Understanding Climate Risk

Science, policy and decision-making

Manne on Bad News

with 2 comments

Robert Manne, Professor of Politics at La Trobe University, authored the latest Quarterly Essay, Bad News: Murdoch’s Australian and the Shaping of the Nation. He thesis is that The Australian has jettisoned the traditional newspaper role of reporter–analyst to become an active participant in federal and state politics. By becoming one of the most powerful political forces in the country, the paper enjoys “power without responsibility”.

The Australian and the rest of the News media stable leapt to the Oz’s defence against that-bully-Manne with a swathe of articles. They repeatedly defended their right to free speech; exclusive to themselves, of course. Chris Mitchell, editor of The Australian and key Manne target:

To paraphrase another high-profile commentator on media, I say to editors at Fairfax and the ABC, don’t publish crap just because it’s written by Rob Manne. Can’t be that hard (HT Mercurius).

Deltoid was mentioned by Manne for his long running The Australians War on Science series and has already summarised the Australian’s response; here’s a more in depth look at the chapter on climate change. Chris Mitchell, the editor since 2002, defends the paper’s stance of climate change, claiming:

The Australian in the past 10 years has published 29 pieces by climate change “deniers” — that is, three a year. In that period it has published thousands of news stories, opinion pieces and editorials on the issue. This paper has accepted man-made climate change since the 1980s.

I wonder who he counts as deniers? It certainly couldn’t be the Oz’s columnists and journalists Christopher Pearson, Alan Wood and Terry McCrann to name a few, because the count would be far higher than 29. And some who have accepted part of the science along the way, such as Bjorn Lomborg, would of course be retrospectively absolved for their embrace of flaky science and for amplifying uncertain scientific predictions into doubtful hypotheses (no Virginia, they aren’t the same thing).

Manne describes The Australian’s approach as ideological prejudice and intellectual muddle. He analysed all the climate change articles between January 2004 and April 2011. Articles in supplements and letters were omitted and editorials analysed separately. Manne divided the articles according to whether they were favourable, unfavourable and neutral with respect to taking action on climate change. Of the 880 remaining articles, 180 were favourable and 700 unfavourable.

His score card? Lomborg 25, Alan Wood 22, Christopher Pearson 21, Albrechsten 14, Frank Devine 8, Bob Carter 9, Greg Sheridan 9, the IPA’s Alan Moran 8 and Tim Wilson 8, Gary Johns 8, Alan Oxley 6 and Henry Ergas 5. Scientists include Bob Carter, Michael Asten, Bill Kininmonth, Ian Plimer, Dick Lindzen, Jennifer Marohasy, Stewart Franks, Garth Paltridge, Dennis Jensen, David Evans, John Christy, David Bellamy and Nigel Calder. That group contains two published climate scientists (Lindzen and Paltridge), one career scientist in met services (Kininmonth) and one hydrometeorologist (Franks). Christopher Monckton he misidentifies both as a Lord and a scientist.

Of scientists supporting either the science, policy action or both, he includes Barry Brook, Jim Hansen, Andy Pitman, Peter Doherty, David Karoly and Kurt Lambeck. Manne missed my piece in the Higher Education Supplement in 2008, where I suggested that any scientist cherry-picking trends since 1998 to argue global cooling should hand back their higher degree. This upset some no end (Kininmonth, especially). There have also been a selection of stories from excellent science writers such as Leigh Dayton who fact check and follow up with key contacts.

Manne’s analysis merges science and action. My recent post on science and democracy outlines four steps between science and action to manage the risks of AGW.

  1. The first is the science of climate change;
  2. the second covers the consequences of unchecked emissions on future generations;
  3. the third is the ethical framework in which action is assessed; and
  4. the fourth is the balance between current actions and avoiding future harm.

If Manne’s analysis followed these steps more closely, The Australian’s role in the climate debate might be clearer. Step 1, covers the basic science of climate change, which is well understood. The underlying theory is held with high confidence. This can be used to clearly separate proper scientific scepticism from denial which disqualifies Plimer, Carter and Monckton, for instance. Step 2 covers the consequences of climate change. Most of the remaining dissenters do not accept the mainstream science on the consequences either, but the science they object to is also well founded. The outcomes they crave are possible but are highly likely to be exceeded. Insisting such outcomes are the likely outcomes involves cherry-picking, misdirection and omission.

Doing nothing on emissions is likely to deliver future generations a world with greatly reduced environmental security, greatly reduced human security and the inability to sustain a globally integrated economy that delivers welfare benefits to most of humanity. If warming is to be limited to 2–3°C, or even reduced further, a transformation of the global economy is required. Technology and population growth will transform the economy in any case, so the argument is about whose values shape the future. The bottom line is the welfare of both current and future generations.

Manne says virtually every climate scientist is convinced that radical action to curb greenhouse gas emissions is vital. That may be so, but as the late Stephen Schneider used to say “Science can show you what the risks are, but people have to decide what action to take based on their own values.” And policy expertise goes much wider than climate scientists who can inform on carbon budgets but do not choose themselves what is safe or otherwise. The issue is not so much whether The Australian was biased or not towards to taking action on climate change, the issue is whether the paper has misrepresented science in order to impose its views as a Merchant of Doubt.

Editorially, the Australian accepts that greenhouse gases change climate but that’s it for the science. They roughly agree with Lomborg’s current position that climate may undergo a modest change—other issues are more important and it’s better to hasten slowly using a cost-benefit basis. However, the Oz also champions science denialists and their supporters such as George Pell. The science is not being debated within a framework of contested knowledge and evidence, it’s being attacked within a framework of contested belief. The public understanding of science is limited, so plausible-sounding pseudoscience is often sufficient to sway opinion in an environment of competing risks and values. This is a deliberate strategy to mislead.

Recent work on Australian attitudes to climate change show that 74% of the population believe the climate is changing; 66% were fairly to very concerned and another 22% showed a lower level of concern. A good many of those people are unsure of how much effort should be put into policy.

People have the right to be able to examine expert knowledge within the framework of their own ethics and values. If they get it at all from The Australian, it’s swamped by the strident opinions, denial and abuse of any values they don’t subscribe to. The honest option of accepting the science and openly not caring about future generations was beautifully characterised by Gary Trudeau. I much prefer that to the intellectual dishonesty so openly on display.

There are faults on the science side too, in the limited number of policy options assessed and communicated by the IPCC. The strident advocacy from pro-action groups reflecting policy as framed in IPCC assessments does not excuse misleading and deceptive behaviour. Furthermore, the options being discussed in both policy and research circles are expanding as the science-policy interface matures. Options are being proposed from all political ideologies – this is the discussion that should be held.

The Australian sits within an exclusive influence group on climate change that intersects with policy and industry. The federal parliament has a higher proportion of people who reject AGW than the general population. Ignoring climate change not only disadvantages Australia in the short term, it places future generations at extreme risk. Matthew Rickettson, when reviewing Bad News said that the climate change study was the most substantive part of Manne’s essay and its conclusion was at serious odds with the paper’s stated claims. He says:

The article further argued the newspaper’s editorial stance on climate change had been consistent and clear in accepting the need to respond to problems created by human-induced climate change. Manne’s analysis of leader articles suggests the editorial line has been inconsistent, has endorsed only cautious action, has supported, even cheered, climate change sceptics and has vehemently criticised those espousing radical action.

Robust debate on important topics like climate change is welcome but it should draw from the body of public knowledge including science. This doesn’t mean that disagreement is done away with – anyone who has been to a science meeting knows that. But sustaining an “alternative” scientific view that relies on scientifically refuted evidence, in order to maintain an editorial policy is not appropriate behaviour for a national newspaper.


Written by Roger Jones

October 6, 2011 at 11:49 pm

2 Responses

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  1. For what little its worth Monckton as a hereditary peer is a lord – the bone of contention is his claim to be a member of the house of lords:


    October 7, 2011 at 9:28 am

    • I stand corrected. Was working on his title as Viscount, but am not up on the taxonomy of the UK peerage.

      Roger Jones

      October 7, 2011 at 11:07 am

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