Looking to the future: 2012 in climate news

  • 09 Jan 2012, 15:00
  • Bárbara Mendes-Jorge

2011 brought new versions of the same old insights into temperature rise from the BEST project, a somewhat damp re-run of the Climategate saga, plenty of questionable media coverage of climate science and some truly heroic mangling of reporting on energy bills. With 2012 now in full swing, we expect there to be more of (some of) the same, and a few new things to keep us busy this year. Here's our ten likely trends in climate coverage for 2012...

1. Obama's Republican challenger will be a climate skeptic

No surprise here. The swing to overt climate skepticism in the Republican party has been well documented, and all but one of the current Republican candidates rejects the scientific consensus on climate change, for which they have proudly (I'm sure) received Forbes' Climate BS 2011 Award. ('Bad Science' apparently.)

Jon Huntsman (who wavered on the issue but seemed to come down in favour of scientific opinion on climate) polled only 1% in the Iowa caucus last week. Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich initially pledged their support to climate scientists' findings, but have both flip-flopped over the issue in recent times.

2. A number of UK government 'green' initiatives will be cemented

Green Investment Bank
Announced in 2010 by then-Chancellor Alistair Darling, the creation of the Green Investment bank is supposed to encourage private sector development in investments related to 'greening the economy' . The 'GIB' is moving closer to being established and is poised to begin "direct, state-aid compliant investments" from April 2012. (However, it has not escaped criticism for lacking ambition.)

Green Deal
The Energy Act of 2011 included provisions for a ' Green Deal ' which aims to reduce carbon emissions by fitting 14m homes with insulation and other energy-saving measures. Financed to the tune of £200 million and due to be launched in October, it will enable homeowners to take out loans for insulating their homes or otherwise reducing energy use. Ministers have invested significant political capital in the scheme - but green groups have attacked the deal for not going far enough to protect those in cold homes or the dominance of the 'Big Six' energy companies.

3. Energy bills will stay high

There was plenty of media coverage last year focusing on rising energy bills (although the reporting around the reasons why was not always accurate). According to the latest government figures it appears an average domestic energy bill was approximately £100 higher in 2011 than 2010 (p.7).

The main cause of the rising bills last year was the rising cost of wholesale gas. International events such as the Arab Spring (which pushed up the price of oil) and the Fukishima disaster (pushing up demand for gas) contributed to this.

This effect been somewhat mitigated by a so-far mild winter (which turned out to be a surprise for some tabloids) - and there are reports that bills will fall as a result of a price war between the energy companies. But a predicted continuing high oil price, coupled with  the estimated £110 billion investment needed in energy infrastructure by 2020 means high domestic energy bills are probably here to stay - green economy or no green economy.

4. Climate skeptics will continue to attack renewables

Media attacks on the cost of renewable energy saw a significant upswing last year. Many of these claims originated with climate skeptics - most notably the Mail's " £200 on your energy bill " front-pager, a figure which they later corrected ( twice) following PCC complaints from Carbon Brief.

Notwithstanding, it is clear that the media campaign has scored some hits and a general recognition that there is concern about the issue in government. DECC, Ofgem and the Climate Change Committee have all hit back with briefings explaining where the energy bill price rises are currently coming from (see above).

In 2012, the debate will undoubtedly continue to rage, but possibly on somewhat stronger fact-base. (Which would be a relief to our nerves). As debate about the 'green deal' continues, the crucial role of energy efficiency measures in reducing bills is likely to continue to come into stronger focus.

5. Shale gas marketable?

The discovery of large shale deposits in Lancashire by mining company Cuadrilla made the news in 2011. Climate skeptic commentators were quick to herald it as a game changing  discovery which meant we no longer needed renewable energy. The drilling of exploratory wells was halted when tremors were felt in Blackpool, which was blamed on the controversial extraction process ('fracking').

Cuadrilla expects to submit plans to the government in 2012 in order to bring British shale gas to the market by 2013. Meanwhile, the government seems unable to make up its mind on the issue. Potential benefits to energy security and the not insignificant tax revenue it promises make it a hard proposition to turn down, but there are many unanswered questions - not least about the potential impact on greenhouse gas emissions.

As the government dithers, advocates will continue to promote shale gas as the saviour to our energy ills.

6. Peer-reviewed Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature (BEST) results released

The release of the initial analysis by the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature (BEST) team kicked off something of a media kerfuffle in October 2011 - although its key finding - that there has been a warming trend of around 1°C since the last century - was hardly news to researchers.  

In 2012, we can expect to see the BEST results published in peer reviewed journals - and climate skeptic commentators who initially welcomed and then turned on the project will accordingly launch a few hundred more attempts to discredit the results. Skeptics currently continue to make hay with its figurehead Professor Muller's personal doubts about whether the warming trend is human-induced (a topic the BEST project did not look at). Perhaps Professor Muller will step up and take that one on next? We'd be surprised if there are any substantially new results when BEST publish, but on the evidence of 2011, the media would enjoy it.

7. Climate change coverage - still falling off a cliff?

Daily Climate's analysis of their archive of global media showed that media coverage of climate change continued to " fall off the map" in 2011, declining  roughly 20 percent from levels in 2010 - and down 42 percent from the peak in 2009. Interestingly though , as one journalist argues in response: "most media surveys don't look at journalism in India, China, Brazil, Mexico or Africa, where coverage of the issue has recently - and rapidly - increased".

Will climate change come back on the media agenda in 2012? Perhaps we should be careful what we wish for - Australia bucked the trend to less media coverage over the last year, but largely as a result of a vitriolic, and at times highly misleading, debate around a proposed carbon tax.

We predict that online debate around climate change (for which there is a clear demand), will continue to increase, broaden and strengthen in 2012, increasing in accuracy and diversity as more people explore the different angles.

Whether climate returns to the mainstream media to a significant extent is dependent on Events, dear boy, Events.

8. More 'warmest ever'?

2010 tied with 2005 and 1998 as the warmest year on record. 2011 came tenth. The lower temperatures last year arose from a La Niña event which was, according to the WMO, "one of the strongest of the last 60 years". Despite this, 2011 was the warmest ever La Niña year.

According to the Met Office, 2012 is also set to be in the top ten warmest year on record, around 0.48°C warmer than the long-term (1961-1990) global average of 14.0°C . The La Niña has returned, but is not as strong as last year. Therefore 2012 is expected to be "slightly warmer than last year but not as warm as 2010."

It's always good to remember though - it doesn't really matter that much what an individual year does, it's the long-term trend (see above) that tells us what's going on.

9. Climategate 3.0

You may have missed it, but another batch of hacked UEA emails were released at the end of  2011 (a story largely ignored by the UK media and elsewhere). However, there are allegedly 220,000 emails hidden behind a password, which were not released.

So for 2012, it's not impossible that the password will get broken or leaked. We predict the remainder of the encrypted emails don't reveal a grand UN conspiracy to mislead the world about climate change, and that no-one will take a blind bit of notice. RIP Climategate?

10. Follow-up of decisions made in Durban

There was a mixed reaction to the question of whether climate talks in Durban were a success, but aside from the main advance - agreement to create an international climate change treaty that would include developed as well developing countries for the first time - a few other decisions were made that are due to become operational in 2012.

There's the Green Climate Fund, which aims to mobilize $100 billion annually by 2020 for mitigation and adaptation efforts, is now operational, with the first meeting later this year aiming to provide start-up financing. The UN's Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD) programme also finalised technical guidelines which means that it is also now eligible for international financing.

Despite progress, the rhetoric of some of the biggest emitter countries (e.g. Canada on a number of issues ) as well as the impasse on how to deal with emissions from shipping and aviation, it can be somewhat difficult to be optimistic about Durban's legacy.

Oh, and the world will end, obviously, and we'll be liveblogging it.

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