Last Sunday I was relaxing at home when a neighbour dropped in for coffee. Our discussions usually cover a broad range of subjects and this time we ventured from politics, tsunamis, nuclear power and finally to our topic de jour — climate change.
I’m sure you would agree that good discussions are stimulating, perhaps even as stimulating as caffeine. And this time, we changed topics as many times as we took large sips from our coffee mugs. And then all of a sudden, my neighbour said something that made me sit back in my seat.
“I’m not sure if using solar power is the best thing we can do to alleviate climate change.
“I’m not even sure the science is all that accurate,” he said with a great look of certainty.
I rapidly reminded him that I’ve lived off the grid with solar power for the past seven years. It works well too. I’m not saying it’s the single solution to climate change, but it certainly makes sense in a sunny country with rising electricity prices. I haven’t seen an electricity bill for many years now.
The recent years of rain and cloudy summers means I have to monitor the system more, it also means I have to burn through the odd 20 litre can of petrol to power the back-up generator. Petrol prices rise so I’m careful about my energy use. Living with solar power is really no different to living with tank water. You know you have a limit so you adjust your usage accordingly.
There are no power lines on my property, no clearing was needed to run overhead or underground cables to my house and my lights remain on even when the rest of the street is suffering a summer blackout. Virtually every hour of every day is a ‘switch your lights off earth hour moment’.
What’s more, I told him, I really do think there is a benefit to not being yet another consumer contributing to the burning of coal to power the massive generators housed conveniently out of sight, and miles away. I was about to say that 97 per cent of climate scientists have shown … and then I could see his attention drift off. I’d lost him and there was no point trying to convince him any further. We both awkwardly took a hurried sip of coffee.
So where does my neighbour get his information to help him form his opinion? How many people think the same as he does? The media, and quite a few, as it turns out.
Balanced reporting is the mantra of the journalist. Provide both sides of the argument. Keep the balance and let the reader decide.
“Mainstream media has often sought to provide balance between people who base their views on the mainstream science and people who don’t – if you like, between scientific authority, and unscientific opinion. That is a very strange sort of balance.
“It is a balance of numbers of words and not a balance of scientific authority,” he wrote.
ABC’s head of policy for news, Alan Sunderland was reported in an article written by Margaret Simons for Crikey as saying if the majority of credible evidence supports human-induced climate change then the resulting media coverage should reflect this.
“It is one of the most common and inaccurate myths about balance on this or any other topic that it requires all sides to be given equal time and equal weight. It does not. It never has and it never will. Our editorial policies make it quite clear that ‘it is not essential to give all sides equal time’. Another better way to express and understand this is to understand that the kind of balance we aim to achieve in our news coverage is balance that follows the weight of evidence.”
Unfortunately the mainstream media, including journalists whose opinions are often expressed as fact, such as Andrew Bolt, help promote to the public that there is a 50/50 split within the scientific community about climate change.
My neighbour, along with 40 per cent of Australians, according to a recent CSIRO report, now believe the growing count of words which help create doubt about the science.
The Baseline survey of Australian attitudes to climate change report conducted an online survey of 5000 people during the last federal election campaign. Half of those surveyed believe we are the cause of climate change, while slightly less believe it is a natural fluctuation in temperature. An even smaller amount simply don’t believe it at all.
Interestingly, university scientists were considered the most trusted sources of information. While environmental organisations came in a close second for those who believe in human-induced climate change, with the second most believable source for those who consider climate change a natural temperature fluctuation, being family and friends. Governments ranked alongside, car companies and oil companies as the least trustworthy.
One of the most interesting findings was the level of confusion amongst those who don’t believe humans are responsible.
“As a group these people still viewed countries, governments and global organisations as at least partly responsible for causing climate change,” according to the report.
This confusion, or inconstancy, may in part be related to media coverage. It may also be displayed in a recent Queensland Household Energy Survey.
The survey of 3500 homes found 75 per cent of Queenslanders believe it is important to reduce their energy consumption, yet three out of four now own one of the most energy intensive appliances — the air-conditioner. When climate scientists tell us coal-powered electricity generation is an important contributor to climate change, this is a worrying set of figures.
The current Queensland Minister for Energy Stephen Robertson, said we are “increasingly energy hungry”.
Now, before you shout out ‘it’s population’, energy use has increased by more than double the population growth in Queensland in recent years.
So, we’re more confused, we’re split about the cause of climate change, we like using energy, yet we want to use less.
When small sound bites and headlines are all we have the time to listen to and read, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and ironically, switch off. Perhaps we have too much information, too many opinions and not enough simple and concise facts explaining exactly what each of us can reasonably do.
Maybe most of us are too busy earning a living to have the time to understand what’s going on — to understand that the reasonably priced air-conditioner we just bought to cool the family next summer is going to continue to cost us every quarter, every year. Perhaps even cost us in ways that we find hard to imagine.
I leaned forward in my seat again, placing the coffee mug down on the table. I know we all have different opinions and at the same time I realise neighbourly friendships are important to maintain. If friendships are a one of the trusted sources of information about climate change then perhaps next Sunday we should continue our discussion. Perhaps in a small way, coffee will help bridge the gap too. At the very least, our conversations will make us both think more about this important issue.
CSIRO report – General attitudes towards climate change. January 2011.
How we think about climate change
50.4 per cent think that climate change is happening and that humans are largely responsible
40.2 per cent think that climate change is happening but it’s just a natural fluctuation in the earth’s temperatures
5.6 per cent don’t think that climate change is happening
3.8 per cent have no idea whether climate change is happening or not
For those who believe humans are responsible for climate change. The most trusted sources of information are: university scientists, environmental organisations, environmental group scientists and government scientists
For those who believe climate change is natural. The most trusted sources of information are: university scientists, friends and family, doctors, people from your community and government scientists
Who is responsible?
Big polluting countries, multinational corporations, wealthy countries and the federal government
Major environmental actions taken by survey respondents to engage in climate change relevant behaviours
Recycling household waste, reducing water use, using environmentally friendly products and switching lights off around the house
This article first appeared in Eco online.