The Australian newspaper open to views of any old non-expert on climate change

trust_doctor
Doctors – good at some stuff, not necessarily good at other stuff

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?

Nah!

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.

Under the headline “We must be open to climate views“, Florin starts with a made-up quote attributed to me and then goes rapidly downhill from there.

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.

models_AR5

 

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.

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Simon Nasht tells me why he made that ABC climate documentary

“I HOPE it’s a circuit breaker,” Simon Nasht told me, the morning after the night before.

The night in question was the screening of his documentary – I Can Change Your Mind About… Climate” – to about 700,000 viewers on prime time ABC.

The circuit which Nasht was aiming to break, is the one providing voltage to an increasingly toxic debate in the media and in the public about the root causes and consequences of human-caused climate change.

Before the show had even gone to air, the program was causing controversy with commentators – myself and others including Clive Hamilton, Stephan Lewandowsky and Michael Ashley – pointing out its format gave the false impression of there being a legitimate scientific debate about fossil fuel burning causing climate change.

In brief, the show took a climate skeptic, former Liberal senator Nick Minchin, and a climate change campaigner, Anna Rose, and flew them around the world. Each could introduce the other to anybody they liked, in an attempt to change the other’s mind.

“We set out to see who Nick relies on and who Anna relies on. That’s a valid approach,” Nasht said.

As I had already written, the program gave an airing and, in turn, some

credibility, to pseudo-scientists, outlying views and consistently wrong bloggers. My argument wasn’t that they didn’t have the right to an opinion, but that the show would legitimize their debunked views.

Nasht, whose company Smith&Nasht partners him with entrepreneur Dick Smith, contacted me asking if I’d be happy to hear and communicate his side of the story. I wanted to know why he thought the format was a good idea, when I clearly didn’t. So in the interests of fairness, here we are.

“The truth is that we need new ways of framing this because we don’t have any time,” he told me.  “We have to face reality that standing on a high horse of scientific purity is not working.  The 700,000 or so people that watched the show to revisit the climate change issue were forced to consider their own point of view.”

Nasht said the show was as much about examining the social science – the reasons why the debate has become publicly polarized – as it was about examining the climate science.

“It was a thought-through strategy and we took a lot of time to think about what we were doing,” he said.

“Our great friend Stephen Schneider [the late climate scientist] came to stay with us – as he often did when he was here. We had a long chat about the program and we talked through the risks and what benefits it offered. Stephen was convinced that the debate had so spun out of control that we had to find a way to drag it back and to have some form of constructive discussion.  When ABC journalists are jostled for doing their job and nooses get held up in front of visiting scientists then things have gone nuts.  You have to find some space where there’s time for reasonable discussion. Continue reading “Simon Nasht tells me why he made that ABC climate documentary”

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I Can Engage In A Flawed Debate About Climate Change

APPARENTLY, science writer and academic Ben Goldacre would rather slam his “cock in a door” than engage in a phony debate with climate change deniers.

At least, that’s what he told former Liberal Senator and climate sceptic Nick Minchin and climate change campaigner Anna Rose during the filming for this Thursday evening’s ABC show “I Can Change Your Mind About… Climate”.

The concept of the show is simple. Get a climate sceptic and a climate advocate together and let them take each other around the world to meet people in an attempt to change each other’s mind.

Nick Minchin laid out his own position during an interview with the ABC’s Four Corners program, back in 2009. Basically, it boiled to “lefties” exploiting people’s innate fears about climate change “to achieve their political ends”.

Be warned, Mr Minchin, as secret lefties like British Tory Prime Minister David Cameron and that famous anti-capitalist Richard Branson are also in on the socialist plot.

I should admit I’ve known about the program for many months, as I was approached to act as an advisor in the planning stages. Nothing materialised. I also spoke many months ago to Anna Rose about the show.

In both instances, I said that in my view the show’s format was flawed in that it would put non-peer-reviewed, pseudo science conducted by largely unqualified non-experts alongside decades of genuine peer reviewed scientific research. It might make for engaging telly, but it creates a false sense of balance.

If I were a climate sceptic activist or a fossil fuel lobbyist designing a format for a TV show, this show is what I’d probably come up with.

In an excerpt broadcast on radio national’s The Science Show, Goldacre explains why he thinks the show’s format is questionable and how, as part of the broader treatment of the climate change issue in mainstream media, it is a “gift” for the likes of Minchin. Continue reading “I Can Engage In A Flawed Debate About Climate Change”

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The curious tale of Lord Monckton, Gina Rinehart, media ownership and Christian fundamentalists

IT was an extraordinary response, but then it was an extraordinary video revealing some extraordinary alliances.

Two weeks ago I posted a story on my blog about a YouTube video featuring one of the world’s least media-shy deniers of human-caused climate change – British hereditary peer Lord Christopher Monckton, the third Viscount Monckton of Brenchley*.

In the video, the Viscount was in the boardroom of the Mannkal Economic Education Foundation, a free-market think-tank founded by west Australian mining magnate Ron Manners.

The video had been watched only 130 times when I clapped eyes on it following a Twitter post from journalist Leo Hickman, of the UK’s The Guardian.

In the video, posted by Mannkal (but since removed… and then reinstated… but possibly removed again by the time you read this), Lord Monckton suggests a good way to get free-market, climate science-denying views into the mainstream media, is simply to find some “super-rich” backers to buy the mainstream media.

As I watched the video last Tuesday evening, news was just emerging that mining billionaire and Asia’s richest woman, Gina Rinehart, had bought $192 million worth of shares in Fairfax (the publisher of Brisbane Times, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and many regional newspapers and city-based radio stations) to take her share in the company to about 14 per cent.

To me, these two events were intrinsically linked, and not just because Mr Manners is a personal friend of Ms Rinehart’s.

When Lord Monckton went on a speaking tour around Australia in 2010, the organisers admitted that Gina Rinehart had offered to put up some of the cash. Ms. Rinehart also made one of her Hancock Prospecting staff available to organise one of the events in Perth.

When Lord Monckton repeated his junket around Australia in 2011, Ms Rinehart was again a supporter.

When ABC presenter Adam Spencer asked who had invited him to Australia, Lord Monckton answered he had been invited to deliver a lecture at Fremantle’s Notre Dame University. The university’s Dean of Business School Chris Doepel had already told me that this lecture, dedicated to Ms Rinehart’s father Lang Hancock, had been organised after discussions with her iron ore and coal company, Hancock Prospecting. Ms Rinehart attended the lecture.

In another interview, this time with the ABC’s Wendy Carlisle, Lord Monckton claimed he didn’t know who had paid for him to come, although the boss of the Association of Mining and Exploration Companies had told me they had helped pay some of his costs.

Lord Monckton’s 2011 tour was mired in controversy before it even started after it emerged that during a conference speech in America he had compared one of the Australian Government’s climate change policy advisors, Professor Ross Garnaut, to a fascist.  He also displayed a huge Nazi swastika next to Professor Garnaut’s name. He “unreservedly” apologised for his “catastrophically stupid” remarks, but a few months ago changed his mind and said they were “very mild”.

In short though, the evidence would strongly suggest that Lord Monckton has close ties to Ms. Rinehart and that they have spent time discussing ideas. Continue reading “The curious tale of Lord Monckton, Gina Rinehart, media ownership and Christian fundamentalists”

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