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Published: 14 September 2010

Science, ‘Sceptics’ and Spin: Framing the climate change debate

As the world experiences its hottest year on record, hard on the heels of the world’s warmest decade, calls for urgent action by climate scientists continue to be challenged. Climate change deniers have mobilised into a vocal global movement that has become adept at misinterpreting the science and the media’s appetite for controversy. Alexandra de Blas investigates the role of scientists, deniers and the media in the public climate change debate.

Satellite image of intense fires raging in western Russia on August 4, 2010. Burning in dry peat bogs and forests, the fires produced a dense plume of smoke that reached across hundreds of kilometres.
Credit: NASA Earth Observatory

In 2007, climate change was riding high in the public’s consciousness. In the Lowy Institute annual poll, Australians ranked climate change as their equal-highest foreign policy goal, with 75 per cent saying it was very important.1 This year, it ranked tenth, with a bare majority of 53 per cent saying it was a very important goal. A larger majority (72 per cent), however, agreed Australia should take action to reduce its carbon emissions before a global agreement is reached, but they weren’t prepared to invest much in achieving it.

Other pollsters have noted similar findings. Essential Media Communications has watched climate change drop from ‘the top third or fourth issue of concern last year, to a point where it’s now lucky to rate in the top ten,’ says Senior Client Manager, Shannon Walker. ‘We find climate change isn’t top of mind unless the media are talking about it.’

In the past year, debate raising doubt about global warming has spiked at both the national and global level. Political analysts have linked the dramatic fall in popularity of former Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, partly to his announcement in April that his government would postpone a decision on emissions trading until 2013.2

In 2009, the ‘Climategate’ and ‘Glaciergate’ controversies were used by those refuting the scientific basis of climate change to discredit the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and a key contributing scientific institution, the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia. The global media campaign was sensationalist and, from the viewpoint of the scientific community, vicious.

The ‘Climategate’ affair – in which thousands of private emails between scientists were published on a Russian website – has been scrutinised by three separate inquiries (an independent panel, the UK Parliament and the University of East Anglia), each of which has cleared those involved of alleged misconduct. However, the scientists were rebuked for demonstrating insufficient ‘openness’ in regard to Freedom of Information requests.

Three separate enquiries have since vindicated scientists targeted by ‘Climategate’ and ‘Glaciergate’ allegations last year.

The ‘Glaciergate’ controversy centred on a poorly substantiated claim about the melting of Himalayan glaciers quoted in one paragraph of a 938-page working paper. The IPCC has emphasised that the paper did not influence the final conclusions of its 2007 Fourth Assessment Report, and has published erratum statements on its website to clarify these minor errors.3

Meanwhile, freezing winter temperatures and cooler weather in some parts of the world over the past year, combined with the ‘weak agreement’ reached at the UN COP15 conference in Copenhagen in December, have added to public confusion.

A key issue in communicating climate change is the complexity of the science. Science is based on the premise of full disclosure and transparency. As a consequence, scientists often fare poorly in the public communication arena; their arguments tend towards complexity, their statements are highly qualified, and their specialist use of language can unintentionally convey meanings that mislead a lay audience. Media and public relations practitioners, in contrast, communicate with audiences and clients using clear, simple and consistent messages.

As renowned climate scientist, the late Professor Stephen Schneider, put it, ‘You don’t start with a level playing field, because the epistemologies of advocacy and science are so diametrical’ – referring to the fact that scientists could harm their careers by acting in the same way as their opponents.4 Should they take the risk, said Professor Schneider, it would be ‘a quick ticket to not getting funded, not getting promoted and not getting your papers accepted.’

Sceptics or contrarians?

Genuine questioning and scepticism is fundamental to the advancement of science. Australian climate scientist, Dr Barry Pittock, argues that researchers must apply their critical faculties to both sides of an argument. They must also admit uncertainties and accept that despite the existence of uncertainty, risk management may require immediate policy responses.5

He considers so-called climate change ‘sceptics’ to be more accurately defined as ‘contrarians.’ This is because unlike traditional sceptics, they are sceptical of one view – the science – while failing to challenge the contrary: their own views. Contrarians, or deniers, often employ point scoring, common in adversarial politics, which condones the selective use of evidence even when its source is dubious or its accuracy in doubt. Dr Pittock argues that such an approach is unacceptable, not only because of the selective use of data, but because of the comparative risk. If the science proved correct down the track, and the public had been dissuaded to take action, global warming could well have passed the ‘tipping point’.

A press briefing at the Copenhagen climate change summit December 2009. Journalists constantly face the challenge of making this complex topic accessible to their audiences.
Credit: International Institute for Sustainable Development: Reporting Services Division.

Dr Pittock says that media practitioners tend to achieve their goal of objectivity and balance by giving equal space to opposing views. But, this can be misleading. In the case of climate change, a small group of climate scientists disputing the general conclusions of the IPCC Fourth Assessment have received a level of media exposure disproportionate to the number of scientists supporting the IPCC’s findings. This has created the false impression that scientists are evenly divided on the climate question.

Who are we to believe? Dr Pittock points out that arguments made in peer-reviewed, credible scientific journals are more likely to be worthy of consideration when they are up against claims made by newspaper columnists, politicians or special interest ‘think tanks’. While not perfect, the peer-review process gives the public, media and policy makers some assurance about the credibility of an argument.

A recent study investigating the question of where the scientific community stood on the threat of climate change came down on the side of consensus.6 The study categorised climate scientists as either ‘convinced’ or ‘unconvinced’ of human-made global warming. It found that 97 to 98 per cent (‘those most actively publishing in the field’) agreed with the primary conclusion of the IPCC: that anthropogenic greenhouse gases were responsible for most of the ‘unequivocal warming’ of the Earth’s average global temperature over the second half of the 20th century. The study also assessed the climate expertise and scientific prominence of the ‘unconvinced’ researchers as being substantially below that of the ‘convinced’ researchers.

In their book Merchants of Doubt, Professor Naomi Oreskes and Dr Erik Conway argue that the public’s confusion about the veracity of global warming is no accident. The authors claim that the public has been subject to a ‘systematic and organised’ campaign to spread doubt about the climate change science for 30 years.7

Rhetorical framing

Maria Taylor, from the Centre for the Public Awareness of Science at the Australian National University, has studied the way Australia’s climate debate has been ‘framed’ by the media and interest groups over the past few decades.8 Ms Taylor found that while the evidence of human-induced climate change has remained consistent since the IPCC released its first report in 1990, the way the issue has been framed in the public domain has changed dramatically over recent years.

Ms Taylor says that framing is critically important to how an issue is communicated. ‘It is not what you say that matters so much as what people “hear,”’ she says.

While climate change has been eclipsed as a priority for Australians, a majority still believes the nation should act to reduce its carbon emissions before a global agreement is reached.
Credit: Greenpeace.

United States cognitive scientist, Professor George Lakoff, found that ‘rhetorical’ framing used by politicians and the media – for example, arguing against a policy by evoking a threat to ‘core values’ such as individual freedom, family, jobs, or the national interest – will influence public opinion, regardless of the evidence.9

Professor Lakoff examined how this approach was practiced by public relations professionals such as Mr Frank Luntz, who advised members of the governing Republican Party on climate change strategy. In addition to invoking core values, Mr Luntz recommended that scientific uncertainty should be exploited to promote inaction, and that people identified as scientists should promote the uncertainty discourse.

Similar trends have been observed in Australia. From her analysis of the early framing of climate change from 1987 to 1992, Ms Taylor found that scientist’s views were perceived as ‘clear and accepted’. But, as the framing of climate change shifted from the mid-1990s onwards, the public perception shifted to the view that scientists were uncertain and in disagreement about climate change.

While climate scientists may still debate issues such as degrees of impact, or timeframes, there is consensus within their community that global warming is happening and that humans are responsible. If we accept this consensus, we then need to realise that the longer we wait to act, the more the risks will increase and the fewer our options. Thus the communication challenge is clear – to convey the need for urgent action, the consequences of inaction, and pathways to a safer, more sustainable, clean energy future.

The 2010 Lowy Institute Poll:
For example, see Barrie Cassidy:
See IPCC website:
AAAS 2010:
Pittock B (2009) Climate Change: The Science, Impacts and Solutions (2nd edition). CSIRO Publishing, Melbourne.
Anderegg WRL, Prall JW, Harold J and Schneider SH (2010). Expert credibility in climate change Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Oreskes N and Conway E (2010) Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful Of Scientists Obscured The Truth On Issues From Tobacco Smoke To Global Warming. Bloomsbury Press.
Taylor M (2010). Framing climate change: how we lost 20 years on climate change action. Chemistry in Australia, reproduced in,;dn=303388705830167;res=IELENG
Lakoff G (2005). Don’t Think Like an Elephant. Scribe, Carlton North

Published: 2010

Empowering vision

Cynthia Karena

Educational filmmaker and sustainability advocate, John Liu, has a knack for effectively communicating the complex in ways that make people sit up and take notice. A key to his success is leveraging the power of the image to inspire hope and a commitment to action.

John Liu in Rwanda – <i>Hope in a Changing Climate</i> documents local communities and government working together to rejuvenate the land.
John Liu in Rwanda – Hope in a Changing Climate documents local communities and government working together to rejuvenate the land.
Credit: John Liu

John D Liu’s mission is to make it easy for people to understand climate change.

‘The issue is knowledge. For either the public or for policy makers, ignorance is a good excuse,’ says Mr Liu, founder of the Environmental Education Media Project (EEMP), which produces audiovisual environmental education materials for broadcast and educational audiences.

For more than ten years, the project has been documenting best-practice methods for large-scale restoration of damaged or destroyed ecosystems.

‘If (people) don’t know what to do, they are unlikely to be able to do much,’ says Mr Liu. ‘But if we know that it is possible to rehabilitate large-scale degraded ecosystems and we don’t do it, then we have crossed a line, because our knowledge is responsibility.’

An American with a Chinese father and an American mother, Mr Liu has lived in China for more than 30 years. He trained as a journalist in the United States, and moved to China to help open the CBS News Bureau in Beijing in 1979.

After a decade of living in China, Mr Liu became concerned about the levels of pollution and the rapid pace of development.

With his ‘knowledge brings responsibility’ philosophy, he founded the Environmental Education Media Project for China (the precursor to EEMP) and has been engaged in researching, documenting and educating people about ecology ever since. As an environmental filmmaker and ecological field researcher, he has produced and directed documentaries for CBS, National Geographic and the BBC.

John Liu on location in the 1990s, soon after establishing his environmental education media project.
John Liu on location in the 1990s, soon after establishing his environmental education media project.
Credit: John Liu

In 2006, Mr Liu was named the Rothamsted International Fellow for the Communication of Science. Rothamsted – a non-profit organisation working towards sustainable agriculture in developing and emerging countries – supports his PhD work with the Soil Sciences Department at the University of Reading in the United Kingdom.

Mr Liu is also a member of the Steering Committee of the Global Forum on Media for Development, and an Associate Professor at George Mason University’s Center for Climate and Society in the US.

Stories of hope

Mr Liu says most policy makers and the public assume that the human impact on climate is limited to the copious emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases generated by fossil fuel combustion over the past century or so.

‘The problem with this is that it is only partially true,’ he says. ‘Human impact on the climate began long before egregious emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases, when human beings began to reduce biodiversity, biomass and accumulated organic matter. These impacts are exacerbated by egregious emissions.’

Re-balancing the world’s carbon equilibrium, according to Mr Liu, is not just a matter of reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

‘If we restore all degraded land on the entire planet as well as reduce emissions, you can extrapolate massive carbon uptake, [as well as] re-regulated hydrological flows, increased fertility and productivity, and the ability to ensure that the highest level of genetic diversity possible survives into future generations,’ he says. ‘That seems like a much more comprehensive result.’

EEMP’s most recent documentary is Hope in a Changing Climate, filmed on location in China, Ethiopia and Rwanda.1 The film aims to demonstrate that damaged ecosystems and degraded land can be restored to health, and that such an outcome economically improves the lives of local people.

The segment on China’s Loess Plateau proves the point, with location footage showing how a barren, brown landscape covering an area the size of Belgium was transformed into a functioning, green ecosystem where rainfall infiltrates, water is retained and crops are readied for export. Importantly, this has enabled local communities to prosper.

Hope ... also interviews world leaders, bankers, students, presidents, journalists, scientists and local people. According to the film’s website, the Government of Rwanda has adopted a new national land-use policy based on EEMP’s presentations and analysis.

The film aired on BBC World last year, and screenings were held for world leaders at the Copenhagen climate change summit.

Reversing the damage

Degraded farmland in developing countries may be one of the best opportunities we have to reverse the trend toward reduced ecological function, says Mr Liu.

‘What human beings have done historically to damage the environment can be understood rather simply. We have interrupted evolutionary trends. This has resulted in reducing biodiversity, which has caused a reduction in biomass, which has in turn caused a reduction in the accumulation of organic matter. These changes have caused disruptions to fundamental systems that all life relies on.

John Liu’s documentation of the transformation of China’s Loess Plateau from barren landscape (top) to fertile oasis (bottom) has inspired communities in other ecologically damaged areas.
John Liu’s documentation of the transformation of China’s Loess Plateau from barren landscape (top) to fertile oasis (bottom) has inspired communities in other ecologically damaged areas.
Credit: John Liu

‘Through our ignorance, we have reduced gas exchange through photosynthesis, lowered nutrient recycling through the decay and transformation of each generation of life, and massively disrupted the infiltration and retention of rainfall in the biomass and in the soils.

‘If we return vegetation to degraded landscapes we can sequester large amounts of carbon from the atmosphere. This is done through photosynthesis. If we return vegetation, we also can lower temperatures because of shade, and we can increase soil moisture and relative humidity by restoring microclimates below vegetated canopies.

‘The Global Partnership for Forest Landscape Restoration has roughly estimated that one billion hectares of the Earth have been degraded and could be restored. This represents a huge potential, through understanding and positive work, to improve what is now a quite bad situation.’

Urban responsibility

The principles of conserving biodiversity and utilising biomass and accumulated organic matter are not just applicable to rural areas, says Mr Liu.

He sees the Earth as made up of five different landscape types; urban landscapes, pristine or functional landscapes, agricultural landscapes, industrial landscapes and large degraded landscapes.

‘In urban and industrial areas we have in many cases created “dead zones” without any biology. This is not true of all cities. In great cities [such as] London, Beijing, Tokyo, Paris and New York, there are lovely parks, but the buildings, the streets, the parking lots, the factories and businesses are mostly not designed to include these principles.’

Mr Liu says that if you lower biodiversity, biomass and organic matter, you get elevated temperatures. Another impact of losing biomass and organic matter to impervious ground cover such as pavement is the loss of capacity to retain and infiltrate rainfall. This results in flooding during rainy seasons. Further, water that would have been captured by living plants and roots during rains is not available to an ecosystem during the dry season.

‘If we understand these principles, and design our cities, our transportation systems and our buildings around them, then we will have a very different, a very liveable and a sustainable future,’ he says.

‘If we continue to fail to learn this, then I think we are in for very serious problems very soon.’

Not ‘them’ – just ‘us’

Australia’s pollution has little impact on the world compared with China or India, which may lead some Australians to feel complacent about the environment. However, this type of thinking suggests an ‘us’ and ‘them’ approach, says John Liu.

‘From my perspective there is just “us”. Humanity is a species. We need to have a species response now to our problems, not suggest that this is “their problem”. It is our problem because we are affecting global systems,’ he says.

Mr Liu gives the example of persistent organic pollutants. These human-made substances travel all over the world and accumulate up the food chain, but the highest concentrations can be found in Inuit peoples who are thousands of miles from any source.

‘Pollution somewhere is pollution everywhere,’ he says. ‘There is no them. Just us.’

More information

Environmental Education Media Project,


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