The climate of opinion at The Australian

Published 11 December 2010, in The Australian

The Australian is undoubtedly the most serious newspaper in Australia and its record on climate change matters because of this. More importantly, its stance matters because of the civilisational challenge which climate change presents to Australia and the world.

This was recognized by the CEO of News Corporation, Rupert Murdoch who warned in 2007 that climate change posed 'clear catastrophic threats'. Mr Murdoch also pledged that News Corporation would 'weave this issue into our content' and 'tell the story in a new way'.

I happen to agree with Mr Murdoch description of the seriousness of the threat. But there is a puzzle. In recent years The Australian campaigned in favour of objective facts in the teaching of Australian history against 'political' interpretations. By contrast, its attitude to the science of climate change has zig zagged from a grudging acceptance of the facts to simple denial and back again. In all modes, its stance is invariably dominated by old ideological obsessions that are tangential to this profound issue.

Last weekend, The Australian's new environment editor, Graham Lloyd, defended his newspaper's stance on climate change. It is healthy for a newspaper to publicly debate its stance on such an issue but Graham Lloyd's article was highly selective and, I believe, misleading.

Graham Lloyd argues that there has been a 'longstanding misrepresentation of this newspaper's editorial position on climate science and its longstanding support for a global response to limit greenhouse gas emissions'.

Really? How longstanding? Editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell told Crikey last week that 'for several years the paper has accepted man-made climate change as fact'. 'Several years' is hardly longstanding. But Chris Mitchell's statement is also disingenuous because it omits vital facts.

As Graham Lloyd showed, it is possible to find editorials in 1997 in The Australian under then editor-in-chief David Armstrong which accept the science on climate change. But after that period, The Australian took a different direction. This is paradoxical. As the scientific evidence for climate change strengthened, the newspaper's attitude went in the opposite direction.

At the beginning of 2006 an editorial agreed that the world was warming but claimed 'no-one knows ... why it is happening' (14 January 2006). At the same time the newspaper described itself as 'healthily sceptical about the possible causes of and solutions to global warming' (4-5 Nov 2006). No wonder Mitchell confined himself to the phrase 'several years'.

A couple of months after this, an editorial made the extraordinary suggestion that 'the real debate on climate change is only now getting started'. The editorial's contribution to this debate was to disparage the latest IPCC report and proffer the long discarded sceptical claim that there was 'a link between cyclical sunspot activity and the climate here on earth'.

Shortly after its 'sunspot' editorial, The Australian splashed a major feature article ('Rebels of the Sun', 17-18 March 2007) recycling this discredited theory and lamenting that the debate 'has become increasingly stifling and intolerant to dissenting voices', and citing fossil industry-funded sceptics and attacking Al Gore.

For many years The Australian has been unable to see climate issues except through a distorted ideological lens. For example, an editorial on 14 January 2006 argued that the environment movement was about 'more theology than meteorology' and '[S]upport for Kyoto cloaks the green movement's real desire - to see capitalism stop succeeding'.

Later, an editorial accused 'deep green Luddites' of believing that 'the only way to avert the coming apocalypse is to close down all the power plants, take all cars off the road and return to a pre-industrial Arcadia' (8 June 2007). Graham Lloyd's article ignores these embarrassing editorials.

He also fails to mention that just before the 2007 election an editorial characterized an environmental approach as wanting to 'transform the nation into a wind-powered, mung bean-eating Arcadia' (27 Oct 2007). This kind of unrestrained invective suggested that the newspaper itself could be accused of hysteria and alarmism, a charge it regularly threw at those who disagreed with it.

Such rhetoric meant that genuine debate on climate in the pages of The Australian was simply not possible. The newspaper continually framed the debate as one between, on the one hand, sensible sceptics and, on the other, 'deep green Luddites'. By implication, the political and business leaders of Europe, plus Al Gore and Tony Blair, were in the latter category.

A newspapers' columnists have access to valuable journalistic real estate under the sponsorship of the editor. The lack of a single regular columnist who warned about climate change in the last ten years is remarkable. Instead, The Australian's columnists have repeated the dominant editorial line of the newspaper.

The economics editor, Alan Wood, over many years, characterized concern about climate change as 'green hysteria'. Another columnist, Alan Oxley chaired the APEC Study Centre which sponsored a conference of fossil fuel companies and climate deniers in Canberra in 2005 (5 April 2005). At the conference, he said, 'Leading scientists also explained how the science on which Kyoto is based was unraveling and argued that the cataclysmic threat of global warming is oversold.'

Shortly afterward Oxley argued, 'There is no reasonable certainty that increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide from human activity cause significant global warming.' (2 August 2005).

When the Howard government began to acknowledge that carbon emissions were linked to dangerous climate change, another columnist, Christopher Pearson, said he felt 'bitter disappointment' about curbs on 'what will turnout to be, in all probability, a perfectly harmless gas' (18 November 2006). Unsurprisingly, this column, as with many others from The Australian, was recycled on denialist websites around the world.

Graham Lloyd reports that The Australian has defended the right of climate sceptics 'to have a voice'. This is curious. Does it defend the right of tobacco sceptics 'to have a voice'? Of course not, for the simple reason that all intelligent people recognised long ago that such 'sceptics' were fronts for the tobacco industry and that the medical science of smoking was settled.

On climate issues The Australian still gives voice to a global PR campaign largely originated by the oil and coal companies of the United States. On this score genuinely sceptical journalism is missing in action. Instead, an ideological sympathy with climate sceptics has been concealed behind a fig leaf of 'balance'.

But what shines through in the attitude of The Australian is its lack of intellectual and moral seriousness in dealing with the consequences of climate change. Climate issues are always taken as an opportunity for cheap shots about what The Australian calls 'the Left' or 'deep greens'. This attitude stands in stark contrast to the deep seriousness of the newspaper's endlessly re-affirmed belief in free markets, competition and privatisation.

The Australian's editorials and columns on climate change raise questions about its own standards of evidence. For example, the newspaper never questioned the 'evidence' cobbled together to confirm Iraq's possession of weapons mass destruction. This was deemed adequate enough to support an invasion at a terrible cost in lives.

But the overwhelming evidence on climate change accumulated over more than 25 years by the best minds in the field, was dismissed for many years by The Australian and is now only grudgingly accepted. This is what alarms many of Australia's leading climate scientists.

The challenge posed by climate change to our economy and society is profound. Most Australian political leaders who are locked into the 24 hour news cycle see it as merely 'another issue'. For a long time The Australian has characterized climate change as an issue with a political, not scientific basis. It bears some responsibility for the impasse we have reached as a nation.

The role of a serious national newspaper is to give leadership on such issues. It could do this by asking hard questions on the future of the coal industry and on Mr Abbott's comment that the science is 'absolute crap'. This is especially so given that climate change poses 'clear catastrophic threats'. On that score, I'm with Rupert.