How Twitter and Carbon Brief are helping climate change scientists fight Donald Trump online

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

Defined by brevity and instant reaction, Twitter is probably the last media source one would expect to host the debate on such a vital and complex subject as climate change.

Yet just as the planet’s most notorious climate sceptic Donald J Trump likes to voice his doubts over global warming in tweets to his 32 million followers, so the world’s climate change scientists are flocking to the micro-blogging site to have their say.

Twitter is where you find Ed Hawkins, associate professor of climate variability at the University of Reading (15,700 followers), tweeting an archive article by Christopher Monckton (now a climate sceptic), acknowledging in 1988 that rising levels of CO2 in the atmosphere could have “calamitous effects”. Twitter is where the Met Office scientist Richard Betts, professor of climate impacts at the University of Exeter, tells his 11,800 followers that he will be speaking on global warming at this weekend’s Glastonbury Festival, and where Polar Oceanographer Mark Brandon (@icey_mark) tweets graphs showing the worrying decline in sea ice in the Antarctic.

Mainstream media failings

According to Leo Hickman, editor-in-chief of climate change journalism site Carbon Brief, this rush to Twitter is a consequence of the failings of the news media in reporting this difficult subject. “One of the most fascinating dynamics that has happened over the last five years is that with climate scientists getting more and more frustrated with being misrepresented in the media, either wilfully or through poor journalism, many have taken to Twitter to act almost as their own rebuttal machine,” he says. “They know that a lot of journalists are also on Twitter and, if they see something being discussed, they can interact directly in ways that they would never have been able to before, calling out poor journalism and saying something is definitely wrong.”

But if Twitter is becoming an unlikely frontline in this debate, Carbon Brief is also playing a critical role, albeit through a very different approach. It was named Best Specialist Site for Journalism at this year’s Online Media Awards. One of the impressive aspects of its entry was a vast graphic showing how the climate change debate had played out on Twitter in 2016, showing the key terms in the data from 13m tweets. It also reported in compelling fashion on the way that wind and solar power have overtaken coal as sources of energy, and on the drain that aviation places on the UK’s carbon budget.

Carbon Brief’s model is high quality science journalism, produced in the hope that it will become a resource not just for specialists working in this field but for other journalists covering the subject.

“Part of what we do is try and raise the bar, raise the standards,” says Hickman, a former science writer on the Guardian, where he worked for 16 years. “That might sound arrogant but we are trying to do that because we have the skill set and resources within our team – people who are basically scientists themselves and have moved into journalism.”

Carbon Brief was established nearly six years ago and is funded entirely by the European Climate Foundation (ECF), a philanthropic organisation set up to develop a low-carbon society. Carbon Brief is based near London Bridge and has a team of six journalists. One has a PhD in physical oceanography, another a doctorate in biochemistry and a third has a masters in climate change from the University of East Anglia (UEA).

It was the hacking of email data from the Climatic Research Unit at the UEA in 2009 and attempts by global warming deniers to exploit the material in the so-called “Climategate” controversy that led to the ECF establishing Carbon Brief.

“The way the ECF see this is that there needs to be high-quality, in-depth, nuanced reporting around climate change because the current business model of MS journalism is largely failing to deliver that,” says Hickman, who has been covering climate change for around 15 years.

During that time he has watched with concern the travails of the mainstream media in funding its newsrooms and, in particular, the resource-intensive specialism of science journalism. “You would have specialist science journalists who would be genuinely expert in their field and flies wouldn't land on that person in terms of speaking to other scientists in that field. There are very few of them now,” he says.

In contrast to the content-churning factories of online newsrooms, Hickman might give Carbon Brief writers “two or three days” to compile a detailed “Explainer” piece on fossil fuel subsidies or climate sensitivity. The aim is not an immediate rush of web traffic but a longer term marker that will bring its rewards over time. “Hopefully it becomes a definitive go-to piece online for that topic.”

The reputation of Carbon Brief is now such that publications of the stature of the New York Times will link to its explainers in what Hickman terms “journalistic shorthand so that they don’t need to explain that issue”.

It’s not that Carbon Brief doesn’t enjoy traffic hits. A recent piece highlighting a Thames TV documentary “that warned about global warming” as long ago as 1981 was widely shared on social media. “It was striking watching that nearly 40 year-old documentary that it was pretty much making exactly the same arguments as are being made now,” says Hickman.

A 7,000-word review of Leonardo DiCaprio’s last climate change film, Before the Flood, was enormously popular, partly because of a BuzzFeed-style headline reference to “7 Key Scenes”.

Resisting clickbait

But in general Carbon Brief deliberately eschews the click-chasing of modern publishing. “Sure there are lots of ways we could do headlines that we know would make the piece fly faster and further online but we obviously resist the temptation to do that and we do calm, straight headlines, knowing full well that we are probably losing a bit of gold dust in terms of SEO and reach on social media because of that,” says Hickman. “We are always playing the longer term game in terms of wanting our journalism to be trusted.”

It also pays careful attention to its language, in covering a subject that, despite the apparently overwhelming consensus of scientists in the field, remains a highly-charged political topic. “We have put a lot of effort into getting our tone as policy neutral as possible,” says Hickman in relation to the way climate change should be addressed. “That carries through in our headlines and the way we promote and sell our work on social media.”

Carbon Brief’s readership is nerdy and specialist, dominated by those working in government, non-profit organisations and other areas specifically related to climate change. This was demonstrated at the site’s last birthday party for 200 invited readers who formed 25 teams to take part in a quiz night (won by Friends of the Earth). But the hope is to find ways to make the content more attractive to the wider public without compromising the journalism. The ECF has agreed to the hire of San Francisco-based climate scientist Zeke Hausfather, who will be Carbon Brief’s US analyst and will monitor the impact on climate of the policies of the Trump administration.

As for the mainstream news media, its coverage of climate change has been undermined by an inbuilt journalistic instinct to give even weight to both sides of the story, Hickman argues. “It’s the op-ed pages and the world of false balance which has really plagued the whole of the discussion around climate change due to the way that journalism is designed and how journalists are trained.”

The BBC, required by charter to be impartial, has had particular difficulties as the subject has become politically-charged. Hickman says the BBC is in “a unique position” and faces a “difficult job” but also criticises it for “slightly ludicrous situations” when it hosts debates pitting a climate-sceptic politician such as Lord Lawson – “a policy person” – against a climate scientist.

Scepticism, Hickman argues, is largely being perpetuated by those in society who know that “big changes would have to happen” if climate change is to be properly addressed. He links the politicisation of the issue to the 2006 film An Inconvenient Truth, sponsored by Al Gore. “He effectively framed it as a left issue. It snowballed from there.”

Hickman saw the consequences of that when attending the COP22 climate change conference in Marrakech in November. What should have been a celebration of the ratification of the Paris treaty framed at the previous conference was instead thrown into despair by news of the US election result. Carbon Brief hurried among the delegates collecting interviews with 20 leading climate change scientists gauging opinions on Trump’s desire to pull the US out of the treaty. “It utterly overshadowed the whole event,” he recalls. ‘Climate scientists are usually a subdued and cautious bunch in terms of giving quotes but they were all so shocked by it.”

That stark prospect is now a reality, as the president has gone ahead with his campaign pledge.

But Hickman is surprisingly upbeat.

Trump – ironically for someone who is never slow to frame delicate geopolitical issues in a simplistic good guy, bad guy narrative – could become the demon figure who condemns the whole climate denial movement to the political wilderness.

“There’s a good argument to be had that in the long term Trump in a funny kind of way will be seen in the history books as a positive moment for tackling climate change because he is so despised around the world and he will be so associated with what he did with the Paris agreement that anyone who holds a climate-sceptic position is going to be forever associated with Trump,” says Hickman. “This actually might be the catalyst for bolder climate action.”

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