The problem with junk news …

Why we talk about junk news …

August, 2019: The newspaper today dedicates not only the title page to Greta Thunberg´s journey to New York, but also the whole page 3. And what information do we get there concerning the UN Summit?

The worrying, irritating answer: None. None at all. 

There are jokes about Greta Thunberg as “Wickie“, a little Viking girl (from a children´s TV-programme in Germany of the 1970s) – instead of all the important climate issues. A whole page three about Greta Thunbergs crossing the sea – an adventure story. 

Instead of an urgently needed look ahead.

The young people who are demonstrating now have a threatening future ahead of them. And they try to convey the statements of the scientists in such a way that it hopefully reaches the population: We will need an unprecedented change of our lifestyle, in order to somehow prevent the climate collapse. We can not do that with stale jokes (which tragically come from a time, the 70s, when we could have acted far more effectively.)

But other media as well decide to write about Greta Thunberg – instead of focussing on the important questions. All details of her trip are commented on in detail. Where Greta sleeps on board. What she eats. That she wears a fleece jacket (microplastic? Scandal!). How much CO2 is expelled by this trip? And so on. 

Wasted time. Wasted attention.

Why is this a problem? It is one example of how the opportunity for responsible journalism is missed.

In her TED talk, Heba Aly called this type of journalism: “junk news”, saying, “Junk news hurt us more than fake news.” (all quotes are linked, just click on the authors’ names )

“Junk news”, she says, “is the nonsense that distracts us from the more important issues. Junk news: Sloppy journalism about important news, opinionated, superficial, one sided, and with little evidence. Junk news is actually more dangerous than fake news because it is more insidious. 

The world today is a complex mess. We are bombarded by bad news every day. It has never been more important to understand our overcomplex world because we cannot prevent, respond to or resolve these crises, if we do not properly understand them. 

Junk news erodes our democracies because it fails to give us the information we need to be responsive active citizens and to make informed decisions about our own lives. It is getting harder and harder for responsible informed journalism to break through all the noise out there.”

And she ends her talk with a quote from E.O. Wilson:

“We are drowning in information while starving for wisdom. The world henceforth will be run by people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it and make important choices wisely.”

Edward O. Wilson
Is this the way we want to talk about it? A German “opinary”,
asking “whether or not is it too late to stop climate change” …

… and why IPCC scientist Joëlle Gergis talks about her “volcanically explosive rage”

So what are the real news about climate change?

In August 2019, UN IPCC scientist Joëlle Gergis wrote that “the latest science is alarming, even for climate scientists.”

And she continues:

I am in the confronting position of being one of the few Australians who sees the terrifying reality of the climate crisis.

Joëlle Gergis

When the IPCC’s fifth assessment report was published in 2013, it estimated that such a doubling of CO2 was likely to produce warming within the range of 1.5 to 4.5°C as the Earth reaches a new equilibrium. However, preliminary estimates calculated from the latest global climate models (being used in the current IPCC assessment, due out in 2021) are far higher than with the previous generation of models. Early reports are predicting that a doubling of CO2 may in fact produce between 2.8 and 5.8°C of warming. Incredibly, at least eight of the latest models produced by leading research centres in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and France are showing climate sensitivity of 5°C or warmer.

When many of the most advanced models in the world are independently reproducing the same disturbing results, it’s hard not to worry.

When the UN’s Paris Agreement was adopted in December 2015, it defined a specific goal: to keep global warming to well below 2°C and as close as possible to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels (defined as the climate conditions experienced during the 1850–1900 period). While admirable in intent, the agreement did not impose legally binding limits on signatory nations and contained no enforcement mechanisms. Instead, each country committed to publicly disclosed Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to reduce emissions. In essence, it is up to each nation to act in the public interest.

If we act urgently, it is technically feasible to turn things around

Even achieving the most ambitious goal of 1.5°C will see the further destruction of between 70 and 90 per cent of reef-building corals compared to today, according to the IPCC’s “Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C”, released last October. With 2°C of warming, a staggering 99 per cent of tropical coral reefs disappear. An entire component of the Earth’s biosphere – our planetary life support system – would be eliminated. The knock-on effects on the 25 per cent of all marine life that depends on coral reefs would be profound and immeasurable.

So how is the Paris Agreement actually panning out?

In 2017, we reached 1°C of warming above global pre-industrial conditions. According to the UN Environment Programme’s “Emissions Gap Report”, released in November 2018, current unconditional NDCs will see global average temperature rise by 2.9 to 3.4°C above pre-industrial levels by the end of this century.

To restrict warming to 2°C above pre-industrial levels, the world needs to triple its current emission reduction pledges. If that’s not bad enough, to restrict global warming to 1.5°C, global ambition needs to increase fivefold.

Even with the 1°C of warming we’ve already experienced, 50 per cent of the Great Barrier Reef is dead. We are witnessing catastrophic ecosystem collapse of the largest living organism on the planet. As I share this horrifying information with audiences around the country, I often pause to allow people to try and really take that information in.”

Increasingly after my speaking events, I catch myself unexpectedly weeping in my hotel room or on flights home. Every now and then, the reality of what the science is saying manages to thaw the emotionally frozen part of myself I need to maintain to do my job. In those moments, what surfaces is pure grief. (…) Being willing to acknowledge the arrival of the point of no return is an act of bravery.

But these days my grief is rapidly being superseded by rage. Volcanically explosive rage. Because in the very same IPCC report that outlines the details of the impending apocalypse, the climate science community clearly stated that limiting warming to 1.5°C is geophysically possible. Past emissions alone are unlikely to raise global average temperatures to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. The IPCC report states that any further warming beyond the 1°C already recorded would likely be less than 0.5°C over the next 20 to 30 years, if all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions were reduced to zero immediately. That is, if we act urgently, it is technically feasible to turn things around. 

The only thing missing is strong global policy.

Although the very foundation of human civilisation is at stake, the world is on track to seriously overshoot our UN targets. Worse still, global carbon emissions are still rising.

Examining the Earth’s climatic past tells us that even between 1.5 and 2°C of warming sees the world reconfigure in ways that people don’t yet appreciate. All bets are off between 3 and 4°C, where we are currently headed. Parts of Australia will become uninhabitable, as other areas of our country become increasingly ravaged by extreme weather events.

Can we muster the best of our humanity in time?

There is a very rational reason why Australian schoolkids are now taking to the streets – the immensity of what is at stake is truly staggering. Staying silent about this planetary emergency no longer feels like an option for me either. Given how disconnected policy is from scientific reality in this country, an urgent and pragmatic national conversation is now essential. Otherwise, living on a destabilised planet is the terrible truth that we will all face.

As a climate scientist at this fraught point in our history, the most helpful thing I can offer is (…) a clear-eyed and compassionate look at the facts.

We still have time to try and avert the scale of the disaster, but we must respond as we would in an emergency. The question is, can we muster the best of our humanity in time?”

And, very short, back to Germany

In Germany also, nobody seems to have really understood the situation. Franz Alt wrote: Recently, one of the most popular German newspapers asked me for a comment on climate change. I described the very real situation, as the climatologists have been telling us for about 30 years. But the colleagues sent me the article back with the remark that it was too “alarmist”.

“Fridays for future”, XR and others, together with the scientists are trying to communicate the frightening future prospects. And to demand the urgently needed steps.

Can we just support them now? Also for our own sake?

(thanks to Hans for helping with the translation)