‘Balancing’ the Climate Consensus – Part 1

An interview with John Gibbons, formerly of the Irish Times

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John Gibbons has covered the issue of Climate Change for the Irish Times for the past two years. Several weeks ago his weekly column abruptly came to an end. In his final piece Gibbons took the mainstream media to task over their climate coverage:

“Ireland’s most senior climate expert, Prof John Sweeney of NUI Maynooth, acknowledged last week that climate-change deniers were “winning the propaganda war”. Chief among them, he added, were deniers from the ranks of journalism and lobbying.

“A media and telecommunications industry fuelled by advertising and profit maximisation is part of the problem,” Lewis and Boyce point out.

In Ireland, this even extends to the State broadcaster. The boom years swelled its coffers with an advertising bonanza, and much of this found its way into the pockets, not of lowly researchers, but of elite broadcasters. Millionaire “journalists” have a profound yet undeclared personal vested interest in the consumption-driven economic status quo upon which their wealth is predicated. As, of course, do billionaire media proprietors. They in turn seek out affirmation of their own biases, and ridicule dissenters. These value systems are internalised just as thoroughly as those of the editor 56 years ago and his papal hiccups “scoop”.

The next time you hear someone in the media drone on about having a “balanced debate” on climate change, sustainability or resource depletion, keep in mind the wag’s definition of a well-balanced Irishman: he’s the one with a chip on both shoulders.” [Media’s misplaced ‘impartiality’ on Climate, John Gibbons, Irish Times, 4/2/10]

Along with Tony Kinsella, a colleague of Gibbons’, the Irish Times has found itself two journalists down. Two journalists who had, coincidentally, frequently challenged some of the dominant myths of modern journalism such as the persistent threat of ‘Islamic terrorism‘ and the sacredness of financial markets.

So on the occasion that Ireland’s respected ‘liberal’ newspaper becomes that much less diverse, we’d like to thank John Gibbons for offering us the opportunity to discuss the issue of media bias in relation to the issue of Climate Change.

(JG – John Gibbons, MB – MediaBite, David Manning)

MB: How did you find yourself writing for the Irish Times?

JG: I trained as a journalist 25 years ago, worked in mainstream newspapers back in the late 80’s and ended up in specialist journalism, as in medical journalism, leading me to set up my own business in ’91. About 5 or 6 years ago I became aware of environmental issues, specifically climate change and began reading obsessively into the subject. I was astonished by the lack of media interest.

I should say that I don’t consider myself a ‘greeny’ in any classic sense of the word, but once the penny drops about environmental science, it really drops. I approached it like ‘John Citizen’, someone who had stumbled upon some disturbing facts and assumed they must be wrong since they called into question everything I thought I knew.

MB: Was there a turning point?

JG: A book called ‘Something New Under the Sun’ by a geography professor from Georgetown University called John McNeill. It is a history of the biosphere from 1900 to 1999. His conclusion was very simple, it wasn’t a polemic and it wasn’t about climate change, he was writing from the point of view of earth systems, extraction and depletion of resources.

We’ve never had a century like the 20th century. We used more energy in the 20th century than in the 19 preceding centuries. It was an astonishing pinnacle of human achievement, but never to be repeated. Whatever happens, the 21st century won’t be a repeat as there aren’t enough resources.

No matter how deep you dig, no matter how far you cast your net, we are running against a wall in terms of resources. Once you understand that, civilisation, capitalism, development, human progress takes a completely different frame, because I was brought up in a paradigm that things were tough in the past, they are better now and I can offer my kids something better in the future.

My related turning point was that this occurred about the time of the birth of my first child. So suddenly I got very interested in the state of the planet in 2040 and 2050, which might seem very abstract, but my eldest daughter will be younger than I am now in 2050.

So the question I asked was what are we leaving that generation? That generation includes anyone under 40, not forgetting that most over 40s have a connection, a blood connection, with the younger generation, so nobody can just wash their hands of it.

Taking that starting point I set up www.climatechange.ie and www.thinkorswim.ie. The purpose of which was to educate myself and also to write myself into the subject. I wrote 100-150,000 words, I read, interviewed, blitzing myself with information. I also wanted to create a resource that didn’t exist in Ireland in 2006 / 2007. Various government websites existed but they tended to focus on changing light bulbs etc and this notion that every little helps which I don’t subscribe to. It won’t, it goes far deeper than that.

So I partially sinecured myself from my business for a couple of years.  I then approached the Irish Times with the idea, which I felt was the natural newspaper for this sort thing, the closest to a liberal newspaper in the tradition of the Guardian in the UK. They ran a few articles and it turned into a weekly column quite fast. This went on for 2 years, about 90,000 words, and then came to a halt in the last four weeks.

MB: Did you have any goals set out when you found it was going to become a running thing? Did you want to provide readers with that turning point?

JG: I wanted people to have the epiphany that I had. That moment when you realise nothing will ever be the same again. It’s a pretty profound moment  When you have it you go from seeing the world as you thought it was, to the world as it is. It’s really a ‘Matrix’ moment, it’s certainly the most profound experience I’ve had. And as I said before I come to this as a professional journalist, a hard chaw, an employer, definitely not a ‘greeny’ or a ‘tree hugger’.

But then you’re presented with these facts in an unmissable way. This is the key point, the mountain of scientific evidence in this; you do not need to believe in climate science, it doesn’t depend on what happened in the University of East Anglia. Just pull out a geography book, it will tell you the same thing. The entire spectrum of physical sciences are telling us exactly the same thing and that is we are running out of planet.

MB: Did you feel at any point that when you were positioning your articles, because I presume you were working detached from the Irish Times office…

JG: Very much so, in the hundred articles I would say I had editorial input only on half a dozen, that’s the nature of a column, you do your own thing…

MB: Did you ever feel that your articles were in any way detracted from by the setting? For instance, I don’t normally buy the Irish Times or Independent but I bought them today and had a flick through on the way here. The Irish Times is running a half page ad on a new competition they are running which offers readers dream weddings abroad…

JG: I guess the worst experience I’ve had is that one day the same page that I was on had a book review right beside my article of a shabby book by a journalist called Christopher Booker, a hack for the Sunday Telegraph who is a climate change denier and the Irish Times in its wisdom decided to make that the book of the day and got Henry Kelly, an ex-Irish Times journalist from the 70’s to review the book and how it “skillfully debunks the myths of global warming”. That for me was a real low point.

MB: How long ago was this?

JG: Only 3 months ago. I debated it with Henry in a full and frank exchange on RTE radio subsequently. Myles Dungan was in the chair…

MB: With Ruth Dudley Edwards?

JG: The media in Ireland is infested with ten-a-penny climate sceptics…

MB: John Waters, Kevin Myers, Pat Kenny…

JG: Derek Davis, Tom McGurk…

MB: Ryle Dwyer in the Irish Examiner…

JG: You throw a stick and you will hit a journalistic climate sceptic.  You will also find that most of them are over 60, they think they have seen it all and that these environmental types are extremists, apostles, believers. Ironically they try and ascribe religious overtones to people who are by and large not very religious.

MB: The new religion…

JG: The new cult of climate. The fact is that people who ‘believe’ in climate science have nothing to go on other than peer reviewed science but for most of us that’s enough, considering that’s how we got out of the caves in the first place.

MB: Why do you think 20 years after first IPCC report we are still debating climate science? I know you have mentioned some of the older ‘sceptics’ but even the likes of Mark Little and Miriam O’Callaghan, RTE in general, take numerous opportunities to portray environmentalism in a negative light.

JG: It’s a good point. I’m pretty sure that part of the problem is journalism itself. The structure of journalism – and remember I did come up through conventional journalism training so I do understand it. We are trained to get the two sides of a story. So our job isn’t really about getting the facts, it’s about getting everyone’s opinion. We are like the conveners of debate.

The Pat Kennys of the world will behave like they are organising a cock fight.  His job is simply to facilitate a scrap, which is considered good radio. Broadcast journalism is essentially looking for good air and good air means a lively debate. Now there’s a world of difference between a lively debate and an informed discussion.

Informed discussions can tend to be largely dull because when you have a group of scientists, geographers, physicists, climatologists etc round a table and you ask them whether we have a problem, the answer is ‘yes’. “Do any of you disagree?” “No.” “Well then, how do we go forward?” “We have a range of options…”

And guess what? Those options are pretty mundane. So a lot of journalists choke in that kind of situation, they consider it dead air. What they want instead is the guy over here saying “no it’s all rubbish, this is a conspiracy” and journalists love conspiracies. Most of us were brought up on the Watergate papers and we are absolute suckers for conspiracies.

Therefore the 2% or maybe 3% of the scientific community that are crying foul are getting 50% of the coverage.  At the moment they are probably getting 60-70% of the coverage. They represent in scientific terms ‘outliers’. In scientific surveys you always get outliers. However, you never go on the outliers, you always go along the probability curve but what we are getting here is outliers driving the agenda.

Some of them are outliers because they are retired scientists that nobody phoned for ten years, but suddenly their opinion is wanted again and they will pretty much say anything to be relevant again.

You’ll find that climate deniers are people like David Bellamy, scientists from the wrong discipline, who are retired with a chip on their shoulder, who find they are being invited back onto shows again, having been out of the public airwaves for 10 years. They’ve missed it, and they know if they take the contrarian line they will be invited onto the Late Late Show and presented as an anti-establishment heroic figure. The media again is a sucker for anti-establishment figures. Even though the media itself represents an establishment, a very powerful establishment, it sees itself or attempts to caricature itself as being anti-establishment.

MB: However, it tends only to work in one direction. They will accept an ideological turncoat if they take a leap in the direction of corporate power, whereas in the opposite direction it doesn’t seem to be as effective.

JG: I agree. There is an equilibrium point in each individual; this is the point in which they themselves find balance. What I mean by that is that if you have a ‘middle-aged, white, male, middle-class’ view of the world you’ve probably got a fair bit of money in the bank, you’ve got property, you’ve got strong ties to society – as far you’re concerned the world is a pretty good place. That is very pervasive baggage and you’ll find that description would fit maybe 75-80% of media owners, senior editors and senior broadcasters.

Their ontological security, their notion of the way the world is, the way it’s always been, feels deeply threatened by someone coming along and saying “everything you know is wrong”. And they recoil violently against it. I’ve sat as close to Pat Kenny as I am with you and I was practically getting hit with spit he was so furious at someone like me daring to challenge the consensus view of the world that Pat Kenny broadcasts 5 days a week. And what disturbs him even more is that I don’t even look like a tree hugger so I must be some kind of crazy and his job is to expose me and he will go to great lengths to find somebody somewhere to prove that anyone who says this must not be playing with the full deck. The resistance to this information is extraordinary.

I’m not a scientist, but I have spoken to scientists quite a lot who have been mugged by journalists.  They are often getting toasted in media interviews – some are now refusing to do interviews because they don’t know how to deal with hostile broadcasters and reporters who don’t want this message to be right. And now they have found a few crumbs of mistakes in the IPCC report and they are grasping at these crumbs saying: “There! I knew you lot were up to something!”

But the notion that the world’s scientific community is collectively engaged in some kind of giant con is worse than a joke to anybody who knows anything about how science progresses.

MB: While I agree there is to some extent a public love of conspiracy, there are only certain types of conspiracy that are acceptable to indulge in. The likes of the 9/11 conspiracy, that’s not up for public debate.

JG: The holocaust conspiracy for instance.

MB: Who sets the professional and ethical standards for media debate? For instance, who or what influences Pat Kenny’s journalism?

JG: In his case, he is an editorial free zone. What I mean by that is that because of his position in the organisation he is not subject to editorial oversight. He would be quite an exceptional case – one of the big fish who are allowed to sail through the net. The net is only designed to catch smaller journalists. So they operate in they very own frame of how they see the world.

Somebody who springs to my mind is Morris Neligan, a very distinguished surgeon, a life time of service to scientific method in medicine and yet he is a climate sceptic who believes it’s all a big conspiracy. Specifically it’s considered a lefty conspiracy to take away our freedom, our prosperity – that somehow or other you lost the cold war, this is communism redux, a new version of socialism, you are trying to control the cars we drive, the flights we take.

This is often because greenies are poor and young, and so relatively powerless, therefore jealous of us affluent middle class people. Or if they are not, they are zealots, ideological zealots.

What we are getting is a redux of the Cold War which finished up in around 1990. I think the people who won the Cold War – the bare knuckle capitalists let’s say – think the greatest threat to their hegemony now is climate science. So climate science must be destroyed.

As you know there are between 2 and 3,000 full time lobbyists working in Washington with the specific purpose to undermine the US’s ability to ever produce solid climate legislation and they’ll be effective in their work.

I do believe that mindset is shared by retired consultant surgeons who are worth a lot of money, who are ideologically on the other end of the spectrum of young people who are left wing. Many of the media owners and controllers fall into that category. They believe they are threatened by this. And you know what? They are right. But not in the way they think they are. They believe if they resist this, shoot it down and rubbish it, it will go away.

There is also a belief in journalism that climate science is ‘one of those things’: “Didn’t you tell us that the ozone layer was going to fall down a while ago?”

I debated with Henry Kelly on air about the ozone layer and I explained to him that because of the intervention of climate science we identified the problem, removed CFCs, and removed the problem.

His response was: “Yeah, well what does that prove?” But he was prepared to write a piece about something in a national newspaper and then debate it on national radio without even knowing the rudiments, the most basic rudiments.

It would be like having a political reporter not knowing the names of our political parties. That’s an extraordinary thing that I’ve found here, ignorance is no obstacle to people engaging as climate sceptics.

MB: Is that not a dereliction of duty on the part of the editor of that newspaper and the producer of that radio show? To create a debate with fundamentally lopsided panellists.

JG: I agree. I could have argued that on the case of the Myles Dungan show. But at least Myles is open to discussion, yet he still falls back into the trap of wanting to produce ‘good air’.

MB: One of the comments he made on that show, a show billed as a discussion on climate change was a response to a point you made.  He said: “I don’t want to get bogged down in the science.” And that’s a common theme, for instance Miriam O’Callaghan…

JG: Yes, I remember her interrupting a scientist trying to explain a technical point on Prime Time saying: “we’re losing our audience.” The sceptics know that, they know they can throw in a hand grenade and by the time you have defused it the damage is already done. To be honest, if I wanted an easy ride I’d just switch sides and become a climate sceptic because any monkey can become a climate sceptic.

It’s like the difference between making something and destroying something. The effort required to make something is extraordinary, the effort required to drop it on the ground is minimal. Clearly what we have with climate sceptics is that they are taking years of scientific work and just dropping it on the ground, saying “Look, it’s broken.”

To read the second part of this interview follow this link.

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