Why can’t politicians ‘cut through’ on climate?

In the Guardian, Hugh Muir complains that the Daily Mail has “helped erode trust in the probity of the political establishment to the extent that politicians cannot now receive a fair hearing on anything.”

We don’t listen much to any of them these days, and sometimes that doesn’t matter, because we live quite happily day to day without ministerial interference. But when it comes to issues that affect the state and mood of the nation; the inability of even serious politicians to cut through becomes troubling.

This is spot on for climate change, as can be seen by a look at how Hugh’s own paper covered three stories in the run up to the Warsaw summit.

First, fossil fuel subsidies, where the Guardian gobbles up a global report from the Overseas Development Institute and presents it through a primarily national lens.

Fossil fuel subsidies

As I have explained, the Guardian’s framing is largely fallacious, but to pick up Hugh’s point, the government’s position is not reflected at all. No quotes. Nothing.

Only a tiny minority of readers would suspect that ministers deny Britain has any inefficient fossil fuel subsidies at all (or understand why). Nor would they realise that eliminating the ‘subsidy’ identified by ODI equates to quadrupling VAT on all domestic energy, whether it comes from fossil fuels or renewables. Continue reading

Public opinion and climate change

One  of the many strands of discussion at a Ditchley Foundation conference on climate change last week was the vexed question of how public opinion shapes the political space open to leaders on climate. There were many furrowed brows on this, not least given that the polling numbers on climate change are all heading the wrong way, all over the world – perhaps unsurprisingly, given the combination of the recession and media coverage of ‘climategate’.

My own take on this is that when we think about public opinion in the climate context, we’re a bit too fast to look at it through the lens of NGOs and the media – both of which had, I think, a terrible summit at Copenhagen.

Take NGOs first. For the most part, they concentrated on highly technical issues, as they have throughout the past decade – acting, in other words, like negotiators despite not having any bargaining chips. When they tried to look up a bit, and set an overall agenda, it was so vague as to be meaningless (“ambitious, fair, binding” – more on that here). Finally, as the summit fell apart, they retreated to their habitual comfort zone of arguing that it was all the fault of the US and EU, who had been unforgivably horrid to poor old China. (See Mark Lynas for a blistering critique of that view.)

Then, of course, there’s the feral nature of the 24/7 news media, which cheerfully overlooks its own agenda-setting role even as it peddles its sensationalised stories of stitch-ups, scandals and show-downs.

The Guardian’s John Vidal deserves singling out for an especially dishonourable mention here. Just two days in to Copenhagen, he ran a breathless piece saying that Copenhagen was “in disarray” following the leak of a draft agreement that “would hand more power to rich nations”. Never mind that the content of his piece was highly questionable (as we pointed out on GD at the time). The effect was to poison the atmosphere just as the summit began – leading the Indian environment minister to say in April this year that the summit had been “destroyed from the start” by the Guardian leak. Nice one, John!

So given that it would appear to be unwise to expect either NGOs or the media to help shape public opinion more constructively, what’s left? One suggestion at the conference was a bigger role for faith leaders – who are indeed getting steadily more active on climate.  

But my hunch is that it’s social networking technologies that are the key opinion formers to watch.

We’ve seen how breathtakingly fast they are at aggregating information – as during the Mumbai attacks, for instance, where Twitter was consistently 60-90 minutes ahead of the news media.  We’ve seen how they aggregate opinion as well as information – which can of course be as much of a curse as a blessing.  And we’ve seen how they can organise action – not just protest, but also more proactive policy solutions.

But what we haven’t seen, yet, is how all these elements could combine in the face of stronger climate impacts  – not just an extreme weather event, but an impact that could really trigger awareness of the potential for irreversible shifts. Strikes me that social networking technologies would be a highly unpredictable and interesting wild card in such circumstances – and potentially rather more useful than either NGOs or the media.

Crap journalism – swine flu, risk communication

In the New York Times, think tanker, James Jay Carafano (areas of expertise: homeland security, defense, military affairs, affairs, post-conflict operations, and counterrorism) gets hot under the collar about “news stories [that] play fast and loose with terms like ‘outbreak,’ ‘epidemic,’ and ‘pandemic.'”

His advice: “We should all just wash our hands and go to the doctor if we have flu symptoms.” Er, wrong. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (area of expertise: public health):

If you get sick with influenza, CDC recommends that you stay home from work or school and limit contact with others to keep from infecting them.

CDC is happy for people to contact their doctor if they need advice, but it only recommends adults seek emergency medical treatment if they have: (i) Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath; (ii) Pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen; (iii) Sudden dizziness; (iv) Confusion; (v) Severe or persistent vomiting. (The advice for children is similar – the list of warning symptoms different.)

In the UK, health authorities are even more explicit about the fact they don’t want people with flu sitting around in doctor’s waiting rooms. “If you have flu-like symptoms and have recently travelled to Mexico or been in contact with someone who has, stay at home and contact either your GP or NHS Direct on 0845 4647,” advises the NHS. Treating people without requiring face-to-face contact with healthcare professionals is at the heart of of the UK’s pandemic flu plan.

Carafano’s sins are minor compared with this preposterous Guardian article by Simon Jenkins (core expertise: frothing at the mouth).  According to Jenkins, swine flu is “a panic stoked in order to posture and spend” – with the public too moronic to resist having the wool pulled over its eyes:

We appear to have lost all ability to judge risk. The cause may lie in the national curriculum, the decline of “news” or the rise of blogs and concomitant, unmediated hysteria, but people seem helpless in navigating the gulf that separates public information from their daily round.

The government was “barking mad” to convene its emergency planning committee, Jenkins argues, while the World Health Organization is not really worried – it’s just making a pathetic bid to shore up its funding. Attention-whore doctors, health and safety hysterics, and rapacious drugs companies are all in on the plot, while ‘professional expertise’ (presumably from shrinking violent newspaper columnists) is being completely ignored.

BSE, SARs and avian flu, meanwhile, provide cast iron assurance that no pandemic is on the way. Continue reading

Russky Standard

I see my first ever boss, Geordie Greig, has been nominated as the editor of the London Evening Standard by the new owner of the paper, playboy oligarch and former KGB spook, Alexander Lebedev.

I’ve interviewed Lebedev in Moscow. He is a strange man. Not your typical Russian oligarch at all. He’s something of an outsider in Putin’s government, despite having worked as a spy abroad (he was based here in London during the 1980s, and his job was to monitor capital flows from the USSR).

He’s much closer to Gorbachev, and the two own one of Russia’s few independent newspapers, Novaya Gazeta. People were worried Novaya Gazeta would lose its teeth when a KGB man bought it, but no, it still seems full of brave journalists –  one of which was gunned down in Moscow in mid-January, while walking with a human rights lawyer.

The thing that struck me about Lebedev was how wowed he was by British society. He enthused about a dinner he was at in London, where he sat between Tom Stoppard and Tom Wolfe. His son Evgeny is even more of a butterfly, and he could be the one in the driving seat at the Standard.

What will be interesting is how the paper will report UK-Russian relations, next time Russia is in the news for some aggressive action (shouldn’t be long now), particularly if it took place in London, like the Litvinenko killing. I don’t think Lebedev would sit by and let the Standard slag off the Kremlin, as one previous editor, Max Hastings, is fond of doing – he referred in passing to Putin as ‘Russia’s chief Mafia capo’ in a Mail article last week. Not sure that would wash with the new proprietor of the Standard.