Crossing over

CAPE TOWN: Bill McKibben looked tired. Tired, but intense. The organiser-activist sat opposite me at the table of a curb-side café, punch drunk from crossing time zones. South Africa today, Israel tonight, who-knows-where tomorrow. His stare fixed on the brick paving somewhere to my left as our conversation lumbered slowly to a start.

It was an absurdly early hour on a Saturday and the little fishing village of Kalk Bay, near Cape Town, was still rubbing the sleep from its eyes.

“You started out as a journalist? How did you make this transition to being an activist?”

“Mmmmmm,” he considered the question, sipped on a dangerously creamy-looking hot chocolate, shifted into gear. “After college, Harvard , I went straight to The New Yorker magazine.”

The transition came later, he said, and partly by accident. First there was his book, End of Nature, about climate change. Then there were years of journalism on the issue, the “most important story of our time”. But the turning point was in a hospital in Dhaka during Bangladesh’s first big outbreak of the mosquito-borne disease, dengue fever, early this decade. It struck McKibben how the prone victims had done nothing to cause the outbreak, which was linked to the shifting footprint of the disease due to altering weather patterns, since most of the emissions responsible for climate change come from the developed world.

“My naïve assumption was that were I and others to write and talk about climate change, it would be taken care of. That was incorrect.”

Mounting evidence indicating the speed with which climate change is unfolding, punctuated by the rapid melting of the Arctic in 2007, convinced him that human beings were past the point of solving the climate crisis “one light bulb at a time”. What was needed was a big movement. Enter: (, a global campaign to rally communities to pressure governments into a sufficiently urgent response.

It’s an interesting position, though, particularly for environmental writers where the line between straight reporting, and activism, can be a little fuzzy.

Journalist, columnist and author Naomi Klein, in the book Global Values 101, said she considers herself “an activist journalist” and identifies herself primarily as “an activist… driven by (her) desire for social change”.

“You can be an activist in any profession… (an) activist doctor… lawyer… entrepreneur… journalist. It means that you use your skill and talents in the service of social change. There are people whose job it is to be a straight-ahead reporter, and they have to be much more guided by the rules of balance. I do not believe that anyone is objective. You must be fair and balanced, and you must not be a propagandist.”

South Africa has its own history of activist journalism, where many left-wing reporters and photographers used their profession to rally against the apartheid state. Ruth First springs to mind – her activism got her assassinated by the SA government while she was in exile in Mozambique in 1982.

South African science journalist Jorisna Bonthuys, with Die Burger, fielded a question on this very issue during a workshop hosted by the Southern African Science Journalists’ Association (SASJA) in February this year. She was slightly more reticent, saying environmental journalists need to be conscious of the fact that they are not activists, because being that could undermine what they do.

“The mere fact that you are an environmental journalist already colours your attitude in a certain way.”

Apartheid wouldn’t have fallen without the deliberate efforts of journalists to highlight the topic, she said, and one could say that climate change needs a similar response from our profession.

“That doesn’t mean that you have to be the activist, but rather that you should give activists coverage, without being in their corner. You’re a journalist before you’re an environmental journalist.”

“As long as we remember that,” she told the workshop audience, “we’ll be ok.”

Bill McKibben has long crossed over onto the side of out-and-out activist. But then, maybe the world needs all kinds.

Handling the climate deniers

It was one of those bombshells that sucks the conversation from the room.

“But now new studies say that climate change is part of a natural phenomenon,” a financial journalist hammered out in an email to me recently. There was a hint of a question mark at the end of the statement.

“Oh? Um… could you point me to the report you’re referring to, please?” I shot back, curious.

Sure enough, the source of this information was a column written in the financial magazine FinWeek by a retired newspaperman with decades of journalism under his belt. But he’d been reeled in by one of those dissident polemics about how climate change isn’t caused by humans (in this case, Ian Plimer’s book Heaven and Earth).

What started out as a popular book based on faulty assumptions and occasional bits of science that had been cherry-picked to support a specific view, was refashioned through the media machine to become “a new scientific study”. See how easy it is to mangle the truth?

The South African press has a few climate deniers surfacing from time to time, and you can understand why. Journalism training and newsroom convention push us to tell the dissident story: our job is to “balance” the story, to tell “both sides”, to represent the “dissident” view, give the “underdog” a place on the podium. We’re part of the democracy of ideas, after all. Censoring ideas is anathema to the discipline.

And let’s be honest, controversy sells papers more than the “boring old consensus” view.

Lack of scientific literacy is fundamental to perpetuating myths about climate change, because few journalists understand the philosophy of the scientific method and how to use this as a way to test what we know about the world.

So how do we know what’s true?

We’ve got two ideas here: the “consensus” view of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which says, in its Fourth Assessment Report, that most of the warming we’ve seen in the past half century has been caused by human activities.

Then there’s the “dissident” view, like Plimer’s, which says the carbon dioxide we’ve added to the atmosphere is miniscule, that the changes in climate we’re seeing are natural, and that the IPCC scientists are all part of some mass conspiracy to deceive the public.

So, who to believe? Maybe there’s some kind of “golden mean”, some middle ground where both sets of ideas meet a happy compromise. No.

The problem with wrapping our heads around the IPCC report is that the science is vast. It’s a compilation of work by scientists across multiple disciplines: oceanography, climatology, paleo-geography, ice core sampling, pollen residues, animal migration patterns, cloud formation… no journalist is going to have the skills to go back to the original data to check whether they’re correct.

So what’s the next course of action? My approach is more philosophical.

The scientific method is a tool that’s been devised to test how the world works. It’s a ruler we put alongside an idea to check that it’s straight. The process of observation, experimentation, subjecting ideas to review by peers, publishing in journals – these are steps in a method that tries to remove personal biases or deliberate frauds, and reach some kind of truth. It’s designed to be self-correcting.

Faced with both sets of ideas, let’s ask which underwent the most rigorous testing according to the toolkit provided by the scientific method: dissidents like Plimer, or the IPCC? Which provides the largest body of peer reviewed, evidence-based science?

Secondly, it’d require a truly cynical motive, for 2500 IPCC scientists, and n-number of reviewing scientists, who are leaders in their fields across multiple disciplines, and around the world, to conspire to produce a 3000 page document of deliberately fraudulent science. Believing that requires suspending belief to an extraordinary level. Wasn’t it the physicist Richard Feynman who said “be open minded, but not so open minded that your brains fall out”?

What’s the harm of perpetuating these ideas about climate change being bogus? Many politicians have said, unofficially, that they want the public to pressure them into making policy changes to tackle climate change – this’ll give them room to bring about legislation that would be so unpopular that it might otherwise jeopardise their short term political ambitions. But if the public doesn’t believe that the climate crisis is urgent, they won’t pressure government.

As journalists, we need to ask ourselves this: if the climate scientists are right, and catastrophic change really is just around the corner, what’s our obligation to society? And what’s the harm of perpetuating false ideas about the apparent non-existence of the climate crisis? Will we be responsible for lulling society into apathy, allowing it to continue fiddling while Rome (and London, and Cape Town, and Beijing, etc) burns?

It’s easy to be swayed by a lone author like Ian Plimer who says human-caused climate change is bogus – but strong or contrarian argument isn’t enough to make the claims true. It’s not even about whether or not most scientists “believe” that the climate is changing.

“What counts is the evidence,” writes New Scientist’s Michael le Page, “and the evidence – that the world is getting warmer, that the warming is largely due to human emissions, and that the downsides of further warming will outweigh the positive effects – is very strong and getting stronger.”

That, in the end, should be the plumb line against which we test these ideas for truth. And that’s what underscores all science writing.