US public starved of facts that show climate change is here, UAE audience told

A lecture at New York University Abu Dhabi explored public perceptions of climate change in the UAE and the US

FILE - This March 7, 2014 file photo released by PBS shows PBS science correspondent Miles O'Brien during the taping of an interview for "PBS Newshour," A documentary, "Miles O'Brien: A Life Lost and Found," narrated by his friend, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, premieres on CNN next Tuesday, March 10, 2015.  The documentary covers O'Brien's emotional experience in recovering from arm amputation.  (AP Photo/PBS)
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In 1913, one of the earliest media appearances by climate change was printed in The Boston Globe. It warned of clams growing on the roofs of homes and seaweed swaying in the Public Garden because of a rise in global sea levels.

But, the report said, citizens need not fret. The rise of the oceans caused by increasing temperatures would take another 500,000 years.

More than a century later, despite irrefutable scientific evidence for climate change, mainstream media coverage of situation in the US has scarcely improved.

The media has failed to deliver the science behind climate change to the public, listeners were told at a New York University-Abu Dhabi lecture on Monday night.

The panel talk, Public Perception of Climate Change – Past, Present and Future was led by the independent science journalist and former CNN science reporter Miles O'Brien.

In the early 20th century, climate change was presented as a distant problem, either temporally or geographically. This remains the case today.

And yet, Mr O'Brien said, the evidence is before our eyes: hurricanes; drought; wildfires; snowstorms; flooding and more.

“We can no longer say this is one of those stories that is vague, distant, and happening in the future, and hard to find a picture for,” Mr O’Brien said.

Newscasters often fail to connect local events to global trends. In an analysis of 15,000 stories about Hurricane Harvey last year, US President Donald Trump was mentioned in 900 stories. Climate change was mentioned in just 79.

In the US, science has been hijacked by partisan politics. This is a step back from 30 years ago, when Republicans such as former president George Bush Sr could discuss it as a fact that required action.

“Some may be tempted to exploit legitimate concern for political positioning,” Mr Bush said in a speech to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. “Our responsibility is to maintain the quality of our approach, our commitment to sound science and an open mind to policy options.”

What he warned against has come to pass.

This shifted about two decades ago, when high carbon producers hired the same public relations team that worked with big tobacco companies.

As Republican adviser Frank Luntz wrote in one memo: “The scientific debate is closing against us but not yet closed. There’s still a window of opportunity to challenge the science. Voters believe that there is no consensus about global warming within the scientific community. Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly.”

That playbook is still being used, Mr O’Brien said.

News consumers must choose which news to watch, read and support. "You pick the journalism you like but it shouldn't be free," he said.

Closer to home, NYU Abu Dhabi undergraduate Dana Al Hosani presented her capstone project on how people in the Emirates talk about climate change. Or, more often, how and why they don’t.

In the UAE, where climate change is broadly accepted, a surprising factor limits the adoption of sustainable habits: good manners.

Interviews with three focus groups found social pressure to be the largest hurdle.

For instance, one interviewee said that she would prefer to put out a single jug of water for guests when hosting but would opt for small bottles in case someone might consider a jug unhygienic.

Pointing out environmentally poor choices such as using straws and plastic bags was not acceptable, participants said.

Instead, they found two methods effective at raising discussion. The first was to broach climate change and ethical environmental choices through the topic of religion.

The second was that among adults, many parents found they could discuss responsible behaviour by sharing the new habits their children had brought home, such as minimising food waste to reduce the family’s carbon footprint.


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With praise instead of criticism, delicate subjects could be introduced and positive habits formed.

But before behaviour can change, people must connect the abstract with the everyday, Ms Al Hosani said. "I think it's very important that we restructure the idea of what climate change is. Climate change is such an abstract idea to the individual that it's not necessarily something you want to tackle every day."

Anna Zacharias