There is a moment with which all stand-up comics are familiar. It comes when they release their big punchline, sometimes known as the “drop.” For the drop, timing is everything. A successful drop means a joke takes off. An unsuccessful drop leaves it flat on its face.
The already-infamous release of climate change emails was a fantastically successful drop. Though the emails themselves date from the late 1990s onwards, their release was perfectly timed to capture the media’s attention just before the Copenhagen climate talks — to achieve maximum impact. And it worked.
Why? Not because they undermined the science of global warming. Only a hardened rump of skeptics still believe the world is not warming (as opposed to the larger number who dispute the causes and implications). Nor because they proved there was a global conspiracy of scientists determined to hide the truth from us (rather than a handful of scientists who might well have been manipulating aspects of their data). Nor to help promote a climate change skeptic think tank, the Global Warming Policy Foundation, which coincidentally launched around the same time.
The release of climate change emails dominated the headlines because it was a good news story. It fit with the basic need of news: to reveal something previously hidden, to uncover alleged wrongdoing, and to cast doubt on a widely held consensus.
Media Not Built to Cover Climate Well
In a larger sense, however, climate change doesn’t fit with news’ needs. The climate doesn’t change on an hour-by-hour or daily basis, but over years and decades. It is theoretically urgent but, for most of us, not immediately apparent. Structurally, mainstream news is not built to cover long-term climate change well.
Mainstream news has a short attention span. Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s former director of communications, remarked that if a politician could weather a media storm for 10 days then he would survive. The media would move on.
Newspapers — understandably — don’t want to fill their front pages day in and day out with gradual news. Gradual news doesn’t sell. “Antarctic ice cap retreated one foot” is unlikely to get people reaching into their pockets for loose change.
As a result, we tend to get treated either to occasional apocalyptic headlines of “the end is nigh” variety, or to news that bucks the scientific consensus.
So, when something like these emails comes along, the story is irresistible to most news outlets. Not just irresistible to cover, but irresistible to elevate the emails from an indication of shabby scientific behavior by a small number of scientists into evidence of a massive global warming conspiracy.
Contrarians, But About the Wrong Things
The problem is that a lot of those within mainstream media are a little bored of climate change. Journalists don’t like consensus, especially not when it is foisted on them by ivory-towered experts on the basis of “trust us, we know more about this than you do.” A lot of journalists are contrarians, and, for the most part, this is a very good thing.
But when it comes to climate change, many seem to be misdirecting their contrariness. Rather than being contrary about the science, about which the vast majority of journalists know very little, shouldn’t journalists be contrarian about the difficult political implications? Isn’t that the territory most of us are going to have to live on for the next 50 odd years? And the territory that most journalists would feel more comfortable inhabiting?