The ABC Of Climate Denial


On the internet, it has become increasingly hard to have a reasoned debate about the scientific observations relating to climate change without a parliament of denialists descending on the comments pages to fill up the thread with their endlessly recycled myths, lies and obfuscations. You’ve heard them before: the "hockey stick" is a statistical distortion (no, it’s not); "the world has been cooling since 1998" (no, it’s been warming); "Phil Jones cooked the data" (no, he didn’t), and so on.

We’ve all had the conversation, in which a seemingly sane friend or family member suddenly begins to spew denialist invective. Mine was with a wealthy second uncle who just happened to be a mining engineer. Out came all the old chestnuts: the hockey stick, cooling since 1998, the hacked emails. As I patiently tried to deal with each falsehood in turn, it quickly became obvious that I wasn’t going to change his mind: that had been made up about the time he associated the concept of "global warming" with the term "environmentalism".

It’s one thing when you hear this kind of guff from a reactionary relative. It’s quite another when it’s coming from the Chairman of the ABC in a speech to ABC management.

"Climate change is a further example of groupthink where contrary views have not been tolerated, and where those who express them have been labelled and mocked," Newman reportedly told a gathering of 250 ABC executives.

Really? "Groupthink"? The term itself is a strange one to apply to journalists, a notoriously fractious bunch. First coined by organisational psychologist William Whyte in a Fortune article in 1952, Whyte defined it as "a rationalised conformity — an open, articulate philosophy which holds that group values are not only expedient but right and good as well".

Newman seems to be arguing that the media are somehow dismissive of those who don’t subscribe to the anthropogenic global warming thesis. I find that hard to believe. Many parts of the media, especially the conservative parts, love a good denialist beat-up as the acres of newsprint devoted to the "climate-gate" hacked emails demonstrated.

As The Guardian‘s great editor C.P. Scott once said, "comment is free, but facts are sacred". Newman needs to be reminded of this remark, because he appears to have fallen prey to one of the most pervasive myths of the entire climate debate: that there is some kind of unspoken media conspiracy that favours the anthropogenic global warming thesis and locks out those with differing views.

The truth is almost the reverse: the media have given far more attention to the Australian visit of prominent denialist Christopher Monckton than they have to the Australian visit of leading climate scientist James Hansen. Indeed, the ABC, through its new opinion site The Drum, has been enthusiastic in its embrace of the views of denialists, running several pieces such as this one by Bob Carter that can only be described as loopy conspiracy theories. More broadly, the media have consistently portrayed the climate change issue as a kind of dialectic, often comparing the views of climate scientists to those of sceptics and denialists as merely opposing sides of the debate in a mistaken attempt to provide "balance".

In fact, the balance of scientific evidence is overwhelmingly on the side of the "warmist" thesis. In the mid-2000s, when the science of climate change was less firm than it is now, prominent American historian of science Naomi Oreskes examined 928 peer-reviewed scientific papers on the topic of climate change. She found that every single one agreed with the anthropogenic global warming thesis. So did the International Panel on Climate Change, whose various reports together represent one of the largest exercises in the peer-review of available scientific literature in history. Across the thousands of pages of the IPCC reports, despite all the attention and controversy, sceptics have been able to uncover only a tiny handful of errors: for instance, a referencing mistake about Himalayan glaciers, where a non-peer reviewed paper was referred to — the glaciers are still melting, by the way. Only those with an axe to grind could use this as the basis to discredit the IPCC’s overall assessment.

Of course, that won’t stop the denialists, who have long abandoned the idea of evidence and who, in any case, often believe that climate science is a new kind of "religion", to be foisted on the world by crusaders in white coats and koala bear outfits.

There’s no doubt that significant numbers of Australians don’t accept the science of climate change. If you believe the ABC’s Jonathan Holmes, that should be reason enough for our national broadcaster to present the arguments of denialists and sceptics. But what about the facts? Shouldn’t they take precedence over audience opinion? Veteran ABC science journalist Robyn Williams certainly thinks so. He told The Australian: "We don’t interview people who say HIV doesn’t cause AIDS, petrol sniffing is good for kids or smoking doesn’t cause cancer, but they’re out there." Perhaps it’s time for some articles on intelligent design or the flatness of the earth on The Drum

In any case, why is Newman commenting on editorial matters at all? The ABC’s CEO, Mark Scott, is also its Editor in Chief; it’s the board’s responsibility to appoint management and supervise the governance of the organisation, not comment on editorial matters. In 2004, Newman resigned from the board after documents about the independent monitoring of the ABC were leaked. If he feels that strongly about governance matters, why is he now flouting them to lecture his staff on how they cover one of the most important scientific issues of our time?

It’s time for a new chair of the ABC board. The current one has demonstrated he is unfit for the role.

He has also revealed he is something of a reactionary dunderhead who understands nothing about climate science. Mind you, there are plenty of those in Australian public life.

A note on terminology: I’ve referred to those who don’t subscribe to the thesis that the world is warming due to the emission of greenhouse gases (by humans) as "denialists" or "sceptics" — that is, in the sense that they deny or are sceptical of the warming thesis. I don’t think this is an insult just as I am happy to be called a "warmist" because I do indeed subscribe to the thesis that the world is warming.


Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.