming consensus that the planet is warming due to human industrial activities. Pegged at 95% certainty, this consensus is actually higher than the consensus that cigarette smoking causes cancer. Denying that the climate is changing, or that humans are responsible for these changes, simply ignores all evidence to the contrary.
In response, some major media outlets have discontinued giving deniers a platform in the name of “journalistic balance”. Last year, the Los Angeles Times stopped publishing non-fact based opinion pieces from those claiming climate change was a hoax, or that the science was unsettled (see, "On letters from climate deniers" Paul Thornton, L.A. Times, October 8, 2013). Earlier this month, the British Broadcasting Corporation decided it would no longer air guests who dispute established scientific facts (see, "BBC Institutes Changes to Prevent 'False Balance' in Science Reporting", Katharine Trendacosta,io9, July 4, 2014)
The well-funded cadre of climate change deniers are responding to the media’s new-found intolerance of denial. Calling themselves “climate optimists”, they are shifting away from absolute denial to arguing that climate change may actually be a good thing – or at least not as bad as 97% of the world’s climate scientists make it out to be (see: "The Climate Optimists", Well Oremus, Slate.com, July 9, 2014). If a warming planet is good, or at least not bad, their argument goes that we can continue to put off the “what can we do about it?” conversation. However, this “do nothing” argument is doomed to crumble in the face of extreme weather events such as heat waves, droughts, flash flooding and forest fires – all of which the scientific consensus agrees we are already seeing more of. The climate crisis can’t be ignored.
Besides a few elected officials who have built their reputations on denying the science of climate change (such as U.S. Senator James Inhofe), the most egregious climate change deniers are the ones encountered on social media. Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms are littered with mean-spirited deniers, many of whom hide behind anonymous names and accounts, probably out of fear of being publicly ridiculed for their fringe beliefs.
Last year, Popular Science turned off its website’s comments feature, citing that anonymous comments were “undermining bedrock scientific doctrine” through non-factual arguments (see: "Why we're shutting off our comments", Suzanne LaBarre, Popular Science, September 24, 2013). Referring to scientific studies that show public opinion can be influenced by messages posted in online comment forums – something long known by climate change deniers - Popular Science claimed that fostering fact-based discussion was more of a priority than providing a platform for those with an anti-science agenda.
With the scientific facts of climate change now well known amongst the public, it's time for Canada's mainstream media to catch-up and deny the deniers a public platform for their made-up worldview. Climate change is real, and it's happening. Printing and broadcasting observations of “green cheese” are unhelpful and damaging to the conversation that we need to be having: what now are we going to do about a warming world?
(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Party of Canada)
Originally published in the Sudbury Star, Saturday, July 19, 2014 online as "May: Denying climate change no longer an option", without hyperlinks.