Fossil-fuelling the climate wars

by David Holmes

Just as the Australian Bureau of Meteorology has had to add anew colour to its weather charts to denote extreme heat, the so-called ‘climate wars’ here and around the world are themselves breaking ‘off-the-charts’ records ahead of the IPCC Assessment Report no. 5.

Tornadoes of vitriol in online commentary and waves of wilfully confusing journalism that identify politically with the interests of ultra-conservative politics, mining capital and growth-at-all-costs economics have seen a ramping up of the polarisation between the so-called ‘warmists’ and the deniers.

That so much ink – and so many pixels – could be wasted on such a ‘debate’ is itself the legacy of the politicisation of climate science by vested political and business interests that goes back to the mid-1990s. Whereas news outlets were led by scientific sources in the 1980s when the climate change science was beginning to emerge, in Australia, the US and the UK there has been a co-ordinated attack on the near-unanimity of the science.

These particular newspapers have become so overtly ideological in facilitating denialism, that they nearly always confine their sources and opinion writers to a very small number of ‘authoritative’ deniers. In the case of News Corp which has the power of a global newspaper operation, these sources are often recycled between them on a regular basis, as they were in the last week between The Wall Street Journal and The Australian, sometimes adding in other denialist press campaigners like the Daily Mail for ‘diversity’.

The Australian seldom looks to IPCC contributors or peer-reviewed climate scientists for its sources, and when it does find a credentialled or non-climate scientist who might cast any kinds of doubt over the science, it will be sure to frame them as a voice of authority.

A search on articles in all major Australian newspapers in the Factiva database dealing with the heat wave in South-East Australia from January 4-14 this year is revealing. Out of 104 articles looking at the heat waves as they were happening, there were only 26 articles during that period that mentioned ‘global warming’ or ‘climate change’. Of these there were 21 stories that mentioned or explored the possibility that climate change was a factor (three in News Ltd papers and most of the remainder in Fairfax), three that were neutral, and two that were doctrinally denialist.

What this tells us is that at the time of the heatwave there was not much news in trying to selectively produce facts to show that global warming was not a factor. But of these articles, the only ones that presented ‘undecided’ or denialists reports were from News Limited. These articles sourced only one Australian, retired meteorologist William Kininmonth, and only used four other sources at the time which were all based in the UK.

These were:

  1. Select sources within the British Meteorology Office

  2. David Whitehouse of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, co-founded by Lord Lawson

  3. Richard Allan (Reader in Climate Science at the University of Reading) who is not a denialist but was selectively quoted from a press release, in order to be trumped by a denialist who is given more authority

  4. Professor Myles Allen, head of Climate Dynamics Group at the University of Oxford, who has been critical of the IPCC and of renewable energy reform. Allen, has also been heavily recycled in recent stories speculating on a ‘leaked IPCC AR 05’ report.

The extent to which denialism may have an impact on public understanding in the face of scientific consensus does not inhere in its content – which is so easily refuted by climate scientists – but in the help that it gets from the press.

The current press debate has been framed in terms of simplified ‘anomalies’, which makes for a good story but does not report the spirit or complexity of the science, which Andy Pitman has persuasively outlined today in his article in relation to the so-called warming hiatus.

The denialist press have nevertheless been able to set the terms of the debate so that ‘scientific confusion’ has become privileged in defining climate change issues. In a sense, to explain – as Pitman does in a rational and defensible way – that the last decade was the warmest in the past 150 years is still to reproduce the terms and ‘rules of engagement’ set by the ‘debate’. The existence of a powerful scientific consensus has been mischievously reconstructed by this media as a ‘debate’.

But as the study of ideology has long taught us, when the reporting of facts are distorted by political or economic interests, and where concentration of media ownership can lead to the privileging of select opinions, the manufacture of meaning in the service of powerful interests is the price we pay.

Dr David Holmes works in the School of Communications and Media Studies in the Faculty of Arts at Monash University.

This article originally appeared on The Conversation.

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