Climate change: adaptation, science, and the media

By Joseph J. Bailey,  University of Nottingham, UK.

One is never short of media coverage on climate change, but there has been a flurry recently in relation to its purported role in the ‘sinking’ of several islands in the Solomon Islands, following a publication by Australian researchers (Albert et al., 2016). Dramatic headlines included: “Five Pacific islands lost to rising seas as climate change hits” (The Guardian, 2016a) and “After the Pacific Ocean swallows villages and five Solomon Islands, a study blames climate change” (The Washington Post, 2016), to list just two. Such headlines would lead anyone to think that climate change had solely caused the sea levels to rise and destroy these islands and, therefore, that climate change sank the islands. Perhaps not, though.

The Guardian was quick to release a subsequent article: “Headlines ‘exaggerated’ climate link to sinking of Pacific islands” (The Guardian, 2016b) after they spoke to the paper’s lead author, who identified that many headlines were “certainly pushing things a bit towards the ‘climate change has made islands vanish’ angle”. The Solomon Islands’ sea level rise is above average because of a range of factors, including natural climatic cycles and increases in the strength of the trade winds. These changes are operating alongside global warming which does indeed increase average global sea levels but also increases the intensity of these trade winds, as outlined in the article. It is a complicated climatic system that has been simplified and widely misrepresented in the media to varying extents.

Taking the line ashore. A villager in his canoe takes the line ashore at Halavo, Nggela (Florida) Island, Solomon Islands. Source: This photograph, which has not been edited, was taken by Jenny Scott and downloaded from Flickr (link to photograph) for non-commercial use on this blog under a Creative Commons 2.0 License.

Interestingly, all of this happened about one week after Lord Krebs wrote an article for The Conversation about media responsibility in reporting climate change, and the need for scientists to engage with the media to support more accurate reporting (Krebs, 2016). The issues discussed and articles referenced by Lord Krebs are potentially of a more serious nature than the case of sea level rise affecting the Solomon Islands. However, despite differences in the seriousness of the misrepresentation and simplification of the science between Lord Krebs’ examples and the more recent reports surrounding the Solomon Islands, there is overlap in the associated issues and questions raised. Namely: how can the public and politicians fully understand the science and respond to it in the face of inaccurate and pervasive media reports? Furthermore, if people are not clear on the science of climate change, how does this affect our resilience and willingness to adapt to probable changes in the future?

A recent article in Geography Compass explores climate change adaptation in much detail (Eisenhauer, 2016). Climate change adaptation describes the process whereby people seek to decrease the risks and impacts of climate change through societal and economic strategies, for example (details). The paper focusses on pathways, which describe “alternative trajectories of development” (p. 209), in the context of climate change adaptation because such adaptations are part of continual change towards desirable socio-ecological conditions. Four approaches to pathways are proposed and discussed. They aim to fill the current gap between usable knowledge and action that the paper identifies. In particular, these actions generally relate to governance or development. The importance of local people in adaptation planning is also highlighted.

Discussion of this gap between usable knowledge and action, and attempts to address it, is important because the creation of knowledge is one thing, but identifying which aspects of it are of the greatest relevance and usefulness for the task at hand is another. Subsequent dissemination to stakeholders must then follow, and is it here that the media has great potential. But, as we have seen time and time again, including only this month, knowledge can be misrepresented or simplified to the point where it is no longer presents what the authors intended. Some simplification is necessary to create readable news articles and, as the lead author of the Solomon Islands paper, Dr Simon Albert, told The Guardian, ‘dramatic’,  eye-catching headlines can attract readers and raise the profile of important issues. However, caution is required and a balance between a headline’s accuracy and ability to draw in readers must be struck.

Climate change is one of the most geographical issues, covering all aspects of the human, natural, and physical world, and the connections and interactions therein. The ability of communities to adapt will play a large role in determining its impacts in the future. It is vital that scientific findings are made to be usable and relevant for policy-makers and stakeholders so that effective strategies can be instigated. We have seen here the presentation of science and of geographic phenomena in the media can be inappropriate at times. This makes it difficult for people to be properly informed and make sound decisions about climate-related environmental changes. Additionally, the Solomon Islands coverage should be used as a cautionary example that not all environmental changes are because of climate change: the world is complicated. Communication between scientists and the media and, subsequently, between the media and observers to disseminate accurate and useful knowledge will no doubt be a key ingredient in the initiation of positive action.

 

REFERENCES

Albert, S. et al. (2016). Interactions between sea-level rise and wave exposure on reef island dynamics in the Solomon Islands. Environmental Research Letters, 11 (5).

Eisenhauer, D. C. (2016). Pathways to Climate Change Adaptation: Making Climate Change Action Political. Geography Compass, 10 (5), 207 – 221.

Krebs, J. (2016). Lord Krebs: scientists must challenge poor media reporting on climate change (online). The Conversation. Available at: https://theconversation.com/lord-krebs-scientists-must-challenge-poor-media-reporting-on-climate-change-58621 (last accessed 12th May 2016).

The Guardian (2016a). Five Pacific islands lost to rising seas as climate change hits (online). Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/may/10/five-pacific-islands-lost-rising-seas-climate-change (last accessed 12th May 2016).

The Guardian (2016b). Headlines ‘exaggerated’ climate link to sinking of Pacific islands (online). Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/may/10/headlines-exaggerated-climate-link-to-sinking-of-pacific-islands (last accessed 12th May 2016).

The Washington Post (2016). After the Pacific Ocean swallows villages and five Solomon Islands, a study blames climate change (online). Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2016/05/09/after-the-pacific-ocean-swallows-villages-and-five-solomon-islands-a-study-blames-climate-change/ (last accessed 12th May 2016).

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