July 12, 2007 | Graham

The great ABC Swindle

The whole reason for having the ABC, and supporting it through taxpayer funds, is that it will be more objective than the commercial broadcasters and cover subjects that they won’t. Tonight Mark Scott’s ABC failed that test.
I edit On Line Opinion, a journal which tries to be balanced. We publish many articles which I think are wrong. I have faith in my audience. I believe that they are just as well equipped to spot the mistakes as I am, and that out of the competition between views they can work out who is correct. And maybe the mistakes I “spot” aren’t actually mistakes at all. We cover subjects that even the ABC won’t, and I believe that viewed as a whole, we are objective.
The ABC’s treatment of The Great Global Warming Swindle fulfils one of the purposes for which the ABC was established, and breaches the other. This is material that the commercial broadcasters would be unlikely to carry, even though it was a commercial broadcaster in Britain that commissioned it. A mark to them. Their broadcast of it was not balanced. A more serious mark against them.
The issue of the balance was the framing. Tony Jones opened the broadcast by saying that the views expressed in the documentary were not those of the ABC: When was the last time the ABC felt so impelled? That wasn’t the only time that he gave the audience to understand that this documentary was rubbish. Well, if it was that bad, why screen it? My test is arguability. If a substantial proportion of the population might agree with an argument, then we are happy to publish an article from that position. You won’t find any flat earth articles on On Line Opinion, but you will find articles with support from much less than 50% or the population.
Some other observations.
Michael Duffy was right on the money when he pointed out that Jones had failed to put Nicholas Stern to the same test as he had Durkin.
David Karoly was supposed to be the key witness for the defence, but he not only proved that he was no more honest than Durkin, but he let the marsupial rat out of the bag.
First, his dishonesty. Bob Carter (“Professor” to Karoly, not plain “Doctor” (if you saw the broadcast you’ll know the snide by-play I’m referring to)) stated, correctly, that the earth has in fact cooled since 1998. Karoly retorted that this was not true, because “on average” it had not cooled. High school mathematics is only needed to analyse this one. Averages are a lagging indicator, not a leading one. Anyone with the mathematical knowledge of a professor of earth sciences who relies on an average to pick a peak is being deliberately misleading.
Second, he stated that CO2 levels had been at 2000 ppm 50 million years ago, and that was when most of the carbon we are burning was laid down. We are currently, and again quoting from the professor, at 385 ppm, and no-one is forecasting anything like 2000 ppm in the near future. If life was so abundant with a level of CO2 5 times what it is today, what is all the fuss about. There is certainly nothing like a “one-in-five” chance that we are heading for a car crash as Robin Williams (the Richard Wilkins of science reporting) claimed. Rather the reverse – higher temperatures, within reason, equal more life.
The ABC probably did us a favour by broadcasting the Great Global Warming Swindle, despite the disclaimers. They failed to significantly dent the science that it presented. And that failure counts for something.

Posted by Graham at 11:01 pm | Comments (13) |
Filed under: Australian Politics


  1. My partner and I watched it and were totaly disgusted at Tony Jones and the way he presented it. We too gave a cheer for Michael Duffy.

    Comment by Susan Prior — July 13, 2007 @ 8:52 am

  2. Jones and the ABC did the skeptics a big favour last night. Very one-sided.

    Comment by Alex Deane — July 13, 2007 @ 10:19 am

  3. I didn’t get to see it last night, but I look forward to watching the fracas when I have a chance.
    If the ABC made a mistake here, it was in deciding to show a program whose shortcomings were already public knowledge.
    The Great Global Warming Swindle was commissioned with the *purpose* of stirring up a lively controversy.
    There’s a perceived obligation on the part of TV stations to present “balance”, so Channel 4 felt obliged to commission an anti-global-warming piece after having funded a bunch of documentaries related to climate change, including George Monbiot’s “Greenwash”, which demonstrated that the UK Government is following policies which will prevent the country from meeting its well-publicised and widely-acclaimed emissions reduction targets.
    (Indeed, research commissioned by Channel 4 showed, European biofuels policy moves pollution from Europe to South-East Asia where clearing for new palm oil plantations for biodiesel causes more greenhouse emissions now than the crop will be able to save in 20 years.)
    Most of those Channel 4 programs have not been screened in Australia, but other “pro” climate change shows have, and the ABC decided to present an “anti” climate change show.
    “Swindle” was the one chosen, but because it is fraught with factual errors, and its misrepresentation of its sources was long out of the bag, there was naturally opposition to showing such a load of bunk as a documentary.
    The story begins, more-or-less, here:
    Surely Aunty could have done better, or produced its own “anti” climate change show which (somehow) avoided the mistakes made by “Swindle” (and the necessity for an interview & debate on the night).
    It was inevitable that the ABC would have a bit of internal dissent over the show, and no doubt some relished the prospect of stirring the muck with the interview & panel.

    Comment by xoddam aka Jonathan Maddox — July 13, 2007 @ 10:49 am

  4. … oh and about “cooling” since 1998: that year started a long El Nino with a bang, by releasing a lot of stored heat from the tropical South Pacific Ocean, affecting temperatures over half the globe. The energy release slowed thereafter, but 2005 was actually (slightly) warmer.
    Now, nine years later, we’re back into the La Nina phase and we can expect the tropical Pacific to absorb warmth for a while, temperatures to be cooler (back to the 2000-2002 range), and decent rainfall in eastern Australia.
    But expect the next El Nino, when it comes, to be a scorcher.

    Comment by xoddam aka Jonathan Maddox — July 13, 2007 @ 10:58 am

  5. Mate, do you ever bother doing anything from primary sources? Or do you always parrot the party line? I failed to spot a significant scientific error, although there was one graph that was misleading, but not inaccurate, a bit like Gore’s graphs.
    No-one in the film screened last night claims to have been misrepresented. The guy who did complain in the original was Carl Wunsch. He somehow thought that a documentary should not just take an excerpt from him, but show everything he said. It was smart of the makers to take him out – he didn’t add anything to the argument, and provided a side-show.
    And if stored energy in the oceans affects climate, as it does, then that could be as good an explanation as to why occassionally sun activity appears to decouple from temperature as well as to why CO2 emissions diverge. Leaving the debate about solar versus CO2 still well and truly open.

    Comment by Graham Young — July 13, 2007 @ 11:12 am

  6. The good thing about the GGWS presentation last night was that it made me and probably many others aware of the scientific approaches to measuring climate indicators.
    It was difficult in the wrap-up afterwards to follow the discussion on whether the earth has warmed or cooled or changed at all in the last 17 years. Now finally I at least understand the source of confusion over that one, reading your post.
    I don’t understand how you can claim any trend like “the earth is cooling since 1998” or “the earth is warming since 1990” without looking at averages. Looking at peaks and troughs just doesn’t seem as useful.
    And so if the global average near-surface temperature in 1990 was ~0.5 degrees less than that of 2006 then it has warmed not cooled.
    I get the feeling that the ‘skeptics’ are burying their heads in the sand over this one. Perhaps the warming isn’t caused by humans and perhaps the warming isn’t causing climate change, but the earth is actually warming. Why muddy the waters!!?

    Comment by lisa — July 13, 2007 @ 11:44 am

  7. > Mate, do you ever bother doing anything from primary sources?
    I’m commenting on your blog, not writing for Nature or eJournalist!
    I’m quite happy to settle for linking to reputable online commentators such as New Scientist and Monbiot, who are meticulous with their footnoting.
    (Sure Monbiot is polemical, but he’s rigorous, and in this case it’s an honour to “toe the party line”.)
    I can’t go from primary sources in this case because I didn’t even get to watch the show (I had planned to, but was called away). So I didn’t comment on what I would have seen, had I watched, but on what I already knew back in April.
    I did read Crikey’s bulletin the other day, pointing out the shenanigans within the ABC over “Swindle” and the fact that the out-of-context quotes from Wunsch (and other errors) had been excised to make a shorter, less blatantly disinformative, version for the ABC broadcast.
    My point stands, that given the existing controversy over a show which was created for the *purpose* of controversy, and known to be flawed, the presentation was bound to reflect that.
    I think it was a mistake of the ABC to choose that show; if it *had* to show an “anti” piece I’m sure it could have come up with one that didn’t already have a tarnished reputation.

    Comment by xoddam aka Jonathan Maddox — July 13, 2007 @ 11:59 am

  8. Lisa, my point about averages is that they are useless in picking a peak. I use them all the time when assessing turnover in our video store, but I never confuse them with the actual weekly figures.
    We had our best week this year four weeks ago but the moving average peaked two weeks later. We’ve been in downtrend for four weeks, but the moving average has only been in downtrend for two weeks.
    Moving averages smooth fluctuations, but they are an artefact. I use a four week moving average in the store, but I could just as easily use 8 weeks. This would give me a different result again. As they are produced by manipulation, they can obviously be tweaked to confuse as well.

    Comment by Graham Young — July 13, 2007 @ 12:09 pm

  9. > There is certainly nothing like a “one-in-five” chance that we are heading for a car crash …
    > Rather the reverse – higher temperatures, within reason, equal more life.
    The ‘car crash’ we’re afraid of is for agriculture and the human population, not Life On Earth as a whole. I have no doubt that the biosphere would, in time, adapt and thrive in a warmer, higher-CO2 environment. But “in time” means millennia, not the 21st century.
    The speed of the change, this time around, is likely to cause a massive collapse in the biosphere (not that destructive human activity hasn’t already got that ball rolling). Things will get a lot worse before they get better.

    Comment by xoddam aka Jonathan Maddox — July 13, 2007 @ 12:39 pm

  10. Jonathon – you said “I’m quite happy to settle for linking to reputable online commentators such as New Scientist and Monbiot, who are meticulous with their footnoting.”
    On that basis I could argue that the world was created in 6 days – it says so in my meticulously foot-noted biblical concordance.
    If that’s the sort of discussion you want, then go to a religious blog, or one of the faith-based global warming blogs like John Quiggin’s or Tim Lambert’s.
    This blog is part of the Enlightenment project – which means looking at the evidence as much as possible in primary sources, not relying on consulting the “right” texts to see what they say.

    Comment by Graham Young — July 13, 2007 @ 1:07 pm

  11. Yay! Teach the controversy! It worked with Intelligent Design. It will work with Global warming too.

    Comment by MikeM — July 13, 2007 @ 1:25 pm

  12. Dear Graham,
    I think you’ll find 1998 was a uniquely hot year because of a spectacular El Nino event that year. This was a temporary spike in temperatures unrelated to climate change or lack thereof. According to NASA (and others) the years 2002 to 2005 were the 4 other hottest years on record (after 1998). The temperatures since 2000 have been consistently hotter than the 1990s (bar 1998).
    If you want to make a dishonest case for radical global warming, you’d start with 1999 and draw a trend to 2005. But starting with 1998 is just being dishonest in the other direction.
    This is an okay discussion of the issue (I have seen better analysis, but can’t locate it at present).

    Comment by Leopold — July 14, 2007 @ 9:55 pm

  13. Dear Leopold,
    I’m interested in why you think that the water being warmer on the eastern side of the southern Pacific Ocean rather than the western can add energy to the climate system, and how this amount of energy could be so large as to significantly increase temperature over the entire globe.
    Has someone done an energy budget for the ocean based on temperature which shows that the energy given off in total is higher than normal? Or is someone just grasping for an explanation of higher temperature? I understood that the southern hemisphere hadn’t warmed at all, but I’m happy to be corrected.
    None of which takes away from the fact that an average is no good for picking up a peak. It doesn’t matter how many hot years have followed 1998, if they are cooler than that year it is a peak. And if it is a peak then the years will get cooler and your argument won’t hold true.
    And if it isn’t then they will get hotter, and your argument will. But at the moment, which is all we have, it is a peak. There is no argument. End of story.

    Comment by Graham Young — July 14, 2007 @ 11:47 pm

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