John Oliver’s viral video: The best climate debate you will ever see…

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Oliver tackles media climate false balance, the 97% expert consensus, and what a representative climate debate should look like

A video of the simulated climate debate on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver has over 2.5 million views.
A video of the simulated climate debate on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver has over 2.5 million views. Photograph: Robin Hood Foundation/epa

The new HBO comedy show Last Week Tonight with John Oliver recently made a mockery of media false balance in its climate science coverage. Oliver was interviewed on the science podcast Inquiring Minds last week, and host Chris Mooney voiced my feelings exactly:

“I feel like they said in 4 minutes something I’ve been saying for 10 years with like tens or hundreds of thousands of words; what they said was that there’s no debate over global warming, so to have these ‘balanced’ 1-on-1 TV debates is just preposterous.”

Citing the 97% expert consensus result from a paper my colleagues and I published last year, John Oliver illustrated what a statistically representative climate change debate would look like, to great comic effect. A video of the show has gone viral, with over 2.8 million views. You can view it below (warning: the video includes some profane language).

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO): Climate Change Debate

In the show, Oliver made several key points:

  • Humanity’s response to global warming has so far been a massive risk-management failure, or as Oliver put it, “we’ve all proven that we cannot be trusted with the future tense.”
  • Public skepticism about global warming is irrelevant. As Neil deGrasse Tyson says, “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.”
  • The body of scientific evidence supports human-caused global warming: 97% of peer-reviewed scientific papers taking a position on the subject over the past 20 years are in agreement about this.
  • The media nevertheless continues to treat the subject as a ‘debate’, often with 1 person representing the 97% consensus and 1 person representing the less than 3% fringe minority.

John Oliver explained to Inquiring Minds why he found media false balance in climate reporting worthy of mockery.

“The stridency, and the intense comfort with a lack of scientific information, is ludicrous—it’s objectively ludicrous. So I’m attracted to going to wherever the biggest hypocrisy is, and there feels like there’s some good mining to be done regarding environmental issues…This world will be a complete ball of fire before it stops being funny.”

Oliver’s program hit the nail on the head. A recent paper published in the journal Earth’s Future by Maibach, Myers, and Leiserowitz discussed the importance of public awareness of the expert consensus on human-caused global warming.

“Those who do not understand the scientific consensus about human-caused climate change are, in turn, less likely to believe that climate change is happening, human-caused, will have serious consequences, and is solvable (i.e., can be mitigated through concerted action). In addition, not understanding this scientific consensus undermines Americans’ support for a broad societal response to the threat. As a result, knowledge of the scientific consensus on human-caused climate change can be considered a “gateway” cognition; as members of the general public come to understand the consensus, they more likely come to the conclusion that human-caused climate change is happening and harmful.”

The ‘consensus gap’, as we call it, is one of the key roadblocks preventing us from taking serious action to mitigate the risk associated with human-caused climate change. False balance in media coverage of climate change, giving the fringe contrarian view disproportionate coverage, is one of the main causes of the consensus gap, but changing this poor journalistic practice is a challenge.

The BBC for example has ignored viewer criticisms of its climate reporting false balance, and also its own review of impartiality and accuracy in its science reporting. CNN has continued to host these 1-on-1 climate ‘debates’ despite two prominent CNN hosts condemning its false balance.

Perhaps a bit of comedic shaming as done so expertly by John Oliver will begin to dissuade media outlets from continuing the practice of false balance in climate reporting. We can only hope.

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