The media needs to trade shock and sensationalism for nuance and balance when reporting on climate change, writes Tom Chi.  

The way today's media reports on climate change is being viewed as a waste of human capital and hope – two of the most valuable resources needed to fight climate change. The negative outlook, which can be partially attributed to a 'clicks over truth' approach, has resulted in the positioning of global warming as the inevitable doom of our species or as merely a technical problem that can be fixed with the emergence of the latest, shiny eco-technologies.

Both narratives offer a key glimpse of the untrue as the advent of environmental sensationalism has driven a sense of nihilism or complacency among even the smartest minds on the planet. The handful of people who have the time, skills, and inclination to work on the highest impact projects are either terrified into inaction or duped by the media's appetite for silver bullet thinking.

Realistically, media today is supposed to offer balanced facts and views, which can help the general public in building a well-informed worldview of things. However, the media has forfeited this responsibility in exchange for increased clicks and paper sales. If we want to give ourselves a fighting chance against climate change, the media should be able to inform and educate the public and not shock and scare them out of it.

In the wake of the most recent IPCC report, the climate press has again gone into overdrive. The top climate stories are a report by the Associated Press (AP) stating that the United Nations (UN) believes climate change will uproot millions in Asia while Vox's analysis claims that climate change will cause mass extinction.

As an inventor, scientist, and entrepreneur, I understand the frustration. Yet having scientists forgoing research for activism is, in my view, a waste of talent. However, considering the junk information that is being fed into our collective mental diet, who can blame them.

Fundamentally, shock tactics generate clicks and sell more newspapers. As the famous editorial says, "if it bleeds, it leads."

This can lead to dramatic consequences. In an article that he wrote for The Guardian, Steven Pinker points out that "the nature of news is likely to distort people's view of the world because of a mental bug that the psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman called the Availability Heuristic: people estimate the probability of an event or the frequency of a kind of thing by the ease with which instances come to mind."

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Climate change is the easiest story to make negative headlines about. As Hans Rosling explains in his book Factfulness, "The volume on climate change keeps getting turned up. Many activists, convinced it is the only important global issue, have made it a practice to blame everything on the climate, to make it the single cause of all other global problems."

The claim by the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP), based on UN data, says that there will be one billion climate refugees – people who have been displaced due to the changing climate – is one example of a misleading figure. François Gemenne, a leading political scientist from Sciences Po in Paris, disparages this data while Dr Alex de Sherbinin, who specialises in climate and migration at Columbia University's Earth Institute, says the figure is based on "back-of-the-envelope estimates" using "fairly crude approaches." Yet the figure is taken and circulated as gospel.

During a TED Talk session held in Los Angeles in 2009, former US Vice President Al Gore stated, "We need to create fear!" However, we've been generating fear for half a century and it clearly hasn't worked.

Donning a pair of rose-tinted spectacles won't save us either. Many have touted Carbon Capture as our shortcut out of the crisis. This is equally harmful and breeds dangerous levels of complacency amongst scientists and the population at large.

Carbon capture machines are unlikely to reduce a quarter of climate emissions by 2100, as suggested by the environmentalist press. Indeed, the sheer physics of carbon capture and storage is much like sucking the ocean through a straw. With this in mind, physics simply isn't on our side.

We have to imagine that we are building a bridge to a better future. If the designers and architects are made to feel that the bridge will never be built in time, then their prophecy will inevitably come true. On the other hand, if the architects think that the bridge will be constructed easily, they too will be in for a nasty shock.

We need educated and informed reporting on what approaches will and will not work. The media needs to fulfil its obligation of reporting on what matters – not just what sells. Journalists should make an effort to understand the scientific facts and literature rather than just reporting them.

We need to trade shock and sensationalism for nuance and balance. That's the only way we can ensure that the next generation of environmental innovators applies their skills in the most helpful places, instead of floundering them while holding placards or pursuing technological blind alleys.

The fight against climate change will be won or lost through information and collective will. At the moment, we're losing and sacrificing our most valuable human capital along the way.

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