Duelling Realities: Conspiracy Theories vs Climate Science in Regional Newspaper Coverage of Ian Plimer's Book, Heaven and Earth

Article excerpt

Abstract

In the lead-up to the first Australian parliamentary debates on an emissions trading scheme (ETS) in 2009, Ian Plimer - mining geologist, mining company director and climate change contrarian - published a book that argued there is no link between human activity and climate change. Plimer boasted that his book, Heaven and Earth: Global Warming - The Missing Science, would 'knock out every single argument we hear about climate change'. While promoting the book in media interviews, Plimer warned that the ETS would destroy mining and agriculture in Australia. Plimer's book was discredited by Australia's top climate scientists, yet received mostly favourable coverage in regional newspapers. Using content analysis and critical discourse analysis, this paper examines regional news articles, features, opinion columns, editorials and letters to the editor published between April 1 and June 30, 2009. The paper also considers the impact that media coverage of Plimer and his book had on the public debate on the ETS leading up to the legislation's defeat.

Keywords: climate change, climate change sceptic, regional newspapers, content analysis

INTRODUCTION

The role of newspapers in regional areas differs in important ways from that of metropolitan and national newspapers. Since the establishment of agricultural and mining settlements in Australia, regional newspapers have assumed a role of advocacy for their local communities (Kirkpatrick, 1996) and have acted as a central player in local news and information networks which facilitate the accumulation of social capital (Richards, Chia, & Bowd 2011).

Practices of regional editors and journalists are also affected by the close proximity of their readers and advertisers. Unlike their urban counterparts, journalists and editors in regional areas live, work and play in the same small communities as their audience and sponsors (Pretty, 1993). Local 'journos' are usually well-known in the community and are easily accessible either around town or in their newspaper's office, which is usually located on the main street in the centre of town; this fosters a greater sense of accountability in the way news is reported (Lauterer, 2000). Meanwhile, as the voice of the local community, regional newspapers report issues from a local perspective and have been known to 'unite the newspaper's community of circulation in its opposition to an outside "threat"' (Bowd, 2003, p. 122).

One of the greatest potential threats to agricultural regions in Australia is climate change, and so regional media have an important role to play in keeping farmers informed of climate science. Even in urban areas, most people get their information about science from the news media. Today, the overwhelming scientific consensus is that the Earth has been warming since the second half of the twentieth century, that human-induced greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are the primary driver of this long-term global trend, and that deep and rapid reductions to global GHG emissions are needed to avoid the worst impacts of climate change (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [IPCC], 2007).

Recent Australian studies confirm that agricultural industries which are most sensitive to higher temperatures (including grains, dairy, horticulture and viticulture) are already feeling the impacts of climate change through prolonged drought, shifting climate zones, distressed livestock, earlier spring seasons and earlier harvests (Steffen, Sims, Walcott, & Laughlin, 2011). These effects are expected to intensify as global and regional temperatures continue to rise and climate zones and their rainfall patterns continue to shift(Stokes & Howden, 2010). Australian farmers are recognised as among the most innovative in the world, having adapted to challenging climate variations on the Earth's hottest and driest inhabited continent over several generations. However, if global mean temperatures reach 4°C above pre-industrial levels, then the semi-permanent changes to climate zones and weather patterns projected for Australia could be on such a scale that they would challenge most farmers' ability to adapt. …