“Hurrah for the deniers!”

Publications such as the Daily Mail and Daily Express are eager to portray almost any event as proof of the end of civilisation as we know it. The sky is constantly falling. Around every street corner lurks a hooded paedo with a cancer-causing cucumber, employed by the BBC but with a hidden agenda to raise petrol prices to fund Muslim lawyers intent on forcing Britain to adopt Sharia law.

Standard, if depressing, stuff. They’re trying to sell newspapers and their tactic is to prey upon the fears of their target demographic.

But what this demographic doesn’t fear, it seems, is climate change. This demographic doesn’t believe in such a thing: it’s old enough to remember previous predictions by “so-called scientists” that failed to materialise, such as electricity “too cheap to meter” and space hotels by 2001. It also remembers how “science got it wrong”: thalidomide, Chernobyl. “Large Hadron Collider broken by bird dropping a baguette”. Those scientist fools. And French too, I bet.

When a scientist says that the evidence is clear, that there is strong consensus for man-made climate change and that we have little or no time to prevent its effects, they hear Charlie Brown’s teacher: “wah wah-wah wah wah”. They joke about how nice it’d be if Britain were as warm as the Algarve. They point to our coldest winter for thirty years as damning evidence against “global warming”.

And the newspapers, scenting sales, follow. The Daily Express now denies man-made climate change on its front page. It recently published a list of “100 reasons why climate change is natural” that has been strongly debunked by New Scientist and others. A few days ago its lead story ridiculed a report that claims the world’s had its warmest winter ever (nicely dissected at Enemies of Reason). And it presents small errors in huge reports, or general scientific rivalry, sloppiness and stupidity in email, as the entire house of cards collapsing.

Newspapers prey upon prejudices as well as fears. They feed, digest, multiply by ten, throw in a dodgy foreigner or two, and print. And the readers believe. And the cycle repeats, reinforcing those beliefs.

What does it matter? It’s the papers, not real life. Where’s the harm? The problem is that newspapers are stupidly influential. Newspapers get people on the streets hunting down paediatricians. Newspapers change government policy. In 1992 The Sun claimed It’s the Sun Wot Won It. Rupert Murdoch has the ear of David Cameron, and The Sun might win it again this year.

When a paper claims that X causes/cures cancer, for various values of X, the reader either disengages/engages with X or not: whether the claim is true or not, the world spins on. When a paper wants to Ban This Sick Filth, the reader harrumphs and turns the page, or tries to do something about it. Whether that week’s sick filth is banned or not, the world spins on. When a paper rattles its sabres at the imminent prospect of Sharia law throughout the land, they’re scare-mongering – it’s not going to happen. The world spins on.

But when a paper takes and promotes the position that climate change science is wrong, that we’re seeing natural change, that we have nothing to worry about, the consequences are serious. Politicians stop acting on climate change as it becomes a vote loser – “throwing money at something we don’t need to do while cucumber-wielding immigrant paedo bankers are on the loose”. I fear we’re seeing the start of this already: climate change is not one of the Conservative party’s “six key themes” for the election, and it isn’t front-and-centre on their web site (though there are details in the Policy section).

Broadsheet newspapers such as the Guardian and the Independent do still follow scientific consensus on climate change. But even they cannot resist the allure of the error, promoting a piss in the ocean of evidence to an acid rainstorm in a drought.

I don’t dispute that climate change scientists are on the back foot right now. But just as one fake fossil doesn’t disprove evolution, a bunch of egocentric scientists (pretty much tautological) and a couple of errors in a 2800-page report don’t undermine the remaining evidence. “I’m sorry, Miss Austen, although we very much enjoyed your manuscript Pride and Prejudice, I’m afraid we found a spelling error on page 53. REJECTED.” Small errors break space probes and computer programs: not climate science.

Perhaps the science is fundamentally wrong; perhaps not. But this is not a coin-toss. The odds are not 50-50. If you want to play the percentages, the odds are strongly in favour of the scientific consensus. There’s a distinct possibility that the sky really is starting to descend, that life as we know it will soon begin to change, and change significantly.

My belief is that, fifty years from now, the current crop of Daily Express headlines will look as bone-headed as the Daily Mail‘s 1934 Hurrah for the blackshirts! But by then all the politicians and newspaper editors involved will be long in their graves – and those not yet born will be living with the consequences of their decisions.

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