The Australian admits it misinterpreted research on sea level rise linked to climate change

A FEW days ago The Australian newspaper ran a story on its front page with the headline “Sea rise ‘not linked to warming'” which was supposedly based on the findings of research published in a peer-reviewed journal late last year.

The problem with the story, written by the newspaper’s environment editor Graham Lloyd was that, as I showed a couple of days ago, the scientific paper published in the Journal of Climate made no such claim and came to no such finding.

The paper discussed at length the role of humans in rising sea levels. In short, Lloyd had the arse of the story where the face should have been.

This morning, The Australian has issued a correction, which is buried away on page two.

It reads

A report in the Australian on Tuesday (Sea rise ‘not linked to warming’, page 1) said a paper by JM Gregory with a contribution from John Church had “found no link to global warming and no increase in the rate of glacier melt over the past 100 years”. In fact, the paper found the effect of anthropogenic global warming on the rate of sea level rise would have been greater in the 20th century but for volcanic activity. It found that in the past two decades the rate of sea level rise had been larger than in the 20th century.

Lloyd’s story ran on January 15, the day after he had decided to criticise the national broadcaster for the way it was covering climate change in a week-long series of stories from the ABC’s environment correspondent Sarah Clarke.

Essentially, Lloyd’s rather churlish argument seemed to be that Clarke hadn’t interviewed the people he would have interviewed and cited facts in the way that he would have cited them.

Discussing an ABC report on sea level rise, Lloyd wrote: “But the ABC did not mention recent scientific findings that there was no firm link to sea-level rises and climate change in the 20th century.”

Oh the irony, it burns. To me, it seems a little rich for a journalist who is able to invert the findings of a science paper to feel confident enough to publicly lecture other journalists.

Lloyd didn’t quote a single author of the paper which he misrepresented, but he did at least quote from the actual paper (rather than just the abstract) in a second follow-up story.

I understand Lloyd did attempt to contact John Church, one of the world’s leading sea level experts and a co-author on the paper, but Church didn’t respond.

He did respond indirectly in an IPCC press conference by saying Lloyd’s story was wrong. Perhaps the reason Church didn’t reply to The Australian was that he had taken a leaf out of the book of Michael Coughlan, formerly Australia’s most senior climatologist at the Bureau of Meteorology.

Back in 2009 before his retirement, Coughlan told me: “The Australian clearly has an editorial policy. No matter how many times the scientific community refutes these arguments, they persist in putting them out – to the point where we believe there’s little to be gained in the use of our time in responding.’’

Jon Dee, a founder of Planet Ark and Do Something!, was another to have been unimpressed by Lloyd’s story. He wrote a complaint to News Ltd and reported on Twitter that he received a message back last night from The Australian editor Clive Mathieson, who said: “We are running a correction in the newspaper tomorrow acknowledging that we misinterpreted some of its key findings”.

Dee told me this morning:

This article marked a new low in The Australian’s misleading reporting on climate change. I believe this constant misrepresentation of the climate change issue by The Australian needs to be reviewed by News Ltd’s management. What I read in The Australian on climate change seems to be at odds with the findings of eminent scientists and organisations like the CSIRO.

Rather than retain the original story online with the correction added, Lloyd’s misrepresentation has been pulled and replaced with a “404-Page not found” error message.

As Dee points out, The Australian has form when it comes to reporting climate change. A study of the newspaper’s coverage on climate change found that when it came to opinion columns, genuine climate scientists were outnumbered in its pages 10 to 1 by sceptics. Nor is it the first time it has faced accusations of misrepresenting research on sea level rise.

On one occasion, the paper went to an 80-year-old beach swimmer for his expert opinion on rising sea levels. “All this talk about rising sea levels – most of us old-timers haven’t seen any change and we’ve been coming down here for decades,” said Kevin Court, who was pictured in his budgie smugglers for the paper.

The Australian was also recently forced to publish a judgement from the Australian Press Council, after the newspaper had run a story from UK-based anti-wind farm activist James Delingpole. The story had used an anonymous quote to compare the wind farm industry to a pedophile ring.

Before The Australian starts throwing stones around about climate change, perhaps it should check its surroundings for glass.

Pic: How The Australian originally reported the story. Credit: JonDee/Twitter

Author: Graham

Graham Readfearn is a Brisbane-based journalist. Go to the About page in the top navigation for more information.

4 thoughts on “The Australian admits it misinterpreted research on sea level rise linked to climate change”

  1. I reckon The Australian and Lloyd know what they’re doing.

    The correction does not change the impact of the original and studies have shown that a correction may indeed reinforce it.

    The Backfire Effect:

    If I’m wrong then he and The Australian will cease to misrepresent scientific papers. I do think they will continue to lie and happily issue correction if/when called out knowing there is no cost to them but probably an upside for their ratbag ideology.

    Thanks Graham for your post and ta too for the Coughlan reference.

  2. Thanks for this Graham! I’d like to make an observation on the ABC’s presentations this week, as well as the general coverage of the IPCC meeting in Hobart. WHile the ABC was presumably running this series of programmes because of the IPCC, it only rarely mentioned that the conference was going on, and to my knowledge, hardly interviewed anyone there, leave alone having the sort of in depth discussion programme that we are all calling out for. The only one such interview that I’ve heard on RN was this morning, when John Doyle interviewed the lead professor from the Hadley centre. While it was a fascinating interview, it also revealed the perennial problem with speaking to genuine scientific experts – everything he said was hedged about with cautions and probabilities.
    As for the ABC’s AM series, the program on Sea level rise I barely bothered to listen to, because I find it galling that people choose to concentrate on an effect that will barely affect the generation of people responsible for the mess we’re in. Do we really care if beach side mansions have to pay higher insurance premiums, or will the residents of them really care if the local supermarket has no bread and there are armed gangs roaming the streets?
    And did they mention the Arctic melt?
    Same problem today – the extinction of already rare species by 2100 is a ridiculous fantasy, when the will be noone any longer capable of studying such ephemera; it’s our own extinction that people should be talking about.
    I also noticed today how with all the talk of changes that we may expect, there is no mention of the need to take immediate action to avert the disaster – we’ve jumped straight to the adaptation phase.

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