Last week, Lowy Institute non-resident fellow and international security professor Alan Dupont wrote an article in The Australian calling for Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to provide an authoritative pronouncement on climate change as a national security issue. Doing so, Dupont stated, would help to address the public’s confusion regarding climate change, and help build public support for necessary carbon reduction measures.
I agree with Dupont’s view that climate change should be framed in terms of national security — just as I agree with others who have called for it to be framed as a health issue, or as an economic issue, or a human rights issue. These are not mutually exclusive, and each perspective gives rise to different, equally important, narratives. Indeed, the challenge and importance of climate change is precisely because it is not simply one issue or the other, but all those things.
I would argue that what has been inadequately communicated to the public is not only the scientific consensus and the impacts of climate change from particular perspectives but also, above and beyond that, this sense of ‘all’, and hence the true magnitude of the climate change threat. Thus we have a situation where the general public remains largely oblivious to the national security aspects and health consequences of climate change, and where misconceptions about the economics of climate change action and inaction abound.
In practical terms, the problem lies not with politicians, and their failure to inform because they are neither the main, nor most trusted (indeed, far from it), source of climate change information. Rather, it is modern life, with its information fragmentation and short-term media and political cycles. Strong leadership must play a role, but for an issue that is as technical and complex as climate change, and as politicised as it has become, strong leadership will not be enough to shift and sustain public opinion to the extent needed.
For a public with growing media savvy and a healthy amount of politics-related cynicism, the primary source of climate change information will not be political pronouncements. Instead, it is, increasingly, the Internet.
In June this year, the Chrome experiment 'World of Change: climate change through the lens of Google search' found the search query ‘Is global warming real?’ or variations on this, are among the three most common climate change-related searches in various cities including Sydney, Bangkok, Delhi, London, Madrid, Moscow, Jakarta and Sao Paulo.
But what results do such searches produce? The Internet is a place where, currently, climate scientists are underrepresented, minority voices are overrepresented, and information is overwhelming in quantity, fragmented across disciplines and sources, time-consuming to wade through, and of uncertain trustworthiness.
I believe that until the problems with this first and primary point of contact for many seeking information on climate change are addressed, then public confusion and apathy will continue to linger, no matter how resolute the country’s leader may be, or how convincing his or her narrative.
Photo Courtesy of Flickr user Susan Melkisethlan