Election 2013 media panel

Requiem … for climate change journalism

For refusing to ask the hard questions on climate change, journalists are also to blame for the issue’s absence in this election campaign. ToniFish

Well, what has changed? The Earth’s atmosphere and oceans continue to take in heat equivalent to four Hiroshima bombs per second; humans are forcing climate change 10,000 times faster than orbital forcings; Australia has just had its hottest 12 month period confirmed, but we are having “the election that forgot the environment”.

With this update of the newspaper reporting of climate change, we have seen next to no journalism that is going to call politicians to account for action against dangerous climate change, as politicians themselves have turned their backs on climate, and thrown up “smoke and mirrors”.

Ten days into the campaign, Brad Farrant and I reported on the absence of climate reporting in the major news outlets and an emerging pattern that climate change was only newsworthy if it had economic implications.

A day later, the story of the LNP’s $4bn climate funding shortfall broke mostly in outlets most supportive of Labor’s policies.

In the third week, the Fairfax press had four articles and commentaries on the inadequacies of the major party policies in addressing the dire warnings of the “leaked” IPPC assessment report number 5.

But apart from these stories, the press has all but given up on climate change in this election campaign.

Critical decade for action? Remember that?

Remember, by contrast, the Franklin River Campaign in 1983? It led the news bulletins for weeks during the election campaign that year.

But it seems climate change, without the photo opportunities of protest and dissent, and the tangible efforts to save a place of natural beauty, does not fit with contemporary news narratives. So much so that the political parties do not see any votes in it.

The Australian has covered some of Labor’s climate-linked policies but have turned these back on Labor itself. By the end of week two, Greg Sheridan claimed a personal connection with Rudd, only to suggest that signing up to Kyoto was for pure populism rather than to address a “moral challenge”.

Simon Fraser gets even more personal, linking a Labor initiative to fund early warning of extreme weather to the fact that Rudd and Gillard both have beachhouses, which will nevertheless be safe in the event of “1 in 100 year events”.

As lead environmental journalist at the Oz, Graham Lloyd has a more sophisticated approach to climate change reporting. He is not a climate change denier, but is deterred by any action on climate that would harm the economy. Protecting the Great Barrier Reef and biodiversity are higher on Lloyd’s agenda than climate change per se, assuming that the former can be achieved without carbon reduction.

In week four, Lloyd also covered one of the LNP’s more effective policies: for an elected LNP to use its term as chair of the G20 to pursue an agreement between China, the US, India and the EU to slow down deforestation.

There has been some coverage of Tony Abbott’s direct action plan, but little analysis of whether the ALP’s plan to bring forward the ETS as a way of washing its hands of a carbon tax will meet the declared emissions targets.

With the exception of a recent Age interview with the Executive Director of ClimateWorks Australia Anna Skarbek, there has been no analysis of whether the target that both party’s have set, to reduce emissions to 5% below 2000 levels by 2020, is going to be in anyway effective, as Peter Christoff has suggested, let alone achievable.

Yet Tony Abbott is placing great store in direct action, a combination of unproven techniques of carbon sequestration, a modest renewable technology subsidy and of course a B.A. Santamaria style Green Army of workers, who are going to “clean up” Australia. Such an army, is reminiscent of Ronald Reagan’s With Enough Shovels approach to digging bunkers in the depths of a nuclear cold war.

But “direct action” is interesting from the point of view of its DLP-derived grassroots pragmatism, with its image of the “working man” having a civic impact - rather than big government trying to change behaviour for the sake of an “invisible gas”.

Irrespective of its ideological foundations, direct action is to climate change what the hydrogen car was to the electric car: a wholly ineffective, but powerfully-promoted alternative that has nevertheless been successful in keeping fossil-fuel cars on the road up until now.

But what kind of climate science scrutiny will Abbott get if he assumes the job as prime minister?

A challenge to Abbott on climate change came up at an ABC Insiders interview on Sunday:

BARRIE CASSIDY: On climate change, we have just had the warmest winter ever along the east coast. Is that evidence of climate change?

TONY ABBOTT: It is evidence of the variability in our weather. But just to make it clear, Barrie, I think that climate change is real, humanity makes a contribution. It’s important to take strong and effective action against it, and that is what our direct action policy does.

Whilst Abbott seemed self-assured about the variability judgment before waiting for the detection and attribution studies to come out, he is at least reiterating his public view that anthropogenic climate change is real.