Shine the light of truth through the murk of climate change

Befuddled by the claims of scientists, politicians and statisticians, consumers need an evenhanded guide through the climate debate

Things are hotting up this week in the great global warming debate.

The climate change summit now under way in Copenhagen has been called the most important gathering since the Second World War.

Naturally such a significant event opens up commercial opportunities. EDF Energy marked the occasion with full-page ads in the Sunday papers with the copyline: “You may not be attending Copenhagen, but you can still play your part.”

Playing your part does, of course, involve switching your electricity account to EDF because it has eight nuclear plants generating 15% of UK energy. After years as a pariah, nuclear energy is now a major selling point because it is one of the lowest carbon forms of energy generation.

Climate change is also lucrative business for the research companies. This weekend’s head – lining poll, featured in the Sunday Telegraph, announced the “shock” finding that only 52% of Britons agree with the main conclusion of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that humans are largely responsible for the modern-day rise in temperature.

But you know what they say: another day; another poll. And tomorrow’s will probably contradict today’s.

And it does. Monday’s GlobeScan/BBC World Service poll, conducted in 23 countries, is rather more optimistic. Only 6% of the 24,000 questioned want their governments to oppose a climate deal being reached in Denmark. Sixty-three per cent of the respondents believe that climate change is a “very serious” issue, a percentage that has increased steadily from only 44% a decade ago.

The marketing and advertising community has been coming under gentle pressure for some time to do their duty and persuade people to change their carbon-squandering ways. The main voice in the battle cry is Lord Puttnam’s, now a fully paid-up global warming warrior.

Puttnam has the enviable ability to reinvent himself almost every decade – from adman to film producer and then on to Labour politician. Until recently, training and education were his big thing; lately he has added the global warming string to his bow, chairing the climate change committee in Parliament.

At the Festival of the Media in Valencia this spring, Puttnam launched an eloquent appeal to the advertising and marketing community to use all their skills and powers of persuasion to convince people they should change their ways and reduce carbon emissions.

Evangelistic in his climate beliefs, Puttnam, in his role as deputy chairman of Channel 4, has said he wishes the controversial C4 documentary The Great Climate Change Swindle “hadn’t happened”. And last month, he told a congregation in Durham Cathedral that climate change was the greatest challenge the human race has ever faced and would be even more devastating than nuclear war.

But back at the summit in Copenhagen, it is the media, and journalists in particular, who are facing their toughest challenge in the coming weeks. For they are at risk of being disoriented by the political smoke and mirrors, and the spinners, likely to be thick on the ground, will no doubt be adding to the confusion.

Politicians don’t help the pursuit of clarity either. We have Gordon Brown, with no known scientific qualifications, denouncing manmade global warming dissidents as “flat-earthers”. The other debating trick is the pejorative term ‘deniers’.

Somehow journalists, particularly broadcasters like the BBC, will have to pierce the fug and find a way of explaining in easily digestible terms a range of complex issues that are not as clear-cut as they are usually portrayed to us.

Politicians don’t help the pursuit of clarity either. We have Prime Minister Gordon Brown, with no known scientific qualifications, denouncing manmade global warming dissidents as “flat-earthers”. The other debating trick politicians like to pull out of the hat is the pejorative term “deniers”, in an attempt to park some serious climate scientists in the same emotive looney-bin as holocaust deniers.

The official stance of the BBC is that it does not back uncritically “the consensus” but are committed to providing a wide range of views on the issue. But BBC deputy director of News Steve Mitchell conceded last week that BBC television news had probably not given enough prominence early enough to the story about the stolen and leaked emails, which suggest collusion between climatologists, from the Climate Research Institute at the University of East Anglia. Newsnight and the Today programme did feature the story prominently.

The emails appear to suggest there has been some massaging of data and a lack of enthusiasm for publishing papers representing minority scientific views.

There is the small inconvenient truth that while CO2 emissions have been powering ahead over the past decade, average global temperatures have not. Whatever is going on cannot be a simple cause-and-effect relationship.

For the sake of the communication professionals involved, and for the avoidance of doubt, the advice provided in a brief letter to The Times last week by lateral thinker Edward de Bono should be acted on as a matter of urgency.

As EU ambassador for the 2009 year of creativity, de Bono argued that Copenhagen had to have some concrete outputs in addition to “well-meaning noises”.

Two new bodies, de Bono suggested, should be set up – presumably highly independent bodies. The first would be an institute to collect all information and scientific studies on climate change and to make this available.

The second would be a body set up to generate new ideas and approaches, such as using taxes on gas-guzzling cars to subsidise eco-friendly cars.

Maybe the persuasive powers of the communication industries could help back the creative suggestions of de Bono.

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