Climate change and the Troll Rupert

Issue 

In Scandinavian folklore, a troll is a bogeyman. In the jargon of the Internet, it is someone who posts false and provocative information.

In Scandinavian folklore, a troll is a bogeyman. In the jargon of the Internet, it is someone who posts false and provocative information.

In climate change discussions, trolls are a plague, and not just on the Internet. Arguably one of the world's worst climate trolls is international media baron Rupert Murdoch, proprietor of Foxtel, the Australian, and major newspapers in all Australian state capitals.

"What's this?", you say. "Didn't Murdoch go green a while back?"

The story is well known: in July 2006, Murdoch gathered executives and journalists of his News Corporation at a retreat in California and had former US vice-president Al Gore show them his film An Inconvenient Truth. Since then, Newscorp organs in most countries have provided cautious, mainstream reporting and commentary on climate change issues.

But not in Australia, and certainly not in the pages of the Australian. After Murdoch's conversion, Clive Hamilton remarks in his 2007 book Scorcher, the Australian remained "virtually alone among major newspapers around the world in maintaining its denialist stance on climate change".

By 2007, Hamilton observes, the Australian had: "... run a virulently anti-greenhouse line for years, especially after Chris Mitchell took over as editor-in-chief in 2002. Mitchell was notorious among environmentalists in Queensland for his fanatical anti-green views while editor of the Courier-Mail, the Murdoch paper that monopolises Brisbane."

Where climate change topics were concerned, Hamilton continues, the news pages of the Australian had become "a parody of dispassionate journalism". The frenzy reached a climax in September 2006, during a visit to Australia by Gore. Leading the Australian's charge on greenhouse issues by this time was Matthew Warren, the new environment reporter. Warren was familiar to environmental campaigners as a former PR operative for the NSW Minerals Council, an important coal industry lobby group.

The flavour of Warren's journalism at this time can be grasped from a review, carried by the Australian on September 20, 2006, of An Inconvenient Truth. Describing Gore's opus as "a horror film with a contrived plot", Warren argued: "Despite nearly two decades of consolidated research on the subject, there is still limited agreement about climate-change science."

If the scientists themselves could not agree, the suggestion was, why should the rest of us worry?

Imputing that scientific researchers are in disagreement is an old trick borrowed from the PR machines of the US tobacco industry. But the truth is that since the 1990s professional climate scientists have been no more inclined to doubt that climate change is occurring, and that the warming is mainly the result of human activity, than they have been to speculate that the Earth might be flat.

In the Australian, articles by climate change skeptics and deniers have kept appearing at the rate of about two a month. The authors have been astonishingly diverse.

Nigel Lawson was Margaret Thatcher's Chancellor of the Exchequer. Alan Wood is an old warhorse from the Murdoch stable, economics editor of the Australian. Barry Maley is described as a former academic. Vaclav Klaus is President of the Czech Republic and Don Aitken former vice-chancellor of the University of Canberra. Des Moore is a former treasury deputy secretary and Phil Chapman was the first Australian astronaut.

Not one of these people is a climate scientist. That is not to say that only specialists in the field should form and express opinions on climate change. But if the Australian is to publish the views of non-specialists — and in most cases, publish them in prominent positions, with large, provocative headlines — it should check that the views expressed reflect good science.

Howlers

In each case, the articles from the climate "contrarians" have contained statements to make knowledgeable scientists laugh out loud — or weep with frustration. The howlers have brought terse, devastating replies from real experts. But these replies have been buried in the letters column, or published with modest headlines in lesser corners of the paper.

On many readers, the net impact of the Australian's coverage of climate issues is to feed hopes that the dire warnings concerning climate change might somehow be wrong. The impressive-sounding credentials of the contrarian authors inspire confidence, however irrelevantly. People who have reached the top in one field or another would know what they're talking about, wouldn't they?

This is not the place to refute in detail the arguments of the contrarians. A few recurrent themes, however, can be addressed:

l"Carbon dioxide isn't the main greenhouse gas. Water vapour is far more important."

Increased carbon dioxide raises temperatures, enhancing evaporation and raising water vapour levels in the atmosphere. This boosts temperatures still further.

The most effective way humanity has of reducing atmospheric water vapour is to stop burning fossil fuels. As carbon dioxide levels fall, water vapour levels will decline along with them.

l"World average temperatures have reached a plateau, with no increase since 1998."

Temperatures in 1998 were boosted by an exceptionally strong El Nino event, with warm surface water in place of cold in the eastern Pacific.

NASA figures indicate that the warmest year ever recorded was 2005. Significantly, this was not an El Nino year.

According to Britain's Hadley Centre, the years from 2001 to 2007 were 0.21°C warmer than the decade from 1991 to 2000.

l"There's always been climate change, so what's new?"

The current rate of increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide is almost certainly without precedent in scores of millions of years. The forces now driving climate change dwarf those that set off and ended the ice ages of the past two million years. That's what's new.

l"Human beings are adaptable creatures, and live in places as different as Singapore and Finland. We'll get by."

Human beings are highly adaptable, but most plants and animals are not. Warming is now proceeding so rapidly that "business as usual" scenarios point to vast numbers of species extinctions. Humans can get by in diverse environments, but only if those environments are reasonably stable and self-sustaining.

With a little digging on the Internet, the Australian's climate contrarians could have learned what legitimate science has to say on these points, and many more. Why did these people not do so, or why did they refuse to believe what they found? What could induce Aitken on April 9 to trash a fine reputation as a political scientist by denying that the evidence for significant climate change even exists: "Earth's atmosphere may be warming, but if so, not by much and not in an alarming or unprecedented way."

And what moved Chapman, citing irrelevant data, to propose on April 23 that we are heading into an era of sharply cooler temperatures, another "little ice age"?

The answer seems to be pathological hubris, along with a psychological inability to confront the material, social and political changes that combating climate change will require.

Balance?

It is hard to let the editors of the Australian off so lightly. Except perhaps for the benighted Alan Wood, they are unlikely to share the strange compulsions of the contrarians. But to concede them one last possible excuse, might their decision to publish the contrarians be a case of ensuring journalistic balance?

This does not explain the contrarians' large headlines. In any case, there is no journalistic ethic saying that reputable science has to be balanced with ignorant claptrap.

A strong clue to the source of the Australian's practices appeared on the paper's opinion page on April 23. Next to Chapman's warnings of another ice age was an article by economics editor Wood entitled "Coal isn't cool but our growth depends on it". The article ridiculed renowned US climate scientist James Hansen for writing to PM Kevin Rudd in March urging a phase-out of coal use.

Fossil fuels are nowhere near so central to the economies of most European countries as they are to Australia's, so it makes sense for Murdoch's European media outlets to accommodate the popular mood by making a show of "going green".

But as the old troll clearly understands, the stakes in Australia are different. Fossil fuels, especially coal, are key to the profits of Australian capitalism. In the pages of the Australian, it seems, fossil fuel interests are to be defended to the last miserable ditch.

The fact that climate change threatens eventually to make any kind of advanced economy impossible does not even register.