Category Archives: climate change

Congress 2010: Academics Unite

The 2010 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences officially kicked off today in Montreal. The largest academic party in Canada, Congress brings together several thousand scholars, students, practitioners and policy makers to share ideas, debate current issues and events, and advance and promote new research.

It is also a hell of a good time (yes, we academics can be fun…sometimes). Congress provides a venue for nerds like me to meet up with old grad school buddies and former colleagues who have since scattered across Canada and internationally to take up positions in universities, research institutes, government and the private and nonprofit sectors.

Congress hosts the annual meetings of more than 70 associations representing a wide range of disciplines in the humanities and social sciences, from art history and classics to journalism studies and political science. I’m a member of two associations, the Canadian Communication Association and the Association for Nonprofit and Social Economy Research. Our meetings are scheduled for next week, which puts me in Montreal from June 1-4. Until then I’m busily preparing the slides and speaking notes for the 3 talks I have agreed to give. Here’s a very brief summary:

June 1 – Talk of the Enemy: Adversarial Framing and Climate Change Discourse

This paper was written with my collaborator Graham Knight (McMaster University). Our interest is in exploring the communication strategies of activists and counter-movements who are locked into contentious struggles over policy, public opinion and media attention. In particular we look at the rise of adversarial framing in the debate over global climate change. Adversarial framing is a form of reputational assault — it’s a rhetorical strategy designed to vilify and malign the moral character, competence, credentials and associations of one’s opponents and adversaries. The debate about climate change provides a fascinating laboratory for exploring the claims-making practices of global warming realists and climate change skeptics and our paper focuses on two high profile Canadian examples from each camp.

June 3 – Reframing Social Justice

I was invited by Concordia University’s Leslie Shade to participate in a roundtable discussion with other scholars and public interest activists to discuss strategies and tactics for increasing a “Connected Understanding” of vital social justice issues. This connectivity means many things and we will be discussing the following questions: first, how do we develop diverse modes of research dissemination that will impact policy outcomes for the public interest; second, should we engage in scholarly-activist activity through our research and teaching (and if so how should this be done); and third, what steps (if any) can be made to build a sustainable infrastructure and network of academic-activists who might work collaboratively on research topics of mutual interest that can impact and influence public discourse and policy?

June 4 – Communicating Homelessness and Social Housing in Canada

I have convened this special roundtable to discuss the intersections of policy advocacy and media discourse about homelessness in Canada. Acting as both moderator and speaker, I will discuss some of the findings of a longitudinal analysis of media coverage about homelessness in four Canadian cities (Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, Ottawa) on which I served as principal investigator. My doctoral student, Gina Grosenick, will present some of the findings of her dissertation research, which explores how nonprofit organizations in these cities have developed advocacy strategies through a ‘negotiation’ of the opportunities and constraints for communicative action. I’m also looking forward to the contributions of two professionals whom I hold in very high esteem: Kate Heartfield, a member of the editorial board at the Ottawa Citizen, will discuss the production pressures newsmakers face in reporting on complex social policy issues; and Michael Shapcott, Director of Affordable Housing and Social Innovation at The Wellesley Institute in Toronto, will speak to the implications of media representations for social justice advocacy.

In addition to the above presentations I am also looking forward to meeting up with my good friend and collaborator Charlene Elliott from the University of Calgary. Our textbook, Communication in Question, has sold very well and our publisher has requested a second volume. A lot has changed in the world of media and communication studies the past 3 years and we will be updating some of the existing chapters and rounding out the book with exciting new content. Stay tuned!

If you find yourself in Montreal next week, please drop me a note and come say hello. I will also be live-tweeting at the other sessions I attend. You can find me on Twitter here.

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Filed under climate change, Higher Education, Research

A Nation of Shopkeepers?

With the climate talks now monopolized by senior political officials, and NGOs essentially excluded from the process of consultation, we decided to hit the streets of Copenhagen to gauge the reactions of ordinary Danes to the do or die event happening in their midst. But on a bitterly cold and damp winter day, the prospect of staying outside for more than a few minutes was simply too unappealing. The result? Talk to people working in the various stores lining the main route from our flat to the central train station about their thoughts on climate change, COP15 and the violent reactions of police to recent protests, particularly yesterday’s melee at the Bella Centre where the official meetings are taking place.

Reactions were mixed on some of these items but less so on others. And some of the responses came to us as a surprise, while others were probably expected. It is certainly the case that the climate change conference “is all anyone is talking about right now,” said a manager of a women’s clothing shop, a women in her mid-50s.”It’s entirely unavoidable,” said another, the owner of a local groceria, “unless you choose to shut off the TV.”

The biggest point of agreement was that although the police’s rough tactics have been discomforting, they have been mostly justified in using heavy force. Video footage from various protests and police raids of activists over the course of the last two weeks leave little doubt about the willingness or ability of the Danish police to use strong-arm tactics against (mainly youthful) activists. Check out the clips from my previous post, and here are two new ones:

Source: EUX TV

Source: CYDCopenhagen

If the local retail sector is anything to go by, the heavy-handed police tactics seem to be accepted as both inevitable and unavoidable, particularly against those who are seen as “trouble-making outsiders,” as one merchant put it. As for the conference, those we spoke to saw it chiefly as an inconvenience at best, and disruptive at worst. Business has been bad because of the global recession, but at this time of year there should at least be a faint hope of an uptick in sales as people warmed to the season of gift giving.

“Why not hold it in January, after the Christmas season when we hope to do significant business,” said the owner of a local flower shop, a man in his late-30s.

“My customers are scared and not spending any money. This conference has been a nightmare for my sales,” exclaimed another.

“All I care about is paying for my electricity, paying my staff their salary, and providing for my kids. I have no time to think of anything else,” stated a third.

And the issue of climate change itself? Danes have an international reputation for being easy-going, compassionate, tolerant, and (most environmentally telling of all) bicycle loving. Even in sub zero temperatures with a generous coating of snow on the ground, Copenhagen is full of cyclists riding to work, to shop, and to school.

If nothing else, this should be a nation of people keenly interested in climate change and its mitigation. Although the issue did spark some interest, for the most part the general view from the petite bourgeois class is that people have enough on their hands worrying about getting by and making a living on a daily basis. “Honestly, I don’t give it very much thought,” said the clerk of a high end furniture store, a man in his late-20s. “Of course, it’s important to be worried about the climate, but we have other problems.”

As for concern about the impacts of climate change on the developing world (a dominant theme of the talks)? It barely registered on the radar. For us this was both surprising and disquieting, but it was a consistent thread in the discussions nevertheless.

When Napoleon Bonaparte dismissed the English as a nation of shopkeepers, he meant to suggest that because they were fixated on short term financial gain, they would not offer much resistance when push came to shove. But as he learned to his regret, shopkeepers can be highly resistant.

Although we are careful to avoid generalizing from these discussions to the broader population, there’s a potential lesson to be learned for the climate change movement and their supporters in the political class: it is important to continue making the case that climate change is fundamentally a moral and social justice issue that has far-reaching and dangerous consequences, particularly for vulnerable people in the developing world. However, it is also crucial to pay attention to the concerns, economic or otherwise, of ordinary citizens in those countries that will bear the lion’s share of the financial cost of fixing a problem that they may well only be partially responsible for creating. The longer climate change is treated as an either/or issue, the longer it will take to mobilize the domestic support in those countries that have the power and ability to make a difference.

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The Climatecasters

The novelist, humourist and journalist Mark Twain had a well-known obsession with weather: “the climate is what we expect, but the weather is what we get,” is probably one of his most famous lines. Twain is of course best known for his classic contributions to American literature: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. But equally significant was his novel The American Claimant, published in 1892 (incidentally, also the first novel ever dictated with the assistance of a phonograph). In it he had this to say about weather:

Of course, the weather is necessary to a narrative of human experience. That is conceded. But it ought to be put where it will not be in the way…weather is a literary specialty, and no untrained hand can turn out a good article of it.

Twain’s musings on weather and its connection to communication were relevant today as I spent the afternoon camped out at Klimaforum, the alternative climate conference that has featured panel discussions by academics, journalists, and activists on a wide range of topics and themes: the role of nature in music; climate and food security; the global water crisis; indigenous rights and the energy development; and eco-literacy (among others).

The day’s session that most appealed to me was “Climate Broadcasters,” which featured presentations from three of Europe’s leading meteorologists about the challenges and opportunities facing weather broadcasters who are also committed campaigners for a binding global agreement on climate change. Climatecasters are key players in the public debate about global climate change because they have a solid grasp of the science, are able to communicate clearly to a non-expert audience, and enjoy high levels of public trust and credibility. A recent study by George Mason University’s Climate Change Communication Center and the Yale Project on Climate Change reported that meteorologists are trusted by 66% of Americans as a source of information about global warming, far above the level of trust enjoyed by the mainstream media organizations for which they work (47%).

The panelists are all involved with the Climate Broadcasters Network – Europe, a professional association of weathercasters sponsored by the EU with members in more than 23 countries. The first speaker, and arguably the most accomplished member of the association, is Jill Peeters, meteorologist with  Flemish broadcaster VTM, the author of 3 books about climate change and recipient of the 2008 European Meteorological Society award in weather forecasting. Ms. Peeters was also deeply involved in the production and promotion of the YouTube  sensation The Big Ask, a 2-minute film depicting the implications of a 2-centigrade increase in global temperature that has been shown in 18 countries and 10 languages.

Here are my main take-away points from the panel:

1. Ms. Peeters discussed the difficulties of being a “climate broadcaster” in a commercial media organization. She impressed me by acknowledging the paradox of promoting climate change awareness for a privately owned news organization that makes its money on ad revenue promoting conspicuous consumption (cell phones, travel holidays, fancy automobiles, etc.). I believed her when she described the moral difficulties this poses for her as a professional who is also a committed advocate.

2. As part of the “bargain” she struck with her employer, Ms. Peeters produced a series of short “news you can use” climate videos to follow her weather reports. The focus of these clips is the little things individuals can do to help reduce their overall CO2 emissions: from lowering the thermostat in their homes to riding a bicycle to work. Such examples of service journalism provide media audiences with information, advice and help about the problems of everyday life. Service-oriented reporting may be admirable for its action imperatives, however this genre of news is limited to the extent that it identifies the individual consumer as both the cause and the solution to climate change – a critical interrogation of the wider political and economic environment within which climate change occurs is almost entirely absent.

3. One of the major challenges meteorologists face in reporting on climate change is the professional norm of objectivity. In what the sociologist Gaye Tuchman called the objectivity ritual, journalists are expected to offer competing perspectives on issues as a proxy for fairness and balance. To illustrate, although 95% of the world’s leading climate scientists believe in the evidence behind anthropogenic global warming (AGW), the objectivity ritual insists that the 5% minority obtain an equal share of the publicity. According to the panelists, they experience the pressure of this ritual all the time — the problem, they say, is this creates a misleading perspective about the scientific debate and harms rather than enhances public understanding about science.

4. There is clearly a stronger commitment by European meteorologists to professionalizing and coordinating their climatecasting than exists in the major CO2 emitting countries: the U.S., Australia and Canada, among others. When this observation was posed to the panel, they acknowledged the much higher levels of skepticism about AGW outside of Europe, focusing on the U.S., in particular. They also commented on the challenges this has posed in terms of internationalizing their movement. One of the speakers referenced a recent “study” which found that more than 60% of U.S. weather broadcasters held contrarian perspectives about AGW (he could not produce the title of the study or where it was published, but I’m looking into it). Given the sharply declining numbers of Americans who report that they trust the science behind global warming, this could help explain the broader context of the George Mason/Yale Project findings.

Tomorrow is our final day in Copenhagen and we plan to spend it mixing work with pleasure. The morning will feature some final wrap-up interviews. Then we are off to the “Fossil of the Year” award ceremony hosted by Avaaz, a little Christmukkah/Hannumas shopping, and then a visit to The Tivoli Gardens where I intend to suspend all common-sense and good judgment by taking to the rides. I will probably lose my lunch and may have to be dragged back to the flat afterward, but when will I get the chance to swing on something like this again?!

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Welcome to the new Denmark

Frustrated by our lack of access to the formal meetings at Bella Center we took to the streets this morning as participant observers at the Reclaim Power! protest. This was a demonstration organized by Climate Justice Action, a Danish umbrella group that has been responsible for many of the spontaneous acts of civil disobedience during the past week.

According to the activists, the demonstration was designed to draw attention to what many here are describing as the “systematic exclusion” of civil society groups from the discussions. We’ve met with numerous people who have expressed  frustration over what they call an “unjust and undemocratic UN process.” They feel  passionately that developed countries, working in consort with the UN and under corporate pressure, have intentionally sidelined discussion of their top issues and denied them an opportunity to be heard.

The march began downtown early in the morning and gathered momentum over the course of a few hours. By the time we linked up with the protesters around 10:30AM they were an estimated 4,000 strong and were making their way to the Bella Center. The stated objective, very well publicized in advance, was to “reclaim the climate talks” from those with no interest in meaningful action but whose only motivation was the protection of corporate and political power.

The mood was forceful but peaceful. There was a massive media turnout and the police appeared to be cooperating.

This all changed very quickly.

By the time the demonstration reached its destination, a suburban corridor approximately 1 kilometre from the Bella Center, protest leaders began directing the crowd to push against the police line and to join their “brothers and sisters” at the main event.

Don’t be afraid, we are strong in our numbers, demand your voices be heard!

The whole world is watching, demand justice now!

And our personal favourite:

You’re sexy, you’re cute, take off your riot suit!

Equipped with billy clubs, helmets, pepper spray, and tear gas, police responded with brute force. After surrounding the protesters they declared the demonstration “illegal.” Next, they informed the crowd they would be moved forcefully if they did not leave on their own. As the police vans advanced, the protesters linked arms. Skirmishes ensued, pepper spray was shot indiscriminately, organizers were targeted and captured. Within minutes the demonstration had been transformed from a peaceful march into a violent and ugly mess.

We were fortunate enough to evade the worst of the melee. Observing from approximately 50 metres behind the police line, we struck up conversation with a very friendly local Dane who had also come to observe the demonstration. He was clearly distraught by what he had been watching.

“Welcome to the new Denmark,” he said.

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Blame Canada

Today was my second day of research and it met with mostly the same outcome as Day 1. My collaborator and I decided to split duty — I went off to the Bella Center with the hope that an early departure would mean admission to the mainstage, and he went in search of grassroots excitement, joining our research assistant at Klimaforum for some activist action. Apparently about 3,000 other hopeful delegates and observers had precisely the same plan as me — after 2.5 hours in the cold, I pulled the chute early and joined the others across town.

The big buzz among the people whom I spoke to in line was the public relations bashing that Canada has been suffering during the past few days. Our home and native land has not had a good week.

1. First, there was the daring Greenpeace banner stunt on parliament, and then reports today about a noisy protest at the Canadian Embassy in London, where environmental activists removed the Canadian flag and soaked it in oil to express their displeasure with the government’s promotion of the Alberta oil sands.

2. Canada also found itself on the butt end of a very clever and brilliantly conceived hoax yesterday by the Yes Men, those merry pranksters from the U.S. who have made a big name for themselves by impersonating high profile corporate executives and government officials. I’ve blogged about the Yes Men in the past. The only thing that could have made this most recent situation even worse was over-reaction and hyperbole from the PMO. Here’s a link to last night’s piece on The National:

3. Canada has been a high achiever in the Climate Action Network’s “Fossil of the Day” awards, a daily ceremony that celebrates the “climate failures” of the worst behaving nations. And we’ve been running neck and neck with Australia, the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Iran. Don’t want to jinx our chances, but it’s looking good for a strong overall placement. Maybe this will take some of the pressure off of our Olympians.

4. Also yesterday came news about a leaked Cabinet document that provides compelling evidence about a government scheme to abandon some of the greenhouse gas reduction goals set out in its own 2007 green plan and allowing weaker targets, specifically for the oil and gas sector. The document reportedly states that the oil barons of Alberta would “appreciate” the government’s softer approach to emissions regulation.

5. Guardian columnist and environmental activist George Monbiot has had Canada in his cross-hairs for weeks. Whether it’s in his writing or in public commentary (live and on television), Monbiot has not held back his criticism of the Harper government and the oil sands project. In a recent column he described Canada as an “urgent threat to world peace” and a “thuggish petrol-state” that was placing global survival in peril. In a talk I heard him give today at Klimaforum, Monbiot urged Canadians in the audience to “go do the only responsible thing–get yourselves to Alberta and occupy the oil sands machinery.” Not surprisingly, this generated a roar of applause.

In isolation, these problems likely wouldn’t amount to very much. The Copenhagen conference is full of environmentally naughty nations and there are countless NGOs and activist groups working hard to bring their ecological transgressions to light. Yet combined these events (or more appropriately the actions and agendas they spotlight) invest activist criticism with empirical credibility. And let there be no mistake: the focus of these stunts and announcements is not our government and its delegation, but the media and, in particular, Canadians back at home.

In the end this may prove to be a bigger PR problem for the Canadian government than they may be willing to admit. I say this for a couple of reasons:

First, they illustrate that our government not only possesses an embarrassing record for dealing with GHG emissions. It also possesses an embarrassing capacity for dealing with criticism. Aside from the obvious intelligence and security gaps they reveal, these events show a government that appears wholly inadequate at the art of public diplomacy. Instead of providing a carefully considered response to what are evidently principled criticisms, they’ve taken the bully’s path by calling into question the patriotism of their own citizens. I suspect most Canadians will find the strategy distasteful and unnecessarily defensive. Loyalty is a cherished Canadian value; but so is honest and impassioned dissent.

Second, they reveal what is likely a concerted effort on the part of international activists and NGOs to focus on Canada as a country that may be vulnerable to domestic pressure if enough outside political pressure can be applied. It’s the blitzkrieg model: hit them hard, hit them fast and hit them often.

In the short term, I expect this isn’t going to amount to very much because the last thing any government will do is fold its hand in the face of such pressure. A well-oiled machine (yes, pun intended) such as the Conservative government is almost guaranteed to become even more entrenched while making very minor concessions (although whatever it chooses to do will almost certainly depend on the U.S. strategy). Yet, not even this government will be able to dismiss the impact these events are having on its image at home and abroad.

Tomorrow is a big day: Reclaim Power! Push for Climate Justice! is a morning long demonstration that is expected to turn out protesters in the thousands. There are rumours of a major police presence and it’s expected there will be a virtual lockdown of the public transit system to disrupt population flow. This could get very interesting, very quickly. We also have a few more interviews to do and some others to schedule for later in the week.

Dispatch #3 tomorrow.


Filed under Activism, climate change, Environmentalism, Politics

Freezer Burn

My collaborator and I arrived to our rental flat in Copenhagen late last night after 14 hours of red eye transit. It was exhausting – little to no sleep, runway delays, lousy food and the in-flight drama of a fainter (the poor fellow turned out just fine after a little rest and some water). I also happened to run late for a dinner meeting with a Carleton colleague who generously offered to spend his last night in Denmark briefing me on his observations from week #1. Fortunately my very trusty research assistant was already here and able to keep him in good company until I arrived.

The plan for today was to get ourselves grounded and focused: pick up our access badges, meet up with some of our NGO contacts, arrange meetings for later in the week, get a feel for the ‘scene’ and context.

You know what they say about the best laid plans…

In a classic paper on the practical challenges of qualitative research, Clint Sanders described the fears and anxieties that ethnographers feel when they set out to conduct fieldwork. Sanders conceptualizes the process of experiencing fieldwork discomfort using the metaphor of “rope burns”.

Inspired by Sanders’ article the theme for the day’s frigid fieldwork is “freezer burn.”

The locus of all the major political activity at COP15 is the Bella Centre, a 122,000 m2 conference and convention space that is hosting the high profile diplomatic talks. The website boasts the capacity to hold up to 20,000 participants — unofficial reports from today suggest that as many as 40,000 delegates and observers had been through the Centre by 4pm local time.

Unfortunately I was not among them.

My collaborator and I arrived to the Bella Centre around 11am where the local temperature hovered slightly above zero degrees celsius. I expected we would wait one, two, maybe even three hours before getting inside. As a veteran of sleep-outs for Grateful Dead concert tickets, this  did not seem like a very big deal. The lineup snaked approximately 800 metres and contained an estimated 1,500 people from all parts of the world: Australia, Canada, the U.S., Britain, Israel, Brazil and Mexico, to name just a few. We were researchers, scientists, NGOs and  citizens without any institutional affiliation.

After 2 hours we progressed about 200 metres; another hour and another 200 metres. By 4:30pm local time we were within 10 metres of the entrance threshold but now part of a massive swarm of people all huddling together to stay warm.  It was then that we finally received word that there would be no more delegate passes handed out today. A collective groan and then off we went in search of warmth and some food.

While this experience left me feeling numb from both the cold and frustration the day wasn’t a total bust. Thanks to intermittent WiFi access, I was able to periodically check my Twitter feed and had the good fortune of sharing news about how Canada’s Environment Minister got Punk’d (very clever stunt, indeed) the protest by African delegates inside the meetings, and other side-shows. Of particular interest was a team of anthropologists from the University of Copenhagen who were interviewing people in line about their use of mobile media. Apparently they had been hired by the technology firm that designed this website to see whether people were using it and how.

We also made some very useful research connections. We spent a great deal of time talking with Julia Olmstead, a senior associate with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. ITAP is a Minnesota-based NGO that is doing some great work on agriculture and climate change policy in the U.S., and Julia is a graduate of the highly esteemed J-School at the U-C Berkeley where she had the good fortune of working closely with Michael Pollan, author of the critically acclaimed books Food Rules, In Defense of Food and The Omnivore’s Dilemma. We had a stimulating conversation about the strategic dilemmas involved in establishing and maintaining campaign partnerships and the importance of evidence-based research for sound public policy.

The focus of my trip is to examine activist and NGO communication strategies, so I was particularly interested in the demonstrations taking place. One demonstration caught and sustained my attention. It was led by a small contingent of youth climate justice activists and took place approximately 10 metres from where the photo above was taken.

I was especially fascinated by the ‘production work’ of the camera crew, whom I assumed to be members of the organization. After a very quick chat, I learned that they were not in fact activists but Australian journalists who had come to Copenhagen to shoot a documentary. The audio is a little low so what you are unable to hear is the coaching by the journalists, advising the activists to “walk slowly” and “chant with more passion.” The segment runs 1:48 minutes long — it was the third take.

(Ed. note: you’ll have accept your humble blogger’s apologies for the shaky camera work — I was freezing by this point — and for the inverted viewing, apparently caused by something wonky with the Daily Motion upload — I’ll try to correct tomorrow).

We are hopeful for a more fruitful second day of research. An NGO contact has reportedly secured a badge for Bella Centre access, although it’s unclear whether I’ll have to stand in line again to pick it up. All the political galacticos start arriving tomorrow and security will only get tighter, and the lineups longer.

We also have other options. There is the parallel event at Klimaforum, ground control for most of the international NGOs that has already hosted talks by Naomi Klein and Elizabeth May, and will tomorrow feature George Monbiot. And there is Fresh Air Centre, where the world’s “top bloggers” spend their nights filing the day’s stories. Wednesday we are attending a full-day of direct action called Reclaim Power! Push for Climate Justice!

There is lots for us to see and plenty to do – stay tuned for more news, pics and properly uploaded video. And please share your comments and feedback!


Filed under Activism, climate change, Environmentalism, Politics, Public Relations

Climategate: A crisis of science or communication?

A version of this post previously appeared in The Mark News (click here)

The past few weeks have offered a cornucopia of scandals: allegations of Canada’s complicity in the torture of Afghans; the arrest of top officials at the Toronto Humane Society on charges of animal cruelty; Tiger Woods’s run-in with a fire hydrant at the end of his own driveway.

But in terms of its global political and economic impact, one story stands above all others: “Climategate.”

This was the story about how an unidentified computer hacker stole upwards of 4,000 documents from the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia in the UK, the world’s leading scientific authority on global warming. These illegally obtained materials consisted mostly of personal email correspondence between CRU scientists and their international collaborators. They were first posted to a Russian web server and quickly circulated around the world.

Although the email correspondence has been de-contextualized by climate change skeptics to maximize the political impact, the messages are still very damaging. One excerpt suggests that the world’s most trusted climate science experts conducted a methodological “trick” to amplify the severity of projected global warming; another suggests there were efforts to systematically delete evidence that could undermine the established scientific paradigm; and a third suggests that leading climate scientists attempted to control the peer review process by bullying at least one journal editor who was willing to publish research challenging the scientific consensus about climate change. As the Guardian newspaper columnist and environmental activist George Monbiot acknowledged, “some of the messages require no spin to make them look bad.”

In very little time critics of the CRU seized upon the documents, claiming they offer unambiguous “proof“ of a vast conspiracy by the climate science establishment, which, if you believe the skeptics, had apparently been working in consort with the UN, George Soros, environmental NGOs, Al Gore, the “left wing” media, Hollywood, and several thousand climate scientists around the world to execute an elaborately conceived carbon-based tax grab. “An Inconvenient Hoax,” reported the “The skeptics are vindicated,” opined one conservative Canadian columnist. “Botch after botch after botch,” said another. Not surprisingly “Climategate” has become the focus of countless news columns, op-eds, letters-to-the-editor, and several radio call-in shows. It’s been a hot topic on Twitter; it provided grist for The Daily Show; and there is even a Facebook Fan Page.

I want to suggest that “Climategate” is important not just because it sheds light on the politicization of climate science. It is important because it brings the human and normative elements of science front and centre and illustrates the central role of communication in scientific debates.

Pierre Bourdieu famously wrote that “scandal, in the form of revelation by the [media] of an ethical transgression by an eminent personality, underlines the rule of devotion to the general interest, in other words, disinterestedness, which is required of all individuals designated to be the official incarnation of the group.” For Bourdieu, a scandal was a breach of expectation: just as we expect our law enforcement officials to police fairly, and our physicians to “do no harm,” we expect scientists to operate independently of the social world. The problem, however, is that scientific facts can never be fully divorced from their social and political contexts. The key question we must confront, therefore, is whether the context for climate change research has become so overtly politicized that it has damaged the way scientists interact—with the media, the public, and each other.

With this problem in mind, it is worth reflecting, as my colleague Chris Russill has done, on the work of climatologist Steven Schneider, who argued that climate scientists have been forced into a “double ethical bind.” Schneider believes that the image we have of science as an overly technical endeavour compromises its potential to mobilize necessary political and public actions. He argues that scientists ought to make an impact on the world outside of their labs, especially when their research deals with issue of human and planetary survival. Yet to do so, they must not only be excellent researchers—they must also be convincing communicators.

The problem with this recommendation is that the world of public communication demands a very different set of core competencies from the world of climate science: effective oratory skills, an ability to make a persuasive case with image and metaphor, an intuitive sense about how to drive the media agenda by mastering the machinations of its ecology. These are not skills easily acquired and can place enormous pressure onto scientists, particularly when their research is under constant political scrutiny and sits in the crosshairs of a well funded and relentless contrarian movement that has taken aggressively to the airwaves, that appears to be influencing the screening agendas of the film festival circuit, and which continues to burn up the blogosphere.

In the face of what must be monumental institutional pressure, CRU director Phil Jones was forced to step down from his post pending the outcome of a university investigation. Michael Mann, the Penn State University paleoclimatologist famous for originating the infamous “hockey stick graph” is reportedly also under investigation by his employer. Their international colleagues, for the most part, have gone silent. Supportive journalists, bloggers, environmental activists, political figures, and others with a stake in the issue are in damage control mode, forced into playing defense yet continuing to press the case that the overwhelming majority of scientists, policy-makers, and almost every government in the world acknowledges the probability that the planet is warming and will continue to do so because of human activity, and that it is our moral, economic, and political imperative to do so something about it now.

Ultimately, the CRU is not facing a crisis of science, but a crisis of communication. Such communicative “stumbling” has, seemingly, provided a new opportunity to the global warming skeptics to advance their central message, that the science is junk because the scientists can’t be trusted. Importantly, this does not mean that the skeptics’ frame is empirically adequate. It simply means that the interpretive labour involved in reconciling the gap between this message and our mediated experiences has been reduced. Given the high stakes of the Copenhagen talks beginning next week, and the importance of achieving an international agreement, this is a crisis that will be resolved only through a sincere explanation of what happened and a promise to never let it happen again. Until this occurs, the strength of the scientific argument for anthropogenic global warming will continue to come under attack.


Filed under climate change, Crisis Communication