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Greenpeace Faux Pas Raises Debate About Sensationalizing Climate Change

| Monday August 24th, 2009 | 4 Comments

Last week, a lede in the Guardian UK’s environment blog read: “Greenpeace’s sea ice ‘mistake’ delights climate change sceptics (sic).” Apparently, in a recent interview on BBC, a Greenpeace expert went on air and said that the Arctic is looking at ice free summers as early as 2030. He, in fact, meant to say sea ice-free summers, citing research inspired by NASA focused on Greenland.




Gerd Leipold, the executive director of the environmental organization, then went on to say, “As a pressure group, we have to emotionalise issues and we’re not ashamed of emotionalising issues.” Despite what is seemingly a small omission, the Guardian reported that Leipold’s slip-up gave ammo to the many climate change detractors out there. The environmental advocacy group was quick to issue a defense, claiming that the context in which Leipold was speaking was obvious that he was referring to sea ice and not the land-based ice sheet of the Arctic, and the phrasing he used was in line with terminology used in the initial NASA study.

It appears, however, that what most critics have latched onto is not the specific data regarding Arctic ice melts, but the underlying ethos by which Greenpeace operates. “Admitting you don’t mind emotionalising issues,” writes the Guardian blogger, “gives ammunition to critics that will then use to say you are prone to exaggerating the facts.” One blog claimed Leipold’s comment highlights the fact that Greenpeace is “doing more harm than good by overselling alarmism.”

Earlier this year, the head of Climate Change Advice for the UK’s national weather service, said: “Overplaying natural variations in the weather as climate change is just as much a distortion of the science as underplaying them to claim that climate change has stopped or is not happening.” Both, according to the expert, undermine the profundity of climate change and its eventual impact on the world in the coming years.

So, where is the balance? Despite my chagrin that there are still those that are skeptical about the existence of climate change, is it really possible that a small slip could negate hours, days, weeks, months of research and campaigning? For an organization like Greenpeace, who most can admit has a penchant for the sensational, it’s clear that the bolder the claim, the more careful you need to be about what you say and how you say it. Though, what do instances like this mean, as many of us advocate increasing awareness about climate change, to those who are apparently still undecided about its very existence?


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  • http://www.one-blue-marble.com Richard Levangie

    Ashwin:

    Well, two things. First, sceptic is how that word is spelled in the UK, so you might want to remove the (sic).

    Secondly, I don’t see that Greenpeace did much wrong here… A slip of the tongue, and an admission that it seeks the emotional in climate change.

    At the end of the day, we still have a boatload of astroturfing professionals distorting and manipulating the truth, as they did with this story, and just a few groups with the credibility to stand up to them.

    It’s fine for scientists to suggest that we need to let the facts speak for themselves. But scientists are, in general, horrible communicators. And if we stood back and left them to their own devices, climate change would already be a lost cause.

  • http://www.one-blue-marble.com Richard Levangie

    OK, (sic) can be used to denote uncommon spellings… sorry about that!

    • Ashwin Seshagiri

      Thanks for keeping me in line in any case, Richard!

  • http://www.globalwarmingisreal.com/blog Tom Schueneman

    I agree with Richard. If it is distortion or “sensationalism” we are concerned about, then we may want to look at those that latch on to this as some fundamental flaw in the science or itself an intention to deceive. It seems clear to me that it wasn’t.

    Creating a outcry over this is simply the playbook for the denier crowd – keep people confused, cast doubt, sow distrust.