Putting your money where your mouth is on climate change

Forget football - climate science is well worth a flutter, says Michael Brooks.

Did anyone waste watercooler time on the World Bank’s recent global warming warning? The one that said the planet will probably experience a 4° Celsius rise this century? Of course not. Neither did anyone use work time to talk over the UN Environment Programme report, released ahead of the current international climate negotiations in Qatar. It says the atmosphere now contains onefifth more carbon than in 2000, with no visible fall in emissions to come. Bad news, obviously. But we were busy discussing who might replace Roberto Di Matteo at Chelsea.

A report published in August showed that our interest in climate change has declined over the past five years. Only one-third of us even like to read or think about it. But Climate Science, the Public and the News Media does offer one useful pointer. People prefer climate coverage that is simple, bold and to the point. Even academics and broadsheet readers said that they preferred tabloid coverage of climate issues, and it had more immediate impact on their opinions.

We have to get past the idea that the only way we can cover climate science is by using long, balanced, reasoned arguments. So, why not take a leaf out of football’s book? Football has no trouble getting people’s attention. When Di Matteo was given the boot from his position as Chelsea manager, conjectures about his replacement sent the internet into overdrive. You could offer your contribution in online polls, or you could place a bet on Harry Redknapp or Avram Grant to take over at Stamford Bridge.

Every day, swaths of newsprint are dedicated to opinionated discussions of football that cut across divides of class, income or occupation. Season ticketholders for major football teams include politicians, comedians, television presenters, mathematicians, carpenters, journalists, roofers, bankers – every section of society.

But it’s not the movement of a football into a goal that is so interesting. It’s the people who make it happen. It’s the managers and their tactics. It’s the players and their skills and fallibilities. It’s about trajectories of success and failure, predictions that are proved right or wrong. Climate science has all these. And we could even make it worth a flutter.

Some people are already betting on the climate. At intrade.com, for instance, you can bet the average global temperature for 2012 to be the warmest on record. You can bet on the global-temperature anomaly for this month being greater than 0.45°C, or on global average temperatures for 2012 being the warmest on record.

Model behaviour

At the moment, Intrade’s bets are largely taken up by people advocating different climate models: it’s a way of putting your money where your mouth is. But surely there is scope to develop this on a bigger scale, and with endorsement from people in the know. If a Nasa chief started buying shares in a certain prediction, if a geographer saw a climate solution worth investing in, if a forestry researcher bet on a new ecological trend spiralling out of control, that might be more interesting than hearing the raw facts. It might even be a stimulus that made people look up the facts for themselves.

Perhaps it’s horrible to encourage us to place bets on the climate catastrophe, but it might be the thing that finally gets our attention. And at least there’s publicly accessible information to base your decisions on; you stand to make some quick cash by looking up Nasa satellite data before you commit. It’s definitely better than losing your shirt trying to second-guess the whims of a surly Russian billionaire.

Michael Brooks’s “The Secret Anarchy of Science” is published by Profile Books (£8.99)

Place your bets! Photograph: Getty Images

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 03 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The family in peril

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder