Interview with Tim Harford, UK economist, journalist and broadcaster, and author of books including How to Make the World Add Up.
What are your thoughts on the crossover between Covid-19 and the climate crisis, and how that’s being handled in the media?
It’s probably worth starting with the obvious huge difference, which is that climate change is just an enormously slow-moving, invisible problem where it’s difficult even to point to what it is. With Covid-19, you can go and say “this many people died today”, which is much harder to do with climate change.
I’d say one thing the pandemic has taught us is that we can make drastic changes to our lives and we’re willing to do that if we can see a reason. Most environmentalists are not imagining anything like as radical a change in the way we live as we went through during lockdowns. We were willing to do it because we were doing our bit to look after each other.
We’ve also learnt in each case that technology is a much less painful way to do things if you’ve got it, whether it’s a treatment or vaccine for coronavirus, or solar energy batteries, nuclear fusion or carbon capture in the climate crisis. Like for the vaccine in Covid, that’s what we’re looking for in environmental policy – what are the technologies that mean we don’t really need to change anything very much?
What would you say are the challenges in pinpointing how to report news on climate change compared with reporting on Covid-19?
There’s always a challenge when you’re reporting on a somewhat technical issue. If it’s a daily newspaper or an hourly news bulletin, the attention span is so short – so what are we going to report on that’s happening right now that tells us about this crisis?
In the case of coronavirus, it’s not really a problem: daily reporting of deaths and cases is not at all a bad metric for what’s going on. But with climate change, you can say “maybe this hurricane’s something to do with climate change, maybe not”. That’s the tricky thing with regard to aiding people who want to be sceptical.
Another big difference is the fact that we’ve been trying to cover climate science since the 1960s and certainly with some considerable attention since the 80s or 90s, whereas the whole coronavirus pandemic is only a year old. That timescale, I think, really matters and makes the challenges of reporting very different.
There’s this idea that if a newspaper came out every 100 years, you would talk about different things. On a hundred-year timescale, it’s very easy to talk about climate change, whereas some of those stories are almost impossible to report on with a short timescale.
I saw a piece on the BBC website about changes in Ugandan communities because of a glacier melting, but it’s really a feature rather than news. Every now and then you have a story like “a massive ice shelf crashed” and then you explain why you think that’s to do with climate change. But you end up doing a lot of proxy reporting on “scientists said this” or “there was this meeting”.
That’s very different from coronavirus, where you can really say this many people went into intensive care today or this many vaccine doses were administered today. Believe me, because I’ve been presenting a radio programme about the vaccine: we record on a Thursday, and I can’t count the number of times the programme’s been out of date by the time it’s broadcast on a Monday.
Are there any other parallels you’ve seen between Covid and the climate crisis?
It has also been interesting to watch Covid denialism take off. There was this point early on in the pandemic, about a year ago, where there was something refreshing about a media environment in which people just wanted to know what was going on. People just wanted to know the truth, and the statistics and science were helping them understand that.
This is very different from the media communication environment around climate change – nobody wants to know the truth about climate change, everyone just wants to have their preconceptions reinforced.
But pretty soon the coronavirus debate got polarised, and you had the mask sceptics and “oh, did they really die of Covid or did they just die with Covid?” There were so many different narratives of doubt that superficially seem very sophisticated.
This is really familiar from climate science, with the same techniques that muddy the waters, emphasise technical details, sound quite clever and attack the scientists – and there’s that same tactic of ’whataboutism‘ and “let’s talk about the scientists making a mistake”.