Top physicist accuses The Australian newspaper of misrepresenting his climate change views

Professor Richard Muller – fair to say he’s not happy with a recent column in The Australian that misrepresented his views on climate chnage

IN a column this week in The Australian, writer Gary Johns tried to argue that the science of human-caused climate change was “contentious”, that climate change might not be that bad and that we shouldn’t bother to cut down on emissions.

The Australian newspaper has a record for favouring climate science denialism and contrarianism above genuine expertise.

Columns and coverage like this come along in the pages of the Rupert Murdoch-owned press with such regularity that you might think [blush] that they’ve got some kind of an agenda. Honestly, you could really think that.

In the latest column – “Let’s get realistic about reducing carbon emissions” – Johns writes approvingly of a project called the Nongovernmental Panel on Climate Change (NIPCC) while finding disparaging remarks about the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Johns doesn’t mention that the NIPCC is run by the fossil-fuel funded Heartland Institute in the United States, which advocates free market ideology within which businesses should be allowed to do pretty much whatever they like, such as using the atmosphere as a free waste dump.

But in one section of Johns’ column, he quotes and paraphrases Professor Richard Muller, a respected American physicist who was once sceptical of human-caused climate change.

As reported in The Guardian and elsewhere, a couple of years ago Muller led a team based at the University of California which analysed more than 14 million temperature readings from 44,455 measuring sites from around the world going back to the mid 18th century.

Professor Muller found the world had warmed by 1.5C in the last 50 years and that burning fossil fuels and other human industrial processes were “almost entirely” the cause.

I emailed Professor Muller about the column to ask if he felt his words had been fairly represented.

First, I asked Professor Muller about this section of the column.

Richard Muller, a professor of physics at the University of California, Berkeley, believes that global warming is happening but argues that “in climate science no one ever talks about the data that disagrees” that global warming theory is real.

I asked if the quote was accurate and in context. Professor Muller said:

No, that quote is very inaccurate.  I can’t imagine how he misquoted me so badly, or where he got those “quotes”. What could that mean?  People talk all the time about the data that disagree.  Think of the discussion over the “pause” in warming.

That’s not a good start. How about this part of the column?

The IPCC performance has probably increased the numbers in the adaptation camp. Most important, Muller argues that nothing can be done to stop climate change

Had Professor Muller really argued that “nothing can be done to stop climate change”? Professor Muller again:

Nonsense! Maybe he is quoting something I said several years ago, before I found a reasonable solution. I believe that global warming can be slowed by the transformation of developing countries away from coal towards natural gas.

Leaving aside Professor Muller’s advocacy for one fossil fuel above another, about the only part of the column relating to Professor Muller that had any resemblance to being accurate, were his reported criticisms of the IPCC.

Professor Muller said he did feel that “exaggerations have harmed the IPCC” and that he had called for the resignation of its chairman Rajendra Pachauri over his handling of one error in thousands of pages in the last round of reports relating to melting of glaciers in the Himalayas – an error the IPCC has admitted to.

The Australian has a long record of publishing contrarian fringe views on climate change science and making embarrassing errors in its climate change reporting.

Recently, for example, the newspaper’s environment editor Graham Lloyd used as a source an organisation which denies that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. Lloyd passed off as news how one Russian scientist was warning of a coming ice age, neglecting to check the scientist’s credentials or realising that the “interview” he seemed to think was news had been given five years previously.

In January this year, The Australian also was forced to issue a correction to an article it had written on sea level rise. Lloyd had written that a study had found that rising sea levels were not linked to global warming, when the study made no such claim.

Then there was a finding by the Australian Press Council, which upheld complaints about a report in The Australian which compared  the wind farm industry to a “pedophile ring”.

One study into climate change coverage at The Australian, carried out by academic Professor Robert Manne, found that for every report favourable to climate action, there were four against. In the opinion pages, contrarians and climate science sceptics outnumber advocates and genuine climate science experts ten to one.

Professor Andy Pitman, director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science told journalists yesterday he felt there were deliberate efforts to discredit the next IPCC report, which is currently scheduled to come out in stages from Friday evening Australian time. He said:

There has been a full scale effort to discredit the IPCC report and the reason is obviously because the report is very high quality and very influential. You don’t bother to discredit something that people wouldn’t otherwise take seriously.

Last week, I reported on Planet Oz how Professor Pitman’s centre had advised the Murdoch-owned Daily Telegraph in Sydney of fundamental errors in a climate change story they were following up from British tabloid newspaper The Daily Mail, which itself had been parroted by The Australian. The Daily Telegraph largely ignored the advice, favouring to quote instead a contrarian scientist. Clarifications have since been published.

Professor Pitman, a review editor for a chapter on climate models in the upcoming report, was asked whether scientists or the IPCC could have done more to reach out to journalists and media outlets to offer guidance on stories. He offered this:

There’s this suggestion that [IPCC report authors] might guide the media. But that’s assuming that certain aspects of the media wish to be guided. There are a number of the media outlets that have been so critical and so misrepresenting what is in the leaked report – they don’t want to be guided.

They have a particular agenda to play and they are playing that agenda and there will be nothing that the scientific community could do to overwrite that agenda because they have already decided what they want to report and that isn’t accurate in respect to the science.

Author: Graham

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

12 thoughts on “Top physicist accuses The Australian newspaper of misrepresenting his climate change views”

  1. So the guy who went around giving lectures in which he misquoted, cherry-picked, and misrepresented scientists isnt happy at being misrepresented?

    If he gets an apology perhaps he could then offer one himself.

  2. Thanks Graham. It’s appreciated you are doing the essential credibility checks on commentary put out by hostile media.

    I find it hard to see how the likes of Graham Lloyd and can continue as an Environment Editor, except that deniers love to see their fading world-view in print.

  3. Sounds like the fanatics got to him – now he’s trying to push the scam again. AGW the greatest con since Y2K

  4. I saw this via a tweet from John Cook, whose website Skeptical Science lists Muller as a “climate misinformer”

  5. While it’s clear that Muller endorses the fundamentals of climate science such as human-caused global warming, he has made public statements in the past about certain aspects of climate science that haven’t been accurate. For example, on several occasions, he conflated “Mike’s trick” (plotting paleoclimate data in the same graph as instrumental data) with “hide the decline” (removing tree-ring data that diverges from the instrumental record) – two completely separate things. Consequently, we called him on his error:

    As far as I know, Muller has ceased to promote the “Mike’s trick to hide the decline” myth although I’ve never heard that he retracted his previous, erroneous claims. If he did, I’d be happy to update our section on climate misinformers.

  6. Graham, thanks for your ongoing excellent work in (among other things) patiently bringing the Murdoch press to account. The Australian newspaper has contributed mightily to muddying the waters in the public understanding and mistrust of climate science. For a newspaper that is supposedly targeted to the nation’s elite opinion leaders, its editorial posture is simply grossly irresponsible journalism – an irresponsibilty that has grave consequences for impeding action on climate change. But for the editorial team at The Australian, this seems to be a badge worn with pride.

    Richard Muller has good piece in the NY Times which helps debunk (again) the current denialist fad about the ‘pause’ in warming.

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