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Does the press adhere to a 'rigid editorial agenda'?

THE QUESTION: It is accepted that man's carbon dioxide emissions are causing an amount of warming of the climate. However, the magnitude of any future warming is highly uncertain. The Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change acknowledges that its understanding of a number of key natural climate drivers and feedbacks is ''low'' or ''very low''. Why is it, therefore, that the Fairfax press is reluctant to engage with and investigate this uncertainty with an open-minded impartiality, and instead continues to publish articles based on a rigid editorial agenda that 'the science is settled'?
-SIMON JAMES

UNCERTAINTIES abound in climate science. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's Working Group I, which looked at the factors driving climate change, acknowledged in almost every chapter of its 2007 report that there were gaps in the scientific knowledge.

Not least of these is the range of possible temperature increases that climate scientists predict by the end of the century - anywhere between 1 and 6 degrees Celsius.

'The Climate Agenda' was a partnership between <i>The Sunday Age</i> and website Oursay.org that allowed readers to vote for the 10 questions they wanted the paper to answer. For more information and previous stories, see www.theage.com.au/national/climate-agenda.

What Australia's papers say about climate change.

Simon James, a blogger from website Australian Climate Madness, wants to know why Fairfax Media - owner of The Age, The Sunday Age, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Sun-Herald and The Australian Financial Review - does not pay more attention to these uncertainties.

As a starting point, it's useful to know how much of the science is clear, and how much remains unsettled.

The IPCC was set up in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organisation and the United Nations Environment Program to collect and scrutinise climate change publications from around the globe and recommend action to world governments.

Illustration: Matt Golding.

Illustration: Matt Golding.

But despite the endeavours of its 1250 scientific authors and 2500 peer reviewers over four reports - from 1990 to 2007 - the panel still has ''low'' or ''very low'' certainty about a number of the drivers of climate change. When it measures uncertainty, the panel looks at both the scientific evidence, and also the consensus among scientists about the evidence. If either of these measures is low, then the IPCC flags an uncertainty.

In its most recent report, in 2007, the impact on climate change of clouds, snow, aircraft vapour trails, the ash, soot and chemicals from volcanoes, water vapour, cosmic rays and the ''surface effects'' of vegetation, buildings and other things occupying land space, were all considered uncertain. There were further doubts about the history of the changing climate and the growth and shrinkage of ice sheets in the past. A key problem remains working out how the Atlantic Ocean currents might react to climate change, because if they change rapidly it could constitute a ''tipping point'' - something that makes climate change faster and more catastrophic - and, paradoxically, lead to a deep freeze in northern Europe.

The working group also admitted that ''it is not possible to satisfactorily quantify the known processes causing sea level rise'' over the past 50 years. More doubt remains about how a warmer world will change the climate in different global regions, particularly their rainfall (temperature is more easily predicted), because computer modelling simply cannot predict these smaller regional changes. Australia, for example, is expected to become hotter and drier in the south and hotter and wetter in the northern wet season. But how climate change will interact with the El Nino and La Nina weather systems (which dominate our natural climate variations) is impossible to tell.

With such doubt, why do Fairfax newspapers make comments like this (in an editorial in The Age)?: ''There is now little chance of containing global warming within the 'guardrail' [of 2 degrees] that most scientists believe is necessary to avoid catastrophic climate change … failure to keep temperature rises within the guardrail raises the prospect of a 4 degree rise by as early as 2060, causing widespread droughts and desertification, coastal flooding with the dislocation of millions of people, dwindling food supplies because of the loss of agricultural land, and the extinction of many species''.

The reason, says Sydney Morning Herald editor-in-chief Peter Fray, is that the uncertainties are not sufficient to undermine the main conclusions of the science. ''The IPCC … may still be investigating the natural drivers of climate change but that is not the same as saying climate change does not exist or the science is in doubt,'' he said.

Climate scientist Professor Roger Jones of Victoria University supported this analysis.

''How greenhouse gases influence the energy balance of the global climate is very well understood,'' he said. ''We know the climate is warming now and that continued warming this century is virtually certain. What we are not so certain about is … how these changes are transferred through the climate system - how it is distributed between the atmosphere and the ocean, for instance. We're getting the rough amount right, even if we're not always getting the process right.''

The IPCC reflected this in its synthesis report in 2007: ''Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice and rising global average sea level.''

The science says warming is caused by ''radiative forcing'', where more of the sun's energy is trapped in the earth's atmosphere by the growing concentration of greenhouse gases, notably carbon dioxide, that human beings are pumping out by burning fossil fuels, keeping cattle and so on.

Climate change theory was first demonstrated in the 1800s and measurements recorded by the IPCC show the planet warmed from an average temperature of about 13.5 to 14.5 degrees between 1850 and 2000, sea levels have risen by about 195 millimetres and northern hemisphere snow cover has fallen by about 3 million square kilometres since 1920. They predict that these changes will accelerate.

These conclusions - both the level of future warming and its causes - remain contested in politics, among bloggers and a minority of scientists, but are reinforced by a large majority of scientists using climate models and real world observations.

''We can establish that humanity faces serious risks … and not to inform people of these risks would be negligent. And that's the key,'' says Professor Jones.

The Fairfax press (along with News Ltd newspapers such as the Herald Sun and The Australian, officially at least) subscribe to this position.

But the editors of the Fairfax papers deny they have a ''rigid editorial agenda''.

''In editorials we have accepted the views of the IPCC, just as we would have accepted the peer reviewed work of a [Sir Isaac] Newton or [Michael] Faraday,'' Fray said. ''[But] we have reported, for instance, the Climategate leaks saga and we have often reported alternative or sceptical views about climate science.''

Climategate refers to the 2009 hacking of computers at the University of East Anglia before the Copenhagen climate summit. Climate sceptics asserted that the emails proved scientists were manipulating the figures, hiding uncertainty and suppressing criticism. Independent reviews have since cleared them of wrongdoing.

Age editor-in-chief Paul Ramadge said the newspaper had published ''a range of opinions on the IPCC and the issue of scientific uncertainty'' in its news reporting, and had also reported on the ''divisions in the scientific community''. ''It's important to understand that The Age's editorial opinion is separate to … our reporting."

Sunday Age editor Gay Alcorn said the paper had ''broadly accepted the IPCC's conclusions on the realities of climate change and the need for action''.

And Australian Financial Review editor Paul Bailey said ''we don't believe there is or has ever been, a Fairfax line on climate change''.

The climate scientists most quoted by sceptics in Australia are retired academic geologist Professor Bob Carter, and Adelaide University geologist Ian Plimer. Internationally, sceptics look to climatologist Dr Roy Spencer, of the University of Alabama, and atmospheric physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Dr Richard Lindzen.

They argue that conventional science has vastly overestimated the sensitivity of the climate to human factors, and also other factors which might amplify and accelerate warming.

They say clouds and water vapour in the atmosphere absorb solar radiation so, as the earth heats and produces more evaporation and therefore more clouds, these will act as a naturally correcting mechanism to help limit warming to 1 degree by the end of the century.

The IPCC, however, says temperature increases are ''very likely'' to be in the range 2 to 4.5 degrees, with a best estimate of 3 degrees. Professor Jones says only a few scientists agree with Spencer and Lindzen, and that their work has been refuted in the scientific literature.

A 2009 paper by Peter Doran and Maggie Kendall Zimmerman, of the University of Illinois, found 96 per cent of scientists agreed with the proposition that temperatures are rising and it is caused by human activity.

Sceptics do get some coverage in the mainstream press, including Fairfax newspapers, although their voice is outweighed. Lindzen has been given a hearing by Fairfax 33 times in its news and opinion pages since 1991, with coverage both positive and negative. Spencer has attracted far fewer mentions, with five since 2000, and the coverage mainly negative. Plimer and Carter have had much more attention as prominent Australian sceptical scientists.

But Fairfax editorials are clear in their support of the climate change consensus. No Fairfax newspaper, contrary to the premise of the question, has used the phrase ''science is settled'' in its editorials. That phrase, it seems, is almost exclusively used by sceptical scientists or commentators trying to discredit the other side.

News Ltd newspapers - perhaps driven by the opinion of owner Rupert Murdoch in 2006 that ''the planet deserves the benefit of the doubt'' - also officially accept the consensus, but put much more emphasis on doubt and uncertainty.

But it's not only editorial opinions that carry the weight of a newspaper's attitudes to a topic. Their news judgments, the way stories are presented and the opinion articles commissioned from experts or contributors also add to the flavour.

In his Quarterly Essay critique of The Australian, academic Robert Manne read almost seven years worth of news and opinion articles in the national newspaper and discovered that, of the 880 articles printed, just 180 were ''favourable to climate change action and 700 unfavourable'' - a four-to-one difference. On the newspaper's opinion pages alone, the sceptics outnumber the ''consensus'' 10 to one, he found.

But while sceptics attack the media for giving too little credence to their point of view, others accuse journalists of giving the sceptics too much space.

University of NSW climate scientist Andy Pitman believes that, far from overstating the scientific consensus, newspapers generally understate it. ''All [media] provide too much discussion of views that suggest there is a negligible problem while science has long since resolved this question to a level of certainty unparalleled in almost any other field.''

It's a hazard of trying to provide a balanced portrayal of an argument. But where there are genuine uncertainties, the media should cover it. A survey of Fairfax's coverage of climate change since 1990 shows many mentions of uncertainty in IPCC science, but a much heavier emphasis on the predictions of the harm of climate change. Part of the reason for this is that the sceptics emphasise uncertainty as a way of trying to undermine the science as a whole.

Sunday Age editor Gay Alcorn acknowledged that coverage of climate change in Australia could be improved. ''As far as I know, we have never done a detailed story before about what the uncertainties around the science actually are. It is one of the reasons why debate on climate change can get so fraught so quickly. It is a complex subject and the reporting in Australia has at times lacked depth and context.''

With DEBORAH GOUGH