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Media madness: blaming climate confusion on the fourth estate

By Mark S. Lawson - posted Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Some in the global warming camp construct elaborate, even clever explanations involving psychology or sociology. There is a problem when the media report this as evidence.

In late 1999 I was asked by a chief financial officer, at a breakfast meeting round table with a bunch of other CFOs, whether I thought the then much-talked about Millenium Bug crisis would be as serious as the experts were forecasting.

I answered truthfully, always a mistake, that I did not think the consequences would be severe at all. Mostly I was aware of the vast amount of work that had gone into testing and replacing systems to avoid crashes when the date went from 1999 to 2000, as it was due to do in a couple of months. I was also vaguely aware that there were a few mavericks who claimed that the whole crisis was a load of nonsense and nothing would happen to computer systems anywhere, although I had no way of adjudicating their claims. In any case, the mavericks were more than drowned out by the many experts forecasting wide-spread disruption.


However, the breakfast meeting was jointly sponsored by both the magazine I edited at the time, CFO, and a major accounting firm which I shall not name here. That firm was making very good money consulting to companies whose senior executives had read about the looming crisis in the media, and were anxious to ensure that their systems continued to operate smoothly. The senior consultant present for the accounting house promptly contradicted me, saying that the disruption would be widespread. As I had never really looked at the issue, I did not argue the point. I wish I had.

As is well known, New Year’s Day dawned with computer systems everywhere working as they had. Even the ancient, clunking PC 286s of the time did not turn a hair. Proponents of the Millenium Bug crisis have since tried to claim that the lack of reaction was due to all the work that had been put into system, but as Canadian journalist Dan Gardner points out in his recent book Future Babble, corporations and companies that did nothing about the crisis fared just as well as those which replaced whole systems.

In other words, the mavericks were right and the mainstream ‘experts’ were completely wrong. So how could the media, notably the journalists who work in it, have known this at the time? The answer is that they couldn’t and, in any case, its not what they do. A part of their job is to play on fears. A crisis sells newspapers, reassuring messages do not.

But that is only part of the media’s job. Journalists mostly reflect what experts say, particularly if the experts forecast disaster, but they are also programmed to find and report contrary opinions. A story on a government initiative, for example, will almost always have a quote from the relevent opposition spokesperson saying that the whole thing is a waste of time. A story on a pending disaster will have a quote from someone saying that the disaster will not be as bad as all that. This is deeply ingrained. It is not the job of the journalist to work out whether the crisis is real or not, particularly where it involves science which they mostly do not understand, but simply reflect what the experts say. A contrary voice is thrown in somewhere, if the journalist happens to know that the contrary voice exists.

The above points should be borne in mind in considering recent comments on the media’s role in reporting on the ongoing, often acrimonious debate over climate change. The report The Critical Decade recently issued by the Climate Commission was, in part, an effort to end what the Commission considered to be a noisy and distracting debate. Far too much attention is being paid to mavricks, the report says in essence, and here is the ‘evidence’ to prove it. That response is, in turn, part of a perceived general reduction in public interest in the various environmental crises

Unfortunately for the commission, after a brief media flurry, the report does not seem to have changed anything. This is not surprising, as for any veteran of the endless debates on climate, it contained nothing new. There were welcome concessions: that much of Australia’s recent climate is governed by climate cycles, and that the link between changes in climate and the frequency of tropical storms had yet to be proven. There was also more discussion on the key point of whether any changes in climate we have seen are artifically induced or part of a natural cycle, but the report still fell well short of even beginning to sway the agnostics, let alone the sceptics. It also had to work hard to paper over cracks in the greenhouse case.


The report will not be discussed in any detail here, but as perhaps an example of just how it fell well short of its ideals of presenting the evidence, we should look at the increases in sea levels highlighted by the report. Below is a graph of global changes in sea levels derived from satellite measurements from the University of Colorado site for the past 18 years, and so starting shortly after the very first Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report issued in 1990. In that time, the sea level increase has remained steady at 3.1 millimetres a year. If that steady increase continues for a century the total increase in sea level will be just under one third of a metre (0.31 metres), or about a foot in the Imperial scale.

In other words, for almost the whole time the IPCC has been in existence and on its soap box screaming about water pouring off melting glaciers, and sea level increases of metres, it can be shown that nothing whatever has actually happened. The Colorado results are not in dispute as far as I know. Instead, the report points to the 3.1 mm a year figure, and then to other research, analysing records of tidal gage readings which show that for 100 years up to the beginning of this century sea levels increased by about 0.2 centimetres or an average of 2 mm a year. That figure is also not in dispute. So there must have been an acceleration: 3.1 mm a year, beats 2 mm a year. The Climate Commission report acknowledges a range of forecasts but at one point, due to that supposed acceleration, it backs an estimated increase of 0.8 metres over a century.

Not so fast. You will note that we are dealing with two different sets of measurements – satellites and the direct physical measurements of tidal gages – but isn’t there some way of connecting the two into a single time series? There is but you won’t find it in the report, as the results are inconvenient. In 2008 a group of researchers from the Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory in Liverpool in the UK and the Arctic Centre at the University of Lapland in Finland, analysed whatever gauge data they could find in greater detail to show that the rise of about 20 cm during the 20th century was far from uniform. In Recent global sea level acceleration started over 200 years ago? by Svetlana Jevrejeva et al they present a reconstruction indicating that the rate of global sea level rise increased and then decreased in several distinct waves since before the beginning of the nineteenth century.

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About the Author

Mark Lawson is a senior journalist at the Australian Financial Review. He has written The Zen of Being Grumpy (Connor Court).

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