In the same week that Sydney was hit with the equivalent of a ‘category 2 cyclone‘ and a once-in-a-generation hailstorm, something else was happening over the other side of Australia. Powerful sections of society – the scholars, the political elites, the media and the corporate sector all weighed in to the debate over the funding of ‘climate contrarian’ Bjorn Lomborg’s climate ‘think tank’ at the University of Western Australia by the Australian government. All parties involved, unsurprisingly, had different views on the highly contentious matter. Despite the furore over the think tanks’ $4m price tag (juxtaposed against the slashing of science funding across the board) and the inconsistent message from the government as to who’s idea the whole thing really was, the main focus is just how seriously the Abbott government takes the threat of climate change (the answer: not very). According to James Hansen (a previous Director of NASA) the threat of climate change is so severe that the Earth might suffer what he calls the ‘Venus Syndrome‘. He describes it as an energy imbalance so great as to heat up the earth to something like Venus – which is too hot to sustain any form of life, at you know, about 400°C. For him, the end-game of climate change is potentially apocalyptic, rather than simply fucking disastrous – that’s if mankind proceeds to burn all available fossil fuels (which we’re on track to do). So if the threat is so bad, why aren’t we really doing anything about it?
To answer this question, let’s go back a few years. Whilst he was in opposition way back in 2007, the incumbent Prime Minister of Australia (a la Kevin 07) declared climate change to be “the greatest moral, economic and social challenge of our time”. Despite such statements, in Australia both sides of politics display a dismal record of inaction on human induced climate change characterised by weak efforts and numerous false starts. At the same time the levels of CO2 emitted continues to increase at a rapid rate both from Australia and abroad. As of right-about-now the atmospheric level of CO2 has risen to 401 ppm [parts per million], up from 391 in September 2014 (it was 280 ppm before the Industrial Revolution). The Huffington Post recently reported that it’s likely we’re going to have sea level rises of about three metres in the next 100 years, which means bye-bye to Sydney (among countless other major metropolis’).
So for an issue of such supposed individual and global significance, climate change seems to get a hell of a lot of inconsistent, sensationalised, incorrect and misleading coverage within contemporary media. There seems to be a disconnect between the consistent and irrefutable facts compiled on the dangers of climate change and the eventual message that reaches policymakers, business leaders and the public at large. It is within this uneasy relationship between the scientific community and the media that I’m going to have a look at the pioneering French sociologist Bourdieu’s concept of specific ‘fields’ and what it might be able to tell us about this whole mess. Focusing on what Pierre Bourdieu refers to as les champs (literally translated as the fields) allows us to inspect the setting in which groups (i.e. the media, the scientific community etc) and their social positions are invariably located. I’m going to attempt to use his unique approach to illustrate the importance of specific interactions between these fields, with a focus on why those fields frequently clash in their interpretations of the perils of climate change.
What Bourdieu presents is an idea that all human social activity takes place within fields, which are socially constructed and therefore dependent on the social relations that construct them – in this particular instance, climate change.
Climate change and the science behind it has been the subject of a whole bunch of controversy (of which I’m sure you’re aware), in particular with accusations that it is unnecessarily alarmist (a la James Hansen), all the way to the other end of the spectrum – that the risks and adaptive measures needing to be adopted by governments and individuals are significantly understated (a la Bjorn Lomborg). Within their scientific field, scientists are trained to be precise in their predictions and cautious not to overstate their claims and therefore remove areas of science that are in doubt. Because, ya know, that’s how science works. This is reflected in the ‘conservative’ nature of the IPCC (International Panel on Climate Change) reports, which James Hansen (the dude from NASA) rejects for its’ ‘excessive caution’. This conflict over the narrative put forth by the scientific field demonstrates a reluctance and an inability by them to communicate complex science to us everyday people and governments so that they can design and implement policies that address environmental risk. The result is science that is simplified (or at the very least, an effort is made at simplification) in an attempt to increase dialogue between the fields of science and media. However, the difference between the two fields “requires more than just the simplification of complex concepts”. So we’ve got a bit of a conundrum here – the experts within the scientific field lack the ability to ‘speak the language’ needed for contemporary media consumption, and those willing to fill the communication gap are accused of lacking proper expertise. Bourdieu’s theory helps explain the internal behaviour of these fields by focusing on the inherent and accepted language and ideas within each unique sphere, while also demonstrating why the fields of media and science struggle with meaningful dialogue once placed in an external setting.
Another way in which Bourdieu’s ‘field’ analysis helps explain the disconnect between the scientific field and the media’s interpretation of climate change lies in very edifice of what the science is actually saying. As noted, the scientific field attempts to simplify the science and provide conservative estimates in line with the acknowledged principles of science. However, the media functions according to different principles, or as Bourdieu simply surmises, “they think with theirs”. So for example, the media tends to sensationalise scientific reports and has an inherent tendency to seek ‘balance’ (i.e. both sides of the ‘story’) despite the insistence from the scientific field that only one dominant argument exists (i.e. theirs, the one that proves human-induced climate change). This in turn seeks to change the argument into an economic ‘risk assessment’ by questioning the balance of evidence clashing with the scientific conception of ‘highly organised doubt’. However, as demonstrated, these two fields have their own unique ways of working and the message ends up being pretty confusing and contradicted by the clash of these entrenched fields. According to Bourdieu, science produces a special case within ‘the fields’ because it claims legitimacy by placing an emphasis on the relative autonomy within the production of scientific knowledge, compared to that of the other fields (e.g. the mainstream media). Such claims of autonomy help create a vacuum whereby the media, particularly in the age of media democratisation (i.e. blogs, Twitterites, etc) and a ‘networked society’, is therefore susceptible to scepticism and conspiracy theories.
The media, and particularly what is classified as the ‘mainstream’ media in a democratic society such as ours, struggles to present the scientific consensus on climate change because of a clash of interests with other fields of influence. Most avenues for media in contemporary society is conglomerated and privatised, leading to accusations of conflicts of interests when reporting the news. Two sets of competing values in the field of media really illustrate the eternal struggle (and sometimes, it’s a comical struggle) faced internally by these organisations and the people within them. On one side of the coin, the media strives for autonomy, objectivity, balance and impartiality. Ya know, the essential qualities of the sacred ‘fourth estate’ (i.e. the media, in particular news media is a fundamental pillar of modern society) with an emphasis on the ‘independence’ of the press. The other side of the coin places an emphasis on the media organisation as an economic enterprise, with appeal to advertisers and a real focus on ratings and sales. This focus on profits stems from the fact that most media organisations are owned by (or have ties to) corporations also involved in the industries that contribute to climate change – what’s referred to in some circles as the ‘greenhouse mafia’. Such vested interests serve the dual purpose of not only facilitating the opinion of corporate and business interests to us (the people), but also by providing a platform for specific agendas to be put forth. As noted in an excellent analysis of Rupert Murchdoch’s News Corp, they were “often framing climate change not as a scientific issue but as an ideological issue, between Left and Right”. By corporate media reframing and therefore changing the debate into a quasi-left/right paradigm, the media can therefore succeed in wrestling the discourse off the scientific field and placing it within the realm of politics and economics, where the media dominates with its entrenched position in society. To put it another way, the media field (particularly the mainstream media) can be seen as an ideological state apparatus where media becomes a heavily contested site of social power and ideology. According to one respected media theorist, the media shapes the ‘lived reality’ of the people in a capitalist society, whilst simultaneously reproducing a media narrative that either denies climate change is happening, or simply by creating narratives that naturalise and normalise the fact that it is happening.
To finish where we started, it is of no coincidence that Kevin Rudd, the same man who believed that climate change was “the greatest challenge of our time”, was the same man who was trumped by the power of the ‘fossil fuels mafia’, coupled with a ‘concerted campaign’ by the media. According to the The Sydney Morning Herald, the mining industry only had to spend $22 million to ruin the career of the once-popular Prime Minister when he tried to raise taxes on them. What a bargain, ay!? Anywho, as I’ve shown you, the media constantly struggles to properly understand the dialogue of science – but it also often actively avoids comprehending the message from the scientific field on climate change. The reason for this lack of comprehension, as demonstrated in Bourdieu’s concept of les champs, varies greatly. By looking in to ‘the system’ from the outside and understanding the relationship between the competing fields, you can see that Bourdieu’s approach helps illustrate why the reality of climate change is often M.I.A (missing in action).
Within this void, ‘climate experts’ like Bjorn Lomborg exist, happy to adopt pseudo-science and debunked economic theory to garner attention and a hefty pay-check from suckers like the Liberal Party and the Republic Party in the U.S. On the periphery of their field, sceptics and conspiracy theorists (a la Lord Monckton and other googly-eyed fucks like him) fill the void left by the inability of the scientific community and the media to properly relate. So by delving into the fascinating mind of Bourdieu and his concept of ‘fields’, the Australian story of dislocation between the scientific community and media in regards to climate change may now be a little bit easier to comprehend. So you may now understand it, but it sure as hell doesn’t make it any less depressing. Apply the sunscreen, start learning how to swim… and pray.