At the back of the public consciousness

THE ENVIRONMENT IN THE MEDIA

Go to any of the world’s top news website homepages and look at the sections list at the top. Where does the section on issues of climate change and/or the environment occur? The Guardian? Number 11 out of 13. The Telegraph? Nowhere at all it seems. The Washington Post? Not here either. The New York Times? Nope. The Daily Mail? Not a chance. Why don’t environmental stories receive the weighting and prominence which the great threat of climate change implies that they should?

Perhaps I am being a little unfair. Most of these websites do have a science section, where you may well find some articles on the topic. In addition, news providers are mainly concerned with providing news updates as they happen and therefore work mainly in the short term. Climate change is one of the longest term problems humanity has ever faced, with the causes and effects in some cases being split by generations. In fact, greenhouse gases emitting during the industrial revolution are likely still contributing to the warming effect of the atmosphere even now, their presence probably outlasting at least three generations of your family. I suppose stories about possible futures after failing to reduce emissions do not grab the attention as much as political scandals, screaming football goals or videos of kittens. Why might this be, when it is likely such stories are far more relative to the reader’s own future experience than these catchier themes (except perhaps the cats)?

As I discussed in my previous piece, people are often turned off by many of the narratives that have been used over the years. This is especially true of the one saying we need to save the polar bear, and the one which says that doomsday is near and we better drop everything if we want to survive the next decade. However much truth these arguments hold, the former is generally ignored due to not being relatable enough and the latter because in the face of impending doom the most comforting thing to do is deny this is the case, or just forget about it all. As eluded to in the title of this blog piece, perhaps the looming problems of climate change are in some cases not misunderstood but repressed in the Freudian sense – understood but then trapped in the unconscious mind, for the sake of mental health.

Climate change is undeniably going to become an increasingly prominent topic in the coming years and it is my belief that climate science communication is one of the most important fields of work in the world today. If we are to stand any chance of tackling the grandest of problems posed by climate change, there is plenty of convincing to be done with respect to the public, governments and business, in order to promote action on all levels. Reaching each of these three audiences is a mammoth task and all will require both a good consistent narrative and varying approaches which speak to the interests of each party.

For the rest of this piece I will focus on the problem of communicating to the public but for the some interesting ideas relating to communicating with the agriculture sector I refer here. Government is another question entirely and one I leave for another day. If the media is unwilling to give much airtime to environmental problems, how will the public find out what the issues at present are, gain insight into how they could help, and learn why this is something they should consider doing?

THOU SHALT NOT POLLUTE

One clear solution to fill the void in climate-related knowledge left by the media is communication through education. By teaching children and adults about the science behind climate change, the likely impacts and the various approaches ay person can take to reducing their carbon impact, surely this puts us in good stead for progress. However, personal experience has shown me that the underrepresentation of environmental issues in the media often extends to education too.

Alongside my postgraduate studies, I am currently working part-time as a A-level religious studies (philosophy and ethics) tutor, a role that I greatly enjoy and which provides some very interesting discussions. As an initial remark, my tutee told me the GCSE science teacher who was tasked with teaching her high school class about the greenhouse effect was an avid climate change denier. Good start. In the tutoring classes, we are now coming towards the end of the course, with May exams approaching, and are working through the penultimate section of the ethics component textbook, ‘Environmental and Business Ethics’. My initial instinct upon reading the chapter title reminded me of last year when the new UK Prime Minister Theresa May abolished the Department for Energy and Climate Change, in favour of the so-called Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy department. Why is it climate change always gets lumped in with business, the sector which is most likely to seek to avoid emission reduction for its own interests?

These comments and questions aside, through teaching the ethics module I have realised that again there faces another narrative confusion: that tackling climate change is mainly about conservation. As I remarked in my first blog piecerecycling alone isn’t going to save the world. Similarly, neither is conservation alone. Of course, it would certainly aid our tackling of climate change if rainforests were not destroyed but protected and if the Great Barrier Reef was saved from the brink of extinction, but these acts alone, however laudable, will not stop the forces driving the changing climate. As with living a reduced waste lifestyle, doing regular conservation work and donating to charities which seek to tackle habitat destruction and resource exploitation cannot in my opinion be said to be bad things.* This is coming from an ethics tutor who knows non-cognitivist pioneers such as Ludwig Wittgenstein and  A. J. Ayer would reject the idea that the words ‘good’ or ‘bad’ have any meaning at all, beyond the expression of a personal preference. Through conservation and waste-reduction a path to greatly reduced climactic impact is encouraged, but more is required to go the whole way.

The focus on ecology in a Christian-oriented religious studies textbook is perhaps to be expected, since the Bible doesn’t have anything to say about modes of electricity generation, drilling for oil or releasing CFCs, whilst humanity has always coexisted with animals and their habitats (although whether the coexistence remains harmonious is to be debated). But in the Bible perhaps lies another reason many people are lacking haste in acting on climate change: if the highest goal of existence is to go to Heaven, then what happens to Planet Earth is not so important. Indeed, Christianity dictates that humans may rule over Creation to treat it as they wish:

‘Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish and the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all of the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth”.’ (Genesis 1:26).

Christianity being the most popular religious belief on Earth, it is easy to see why someone might believe we may take from nature what we wish. Islam exhibits similar views on the environment in which we live, whereby achieving Paradise at the end of life is of the utmost importance, and this life serves as a test – what is known as the greater jihad. Extrapolating the word of Genesis, one could imaginably argue that extraction of fossil fuels is a God-given right, too. After all, fossil fuels exist because of life forms which died millennia ago. It has even been argued that action on climate change should be discouraged, since an impending apocalypse beckons the Second Coming of Christ and the Day of Judgement. How can you possibly reach out to someone who doesn’t believe that the continued sustenance of the natural is important?

This is a big ask of climate science communication and luckily the answer seems to lie in the teachings of Christianity. The conservation-based approach of the RS textbook remarks that, whilst God gives human beings dominion over the natural world, they must also act as stewards:

‘The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it’ (Genesis 2:15).

 Stewardship, something strongly advocated by St. Francis of Assisi, is exactly the kind of role humanity should be taking on climate change. This applies whether you are religious or not. As the dominant species of Planet Earth who have ceaselessly extracted and manipulated the natural world for our own purposes and who are now pushing it to existential limits, it is hard to deny we have any responsibility to act in the best interests of the world that has given us everything we know and will ever know.

LESSONS FROM LESSONS

It is from revisiting the topics of A-level ethics that I have gained greatest insight into where lie paths to tackling the issues raised by opinion on climate change. The division between cognitivists and non-cognitivists I mentioned earlier lies between those who believe a moral truth exists (whatever this means, out there, somewhere) and those who do not, respectively. Cognitivists include the Catholic Church, who believe the moral truth is written in the stars and revealed through God’s scripture and Immanuel Kant, amongst others. Personally, I do not believe that a moral truth exists: there is no real ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ thing to do in any situation. What is important is not to use this as an excuse to get away with anything you like, but to make a case for the use of ethics in a world where it is essentially based on nothing. Such a case could take various forms, including references to intuition or conscience, for example.

In line with Ayer, I would argue the way in which we handle ethics is essentially a manifestation of our emotions on a particular topic or towards a certain person. Whilst emotions change from person to person and from one situation to another, strong, shared emotions cause reactions and give something that can be built upon. As is often remarked, the post-truth era in which we find ourselves values emotions above reason. Whilst this is usually a cause for despair, there also lies hope.

By striking strong the right chords, a passionate case for significant action on climate change can be made. This must be an effort which lessens the usage of approaches of blame and worry, which lead mainly to upset and ignorance. Instead, what must be enforced are the value of responsibility, compassion and concern for loved ones. Despite the growing hatred seen all across the world today, for example in the closing of borders and building of walls at the precise moment when vulnerable people need help the most, the environmental movement must stand as a pillar of hope and togetherness – a promise of a brighter future for everyone, not just the privileged few. It is clear all solutions to this grand problem require collaboration across scales unseen before in history. But only through caring for one another can the end goal of a safer future be reached. Or else, what is there left worth saving?

NOTES:

*: I make one concession here and it is that giving financially to a charity isn’t always the most effective way to make a positive change in the world and, indeed, donating small amounts almost randomly to a number of organisations can be somewhat unproductive. What is more productive is to consider giving in line with Effective Altruism. For an excellent description of the principles underlying this idea, I refer to Matt Allcock’s recent blog piece.

[Header image credit: Huffington Post]

One thought on “At the back of the public consciousness

  1. Pingback: Never mind clean Brexit. How about a green Brexit? | Cut waste, not trees (down)

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