Why climate change is not a debate

  • Megan Conery
  • Marta Parszeniew
(Article published by Do The Green Thing, October 2017)

Donald Trump’s ‘unpresidented‘ rise to power has seen an entire government administration built on logical fallacies.
Flawed arguments are wall-to-wall in the Trump era: Circular reasoning. Appeal to fear. Appeal to ignorance. OMG the ignorance.
Traditionally, it’s the responsibility of the fourth estate (the media) to save us from such rhetorical trickery. Trouble is, the media is so used to trafficking in logical fallacies of its own, that many journalists seemed incapable of inoculating themselves against Trump & Co’s uniquely dangerous word salad in the run-up to last year’s bombshell election.
In fact, the logical fallacy in the media that is partially responsible for electing current US President – and noted climate change denier – Donald J. Trump is the very same fallacy that has delayed action on climate change for decades: false equivalence.
False equivalence is what happens when two things are presented as if they share equal validity or weight, when in fact they don’t.
Take the 2016 US election as an example:
Donald had (has) the racism, the misogyny, the Islamophobia.
“BUT HER EMAILS,” the anchors squawked.
And when applied to the climate change discourse, false equivalence looks like this:
“Anthropogenic climate change is real,” agrees a global consensus of roughly 97%of scientists.
The media, and especially TV, generally follows a formula when it comes to covering the news of the day. Issues are framed as debates, with two opposing sides argued by two opposing people armed with varying degrees of fervour and (alternative) fact.
This false balance happens even when the facts overwhelmingly favour one side of a so-called ‘debate’.
But because journalists fear accusations of bias the same way Sean Spicer fears journalists, their desire for objectivity can, rather perversely, produce the opposite effect.
And for more than three decades, this is exactly what has been happening with climate change reporting.
By giving climate change experts with legitimate, proven concerns equal billing to climate change deniers (who often come with much flimsier qualifications, representing institutes bank-rolled by corporate interests), journalists fatefully conflated objectivity with neutrality – and buried the truth in the process.
The media has enormous power in shaping public belief and attitudes, especially about complicated ideas of which the audience has little direct experience.
By constructing an equal playing field where there should never have been one, journalists constructed a sense of public uncertainty about the validity and urgency of climate change. They gave their audience a choice between worrying about a big, scary and complicated science-y thing, or not worrying about it at all because it may not exist.

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As long as journalists, editors, producers choose to promote the views of skeptics, it’s our duty to hold them to account.
We can take on the media by calling, writing, commenting, petitioning or boycotting. We can defy the deniers by taking green action in our lives.
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