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Sat 14 December 2019
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CJ Werleman on why The Conversation’s decision to ban climate change sceptics from its site is a move which must be followed by other media outlets.


We are now standing face-to-face with a global climate catastrophe so it is time to ban climate change denialism in the media. It is from there that the political cover for inaction is born and driven.

On the same day as millions of people demonstrated across the globe to demand urgent action to tackle climate change, the leaders of Australia and the United States held a joint press conference in the White House to praise “coal technology” and the coal mining industry itself. If there was ever a moment to capture tone deafness, hubris and a total disregard for the will of the people, then this surely was it.

Today, both countries are bestowed with the dubious and shameful honour of standing alone amongst their democratic peers as climate change deniers. Only Saudi Arabia and Indonesia have a higher percentage of people who deny that humans are responsible for an overheating planet. 

“I am sorry that there are people who are in power, and internationally, notably of course: the United States but also in Australia – which is extraordinary because Australia is already facing having to deal with some of the most extreme manifestations of climate change,” said renowned British broadcaster and naturalist David Attenborough to the UK Parliament’s Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee. British citizens are the tenth most likely to believe climate change is a “hoax meant to deceive people”.

The media must now begin treating climate deniers and sceptics with the scorn they deserve, and before they help kill us all.

While the democracies of Britain, Australia, and America are each besieged by Rupert Murdoch-owned right-wing propaganda news media outlets – which incessantly spew out fossil fuel industry-generated disinformation and talking points – climate change denialism has become policy orthodoxy for major Australian and American conservative parties.

US President Donald Trump and the Republican Party, alongside the Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and the Liberal Party, are each providing the political cover for doing nothing to reduce their respective country’s carbon emissions because news media outlets have allowed their platforms to be hijacked by those seeking to erode acceptance of climate science consensus, including lobbyists who work on behalf of multinational petroleum and mining companies. 

Last week, The Conversation site took the unprecedented step of banning climate change deniers and sceptics from its site, calling them “dangerous”.

“Once upon a time, we might have viewed climate sceptics as merely frustrating,” Misha Ketchell, editor and executive director of the online magazine, said. We relied on other commentors and authors to rebut sceptics and deniers, which often lead to endless back and forth. But it’s 2019, and now we know better. Climate change deniers, and those shamelessly peddling pseudoscience and misinformation, are perpetuating ideas that will ultimately destroy the planet. As a publisher, giving them a voice on our site contributes to a stalled public discourse.”

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Ketchell has said that The Conversation’s editorial team in Australia is “implementing a zero tolerance approach to moderating climate change deniers and sceptics”, adding that the site will remove their comments and locking their accounts.

“We believe conversations are integral to sharing knowledge, but those who are fixated on dodgy ideas in the face of decades of peer-reviewed science are nothing but dangerous,” Ketchell wrote. “It is counter-productive to present the evidence and then immediately undermine it by giving space to trolls. The hopeless debates between those with evidence and those who fabricate simply stalls action.”

In 2003, a leaked Republican Party memo revealed how the administration of then US President George W. Bush, working on behalf of the fossil fuel industry, sought to challenge the scientific consensus on the dangers posed by greenhouse gases, urged the party to “challenge the science” and warned that “the scientific debate is closing [against us] but not yet closed”.

Its strategy was built upon closing “the consensus gap” or widening the difference between the proportion of climate scientists, 97%, who accept the reality of global warming and the proportion of the American public, 67%, who do likewise, as observed by the Australian publication Crickey.

In short, the strategy has worked, with barely more than 50% of the US public accepting the reality and dangers of a rapidly warming planet. It has succeeded because media outlets have portrayed acceptance and denial as an equally weighted argument, one that pretty much goes like this:

Democratic Party: Climate change is real.

Republican Party: Climate change is a hoax.

News media: Democrats and Republicans can’t agree on climate change.

Last week, The Colombia Journalism Review (CJP) urged news organisations to “raise their game when it comes to climate coverage”, describing the media’s “minimisation” of the looming climate catastrophe as “one of our great journalistic failures”.

“It’s been 30 years since Bill McKibben rang the warning bells about the threat of man-made climate change – first in a piece in The New Yorker, and then in his book, The End of Nature,” observed The CJP. “For most of that time, the response from most quarters of the media, especially in the US, has been either silence or, worse, getting the story wrong. Reporters and their news organisations sidelined climate stories as too technical or too political or too depressing. Spun by the fossil fuel industry and vexed by their own business problems, media outlets often leaned on a false balance between the views of genuine scientists and those of paid corporate mouthpieces.”

With the earth’s temperature rising, storms intensifying, the equator becoming wetter, and everything between 30 to 60 degrees north and south of the equator becoming drier – as the climate scientists forecast long ago it would – the media must now begin treating climate deniers and sceptics with the scorn they deserve, and before they help kill us all.

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