Bad tidings: reporting on sea level rise in Australia is all washed up

We should rely on scientists, not beach-goers to inform us about sea level predictions. kennymatic

MEDIA & DEMOCRACY - Tim Lambert wants to know why we’re always asking a man in Speedos for his expert opinion.

There is a scientific consensus on global warming – 97% of active climatologists agree that human activity is causing it.

This is not reflected in the opinion pages of The Australian. Over a recent period, just 15% of the opinion pieces on global warming agreed with the scientific consensus.

News stories on global warming in The Australian often show a similar bias when journalists, instead of reporting the facts, take on the role of a prosecuter making a case against mainstream science.

This was made clear by some recent news stories in The Australian on sea level rise.

In August The Australian had a story by Ean Higgins on Tim Flannery’s waterfront home.

Higgins' message was the fact that Flannery had a house near the water showed he was insincere in his warnings about sea level rise. The article also suggested Flannery had frightened the elderly into selling their seaside homes to him.

But the Hawkesbury River where Flannery’s home stands has steeply rising banks. Waterfront homes there are several metres above sea level and are not endangered by a one metre sea level rise.

Flannery made this point to Higgins but declined to say exactly how far above sea level his house was because he was concerned about revealing information about the location. A not unreasonable concern, given the death threats climate scientists have received in Australia.

So The Australian printed a map showing the exact location of Flannery’s house.

This was too much, even for The Australian – the on-line version of the article has been removed, and The Australian published an apology to Flannery.

But this approach to reporting was in keeping with the way The Australian has dealt with sea level rise projections for years.

In July, The Australian deployed their tried-and-tested formula for reporting the science of sea level rises.

The front page story by Stuart Rintoul stated that the NSW Department of Environment and Climate Change had predicted that sea levels would rise by just 15cm by 2100 and the CSIRO projections of sea level rise were “dead in the water”.

The article was illustrated with a photograph of Phil Watson from the NSW DECC, but he did not say or agree with those claims as his department explained:

“Mr Watson does not agree with the use of his findings to infer future projections of sea level rise nor does Mr Watson agree that his research casts doubts on the future modelling undertaken by CSIRO.”

Watson’s department also wrote a letter to The Australian stating Rintoul’s story had misrepresented the research and that there was strong scientific evidence to support NSW’s planning number of a 90cm rise by 2100.

The Australian did not print this letter.

The man Rintoul relied on for the claims about projections of future sea level rise was retired oil company CEO Howard Brady, who was described as a climate change researcher despite the fact that Brady has never published any research on climate change.

Missing from Rintoul’s story was any response from CSIRO or any comment at all from an expert on sea level rise.

Media Watch investigated and found that Rintoul did not even ask for comment from anyone at the CSIRO. Media Watch also had no difficulty in getting comments from five experts on sea level, none of whom supported the line Rintoul took in his story.

The Australian is notoriously thin-skinned. Rintoul emailed to complain that my post on his story was “extremely defamatory” and The Australian published a story by Victorian editor Chip Le Grand claiming Rintoul had been victimised by his critics.

But The Australian has a long track record of muddling the debate on climate change.

On advice from scientists, the NSW Planning Guidelines are based on allowing for a sea level rise of up to 90 cm by 2100.

In November 2009, The Australian published a front page story by Drew Warne Smith and James Madden that declared, “Government concern over rising seas is a touch exaggerated.”

The scientific expertise that the NSW government relied upon was apparently trumped by Kevin Court, 80, (pictured on the front page in his swimmers at the beach) who had been swimming at Wollongong’s North Beach for 50 years and hadn’t noticed any sea level rise.

As further evidence, The Australian showed two pictures of the beach taken 50 years apart showing that the sea level was the same in both pictures.

Of course, as anyone who has ever been to a beach knows, there are these things called tides that change the sea level every day, so the photos don’t tell us anything very useful.

In February 2010, The Australian did it again with another front page story showing a bloke in a pair of swimmers whose opinion on sea level they judged more reliable than that of scientists.

The fact that sea levels will rise is one of the certainties of climate science. But as with many future projections about the way our world will look in years to come, the extent to which they will rise is still being debated.

But The Australian is not reporting on the rigorous scientific debates about sea levels that go on in the peer-reviewed literature. It is misrepresenting science and relying on the opinion of the “man on the beach”.

This is the ninth 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.