There’s no denying climate change scientists are being overwhelmed by the sceptics

Amen. That is precisely how I feel. Overwhelmed and outgunned. Still, this great editorial by veteran ABC producer and reporter Jonathan Holmes of Media Watch is uplifting.  The only thing I think he got wrong was to suggest Andrew Bolt “knows far more about the science than most other journalists, environment reporters included”. Bolt has certainly been very vocal in the debate and is making a comfortable living disparaging the science and scientists. But almost entirely by spewing misinformed nonsense that he picks up on denier blogs. See Bolt’s silly response to Jonathan’s piece here.

Journalists weather the changing climate

By Jonathan Holmes

Posted Thu Feb 11, 2010 7:34am AEDT
Updated Thu Feb 11, 2010 10:09am AEDT

Link to the original editorial here.

Just a few years ago, when I was making programs about climate change policy for Four Corners, it was legitimate for journalists to argue that the science of climate change was settled. The issue was what should and could be done about it.

Boy, has the climate changed!

There’s no denying that the climate change deniers, or sceptics, (the term you prefer depends which side you’re on) have succeeded, to a degree that orthodox climate scientists find baffling, in persuading a large proportion of the public that the science of global warming is, in the Opposition leader’s words, “absolute crap”.

An even larger number of folk apparently take the view that there is so much doubt around the science that to take action that would be in any way painful is premature.

It’s true that the failure of Copenhagen has made it hard to argue that Australia should take drastic action on its own. But that was a political failure. It had nothing to do with the science.

It’s true that some stupid exaggerations, unsupported by peer-reviewed science, have been identified in the 2007 IPCC report. They’ve done a lot of harm to its credibility.

It’s true leaked emails from the Climate Research Unit of the University of East Anglia have exposed a disturbing unwillingness on the part of its scientists to share raw data, and apparent attempts by them to prevent sceptical views from being published in reputable journals.

But the vast majority of climate scientists (and for that matter, of scientists in other relevant disciplines), supported by the vast preponderance of peer-reviewed research, still maintain that human-induced climate change is an unassailable reality: rapid global warming will continue, not just for the next hundred years, but far into the future, unless and until human beings drastically reduces the emission of greenhouse gases.

So why are their views being overwhelmed, in the public arena, by the tiny number of ‘sceptics’ with scientific credentials, and their non-scientist supporters?

The simple answer, it seems to me, is that it’s been the doubters who’ve had the passion, and the commitment.

Think what you will of the Herald Sun’s Andrew Bolt, he’s industrious. He starts posting on his blog at around 6:00am, and his last posts are often past midnight. If there’s truth in Annabel Crabb’s famous observation that he cherry-picks articles from the University of East Bumcrack, he does so repeatedly, and obsessively, and to his growing army of devoted fans, convincingly. He’s made global warming his specialty. He knows far more about the science than most other journalists, environment reporters included.

He’s supported by the usual army of conservative columnists. The Devines and Pearsons and Albrechtsens and Akermans, with barely a science degree between them, have been able to satisfy themselves that a global scientific consensus is in fact a global political conspiracy, fuelled by capitalist-hating greenies.

The opinion pages – and as we showed on Media Watch last Monday, sometimes the news pages – of our only national broadsheet have heavily favoured sceptics over proponents of the scientific consensus.

Far more influential, I would guess, are the commercial radio talk back hosts. At least half a dozen of the most influential have been enthusiastically espousing the sceptic cause for years.

After all, it meshes perfectly with the general message that makes talk-back radio work for its audience, which goes roughly like this: “The politicians/bureaucrats/bosses are idiots or scoundrels. They pretend this problem (any problem) is complicated when it couldn’t be more simple. You and I can see the answer. Blind Freddie can see the answer. But they can’t because they’re stuck in their ivory towers/on the take/too clever by half/out to take your money from you.”

As we said on last week, these gentlemen (and they are all men) don’t like to trouble their listeners with both sides of a question. The proponents of global warming science (such as they are) seldom get a guernsey on their shows. The Lord Moncktons of this world get literally hours of unopposed air time.

And their listeners, as anyone who argues against them in public knows, are vociferous and passionate. Just look at the posts at the bottom of this article.

Lastly, of course, there’s the simple fact that people would rather believe those who tell them “she’ll be right,” than those who tell them their way of life is leading the world to hell in a hand-basket.

Of course, the mainstream media (with the notable exception of The Australian) has reported climate change science extensively, and on the whole, uncritically. The sceptics are quite right about that.

But reporting scientific findings, and convincing people they are true, are two different things. If the public is to be galvanised, the science needs selling. But where are the salespeople? Who has been out there arguing passionately and compellingly that climate change is real, and urgent?

As everyone agrees, the Prime Minister has been missing in action for a year or more. His minister, Penny Wong, is robotic. Peter Garrett has been sidelined. Only Greg Combet has summoned up any discernible passion on the topic.

There’s Bob Brown and his Green cohort, who preach strictly to the converted. And Malcolm Turnbull, whose sermons are magnificent; except that nobody’s listening to him any more.

The scientists themselves can’t be expected to do the job. Very few have a talent for public advocacy. It’s not their role.

They know that winning a public argument on television or radio, where there’s little time for anything but assertion on either side, has little to do with the ability to compile and assess evidence in the field, or meticulously to program computer simulations that attempt to predict the future.

They’ve been reluctant, too, to dignify people they regard as cranks or self-serving controversialists by taking them on in public debate.

And, as that debate has become more and more stridently political, they’ve been even less inclined to get embroiled.

So it’s no coincidence that the most compelling public arguments for the reality of global warming have been made by people who aren’t themselves climate scientists: people like former US vice-president Al Gore, or mammal palaeontologist Tim Flannery, or ‘public intellectuals’ like Robert Manne.

But Al Gore is a long way away, and Flannery’s been pretty quiet of late.

NGOs like Greenpeace and WWF have plenty of passion, but they’ve produced no public advocate who’s really broken through. Perhaps the Australia Institute’s Clive Hamilton has come nearest, but he’s hardly a household name outside the chatterati.

Our left-wing columnists, like Phillip Adams and Mike Carlton, have no pretensions to detailed knowledge of the science. Our environmental and science journalists largely stick to news reporting and avoid advocacy.

What we don’t have in Australia – have never had – is someone like The Guardian’s George Monbiot: a journalist with the same access to the mainstream as Andrew Bolt, who has made it his or her business to be as thoroughly on top of climate change science, and who’s willing to mix it with the sceptics at any and every opportunity.

It may have made little difference. Rationality doesn’t necessarily win arguments like this. Yet it still feels to me as though the pass has been sold without a fight.

Of course, it may turn out that the sceptics are right. In twenty years time we may all be laughing at the great global warming scare, as we do now at Y2K.

If that happens, the scientists, and the journalists who accepted their findings, will have a lot to answer for, and the sceptics will have every right to crow.

But if the opposite is true, and we find ourselves facing climate change that by then can’t be reversed before much of this continent becomes uninhabitable, it will be small comfort to be able to blame the sceptics.

If the science is as compelling as the climate change advocates would have us believe, then this was an argument that should have been won long ago. For want of champions, it’s perilously close to being lost.

1 thought on “There’s no denying climate change scientists are being overwhelmed by the sceptics

  1. Hi John, it’s a knowledge war.

    I’m not a scientist (I have an engineering background) and I have found that I have needed to learn more and more about the science in order to tackle the denialists and skeptics.

    In the process I have learnt a lot, that is the best thing.

    Unfortunately, I know a lot of environmentalists that don’t understand the science in much detail and are dependent on scientists doing a good job and getting the science message across. That’s why the denialists are attacking the science, they are trying a flanking maneuver around the politicians and environmental campaigners.

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