A burning question

Fair play to Duncan Stewart. He was in combative form on Saturday’s Marian Finucane Show on RTE radio. The subject of his interview was the one hour documentary film special, ‘A Burning Question’, which airs this Tuesday (29th) at 10.10pm on RTE 1 and featuring many of the great and the good in the field, from the UN’s Ban Ki Moon to Mary Robinson, Prof John Sweeney and economist and late eco-convert David McWilliams (I’m in there somewhere among the interviewees). Click here to view the film online (in two parts).

The documentary promises to take a forensic look at the ever-expanding chasm between what the science of climate change is telling us and how this critical issue is being presented (and misrepresented) via the media. Among Stewart’s interviewees on the programme are Prof Justin Lewis of the University of Cardiff and media advisor on climate science to the BBC.

Lewis co-authored an extremely valuable book, ‘Climate change and the Media‘, which was published in recent months. In this book he argues strongly that climate science is being hideously misrepresented in the lay media, and much of this is as a result of the media’s own commitment to the principle of ‘balanced reporting’.

As they put it: “despite worrying about all kinds of risks that are unlikely to materialise, when faced with one of the most carefully assessed and well-researched threats of recent times, we appear to dither and stall, inching towards half-measures with little sense of urgency”.

Balanced reporting is all fine and dandy in theory, but in the case of environmental issues, unless the coverage is informed by the best available and most reputable scientific advice, the ‘debate’ risks being hijacked by right wing zealots and energy industry stooges flooding the media by trotting out well-practised variations of denialism along the arc of:

  • (a) it isn’t happening;
  • (b) maybe it is, but it’s nothing to do with human activity;
  • (c) maybe we are causing is but hey, CO2 is plant food!;
  • (d) well, maybe CO2 isn’t so good after all, but it’s too expensive to stop burning fossil fuels, so let’s buy mosquito nets instead (á la Tolborg);
  • (e) whoops, it looks like we’re cooking the planet after all, but haven’t you heard, there’s a recession now, and since we can’t afford to fix it, burn baby burn!
  • (f) it’s too late now, so why bother even trying?

What all six positions (there are as many variations on the above from the denier camp as you’ll find in the Kama Sutra) have in common is the magic phrase: Do Nothing. And this is precisely what the trillion-dollar energy industry has been praying – and paying – for. Scientific American has an excellent guide to dealing with what it labels ‘Climate Contrarian Nonsense‘ here.

Climate denialists “demonstrate the vulnerability of the scientific process, which is deliberative and hypothesis-driven, to outright misrepresentation and distortion”, in the expert opinion of Dr Peter Raven, President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

In 2006, the Stern Report on the economics of climate described climate change as the greatest market failure in human history. In 2010, we can add to that epitaph that this issue has now become the world’s greatest collective media failure. Ever.

All of which makes Duncan Stewart’s documentary as welcome as it is rare. Mainstream media coverage of climate change has atrophied in the last six months, and has now fallen back to its lowest levels since the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment report was published in late 2007. This depressing situation has been mirrored by a similar decline in public awareness and concern about the threats posed by climate change.

While the broadsheets and RTE now more or less ignore the issue (or stick it onto the ‘weather’ page), the right wing press – notably the Oirish editions of the Daily Mail, Sunday Express and Sunday Times) continue to trot out the denialist line, exactly as might be expected when the commercial interests of their corporate owners are taken into account.

“You can’t deny people the right to express their views, even if you disagree with them”, was how Finucane put it to Stewart yesterday. She went on to point out how viscerally she is uneasy with his advice to be wary of and NOT read denialist literature. As a journalist, I can entirely relate to her suspicion of anyone suggesting we shouldn’t hear the other side.

The primary issue is not one of balance; in my view, the problem is that the vast majority of non-specialist journalists quite honestly don’t know which ‘side’ is right, and are fundamentally unaware that the ‘debate’ is phoney and that their attempt to be balanced is being used against them.

For example, if book (a) is an honest attempt to explain the climate issue, informed by the best available science; and book (b) is an anti-science polemic by a mining industry hack  and “egotistic charlatan and fraud” – as Climate Scientists Australia describe Ian Plimer (our own Pat Kenny thinks said Plimer is a “top expert”) that is roundly condemned by real scientists, should journalists seriously give equal time and credibility to both books?

Journalists, editors and broadcast producers are experienced at deciding, say in politics or business reporting, how to weigh up the relative merits of various sources, and to active discriminate in favour of the more credible. Science reporting is different. Few in the media understand the basic science, and many are highly susceptible to pseudo-science peppered with sciency looking references and footnotes. Especially when these Pollyanna merchants appeal to “common sense” reasoning on the part of journalists, rather than insisting they be guided by boring and inflexible “scientific facts”.

Bjorn Lomborg has brilliantly shown up this massive failure on the part of the media to smoke out a plausible phoney for the best part of a decade. It’s hard to believe such a chancer could have gotten away with it for so long in an area the media actually understands.

So roll on tomorrow night. As a curtain-raiser of sorts, BBC Panorama has a film this evening night called ‘What’s up with the weather? Not sure whether this is going to be a piece of investigative reporting along the lines of Duncan Steward. The BBC website promises some “surprising findings”. Let’s hope this isn’t code for throwing more mud in our eyes about climate science.

Postscript: having watched the Panorama piece last night, it’s indicative of the sad decline of that once landmark programme. Their chief ‘prop’ was to have their reporter drive around in a tiny G-Wiz electric car – ‘cos this “green” stuff, like the G-Wiz, is a bit of a joke, right? That set the tone. The scary music and menacing overhead shots of the University of East Anglia would lead you to believe they were manufacturing Dirty Bombs there. But nooooo, it’s those stolen emails again. The whole saga about “tricks…to hide the decline” was then dragged up all over again.

This has been examined – and exonerated – in a House of Commons investigation. The language in question is scientific terminology. The phrase “trick” for example, is widely used in published scientific papers. It’s a synonym for ‘technique’. Either the BBC reporter didn’t know this (which is unforgivable) or, more likely, thought it was juicier just to repeat the smears as if they hadn’t been debunked. The scary music wouldn’t have worked with a rational explanation, now would it? And speaking of rational, for the BBC to trot out our old friend the thoroughly debunked Bjorn Lomborg as an “expert” in June 2010 is just plain frightening. Shame they didn’t go the whole hog and get on Lord Christopher Monckton to froth and foam about the environmental ‘Hitler Youth’, etc. etc.

Here was an opportunity for the BBC to deliver on its public service remit and deliver an informed, nuanced spin-free analysis. They blew it with both hands. Hopefully RTÉ will wipe their eye later this evening.

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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12 Responses to A burning question

  1. Ultan Murphy says:

    Looking forward to Duncan Stewarts programme. However contrary to the theme of this website, the following might be food for thought for the warmers.

    1. Nowhere in any of the IPCC’s reports is there a verification of Carbon Dioxide’s contribution to the Greenhouse Effect experimentally.
    2. None of the major contributors to the IPCC such as Prof. Phil Jones of the Climate Research Unit (CRU) will release their raw data of historical temperature graphs to the public not to mind have them peer reviewed.
    3. Independent examination of recent temperature data from the National Climatic Data Centre (NCDC) show that the NCDC have excised 4500 global temperature stations in their graphs from the 6000 which were used prior to 1990. Therefore, in recent temperature trends, we are not comparing like with like since 1990. In fact, there is a bias towards warming.
    4. The overall trend for the decade 2000 – 2009 from satellite data shows cooling by 0.24 deg C yet atmospheric CO2 levels continued to rise.
    5. A 2009 University of Bristol study stated that the human fraction of CO2 content in the atmosphere hasn’t changed in 150 years (Knorr, W. (2009), “Is the airborne fraction of anthropogenic CO2 emissions increasing?”
    6. The accuracy of measuring historical CO2 in ice cores has never been validated.
    7. 64,000 chemical tests of CO2 in the atmosphere with weather data were measured by Wilhelm Kreutz in Giessen, Germany from the 31th August 1939 to the 31st May 1941 by a volumetric chemical method using a commercially available Riedel RICO C Gas Analyzer with an accuracy of 1.5%. Kreutz calculated an average of 417 ppm for the time while the IPCC states CO2 at that time was 310ppm from ice core data. Which are more accurate, 64,000 chemical tests or ice cores?

    8. Anthropogenic CO2 went from 4 Bn tonnes to 20Bn tonnes per year between 1940 – 1975 yet temperatures globally fell by 0.35 Deg C during that period. In the Northern Hemisphere they fell by 0.5 Deg C. These figures come from studies which were published in 1975 and 1976 in Newsweek and National Geographic. Recent graphs from IPCC contributors show only a fall of 0.15 Deg for that period… shall we call it revisionism or that scientists in 1975 were not able to compute as well as they are today? There is no graph anywhere to show an alighnment of Global Temperature and Man Made CO2.

    In various debate on this subject John Gibbons regularly cites the work of Svante Arrhenius’ in 1896 “On the Influence of Carbonic Acid in the Air upon the Temperature of the Ground”. This work however, is merely theoretical and not experimental. It is a useful paper but proves nothing.

    Until any of the Professors in all the colleges produce a work where they use a light source at 15 deg Celcius and a measure the temp changes in an atmosphere of air where CO2 is varied in increments of 10ppm between 300ppm and 600ppm at various heights above the surface of the earth, I remain a fully pledged skeptic. In all the experiments I’ve seen a light source is from very hot lightbulbs (200-300 Deg filaments) and CO2 is in atmospheres of 60 – 100% rather than the 0.0389% in the actual atmosphere in which we live.

    Very simple. Show me the evidence.

  2. Lenny B says:

    Interesting article, John. Missed that BBC piece but will definitely be watching tonight with great interest. One question for you: what are you allowing denialist copy-and-paste propaganda from “Ultan” above onto this website, of all places? This is just the usual gibberish from people who claim to want “evidence” but blatantly ignore the mountains of evidence publicly available and instead clutch at their denialist straws and accuse everyone else of the very crimes of misrepresenting and distorting science that they specialise in. Seriously John, I’m surprised – are you dropping your guard??

  3. Ultan Murphy says:

    Lenny B, I doubt John Gibbons is that irrational or narrow minded as to avoid debate. To understand and challenge those of a different view point you’ve got to at least debate them. You should enjoy pointing out where I’m wrong.

    I’m not hyperactive in any way either. I consider myself a cool headed rational citizen in the same way you are. It’s very simple. Please prove me wrong someone. Tell me, where in the IPCC reports is there an experiment that verifies the influence of CO2 at approx 0.038% experimentally?

    Why would a gas analyser data be ignored yet ice core data be elevated? Ice core drilling is a brutal process.

    It should be easy for anybody who has read up on the Greenhouse theory to knock my arguments on the head and say bye bye, but my arguments, unfortunately will not go away that easily.

    Please cite an experiment where the light source is at 15 deg celcius? Eg like grass at 15 C, like rocks, like water, you know, all the things that appear on the surface of the Earth. 70% of the Earth is water at 15 Celcius.

  4. John Gibbons says:

    @ Lenny

    I feel your pain, I honestly do. ‘Ultan’ has been banging the same bongo drum literally for years. And just like all denialists: (a) he is right, entertains no doubt and no new evidence ever dents his certainties; (b) all evidence that does indeed contradict and refute his cherry-picked assertions simply proves a ‘conspiracy’ by the ‘consensus’ against gutsy outliers (like Ultan) who are tirelessly trying to expose the “scam”.

    They kind of give the game away in their certainties. Science advances by experiment, by trial and error, by constantly refining and testing theories, rejecting those that don’t hold water, and so, in time, arriving at conclusions that, while still imperfect, are far less wrong than the other theories and hypotheses discarded along the way.

    Denialists don’t work that way; present them with a thousand papers authored by 5,000 top specialists in a given field and guess what? They know better – every single time! They clutch their crumbs of uncertainty (and there’s plenty of genuine uncertainty in science) and they will not be parted from them.

    In short, I allowed Ultan’s posting as a reminder of precisely what anyone attempting to communicate climate science has to contend with. No offence, Ultan, but this was a “once off”. Can I recommend Irisheconomy.ie as a blog where you’re more likely to find like-minded souls with whom to swap notes about the horrid climate conspiracy that you, and you alone, have cracked when all the world’s top peer-reviewed scientists have failed?

    Ultan, if perchance you have in fact published papers in peer-reviewed climate science journals that refute the ‘consensus’ position on, for instance your interesting assertion that CO2 is NOT in fact a greenhouse gas at all, perhaps you would be good enough to send us the links? I think there could be a Nobel Prize in it for the scientist who disproves the role of CO2 as a key GHG (unless all those peer-reviewed journals are in in the pay of the global Commie Pinko Egghead science conspiracy too? Darn.)

    Even dyed-in the wool climate deniers like John Christy of the Univ. of Alabama have given up pretending global warming isn’t happening and that CO2 isn’t driving it. But in Ultan’s unchanging world of certainty, things are the way he says they are, because that’s the way he sees them. Period. No phalanx of facts, however formidable, can ever penetrate the truly closed mind.

  5. EWI says:

    1. Nowhere in any of the IPCC’s reports is there a verification of Carbon Dioxide’s contribution to the Greenhouse Effect experimentally.

    Dear. Mother. Of. God.

  6. John Gibbons says:

    Yea, sorry about that. Guess illuminating Prof. ultan’s comic efforts at rewriting of the laws of physics probably isn’t even that funny, so giving it any kind of oxygen remains not such a good idea. My bad!

  7. denis says:

    Whether or not we are experiencing climate change produced by man or nature, is entirely a moot point—–there is absolutely nothing that we can effectively do about about it.
    All of our so called Alternative Energy solutions depend entirely on the use of fossil fuel to construct, install, maintain and back up these solutions, and they have a short lifespan before they will all have to be replaced, again using more fossil fuel.
    No matter what we do, all the fossil fuel is going to be used up by somebody somewhere within a relatively short time, like 50 years.
    For the record, I believe that man will be totally responsible for catastrophic climate change.

  8. Paddy Morris says:

    ‘A burning question’ is available to view on the RTE Player til July 20th:

  9. Cormac says:

    Hi John, I found the program pretty good overall, well done (despite the constant ‘vox pops’ which I found distracting and unhelpful. I
    have reviewed the program on my website at
    Any comments/corrections welcome

  10. John Gibbons says:

    Hi Cormac, enjoyed your blog entry on the documentary (had spotted you in the credits, was interested to see what your cameo was). Agree it was difficult to see past the constant vox pops at time, but at least Duncan spared us having to endure the mandatory denialist diatribes (other than TV shots of McAleer in barking form on PrimeTime). We were also spared the obligatory economist (usually Tol) waffling about how doing nothing “makes economic sense” and offering their – dead wrong – insight that climate change is “no catastrophe”.

    If you saw the dire ‘Panorama’ broadcast on BBC the previous night, it’s a reminder of how well Duncan & co. did to actually get this to air on RTE in a prime slot. All the more so when you consider how much thinly veiled anti-environmentalism pervades the highest levels within Montrose.

    Agree that Peter Lynch played a blinder, and felt Justin Lewis did a very credible media critique. Denialism, without its many media collaborators, would be as obscure and ridiculed as Elvis sightings, therefore in my view its role cannot be overstated.

  11. Cormac says:

    Absolutely. Thought Justin was fab, have ordered his book. Hope to hear a lot more from him in times to come. Overall, I thought the program far better than many I have seen on the BBC!

  12. Cormac says:

    P.S. I should say that I am certainly not advocating that the different categories of skeptic be represented on the program, but that they be listed and recognized for what they are!

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