Q&A: Is our media covering climate change well?
More Kiwis are accepting climate change is real and man-made. Photo / File Climate change is the biggest issue facing our planet - something Kiwis are increasingly recognising . But how do they learn about it? Does New Zealand's news media do an adequate job getting the message out? In a new analysis , Dr Rhian Salmon and her colleagues at Victoria University drew on a range of studies to show media coverage closely mirrors what climate science tells us, with less oxygen given to sceptics but, as she tells science reporter Jamie Morton , things still aren't perfect. How are most people getting their information on climate change, and how is this changing? Like with all information and news, there has been a strong shift from print and TV to online and social media, which is necessarily much more aligned with the views already held by the reader. We also identified other avenues for climate change communication that occur around the country such as the arts, festivals, NGOs and advocacy groups, iwi climate change forums, think-tanks and efforts by central and regional government. Has the mainstream news media done enough in communicating climate science and related issues? Has coverage improved or worsened? Studies show that messages in New Zealand media are very closely aligned with the scientific consensus presented in the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] reports. However, many New Zealanders also read news from other countries, which in some cases is more polarised. Understandably, the media need a "hook" for a story, and that's difficult for something as slow-moving and constant as climate change. As a result, we often see stories framed in an "apocalyptic narrative"; for example, when we experience extreme weather events, which isn't necessarily a helpful frame for New Zealanders to start thinking about long-term adaptation and mitigation of climate change impacts. We hear a lot about the projected or potential effects of climate change, but do Kiwis hear enough about climate policy? Climate policy doesn't make for very exciting articles - except in the case of the fart tax - we found that in writing about climate research there was quite a strong bias towards a framing around Antarctica. This could be related to the strength of research investment in this field, and also the fact that most of New Zealand's science journalists have been to Antarctica. In the lead-up to the election, it's interesting to note which (if any) of the parties focus on climate-change policy as an important voting consideration. Clearly, if they perceived this as a critical consideration for New Zealanders, there would be an increased focus on this in the political campaigning and policy development. So it's kind of chicken and egg: policy-makers don't have an incentive to push hard on climate-change policy without hearing that loud directive from voters. On the flip side, voters don't hear much about policy unless policy-makers think it's an important consideration for the public. Are we also missing the Maori voice in coverage and public discussion on climate change? Definitely. There are a number of initiatives that focus on better understanding the impact of climate change on Maori communities, primarily facilitated by the research system, Maori representative structures and pan-tribal collectives, and central government. There has also recently been an increased focus on research and engagement in this area funded by the Deep South National Science Challenge. Many of these activities are, however, focused "inwards" on Maori communities - there is definitely an opportunity for highlighting these issues at a national level as well. We've seen the rise of science communication, with experts speaking to the public directly through presentations, blogs, media and social media, but also new vehicles for the spread of anti-science and misinformation by sceptics and unqualified commentators. What new hopes and problems are there outside traditional media in climate change communication? Climate change is a classic "wicked problem", which is difficult or impossible to solve absolutely, and can't be solved by science alone. In addition to carrying out research into critical physical science questions about how the Earth system works and interlinks, there is also a related social science research area that focuses on impacts and implications of our changing climate. As a result, there is no one expert authority on "climate change", and instead it may appear that the field includes many diverse voices and perspectives (some of them self-nominated experts), who don't always present a coherent message that's easy to present in a simple media story. There is also inherent uncertainty in the field - not only related to the lack of precision of models but also because we don't yet know what future choices humans will make (most importantly about our emissions but also related to adaptation choices). It is very difficult to communicate this uncertainty accurately while also making clear that the overall trajectory of climate change is uncontested in the scientific community at large. In our perception of climate change, and how we communicate it, how do we differ with other nations? I note the UK, often celebrated for its progressive climate change efforts, has an issue of often counter-productive catastrophic narratives, which we don't have here. The narrative in New Zealand media has, to a large degree, remained fairly consistent with the scientific consensus. The small population, however, does allow for individual voices - with varying degrees of expertise - to have a disproportional influence on the public debate. Examples include Gareth Morgan, who is a strong advocate of more action being required related to climate change, and on the other side of the spectrum, Cameron Slater of Whale Oil, who is an influential "climate sceptic". Although the study doesn't prescribe solutions, are there any ways you feel the situation could be improved? Basic improvement in scientific literacy - and understanding uncertainty and the process of science - is critical for being able to make informed decisions about climate change. In addition, New Zealand has very few dedicated science journalists and minimal funding for journalists to work on in-depth articles on scientific issues. As a result, a complex issue like climate change doesn't get the nuanced coverage required to really convey its complexity, or the detail of local and national impacts and implications that would be useful to New Zealanders. If we don't increase communication of climate change, or improve the way we do it, what problems or threats do we stand to face? New Zealand is going to experience impacts from climate change including sea-level rise, increased drought, more extreme weather events, and a shift in "average weather". However, we still have options about how we prepare and respond to these. Clear, thoughtful, accurate information about climate change is critical for helping us to make wise decisions and investments about our future. The Labour party has released its Rainbow Manifesto.