The Colour Purple


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.

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10 comments on “The Colour Purple

  1. Keith Woolsey says:

    Trouble with the likes of Truss is he will be long gone by 2050, so doesn’t care and so will not upset his polluting mates.


  2. Barrie says:

    Most ordinary people don’t know how to think about climate change, how to acquire the knowledge, what to do about it, the simplest questions just do not occur to them; what do I/you think about climate change, what should we do about it, is there a government plan, where can I find out more etc.
    Sure, the media could help, and occasionally do, the ABC has a climate section on its website.

    Governments are under pressure from industries that contribute to climate change but also provide huge tax dividends to running the country, they do not seem to have the vision that would provide a work-around for this ie get and fund the polluting industries to build the new infrastructure instead of subsidising fossil fuel, and btw we common people are major polluters too

    As far as I can see there are very few governments that have established long range plans (Germany?) for reducing fossil fuel usage and increasing renewables, planning for changes like rising sea levels, higher temps, water scarcity, food security etc. Planning for fire-proofing dwellings, severe weather, loss of work hours due to this. health issues in a more severe environment inc disease, heat stroke

    There should be government run seminars put on in towns across the country, year by year, until everyone is clued up about what is happening and what to do. councils should be in on this

    I think every town should have a climate wall where the future is plotted out for the next 100+ years
    Every business should have climate change factored into its budget and plans inc amelioration for the effects on climate by their business


  3. Pollie Scott says:

    I’ve seen pictures on our TV news of the terrible problem you are having in Tasmania at the moment, it’s frightening and sickening for all concerned.

    Here in the UK we have the opposite problem, we’ve just had the wettest year on record, and have been treated to quite a few TV programmes about the floods this Xmas, most of which discussed climate change in detail. We have flood warning alerts on TV and radio, with special cards posted through our letter boxes which have information about who to phone if you are worried about the risk of flooding.

    I live close to the River Ouse, and the banks have been strengthened and built up several times over the years (we are several metres below sea level, so have been at risk for quite a while!) but I certainly have noticed a change in attitude over the past 10 years, with major reinforcement work, and concern from our MP when ‘flash floods’ have caused a problem (not afraid to muck in and get his hands dirty to help the locals).

    Our governments of the past few years (both major parties) do seem concerned, and no -one is shy of mentioning climate change. We as a nation are encouraged to “go green’. Everyone recycles EVERYTHING, we have separate bins for many different products, which are emptied and taken away by local councils. When we take goods to the council tip there are skips for every commodity, metal, plastic, glass, cardboard, green waste, etc etc… about 40% of household waste is recycled where I live, with next years target 45%. (Only 11 % 10 years ago).

    Spread over a population as large as ours, hopefully this is making some difference, with businesses encouraged to do the same. Direct emissions from the waste management greenhouse gas inventory sector in the UK accounted for 3.2% of the UK’s total estimated emissions of greenhouse gases in 2009, or 17.9 Mt CO2e compared to 59 Mt CO2e in 1990. (Department for the Environment Food and Rural Affairs) A step in the right direction!

    We also now have wind farms springing up all over the place, people object like mad, but I for one think they are the thing of beauty! I can see 3 hideous power stations belting out sulphurous fumes over the Vale of York near where I live (and would prefer a vale of wind farms any day). High winds take this disgusting muck to pollute the forests of Norway with acid rain.

    The only problem I have with the Government’s future plans is that part of the ‘clean and green’ solution is nuclear power – you would think with all the flooding we have seen in the UK that Fukushima might have taught us a lesson, before we go any further down that particular road.


  4. Alan Phillips says:

    As with over-population governments can’t or won’t address the climate change problem because it is too big for them, so they put their heads in the sand and hope it will all go away. When the the axe finally falls it will be on someone else’s head, not theirs.


  5. Colin Samundsett says:

    David, you are quite reasonably hot under the collar about dissimulation by troglodytes preventing constructive action against Climate Change – and so am I.
    As Allan Phillips has commented, the population issue is the same; and population is a multiplier of problems relating to food, social welfare and infrastructure, water, agriculture and energy, and – ultimately – climate change.
    In 1994, in Australia (as well as in the world as exemplified at Cairo) action almost took place for change to minimise population pressure. It was hijacked by narrow dictatorial political action fostering its increase. Things got progressively worse, culminating with Kevin Rudd’s 2010 statement “I actually believe in a big Australia”. That did him no political good; but Julia Gillard is trying to fly below the radar in the same direction. With media assistance, the surge continues towards bigger-forever in numbers and GDP; while banging the drum to the tune of “RACIST” in order to drown out reasoned debate.
    Indonesia’s first president, “Bung Karno” dispensed “Guided Democracy”. Perhaps we have “straight-jacketed democracy”.


  6. Buff McMenis says:

    Jesus (if, indeed, he ever existed as other than another “prophet” in the Holy Land) wept!! Are we ever going to get some truth from our main-stream media .. or do we wait until the demise of Rupert, Gina, Clive and Co’s.?


  7. David Horton says:

    Last night (12 January) our national broadcaster was at it again. Description of the record temperatures and fires and some comments from Dr David Karoly. All fine. EXCEPT that all this was interspersed with comments from some clown member of the public in Alice Springs. He first commented that while indeed it might be hot all you had to do was water your plants. Then that it had been just as hot in the past. Then, his very own theory that climate was “cyclical”. Don’t know why all those tens of thousands of climate scientists have bothered doing research for the last 150 years when a simple phone call to Alice Springs would have set them straight!

    All of this mindless guff was presented absolutely straight, given equal weight not only to anything Karoly was saying but to the actual real world. This old fool was the “balance” to the world of science. My angry tweets to the Managing Director of the ABC, Mark Scott, as usual received no response.


  8. f1retree says:

    Mark Scott probably doesn’t have a clue, or if he does he’s probably sitting on his hands. Better off complaining to HIS boss, Julia? about his reluctance to engage with this crisis. Whether that would do any good is difficult to say.
    It might be better to tease the establishment by linking their names to avoidable disasters ie Mark Scott’s fire storm, Julia Gillard’s water shortage crisis, Gina Rinehart’s drought, Tony Abbott’s sinking opera house. And for the greatest criminal of them all, John Howard’s illegal war on Iraq.


  9. paul walter says:

    Barrie followed it up well enough.
    Public broadcasting was set up to counter the information deficit discussed here, but over the last generation and the last decade or so in particular.
    I expected the ALP in 2007 to move on Howard’s and Murdoch’s vandalism of public broadcasting immediately, given the damage done it, let alone society. It was the first thing they walked away from, at the very time that that the Kerry O ‘Briens of the world, exhausted from the desperate fight against Howard, were seeking respite from what they took to be relieving forces.
    The opposite happened..
    The “New” ALP, actually some thing something akin to the DLP since the Right seized control; the Howes types immediately set about implementing the second stage of the Murdoch plan.
    The central problem has therefore remained “balance”, the notion that proposes says any truth proffered must be countered by an equal amount of bullshit.
    And since New Labor is also abandoned the unions, workers who once took action on behalf of accountability and openness are now criminalised for resistance.


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