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Changing climates

Climate change and the politics of consensus

EPA/Maja Suslin

Can a newspaper group achieve consensus on the science of climate change?

Last Thursday, in an article on the pseudo debate that is currently impeding the communication of climate change in Australia, I called for reforms to journalistic standards to address the urgency of this issue, and in comments pointed out the inconsistencies amongst News Corp columnists on the facts of the science.

My article drew a response from one of News Corp’s star columnists, Andrew Bolt, who accused me of - among other things - being against “balanced reporting” whereas the whole point of my article was to establish the “false balance” and the pseudo “debate” that has been promoted by journalists intent on creating doubt about the science.

But Bolt was particularly concerned by my observation that there seems to be cracks appearing in the views of columnists at News Corp on climate change.

Recently, News Corp has added controversial political economist Bjorn Lomborg as an “other” columnist, although Bolt was categorical that I had misrepresented Lomborg as a “columnist”, on the very day that the editorial in The Australian was beatifying the Dane.

In an initial response to Bolt in the comments section of my article, I suggested that the newly added Lomborg had very different views about global warming to Bolt. Bolt’s ten signs of the death of global warming manifesto on May 13 this year was unequivocal.

1st sign: The world isn’t warming. Yes, the planet warmed about 0.7 degrees last century, but then halted.

This was repeated in his Channel Ten show The Bolt Report on September 22, in reviewing a Rudd announcement on global warming as a challenge:

Never mind that your global warming policies would actually stop any warming, even if there were any.

Bolt’s declaration, which has no basis in evidence and consensus science, contrasts with Lomborg, who has accepted that global warming is happening but who erroneously thinks that its future impact will be minor compared to many of the world’s current problems.

So I had put it to Bolt: has global warming halted or hasn’t it?

Bolt’s reply came in the form of an update. In a reaction either to my article, or perhaps the IPCC AR5, Bolt is now furiously conceding agreement with Lomborg, a dramatic change from his May manifesto. This happens in the “update” to his article where Bolt does spend time considering the arguments.

This is a remarkable turnabout that has been followed by a similar conversion from Graham Lloyd, the environment editor at The Australian, who also seems to be accepting of the authority of AR5. Lloyd was still recovering from possibly one of his worst career mistakes, to base a premature IPCC AR5 analysis on David Rose’s infamous story in UK Daily Mail, which was so absurdly inaccurate about global warming trends that it required extensive corrections in every newspaper around the world which had replicated it, including The Australian.

But on Tuesday last week, Lloyd provided a more rigorous summary of AR5 once it had actually been released.

Apart from raising doubts about the meaning of “consensus” - which I will discuss below - there are signs that Lloyd is accepting the science in AR5, and that consensus on human-forced global warming is emerging in News Corp’s reports.

With such key News Corp journalists now showing agreement on scientific representations of fact, there is a real possibility that some consensus can be achieved at News Corp on climate change. Consensus is an extremely important issue and is often misunderstood. It comes down to whether the consensus is over opinion or questions of scientific fact.

For example, News Corp has demonstrated it can achieve a high degree of consensus on political opinion. All of its capital city dailies and The Australian were solidaristic during the election in transparently presenting a co-ordinated editorial stance, often on their front pages. My own analysis suggests over 70% of News Corp’s election stories considered Labor to be unfit for another term in favor of the Abbott government. The ABC’s Mediawatch showed this consensus was even higher within individual publications during the election, such as in Sydney’s Daily Telegraph.

And that’s just what was achieved with a consensus in opinion. The IPCC’s AR5 is 95% certain that humans are causing climate change and that we are rapidly heading toward a two degree benchmark in warming, even assuming a lower range of carbon emissions.

This consensus is different from the one achieved at News Corp during the election. For a start, the News Corp consensus may have been influenced by the change in editorial governance that applied to the election period itself, given that one of Murdoch’s most loyal executives was sent out to Australia to oversee the coverage.

However, the IPCC is a very different organisation to News Corp. It merely brings together the independent findings of thousands of scientists, whose specialisation in areas of the science actually means they seldom talk to each other. For example, climate scientists I speak to in Australia about the science itself will so often tell me if they cannot answer my query and will refer me to another specialist, perhaps an atmospheric chemist or a paleoclimatologist.

The division of intellectual labour is very strong amongst climate scientists. To me, the lack of any kind of central command makes the consensus in these reports all the more remarkable. But consensus has itself become a contested issue in climate reporting, as doubts have been cast on the merits of consensus itself, ironically by newspaper groups that display a high degree of consensus in their political opinion. In this regard, News Corp is interesting, not because it has achieved consensus is some kind of “conspiracy”, but because of its market dominance in Australia, which is why so many scholars take an interest in it.

The doubts over consensus science enshrined in the IPCC had been relentlessly pushed forward by News Corp papers in the lead up to the release of AR5 last week. What is common to all these reports, globally, is that all roads critical of consensus lead back to just one person, Judith Curry. Curry, who Andrew Bolt has described as a “former warmist”, is professor and chairwoman of the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Curry is in high demand for journalists who are interested in attacking consensus science. She is a controversial figure who started a blog pandering to deniers, as well as a company that provides weather forecasts, involving fossil fuel mining companies as clients. In recent times, Curry has been a darling of Bolt and Lloyd, and has even been given space in The Australian itself.

On the eve of the release of the IPCC report, Curry argued that:

…the consensus-building process can be a source of bias. A strongly held prior belief can skew the total evidence that is available subsequently in a direction that is favourable to itself.

Curry complains that consensus can be steered by a single “confident” member and that it should be abandoned in favour of “a more traditional review that presents arguments for and against, discusses the uncertainties, and speculates on the known and unknown unknowns”. In the US, Curry has been accused of promoting conflict within the IPCC, and overlooks the fact that discussion already happens in arriving at the summaries.

But the strangest aspect of this stance is that climate scientists are working within specialised fields and are often incapable of talking with each other - even if they wanted to.

It is only when the pieces from each area of the science are put together by the three working groups of the IPCC that there is discussion by the committee to get a coherent picture. The independence of climate scientists is thus enhanced by this process, and the areas of scientific coherence can be effectively communicated to policymakers and the public.

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