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Global warming: STRATFOR Report

By deepsand ·
Stratfor Public Policy Intelligence Report
Strategic Forecasting

"Science, Policy and the Media"
By Bart Mongoven

Panels of journalists and scientists gathered July 25 at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington to discuss the mainstream media's reporting on climate change. The consensus was that the media have not covered the issue well. According to both panels, the greatest shortcoming has been in persistent portrayals of the issue as one of contentious scientific debate: In reality, the assembled scientists said, man-made climate change is generally accepted throughout the scientific community as a reality.

Most of the time at the conference was dedicated to examining the media's portrayal of the issue and explaining how it came into being. The root of the problem, most participants agreed, is that climate change has been covered primarily as a political rather than a scientific issue -- and thus, the media have focused on the political debate rather than the science behind it.

In the background of this discussion loomed a larger issue: The mainstream media, recognizing that there is more to the story, now are struggling with ways to change their portrayal of the climate change issue. Arguments are emerging that the scientific debate has now been concluded, "industry" has lost and the new debate is about policy options. Though this line of thinking is nearer to the truth, it does not entirely close the gap. The fact is that industry all but stopped contesting the premise of man-made climate change two years ago, but the media's preoccupation with the traditional battle lines -- industry versus environmentalists -- continues to obscure the complexity of the issue and the positions of various players.

The issue is worthy of examination because the media portrayals have some impact as public policy is formed. To be sure, the media are consumers of a complex discussion between mainstream scientific institutions, industry and activists -- each of whom approaches scientific debates with completely different outlooks, values and goals. At the same time, however, the "fourth estate" is positioned to break the complicated scientific matters into terms that both the public and politicians can understand. Reporters' ability to do so, as well as any tendencies to overlook or oversimplify aspects of the debate, can be felt down the road as regulations are formed. As editors and reporters come to recognize this, the media likely will assume a more important role in the shaping of public discourse and policy development.

The Importance of Scale

The portrayal issue is becoming particularly relevant at this time because the regulatory questions that are emerging at the nexus of science and politics are unlike any that have come before. Scientific knowledge and human ingenuity are producing technologies and results of incredible power and scale: Industrialization has reached a point at which the Earth's protective ozone layer has been threatened, and the planet's climate is likely being affected. At the same time, chemists are finding ways to work on an incredibly small scale -- developing nanotechnologies that could revolutionize medicine, consumer products and lifestyles.

With this remarkable scale (at both ends of the spectrum) comes unprecedented complexity -- and new challenges for the media that report on these issues. A layman easily can grasp the notion that vapor feedback mechanisms contribute to the Earth's climate (and even that these mechanisms counteract some of the warming that likely results from increased carbon in the atmosphere); however, the details of how these feedback mechanisms work are beyond the understanding of most nonspecialists. Meanwhile, sciences like toxicology are undergoing quiet revolutions: The interactions of specific substances and specific genes are being studied to determine whether some substances can have particularly beneficial or (more emphatically) particularly damaging effects on people with certain genetic makeups. These types of investigations (known as "toxicogenomics") are as complicated and involved -- yet as important in the scientific debate -- as climate feedback loops.

In the middle of all this, lawmakers, regulators and (increasingly) consumers are being asked to draw conclusions about such issues as the threat of climate change and the risks posed by nanoparticles. In addition to making these assessments, with the continuing trend toward deregulation, consumers and businesses are also being asked to weigh these risks against the benefits of cheap energy and emerging technologies.

The media play an important role in this process: Ultimately, they have the power to translate scientific debates and findings into words consumers and their representatives in government can understand. The way these issues are reported often dictates how certain issues are addressed in public policies.

To be fair, editors at major news organizations in industrialized countries appear to take this role very seriously. While not unheard of, unjustified consumer scares are surprisingly rare in industrialized countries, and when they do occur they generally result from intricate intentional campaigns to fool the media. Still, the media are in a difficult position as they report on complicated scientific issues: Their challenge is to navigate through the interplay between the scientific establishment, industry and policy advocates. And, it is important to note, the approaches and roles of these groups are changing in new and interesting ways.

The Industry Stance

Industry's view of the science behind public policy has changed markedly in recent years. As institutions, businesses crave stability and certainty. The regulations by which they are governed are important, but the predictability of the regulatory system is even more important in their eyes. Industry historically has preferred that public policy be determined by national governments and that policies give clear guidance as to what will and will not be allowed in the future.

For the most part, industry wants regulation that is based on firm unchanging scientific grounds -- and it wants regulatory language to be as unambiguous as possible. In most cases, it also wants regulations to be protective of health or the environment. For some companies, this is a very highly held social ethic. For others, it stems merely from fear of U.S. tort law. In either case, the tendency has been for companies to call for deliberate scientific investigation that justifies a regulation, while simultaneously acknowledging the importance of regulation.

This traditional approach is changing, however. As the problems of scale we already have discussed increasingly come into play, the trajectory of regulation is growing uncertain and difficult to chart. Further complicating matters is the deregulatory ethic in Congress and within the Bush administration, which has allowed issues to be debated in the public sphere but left businesses to work out the resolutions in private. The climate change debate in the United States, for example, shifted as it became clear to many companies that policies likely were forthcoming -- but the nature of these regulations remained opaque. The uncertainty this produced stymied company planning, research and development efforts. Uncertain which way the regulators would go, businesses erred on the side of conservatism and began to adopt very stringent self-regulatory policies in efforts to move past the impasse.

The perspective extends to more than just climate change, however. To cite another example, computer manufacturers have begun to phase certain substances out of their products -- not because the substances are illegal or because they have been found to cause health problems, but because allegations that the substances may be harmful might crop up. Rather than fight these allegations or potential class-action lawsuits, manufacturers prefer to build products and design processes with the certainty that their substances will not become controversial. The revolutions in medicine, genetics and toxicology that are now under way will only drive more of this kind of thinking as companies conclude that the regulatory stability they crave can be created only by taking extremely precautionary approaches.

Activists and Science

The activist organizations that advocate regulatory change -- whether increased regulation or decreased regulation of industry -- were established to change the world in a specific way. Activist groups on both sides of the political and ideological spectrum tend to view science as a tool: They use it only when it is helpful to their cause. Many groups spend a great deal of time and money looking at scientific questions, but their objectives nonetheless are political, not scientific.

For example, think tanks and activist groups created to fight regulatory action on climate change sometimes make scientific arguments; at other times, they try to move beyond science to place the issue in economic, ideological or political terms.

Consider the array of nongovernmental organizations that previously have pressed for stringent national regulations: Many of these have shifted their approach in light of the emerging concerns about scale. As expressed in both the climate risk and chemical risk issue debates, groups are beginning to play up uncertainty -- scientific and regulatory -- and press for businesses to adopt new management styles that effectively amount to self-regulation.

Because the media continue to write about these matters as political issues -- debates between two interested parties -- the scientific questions at the center of campaigns on climate change, the relative risk of various chemicals and substances and the risks posed by genetically modified organisms have been relegated to the backburner. Rather than being the focus in the policy debates, the science is used as a tactic in a communications and public relations battle.

Enter the Media

As the journalists and scientists who attended the Wilson Center event agreed, the mainstream media in the United States have not kept pace with the changes that are under way. Though they have been responsible in avoiding massive consumer scares, there is still a tendency for the media to report on scientific issues as they pertain to policy change -- using traditional terms that pit industry against activists in a fight over the interpretation of very complex science. The back-and-forth makes headlines.

At its root, the politicization of the scientific debate closely resembles the mainstream media's election reporting -- and the criticisms of it are much the same as well. In politics, the standard criticism is that the media focus on the horse race (polls, one-line zingers and sound bites) rather than on the issues and candidates' positions. In regulatory battles and politics, mano-a-mano sells -- complexity does not.

For the news media, much is at stake in this discussion -- particularly if deregulatory trends continue. As science-based policy battles continue to play out on the field of consumer opinion rather than in regulatory agencies and courts, the media will face the decision of whether -- and how -- to change the way they report on the issues. The decision will not be an easy one, particularly since journalism is itself a business: In de-emphasizing the political and focusing on the technical aspects of the issues, a news outlet runs the risk of boring the public and losing sales.

On the other hand, a shift in this direction also could dramatically increase the media's relevance in the policymaking process.

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Interesting perspective shift that

by Tony Hopkinson In reply to Global warming: STRATFOR ...

I tend to be in the treehugging activist camp, but I couldn't find anything in particular to disagree with there.
The politicisation of science, in this deabate is something I've been aware of for a long time.

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