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Deniers of climate change: the blame is on the media

When Donald Trump was interviewed on CBS current affairs show 60 Minutes last year, many viewers were struck by his comments on environmental issues. Responding to a question about the Earth’s shrinking polar ice caps, he said: “You don’t know whether or not [the melting of ice] would have happened with or without men.”

And when the interviewer replied that scientists believed humans were responsible for climate change, the US president replied: “We have scientists that disagree with that.”

That climate change is real and stems from human activity is accepted by 97% of climate scientists, according to NASA. But Trump’s stance highlights the continued existence of sceptics who deny humanity’s part in climate change – and the media’s role publicising such views.

Data from agencies worldwide, including NASA, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Meteorological Society, the National Academy of Sciences and the oil industry, suggest that global temperatures have been increasing since the industrial revolution and that the trend is likely to be the result of human activities responsibility.

In 2016, the Paris Agreement saw 187 countries sign up to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, though the Trump administration his since announced its intention to withdraw from the accord.

However, a survey this year by YouGov-Cambridge Globalism Project and The Guardian newspaper found that countries such as Indonesia and Saudi Arabia still have a significant percentage of climate change sceptics – 18% and 16%, respectively. Trump is one of 13% of people in the US who are climate change sceptics, while in Mexico 10% of people feel the same way. In the UK, less than 5% of people are climate change sceptics.

Dr Ariana Zeka, an environmental sciences lecturer at Brunel University London, says the media help climate change deniers by giving equal space to environmental scientists and sceptics.

“As scientists are trying to understand the impact of climate change, deniers are also highly invested’” she says. “And they are usually very well-funded. “There are many layers of interests because if you don’t have funds for your research, you can’t do it, but there are still funders who have interests in this industry, they have shares.”

Fox News, The Sun, Daily Mail and Daily Express are just some of the mainstream media who continue to present climate change as a debate rather than fact, according to Mat Hope, editor of DeSmog UK, an investigative media outlet dedicated to the environment.

And Brunel University London environmental science professor Rakesh Kanda says: “These climate change deniers are supported by many conservative media outlets, which claim that climate change is not real and argue that there is controversy within the scientific community when such controversy does not exist.

“Some individuals also claim that climate change is a hoax originating from developing nations to gain economic advantage over industrially developed countries.

Mr Kanda adds: “These views are often backed by industry and conservative politicians, who base their opposition to climate change on economic and ideological interests.

“Some organisations and politicians also try to undermine public trust in climate science to advance their commercial or national interest. In doing so they oppose international efforts to reduce emission of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse as part of a global effort.”

Deutsche Welle, a global English-language news and information channel from a German international broadcaster, has reported that some of the most common arguments used by climate change sceptics include that global warming cannot be real because the winters are getting colder, that the climate has changed before, and that renewable energy will harm the economy.

Such views are controversial, which makes them attractive to the media, according to Hope.

“Climate science deniers often have an outsized impact on the public debate,” he says. “This is largely because they have a viewpoint that very few hold, and the media and public like to engage with controversy.

Hope believes media that give equal space to climate science deniers are now having limited impact on wider public opinion, particularly in the UK where he says most people believe climate change is real, caused by humans and a serious problem that needs immediate action.

“Fortunately, most producers and journalists are now aware that inviting climate science deniers to have a platform is considered poor practice except in very exceptional circumstances,” he says. “There are lots of resources to help them identify who are real experts, and who are charlatans.”

Meanwhile, Friends of the Earth, the UK-based environmental group, says it has experienced a large increase in this past year in the number of people willing to take action on climate change. The organisation points to raised awareness by created school strikes and recent protests by the Extinction Rebellion activist group.

“There is still a small minority of climate sceptics who don’t believe in the science but we tend not to engage with them as we believe the time now is for action,” Friends of the Earth says.

It adds: “The biggest challenge is probably to persuade people that their actions will make a difference and that it’s not too late to turn things round. We’re focusing on the solutions and lobbying for the government to adopt our Climate Action Plan. We’ve had more than 70 Climate Action Groups set up this year which is great news.”

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