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Propaganda & scepticism toward climate science

I subscribe to The Australian – I like its business sections and detest the low journalistic standards at Melbourne’s Pravda, its main Melbourne-based competitor. But I feel more than irritation at The Australian’s ongoing war against climate science.     This is an organised campaign that I have remarked on before.  The mix of scientific claims, philosophical arguments for scepticism in science and the outright stupidity of certain columnists mean that the casual reader might believe that there is serious scientific doubt about the case for controlling GGEs. If there are such doubts this is not established by the types of arguments put forward in The Australian.On the front page today there is a statement rejecting the view that the sea ice around East Antarctica is diminishing in response to warming.   Then there is a buttressing article by the same journalist that suggests there need be no concern about melting of the Antarctic ice cap and then an accompanying editorial pointing out that the science of climate change is not 100% settled.  The last statement is, of course, true irrespective of what happens to sea ice.   

And it is important to understand what scientists are, in fact, saying here.  The main authority cited here – Ian Allison – agrees that climate change is occurring and that it is anthropogenic. He emphasises that the Arctic ice sheet is certainly diminishing as is that of Greenland and Western Antarctica. His only claim is that Eastern Antarctica is cooling with anecdotal evidence confirming a ‘slight increase’ in sea ice.   Moreover, this could be explained by the fact that the Antarctic is a continent surrounded by the Southern Ocean, which may be absorbing global heat.  The Antarctic also has an ozone hole above it which could be acting as a pressure valve, allowing heat to escape the icecap. Allison says “It could be that when the ozone hole is fixed, there will be more warming” Allison.  Moreover the organisation SCAR, which The Australian cites to confirm a net gain in sea ice in the Antarctic, is also recorded as using ‘modeling to predict a warming over Antarctica of up to 3oC during the next century’. Indeed ‘SCAR warns that melting on the Antarctic Peninsula may be of sufficient magnitude to make a substantial contribution to global sea levels. The committee says it cannot predict how the continent’s ice sheets will respond to warming but says observed recent rapid changes give cause for concern’.

On the specific sea ice issue I searched in vain for the claimed report at the SCAR site. I did find a single additional news reference to the main author cited in The Australian’s report Ian Allison. The message he provided there again differed from the emphasis in The Australian story.  Quote:

“I think it is now unequivocal that warming of the world is occurring and I think the last IPCC conclusively showed that a major cause of warming is greenhouse gas emissions from mankind.

We now know that the ice sheets are contributing to sea level rise and for the Arctic, at least, this is because the warming of this region is much greater than in other places on Earth.

We also know that glaciers in mountain areas are undergoing a very rapid retreat and they’re a major contributor of sea level rise, too. 

Greenland is of more concern because of the warming of the Arctic. Greenland is at lower latitude than much of Antarctica and we’ve seen the direct effect of the melting.

We still don’t understand many things about the dynamic response of the ice sheets but we do see direct melt exceeding snowfall in Greenland.

This might not mean a runaway effect but it does mean Greenland is contributing to sea level rise and will continue to add to sea levels at the present temperatures for many hundreds of years”.

In The Australian too, the book by denialist Ian Plimer is spruiked. The book apparently argues the usual irrelevances – climate change science is a religion, CO2 is a food for plants,  the IPPC is a hotbed of environmental activism lacking science, AGW is a conspiracy by self-interested scientists, climate is always changing with etc. etc. The denialists do like to recycle half-truths. The Plimer book is promoted and a defence of climate change scepticism advanced in an editorial along with a truly monstrous piece of distortion by Christopher Pearson.  Pearson does not only endorse scepticism – he dismisses claims of standard science as simple nonsense, as a ‘mass delusion’. ‘How could such a solid-seeming expert consensus so quickly develop on such an absurd hypothesis?’ An ‘absurd hypothesis’? Pearson’s claim itself is absurd.

I do not reject the need for scepticism in scientific matters but I have problems with The Australian’s approach.  Why Ian Plimer’s skeptical views were so strongly promoted when the views of the United States’ EPA (announced last night) went unreported?   The Herald-Sun picked up the EPA report and featured it prominently.  So too did the Wall Street Journal. The EPA took a markedly different approach to Plimer. I quote from the EPA’s press release:

“ ….In both magnitude and probability, climate change is an enormous problem. The greenhouse gases that are responsible for it endanger public health and welfare within the meaning of the Clean Air Act.

…. The science clearly shows that concentrations of these gases are at unprecedented levels as a result of human emissions, and these high levels are very likely the cause of the increase in average temperatures and other changes in our climate.

The scientific analysis also confirms that climate change impacts human health in several ways….. for example, suggest that climate change may lead to higher concentrations of ground-level ozone, a harmful pollutant. Additional impacts of climate change include, but are not limited to:

  • increased drought;
  • more heavy downpours and flooding;
  • more frequent and intense heat waves and wildfires;
  • greater sea level rise;
  • more intense storms; and
  • harm to water resources, agriculture, wildlife and ecosystems.

….In addition to threatening human health, the analysis finds that climate change also has serious national security implications. …. climate change presents significant national security challenges for the United States. Escalating violence in destabilized regions can be incited and fomented by an increasing scarcity of resources – including water. This lack of resources, driven by climate change patterns, then drives massive migration to more stabilized regions of the world”.

A more complete account is here.  It is an excellent read and much more interesting that the numerous press articles referred to here which propagandise rather than throw doubt on the case for taking climate change issues seriously.   Further comments on the Plimer book are given by Paul Sheehan here and by John Humphries over at the ALS blog.

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29 comments to Propaganda & scepticism toward climate science

  • [...] the link to Mr Clark, we find the debunking itself: The book apparently argues the usual irrelevances – climate change [...]

  • derrida derider

    But Harry this sort of rubbish is all too typical of the Australian. It parrots the worldview of its owner – and its owner is a rich old man with extensive links to the right of the US Republican party.

    The slanted reporting you complain about in climate science is just as slanted when it reports on the Middle East and US involvement in it. The stupid and ignorant columnists are just as stupid and ignorant when opining on issues like crime and policing.

    All in all I’d trust the Fairfax press, for all its limitations, more than I’d trust any News Ltd publication.

  • Harry, you disapppoint me. I bet you have not even opened Plimer’s book, too pisspoor to buy it I suspect. To judge it on the basis of media comment is preposterous. As for the Wilkins collapse, I would like you to certify by a Stat Dec that the temperature there for the preceding 3 months was on average at least 3oC above zero.

    I would also like your Stat Decs providing your evidence from Australia over the last 100 years of global warming for each of the following (from EPA):

    increased drought;
    more heavy downpours and flooding;
    more frequent and intense heat waves and wildfires;
    greater sea level rise;
    more intense storms; and
    harm to water resources, agriculture, wildlife and ecosystems.

    When you get around to a 460 page book with your certified evidence for each of these propositions I might begin to take you seriously. Until then, stick to your golf. BTW, what’s your handicap? I’m open to a challenge next time you are here in Canberra.

  • hc

    Tim,

    I’ll take you up on the golf game offer.

    I wasn’t reviewing the Plimer book – just noting the media comment about the claims it made and the connections with the other denialist pieces. None of the claims were new.

  • Tim McCarthy

    In Al Gore’s “IT”, he does not make one truly definitive statement… all of his commentary relates to things like; this data ‘could’ ‘may’ ‘if this continues’ ‘has the potential for’ ‘should’ this (fill in the blank) happen learned scientists believe…. This latest report has simmilarly worded data but with more difinitively worded opinions/conclusions. If data and statements like these were presented before a US FDA panel for a new drug’s approval, they’d be summarily dismissed before a vote would be allowed. Gore does say ‘if the temperature rises more then we could see…’ but nothing is showing us evidence the man-made part of this exists. Temperature was up (before 1998) but so was Mar’s. All this man made GW (MMGW) conviction comes from the misguided sentiment of ‘can we afford to find out later if we are wrong’. Seems that MMGW has by-passed true scientific proof and been ascended to the level of a belief, therefore a Faith, and seemingly the faithful will not tolerate a challenge.

    Humans love their self importance. Some love the idea they are changing something bigger than themselves even more. And they really really love it when they can get both. They will do anything, make sacrifices and work to coerce others to sacrifice, to boast about the change they have brought about. In today’s debate over GW, their cloak of deception is to say it is not done for their sake, but for that of the planet’s health. This type of persuasion has been used for centuries (and still is). In the following comment I make no direct slap on any religion, but on the people who under the name of (any said) religion declare… “you must sacrifice/change/die/kill/etc, not for me personally but for the sake of the (said) religion”. The economic changes that are now “necessary” are the ‘beliefs’ of a relatively small number of scientists and politicians who are being held up like the bishops, cardinals and popes of the medieval period. The suppositions are the same today as it was then… ‘they are more important than you and know more than you and how dare you question them. It just shows how ignorant you are, and if you continue, we will bring you before the ‘global’ court and pass judgment on your heresy.’ (see daVinci or Issac Newton vs the catholic church or any passage about the Spanish Inquisition.) We are to take “may” and “could” and “beliefs” as solid evidence and rearrange our and the worlds economies because “the debate is over” on Global Warming or face public humiliation; I hope not.

  • HC. OK, but I don’t think your dismissal of Plimer on hearsay advanced the discussion. Same goes for your response to The Empricist at his Blog: “The half truth is that recognising that CO2 is a food for plants is correct but inferring that therefore it is harmless to add far more CO2 to the atmosphere is not correct.” Why? Surely it is a question of costs and benefits. The large additions of CO2 have been matched PRO RATA with increased absorption by oceans and biospheres manifested in spectaular INCREASES in global food supply. Reducing emissions to less than 2 GtC p.a. as will be demanded at Copenhagen which is below the current annual NET NEW takeup mostly in the form of biomass of over 6 GtC p.a. (up from 2 GtC in 1958) will qualify for causing the worst mass extermination since the Holocaust. Be warned and take care lest Slater & Gordon strike!

  • Macondo

    I can’t agree with your valorisation of the Australian in general, but instead of viewing its wingnut writers and editorials as truly reflecting Murdoch’s own positions on AGW(note the Herald Sun’s reporting of the EPA) – I think it’s something of a rogue in the stable – I believe it has felt compelled to stake out what it perceives as an iconoclastic, line-in-the-sand position on something or other. Global Warming is it. Of course, its Saturday editorials continue to sound like Ayn Rand or Hayek on numerous other topics (adoration of ‘free trade’ and privatisation, and lower wages for workers and lower taxes for the well-off is what most of it amounts to), but that goes back a long, long way.

    It isn’t necessary to read Plimer’s book to discuss the Australian’s obvious bias in the reporting you’ve drawn attention to. I doubt that Tim Curtin had read the EPA report before he condemned you. The thrust of Plimer’s position, as described in your linked article and by Paul Sheehan in the SMH (his article was NOT a ‘review’ at all) suggest that it is rehashing the same old stuff, with solar activity being the suggested main cause of global warming. It appears there’s nothing new in what Plimer says, and his climate credentials are a bit hazy at best. He’s something of a combative self-styled iconoclast, too, I surmise.

    Bolt may say what he likes about anything at all, but in general the Murdoch papers, with this one exception, have at least given global warming a reasonably fair run in their reporting.

    I fully agree with your position on AGW, but find the most perplexing thing is just what should be done about it on the executive level; the various schemes being concocted just seem like smoke and mirrors to me. The Rudd government has sold out completely to the coal industry and now seems about to tip more of our money into so called ‘clean coal’!

  • Sea ice around Antarctica has increased over the past 30 years but surprisingly, this is in spite of the Southern Ocean warming. The reason is complicated – it’s to do with increased stratification of the upper ocean leading to less upwelling of ocean heat leading to less melting of sea ice. The bottom line is the skeptic argument that increased Antarctic sea ice does not “debunk global warming” – on the contrary, the Southern Ocean has been warming faster than the rest of the oceans of the world.

  • Uncle Milton

    As a corporate entity, News Limited is actually quitw good on climate change, as thweir website on the subject shows.

    http://www.1degree.com.au/

    The Australian’s crusade against science is a frolic of its editor. He is doing his newspaper’s reputation a grave disservice.

  • Tim C, more CO_2 does not make all plants uniformly grow faster. You could end with fast-growing weeds. Also, this is a second-order effect compared with changes in temperature and rainfall patterns. Much of the world’s rice crop for example is grown at close to its temperature limit.

    Why would anyone want to read a book when an interview with the author (http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,,25348271-11949,00.html) makes the book appear to be junk? If it is not junk, the author will no doubt complain to the editor about being misrepresented. I await Monday’s edition with interest.

    For example, the article quotes him thus, ‘to reduce climate change to the single variable of carbon emissions abandons “all we know about planet Earth, the sun and the cosmos”, Plimer says, and that is a leap of faith no self-respecting scientist should take.”‘

    This is contemptible drivel. No serious climate scientist has ever claimed that CO_2 is the only variable driving the climate. CO_2 just happens to be the biggest variable under human control. (We don’t control solar insolation or Milankovitch cycles.)

    Here’s another: ‘He reviewed five computer predictions of climate made in 2000, underpinning IPCC findings, and found there was no relationship between predicted future temperature and actual measured temperature even during a short period.’

    Balderdash. He may be “Australia’s top earth scientist” but the article makes him appear a buffoon. Climate models are not claimed to be accurate over the short term. You need to look at a long-range prediction and compare it with reality. There are short-term effects like El Niño (1998 was a big one) and La Niña (one ended in 2008) that do not change the long-term trend, but are too hard to model.

    He even repeats the old “warming stopped in 1998″ canard.

    Either he is clueless or The Australian has totally misrepresented him.

  • I haven’t finished Plimer’s book yet, but the Australian has not misrepresented Plimer.

  • Paul Norton

    I have not read Plimer’s book either, but I have read, inter alia:

    (a) an op-ed by Plimer in The Age in which he criticised the IPCC’s modelling of climate over the period to 2100 on the grounds that it failed to take account of the effects of continental drift and mountain formation (no comment required);

    (b) a relatively sympathetic review of Plimer’s book by Paul Sheehan which includes the following quote from Plimer:

    “To reduce modern climate change to one variable, CO2, or a small proportion of one variable – human-induced CO2 – is not science. To try to predict the future based on just one variable (CO2) in extraordinarily complex natural systems is folly.”

    The only non-science and folly here is Plimer’s absurd caricature of mainstream climate science which can be dispelled by a brief visit to the IPCC or CSIRO web sites.

    If this is indicative of the quality of the book as a whole, I have better things on which to spend my salary and my research grant.

  • MikeM

    The Australian’s stance is particularly odd, considering that of its proprietor.

    From The Australian, May 10, 2007

    Rupert Murdoch’s speech on carbon neutrality

    Rupert Murdoch announced overnight that News Corporation would be carbon neutral by 2010. The following is the speech he made to employees of the company.

    Good morning. Thank you for joining us here today. This morning is the first time we have ever done a global event for all News Corp. employees, many of whom are joining us live by webcast. So I should say good morning, but to those of you who are watching: good afternoon, and good evening…

    I’m here to tell you about a new initiative we’re undertaking at News, one that will affect us all. [...]

    Climate change poses clear, catastrophic threats. We may not agree on the extent, but we certainly can’t afford the risk of inaction.

    We must transform the way we use energy, and of course not only because of climate change… [...]

  • John Mashey

    MikeM: Murdoch also owns the Wall Street Journal, whose editorial position is fairly similar, although the WSJ reporting remains good.

    re: CO2 & plants, once again, Liebig’s Law of the Minimum rules…

  • Noel

    I absolutely agree. News.com.au is a similar culprit, writing many articles containing mischevious reporting.

    Farmers unsure climate change is man-made http://www.news.com.au/story/0,27574,25274973-5009760,00.html

    Aussies urged to give Earth Hour the flick http://www.news.com.au/story/0,27574,25245689-5009760,00.html

    Climate change ‘a campaign of alarmism’ http://www.news.com.au/story/0,27574,21303658-5009760,00.html

  • I’ve put up a my own detailed response mainly to the Plimer articles at my blog.

    This stuff is tiresome and tedious. Nothing new, repeated ad nauseam. But given the unfolding of other faux debates like smoking can’t be harmful and HIV doesn’t cause AIDS, there is little option but to debunk, and debunk forcefully. Unfortunately The Australian doesn’t believe in equal time – not even for a position that’s more supportable than the one they favour.

  • re John Mashey: “CO2 & plants, once again, Liebig’s Law of the Minimum rules…” Oh yeah?

    So no farmer given his current holding could hope to improve his/her income by seeking out better yielding varieties, applying fertilizer, or benefit from the free gift of rising CO2 levels in the air above his/her crops? The facts are that despite virtually no change in the global area under cereals between 1970 and 2006 annual cereal production doubled. So much for Liebig’s (and Mashey’s) Law of the Minimum as it relates to agriculture, where clearly land is the limiting factor.
    Source: FAO.

  • hc

    I have been working today and just got home to find numerous comments by Graeme Bird on this post.

    The best way of dealing with trolls is to ignore them.

    I’ll delete all comments from Graeme Bird and anyone else who labels other commenters in a derogatory way.

  • [...] Been reading the Australian? If so, you might have been relived to discover, last Saturday, that the Antarctic ice sheet is growing not receding, and that the scientist Ian Plimer has comprehensively demolished the ‘religion’ of climate change. You can find this rubbish debunked here. [...]

  • Well done, Harry, that fellow gives pests a bad name!

  • More for John Mashey: do check out Bragg & Wagner “Protein carbon content evolves in response to carbon availability” for another refutation of your allegiance to Liebig’s out of date Law. It’s at Proceedings Royal Society. As ever, your contributions here and elsewhere are simplistic.

  • Harry: reverting to your opening commendation of the EPA determination, I really think you should have studied the document itself along with its Technical (sic) Support Document. Both merely regurgitate the IPCC 2007, not least because the TSD had Gavin Schmidt (aka Belsen’s Bulldog) and Susan Solomon (aka Belsen’s b…?)as “expert (joke) reviewers”. The EPA determination is that emissions from new cars and engines in the US endanger the world, despite US emissions from the existing stock amounting to only 4% of total world emissions from all sources. Surely as an economist you should be asking what are the benefits from terminating just 4% of world emissions (nil unless the 96% are also banned) against the costs of putting the last nail into the US auto industry’s coffin as well as requiring all road transport to be by bicycle (horses being also bad in terms of emissions). Electric/hybrid vehicles using coal-fired electricity are hardly going to reduce that 4% on a net basis. So why did you endorse the EPA as a way of getting at Plimer?

  • Ken Fabos

    One thing is certain; I won’t be buying Plimer’s book, even secondhand. If he truly has anything serious and significant to contribute to climate science he can act like a real scientist and submit it to science journals and face having to get it over the high bar that publishing real science requires. If his arguments had true scientific merit he would do so and be able to affect the scientific debate about climate. Instead he is reduced to attempting to influence the political debate about science. Meanwhile, to borrow a low grade argument/accusation that’s often levelled at climate scientists, I think he’s in it for the money and fame; climate science denialism is popular and any arguments, no matter how lacking in scientific credibility are good enough for people who strongly want to believe science is wrong about climate. Plimer is just pandering to that credulous market before the long term warming trend of global average temperatures and real world evidence overwhelm shorter term variability

  • Paul Norton

    But Ken, if Plimer actually did try to do some serious science as you suggest, and sustained even one of his talking points (other than the trivially obvious ones about climate varying naturally over hundreds of millions of years), he’d have all the money and fame that comes with a Nobel Prize.

  • Ken Fabos

    Paul, he surely knows none of his points can be sustained within the realms of scientific debate. He has to publish outside science, where there is no requirement for accuracy or truth let alone sound scientific arguments.

  • [...] Propaganda and Skepticism Towards Climate Science [...]

  • [...] Propaganda and Skepticism Towards Climate Science [...]

  • Wonderful article. Will want a bit of time to absorb your site..

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