Could This Country Really Be Immune to Climate Change?

 Original Article 

This paper focuses on the portrayal of climate science featured in a 2015 article by Australian journalist Emma Reynolds, titled ‘Pack Your Bags: This Country Could Be Immune to Climate Change’. Reynolds article, published by prominent Australian news website News.com.au provides a speculative narrative by making suggestions about the potentially safest countries people could to relocate to once the “devastating effects” of climate change begin to destroy the potential for continued human civilisation in their current places of residence.

News.com.au is a strictly online publication that is operated by Australian media conglomerate, News Corp (News Corp Australia, 2016). The publication states that its content is either created or curated by the News.com.au team with additional material supplied by the broader News Corp Australia Network. (News, Corp Australia, 2016) The website is currently Australia’s most read online news publication, claiming a unique audience of 3.68 million people in November 2015 (Nielsen 2015). Material published on the site is primarily focused around “reporting of critical news events & the issues that get people talking” to a large Australian audience including “all people aged 25-54” as well as “baby boomers” (News Corp Australia, 2015). Science and Technology articles published by News.com.au, (which includes ‘Pack Your Bags: This Country Could Be Immune to Climate Change’) are primarily aimed at an audience consisting of young, tech-literate Australians who are interested in reading about about “design, innovation and science in a cheeky and irreverent way.” (News Corp Australia, 2016)

‘Pack Your Bags: This Country Could Be Immune to Climate Change’ is framed around the issue of climate change. The existence of climate change has continued to be perceived as controversial area of science in the mediasphere despite the consensus of its existence within the scientific community (Oreskes, 2004). The article immediately acknowledges scientific consensus by suggesting in the opening line “The devastating effects of climate change loom ever larger” (Reynolds, 2016). The article does accept climate change as standard science, however the commentary is framed more specifically around the controversial assertion that there will be a “safe place” to retreat to once the consequences of climate change are realised in reader’s current, unspecified location. The title itself makes the controversial assertion that “this country could be immune to climate change”. ‘Immunity’ suggests certain places will remain unaffected by climate change. This title is contradictory, considering the article itself cites declarations by director climate science at Columbia University James Hansen that state climate change will almost certainly result in melting ice caps, super storms and rising sea levels throughout the world. The same cited (via hyperlink) publication by James Hansen also suggests that along with rising sea levels, “numerous other severely disruptive consequences for human society and ecosystems” will arise as a result of climate change (Hansen et. al, 2015). Nelkin (1995) illustrates that the quality of reporting on scientific risk varies, depending on the journalist’s ability to asses and interpret available technical information. The framing Reynolds article fails to compressively asses the technical information provided Dr. James Hansen surrounding global risks of climate change. The whole premise of Reynolds article is founded upon the controversial and seemingly unscientific assertion that certain areas earth can remain immune from the impending effects of climate change. This assertion undermines the complexity Dr. Hansen’s 2015 findings on risks associated with the impacts of climate change.

The journalist reports information in this article by employing the deficit model of science communication.  Nisbet (2009) suggests the deficit model is mass medias role of educating the lay public about issues of scientific controversy. The deficit model transmits information from the scientific community to the public with the goal of filling assumed deficits in knowledge. The deficit model assumes bringing readers up to speed on scientific issues will enable them to judge scientific issues the same way scientists do. (Nisbet, 2009) ‘Pack Your Bags: This Country Could Be Immune to Climate Change’ aims to fill reader’s deficiencies in knowledge on climate science by transmitting scientific assertions about locations that may be less effected or, ‘immune’ from the impacts of a climate change. The goal is to inform readers about safe places to retreat as “The devastating effects of climate change loom ever larger”. The issue with employing the deficit model is that it assumes that facts speak for themselves and will be decoded by all consumers in the same way (Nisbet, 2009). This assumption unjustifiably assumes that all readers will gain an understanding of climate change science from reading Reynolds article. After 25+ years of research on public understanding of science based on the deficit model, the percentage of the public able to correctly answer scientific questions has not changed. The use of the deficit model by news.com.au to educate people on “Pre- disaster relocation plans” contradicts Ren & Zhai (2014) suggestion that the deficit model has historically failed to improve the science literacy level of lay citizens.

Along with employing the deficit model, the journalist utilises metaphor to persuade readers and create images about climate science. The purpose of metaphor is to familiarise readers with unfamiliar ideas, enabling it to be imagined as common-sense knowledge. (Moscovici, 1984) Use of metaphor is scripted when the author suggests that Switzerland’s elevated and landlocked geographical positioning will provide protection from rising sea levels and floods. Reynolds attempts to illustrate this point by likening Switzerland’s geographical location to “some modern-day version of Noah’s ark”. By providing a metaphor the author is attempting to help readers visualise the geographical positioning of Switzerland by associating it with the more common biblical image of Noah’s Ark. Metaphor plays an important role in the social construction of reality (St Clair, 2002). This suggests the writers use of metaphor may assist the reader to realise a concept. The concept of understanding through metaphor is contested by Brown (1997) who suggests that all knowledge, including scientific knowledge, is perspectival and therefore metaphorical. The metaphor is an epistemological tool for helping us understand reality. According to Brown (1977) “the key to understanding science involves an understanding of its metaphorical worlds”. By employing the non-scientific Noak’s Ark metaphor the journalist is limiting the reader’s ability to fully imagine the scientific metaphorical world.

Employing a Noak’s Ark metaphor is not the sole example of deficient scientific reporting displayed in this article. The journalist also states that “Switzerland could face debilitating floods and landslides” (Reynolds, 2016) as a result of climate change. This is a direct contradiction to the articles assertion that Switzerland’s “elevated position could keep us away from the floods”. Furthermore, Reynolds includes a quote from geologist Camilo Mora from the University of Hawaii which reads “The best place really is Alaska … Alaska is going to be the next Florida by the end of the century.” (Reynolds, 2016) This quote suggests that Alaska will be the ideal destination for people displaced from their homes by the effects of climate change. There are two deficiencies present in this quote. The first being that the quoted scientist is a geologist and is commenting on climate chance which is not a geologist’s field of scientific expertise. By quoting a geologist on climate the journalist is perpetuating the image of mass media misrepresenting science. Misrepresenting science ignores both the contingence of scientific knowledge and its social and political context. (Gregory et. al., 1998) The second deficiency is the suggestion that “Alaska is going be the next Florida by the end of the century” (Reynolds, 2016). This quote meets the journalist’s criteria for newsworthiness by employing sensationalism, unequivocal clearness and by being ‘up-to-date’ (Weingart, et. al. 2000). However, this also constitutes an example of the media translating scientific hypothesis into absolute certainty because the journalist reports that Alaska will, rather than stating, for example Alaska may. Weingart et al. (2000) suggests this use of language translates climate change into a concrete and relevant everyday experience and in turn, makes it more accessible to the public. Claiming that “Alaska will be the next Florida” is a sensationalist and simplistic narrative that undermines the uncertainty of climate science and by publishing the quote the journalist gives is giving inaccurate news a high news value (Weingart, et al. 2000).

The media are key elements in the mediation of the “relations of definition” (Beck, 1992) between science, the public and the political spheres. Despite this, the article does not explicitly or implicitly support any political agenda. In fact, the article does not acknowledge the political implications of climate change whatsoever. In contrast, The Guardian and most authors in The Independent conveyed an image of scientific knowledge that emphasized the risks associated to climate change (Carvalho, 2007). Both of these publications acknowledge the problem when reporting on climate change and demand stronger political intervention and by doing so provide stronger examples of scientific reporting.  Carvalho (2007) suggests that “By re-configuring the state of scientific knowledge in ways that justify and promote preferred courses of social, economic and political action, newspapers discursively construct fields of action and fields of inaction (Carvalho,2007) By failing to acknowledge the political sphere the journalist is failing to help construct a realistic course of action on climate change.

In conclusion, ‘Pack Your Bags: This Country Could Be Immune to Climate Change’ constitutes an overwhelmingly deficient, speculative example of science communication. The premise of the article is founded upon the unwarranted assertion that certain areas may remain immune from the impacts of climate change. The article ignores and oversimplifies realities surrounding the effects of climate change and the effectiveness of the article is also undermined by deficit model science framing. The proposition of the article is founded upon the controversial and seemingly baseless assertion that certain areas earth can remain immune from the impending effects of climate change. This assertion undermines the complexity of scientific findings that state the risks associated with climate change. The journalist also relies on inappropriate use of metaphor to create meaning in the article which hinders readers’ abilities to accurately imagine the scientific theory behind climate change. Furthermore, the journalist attempts to translate scientific hypothesis into concrete evidence in order to create newsworthiness, thus undermining the credibility of the story. The ignorance towards the political implications of climate change which hinders the publications ability to discursively assist in the construct fields of realistic action on climate change and leads to an unbalanced representation of science. Due to the various factors listed above, Reynolds attempt at science communication in ‘Pack Your Bags: This Country Could Be Immune to Climate Change’ can be considered a poor quality, sensationalist and a misleading example of science communication.

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