Journalists shun inconvenient news stories on the environment
By CHRIS MITCHELL/ THE AUSTRALIAN
The online audience growth at the ABC and Guardian Australia suggests there is a hunger for climate catastrophist news. Perhaps less so for positive environment stories.
Newsroom rounds have changed so much during the digital age that many reporters now only write what their audience wants to hear. The change is profound in environmental journalism.
Once a great environment writer such as the late Brian Woodley, from this paper, would have excellent contacts in the conservation movement, but would also have relationships of trust with industry. Such rounds-people could write stories critical of companies doing the wrong thing but also take account of jobs and development priorities. They could write favourably of some environmental campaigns but criticise misleading ones.
Today environment lobby groups own the opinions of too many environment writers. It’s the same in other areas such as education, where reporters are beholden to the teacher unions, or immigration and asylum seeker news, where immigration lawyers and asylum seeker advocates dominate coverage.
Partly this reflects the relative strength of the public relations business and the declining state of newsrooms as thousands of journalists have left the media.
It’s easier for a well-funded advocacy group to get its message into coverage than it is for news editors to seek out difficult stories with scarce reporting resources.
Consider for example the likely impact on the natural environment of the expansion of wind and solar power generation, all the land that will be required and the resources, particularly rare earths, that will need to be mined.
It’s surely a fascinating subject, but it’s difficult.
Much easier simply to report the self-serving statements of businesses that will profit from the energy transition and the positions of conservation lobbies that want an end to all fossil fuel use right now, whatever the damage to the economy or to people on low incomes.
Photo: The northern and central Great Barrier Reef have recorded their highest amount of coral cover since the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) began monitoring 36 years ago. Picture: AIMS
Yet the online audience growth at the ABC and Guardian Australia suggests there is a hunger for climate catastrophist news. Perhaps less so for positive environment stories. Think, for example, of the early August report by the Australian Institute of Marine Science saying coral on the Great Barrier Reef had largely recovered and coral coverage was the best in the institute’s 36 years.
The Guardian had to report it with a negative message in the headline: Great Barrier Reef’s record coral cover is good news but climate threat remains. The story was full of negatives about the health of the reef. The Conversation was similarly guarded: “Record coral cover doesn’t necessarily mean the Great Barrier Reef is in good health (despite what you may have heard).” The Australian’s environment editor, Graham Lloyd, mentioned concerns about recent bleaching events but wrote his report straight without the negative slant applied by many others.
This kind of permanent focus on the negative allows activist journalists to ignore stories that mitigate their preferred disaster narrative.
Hence two recent studies have been largely ignored by the media, even though they confirm a message also ignored by many reporters – though not Lloyd – in IPCC6, the infamous Code Red for the Planet report used to hype the Glasgow COP 26 meeting last year. This was the IPCC’s explicit warning that most climate models were running far too hot.
The journal Climate Dynamics in September published two studies – one by Nicola Scafetta and the other by Nic Lewis – examining equilibrium climate sensitivity that both narrow and reduce the range of warming effects of carbon dioxide on global temperatures.
Writing on Judith Curry’s Climate Etc. blog, Scafetta outlines how retrofitting actual temperature changes recorded between 1980 and 2021 showed almost all climate models were much hotter than actual records.
This period was chosen because it had the most reliable data and was entirely covered by accurate satellite measurements. In short, Scafetta finds a likely ECS range from 1.6C to 2.7C while Lewis finds 1.7-2.7C. These compare with global circulation model figures used by the IPCC ranging from 1.8C to 5.7C.
Now you might imagine news sources as focused on climate as Guardian Australia, the ABC and The Conversation might like to report such apparently good news, that is indeed in line with what the IPCC said about climate models running too hot.
Scafetta has been criticised previously by the RealClimate website for his earlier study on models predicting more warming than noticed in the real world. My point is not whether Scafetta and Evans are right or RealClimate is right. Rather than if Scafetta had been pushing a more scary scenario most left-wing journalists would have reported his study.
Bloomberg said Xi Jinping’s speech “made China’s path to decarbonisation clear: it won’t stop burning fossil fuels until it’s confident that clean energy can reliably replace them”. Picture: Getty Images
Readers interested in how the media and government bureaucrats bend accurate science should call up a fascinating paper on the Global Warming Policy Foundation website – Chinese Whispers: How climate science gets lost in translation. Retired physics professor Ralph B. Alexanders traces the processes by which largely accurate science in the IPCC 6 assessment report was polluted by bureaucrats adding incorrect statements for political reasons and how these were then overheated as press releases that ran in the media.
Dr Alexander shows how false media reports that the earth’s climate had not heated as quickly “in hundreds of thousands of years” as it did in the last 100 were not made in the original assessment report. He describes attempts to remove evidence of the Medieval Warming and the Little Ice Age (around 1650) from the summary for policymakers. The subsequent apparent uninterrupted warming was then amplified in press releases.
Yet things get even worse for accurate news judgments when environment writers start reporting about power generation and the global use of fossil fuels. As this column often observes, many journalists fail to acknowledge the need for backup and greatly expanded network infrastructure to firm unreliable power.
Or try getting anyone at the Guardian Australian or ABC to tell the truth about soaring global coal use and prices. Reflect on the words of Chinese leader Xi Jinping at the National Congress of the Communist Party of China last week.
Bloomberg reported his speech kicking off the Congress. Xi “said that prudence would govern China’s efforts to peak and eventually zero out carbon emissions”.
Bloomberg said Xi’s speech “made China’s path to decarbonisation clear: it won’t stop burning fossil fuels until it’s confident that clean energy can reliably replace them”. Sounds more sensible than our politicians.
“We will advance initiatives to reach peak carbon emissions in a well-planned and phased way, in line with the principle of getting the new before discarding the old,” Xi said. A report released after the speech said “China will also expand exploration and development of oil and gas resources, and increase reserves, as part of measures to ensure energy security”.
China earlier this year announced it would expand annual coal production by 300 million tonnes.
So environment writers claiming the world is facing a “climate crisis” in 2030 if it does not eliminate carbon dioxide emissions have to explain how growing emissions from the world’s largest emitter, China, and from the number three and four emitters, India and Russia, which account much of the world’s increased emissions, can be offset by anything done here.
Truth is emissions rose 6 per cent globally last year and will rise again this year.
COLUMNIST Chris Mitchell began his career in late 1973 in Brisbane on the afternoon daily, The Telegraph. He worked on the Townsville Daily Bulletin, the Daily Telegraph Sydney and the Australian Financial Review before joining The Australian in 1984. He was appointed editor of The Australian in 1992 and editor in chief of Queensland Newspapers in 1995. He returned to Sydney as editor in chief of The Australian in 2002 and held that position until his retirement in December 2015.