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  • Writer's pictureTom McAndrew

Critiquing geographical articles in the Media

- how can we teach geography students to be more aware of which content carries more evidence backed truth and think critically as they read?

I’m going to use the following article, entitled ‘Humanity’s survival is still within our grasp - just’ for critiquing.

Paragraph 2 says quote: ‘From record-breaking wildfires across continents to catastrophic floods threatening to submerge major cities, extreme climate events have become the new norm, causing massive loss of life and economic damage worldwide.’ Parts of this quote can be evidenced pretty well, such as the record-breaking wildfires, extreme climate events becoming the norm and economic damage worldwide. Other parts need more evidence otherwise they are danger of being highly inaccurate and misleading or at the very least only showing part of the picture. Extreme climate events causing massive loss of life for example - deaths from natural disasters have dropped to historical low over the last century despite a massive rise in population. So what is meant by ‘extreme climate events’ and where is the evidence for this ‘massive loss in life’? (I’m not denying that it is not happening, simply voicing the need for clarification.) The author could cite the 2003 heatwave in Europe for example that killed thousands of people. Certainly, some extreme climatic events appear to have become the new norm. New Delhi broke a new heat record today and parts of South East Asia broke their own country and regional heat records last year. 

‘Catastrophic floods threatening to submerge major cities’ - this quote is alarmist, the author has used this language to grip the reader’s attention. It is more exciting to read than a dry evidence based academic report. However, as an educator, it is my job to help students think critically. 

Flooding events such as the recent floods in Brazil could be cited or the floods in and around Beijing in the summer of 2023, and the flash flood in Dubai this year. I do not want to play down the effects of these floods in terms of lives lost, damage and displaced; but 56% (4.4 billion people) of the Earth’s population live in urban areas and how much of them are affected or projected to be affected by extreme flooding events? I would say the percentage of affected people is small. (which does not mean their urgent needs should be neglected). 

This also begs the question of what we can do to prepare for flooding events now and in future and also, we need to bear in mind that floods happening in natural ecosystems would have a temporary effect on nature, whereas where humans build, we are making something that has the possibility of being destroyed. So urbanisation and how we locate and design cities comes into question. How much are we decimating drainage basin vegetation that could increase interception and reduce the sedimentation of rivers? That plus high rates of urbanisation surely have as much to do with floods as the increase in climate change related heavy rain events.

This is paragraph 5 in the article: 

‘On our current path, civilisation as we know it will disappear. If we meet current commitments only – net zero by 2050 – perhaps some form of humanity will survive, managing the challenges of continued extreme weather events, ice loss, and sea-level and temperature rises. But we have agency to change this, and a thriving future is still on the table. To grasp it, we must embark on a radical journey encompassing an essential “4R planet” pathway.’

This paragraph is worrying for me because it goes beyond climate pessimism and stretches to climate alarmism, without the necessary evidence cited to back those claims up. ‘On our current path, civilisation as we know it will disappear’, ‘If we meet current commitments only - net zero by 2050 - perhaps some form of humanity will survive’.

What can students learn about these sentences? They can reflect on the author’s intent for a start - he wants to spur the reader into action and fear is used as the tool to do this. I have no problem with the statements as long as they are backed up with evidence. In this case, the quotes may be damaging because they foster eco-anxiety and could negate hope for the future and rather than galvanise people into action (which I assume to be its intended purpose). 

As a teacher who is consistently exhorting his students to back up what they say and write with evidence to push them into high levels of work, rigour and diligence, it is important for them to spot in journalistic articles where this is left out. 

Let’s take the challenge of sea level rise highlighted by paragraph 5. The sea is rising at 3.6mm per year, so 3.6cm per decade and is projected to have risen by 04-0.8m (40-80cm) by the year 2100. Even taking the highest value, that gives humanity and especially urban planners and coastal defence engineers and strategists 75 years to respond gradually to the slow enough rise. Sea level rise is a serious issue that needs addressing and planning for. But is alarmism necessary to put this message across? Maybe. But if so, please show me the evidence that alarmism does more good than harm.

Once students detect flaws in arguments and lack of evidence, they must be taught to keep an open mind and not rubbish the whole article afterwards. This article is still valuable and carries positive takeaways too. David King wants to highlight the 4Rs solution: reduce emissions, build resilience, repair ecosystems, remove greenhouse gases. His main message towards the end of the article is that if we act fast and act now, we will have a better world for future generations. It is worth reaching that end point in the article because that is what we all need to be fighting for.

Here is a summary of some of the techniques I used to critique this article:

  • With a given topic, I try to read about two, three or even four sides of the argument around the topic. This makes me aware of the detailed biases and points of view that are out there.

  • I question any statement that sounds alarmist and try to discern the truth by looking for evidence for and against. 

  • Generic and broad sweeping statements that are not backed up by evidence in a given article draw my attention. Often they can be wrong or seriously oversimplified as to distort the fact based reality. 

  • I do not allow emotions to get in the way of the process and stay calm and neutral and concentrate on the facts. Articles such as this are written emotively and part of its purpose is to stir anger, fear, awe, sadness, joy within you. Be mindful and let emotions drift past as you concentrate on cold hard facts within a hot topic.



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