Yesterday’s Canberra Times carried a story from Associated Press about the apparent conversion of a climate scientist, Richard Muller, who was once sceptical (by his own account) of anthropogenic global warming, hereafter AGW, but is now convinced the other way. He wrote an op ed piece in the New York Times last week saying so. Our paper headlined the story ‘It’s real: prominent climate-change denier changes mind’, and thereby illustrated, to me at least, what is wrong with the whole business of AGW in the media.
To begin, Muller, to the best of my knowledge, has never called himself a ‘climate-change denier’. That phrase is a fatuous one. It is code used by the orthodox for someone who is not persuaded that human beings have brought about a discernible increase in the temperature of the earth, and it employs a link to the Holocaust (which had its deniers) to demonise such benighted people. Muller called himself (once or twice) a ‘sceptic’. That is a very different thing. I too am a sceptic, and remain one, for good reason. No one I know denies that climate changes — or that climates change. The Canberra Times headline amounts to a smear, and is unwarranted. ‘The word ‘denier’ has no place in discussions about global warming. Whether or not the planet has been warming, and over what period, and why, are issues of fact and measurement, not of denunciation.
Second, the story carries no research on the part of the original author (one Neela Banerjee). She quotes a par or two from Muller’s article, and then quotes Michael Mann of Pennsylvania State, perhaps the most notorious proponent of AGW, in support of Muller. No sceptic, and there are plenty of them, seems to have been asked for a comment. There is no reference to Muller’s actual work, which first appeared some months ago. So the story is piece of orthodoxy, devoid of any investigation. A claim has been made, and the point of the story is that the claim has been made by someone who has changed his mind.
Third, Muller’s actual work, arising out of the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature (BEST) project, which analysed temperature data from thermometers on land, is easily accessible, and is important. But it does not support the claims made in the article. The land surface of the planet amounts to about 30 per cent, the remainder being ocean. One cannot conclude that global warming is real and that humans are responsible for it when 70 per cent of the globe has not been included.
Fourth, none of Muller’s BEST work deals with the question of attribution — that is, even if the globe has warmed, to what extent is human activity responsible? Yes, Muller says that ‘it appears likely’ that this is so, but this is simply an assertion on his part, and his thinking so cannot be based on his data, which simply record changes in temperature over time.
Fifth, there have been serious critiques of Muller’s work, and only a day or so ago a new study of much the same temperature data, by an international team that include Anthony Watts, the most long-standing critic of the validity and reliability of the temperature measurements themselves, has reached opposite conclusions. R. A. Pielke senior (yes, there is a junior, too, and he is also a well-credentialled scholar with an interest in AGW) greatly prefers the results of the Watts team to those of the Muller team. Judith Curry, yet another excellent scientist who is sceptical of AGW but was a member of the Muller team, has devoted an issue on her website to the controversy. All of this is accessible in 30 seconds. None of it is mentioned in the article.
I wrote, in an earlier article here about the reporting of what is actually happening on the Great Barrier Reef, that the Canberra Times, like most newspapers today, is struggling to deal with the pressures of competing news sources, high costs and a worrying future. It no longer has an environmental writer, and is reduced to simply copying pieces from other papers or the wire services. As it happens, in my judgment its environmental writer was also a believer in the AGW orthodoxy, and the outcome might not have been very different.
But we rely on newspapers, and on the ABC, for a reliable and accurate account of what is going on in the world around us. Articles like this one not only do not help — they make things worse, because the ordinary reader accepts such a piece at face value. No one should do so: this one is shoddy, misleading and tendentious.
My criticism may seem harsh, but the AGW proposition is a central item in today’s politics. Along with ‘the boats’ it is a key division between the Government and the Opposition, the source of the carbon tax, and what Kevin Rudd once called the greatest moral issue facing humanity — or words to that effect. On something so important, I expect a good newspaper, one of ‘record’, which the Canberra Times has always had claims to be, to make its news items as accurate and impartial as possible.
The paradox is, of course, that reducing staff is likely to result in more copying from elsewhere, and less editorial inspection of whether or not a given story is factual, accurate and unbiassed. And that, in my judgement, will lead to more people feeling that they cannot rely on their daily newspaper, and why buy it.