In order to tackle the looming catastrophe of climate change, we must first change the way information flows. Social media can help, writes Jonathan Green.It could be that we don't quite have the mechanism to deal with this yet, the whole end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it thing. The vocabulary and processes that currently carry our public debate seem unequal to the task of leading what seems to be a discussion we need to have.
Take this ABC evening news bulletin from Monday. Some context first: the latest dispatch from the midpoint of the climate talks in Doha was far from good. The gathering heard gloomy predictions: temperature rises of between four and six degrees by the end of the century, a glimpse of a coming and quite probably unstoppable calamity. The picture was little short of apocalyptic.
So, to the news.
The chance of a pre-Christmas interest rate cut firmed today.Item two:
Customers angry about their rising bills confronted Melbourne's water retailers at a public forum in the city this afternoon.And item three,
Climate scientists say they're shocked and astonished by the latest data about global greenhouse gas emissions. They've hit an unprecedented high ... And China is responsible for most of the new growth in emissions. Scientists now warn the future's looking far more dangerous.It is here, in the sobering report that follows, that we learn a little more about the seemingly inexorable ecological forces combining to transform our planet within the next two lifetimes. Stock images: ice, steam, cooling towers. We then move smartly to item four:
Victorian health officials are analysing samples from a Bundoora cooling tower... As they investigate three cases of legionnaires' disease...How do we invest scientifically substantiated reports of the impending end of the world with the significance something so, ah, earth shattering, might merit? How do we delineate the routine clutter of the day from the latest urgings that we face, and should heed, a universal and existential threat?
Inserting climate change into the routine news mix is an interesting exercise. There is no doubt that within the media and political culture of this country (and others), climate change is seen as just another point of political contest.
So, while the World Bank, for example, can say this:
The projected impacts on water availability, ecosystems, agriculture, and human health could lead to large-scale displacement of populations and have adverse consequences for human security and economic and trade systems. The full scope of damages in a 4°C world has not been assessed to date.The likes of Andrew Bolt can say this:
It is grotesque, how Labor's scare-mongering has so terrified so many people. Consider the following facts: the world hasn't warmed in 16 years, the carbon tax would make at very most about 0.0038 degrees difference in a century, and modest warming could even leave us better off. Consider also man's astonishing ability to adapt, and the rapid progress in wealth, health and technology.Here, as with so many issues, the media coverage focuses on the conflict, no matter how spuriously based, rather than on the substance of the issue. Inserting something of true gravity into the everyday news has the interesting effect of exposing the thin superficiality of all the other elements, the Punch and Judy show of modern news and politics.
If newsmakers were to take seriously our slow descent into the threatening unknown of a four degrees warmer world then they would probably give the issue the sort of dominating and enduringly obsessive play we haven't seen the popular press throw around an issue since World War II.
Think about it. If you for a moment took seriously the proposition that we are entering a period that will see "adverse consequences for human security and economic and trade systems" – what a deliciously loaded snippet that is - then you would be hard pressed to justify inserting that story somewhere between the possibility of an interest rate cut and the sad but comparatively trivial discovery of three people with flu like symptoms in Melbourne's northern suburbs.
How can anything rival climate for significance?
The problem is of course one of both the scale of the threat and its contemporary invisibility. We are talking about a trend, a prospect, a probability. One that is boggling. Barely conceivable. That both admits idiotic and ideologically motivated "doubt" (see A Bolt above) and subtly invalidates the issue in the eyes of a news media that favours the instantaneous, graphic and loud.
If the consequences predicted for 2100 were happening now, well ... then we'd have a story.
It could be that the discussion of climate change and the pursuit of its solutions will be one of the first and most significant beneficiaries from the reframing of public debate in a world suddenly connected and thus freed from the constraints placed by rigidly hierarchical and corporatised media.
The possibilities demonstrated by the likes of the Arab spring go beyond using Facebook to draw like-minded crowds to a tear-gassing. The next step will be the global short-circuiting of information flow: instantaneous connections that can pass information unfiltered without categorisations and obstructions, without the external discipline of a news judgment that suits a particular platform or outlet over the needs of both audience and issue.
Resolving climate change will test most of our dominant paradigms.
Here's a glimpse of the enormity of the challenge, neatly described by Nick Feik in yesterday's Fairfax press.
Consider this: of all the coal, gas and oil fields that the world's corporations and nations have already quantified and have the legal right to exploit, 80 per cent now needs to stay in the ground if temperature rises are to be kept within 2 degrees.Let the implications of that settle ... the denial of market forces, the total reframing of energy sources and economics it implies.
Much is going to have to change, and much of it in ways that may force diminishments of aspects of our lives that for the moment we prize. The alternative appears to be calamity, unless we first change the flow of information... then we might witness the possibilities unlocked by a population suddenly able to choose its own hierarchy of issues and ideas.
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article attributed a quote by Nick Feik to Chris Feik. The Drum regrets the error.
Jonathan Green presents Sunday Profile on Radio National and is a former editor of The Drum. View his full profile here.