Deniers capturing the airwaves
In April I predicted Melbourne Talk Radio (MTR) would poison the climate debate in the Australian media.
Sadly I was correct.
Given that it’s lineup of hosts included one of Australis most prominent climate “sceptics”, Herald Sun Journalist Andrew Bolt, it didn’t take long.
Recently scientist Tim Flannery appeared in an on air “debate” with Bolt, who true to form played the man. Bolt has been crowing on his blog, claiming it as a significant victory.
However, a careful examination shows that Bolt simply attacked the reputation of Flannery. Indeed, there was no debate. Bolt simply launched one ad hominem attack after another in a rapid quick fire manner which put Flannery on the back foot.
Flannery, a noted scientist, author, “Australian of the Year” (2007) and activist is one of the most prominent and passionate speakers on the climate issue. As a consequence the denial movement in Australia has been waging a long running attack on his reputation.
In the debate, Bolt brings all the distortions and cheery picked quotes he can muster to bully Flannery.
But first, some background for readers not familiar with Mr. Andrew Bolt, cheer leader of the Australian denial movement.
Background on Bolt: found by the courts to be “…at worst, dishonest and misleading and at best, grossly careless.”
According to the MTR site, Bolt is:
“…Australia’s most widely read social commentator. His plain speaking and defence of reason has made him not just controversial, but a highly sought-after writer, speaker and debater. Andrew began journalism in 1979 with The Age, before moving to News Ltd papers, where he served as an Asia correspondent. His columns now appear in Melbourne’s Herald Sun (Australia’s biggest-selling daily) as well as Sydney’s Daily Telegraph and Adelaide’s Advertiser.
Ignore the part about “plain speaking defence of reason”, Bolt is a right-wing ideologue.
Indeed so notorious is Bolt as a journalist that many schools use his work as an example of bad writing and faulty reasoning. Bolt’s blog is among the most popular in Australia, with an estimated 2 million “hits” per month. Bolt leads the charge in the Herald Sun’s “War on Science“.
I’ve been cataloguing Bolt’s misunderstandings and misrepresentations of science for some time, however my favorite “Boltism” is his clear inability to read a map. I’ll admit to some typographical and spelling errors on this blog, but such basic scientific illiteracy would be comical if weren’t for the fact that Bolt plays a prominent role in the climate change debate.
However, little known is the fact that Bolt lost a significant defamation case as a direct result of his shoddy journalistic practices:
In 2002, Magistrate Jelena Popovic was awarded $246,000 damages for defamation after suing Bolt and the publishers of the Herald Sun over a 13 December 2000 column in which he claimed she had “hugged two drug traffickers she let walk free”. Popovic asserted she had in fact shaken their hands to congratulate them on having completed a rehabilitation program. The jury found that the article was not true, that it was not a faithful and accurate record of judicial proceedings and that it was not fair comment on a matter of public interest. It found that the column had, however, been reasonable and not malicious. Bolt emerged from the Supreme Court after the jury verdict, stating his column had been accurate and that the mixed verdict was a victory for free speech. His statement outside the court was harshly criticised by Supreme Court judge Bernard Bongiorno, who later overturned the jury’s decision, ruling that Bolt had not acted reasonably because he did not seek a response from Ms Popovic before writing the article and, in evidence given during the trial, showed he did not care whether or not the article was defamatory. Justice Bongiorno included $25,000 punitive damages in his award against Bolt and the newspaper for both the “misleading” and “disingenuous” comments he had made outside court and the newspaper’s reporting of the jury’s decision.
The Court of Appeal later reversed the $25,000 punitive damages, though it upheld the defamation finding, describing Bolt’s conduct as “at worst, dishonest and misleading and at best, grossly careless.”
The full text of the decision (Herald & Weekly Times Ltd & Bolt v Popovic) against Bolt can be seen here, but what is important to note is how the courts described Bolt’s practices:
Mr Bolt only published a portion of the exchange between Ms Popovic and the prosecutor, and it is arguable that his observation about the bullying of the prosecutor was supported by what he published. But when the whole exchange is revealed, the context shows beyond doubt in my opinion, that there is no basis for the observation made by Mr Bolt. He has distorted what in fact occurred, with the result that he was able to make a critical comment. If the whole transcript had been published, it would have been clear to the reasonable reader that there was no basis whatsoever for the comment.
By distorting the facts, Mr Bolt has conveyed to the reader a false impression. As a result of the false impression, Mr Bolt was able to make a critical comment concerning Ms Popovic which arguably was supported by the distorted facts. But the true position was that the exchange between Ms Popovic and the prosecutor did not justify or even arguably support the critical comment made.
Bolt has made a career out of this one crude, but effective strategy.
The debate: Bolt blames the victim
The audio of the debate can be heard here.
Before the interview, Bolt refers to Flannery as “Alarmist of the year” (a play on his Australian of the Year award) and states Flannery is directly responsible for the rise in climate change denial a result of Flannery’s statements.
I’ve sourced the transcript from Bolt’s blog, however in listening and I find significant portions of the debate are not recorded in the transcript (surprise!). I’ve also quoted the original sources that Bolt cherry picks (text appears in blue).
Let’s begin, with Flannery and Bolt discussing Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s back down on the emissions trading scheme:
Flannery: I’m unlikely to vote for him because my trust has been eroded away. He promised to deliver an emissions trading scheme and he’s then withdrawn that with very little justification.
Bolt: He said he wouldn’t move now until the rest of the world did something, which is a direct repudiation of what he said before. But, Tim, part of the reason that he’s backed down is that there’s been a great swing in sentiment against this kind of thing. There’s a rising tide of scepticism. How much are you to blame for some of that?
Flannery: There is some swing in sentiment. And I think it’s very hard to maintain any issue with that sort of very high level of support for a long time …
Not so controversial here, as Flannery correctly notes a small surge in climate change scepticism. I’ll argue this is the result of a massive disinformation campaign. Bolt however then begins his assault:
Bolt: But, Tim … I’m wondering to what extent are you to blame for rising scepticism about some of the more alarming claims about global warming.
Flannery: Well, many of the things that scientists highlight may happen are very alarming. They’re not alarmist but they are worrisome. Rises in sea level for instance are a significant issue.
Bolt: Well, let’s go through some of your own claims. You said, for example, that Adelaide may run out of water by early 2009. Their reservoirs are half full now. You said Brisbane would probably run out of water by 2009. They are now 97 per cent full. And (you said) Sydney could be dry as early as 2007. Their reservoirs are also more than half full. How can you get away with all these claims?
Flannery: What I have said is that there is a water problem. They may run out of water.
Bolt: 100 per cent full, nearly! Flannery: And thankfully, Andrew, governments have taken that to heart and been building some desalination capacity such as in Perth. Bolt: Only in Perth. Flannery: No, there’s plans in every capital city…
And so it begins. The real reason for the surge is scepticism is the fault of scientists for being so alarmist!Bolt launches into his attack with gusto, having clearly prepared his attack well in advance:
Bolt: No, no. You said Brisbane would run out of water possibly by as early as 2009. There’s no desalination plant, there’s no dam. It’s now 100 per full.
Flannery: That’s a lie, Andrew. I didn’t say it would run out of water. I don’t have a crystal ball in front of me. I said Brisbane has a water problem.
Bolt: I’ll quote your own words (from the New Scientist June 16, 2007): “Water supplies are so low they need desalinated water urgently, possibly in as little as 18 months.” That was, on the timeline you gave, by the beginning of 2009. Their reservoirs are now 97 per cent full.
Flannery: Yeah, sure. There’s variability in rainfall. They still need a desal plant.
Bolt: You also warned that Perth would be the 21 century’s first ghost metropolis.
Flannery: May … Right? Because at that stage there had been no flows into that water catchment for a year and the water engineers were terrified.
Let’s see what Flannery actually said in a 2005 article in a Sydney Morning Herald:
“Perth is facing the possibility of a catastrophic failure of the city’s water supply,” says Tim Flannery, director of the South Australian Museum and Australia’s most high-profile scientist and ecologist. His next book, to be published in October, will feature the water crises faced by Perth and Sydney. “I’m personally more worried about Sydney than Perth,” Flannery told me. “Where does Sydney go for more water? At least Perth has a buffer of underground water sources. Sydney doesn’t have any backup. And while Perth is forging ahead with a desalination plant, Sydney doesn’t have any major scheme in place to bolster water. It also has nowhere to put the vast infrastructure of a desalination plant.”
Which is far more nuanced than what Bolt implies.The source for Bolt’s attack is a cherry picked quote from a 2004 Sydney Morning Herald article in which Flannery stated:
“I think there is a fair chance Perth will be the 21st century’s first ghost metropolis,” Dr Flannery said. “It’s whole primary production is in dire straits and the eastern states are only 30 years behind.”
I’d stress that Flannery did not give a timeline for when Perth may become a ghost city. Bolt continues his attack:
Bolt: Have you seen the water catchment levels? Here, see, they’re tracking above the five-year level … Flannery: You want to paint me as an alarmist. Bolt: You are an alarmist. Flannery: I’m a very practical person. Bolt: You said (in The Guardian, August 9, 2008) the Arctic could be ice-free two years ago. Flannery: No, I didn’t…
Bolt is firing off facts, figure and quotes in order to make it difficult for Flannery to respond.The 2008 Guardian article can be viewed here, where Flannery states:
“In the summer of 2005, the rate of ice loss accelerated dramatically and has remained high ever since, the summer of 2007 seeing the greatest loss of Arctic ice ever. The scientific community is split on how the melting will turn out this year. A recent survey of Arctic specialists indicated that the majority consider a loss as great as that of 2007 to be unlikely, yet by June 2008 signs of a great melt were emerging and a senior adviser to the Norwegian government was warning that this may be the Arctic’s first ice-free year. As I write, the rate of loss, while still well above average, has slowed somewhat. Yet even now it’s impossible to predict. We can only project that if this summer’s melt trajectory follows recent decades, by September this year the Arctic ice cap will have lost around half of its remaining ice, and be just 2.2m square kilometres…”
Note how Flannery is not predicting a ice-free Arctic “in two years”, but citing the differing opinions of experts.
Next, Bolt builds to his crescendo…
Bolt: I’m asking … whether (you) repent from all these allegations about cities running out of water, cities turning into ghost cities, sea level rises up to an eight-storey-high building. Don’t you think that is in part why people have got more sceptical?
Flannery: I don’t, actually, because some of those things are possibilities in the future if we continue polluting as we do. And we’ve already seen impacts in southern Australia on all of those cities. Everyone remembers the water restrictions and so forth …
Bolt also tries to press Flannery on the current water levels of damns, as if that somehow disproves global warming. However, when you look at the water levels for damns in the Perth metropolitan area you see only a couple are at 100%.
Perth’s Water Corporation provides detailed information on storage capacity for the Integrated Water Supply System that supplies Perth, Mandurah, Pinjarra, Harvey and the Goldfields and Agricultural regions. It includes the following dams: Canning, Serpentine, Serpentine Pipehead, Victoria, Mundaring Weir, South Dandulup, North Dandalup, Wungong, Stirling and Churchman’s Brook.
Total capacity for 622 Gigalites, and at present they are only 34.8% full.
Water security is an important issue for Perth, which is why the Water Corporation sees climate change as a serious issue. This 2006 presentation by the Water Corporation starkly presents the challenge, showing the greatly reduced inflows of water over a one hundred year period:
Nothing to worry about then Andrew?
Note how water restrictions have been imposed three times in the last century, two of which have in the last 30 years.
No Andrew, nothing to worry about at all? Bolt, like all climate deniers is focused on the last few months rain making the classic mistake of ignoring long-term trends.
Finally, we get onto sea level rises:
Bolt: You warn about sea level rises up to an eight-storey building. How soon will that happen? Thousands of years?
Flannery: Could be thousands of years.
Bolt: Tens of thousands of years? Flannery:
Could be hundreds of years … The thermo-dynamics of ice sheets are very, very difficult to predict.
Again, one of the standard tactics of anti-science movements is to demand impossible standards of proof. Note how Bolt talks over Flannery slowing intoning even longer time periods.
Science speaks of probabilities, not exact dates as to when events will happen.
Andrew Bolt is a unpricipled hack and ideologue. He has built is career on faux outrage and the quote mining. It is right-wing tribalism at its worst.
Bolt employs a classic “blame the victim” strategy in trying to argue Flannery’s “alarmism” is the cause of climate change scepticism. Let’ s not forget that Bolt uses his blog to repbublish content from What’s Up with that? and host of other denier blogs, and has done far more to damage the reputation of science than nearly anyone else in Australia.
Put bluntly, Bolt promotes hostility to sciecne and scientists. Clive Hamilton and other commentators have singled out Bolt as a one of the main culprits in whipping up hatred against scientists:
“…Andrew Bolt’s blog deserves special mention both because it has become the most popular meeting place for deniers in Australia and because it is sponsored by a mainstream media outlet, Melbourne’s Herald-Sun, a Murdoch tabloid.
Bolt specialises in posts of angry ridicule directed at climate scientists and any others who publicly accept the science. Recent targets have included Ove Hoegh-Guldburg, Andy Pitman, and the CSIRO as a whole.
Bolt has admitted that his posts bad-mouthing climate scientists have incited his readers to send abusive emails to them…”
The irony is that Bolt has been judged guilty of defamation and has had his practices singled out for being “…at worst, dishonest and misleading and at best, grossly careless.” And he question the motives of Flannery?
That he blames Flannery for a rise in “scepticism” is offensive.
That he uses his blog to wage war on science and calls himself a “defender of reason” is laughable. One wonders if this right wing bully of print and radio can be completely lacking in self awareness and humility.
Bolt’s favoriate (perjorative) adjective for those is despises is “barbarian”.  I ask again – just who are the barbarians?
Six Aspects of denial
Bolt utilises two of the Six Aspects of Denial:
- Doubt the science – This is the standard tactic of all denial movements. Creationists attack evolution and geology as they contradict the belief a god/s created the world just under 10,000 years ago. Alternative health practitioners claim the science that demonstrates the lack of effectiveness of their treatments is at fault. On web sites, in books and on in internet forums they attack the science by cherry picking data, misrepresenting research or making bogus claims.
- Question the motives and integrity of scientists – This is the favourite tactic of the climate change denial movement. They claim the scientists are engaged in fraud, or are being pressured by governments to make up the results. They make up vast conspiracy theories in order to cast aspersions on the motives of climate scientists, physicists and biologists whose work confirms the reality of climate change. They use the “follow the money” argument, stating scientists are making up climate change in order to get research funding. All them are simply ad hominem attacks: playing the man.
 See here, here, and here to gain an appreciation of Andrew Bolt the word smith.