"We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet. I imagine they might exist in massive ships, having used up all the resources from their home planet. Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonize whatever planets they can reach."
Paraphrasing Dr. Hawking, if we humans are any indication what "intelligent life" looks like, be afraid of extraterrestrial visitors. Be very afraid. Here is a look at human collective intelligence at its finest.
Climate scientists continue to document the deliberate destabilization of our planet's climate system because of our reliance on 19th century carbon energy sources into the 21st century. In the past month alone, studies have shown crumbling ice sheets in Antarctica, rapid dissipation of Arctic sea ice, dramatic slowing of ocean currents making up the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, and a reduction in calcification by plankton that form the basis of the ocean food web in conjunction with increased acidification. Rising temperatures are also wreaking havoc with the hydrological system in California, plunging the state into deepening drought and increasing the risk for future crippling drought conditions. It does not take much imagination to see that continuing to alter the chemical composition of the atmosphere and oceans will have dire consequences for future generations yet efforts to move away from fossil fuels are anemic at best.
Sadly, the weight of climate science is not swaying public opinion. In survey (Gallup) after survey (Pew Research Center), the issue of climate change has achieved some head-space but lacks heart-space. A majority of Americans think climate change is real but few see it as an urgent priority.
Here is another disturbing fact, public opinion regarding climate change appears to be unchanged for a generation. Gallup has been polling on global warming/climate change for over 25 years. In its 2015 survey, only 32% of Americans are greatly concerned about the threats posed by climate disruptions. That is the same level found when polling on the issue first began in 1989. The tragic irony is that children born in 1989 will live to see some of the most severe climate impacts in their lifetimes if carbon pollution continues apace.
Efforts to persuade political conservatives to ignore climate science have been extraordinarily effective. Less than one in six Republican-leaning people in America think the impact of global warming will be substantial or that climate changes are due to human activity. The Merchants of Doubt are winning.
A study just published in Nature Climate Science provides some insight into the disconnect between the science and public opinion. The research team examined media coverage in United States and United Kingdom of the most recent reports from Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which summarize existing scientific evidence and likely climate-related impacts. The bottom line is simple. It was largely ignored by print and broadcast media outlets in the US.
In legacy media, the IPCC gained far more attention in the UK (87 articles, 20 broadcasts) than the US (30 articles, 6 broadcasts). Even considering the unequal broadcast lengths (some were 30 min, others an hour), UK broadcasters spent nearly five times more airtime reporting the IPCC than US broadcasters (1 h 23 min 53 s in the UK, 17 min 53 s in the US); a pattern also evident in print (67,385 words in the UK; 25,482 words in the US).
What little coverage the IPCC consensus reports received in the US was also framed in counterproductive ways. Network news outlets focused its few stories on the impending disaster (D) from climate chaos. An isolated brief segment predicting disaster is not likely to energize the audience to take action. Cable news outlets focused on political and ideological struggle (PIS) or cast the science as unsettled (US), framing that also undermines action. Print media was simply a joke.
US polarization was evident in the broadcast media surveyed, with frame use differentiated by media outlet along partisan lines (D, ABC, NBC; PIS, MSNBC; US, Fox).
The US print media had low levels of coverage and so assessing frame usage is difficult. However, the Wall Street Journal did seem to be further from the consensus science position than other US newspapers.
Raise your hand if you are surprised that Rupert Murdoch's broadcast and print media properties sell stupid shit by the seashore.
Here is what the authors of this report think should be done to address the deficiencies in media coverage of climate science.
Co-produced research is needed—with journalists, scientists and institutional actors—on the moment of news production, to help explore and explain these trends. Audience studies examining the impact of exposure to different frames is also required. Future studies should seek to expand the countries examined, to determine whether these trends are also seen beyond English-speaking, Western nations. Integrating this knowledge into the design and communication of future IPCC assessments—and including others (artists, film-makers, journalists) in the conversation on developing potential narratives and their associated visuals—would facilitate communication of climate change, and offer audiences a more diverse selection of frames with which to engage with the issue.
Looking for ways to improve the impact of climate science on public policy makes sense. However, these suggestions leave me cold for three reasons.
First, it implies that the scientific community has not done enough to effectively communicate climate science to the media and media-consuming public. Trying to market science the same way goods and services are hawked is likely to be counterproductive. No matter how well marketed, however, climate scientists are up against the best-financed marketing operation in human history with an army of lobbyists. Think David and too many Goliaths to count.
Second, how will all these media studies be funded? Funding for scientific research in this country is tight as it is without diverting a chunk for marketing research. The Merchants of Doubt have mastered the art of creating inertia in political leaders and the general public when it comes to energy policy. They have massive wealth generated from fossil fuels at their disposal.
Third, the biggest problem is that it assumes that the corporate media in America is meant to speak truth to power. The notion of a "free press" that serves as watchdogs of our democracy and social well-being is a myth.
Julia Corbett argues that the media in America and other developed nations acts more like a guard dog for the status quo rather than a watchdog.
A guard dog's job is to protect its owners and their interests. Thus, guard dog media are highly attentive to the dominant power structure on which they are dependent for news; they do not offer equal support to all institutions or authorities and may switch allegiances when power shifts. In reporting climate change, guard dog media report selected climate science findings and international meetings but overall defer to the mainstream values of a dominant fossil-fuel culture and the status quo. According to this theory, media are not liberal champions of progressive social change but fairly conservative institutions that support those in the social system with the most power and legitimacy. If those in power call for significant social change regarding fossil-fuel use, the media may follow — not lead — the call. Guard dog theory predicts that proponents of social change (scientists, environmental groups, politicians) will have an uphill battle — both with the dominant power structure and with the media — if the desired change differs from the status quo. In that sense, the media act as agents of social control. They will dutifully report conflicts so that powers in the social structure may better accommodate them (which may not be the same thing as taking action).
The study in Nature Climate Science shows that media guard dog in action. Given the
anemic coverage of the rapidly-developing climate crisis in print and broadcast media,
it should come as no surprise that ethically bankrupt leaders of fossil energy companies promise to protect their shareholders by not stranding a single molecule of carbon in their undeveloped reserves. Our political system in America continues to churn out political leaders that are obsessed with what other people do with their genitals while celebrating the ongoing depletion and degradation of natural resources (e.g., Ted Cruz, Scott Walker, Rick Scott). They know they have nothing to fear from the media guard dogs.
When the nomad extraterrestrials that Professor Hawking warned us about arrive, please tell them that our media, corporate, and political leaders are quite tasty. Better than bacon. Better than chocolate. Better than truffles. Better than champagne. Slowed smoked over hot coals is the best way to prepare them. Oral apparatus smacking good.
UPDATE: This comment by Stuart Heady lays out our challenge as advocates for transformational change in energy policy to stop carbon-fueled climate change. Kudos, Stuart, for getting to the heart of the matter.