Accuracy in Media

Climate change is, as Mashable and the rest of the media report insistently, the defining issue of our time. It would help if Mashable, and other parts of the media, therefore knew something about climate change. This is not in evidence: “A breakthrough solar oven got hot enough to produce carbon-free cement and steel”. This is not true. At least, not in the important sense of being “carbon free”.

But guess where we all get our information about climate change from? The media, like Mashable, fail to understand climate change and carbon-free.

Mashable reported that company called Heliogen has created a very hot solar oven and that it is being tested to produce both concrete and steel, which is true. It’s even true that Bill Gates backs the company. It is not true, contrary to the article’s claims, that either process will therefore be “carbon-free”. This is an interesting technology, but it is not a cure for climate change.

For those who did not stay awake in high school chemistry. The raw material for cement is limestone, the chemistry of which is CaCO3. The process of making cement is to make that into CaO, which the perceptive will note leaves a CO2 hanging around. That process, making cement, is between 6 and 8% of all the carbon emissions (CO2, recall?) that the world produces each year. 

Running this in a solar oven doesn’t change this chemistry. The same is true of the way that steel (actually, iron but we’ll let them have that one) is made. There are ways to reduce the carbon emissions of the process but a solar oven isn’t one of them.

It is possible, entirely so, to say that this is a quibble, a detail. The specific example can be seen as just that, a detail. But it’s a very important example of a major point. These people who keep shouting at us about climate change don’t understand the subject under discussion. 

We could even say that this is just an editing mistake – they do happen. But then an editing mistake like this shows that those editing simply – again – don’t understand the subject under discussion. Anyone with any significant knowledge about cement and climate change knows that it’s not the energy source that’s the problem, it’s the basic chemistry of the process itself that causes the carbon emissions. Mashable doesn’t – therefore all of Mashable’s other comments upon climate change need to be looked at with more than a little skepticism.

 Mashable gets some 9 million visits a month. It’s an important part of the news media in the tech world, ranking just outside the top 100 sites. When talking about climate change getting something like this wrong shows, for all that audience reach, an ignorance of the subject under discussion.

To the important point here. If they’ve simply not got the information to tell us what’s happening with something simple like cement making then what about the rest of it? The imminent disasters, the influence of extreme weather, the need to radically change society and all the rest we’re told about climate change? If the people telling us are ignorant about a part of this might they be about all of it? And that is the actual problem. If the media is provably wrong in part then what about the whole?




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