Will data journalism unravel the climate spiral of silence?

Edelman UK’s Nick Hay says its time to extend the issue of climate change beyond the choir and into mainstream business.

A ‘spiral of silence’ exists on the issue of climate change: despite its impact on current and future generations worldwide, most people will not speak out upon the threat. Political science explains this as a phenomenon occurring when a social group or society are reluctant to express their opinion, based on the fear of isolation.

In practice, it’s evident in the UK, where despite the consensus amongst ~90% of scientists that climate change is manmade, only 11% of UK public are aware that the consensus has been reached. Behavioural experts have asserted that human beings are hard wired to ignore climate change, calling it “a perfect and undetectable crime (that) everyone contributes to but for which no one has a motive.”

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Part of the issue is that science has lurked in the background of the debate for the last decade, poring over data sets behind closed doors to gauge the risk climate change represents to our socioecological system. But now, in the run up to the most important climate summit for a generation, we are seeing increasing democratisation of climate science within trusted media titles, bringing new clarity to the debate.

For example, the COP21 Calculator, which we released this week with our client, Climate-KIC, is a powerful new interactive tool co-created by the Financial Times and Climate-KIC to show the effectiveness of nations’ pledges in advance of the COP21 climate summit to prevent dangerous climate change. For the first time, using the Calculator, anyone can see what would happen if countries curb emissions in line with their pledges, assimilating climate science and international climate policy. Crucially, complex data is being presented in a way that is accessible to all – and science, not politics, is setting the pace and the terms of engagement.

Signs are emerging that the spiral of silence on climate is being unravelled by new forms of populous debate. For example, in the US, four of the five Democratic presidential candidates raised climate in their opening statements. Clinton folded the environmental challenge into her themes on economic growth, while Sanders occupies the “moral” position to protect the Earth from rising emissions. This marks a clear contrast to the 2012 presidential election, when President Obama largely avoided the topic. The debate shows that climate is becoming a more mainstream issue, right up there with income inequality and broader economic concerns.

The question on the lips of those following COP21, is which countries will step up to lead an ambitious deal to limit global warming to 2 degrees. The Calculator shows where we stand today and where we need to get to, by geography. It allows us to set science-based goals computed on a per capita basis – which can be ratcheted up – to share carbon debt equitably across nations.

Only when an ambitious global deal has been set, will business receive the certainty it needs to internalise and create markets focused on turning climate change from a threat to an opportunity. Partnerships with business bibles, such as the Financial Times built on open data are crucial, if we are to extend the issue of climate change beyond the choir and into mainstream business, which has the tools and the knowhow to make clean profit from the threat of climate change.


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