A Green New Term

9 November 2007

Climate change. Global warming. The Big Melt. Call it what you like, it’s a topic that just keeps cropping up in the media. We are bombarded with images of melting ice-caps and hurricanes, articles on reducing carbon footprints and endless agreements by leading scientists and politicians trying to claim that new targets for reducing emissions will be reached. But just how helpful is the media in spreading the message about global warming to the public?

Few people now dispute the role of humans in climate change. It is difficult to ignore the colourful graphs showing global temperatures soaring along with carbon dioxide levels. All that remains now is to convince all the people happily guzzling energy to change their lifestyle habits. In short, we need a change of attitudes about energy, or no progress can be made and we shall fall into the inevitable nightmare that is extreme weather, disease and famine. And the media has the potential power to do that – ironically, increasingly so as people spend more time using energy to power computers and televisions which are exploding with information about these issues. Granted, the media has helped people to realise the scale of the crisis to an extent already – dramatic headlines about flash flooding and killer hurricanes like Katrina spring to mind. And in many cases, newspapers have acted as impartial arbitrators, putting across the evidence so people can decide for themselves what is pretty obvious anyway. This is to be applauded.

But there remains an uneasy feeling that reporters are not acting in the best interests of science. It appears that they will do anything to get an eyecatching headline, even if it means working directly against people who are trying to help the world fight the greenhouse effect. An obvious example is the recent Heathrow protest camp. Aviation is a major contributor to total carbon emissions, being responsible for 7% of the carbon released into the atmosphere in the UK. This may not sound that impressive, but remember that the gases are being released much further from possible sinks like oceans and photosynthesisers than other sources, so are more likely to result in undesirable warming. On top of that, condensation trails and aerosols from the engines are thought to contribute to the depletion of the ozone layer, and noise and air pollution are significant. This all adds up to a massive environmetal headache.

The six-day demonstration at London’s Heathrow airport was primarily aiming to prevent the building of a third runway. This 3 kilometer stretch of tarmac, if completed, would not only cause the number of flights to rise from 480,000 to 720,000, resulting in a vast increase in greenhouse gas emissions and noise pollution, but would also lead to the loss of 1200 houses and a primary school in the surrounding area. Queue environmentalists; hundreds of ordinary people who felt strongly enough about this threat to pitch tents in a field and create banners reading “We are armed only with peer reviewed science“.

But while any sensible onlooker would simply note the bravery and peaceful nature of these people speaking out about our climate, the media took the opportunity to blow the situation out of all proportion. Protesters were searched under the anti-terror laws, 1600 police officers were stationed around the camp and 44 people were arrested. There were even claims of a bomb scare. Headlines such as “Police clash with protesters'” and “Climate change protests spread for a day of disobedience” are hardly going to encourage people already reluctant to give up their summer holidays in favour of future generations to join in.

The media’s motive is clear, but surely this is going more than just a bit too far. Aren’t there enough real stories of horror in the world without trying to discredit the work of honest people simply attempting to raise awareness about climate chaios? This is the battle that we now face. Once we can convince the media to change the image of the environmentalist from crazy eco-terrorist to concerned human being, we should be well on the way to seeing the change in attitude that is so desperately required if we are to succeed in our bigger battle against carbon. Bring it on.