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The Australian Echo Chamber of Climate Change Denial

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The Australian newspaper proved last week that the echo chamber of climate change denial is not restricted to the United States and United Kingdom.

On 4 September, the newspaper, owned by News Limited, the Australian arm of Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation empire, published an article by Peter Lilley, a veteran UK Member of Parliament from the right wing of the Conservative Party, promoting his 'sceptical' views about climate change.

Lilley is probably best-known for a cringeworthy speech he made at the Conservative Party conference in 1992 as Secretary of State for Social Security in John Major's Government, during which he adapted a song from The Mikado by Gilbert Sullivan, which began "I've got a little list of benefit offenders who I'll soon be rooting out", and included "young ladies who get pregnant just to jump the housing list" and "all those sponging socialists".

More recently, Lilley was one of just five MPs, out of 646, who voted in 2008 against the Climate Change Bill, which introduced domestic legal targets for reducing the UK's emissions of greenhouse gases.

The article by Lilley in the Australian publicised a pamphlet which he produced for the Global Warming Policy Foundation, a club for climate change 'sceptics' founded in 2009 by Nigel Lawson, Margaret Thatcher's former Chancellor of the Exchequer, to lobby the UK government about its policies.

The foundation has published a series of campaign pamphlets, including a hype-filled plug for the supposed virtues of obtaining natural gas from shale deposits by Matt Ridley, who was chairman of Northern Rock bank until it spectacularly failed in 2007, and a vitriolic attack on the Royal Society, the UK national academy of science.

Lilley's pamphlet was a belated ideological attack on a landmark report, published in October 2006, on the economics of climate change by Nicholas Stern, who is now I.G. Patel Professor of Economics and Government and chairman of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate and the Environment at London School of Economics and Political Science.

Rather than presenting new evidence, Lilley's pamphlet simply recycled a series of erroneous allegations about the Stern Review which have been debunked many times over since its publication nearly six years ago. The editorial slot which the Australian handed to Lilley contained the same characteristic blend of flawed science and bad economics as his pamphlet.

For instance, Lilley claimed to accept the assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) "as given", but immediately rejected one of its fundamental findings that a doubling of carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere would lead to a rise in global average temperature of between 2.0 and 4.5 centigrade degrees (known as the climate sensitivity). Instead, he suggested that the climate sensitivity could be about one centigrade degree, which the IPCC concluded was very unlikely.

It is, of course, a common tactic among some 'sceptics' to claim that they accept mainstream science but to downplay or ignore the evidence of the huge risks that rising levels of greenhouse gases are creating.

At current rates of emissions, greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere will be at least 150 per cent higher by the end of this century than they were before industrialisation began in the 18th century. This would mean a significant probability of global warming of 3 centigrade degrees or more to temperatures not seen on Earth for about 3 million years. As the IPCC pointed out in its last assessment report in 2007, those temperatures were associated with much smaller polar ice caps and global sea levels that were 15 to 25 metres higher than today .

Modern homo sapiens has only been around for about 250,000 years so we could be heading for a global climate that is not just without historical precedence but one of which humans have no evolutionary experience.

Yet Lilley's article expressed remarkable confidence and certainty that our children and grandchildren will prosper regardless of how much the climate changes and will be so rich that they will be able to magically fix any amount of environmental damage that we cause.

But the scientific evidence indicates that unmitigated climate change could transform the planet through sea level rise and altered patterns of extreme weather that will submerge or desertify large regions in ways that will threaten the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people. Large populations would migrate to escape the worst impacts, leading to widespread and extended conflict.

Under such circumstances, it is difficult to believe, as Lilley apparently does, that economic growth will carry on regardless. Future generations would face huge upheavals that could make them poorer, not richer, than us.

So why did the Australian agree to publish an article that was so inaccurate and misleading? As Robert Manne, a professor of politics at La Trobe University in Melbourne, has pointed out the newspaper has a track record of biasing its coverage with flawed and error-strewn polemics from climate change 'sceptics'. In this respect, the Australian is different to its News Corporation stablemates in the UK and more akin to its counterparts in the United States, such as Fox News and the Wall Street Journal. So The Australian is clearly part of the media that have embraced unscientific climate change denial as an editorial stance and form the echo chamber which amplifies the misinformation of 'sceptics'.

But the Australian goes a step further to prevent its readers from learning the truth about climate change. I sent a letter with a colleague to correct the errors in Lilley's article, but the newspaper refused to publish it, or indeed any other critical correspondence. This filtering out of dissent conveys the false impression that the 'sceptic' article did not suffer from fundamental flaws.

It is not clear whether this is a deliberate tactic by the editors of the Australian, or whether they are so lacking in knowledge and understanding of climate change that they are unable to distinguish fact from fiction. But it appears that the news coverage in The Australian could now become as unreliable as its opinion columns, as it has made redundant Leigh Dayton, its only science correspondent. Pity its poor readers.