The Colour Purple

10

Media Matters has analysed media coverage in the US media of climate change in recent years and found, in spite of record temperatures and droughts etc, that coverage was actually declining. Furthermore, even when climate change was mentioned, the vast majority of those interviewed were Republican climate change deniers, with actual climate scientists rarely if ever interviewed. I don’t know if a similar study has been done recently in Australia, although there are studies of the abysmal News Ltd newspapers coverage, but it is absolutely clear that similar, if not worse, statistics would apply. I’m looking here a one particular Australian case which probably has relevance everywhere.

The record high temperatures in Australia this week, followed by devastating bushfires, were an obvious “teachable moment” for the media to join the dots for the public. This is what climate scientists have been predicting, this is what happened, this is what the future holds. Instead there was again a studious silence. It was as if there was no such thing as climate change, as if (like the America drought last year) these things were happening by chance in some world in which nothing else had changed.

Here is a recent example from Australia’s national broadcaster the ABC. Some background. The “7.30 Report” is a relatively serious current affair program, immediately following the main evening news bulletin, and often expanding on the main stories from the news. On the 8 January, as temperatures soared and fires raged, a great deal of the News Bulletin was devoted to those events, and then the 7.30 Report devoted the whole program to them.

None of the news items mentioned climate change, nor did the 7.30 Report in its first half, to my increasing frustration and yelling at the tv set. Then came an interview with “Alasdair Hainsworth from the Bureau of Meteorology”. The presenter, Ben Knight, introduced the segment by noting temperature records, and then noting that the Bureau had been forced to add more colours, black and purple, to its temperature maps to cope with the new high records. Extraordinary, right, and the obvious time to have a discussion about climate change, and indeed Mr Knight began the interview with the question “why are we in this situation where Australia is breaking these temperature records?”

Yes, I thought, here comes a decent climate change discussion at last. But I was wrong. Whether by design, or because that was the way the meteorologist interpreted the question, we immediately moved into a routine that has become very familiar. The ABC (and other networks) when it asks about the cause of events, means only the proximate cause, not the ultimate one. By this means, turning climate discussions into discussions about weather, every time, it avoids every opportunity to talk climate change. And so it was yet again, Mr Hainsworh talking about the trapping of heat on the continent, lack of cloud and moisture, delay in monsoon season and so on. Now, fair enough, this seems to be Mr Hainsworth’s area of expertise (a manager, Assistant Director Services, a meteorologist involved in IT systems and so on, his team recently won an award for “Our Next Generation Forecast and Warning System was highly commended at the Comcover Awards for Excellence in Risk Management in March 2012. These awards recognise exceptional and inspiring leadership in the management of risks faced by Commonwealth Government agencies. The judging panel recognised that the system improved our ability to manage and inform the community about severe weather events, including severe thunderstorms and flash flooding. These events present a significant risk to the safety of the Australian community”). But that being the case, why was he asked to appear? Well, apparently because he is responsible for the area that had to put new colours on the map. OK, now we have an another opportunity to talk climate change.

And here we go, the conversation proceeding as follows:

“BEN KNIGHT: It’s always a difficult question but how much of an aberration is this or does this actually fit into this pattern we’ve seen over the past decades where it’s been progressively getting hotter and hotter?
ALASDAIR HAINSWORTH: Certainly I can comment that this has broken the record as the hottest period. We’ve had six days in a row where the national average maximum temperature has been in excess of 39 degrees. The previous record was four days and we’ve also seen the hottest average day in Australia which was Monday and perhaps it could have been broken again today, although it’s somewhat cooler in Tasmania today. So, that may not be the case. Certainly it’s almost unprecedented as far as records are concerned.
BEN KNIGHT: And you now have this really quite interesting situation where Australian temperature maps have actually had to change because previously they only went up to 50 degrees, we’re now seeing that you’ve got an extra couple of gradings in purple and black to show temperatures which go beyond 50 degrees and indeed on Sunday and Monday in parts of Australia are forecast to do just that?
ALASDAIR HAINSWORTH: Yes, that’s right. The charts previously did go above 50 degrees, our models certainly were picking temperatures above 50 degrees but they were, it was showing up as white and so we decided that we would alter the temperature scale to ensure it showed it properly and we’ve added the extra two gradations which take the temperatures up to between 52 and 54 degrees Celsius.
At this stage we’ve only seen the first gradation, which is between 50 and 52 populated but yeah, it’s certainly extraordinarily hot over South Australia and central Australia and unfortunately it does appear as though it’s going to, it’s set to continue.
BEN KNIGHT: Do you think we are seeing a new reality, a new paradigm?
ALASDAIR HAINSWORTH: Well, as far as the models are concerned then yes. We haven’t seen these temperatures before but by the same token our computer modelling is getting better, it’s getting more accurate, it’s getting higher resolution. So it could be a combination of these factors which in actual fact just means that it’s actually modelling these things better, that it may not necessarily mean that they haven’t happened before but it’s simply that we haven’t been able to model it before.”

Now I had to not only listen to this extraordinary exchange, but read it several times, to try to make sense of it. I think we have here not really a conspiracy of silence, as it were, but more a combination of circumstances resulting in the same outcome. Mr Hainsworth, I’m guessing, is there because the ABC researcher rang the BOM and said we want to do an interview about this heatwave and about the altering of the weather map parameters could you put us on to one of your people to interview please? And the BOM public relations person has said, oh, you want Mr Hainsworth, his area is responsible for the map. So there we are. Mr Hainsworth is there to talk about the map (and is in any case not a climatologist), Mr Knight is there to talk about record-breaking hot weather (although I am guessing he is also under some kind of ABC protocol that doesn’t let him use the phrase “climate change”).

So, potential cross-purposes established, we start this part of the interview. Mr Knight tries to ask whether this hot weather is the result of the changing climate (without using the term, instead going for the euphemism “past decades where it’s been progressively getting hotter and hotter”) or is some kind of “freak event” as it were. Mr Hainsworth is there to talk about hot weather events, and about his map which reports them, so he does. The map and nothing but the map.

Mr Knight, perhaps hoping that although he can’t mention climate change, perhaps he can get his interviewee to do so (again, I am guessing that an ABC protocol may specify this) tries again with a different euphemism. Are we, he asks “seeing a new reality, a new paradigm?” Knight (again I’m guessing) hears his own question as “come on Buddy, talk about climate change FFS, ‘new paradigm’, get it?”. Hainsworth, having been invited on to talk about his map, hears “how did you construct your wonderful new map on your computer, what were the computer paradigms?” and answers accordingly, yes indeed, our computers are bigger and better so the maps are getting better. Or perhaps I am being too kind.

Whatever, the outcome is that extraordinary weather, a clear prediction of climate science, and obvious further evidence that the planet is warming, are both apparently “discussed” in serious tv programs on the national public broadcaster without climate change ever being mentioned. Furthermore the guest manages (I think unintentionally) to suggest that all of this could be just some kind of computer modelling glitch and we aren’t really getting hotter at all. In any case, it’s all because of some odd combination of weather circumstances. (It’s worth noting that the Bureau of Meteorology has apparently issued a statement I can’t find that “Clearly the climate system is responding to the background warming trend”. Which is fine but too mild, and as far as I know was little reported if at all).

Now, if I were to complain to the ABC about this, I would be met with incredulity. “What are you talking about? We talked about the map and got the senior person from the BOM responsible for it to talk about it. What more do you want?” And, at one level, fair enough. But at another level, why not get a climate scientist on? Why not mention climate change by name even once in half an hour of news and current affairs tv?

The next day, by contrast, the media was full of the statements by Warren Truss, leader of the Right Wing National Party and future Deputy Prime Minister in a conservative government. No problems with euphemisms, or being cautious for Mr Truss. He announced that linking heatwaves and record temperatures and bushfires with climate change was “utterly simplistic”. He went on to say that “carbon dioxide emissions from bushfires over the past week would eclipse those from coal-fired power stations for decades. Indeed I guess there’ll be more CO2 emissions from these fires than there will be from coal-fired power stations for decades”. It hardly needs saying that Mr Truss has done no research in climate science, has done no postgraduate degree in the subject, and in fact has no undergraduate qualification of any kind. He began work as a farmer, then went into politics.

It also hardly needs saying that his CO2 from bushfires comment is mind-numbingly wrong. “bushfires this year have emitted an amount of CO2 equivalent to 2% of Australia’s annual emissions from coal-fired power. The current bushfires must burn an area of forest greater than Tasmania to generate CO2 emissions equivalent to a year of burning coal for electricity. And the current bushfires must burn an area of forest the size of New South Wales to generate CO2 emissions equivalent to a decade of burning coal for electricity.” In addition of course, the CO2 from bushfires will be reabsorbed as burnt trees regrow, so, unlike coal power stations, there is no net gain of CO2 from bushfires at all. Again, to my knowledge, there was no fact checking of Mr Truss on tv when he was interviewed, or subsequently. Certainly there was none, nor any contrary view in the News Ltd paper report I saw.

So Climate Change denialists, Right Wing politicians, are able to make any outrageous nonsense claim (Mr Truss also said “‘I’m told it’s minus one in Mt Wellington at the present time in Tasmania. Hobart’s expecting a maximum of 16. Australia’s climate, it’s changing, it’s changeable. We have hot times, we have cold times… “!) they like and it will be hyped up by the media (big headline in the Herald-Sun “Climate change link to heatwave, bushfires ‘utterly simplistic’, says Warren Truss”). Conversely, it seems, any situation in which the reality of climate change might by chance become obvious to the public is played down, or structured in such a way as to avoid the possibility of information transfer to public ears.

It has so far proved impossible to get past the media who are guarding the gate against any possibility of action on climate change. The time has come for more direct action, more big claims, like those of Truss but based on reality not fantasy. Aim to generate headlines in spite of the media. And every time you get a chance at an appearance on tv or anywhere else in the media, keep saying “climate change” over and over. The time for being shy, unobtrusive, in the climate change closet, is over, the time has come for purple prose to go with the new purple patches on the map.