in a Post Truth World
The science publication Nature Climate Change this year, published a study demon-
strating Earth this century warmed substantially less than computer-generated
climate models predict. Unfortunately for public knowledge, such findings don’t
appear in the news. Sea levels too have not been obeying the ‘grand transnational
narrative’ of catastrophic global warming. Sea levels around Australia 2011–2012
were measured with the most significant drops in sea levels since measurements
began. This phenomenon was due to rainfall over Central Australia, which filled
vast inland lakes. It was not predicted in the models, nor was it reported in the
news. The 2015–2016 El-Niño, a natural phenomenon, drove sea levels around
Indonesia to low levels such that coral reefs were bleaching. The echo chamber
of news repeatedly fails to report such phenomena and yet many studies
continue to contradict mainstream news discourse. Whistle-blower Dr. John
Bates exposed the U.S. National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
when it manipulated data to meet politically predetermined conclusions for the
2015 Paris (Climate) Agreement. This was not reported. Observational scientific
analyses and their data sets continue to disagree with much of climate science
modelling, and are beginning to suggest that some natural phenomena, which
cause variability, may never be identified.
Climate-change, fake-news, discourse, Post-Normal-Science, sea levels,
1 Senior Lecturer, Journalism, University of Wollongong, NSW, Australia.
David Blackall, Journalism Program, University of Wollongong, NSW, Australia.
Asia Pacific Media Educator
© 2017 University of
2 Asia Pacific Media Educator 27(1)
Environmental reporting has always been a contested subject, with many debates
centring on the truth or otherwise of the so-called ‘evidence’ submitted in support
of, or in opposition to, particular contentions. In fact, it could perhaps be argued
that the field of environmental reporting was one of the first to be caught up in the
debate around ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’, although those terms weren’t
adopted, with protagonists preferring to dismiss counter arguments as simply
‘lies’ or ‘not backed by the science’. In this article, it is proposed to discuss how
this debate can explain coverage of three interrelated global environmental issues:
deforestation, desertification and biodiversity (Adger, 2001).
These case studies are offered to help journalism students and lecturers understand
these issues with a view to improving their reporting of environmental topics.
I will be arguing that a number of narratives need correction, and while I accept
that the views I am about to express are not universally held, I believe that the
scientific evidence does support them.
The primary narrative in need of correction is that global warming alone
(Lewis, 2016), which induces climate change (climate disruption), is due to the
increase in global surface temperatures caused by atmospheric greenhouse gases.
Instead, there are many factors arising from human land use (Pielke et al., 2016),
which it could be argued are responsible for climate change, and some of these
practices can be mitigated through direct public action.
Conroy et al. (2015) identify ‘methods for finding fake news’. This includes
veracity assessment, using ‘linguistic cue approaches’ and ‘network analysis
approaches’. One of the risks is cherry-picked science, or false narratives. Such
examples are often difficult to identify without a background in science, something
that few students or even journalists hold.
One particularly emotive story line attached to this topic is the so-called
pending extinction of the polar bear (Ursus maritimus) population. In recent
times, there have been a number of claims that polar bears are threatened with
extinction because global warming was melting their habitat. Yet the scientific
evidence suggests to the contrary: population counts conducted between 2007 and
2017 suggest that bear numbers are on the increase. This has led Crockford
(2017a) to label such claims as emotional propaganda. In the last decade, cherry-
picked and unverified photographic material, ‘emotional’ videos, even animation,
then used in news, of forlorn bears floating on ice was the practice (Crockford,
2016; Rode, 2014). This is a good example of ‘fake news’.
While it is true that the Arctic sea ice is declining (Comiso, 2008), there is no
evidence to support the claims of widespread polar bear cannibalism, drownings
or starvation. These false frames have operated as ‘linguistic cues’ in news
bulletins (Suiter, 2016). As emotional triggers, they have been employed over the
last decade to ‘substantiate’ climate modelling, even evoking the ‘Post-normal
science’ emergency (Funtowicz & Ravetz, 2003; Ravetz, 2004). A recent count
suggests that increased survival rates can be attributed to a greater variety of food
sources (Smith, 2010) and improved mating opportunities (Regehr, 2010) due to
less ice. Crockford (2017b) argues that the bears feed more successfully in spring
because the Northwest Atlantic Harp Seal (Pagophilus groenlandicus) has fewer
escape routes than in the open sea ice of summer (Unger, 2012). An increase in the
seal population since 2007 has also proved beneficial to this apex predator.
Global warming is calculated by measuring average surface temperatures over
time. While it is easy to argue that temperatures are increasing, it cannot be
argued, as some models contend, that the increases are uniform throughout the
global surface and atmosphere. Climate science is further problematized by its
own scientists, in that computer modelling, as one component of this multi-faceted
science, is privileged over other disciplines, like geology. Eminent US climatologist
Professor Judith Curry regularly addresses the US Congress on climate change
and she writes about scientific uncertainty (Wyatt & Curry, 2014).
The ‘uncertainty monster’ is a concept introduced by Van der Sluijs (2005) in an
analysis of the different ways that the scientic community responds to uncertainties
that are difcult to tame. (Curry & Webster, 2011)
Scientific uncertainty arises from ‘simulations’ of climate because computer
models are failing to match the actual climate. This means that computer models
are unreliable in making predictions.
Published in the eminent journal Nature (Ma, et. al., 2017), ‘Theory of chaotic
orbital variations confirmed by Cretaceous geological evidence’, provides excellent
stimulus material for student news writing. The paper discusses the severe wobbles
in planetary orbits, and these affect climate. The wobbles are reflected in geological
records and show that the theoretical climate models are not rigorously confirmed
by these radioisotopically calibrated and anchored geological data sets. Yet popular
discourse presents Earth as harmonious: temperatures, sea levels and orbital patterns
all naturally balanced until global warming affects them, a mythical construct.
Instead, the reality is natural variability, the interactions of which are yet to be
measured or discovered (Berger, 2013).
Science is a self-correcting process, and Karl Popper defined this as an empirical
falsification (Popper, 1957). Scientists test, measure, observe and retest, and they
must be able to verify and repeat results (Errington et al., 2014). Uncertainty is
always present (van Der Sluijs, 2005), but when uncertainty is replaced by
‘consensus’ (post-normal science), a culture of gatekeeping ensues (Lindzen,
2009). Post-normal science is said to be appropriate when ‘traditional methodo-
logies are ineffective. In those circumstances, the quality assurance of scientific
inputs to the policy process requires an ‘extended peer community’, consisting of
all those with a stake in the dialogue on the issue’ (Funtowicz & Ravetz, 1993).
Then, and dangerously, dissenters are silenced so that chosen and ‘necessary’
discourses arrive in journals, conferences and boardrooms.
In such a climate, it is difficult for the assertion to be made that there might be
other sources, than a nontoxic greenhouse gas called carbon dioxide (CO2), that
could be responsible for ‘climate disruption’. A healthy scientific process would
4 Asia Pacific Media Educator 27(1)
allow such a proposition. Contrary to warming theory, CO2 levels have increased,
but global average temperatures remain steady. The global average temperature
increased from 1983 to 1998; then, it flat-lined for nearly 20 years (Akasofu,
2013). James Hansen’s Hockey Stick graph, with soaring and catastrophic
temperatures, simply did not materialize.
As the increase in temperature since 1800–1850 is nearly linear, the trend is quite
different from the increase in CO2, which has shown a near quadratic increase over
the same period—rapidly increasing after 1946, after a gradual increase that began
around 1900. It is at least problematic, therefore, to consider this near linear increase in
temperature during the 19th and 20th centuries as mainly due to CO2. (Akasofu, 2013)
Keenan et al. (2016) found through using global carbon budget estimates, ground,
atmospheric and satellite observations, and multiple global vegetation models that
there is also now a pause in the growth rate of atmospheric CO2. They attri-
bute this to increases in terrestrial sinks over the last decade, where forests
consume the rising atmospheric CO2 and rapidly grow—the net effect being a
slowing in the rate of warming from global respiration.
The pause in the atmospheric CO2 growth rate provides further evidence of the roles of
CO2 fertilization and warming-induced respiration, and highlights the need to protect
both existing carbon stocks and regions, where the sink is growing rapidly. (Keenan
et al., 2016)
Contrary to public understanding, higher temperatures in cities are due to a
phenomenon known as the ‘urban heat effect’ (Taha, 1997; Yuan & Bauer, 2007).
Engines, air conditioners, heaters and heat absorbing surfaces like bitumen radiate
heat energy in urban areas, but this is not due to the greenhouse effect. Problematic
too are data sets like ocean heat temperatures, sea-ice thickness and glaciers: all
of which are varied, some have not been measured or there are insignificant
measurement time spans for the data to be reliable.
Contrary to news media reports, some glaciers throughout the world (Norway
[Chinn et al., 2005] and New Zealand [Purdie et al., 2008]) are growing, while
others shrink (Paul et al., 2007). New Zealand’s National Institute of Water and
Atmospheric Research and Victoria University found that ‘regional cooling’ over
25 years had correlated with growing glaciers (Mackintosh et al., 2017). Similarly,
the Eastern Arctic region (1950 to 1975), contrary to earlier climatology data sets,
shows sea ice increase—primarily from cooling by anthropogenic aerosols and
natural forcing (Gagné et al., 2017).
Strategies for Learning Schedules
As learning is facilitated through the presentation of provocative case studies, it is
necessary to approach each component with caution: occasionally, students take
positions they feel they need to defend. This is especially the case for journalism
students, who desire jobs in the same corporate media that disseminate greenhouse-
gas narratives. Greenhouse scientic knowledge has entered the media and everyday
conversations. This is sustained by climate modelling and public relations, so the
public’s convictions and opinions on these matters are shaped in societal discourse
(Beacco et al., 2002) despite the existence of contradictory studies (Fang et al.,
2012). Contrary but accurate science journalism must be generated for balancing
societal discourse and demonstrating the Earth’s natural variability. The natural La
Niña mechanism in 2011, around Australia, brought unprecedented lowering in
global sea levels. This was due to a strong La Niña, causing heavy oceanic
evaporation, followed by rain over Central Australia. The hydrologic surface of
inland Australia stored huge quantities of water, resulting in lower sea levels. These
La Niña precipitation anomalies were among the highest on record (Fasullo et al.,
2013) and they indicate that there is more to understand before making catastrophic
predictions about rising sea levels, predicted to flood cities and buildings.
The Grand, Transnational Narrative
The dominance of a ‘grand transnational narrative’ in environmental discourse
(Mittal, 2012) over other human impacts, like deforestation, is problematic and is
partly due to the complexities and overspecialization of climate modelling.
A strategy for learning, therefore, is to instead focus on the news media: it is
easily researched and it tends to act ‘as one driving force’, providing citizens with
‘piecemeal information’, making it impossible to arrive at an informed position
about science, society and politics (Marisa Dispensa et al., 2003). After locating
problematic news narratives, Google Scholar can then be employed to locate
recent scientific papers that examine, verify or refute news media discourse.
Deuze and Witschge propose a useful framework:
. . . we challenge the consensual (self-) presentation of journalism—in terms of its
occupational ideology, its professional culture, and its sedimentation in routines and
organizational structures (cf. the newsroom) in the context of its reconguration as
a post-industrial, entrepreneurial, and atypical way of working and of being at work.
(Deuze & Witschge, 2017)
Anderson agrees and it is time to reinvent: ‘The newsroom is not extinct. In many
ways, it is more important than ever, for it remains, even now, a central locus in
which a variety of fragmented actor-networks find themselves tied together to
create an occupation’ (2011, p. 160).
Significance in Data
Journalism rarely demonstrates how scientific principles insist on mathematical
testing of data for significance, and that results must be replicated (Johnson, 1999).
6 Asia Pacific Media Educator 27(1)
‘Most scientists “can’t replicate studies by their peers”,’ writes Tom Feilden, the
science correspondent for the Today programme at the BBC. Science has a
‘reproducibility crisis’ where ‘more than two-thirds of researchers try and fail to
reproduce another scientist’s experiments’ (Feilden, 2017). To counter this
problem, the science journal Nature has imposed a reproducibility checklist for
submissions. Immunologist Dr Tim Errington supervises a University of Virginia
project: An open investigation of the reproducibility of cancer biology research.
The study attempted, and failed, to repeat findings of five landmark cancer studies
(Errington et al., 2014).
Journalism conveys a ‘professional authority’—touting its discourse as ‘fact
checked’, within ‘editorial consensus’—its validation process. However, ‘validation’
in climate science means something completely different—a model is validated,
‘acceptable for its intended use’, because it meets specified computer performance
requirements (Rykiel, 1996). French linguists (Beacco et al., 2002) examined
journalism’s ‘enunciative standpoints’, where a journalist mediates between science
and the public. They examined the use of specic forms of intertextuality and
‘interweaving of scientic elements in general social discussions’. Over time, these
discourses are delivering changes in the status of science—‘a sign of its crucial
social role’ (Beacco et al., 2002). This is journalism’s contract too, but its higher
functions remain: accuracy, balance, accountability and full disclosure of all known
facts, possibilities and sources (Mintz, 2016).
Recent observed global warming is signicantly less than that simulated by climate
models. This difference might be explained by some combination of errors in external
forcing, model response and internal climate variability. (Fyfe et al., 2013)
Terrestrial surfaces and oceans are heated by sunlight, shaded by clouds, and
at times the sun itself is in a cool cycle. ‘Solar activity during 2007–2009 was
very low, and during this protracted solar minimum period, the terrestrial
thermosphere was cooler and lower in density than expected’ (Solomon et al.,
2010). More research is needed on how humans interact with this natural
Contrary to the CO2 news discourse on primary causes of snow melting in
Greenland, recent research shows how accumulating soot (some from Indonesian
palm oil clearing fires) in snow causes albedo change after the darkening of the
surface. Absorbing more heat from the sun, the rate of melting snow increases
(Tedesco et al., 2016). This is not a greenhouse impact and is likely to be
irreversible. Similarly, new studies show that where deforestation occurs, parti-
cularly in equatorial rainforest, impact is likely in regions distant from the original
Deforestation, dryland farming, irrigated agriculture, overgrazing, and other [land use]
alterations to the natural landscape can disrupt Earth’s natural balances and change
weather patterns. (Pielke et al., 2016)
This is insufficiently understood and deserves discussion: How might these effects
be mitigated? How might community action be harnessed to mitigate? And so on.
Provocative Questions for Learning
Within this simple teaching model, the hypothetical question is regularly posed:
What if there was a point where forests were no longer at the required critical
mass, essential for the water cycle? Clouds affect both upward and downward
radiation, as do forests, but as forests shrink, will cloud formation become
dysfunctional? These questions are ideal for student research, and they deflect the
possibility of the tutor being labelled as a ‘climate denier’.
An online survey revealed similarity between climate change deniers and believers
in terms of preference for climate change news sources and rating of reliability of
authorities. It was also discovered that both groups do not believe in conspiracy theories.
Thus the results show that participants on both sides in the discussion on climate change
are similar, rational, and are basing their judgments by using similar types of sources.
As there is uncertainty with greenhouse gas theory, students should be given alter-
native perspectives to help find ways to publish stories that question, challenge and
enlighten. With technological change in the traditional newsroom, which brings
‘heightened accountability’ (Bivens, 2008), and instantaneous research capability,
there are plenty of opportunities to correct false narratives. One avenue is to suggest
the alternative narrative: clouds are crucial in climatic control, yet their role and
production is not thoroughly understood. Clouds control terrestrial and ocean
surface temperatures and this has been known for decades—in agronomy,
geography and meteorology. Could the great environmental catastrophe instead
involve clouds and the water cycle?
Getting a Balance on the Grand Narrative
Contrary to the usual story, Akasofu showed that global warming ‘began as early
as 1800–1850 and not after CO2 began to increase very rapidly around 1946’
Further, among these factors, the sea level increase from about 1850 to 2000 was also
almost linear, though with a slightly decreasing rate. (Akasofu, 2013)
Satellite images of deforestation, particularly of Amazonian and Indonesian
rainforest, reveal the environmental impact; with vast denuded areas, where
massive fires burn unwanted vegetation, and soot occasionally drifts to Greenland
(Tedesco et al., 2016).
8 Asia Pacific Media Educator 27(1)
These transformations of the Earth’s surface fundamentally alter the uxes of solar and
thermal infrared radiation, sensible, and latent heat, the movement of water between the
sub-surface and atmosphere, and the exchange of momentum between the land-surface
and atmosphere. (Mahmood et al., 2014)
Deforestation, desertification and biodiversity are interlinked and directly impact
the climate via the cloud formation processes (Ruddiman, 2003). Axes, chainsaws
and bulldozers impact habitat instantly—biodiversity collapses, while rainfall,
soil and drought resistance begin to change. This focus moves attention from
greenhouse gases to environment (Junkermann et al., 2009). In previous epochs,
CO2 levels were around 400 ppm, as they are now (Hansen et al., 2008; MacFarling
et al., 2006), but never in human history has the Earth’s surface been as denuded
Dynamic global vegetation model simulations suggest that CO2 emissions from land-
use change have been substantially underestimated because processes such as tree
harvesting and land-clearing from shifting cultivation have not been considered.
(Arneth et al., 2017)
After overstocking (Sansom, 1999), mining and urban development, revegetation
can rebuild carbon sinks, and re-establish habitat, but forest biodiversity is rarely
restored to its original condition (Bäckstrand & Lövbrand, 2006).
Deforest at Your Peril
When the forest is cleared (Baldeck et al., 2016), wind patterns change, albedo
changes, evaporation increases and rainfall decreases (Butt et al., 2011). Relying
in part on anecdotal accounts from Indigenous farmers, Butt et al. (2011)
demonstrated how Amazon deforestation reduces rainfall. Forests play vital roles
in rainmaking (Heaney, 1991), filtering toxic gases and smoke, and in recycling
and stabilizing nitrogen and phosphorus (Cochrane et al., 2009; Silva, 2015).
Questioning news items can stimulate learning. What appears to be a ‘Photo-
shopped’ image exists in a Reuters news agency story entitled: ‘Antarctica hits
record high temperature at balmy 63.5°F.’ The associated image is captioned:
FILE PHOTO: Two Adelie penguins stand atop a block of melting ice on a rocky
shoreline at Cape Denison, Commonwealth Bay, in East Antarctica in this January 1,
2010 le photo. REUTERS/Pauline Askin/File Photo. 2017.
Zooming in on the image reveals pixels around the edges of the penguins, which
suggest a different resolution to the ice they stand on (pixels not as large); however,
the background rocks exhibit a cleaner resolution (no pixels). This indicates
the use of different photographs, as there are different resolutions, and this
arises in Photoshop processing. For the Adelie penguins, scaling the huge
mushroom-shaped ice to get on top would be impossible, and they can’t fly. The
picture was used previously in 2013 with an article on Arctic warming, and
Reuters ran the same photograph on another date.
In 2015, the US National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
published a report to focus attention on world leaders at the UN climate conference
in Paris, 2015. The report claimed that the ‘pause’ of global temperatures since
1998 was untrue—instead, temperatures were rising faster than expected (Karl
et al., 2015). Whistle-blower Dr John Bates, a respected NOAA scientist, in 2016,
released evidence that the Karl study was based on ‘unverified’ data. Later
(5 February 2017), a press release from the US House of Representatives Committee
on Science, Space, and Technology read:
Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas):
I thank Dr John Bates for courageously stepping forward to tell the truth about
NOAA’s senior ofcials playing fast and loose with the data in order to meet a
politically predetermined conclusion. In the summer of 2015, whistleblowers alerted the
Committee that the Karl study was rushed to publication before underlying data issues
were resolved to help inuence public debate about the so-called Clean Power Plan and
upcoming Paris climate conference. Since then, the Committee has attempted to obtain
information that would shed further light on these allegations, but was obstructed at
every turn by the previous administration’s ofcials. I repeatedly asked, ‘What does
NOAA have to hide?’
Environment Subcommittee Chairman Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.):
I commend Dr Bates for bringing to light the corrupt practices used by his former
colleagues and hope this serves as a deterrence to anyone thinking of manipulating
science to serve their own political agenda.
This is clearly a contentious topic. There are many agendas at play, with careers at
stake. My view represents one side of the debate: it is one I strongly believe in, and
is, I contend, supported by the science around deforestation, on the ground, rather
than focusing almost entirely on atmosphere. However, as a journalism educator,
I also recognize that my view, along with others, must be open to challenge, both
within the scientific community and in the court of public opinion.
As a journalism educator, it is my responsibility to provide my students with the
research skills they need to question—and test—the arguments put forward by the
key players in any debate. Given the complexity of the climate warming debate, and
the contested nature of the science that underpins both sides, this will provide
challenges well into the future. It is a challenge our students should relish, particularly
in an era when they are constantly being bombarded with ‘fake news’ and so-called
10 Asia Pacific Media Educator 27(1)
To do so, they need to understand the science. If they don’t, they need to at
least understand the key players in the debate and what is motivating them. They
need to be prepared to question these people and to look beyond their arguments
to the agendas that may be driving them. If they don’t, we must be reconciled to a
future in which ‘fake news’ becomes the norm.
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David Blackall (BSc [Agriculture], DipEd, MA [Journalism], PhD) is a senior
lecturer in journalism at the University of Wollongong. He owns a rainforest wild-
life refuge that he has managed for 40 years. He uses it for research and education,
where university students conduct research on biodiversity for BioBanking and
water quality purposes. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org