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Climate sceptics crow as Fairfax starts questioning the science

Recent op-eds in Fairfax have questioned the science of climate change and the need to act on it. Is the trend here to stay — or a hiccup caused by editors being on summer holidays?

Climate sceptics are delighted to have cracked the pages of Fairfax newspapers after it published prominent pieces casting doubt on the science of climate change and the need to act on it. But is Fairfax really heading down the News Corporation path?

Some Fairfax insiders told Crikey the pieces probably slipped through because the regular editors were on holidays, while a former reporter with the company said it was all about website click bait.

A piece by John McLean ran on The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald online on January 3, describing the United Nations’ climate science body as delivering “exaggerated science with a large dollop of politics”. Crikey looked into who McLean is on Monday. The piece came with a cartoon by John Spooner, who illustrated a book called Taxing Air

This was followed by an opinion piece by Tom Switzer, editor of The Spectator Australia, in the SMH yesterday. Called “Game finally up for carboncrats”, the piece ran across two pages in place of Peter Hartcher’s column (he’s on leave). Switzer argues the “anti-carbon agenda is being subjected to the most intense scrutiny, and is found wanting”. It contains the claim that “2013 marked the 15th year of flat-lined global surface temperatures” (climate experts contest this). “The game is up,” Switzer wrote of the “madness” of those advocating for deep reductions in emissions. An accompanying cartoon showed the world freezing …

The climate sceptic movement has been buoyed by Fairfax’s apparent new tone. The Australian Climate Sceptics group congratulates McLean on its website:

It was with great delight that we saw he had managed to penetrate the fog that the Fairfax Press has created around the Catastrophic Man-Made Climate Change (CAGW) debate.”

Go-to climate sceptic blogger Jo Nova (not her real name) praised the SMH for running Switzer’s “no-holds barred description of the current state of the climate scare”, under this heading:

But some Fairfax readers (and apparently a few staff members) are not impressed with the stories. “They’re just looking for anything that lights up their comment page,” said a former Fairfax journalist who did not rate either story highly. “It’s click bait, it gets them the number of clicks they need.” It’s understood there have been newsroom tensions around climate scepticism in the past.

Click bait it may be, but one reader claims the Switzer piece was taken down from the SMH’s Facebook page last night amid a flurry of negative comments. The piece was not there this morning.

A factor in the stories’ publication may have been that key staff members who could have queried the pieces or asked for more fact-checking were on holidays. Helen Pitt, the opinion editor at the SMH, appears to have been on leave. SMH deputy editor Ben Cubby, who has reported extensively on the environment, was on leave, as was morning news director Marcus Strom.

The Age’s society and science editor (and former environmental reporter) Adam Morton was on leave. It’s not clear if The Age’s opinion editor Sushi Das was on deck.

Wendy Bacon, professorial fellow at the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism, slams the publication of the pieces. “I think its really disappointing that Fairfax — which has actually had a very good record on climate science reporting — would so blatantly downgrade their own coverage, whether it’s the clicks or whether it’s because someone is on holidays,” Bacon told Crikey.

I can’t think of any other topic where the Herald would cover a piece of scientific opinion that so recklessly flew in the face of all the scientific evidence.”

Bacon says people have a right to express their opinion but it should be well-researched, accurate and based on facts. She queries whether the Switzer piece was fact-checked, and says editors should send back any articles for corrections or clarifications before publication.

She points to her research which found Fairfax usually has a high standard on reporting on climate science. The ACIJ report looked at 10 newspapers over six months in 2011-12. It found News Corp papers published 92% of the articles which rejected the consensus position of climate scientists on anthropogenic global warming. The Australian was the paper most likely to publish articles suggesting doubt about human-induced climate change.

By contrast, the study found Fairfax “does not promote scepticism”. In the six-month period studied, the SMH and The Age published just one article each rejecting human-induced climate change (by former Liberal senator Nick Minchin). “It was unexpected to me, having done a lot of research in this area,” Bacon told Crikey of the recent Fairfax stories.

But there’s another school of thought: that Fairfax has for some time occasionally run op-eds with various degrees of scepticism about climate change — Miranda Devine and Gerard Henderson used to write for Fairfax — so these stories are nothing new, and are part of presenting a diversity of views on key topics. And some say the people who made the decisions to run the pieces knew exactly what they were doing and had thought it through.

Crikey asked Fairfax for comment, as well as the opinion editors at The Age and the SMH, but didn’t hear back by deadline.

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  • 1
    Russell
    Posted Wednesday, 15 January 2014 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    Right above Switzer piece in a very large banner it says “comment”. It is opinion. The Herald is not supposed to publish opinion Wendt Bacon and Crikey disagrees with? Really? Where does this end?

  • 2
    Rohan
    Posted Wednesday, 15 January 2014 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    The editors-on-leave theory is bullshit.

    Fairfax have clearly made a commercial decision that shoring up their viability means courting more idiots.

  • 3
    Russell
    Posted Wednesday, 15 January 2014 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    Sorry about the type above (first line)

    “It all about clicks.” Heavens above, the Herald wants people to read its pages! Who would have ever imagined that?

    All the right-thinking Fairfax staff were on holidays. Hmmm… While the group-think czars and school prefects were lazing about on the beach, the naughty boys who sit down the back on the bus (smoking!) took over the Herald and Age. Egads!

    Like Switzer, I’m quite happy to believe capitalism is cooking the. But unlike Crikey’s deputy editor, I’m quite happy to read alternative views and angles which I disagree with.

    That’s one of the reasons I have been subscribing for so many years.. But this piece of censorious nonsense alarms me. Don’t do it again, please…

  • 4
    Salamander
    Posted Wednesday, 15 January 2014 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    Ho hum I’ll say it again. We are all entitled to our own opinion, but not to our own facts.

    Bugger Postmodernism. It sure got used for bad.

  • 5
    Will
    Posted Wednesday, 15 January 2014 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

    The hoary old chestnut that climate change is about open-mindedness and diversity of opinion is absolutely risible. The marketplace of opinion is a scare resource given contestation of mainstream science is over-represented alright we are rightly concerned tha the pendulum swings back to represent credible viewpoints more closely than those that are arbitrary and capricious.

    So you can spare us the lofty declarations of open-mindedness – as a sophist might declare their “reasonable” openness to the existence of Zeus and the almighty Apophis – the rational community is unmoved by such nonsense.

  • 6
    AR
    Posted Wednesday, 15 January 2014 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    The teabagger antecedents/influence (if not all the verbiage)is well demonstrated by the illustration - anyone here seen much snow recently?
    I also don’t believe it is just the grown-ups being on holiday - it is click bait pure & simple (emphasis on the latter)but a very poor decision if the corporate aim is to entice more ‘low information’ readers - they are already over supplied with too many big words (more than 2 syllables or 6 letters) by mudorc’s terror/hun.
    Do they really imagine this will halt the too long delayed death of SMH? It reminds me of mudorc many years ago shirtfronting a scion of an upmarket store in NY and demanding to know why he didn’t advertise in the NYP. The patrician gazed now his nose and replied, “your readers would be our shoplifters”.

  • 7
    Reechard
    Posted Wednesday, 15 January 2014 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

    So a poster boy of a rightwing think sink (is the Spectator Australia funded by the well named Koch brothers too?) does a amateur hatchet job on years of work by dedicated scientists and the deny-listers crow.. Extraordinary.

    Their ignorance of the science behind the recent US cold storms is breathtaking. They fail to realise that this cold validates the science and ongoing warming (as if that were really necessary). If they were not so dumb, they might just be embarrassed.

  • 8
    Reechard
    Posted Wednesday, 15 January 2014 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

    Russell
    I think deny listers are ignorant, brain-dead morons, who know nothing about the most basic of scientific principles. They should at least have to show a pass in Kindie School Science 101, before being allowed to comment, or better still, in this case of this particular (Switzer) and likely recipient of Koch’s funds, draw breath.
    Comment…..

  • 9
    Roy Inglis
    Posted Wednesday, 15 January 2014 at 7:31 pm | Permalink

    It’s opinion. Let us see if Fairfax counters this erroneous rubbish with scientific facts and explains who McLean is along the lines of The Guardian. Observers of this ongoing ‘debate’ won’t be swayed by censoring the likes of McLean & Switzer. They will be swayed by countering them and their arguments. And, it will sell copy which is what commercial media is about.

  • 10
    MJPC
    Posted Wednesday, 15 January 2014 at 9:08 pm | Permalink

    This is not the first article by Switzer, there was one in the SMH a couple of weeks ago with the same BS as this weeks. When I saw the first I read it (not knowing the dreds of the author), the second I passed and was very disappointed as a long time buyer of the smh (some 38 years) to be reading crap that I would expect to read in the Daily Telegraph that wrapped my fish and chips (If I lowered my intellect to read such dross).
    If these half wits understood the science of the whys and wherefores of Meteorology and climate science then they would see the lies being fostered by the Switzers of this world are as loyal foorsoldiers of energy corporations and capitalism.
    Alas, when climate change really bites (the world is seeing but a glimpse at present) it will hit rich and poor equally, I am hoping the Switzers are here to see it and explain their lies then; till then Revolution now!

  • 11
    Double Brie
    Posted Wednesday, 15 January 2014 at 11:54 pm | Permalink

    Shame about Fairfax.
    On another note, I had thought The Australian usually refrained from climate denial activities during very hot weather because it made them look rather ridiculous. But not this summer. The ‘ship of fools’ editorial, the overplay of the polar vortex, and opinion by Newman and others, have allowed The Australian to bypass any significant reflection on the hottest Australian year on record.

  • 12
    Ken Lambert
    Posted Thursday, 16 January 2014 at 12:09 am | Permalink

    Cathy, get ready for some more sceptical crowing from cooler heads in the global warming debate.

    Facts change rapidly in this field of science and some are not facts at all. Wendy Bacon’s opinion is typical of the hubris of the climateers who consider their side has ‘all’ the scientific evidence and it is all right.

    Here are a few new facts. Hansen’s original 0.9W/sq.m global warming energy imbalance from 2005 - assumed and built into many climate science papers has been reduced to 0.6W/sq.m by the man himself and others who have recently supported a similar figure or less. This a one third reduction in global warming over what was assumed until recently.

    There is no coherent explanation for the ‘pause’ in warming evident over the last 15 years despite ever growing CO2 emissions and a theoretical increasing warming imbalance from CO2 and other GHG.

    Asian aerosols, natural variability funny ENSO cycles are all being thrown around in current debate - definitely unsettled.

    Recent satellite data has confirmed that the TSI is indeed reduced by 4.5 W/sq.m originally posed in 2005 - and poo-pooed by leading climate scientists until last year. This recasts all the calculation of actual warming imbalance and particularly the true value of the Earth’s albedo or reflectivity to solar radiation.

    And lastly, very recent data on the albedo and emissivity of the northern and southern hemispheres which controls the incoming SW and outgoing LW radiation has shown an amazing symmetry within very tight tolerances. This result is not reproduceable in current climate models due to the large differences in ocean and land areas and other factors between the hemispheres.

    This fact alone is a non trivial discovery which will probably blow all of the current modelling out of the water.

  • 13
    Andybob
    Posted Thursday, 16 January 2014 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    Ken, I haven’t looked into all of the issues you refer to, but it is true that the last 15 years observations were not well predicted by existing climate models. That is a very good reason to keep them under review and adapt them as further complexities are discovered.

    But answer me this. Is there some other climate model, which attributes less influence to human induced warming, which does a better job of matching observations ? The answer is no.

  • 14
    Roy Inglis
    Posted Thursday, 16 January 2014 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    Ken, The ‘escalator’ ( http://www.skepticalscience.com/graphics.php?g=47 )explanation?

    The graphic in the link above shows that there’s been five flat periods since the ‘70’s. Is this one that different?

  • 15
    Draco Houston
    Posted Thursday, 16 January 2014 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

    The picture above it says it all, really. We’re in the middle of a summer heat wave and they draw a picture of a winter wonderland because, gasp, Antartica has ICE in it.

  • 16
    Ken Lambert
    Posted Friday, 17 January 2014 at 12:31 am | Permalink

    Andybob

    There are many climate models, none of which yet take account of reduced TSI or can account for hemispherical symmetry as far as I know.

    Firstly you have to know how much warming you have which is difficult when 90% goes into the oceans which are still poorly measured.

  • 17
    Ken Lambert
    Posted Friday, 17 January 2014 at 12:43 am | Permalink

    Roy Inglis

    Yeah well the last step on the escalator is a pretty big 15 year one. Already gone through one full 11 year solar cycle and a few ENSO cycles.

    Problem is we are at or near the peak of the latest 11 year solar cycle which means a roughly 0.25W/sq.m drop in incoming solar over the next 5-6 years which might not help the warmist case. If we were going to see warming - we should have seen it over the last 5 years.

  • 18
    Russ Hunter
    Posted Saturday, 18 January 2014 at 12:56 am | Permalink

    Ken Lambert, thanks for that but I might listen to the climate scientists instead. You know, people who know what they are talking about.

    I have found these recent op-eds in Fairfax a bit sad. I used to think Fairfax had some integrity.

  • 19
    Ken Lambert
    Posted Saturday, 18 January 2014 at 11:30 pm | Permalink

    Russ Hunter

    As Paul Keating used to love saying: “the devil is in the detail”.

    Are these people who know what they are talking aquainted with the latest observations Russ? Perhaps you could show us where?

  • 20
    Liamj
    Posted Monday, 20 January 2014 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    No Ken Lambert, recent slower global warming -isn’t- surprising given la nina, deep ocean warming, solar minima, & increasing particulates.

    Still Oz managed hottest year ever, have you got some megapolluter-funded copypasta to explain that?

  • 21
    Ken Lambert
    Posted Tuesday, 21 January 2014 at 12:55 am | Permalink

    Liamj

    ENSO is an internal redistribution of heat - not a forcing according to current theory. Deep ocean measurements are poor and contradictory.

    No coherent theory of getting heat down deep below 700m in any short time frame is on offer.

    The 11 year solar cycle is reaching its maximum - less solar over the next 5-6 years.

    Finally if you are on a plateau, you can claim a record elevation every year if you stand on a small rock.

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