I TOOK part in a cracking panel discussion earlier this month at the 2014 Australian Science Communicators national conference in Brisbane.
I joined former science editor on The Australian, Leigh Dayton, ABC Background Briefing’s Ian Townsend and Jenni Metcalfe, of science communication agency Econnect , for a chat/argument about the future of science journalism.
ABC Radio National host Natasha Mitchell was the moderator.
You can’t argue that mainstream journalism is going through a bit of a crisis at the moment – or at least the way its funded is.
As newsrooms shrink, so do the number of specialist journalists. It leaves a lovely gaping hole ripe for exploitation by PR, think tanks and the like.
I shared my thoughts on the challenges journalists face when scientific issues like climate change become politicised and how just being a conduit for the opinions of others doesn’t always cut it.
Listen to the whole metaphorical shooting match below and, below that, a Storify of reaction to the panel.
UNITED States President Barack Obama has just finished his state of the union address and the nation’s coal industry must be wondering what they did to offend him so much.
Maybe it was the climate change thing?
Yes, it’s probably that.
Because while the intergenerational challenge of climate change formed a key plank of the president’s speech, the other “c” word – coal – just didn’t get a look in.
The President did refer to “power plants” but only to remind Americans that he had told his Environmental Protection Agency “to work with states, utilities, and others to set new standards on the amount of carbon pollution our power plants are allowed to dump into the air.”
Obama made clear that he sees the country’s booming fracked gas industry as “the bridge fuel that can power our economy with less of the carbon pollution that causes climate change”.
The problem with this approach, though, is that by embracing fracked gas you risk delaying the clean energy revolution that only renewables can offer in the long term.
A few months ago I wrote on my Guardian Planet Oz blog how the President was making the challenge of tackling climate change a simpler question of right versus wrong. He did it again today.
The shift to a cleaner energy economy won’t happen overnight, and it will require tough choices along the way. But the debate is settled. Climate change is a fact. And when our children’s children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world, with new sources of energy, I want us to be able to say yes, we did.
If Obama wants to be able to say to his children that Americans did “all we could” to fight climate change when he was the leader of the free world, then I doubt they would see the liberation of millions of tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions from burning gas as being a particularly prudent measure.
But leaving aside this internal inconsistency, Obama is clearly happy to pick winners in energy policy.
Every four minutes, another American home or business goes solar; every panel pounded into place by a worker whose job can’t be outsourced. Let’s continue that progress with a smarter tax policy that stops giving $4 billion a year to fossil fuel industries that don’t need it, so that we can invest more in fuels of the future that do.
Eradicating subsidies for fossil fuels has long been on the agenda of the world’s foremost energy policy advisory group, the International Energy Agency. Currently global subsidies for the fossil fuel industry stand well above US$400 billion.
WHEN tobacco companies began to understand that science linking tobacco smoking to lung cancer could have an impact on their industry profits, they began to produce another product – doubt.
Spreading doubt about the science could water-down public concern, cut the motivation to act and reduce the risk of policies that affect your bottom line.
Video blogger and journalist Peter Sinclair – of Climate Crock of the Week fame – has put together this new video showing the at times startling similarities between the denial of the health impacts from smoking and the denial of the science of human-caused climate change.
IF you were a newspaper editor, who would you accept as a commentator on climate change science and the role of the media?
Perhaps a climate scientist? Maybe a journalist, editor or media academic? Maybe someone who has researched either of these fields?
If you’re The Australian newspaper, where more than half the comment columns are sceptical of the dangers of human-caused climate change, then apparently a professor of medicine specialising in Inflammatory Bowel Disease will do the trick.
So it’s hardly surprising that the column from earlier this week, written by Professor Tim Florin of the University of Queensland, should be littered with errors and misrepresentations.
He then goes on to accuse The Guardian of engaging in censorship and that the newspaper, together with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is only “subtly different” from the kind of thing that went on in Stalinist Russia.
Florin appears to have been sparked into his diatribe by a piece I wrote recently on my Planet Oz blog, where I discussed a recent decision by the LA Times to file in the rubbish bin any letters from readers claiming there’s no evidence that humans cause climate change.
In the very first line of the column, Florin writes:
LAST month, The Guardian’s Graham Readfearn lamented that “wrongheaded and simplistic views on climate denialism are a regular feature on the letters page of many newspapers”, including The Australian.
But here’s the thing. That sentence – the one in quote marks – appears nowhere in my original story. I didn’t say that views on “climate denialism” appeared in letters. What I actually wrote, after providing an example of a letter in The Australian from a climate science denier, was this
Wrongheaded and simplistic views like this are a regular feature on the letters page of The Australian newspaper and no doubt hundreds of other newspapers around the world where readers respond to stories about climate change.
Doctoring quotes which change the meaning of what was originally written is considered very bad form in journalism. But then, Florin’s not a journalist, so how would he know? At least he left a second quote alone, where I asked an open-ended question about whether or not newspapers had a responsibility to keep pseudo-science off its pages.
Here are some things which Florin then goes on to pontificate on, from his lofty position as an expert on neither of the subjects he is writing about.
The Guardian should be leading discussion, not playing the censorship card.
The Guardian should desist from using “denier” when describing those people who disagree with the current paradigm as broadcast by itself, the IPCC and other media outlets.
Had Florin checked, he might have found that since writing my original Planet Oz blog, The Guardian’s Letters editor Nigel Willmott has actually addressed the issue of publishing letters from people who deny the evidence of human-caused climate change. There is no blanket ban, but rather a sensible editorial policy. He said:
So I would be unhappy about an absolute ban on those who might be grouped together as climate change deniers, but would need to see a strong case to run anything from them (and know something about what commercial interests they might be linked to).
The Sydney Morning Herald‘s Letters editors Julie Lewis and Marc McEvoy have also since outlined their views on publishing letters from people who deny the existence of evidence. They wrote
Climate change deniers or sceptics are free to express opinions and political views on our page but not to misrepresent facts. This applies to all our contributors on any subject. On that basis, a letter that says, “there is no sign humans have caused climate change” would not make the grade for our page.
Florin then goes on to attack the concept of a scientific consensus on climate change, claiming that “consensus is not the way that the scientific method works” and that “consensus is anathema to the scientific method”. This is a common argument from climate change sceptics.
Sir Paul Nurse, president of the Royal Society (founded in 1660), tackled it in conversation with climate science denier and blogger James Delingpole. When Delingpole tried to tell Sir Paul Nurse that “science has never been about consensus”, Nurse responded that consensus was just simply “the position of the experts at the time.” He then offered an analogy:
Say you had cancer and you went to be treated – there would be a consensual position on your treatment and it is very likely that you would follow that consensual treatment because you would trust the clinical scientists there. Now the analogy is that you could say you had done your research into it and I disagree with that consensual position – but that would be a very unusual position for you to take. I think sometimes the consensual position can be criticised when in fact it is most likely to be the correct position.
Florin then offers a list of “reputable climate scientists” who he says disagree with the “IPCC paradigm”. Included in the list are Nigel Calder (not a climate scientist, but a journalist), Freeman Dyson (not a climate scientist, but a physicist) and Stephen McIntyre (not a climate scientist, but does have 30 years in the mining industry).
Florin also lists another Ivar Giaever, who isn’t a climate scientist. Giaever did win a Nobel prize in Physics, even though Florin says he won the laureate for “chemistry”.
Also on the list is atmospheric physicist Professor Richard Lindzen, who is Jewish.
I mention this only because Florin complains that when I and others use the term “denier” to describe – well – people who deny the existence of evidence, that in fact this is being done to make some comparison with Holocaust denial.
This, from a writer who only a few sentences earlier had said the IPCC and The Guardian were only “subtly different” to the ideologically driven anti-science approach adopted by Joseph Stalin in the early to mid-20th century.
Lindzen isn’t quite so concerned with the term “denier”. When asked in a BBC interview about such labels, Lindzen said:
I actually like denier. That’s closer than sceptic.
Later on, Florin claims that the IPCC “has little to say ” on the scientific question of whether the rate of climate change is increasing. It is hard to understand how anyone who had read the most recent IPCC reports could come to this conclusion. Here are a few statements from the latest IPCC Summary for Policy Makers (SPM)
Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia.
Each of the last three decades has been successively warmer at the Earth’s surface than any preceding decade since 1850.
Changes in many extreme weather and climate events have been observed since about 1950. It is very likely that the number of cold days and nights has decreased and the number of warm days and nights has increased on the global scale. It is likely that the frequency of heat waves has increased in large parts of Europe, Asia and Australia. There are likely more land regions where the number of heavy precipitation events has increased than where it has decreased.
The rate of sea level rise since the mid-19th century has been larger than the mean rate during the previous two millennia (high confidence).
Florin also asks “is a significant portion of climate change determined by human activity?” The answer, according to the studies which were reviewed by the IPCC, is that pretty much all of the warming observed since the 1950s was caused by human emissions. Here it is in IPCC speak:
The best estimate of the human-induced contribution to warming is similar to the observed warming over this period.
Florin also states confidently that computer modelling cited by the IPCC “has consistently grossly overestimated its (CO2) effect on warming”.
This illustration from the SPM shows how computer models reconstruct the 20th century climate. Notice how the actual measurements (the black lines) sit “grossly” somewhere in the middle of the model estimates.
You might also notice the blue parts. This shows that when you remove human influences from the models, they fail to recreate the warming.
Florin’s column is, of course, just one in a long line of stories published in Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. Australia newspapers which misrepresent what the actual science says on climate change.
Research from Wendy Bacon, Professorial Fellow at the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism at Sydney’s University of Technology, has found that just over half of all the comment articles published in The Australian either reject or suggest there is legitimate doubt about the central consensus of climate science.
Professor Florin has decided to venture into the realm of climate change science and journalism to offer a poorly informed opinion.
I suspect if a climate scientist or a journalist wandered into his surgery rooms and started to offer advice about gastroenterology, he’d rightly tell them to shove it somewhere.
A LEADING association for climate scientists has called on one of Australia’s highest profile business leaders to apologise for accusing their profession of lacking integrity.
David Murray, former head of the Commonwealth Bank and Australia’s Future Fund, told the ABC Lateline television news programme earlier this week that “there’s been a breakdown in integrity” in the science of climate change.
The Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society has issued a statement saying it was “disturbed” by the remarks of Murray, who was in charge of $75 billion of government assets during the final year of his six years as the chairman of the Future Fund.
Mr Murray said he believed “the climate problem is severely overstated” which led interviewer Emma Alberici to point out the strong findings of the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
The Society regards the remarks of Mr. Murray as being a serious slur on the integrity of the many Australian and international authors of the IPCC report, and views them as highly offensive to those authors and to the profession at large. The Society calls upon Mr. Murray to withdraw the remarks.
During the segment, Mr Murray was asked what it would take to “convince him” over the science of climate change. Murray responded:
When I see some evidence of integrity amongst the scientists themselves. I often look at systems and behaviours as a way of judging something, and in this case, to watch the accusations that fly between these people suggests there’s been a breakdown in integrity in the science.
The letter from AMOS added:
The IPCC reports are an outstanding example of international science co-operation, rigour and transparency. They are subjected to multiple levels of review by experts both inside and outside the climate community, with all review comments and the authors’ responses to them being made publicly available.
COMEDIAN, musician, performer, atheist and other labels Tim Minchin was awarded an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters from the University of Western Australia a few days back.
In his address to the audience, he had this to say about climate change, his cousin Nick and Australia’s newish prime Minister Tony Abbott:
The idea that many Australians – including our new PM and my distant cousin Nick Minchin – believe that the science of anthropogenic global is controversial, is a powerful indicator of the extent of our failure to communicate. The fact that 30 per cent of the people in this room just bristled, is further evidence still. That fact that that bristling is more to do with politics than science is even more despairing.
Watch Minchin’s full address below. For a bit more on Nick Minchin and Tony Abbott and the “politics” of climate change denial, go over to DeSmogBlog for my latest.
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.
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.
DENNIS Jensen, recently re-elected Liberal member for Tangney, wants to be Australia’s new science minister, telling Fairfax Media that he has some “unique attributes” that he can bring to the new but not-yet-announced Tony Abbott ministry.
One of those attributes is that he doesn’t accept the position of the world’s science academies and Australia’s CSIRO that climate change is caused mainly by humans burning fossil fuels and chopping down trees and that this might be bad.
Jensen told interviewer Jonathan Swan that just because 97 per cent of research papers published in scientific journals agree that humans are causing climate change, this doesn’t necessarily mean they’re right.
“The argument of consensus is a flawed argument,” Jensen said.
When fellow climate science denier James Delingpole tried to make this very same argument to Sir Paul Nurse, president of the Royal Society, it didn’t turn out too well for Delingpole. Let’s watch.
Anyway, in Dr Jensen’s pitch to be science minister, he also spoke in approving terms of climate science denier Lord Christopher Monckton, saying that most of the things which Lord Monckton has said are “entirely reasonable”.
“Some of it I don’t agree with but on the whole a lot of what he says is in my view correct,” Jensen said. Now I’m curious. Which of the things that Lord Monckton has said, does Dr Jensen agree with?
So here is an open invitation going out to Dr Jensen (hi Dennis – this is just for you) to answer this little questionnaire I’ve put together. These questions are all things which Lord Monckton has said in recent years. Which of these do you agree with, Dr Jensen?
I could have asked you a few more questions, Dr Jensen, but I think these will suffice.
I do find it puzzling that you would choose to endorse Lord Monckton in some way, given you once wrote to the Chief Scientist complaining about the state and tone of the climate change debate.
It would be great if you found time to answer these questions. I know that Lord Monckton has said much more on the science of climate chnage, even though he doesn’t bother to put his “theories” to the test through proper peer-review. Skeptical Science has a good summary of Lord Monckton’s science “myths” which you might want to take a look at.
SHELVES in popular book stores can be undiscerning little buggers, as can the book stores themselves.
For example, I recently had cause to wander through the tightly-bound and bulging aisles of my local Dymocks book store. They have some really quite “special” offerings both online and in-store.
Even though we essentially know that astrology is, for all intents and purposes, basically b******s, I can report that the paperback version of “Practical Astrology” is “in stock”.
Failing that, there’s also “Homeopathy for your Cat” within the pages of which you can find out how magic water can cure your ginger’s urinary tract issue.
Are you a book shopping parent who has “wished for a handbook on each child”? Well tough, because Dymocks has sold out of “Homeopathy and Your Child” so you’ll have to work out your kid’s “physical, mental, emotional and spiritual needs” some other way (by the way, I’m not singling out Dymocks here – most of the big high street book sellers also hawk similar enlightenment-crushing garbage).
And there are the books on climate change.
Without any prior knowledge, it’s easy to see how the average punter might be easily fooled by the line-up of books cosying-up in Dymocks and elsewhere. As you can see by the image above, there’s some excellent stuff on offer from well credentialed authors and scientists.
There’s What We Know About Climate Change by MIT Professor of Atmospheric Science Kerry Emanuel. Just beneath, is The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the front lines from Professor Michael Mann, director of Earth System Science at Penn State University, also in the US.
And sharing the same shelf space, is Taxing Air written by Dr Bob Carter, an Australian geologist and advisor to about a dozen climate science denial organisations around the world, and John Spooner, a cartoonist for The Age newspaper in Melbourne, Australia.
Bob Carter’s fringe views on climate change (it’s all natural) make him a favourite of fossil fuel-funded propaganda unit the Heartland Institute and many, many other groups with similarly dismissive views on human-caused climate change and its risks.
Carter was recently let go by James Cook University in Queensland, where he had been an unpaid adjunct professor for over a decade, because he wasn’t pulling his weight.
Carter hinted – and his supporters screamed – that he had been booted out because he was a climate sceptic. I covered that case for DeSmogBlog and also summarised this and other recent goings on for the ABC Science Show.
But back to Taxing Air, which is yet another climate sceptic book with strong links to a conservative “think tank” – in this case, the Institute for Public Affairs, where Dr Carter is the Science Policy Advisor.
The IPA paid for copies to be sent out to Australian members of parliament and has also hosted a launch event for the book. Research has found that almost four out of five climate sceptic books published since the early 80s have links to conservative think tanks.
Dr Carter, it should be noted, has only written one scientific paper on atmospheric climate change, which claimed – wrongly as it turned out – to have found that recent global warming was down to natural cycles of water temperatures in the Pacific. One group of leading climate scientists who analysed carter’s paper concluded that the conclusions he and his co-authors drew were “not supported by their analysis or any physical theory presented in their paper”.
But is Taxing Air any good? Well, I have a copy which I’m still trudging through (I may not get to the end). But one academic who has finished it is Australian Ian Enting, and he is none too impressed. Mathematical physicist Enting (author of the Australian Mathematical Scences Institute book Twisted: The distorted mathematics of greenhouse denial) worked at Australia’s leading science agency, the CSIRO, for 24 years in atmospheric research and modelling of the global carbon cycle.
Enting has analysed the book, describing it as a “polemic” characterised by “half-truths and slanted misrepresentation” and “appalling hypocrisy”.
At one point, Enting’s document notes how one chart in Taxing Air is taken from a leaked draft of the not-yet-published United Nations IPCC Assessment Report 5 (due out in two weeks).
The chart has been altered, Enting’s document notes, removing a shaded area that shows the uncertainty range which, had it been left in, s
hows how climate models agree with the observations within the range of uncertainty. Enting finds dozens of other examples like this.
But my real reason for going into the Brisbane Dymocks store was to hunt out a copy of Killing the Earth To Save It, written by UK-based climate science denialist and wind-farm hater James Delingpole.
In the UK, it was published under the name Watermelons. There was something remarkable about the book which I had read and was keen to confirm.
The book was published by Connor Court, which has published several other climate sceptic books. The editorial board of Connor Court also includes the IPA executive director John Roskam.
The IPA also paid for Delingpole to tour Australia to promote his book in September 2012 – a favour which he returned by running a public appeal for people to donate cash to the Melbourne-based group, which doesn’t reveal its funders but has run a long campaign of climate misinformation.
But none of these are the “remarkable thing” I referred to earlier.
The remarkable thing was an entry in Chapter 8 – “Welcome To The New World Order”. Delingpole continues to spruik on his Daily Telegraph blog, most recently earlier this week. Here’s what Delingpole says on page 174 of my newly purchased copy:
Probably the best analysis of the Club of Rome’s tangible effects on global environmental policy comes courtesy of a website called “The Green Agenda”:
While researching […] and during my academic studies, I have come across many references to the Club of Rome (CoR), and reports produced by them. Initially I assumed that they were just another high-level environmental think-tank and dismissed the conspiracy theories found on many website claiming that the CoR is a group of global elitists attempting to impose some kind of one world government. I am not a conspiratorial person by nature and was faced with a dilemma when I first read their reports. But it’s all there – in black and white.
So what exactly is “The Green Agenda” which Delingpole tells his readers is offering this leading analysis? Here’s the source of the quote, on the website “The Green Agenda”. And who runs “The Green Agenda”? It is a sister site of The Watchman’s Post – which describes itself as a “Christian/ Messianic End Time Messenger!” based in New Zealand.
That’s right. Delingpole’s “analysis” of a jumped-up conspiracy theory about plans for a one world government come direct from a group of Christian fundamentalists who preach about second comings and “end times”. The watchman’s website details the coming of an “anti-Christ”, “times of distress and tribulation” and “Triads of evil”.
Here’s a taster:
True Christians will be seen at best as ‘insane’ and at worst as worthy of elimination. However, note; the period being introduced at that time and rightly called the ‘Time of Tribulation’ will quickly degenerate into a terrible time of trouble for almost everyone in the whole world, not just believers in Jesus. [We will explain more, later!] We can add with conviction, that we believe the ‘Time of God’s judgmental anger’ is a separate period of time as indicated by the pouring out of the ‘Bowls of Wrath’ when all true Believers will be sovereignly protected! [We will explain later.]
Perhaps it might be worth checking a few more of Delingpole’s sources in “Killing the earth to Save It” which is described by News Corp. columnist Andrew Bolt on the back cover as “wonderful” with “devastating facts and lacerating anecdotes”.
Not just devastating and lacerating, but potentially world ending – apparently – just not in the way Bolt and Delingpole might have expected.
Oh, did I say that Killing the World To Save It and Taxing Air are available in “all good bookshops”?
US President Barack Obama’s rhetoric on climate change and the need to act is increasingly smouthered in ethics with a nod to the moral pressure of securing a liveable world for future generations.
I’ve written a piece on this and Obama’s simpler framing of the need to act over on my Planet Oz blog at The Guardian. Basically, it’s just right versus wrong. If you haven’t seen Obama’s recent climate change speech in full, it’s well worth a watch.
Don’t get too carried away with the rhetoric though, which is no substitute for solid policy responses. But here are a couple of excerpts.
Our founders believed that those of us in positions of power are elected not just to serve as custodians of the present, but as caretakers of the future, and they challenged us to make decisions with an eye on a longer horizon than the arc of our own political careers.
Some day our children and our children’s children will look us in the eye and they will ask us, did we do all that we could when we had the chance to deal with with this problem and leave them a cleaner, safer and more stable world? I want to be able to say yes, we did. Don’t you want that?
One thing that jumped out at me after hearing that bit, was the similarity to a poem by US-based writer Drew Dellinger (we shared a beer once.. actually, we had one each.. but anyway) called Hieroglyphic Stairway. Here’s a bit of it
My great, great, great grandchildren ask me in dreams
What did you do when the planet was plundered?
What did you do when the Earth was unravelling?
Surely you did something when the seasons started failing
As the mammals, reptiles birds were all dying
Did you fill the streets with protest when democracy was stolen?
What did you do, once you knew?
Incidentally, Dellinger’s work was once quoted by another US Democrat, then Congresswoman for Wisconsin Tammy Baldwin.
Back in 2009 during a congressional hearing, Baldwin offered part of that Dellinger quote above to Al Gore to try and explain some of the moral questions of acting on climate change. Baldwin made history last year as the first openly gay candidate to be elected into the US Senate.