Saturday, December 4, 2010

Hotheads, airheads and hardheads: Climate change reporting and The Australian

The Weekend Australian has launched a vigorous defense of its reporting on climate change. This particular ball seems to have got rolling when editor Chris Mitchell starting threatening to sue academic Julie Posetti for defamation. Her “crime”? Tweating the musings of a former journalist at The OZ about what it was like to report on climate change (not a happy time it seems). Lost to The OZ seems to be this audio recording of former said journalist, backing up the content of the tweats. (Also see here and here for more reaction).

Amusingly, after essentially trying to shut down criticism of their climate change coverage, The OZ then launched into a defense of publishing all and any opinions about climate change.

There is no dispute that The Australian has opened its news and opinion pages to a wide range of views on the existence and extent of climate change”.

Scientifically there is no doubt about the “existence” of climate change (the IPCC called the evidence “unequivocal”) and The OZ spends half the editorial saying they accept the science, so to defend publishing views that question the “existence” of climate change is to defend the publishing of information you know to be factually incorrect. This is false balance at the expense of accuracy. Oddly enough, just posting an online comment under one of their stories comes with the message that your comment may not be posted if it contains obvious errors of fact. So how come this seems to be ok in opinion articles and more worryingly in news articles, which readers should be able to expect are factually accurate?

One of my "favorites" in this area is this opinion piece. Here, the author starts off his ridiculous diatribe that the world is rapidly cooling towards an ice age by claiming that temperatures fell by 0.7 degrees in 2007, completely at odds with reality and such a bizarre thing to say I can only assume the author simply made it up. But this is apparently ok to publish without any fact checking, cos, you know, all views are equally valid or something.

Now to be fair, this example is from an opinion piece, which are liable to be full of nonsense, and The OZ’s main argument is that they accept the science and, news coverage notwithstanding, this is reflected in their editorials

While the views of climate sceptics have been represented in the news and opinion pages of the newspaper they have not been reflected, and have been seldom mentioned, in the paper's editorials”
The OZ cites many editorials including one from the 12th of March 2010 where they said:

For the record, The Australian has long accepted the probability of anthropogenic climate change and favoured the introduction of an emissions trading scheme”

but this very same editorial also said:

“But reputable scientists and stakeholders deserve their say, regardless of whether they subscribe to a newspaper's editorial line. This is why we have published views as diverse as those of geologist Ian Plimer..”

Except that Plimer ruined his reputation by publishing a error riddled book on climate change containing many bold but incorrect claims for which he has systematically refused to either provide supporting scientific evidence, or retract. This kind of behaviour is a death knell for scientific credibility. It also highlights one of the major criticisms of the media's coverage of climate change, “skeptics” don’t seem to require any credibility to be taken seriously by the media. Or as nobel prize winning energy secretary Steven Chu saidIf you look at the climate sceptics, I would have to say honestly, what standard are they being held to? It’s very asymmetric. They get to say anything they want

This March 12 editorial also said:

“Climate change is a new, inexact and contestable science, and the computer modelling on which all of the more alarming claims depend are only ever as good as the data fed in. As well as greenhouse emissions, that data should take account of other determinants of temperature, primarily the sun and the heat of the earth's core. Current predictions for sea-level rises range from a few centimetres to catastrophic levels of several metres that would swamp coastal areas. Faced with such variations, it would be negligent not to examine first-hand observations, even when they contradict the results churned out by laboratory computers.”

There is a lot wrong with this paragraph but before I break it down, re-read it and consider how it gels with their statement “the views of climate sceptics… have been seldom mentioned, in the paper's editorials”. You don't, of course, actually have to quote "skeptics" to push their views.

New, inexact and contestable: Climate science really begins with Svante Arrhenius, who was first to calculate how much the world might warm if C02 was doubled, in the late 19th century. But to be charitable to The OZ, you could say the field didn’t start to get broad agreement and knowledge till the 1979 Charney report which predicted a rise of ~3 dC for a doubling of C02, something that ~30 years on is still our best estimate. And in case you think 30 years is a short time in science, well that makes it older than most of molecular genetics (DNA sequencing, the human genome project, DNA fingerprinting etc), but no-ones calling that a “new”, or “inexact”.
Furthermore, all science is “contestable”, except that real scientists do their contesting in the peer reviewed scientific literature. Most “skeptics” are not doing science, they are doing PR, which is why they “contest” in the media.

Models: The skeptic obsession with computer models is really quite bizarre. Knowledge of climate is based on an understanding of the physics of the atmosphere and the greenhouse effect. On top of this (as Jim Hansen has explained) our knowledge comes from: 1) understanding how and why climate changed in the past and 2) observations of how the climate is responding today. Models come third and are partially used to save modern scientists the several years Arrhenius spent doing all these physical calculations by hand.

Heat from the earth's core: The scientific literature shows that heat from the earth's core equates to less than 0.1 Watts per square meter. Energy from the sun is 342 W/M2, while the back-radiation from the greenhouse effect is 324 W/M2, thousands of times larger. Just the increase in greenhouse gas heating equates to ~3 W/M2, over 30 times larger. So heat from the core is insignificant and yeah models take the sun into account. I hope the issues with this statement was just basic ignorance.

Sea level: The current rate of rise is 3.2 mm per year or 32 cm per century. So a few cm is out. Also this rate is likely to increase as thermal inertia means melting of icesheets (i.e.: Greenland and West Antarctica) starts slowly before gathering pace. Uncertainties in how fast this melting will occur explains much of the varied predictions for sea level.
Sea level around the world is based on long term observations from tidal gauges and now measured with incredible precision by satellites. The agreement is excellent. Does the writer know what a scientific observation is? And yes these observations are “churned out by laboratory computers” in so far as continuous worldwide satellite measurements of sea level is a little laborious to collate and process by hand.

Back to the present day and the editorial attempts to blame those raising the alarm about climate change for the public confusion about it:
The reality is that, despite the science, a good deal of uncertainty exists in the minds of many people, a situation that has not been helped by the exaggerated claims of some about what to expect.”

Sounding the alarm when there's a real threat is not alarmist, it’s prudent, that’s why we have fire alarms, and 000. In reality and as shown by some of the examples above, I’d wager a good deal of the uncertainty that exists is due to the exaggerated claims about the unknowns and uncertainties in climate science found in the media.

Ps: this post is, of course, an opinion piece and may not represent the views of TTKD, though I have certainly tried to keep it factually accurate.

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