Framing climate change: “The Day After Tomorrow” approach

Image Credit: Karen Roe (via Flickr)

Image Credit: Karen Roe (via Flickr)

Coming at the end of England’s wettest year on record, the question posed by a Channel 4 documentary last month was certainly timely: “Is our weather getting worse?”  The film is a move forward from the Channel’s controversial 2007 documentary, The Great Global Warming Swindle. The title question is answered in the affirmative: yes, the weather is getting worse, and anthropogenic climate change is responsible. Yet, paradoxically, this focus on the impacts of climate change, coupled with the use of shock tactics, means that Is Our Weather Getting Worse? fails to move the discussion on any more than the earlier film.

The first half of the documentary is devoted to Britain’s extreme weather of 2012, asking if these events were “bad luck or real change?” The second half focuses on attributing the weather to climate change. By concentrating on events in Britain, the film makers no doubt hoped to bring the impacts of climate change closer to home for their British audience. As the narrator says, weather is a traditional British fixation –  by relating dramatic footage of British towns devastated by 2012’s weather to climate change, the growing risks of climate change are made more relevant to the British viewers.

This style of ‘shock’ communication, showing the dramatic impacts of local climate change, can be traced back to The Day After Tomorrow, a film released in 2004 that examined the potential impact of climate change on New York. But does this form of communication still have any impact? Shocking images of the devastation caused by extreme weather saturate the news, documentaries and fiction, but what can they achieve?

In the nine years since director Roland Emmerich brought the horrors of changing global climates to the big screen, the scientific evidence for climate change has mounted and has been more widely accepted. Though the film doesn’t deny climate change and its devastating impacts, Is Our Weather Getting Worse? does concentrate on these aspects of the debate rather than addressing what can be done to mitigate climate change – a facet not even touched upon in the documentary.

Theorists of rhetoric identify four stages that an argument moves through before reaching a conclusion: earlier stages in the argument focus on the existence and details of the problem, with later stages focusing on solutions. Arguments can be stalled by locking debate in the earlier stages, preventing their progression towards a solution. In the case of climate change, the argument has been stalled at the earlier stages, with discussion centring around whether climate change is happening, the nature of the change and its cause. Documentaries that take a Day After Tomorrow approach, focusing on the devastation of climate change, only examine the qualities of the problem not its solutions.

For those who believe in climate change, it is clear that this is a serious problem. If the argument is never allowed to progress, we will never reach a phase where solutions and action will be central to debate. By only focusing on the weather and what is responsible for the extreme weather, without addressing future action or contributing new information, Is Our Weather Getting Worse? stagnates the discourse surrounding climate change. Yes, the weather is changing; yes, it is climate change. Continually re-asking these questions does not bring anyone any closer to a solution. It may even imply a lack of consensus about the answers to these questions.

There is an argument for continuing discussion around the existence and impacts of climate change.  A BBC poll in 2010  investigating public opinion about climate change suggests that the answers to these questions are still not as clearly known or accepted as one might hope. The percentage of people who think climate change is happening is declining, as is the percentage of people who think climate change is established scientific fact. Whilst some might interpret these statistics as indicating a need for more public communication about the causes of climate change, I do not feel t justifies the failure of documentaries to address the question of what action we should be taking.

The type of information presented in Is Our Weather Getting Worse? has been in the public sphere for over a decade. The scare tactics have not worked – in fact, the BBC poll suggests people are getting less scared. What is the point of continuously reiterating the messages of doom without providing any insight into what can be done? In my opinion, public perception of climate change would be better served by talking about what can be done. If climate change remains an unavoidable curse, interest surrounding its severity and onset will only diminish. Moving the debate on to what action can be taken will reinvigorate the discourse surrounding climate change, and will help bring it back into the public consciousness.

Katherine Powell is currently studying for an MSc in Science Communication and is one of the editors of Refractive Index.

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