On Monday evening between 7-7.30, about 755,000 everyday Australian television viewers were told by two people that emissions of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels wasn’t worth worrying about.

Two other people, told them that it was.

During the four-minute segment on Channel Ten’s flagship “infotainment” show The 7PM Project, there was claim and counter-claim about the role of carbon dioxide on the greenhouse effect.

“Will the estimated $863 annual bill [from a carbon tax] actually see temperatures fall any time soon?” asked host Charlie Pickering, with no hint of irony.

After the segment was shown, on-air panelist Tracey Curro, a communications consultant and Al Gore-trained climate presenter, turned to her three co-presenters with a look of despair. “You would think from that sort of reporting that the evidence was equally divided … and it’s not,” she said.

Almost everything that is wrong with the way climate change is being presented for public consumption was condensed into those four minutes of pre-recorded material.

The show’s producers went looking for conflict and argument and in so doing, failed its audience. Entertaining? Perhaps. Enlightening? No. Damaging? Certainly.

But back to the segment, where Dr Steve Rintoul, a lead researcher at CSIRO, and Professor Tim Flannery, Australia’s new Climate Change Commissioner argued that burning fossil fuels was having a significant negative impact on the climate.

Arguing broadly the opposite were News Ltd columnist Andrew Bolt and University of Newcastle associate Professor Stewart Franks, who has been claiming for some years that CO2 is not the devil it’s made out to be and once described Flannery as being among those “most ignorant” of the climate change issue.

During the segment, Franks said carbon dioxide was a “very minor component of the greenhouse effect” and believed it’s role had been “exaggerated”. Tim Flannery said there was a 90% certainty that humans were responsible for “global warming”.

Andrew Bolt said humans were responsible for “a bit” but the question was how much, how bad it would be and whether we should do anything.

Just who we were supposed to believe, the viewers were not told.

Speaking to Crikey yesterday, Curro said she had seen the prerecorded segment during the day’s production meeting, just a couple of hours before the live show.

“I was the first to comment on it, and that comment was that I felt like throwing my glasses at the television screen. The reaction of the editorial staff in that room was ‘– ‘well do that [on air] if that’s how you feel’.”

Curro said she was encouraged to vent her frustration when the segment was broadcast during the live show, which she did.

“I can’t believe that we are still asking the same question and what dismays me is that time and time again the way this issue is reported in the media suggests that the evidence is evenly divided, and clearly it’s not,” she told Crikey. “The good thing about 7PM is that it’s a forum where there’s time to make that kind of comment.”

Speaking generally about how climate change is being reported in the media, Curro commented that science was not leading the debate.

“There are a million sources of frustration around this issue and how it plays out on the public stage. The false balance in the reporting — I just despair that we really have not moved on.”

Steve Rintoul, who was featured in the segment, shared Curro’s frustrations. While he said the show had been fair in reporting his own comments, he said the way it had split the issue into two opposing halves “could lead people to think there’s an even split in the scientific community.”

He said: “In terms of where the science stands, the case for CO2 increasing and that it has changed the climate is overwhelming — in terms of the size of the evidence.

“There is some risk that this gives the impression that things are more uncertain than they are. It is very easy to sell confusion.

“What’s frustrating for me personally is that we have some tough choices to make in Australia and globally and making effective choices is not made easier if people are cherry-picking particular pieces of evidence to reach a preconceived position. We don’t have time for that.

“The reason that climate scientists are so convinced that human activities have caused the change is the accumulated raft of evidence from observations of the climate.”

Playing on the public’s ignorance of the important nuances of climate science, associate professor Franks stridently claimed that if Australia did cut emissions by 5%, this reduction in CO2  would have “no impact on Australian climate” and would not stop floods, droughts or cyclones or do anything for global temperatures.

Professor Franks is, of course, right. But this misses the point. The Earth’s climate system, complex beast that it is, cannot distinguish between CO2 emitted in Australia or anywhere else.

To hint that the climate system should dutifully dole out benefits proportionate to a country’s efforts to cut emissions is as ridiculous as it is misleading.

Just a few hours before The 7PM Project went to air, Professor Steve Sherwood, of the University of New South Wales, spoke to a conference in Cairns of leading Australian climate researchers about uncertainties in climate predictions and the role of clouds and water vapour.

He said that associate professor Franks’ assertion that water vapour was a “minor component” of the greenhouse effect was “very misleading”.

“CO2 is the main agent of change. CO2 is under human control. When we increase CO2 it may only be 25 per cent of the total greenhouse effect but that’s all you need to drive a change in water vapour or cloud effects.”

He said none of the guests invited to speak on the Channel Ten segment were actually atmospheric scientists. Producers and journalists were not paying enough attention to the credentials of guests, he argued.

“It’s infuriating, of course,” he said. “It is preposterous the way this is going and it’s certainly infuriating to those of us that actually study the problem.

“I think that is a great failing of the media. I consistently see people being interviewed whose credentials are not appropriate for the questions they are being asked.”

Professor Andy Pitman, co-director of the UNSW Climate Change Research Centre, reviewed the segment and told Crikey: “According to the material broadcast, Franks is confused on the water vapor feedback. The feedback relevant to global warming only acts on a forcing. That forcing is human CO2 emissions. Without the human CO2 emissions there is no additional water vapor feedback.

“Franks would know this and it is unfortunate that he or Channel 10 only highlights a fraction of the relevant science and omits the requirement for balance.”

Crikey contacted The 7PM Project yesterday but was told the show’s executive producer was unavailable at short notice due to meetings.