Opinionista Ivo Vegter 24 July 2019

The dangers of news media overplaying climate change

Some journalists believe that others, who are skeptical of climate alarmism, should not be ‘given access to the publishing space’ on grounds of factual accuracy and that this causes harm. But overstating environmental problems and proposing radical action can also be harmful, and ought to be subject to critique.

In a recent instalment in Daily Maverick’s Our Burning Planet series of environmental articles, journalist Leonie Joubert writes: “These days, you’re unlikely to find a newspaper article penned by an environmental reporter that will ‘balance’ a climate change story with a dissenting view that challenges the central issue in the story. But climate distraction may still slip into a newspaper in other subtle ways. The editor might give space for a wider range of positions on the matter, in the interests of giving what they see as ‘balance’ or allowing a diversity of views. The letters pages or Op-Ed sections of the paper might give space to industry opinionistas with a perspective that pooh-poohs the climate ‘hype’ coming from the scientists, for instance.”

Newspapers, she believes, ought to take a position “when reporting on the economic system that is driving climate collapse and ecological breakdown that’s threatening all life on the planet”.

She continues: “It’s fine to seek out alternative views and interpretation of facts, (Oreskes) said, but reporters should never present propaganda and disinformation as a counterweight to facts or aim to balance a scientist’s evidence-based information with, say, the views of an economist, or lawyer, or politician.

But the issue isn’t just about whether a journalist misunderstands the principle of balance in an individual story. It’s also about what voices the media stables choose to amplify through giving them access to the publishing space, and those they don’t.”

She swears high and low that she’s not trying to deplatform anyone because of opinions she doesn’t agree with. It’s also not about me, she swears, even though she raised this issue two weeks earlier in a Twitter discussion, sparked by the anti-GMO lobby’s response to my article on GMOs (which I rebutted here).

Ivo Vegter’s entire brand and livelihood are built on taking a pro-capital stance, and cherry-picking the science to support that,” she tweeted, before adding: “Often wondered re [Daily Maverick providing me a platform]. Would love @dailymaverick to explain its reasoning. Many brill & legit thinkers have blown Ivo’s content & ideology out water, yet DM still publishes him. Why give oxygen to a destructive fire. Not about diversity of voice. It’s about responsible reporting” (sic throughout).

In support of her claim, Joubert cited Don Pinnock’s old broadside against me, without bothering to link to my reply to his hit piece. Notably, it contains my view that one should distrust environmental activists just as much as one would distrust corporate spin, which is hardly a ringing endorsement of big business.

I shouldn’t take it personally, however: “Stop creating false controversy/straw-man arguments. No one said DM shouldn’t give you platform. The meta-question raised, as many critics have over years: ‘why does the DM give him this platform?’. That’s very different to saying anyone is lobbying to have your column shut down.”

Right. The media shouldn’t provide platforms to people like me, and she wonders why Daily Maverick gives me a platform, but she’s not saying I shouldn’t be given a platform.

Really, it’s not about me, she claims, not coming right out and saying what she means.

Not knowing that the topic was actually GMOs, about which the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has little to say, Joubert tweeted: “Scientific consensus from the IPCC — which draws together panel of the leading scientists across the planet to come to an overarching conclusion — is very different from cherry-picking research produced by bodies paid for by the industry with profit interests.”

Not that I had done so in the GMO piece either. I cited independent meta-analyses of thousands of scientific studies, published in credible peer-reviewed journals, which is pretty much what the IPCC claims to do for climate change.

Drawing in several other environmental journalists, like Kevin Bloom and Sipho Kings, Joubert’s error made it about “climate breakdown denial” (to use Kings’s phrase). I just had to “shut the f**** up already”, to quote a tweet Bloom has since deleted.

Let’s side-step the personal attacks, however, and consider the meat of Joubert’s argument. Because an even halfway decent response will have to cover much ground, this will make this article much longer than usual. But bear with me.

Her article makes it sounds like climate change alarmism is entirely a matter of scientific fact, and that this extends to the “economic system driving us across a tipping point into runaway climate breakdown”.

This system, she claims, “denies the laws of physics and which assumes we can have infinite growth on a finite planet”.

This description of economics is laughably wrong. Economics does not assume we can have infinite growth. It does not defy the laws of physics. On the contrary. Economics is entirely about scarcity. It is about discovering the most efficient way to allocate scarce resources. It’s about doing more with less. When a resource becomes scarce or expensive to produce, its price rises. This signals to the market to use less of it or switch to an alternative.

We’re not running out of resources, and those who always say so are perpetually wrong. Since a rising price signals relative scarcity, a declining price signals abundance. If we extend the famous bet between the economist Julian Simon and environmental alarmist Paul Ehrlich from five commodities to 50, and from 10 years to 27, we find that resource abundance continues to improve.

John Tierney once wrote: “You can always make news with doomsday predictions, but you can usually make money betting against them.”

That’s not because the Earth’s supply of resources is infinite. It’s because human ingenuity in using scarce resources with ever-greater efficiency knows no limits. If your grasp of economics does not extend to this realisation, you probably shouldn’t be telling people how to run the economy.

The likes of Joubert are not alone, however, in exploiting environmental fears to agitate for hobbling or destroying capitalism. This has been the plan all along.

In 1997, the late Maurice Strong, former under-secretary-general of the United Nations, said: “Frankly, we may get to the point where the only way of saving the world will be for industrial civilization to collapse.”

In 1992, he proposed a single global government on environmental grounds: “It is simply not feasible for sovereignty to be exercised unilaterally by individual nation-states, however powerful. It is a principle which will yield only slowly and reluctantly to the imperatives of global environmental co-operation.”

In 2009, he declared his opposition to democracy: “Our concepts of ballot-box democracy may need to be modified to produce strong governments capable of making difficult decisions.”

In 2015, Christina Figueres, former executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and now the head of a climate action lobby group, said: “This is probably the most difficult task we have ever given ourselves, which is to intentionally transform the economic development model, for the first time in human history.”

In 2016, Ottmar Edenhofer, former co-chair of the UN IPCC working group on Mitigation of Climate Change, said: “One has to free oneself from the illusion that international climate policy is environmental policy. This has almost nothing to do with the environmental policy anymore, with problems such as deforestation or the ozone hole. We redistribute de facto the world’s wealth by climate policy.”

Just a week ago, Saikat Chakrabarti, the chief of staff of Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, the US politician famous for the Green New Deal that failed to pass Congress, was quoted in a glowing profile by the Washington Post saying: “The interesting thing about the Green New Deal is it wasn’t originally a climate thing at all. Do you guys think of it as a climate thing? Because we really think of it as a how-do-you-change-the-entire-economy thing.”

Changing economic systems is a political question, not a matter of scientific fact. That Joubert wants to silence journalists who do not share her anti-capitalist sentiment is quite revealing not only about the latent authoritarianism of the left, but also about the weakness of their arguments to opposing opinions.

If climate mitigation, which many estimates say will be insufficient to make a meaningful difference anyway, is going to impoverish the world, or even undermine the very economic system on which our present prosperity is based, we will have very limited resources in future to deal with the consequences of climate change, whatever they turn out to be. As it is, rich capitalist countries are orders of magnitude better at protecting their populations from cold, heat, floods, droughts and storms than poor socialist countries. Which economic policies to adopt or reject is certainly a fit matter for public debate.

As a matter of science, are we really heading for “climate breakdown”, however? Alarming predictions are a staple of the sensationalist media and the cabal that wants to destroy capitalism. I’ve documented and debunked dozens of them over the years.

When the media or pro-environmental organisations have private information on the damage caused by climate change… they may manipulate this information to increase pessimism regarding climate damage, even though the damage may not be that great,” concludes a 2014 journal paper on information manipulation and climate agreements.

The term “climate breakdown” to refer to climate change is not a product of climate science. It is a propaganda term adopted by The Guardian two months ago on the advice of a 16-year-old kid with anxiety issues who said: “It’s 2019. Can we all now call it what it is: Climate breakdown, climate crisis, climate emergency, ecological breakdown, ecological crisis and ecological emergency?”

What is alarming is that adult environmental journalists are prepared to ape such ill-informed, intemperate and politically charged language.

My columns on more than one occasion reported how the media uses photographs and videos to tell environmental scare stories that just aren’t true. In one memorable article, I debunked all 13 photographs it was suggested one “show to a friend who doesn’t believe in climate change”.

Many of the media stories that attribute weather events to climate change are easily debunked, as I’ve been doing for years. Besides the many examples cited in the articles above, see, for example, this article on hurricane Sandy, this article about how any weather is can be used as evidence for global warming, this article on the Great Knysna Fire of 2017, during which my family and I were personally evacuated, and this article which shreds a 2018 report on extreme weather by the European Academies Science Advisory Council.

There are, in fact, very few weather phenomena that the IPCC — whose authority Joubert accepts — can actually attribute to a changing climate.

According to Special Report 15 of 2018, the only weather impacts besides higher temperatures that can with high confidence be attributed to the 0.5°C warming experienced since 1950 is precipitation in the mid-to-high latitudes of the northern hemisphere. It couldn’t even say whether global drought trends were negative or positive.

On flooding, it says that streamflow trends in most of the world’s largest rivers since 1950 are not statistically significant, and of the remainder, a majority showed decreases. It declares low confidence due to limited evidence that anthropogenic climate change has affected the frequency and the magnitude of floods.

It says numerous studies towards and beyond [Assessment Report 5, the most recent, published in 2013] have reported a decreasing trend in the global number of tropical cyclones and/or the globally accumulated cyclonic energy. It reports low confidence in trends in tropical cyclone numbers. Evidence on the number of strong hurricanes is reported as contradictory, and model simulations of the historical period have not produced anthropologically induced trends in intense tropical cyclones. Therefore, there is low confidence that the number of very intense cyclones is increasing globally.

There are many other reasons to be skeptical of environmental reporting, and even climate science. Climate scientists have been caught deleting raw data about the temperature record, which ensures that their subsequent adjustments cannot be independently verified. They’ve been caught hiding contradictions between historical proxy data and the instrumental temperature record. They’ve been caught with extremely messy code, which even contains a “fudge factor” to make the data better suit the narrative. Investigations into these allegations were nothing more than whitewashes by panels that unanimously agreed with, and were invested in, the notion of catastrophic anthropogenic climate change.

There is significant controversy over Michael E. Mann’s “hockey stick” graph, adopted by the IPCC, since his method produces a hockey stick even with random data. There is also controversy over temperature adjustments, which appear to continually make the past cooler and the present warmer. There is a reason to believe there are significant discrepancies between what science knows and what the IPCC says, as former geography professor Dr Tim Ball explains in a recent article. There are questions about how the 16-year “global warming hiatus” up to 2012, which was widely acknowledged at the time, seems to have disappeared from the latest temperature records.

These may not be reasons to deny climate change exists, or that human activity has an effect on climate, but they are reasons for journalists to remain skeptical and hold scientists to account.

Even once you accept the basic science, however, the entirety of the climate crisis narrative depends not on observed facts, but on the projections of numerous computer models — the same kinds of computer models that try to predict economic growth, stock market moves, consumer behaviour, and next week’s weather.

Predictions are not scientific fact. They are the results of simulations that are built on data of questionable reliability, processes that are incompletely modelled or not even understood, and assumptions that may or may not be justified.

Water vapour is by far the dominant greenhouse gas in the atmosphere, yet climate models do not account in any detail for complex factors that affect climate such as cloud formation.

The sensitivity of climate to atmospheric carbon dioxide is based on a complex set of assumptions, and small errors in any of them can cause large divergences in the outcomes. This makes climate sensitivity a very uncertain number, with error bars that rival its magnitude. In turn, this makes climate predictions highly uncertain.

This isn’t just my own, untrained, opinion. “Fundamental puzzles of climate science remain unsolved because of our limited understanding of how clouds, circulation and climate interact,” wrote Sandrine Bony, et al., in a recent perspective in Nature Geoscience.

Uncertainties in projections of future climate change have not lessened substantially in past decades,” wrote Gerard Roe and Marcia Baker in the journal Science.

Equilibrium climate sensitivity (ECS) remains one of the most important unknowns in climate change science. ECS is defined as the global mean warming that would occur if the atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration were instantly doubled and the climate were then brought to equilibrium with that new level of CO2,” wrote Peter Cox, et al., in the journal Nature in 2018.

The consensus on the ‘likely’ range for climate sensitivity of 1.5 °C to 4.5 °C today is the same as given by Jule Charney in 1979,” wrote Reto Knutti, et al., in Nature Geoscience in 2017.

But don’t 97% of climate scientists agree that human CO2 emissions are the dominant contributor to climate change, and that this will have catastrophic consequences for the planet?

First, it should be noted that a consensus is not a meaningful measure of scientific truth. Even long-standing “facts” which most scientists believe, such as that 85% of our universe consists of dark matter as predicted by Newton’s theories and Einstein’s theory of general relativity, can be overturned by new theories.

The origin of the 97% claim is from a 2009 survey by Peter Doran and Maggie Zimmerman, in which 96.2% of actively publishing climate scientists (a subset of only 77 scientists, or 0.7%, of the total survey population) agreed with the statement that mean global temperatures have generally risen since pre-1800 levels, and 97.4% agreed that human activity is a significant contributor to changing mean global temperatures. I agree with both statements, so I’m part of that 97%.

The first is not a major point of dispute. By comparison with the cold conditions of the “Little Ice Age” between 1600 and 1800, it stands to reason that modern temperatures are warmer. The real question is how much it has risen since industrialisation began to make a meaningful impact around the time of World War II, and how dangerous that warming is?

It is also not controversial that human activity can influence temperature. It is well-established that particulate emissions, for example, lowered global temperature between 1940 and 1970.

The important questions, which the survey did not ask, and on which the science is far from certain, are how humans are influencing the climate, by how much, whether carbon dioxide emissions are a dominant factor today, and whether the warming it is causing will have more harmful consequences and benign ones? (And there are benign consequences, such as the significant greening of the planet, particularly in warm, arid environments.)

In 2013, John Cook, et al., published a new paper purporting to “quantify the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature”. Their question was even more simplistic.

To quote Cook himself: “Okay, so we’ve ruled out a definition of AGW [anthropogenic, or human-caused, global warming] being ‘any amount of human influence’ or ‘more than 50% human influence’. We’re basically going with Ari’s porno approach (I probably should stop calling it that) which is AGW = ‘humans are causing global warming’. Eg — no specific quantification which is the only way we can do it considering the breadth of papers we’re surveying.”

Almost all climate scientists, including those that are skeptical about temperature records, skeptical about climate sensitivity to CO2, skeptical about the dominance of human contribution, skeptical of climate model predictions, skeptical of extreme weather attribution to climate change, and skeptical of the catastrophic view of global warming, would agree with that statement. So do I. And that was Cook’s goal: to make it look like there is nothing further to discuss.

Mike Hulme, professor of climate change at the University of East Anglia, which maintains one of the world’s three major temperature records, said that the Cook paper simplistically divided scientists into “believers” and “non-believers”. His critique was scathing: “The ‘97% consensus’ article is poorly conceived, poorly designed and poorly executed. It obscures the complexities of the climate issue and it is a sign of the desperately poor level of public and policy debate in this country that the energy minister should cite it.”

The true extent of the consensus, which can be reconstructed from Cook’s own data, is very different. Two-thirds of the peer-reviewed climate papers Cook rated did not express any view at all. Of the papers that did, a majority indeed implicitly or explicitly accepted Cook’s simplistic definition of global warming, but only 1.6% stated that humans are its dominant cause. Whether they also thought climate change might have catastrophic consequences was not tested at all.

I repeat: only 1.6% of climate papers that took a position (and only 0.7% if you count those that didn’t take a position) said that humans are the dominant cause of modern climate change. This is a far cry from the supposed 97% consensus that alarmists like Cook want the media, politicians and the general population to believe.

Joubert makes much of how “the climate denial movement was being funded by pro-fossil fuel lobbyists”. Yet her source for this claim actually says that the origin of 75% of the funding of organisations that dispute the catastrophic anthropogenic global warming narrative is unidentifiable. That might be suggestive, suspicious even, but it is not proof.

And even if her claim were true, it does not automatically invalidate their arguments. It is perfectly reasonable for private individuals or companies to invest in research and advocacy that furthers their own interests.

She neglects to note that the green alarmism movement is also all about the money, and is even funded in part by fossil fuel companies, again, to further their own interests.

As climate scientist William Briggs observes: “Global warming alarmism is big business. On one side you have Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, The Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund, Environmental Defense Fund, The Climate Project and dozens upon dozens of other non-governmental organizations who solicit hundreds of millions from private donors and from government, and who in turn award lucrative grants to further their agenda.

You also have the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Health, the Departments of Commerce and Agriculture, both Houses of Congress and many more government agencies, spraying global warming money at anything that moves and at staggering rates — billions of dollars.”

There are also innumerable “green technology” companies, from solar and wind energy manufacturers, to battery makers and electric car companies, to lithium miners and biofuel farmers, that benefit handsomely from climate alarmism, and donate freely to the groups that will advance their marketing shtick. There is arguably more money in green alarmism than there is in skepticism.

That doesn’t make their arguments wrong, either, but contrary to Joubert’s opinion, journalists are supposed to acknowledge both sides of an argument, and ought to be able to judge research or advocacy on its own merits.

To quote a 1997 article in The Economist that had a big impact on my view of the world: “You can be in favour of the environment without being a pessimist. There ought to be room in the environmental movement for those who think that technology and economic freedom will make the world cleaner and will also take the pressure off endangered species. But at the moment such optimists are distinctly unwelcome among environmentalists… Environmentalists are quick to accuse their opponents in business of having vested interests. But their own incomes, their advancement, their fame and their very existence can depend on supporting the most alarming versions of every environmental scare. ‘The whole aim of practical politics’, said HL Mencken, ‘is to keep the populace alarmed — and hence clamorous to be led to safety — by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary’.”

Joubert’s article is an attempt to move the Overton Window, the range of ideas tolerated in public discourse, to exclude not only those who dare critique some of the science of climate change and try to hold climate scientists and the governments that fund them accountable, but also those who doubt the apocalyptic hysteria of climate activists, and those who don’t believe solutions to climate change are incompatible with the free-market capitalism that has brought so much progress and prosperity to the world.

Trying to silence those who question shoddy science is as unnecessary as it is undesirable. The scientific method actually relies on attempts to disprove scientific claims. Science can defend itself.

Trying to silence those who warn the public against exaggerated fear-mongering, in the hope of saving them from expensive boondoggles that proponents claim will allay those fears, do the public a great disservice.

Trying to silence those who disagree with your economics and politics is, to use her words, “ethically problematic”. Passing your economic and political convictions off as scientific fact is “intellectually dishonest”.

It’s no wonder that critical thinking is a dying art. DM

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