Bookmark and ShareKaren Schucan-Bird is a researcher in nef’s Climate Change and Energy team.

You may not be aware of this but, late last week, Ed Miliband ‘declared war’. This was not the usual, armed conflict type. Instead, the climate secretary entered into an ongoing battle based around knowledge and research. The main opponents were those who continue to deny the existence of human powered climate change. Let’s call them climate deniers (the use of this contested term, I realise, is worthy of a blog in and of itself but that will have to wait for another day).

The Minister for Climate Change and Energy was concerned, rightly so, about the extensive media coverage dedicated to the minority opinions of the climate deniers. The coverage was so extensive that I do not need to repeat the details here. Instead, I am interested in the nature of this debate and want it says about the way in which human knowledge is produced, debated and advanced.

Ed Miliband raised concerns about the media’s role in obstructing public understanding and promoting confusion about climate change. The Minister is not the first to make this observation. There is a growing body of academic literature that points to the powerful role played by the media in the climate change debate.[1] Indeed, the media seems to be one of the main platforms for expressing the climate denial perspective. This is problematic not only because the media influences public opinion but also because this form of debate completely by-passes the standard way in which scholarship and knowledge is debated, revised and advanced.[2]

Within the academic community, peer review is the cornerstone of knowledge production. In order to ensure publication (and so legitimatisation), research findings must respond to critiques and comments as part of the peer review process. Peer review, whilst not a perfect system, is the main mechanism we have for validating knowledge. Climate deniers disregard this system. First, the majority of their claims are not submitted to peer reviewed journals. Second, the peer review process has been critical to furthering our understanding of climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change generates reports based on a thorough and critical assessment of the evidence. This is what makes us confident that the findings are robust and trustworthy. Yet, it is this very process (and the findings) that climate deniers continue to dispute.

I don’t always agree with Ed Miliband but his recent concerns about the climate deniers are worth heeding. We need to continue to contest these views, not only to defend the rigour of academic knowledge advancement but, more urgently, to defend the future of our civilisation.

[1] See, for example, Boykoff, M., and Roberts, T. (2007) Media Coverage of Climate Change: Current Trends, Strengths and Weaknesses, Human Development Report Office Occasional Paper (UNDP)

[2] Antilla, L (2005) Climate of scepticism: US newspaper coverage of the science of climate change, Global Environmental Change, vol. 15: 338-352