Scientists, this is a call to arms over energy policy

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Climate change no longer attracts the headlines it once did, as the recent conference in Doha showed. Global media attention since its 2009 peak during the Copenhagen summit has fallen off a cliff – according to the Daily Climate global database, coverage in the subsequent two years was down by 42%.

This is happening at a time when the consensus on the impacts of inaction is growing in the scientific community. But the scientists are not leading the debate. Political players dominate communications around climate change, particularly in the English-speaking media.

As a result we have polarised coverage transmitting a real sense of uncertainty. The politicisation of climate change has also been pivotal in its recent removal from the media agenda. President Obama barely mentioned climate change in his presidential campaign, and the lack of press attention is not simply coincidence.

Energy, on the other hand, is high on the global agenda. It was a key debating issue in the US election campaigns and, in the UK, discussions around the recent Energy Bill and internal fighting over the role of renewable energy as well as the cost to the public have put it on the front pages.

In other countries, calls for energy independence, reaction to the incident at the Fukushima power plant, and the opening up of resources all contribute to its strong presence in the media.

Over the last two years the Glasgow University Media Group has been working with leading UK think tank Chatham House on UKERC-funded research looking at the role of the media in the shaping of public attitudes on both energy security and climate change. Perhaps not surprisingly the findings show that climate change has not only fallen off the media and political agenda, but also the public agenda. The less people hear about it, the less they think about it.

The coverage across the years has also nurtured doubts about the causes of climate change and the best course of action. But the disengagement is also rooted in other contemporary issues – not only the general economic climate, which led some to see ethical behaviours as a bit of a luxury, but also a real lack of trust in the political figures who have to lead on action. As a consequence, people have a strong sense of powerlessness on the issue – a belief that the government are unlikely to act in their interests either way.

The energy security story is similar – the public need some belief in the government policies that aim to secure sustainable, reliable and affordable energy resources. Otherwise they won’t give their support.

We found that while people might not know the term energy security, the issue itself seems relatively clear cut – in comparison with climate change at least. Attitudes to renewable energies as a simple solution are largely positive. Even the government is trusted on energy at this point – largely because effective action seems obvious.

However, on further delving and from our longer-term research, we saw evidence of the way the issue is beginning to crystallise in people’s minds in response to the growing media coverage. Headlines about ongoing campaigns against wind farms, exploitative “green taxes” and lack of efficiency of renewables in the popular press are making their presence felt. The political polarisation of perspectives, and the visibility of competing interest groups, is beginning to shape the coverage – and public opinion.

Unlike with climate change, this is a relatively new phenomenon. People do not yet have established opinions on future energy solutions. But the processes by which uncertainty and disengagement evolve are beginning to set in.

That is why the time is right for scientists to take ownership of the debate on energy policy, before political squabbling and inconsistent coverage cause the public to switch off from this issue too.

Our research shows there is a good deal of public faith in scientists, and this offers a real opportunity. But there is a challenge too – the media will not consistently prioritise an issue without the commitment of the primary definers, the most powerful of whom are politicians. So the scientists must force these issues onto the political agenda, while visibly leading the debate.

They need to work directly with policymakers, journalists and ultimately the public to build trust, understanding and consensus. But crucially the evidence must come from the scientists, and they must be the ones who are seen to be propelling the arguments forward.

There might now be a mountain to climb in terms of public engagement with climate change, however it is early enough to stop the same thing happening with energy security. But it is becoming increasingly urgent that the scientists step up to the plate – before the damage becomes irreversible.

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