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Spinning the globe and balancing the story

The environmentalists say that this does not matter. Their theory is not that the world is getting hotter but that there will be freakier unpredictable weather from now on. It is climate change not global warming that we should be worried about.

india Updated: May 21, 2010 11:16 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times

Do you understand the science behind the ‘global warming’ theory? No, I don’t either. But over the last decade, nearly everybody of consequence in the Indian media has become convinced that a) the planet is in terrible danger because of the consequences of human behaviour and b) that we must therefore moderate this behaviour before doomsday suddenly arrives.

In the West, there have always been prominent climate change deniers and though they are demonized by the environmentalists, they manage to get heard and to inject a note of skepticism into the debate. The late Michael Crichton, for instance, did more, with his fiction, to damage the case of the climate change lobby than any other individual.

Because I do not understand the science, I take the line that the environmentalist lobby must surely be right: there are Nobel prizes, hit documentaries, international conferences and government policy that back their views.

But equally, because, in common with the vast majority of Indian journos, I believe things without fully understanding them, I can never make up my mind when a dispute errupts. Did the IPCC really pull a fast one over the issue of glacier melt-down? Was Shyam Saran’s position on India’s policy towards climate change accurate? Has Jairam Ramesh started toeing the US line?

I don’t know.

And nor do most journos. So two factors influence how the mainstream media cover climate change issues. The first, sadly, is how we look at the personalities involved. Do we think that RK Pachauri deserved all the recognition he received? Or is it time to take him down a peg or two? What about Shyam Saran? He seems like a straight guy. That must mean that Jairam is up to some tricks. And so on.

None of this is remotely scientific – or even fair. But it is exactly how much of the coverage is determined.

There is a second factor. Almost everybody accepts that we, in the middle class, are incredibly privileged. Much of India rots in poverty while we get ahead.

The guilt this engenders has many consequences. In the past, young people would drift to the left. Later, many saw the green movement which identified some of the same villains (corrupt politicians, large capitalist corporations etc.) as the old left as a logical way of balancing out their guilt.

This is not to say that all environmental activism stems out of guilt or even to argue that guilt is a bad thing. (Given how much of India lives, we should be guilty). But our uneasiness at our privileged position leads us, at some level, to accept that a) we are damaging the earth, b) that we must make sacrifices to atone for our behaviour and c) that because government and industry will do nothing on their own, it is up to us as citizens to agitate or turn activists.

It is for this reason that climate change skepticism has never found a ready market in India. In our hearts, we want to believe!

But now, the second influence is weakening. The global warming lobby had it easy when the world did actually seem to be getting warmer. In 1998 for instance, freak weather led to hot summers all over the world. It seemed reasonable to argue that the world was getting hotter, that the polar ice-caps would melt, that we would all die as a result etc.

We had been told that computer models projected rising temperatures as atmospheric carbon dioxide grew. But, in fact, it seems to have got colder over the last two years. This winter has been one of the coldest on record in parts of the West and even in North India, many of us shivered through January.

The environmentalists say that this does not matter. Their theory is not that the world is getting hotter but that there will be freakier unpredictable weather from now on. It is climate change not global warming that we should be worried about.

Well, may be. But given that so few of us understand the science and that environmental activism often seems to be guided more by good intentions than the simple facts, our intuitive faith in the climate change theory has been shaken.

If you look closely at the way the media handle climate change issues these days, you will notice a subtle shift. RK Pachauri is not necessarily a hero any longer. The whole Copenhagen exercise was regarded with a level of detachment. Climate change negotiations are covered more as cynical exercises in realpolitik than as talks aimed at saving the world.

I make no value judgements about any of this —- simply observations. As a journo (though admittedly not one who writes about climate change) who does not understand the science, I can hardly blame others for doing the same thing.

Nor do I have a strong position on the issue (though I suspect that intuitively I may be a borderline skeptic) given how little I know. My intention is neither to praise the climate change lobby nor to damn it. I seek only to explain how the media handle the issue — and to try and understand the recent changes in our attitude to the subject. If, as a reader or a viewer, you have believed that journos were to be trusted on this issue, then I would urge a level of caution.

First Published: May 21, 2010 11:12 IST