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From the Listener archive: Columnists

March 22-28 2008 Vol 213 No 3541


Some like it hot

by Dave Hansford

Climate-change deniers create an illusion of dissent.

There are two sides to every story, right? Wrong. There are dozens of sides to a story, but today’s newsrooms rarely have the time, space or resources to present them all.

Industry lobbyists understand a hard-pressed journalist, given 20 minutes to get comment before first edition, will make two calls: one to their primary source and the other to their designated antagonist. This is called balance.

Lobbyists from the New Zealand Climate Science Coalition have lately got stories in the business pages of national media, with articles liberally quoting Owen McShane and Bryan Leyland, questioning the reality of climate change.

So what’s wrong with that? Well, the line between balance and bias, it turns out, is perilously nebulous.

One 2004 US study analysed a random sample of 636 articles on climate change and found that 53% of them devoted roughly equal space to the position that climate change is human-induced and the counter-view that it is an entirely natural phenomenon.

In truth, climate scientists were in remarkable agreement that humans were responsible for rising temperatures.

In other words, the media, out of its Pavlovian obsession with “balance”, had created the illusion of dissent by overquoting those few “sources” who said otherwise.

Such is the stuff of dreams for climate- change deniers. They rarely lock horns in strictly academic bullrings; their mission instead is to create uncertainty in the minds of the general public, and to do that, they need the media.

In November, three members of the New Zealand Climate Science Coalition – Bryan Leyland, Owen McShane and Vincent Gray – spoke at UN climate talks in Denpasar in support of a US-based conservative group, the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT). They told delegates “climate change is a non-problem” and that they should “have the courage to do nothing”.

Leyland says CFACT did not pay him to attend the Bali talks, but acknowledges some expenses were met by the Chicago-based Heartland Institute, funded “almost exclusively from rich people”, he says, “who are worried about this issue entirely out of their concern for sound science and the fate of free enterprise”.

People like oil giant ExxonMobil. The Union of Concerned Scientists says the oil giant gave US$16 million ($19.6 million) to conservative groups – CFACT among them – between 1998 and 2005. The union says this was “to manufacture uncertainty” on the issue of climate change.

ExxonMobil’s reports show it has granted $791,500 to Heartland since 1998, and its public affairs adviser, Walter Buckholtz, appears on Heartland’s 2005 tax return as its “government relations adviser”.

Late last year, our Business Roundtable brought Nigel Lawson to New Zealand to counsel caution regarding policies to deal with climate change.

Perhaps that’s a healthy aspect of democracy. But these “spokespeople” are not as qualified as many would have us believe. Lawson is a former Chancellor of the Thatcher Exchequer and once headed a House of Lords economics committee that looked into climate change. Leyland is an electrical engineer and McShane is an architect. None are climate scientists.

Giving climate deniers 50% of the say is not balance. It’s simply playing into the hands of businesspeople trying to protect their interests.

At the expense of yours.

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