Beware the boomerang effect in climate media

Imagine you return from holiday to be confronted with an academic study which concludes that your field of work is having the opposite effect to that intended.

Then you notice that the co-author is an assistant professor at the university school whose Dean happens to be the senior member of your board of directors.

Should I catch the next train home?

The title is the usual mouthful of jargon but it more or less conveys the general hypothesis – Boomerang Effects in Science Communication: How Motivated Reasoning and Identity Cues Amplify Opinion Polarization About Climate Mitigation Policies.

The paper churns through some technical social science before arriving at its killer conclusion: “public exposure to news stories discussing the impacts of climate change on other groups outside the United States is likely to amplify the partisan divide on climate mitigation policies.” The unspoken implication is that such stories are best left to gather dust.

The first part of that quote is a pretty accurate description of what I do. The second part is certainly not the intended outcome.

The production of OneWorld Guides and my news articles that draw on their educational content is substantially concerned with the impact of global warming on developing countries and the unequal challenge they face in adapting to it.

Raising awareness in Europe and North America of the serious humanitarian consequences of our fossil fuel economics will unite all shades of the political spectrum in hastening the low carbon transition, so my conventional media thinking goes.

How naive can you get, say the paper’s co-authors P.Sol Hart and Erik C.Nisbet. Hart is based at the American University’s School of Communication where OneWorld non-executive director, Larry Kirkman, is Dean.

“Focusing on local (US) effects and including implications for local areas,” is essential, warns the study, “when discussing the impact that climate change may be having on distant populations.” The authors do concede in a roundabout way that this is almost an impossible task for any journalist.

But I’m not ready to throw in the towel just yet. There appear to be a couple of flaws in the study, although I realise that this is a specialist academic paper outside my territory.

The first is the complete silence on the ethical dimension of climate change. The authors don’t mention that the world’s poorest countries are going to be the hardest hit by a phenomenon for which the richest countries, notably the US, are responsible.

Many of us working in media and education are motivated by injustice. Surely the public response to injustice should be unbundled from its response to science, even in the US?

My second reservation stems from the profile of the experiment that informs the research. A simulated news story about a nasty disease which may be spreading on account of climate change is presented to a sample of US citizens. One version locates the story in New York State, home of the focus group, a second version is located in the state of Georgia and a third in Southern France.

Needless to say, the New York story inspires the greatest identification with the victims. But diehard Republican supporters within the sample still refuse to soften their antipathy to global warming. And the stories from more distant locations rebound by increasing their denial.

But why France? Has anyone ever written stories for US media about the impact of climate change in France? And is it not true that the rocky relations between US and France disturb the neutrality appropriate for a scientific study?

The notion that writers should lay off the subject of climate change unless they confine themselves to a sympathetic audience is a step too far. We cannot be expected to surrender so meekly to the US fossil fuel lobby.

I will certainly take more care in selecting subjects for OneWorld articles that we syndicate to Yahoo World News, a platform which we understand reaches the largest share of the US online news audience. I have been guilty on occasion of deliberate attempts to provoke the sceptics by choosing an inflammatory combination of topics – usually climate change and foreign aid – spiced with a mention of the threat of legal reparations for climate disasters in poor countries and small island states.

A more sensible strategy might be to take advantage of the events of 2011. For example, the damaging impact of high temperatures on the US corn harvest exactly reproduces one of the biggest concerns about the future of staple maize production in Africa.

More interesting still is to transpose the study’s conclusions to Africa. If our work can inspire and inform African journalists to improve their communication of the science and impact of global warming, the message of climate injustice will be amplified by its close affinity with the local audience.

Any consequent political polarization between Africa and the US would at least have potential for constructive resolution, unlike the destructive divide between Republicans and Democrats analysed in this study.

this article was first published by OneWorld UK