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Event horizon: the black hole in The Australian’s climate change coverage

MEDIA & DEMOCRACY - Michael Ashley investigates the national paper’s op-ed policy. The “event horizon” of a black hole is one of the most mind-boggling concepts in astrophysics. The black hole’s stupendous…

The Australian’s coverage of climate changed is seriously warped. AFP PHOTO/ NASA - CXC/ A. HOBART

MEDIA & DEMOCRACY - Michael Ashley investigates the national paper’s op-ed policy.

The “event horizon” of a black hole is one of the most mind-boggling concepts in astrophysics.

The black hole’s stupendous gravity causes time itself to be warped — an astronaut falling inwards sufficiently slowly would see arbitrarily far into the future history of the universe during their final minutes and seconds before crossing the event horizon.

There is no other place in time or space where our normal perception of reality is so completely overturned.

That is, apart from a meeting room deep within the News Limited bunker at 2 Holt Street, Surry Hills.

It is in this room that Chris Mitchell, editor-in-chief of The Australian, holds editorial meetings.

And it is in this room that reality becomes so distorted that The Australian was able to state earlier this month, “it is in keeping with this newspaper’s rationalist pedigree that we have long accepted the peer-reviewed science on anthropogenic climate change,” while at the same time engaging in a campaign to misrepresent and distort climate science.

Other editorials have made it clear that The Australian believes it is treating its readers as mature adults who should be able to make up their own minds based on arguments from “both sides” of the debate.

The problem is that on one side of the debate you have 97% of the world’s published climate scientists and the world’s major scientific organisations, and on the other side you have fools.

Excuse my bluntness, but it is past time to acknowledge that the science underpinning anthropogenic climate change is rock solid. The sceptics have had the time and opportunity to come with up a convincing case, but their best efforts read like arguments that NASA faked the moon landing.

My colleagues working in the climate sciences have largely given up trying to correct the constant stream of misinformation from The Australian, in frustration.

The Australian’s anti-science campaign takes many forms. One is the inflation of the credentials of their fake experts. For example, OpEd writer and member of the Outdoor Recreation Party Jon Jenkins was referred to as an “Adjunct Professor”. Bond University wrote to The Australian informing them that this was not true.

Howard Brady was called a “climate change researcher from Macquarie University”; in fact, Brady is a 70 year-old retiree who has published just seven scientific papers (on Antarctic sediments, not climate), the most recent one in 1983, following which he worked for 17 years in the oil industry. Macquarie University contacted The Australian to set the record straight.

In neither of these cases did The Australian publish a retraction or clarification.

Another tactic is to accept opinion pieces on science from unqualified sources. When I contacted The Australian’s opinion editor late last year to express dismay at their bias, I was given the example of Michael Asten, a part-time professorial fellow in the school of geosciences at Monash University, Melbourne, as someone who was well-qualified to comment.

So I did some investigation into Asten and his four OpEds in The Australian over the past two years.

A quick check of Asten’s peer-reviewed publications shows that while he appears to be your go-to guy if you have electromagnetic interference problems with your fluxgate magnetometer, he hasn’t published anything remotely related to climate science. He is, however, well-connected with the mining and coal industries.

In his first OpEd (“Climate claims fail science test”, December 9, 2009), Asten wrote “recent results published by top scientists cast doubt on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s theory” and he showcased the work that Pearson et al published in the top journal Nature.

But Asten misrepresented the findings in the Nature paper. Don’t just take my word for it— Paul Pearson and his co-authors wrote to The Australian saying “Professor Michael Asten has misrepresented our recent research by suggesting that it casts doubt on the link between atmospheric carbon dioxide and global warming”.

They added, “We would like to take this opportunity to add our voices to the strong and steady message that the world scientific community is delivering to the Copenhagen negotiators — the greenhouse problem is real, imminent and potentially devastating for the planet, its life, and human civilization. Fortunately it is still not too late to avert the catastrophe.”

You would think you couldn’t ask for a clearer statement than that, but Asten went on to argue in his second opinion piece (“More evidence CO₂ not culprit”, December 29, 2009) that he used data in Pearson’s paper to arrive at a different conclusion from Pearson himself.

So, Asten, with no expertise in the field, is using a paper published in Nature to argue the opposite of what the paper actually says.

He then spins this as “top scientists cast doubt” on the IPCC. Gobsmacking.

In Asten’s third article (“CSIRO should establish if there was medieval warming Down-Under”, 13 May 2010) he asserts that if the medieval warm period was a global phenomenon, then “warming during the past century should be seen as predominantly natural climate change rather than driven by man-made carbon emissions.”

This is bunkum. The effect of man-made carbon dioxide is clear from multiple independent lines of evidence.

In his fourth OpEd (“Political interference will cripple climate debate”, 17 Dec 2010), Asten compares models of sea-level rise from a peer-reviewed paper by Jevrejeva et al, with observations of the sea-level by Riva et al, finding a factor of five difference.

Asten interprets this as a serious discrepancy in climate predictions that the CSIRO was withholding from the Government. He also describes how compliant scientists were intimately involved in the formulation of Nazi racial policy, and outspoken academics were removed by the Gestapo.

But once again, Asten misunderstands the science. The Riva et al paper wasn’t an observation of the total sea-level rise at all, just an estimate of the contribution from melting ice. The Nazi stuff is simply bizarre.

You would think The Australian, if it had any editorial integrity, would have called a halt to Asten’s ready access to the opinion pages after serious flaws were found with each of his contributions. But the lure of publishing an opinion supporting their editorial bias, from an apparently reputable source, was just too strong to resist.

I have singled out Asten in this article, but the same applies to every one of the climate contrarians that are repeatedly given exposure in The Australian.

For example, Bob Carter has claimed “temperature records confirm that cooling is under way” - no they don’t.

Ian Plimer says “To argue that human additions to atmospheric CO2, a trace gas in the atmosphere, changes climate requires an abandonment of all we know about history, archaeology, geology, solar physics, chemistry and astronomy” - this statement is just absurd.

Christopher Monckton has repeatedly misinterpreted scientific papers; and William Kininmonth states “the likely extent of global temperature rise from a doubling of carbon dioxide is less than 1°C” - this is a factor of three below our best estimates.

None of these people has made any impact whatsoever with their arguments in the peer-reviewed literature — they just aren’t contributing to any real scientific debate. The only place that they can publish their junk science is in outlets such as The Australian, where they are welcomed with open arms.

And if you think the bias in The Australian only affects its choice of OpEd pieces, wait till you read Tim Lambert’s examination of news reporting in his article later in this series for The Conversation.

So, when The Australian claims in its editorials to support the peer-reviewed science, it is really just an insurance clause for when the tide inevitably turns against their campaign of misinformation.

The Murdoch media empire has cost humanity perhaps one or two decades of time in the battle against climate change. Each lost decade greatly increases the eventual economic costs, the devastation to our ecosystems, and the suffering of future generations.

Do you think I’m exaggerating?

Read the real science, ask the real experts.

The editors sitting around the table in that meeting room in Surry Hills need to reflect on their culpability.

This is the sixth part of our Media and Democracy series. To read the other instalments, follow the links here:.

This article is about the media’s representation of climate change – we’d love to hear your opinions on that topic. If you would rather discuss the existence of climate change, there are many other articles on the site covering that issue: please take your comments to one of those discussions.