Climate change denialism is an ever-present feature of the current environmental discourse. In this text Angi Buettner argues that the very logic of the media produces a rethoric-driven public debate about climate change that leads both to misrepresentations of facts as well as an undercommunication of politically and scientifically vital information.
The more the scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change consolidates (indicating that urgent and drastic action is needed), the louder climate change denial becomes, and a growing number of politicians support environmental policies that do not address climate change; there are complex political, financial, and psychological explanations for this (see for example Dickinson ; Hamilton ; Marshall ). In this context, it is useful to consider how these developments are reflected in the media coverage of climate change.
2009 was a crucial year for international environmental governance, with the UN Climate Summit in Copenhagen taking place in December, with the goal to agree on a new global climate treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol from 1997. In the same year, Ian Plimer, an Australian geologist, made a strong impact on public debate over climate change with the publication of his book Heaven and Earth: Global Warming, the Missing Science . In this book Plimer declares that “global warming is all a myth,” and that the whole of international climate science, politics, and media has united to perform a great climate change con trick. The book sold out almost immediately, stayed on the bestseller lists for months, was taken up by politicians, and received extensive and prolonged media attention.
At the same time, the book received numerous reviews by scientists showing the scientific errors and lack of quality of the argument (see for example Ashley ; Enting ); the author’s strong links to the mining industry in Australia were also revealed . Nonetheless, the book continues to be picked up enthusiastically by climate change deniers, by politicians in support of non-action on climate change, and, most tellingly, by the media. In this article I will consider the Plimer case as an example of ways in which the media report and deal with the climate change debate.
Plimer has considerable cultural capital: as an award-winning scientist, his voice warrants hearing, and he and others in the climate change denial camp use this cultural capital strategically to put their message out into the public sphere through skilful use of the media. However, I will argue that the very logic of the media produces rhetoric-driven public debate about climate change. This allows vested interests to control the amplification of voices and to hijack the debate, and hinders the media coverage of the complexities of climate change politics and science.
Despite his arguments being thoroughly and convincingly dismantled in the public sphere (see for example, Karoly ; Manne ; Monbiot ), Plimer has won the attention of the public mostly by turning himself into a media celebrity, and by strategic lobbying, argument framing, and media use. He fosters an image of the maverick who upholds free debate and fights the silencing of dissent and the censoring of climate change sceptics. He does this loudly and aggressively . At the same time, Plimer works hard at establishing his credibility and expertise.
With this claim to credibility and authority, Plimer declares that climate change is a green religion, a communist conspiracy, not based on science, and that there is no scientific consensus. Plimer throws doubts on the science of climate change, mostly by misrepresenting the operation of the IPCC (“It is unrelated to science”). He discredits environmentalism as a whole, as well as attacking individual advocates. His pet hate is Al Gore, and he uses Gore as a stand-in for the whole of environmentalism and climate science . Later in the book, Plimer discredits Nicholas Stern’s 2007  report on the economics of climate change , although he does not provide evidence for his arguments.
His main rhetorical move, however, is to make a simple story out of climate change: “There is no problem with global warming”. He banalizes the complex issues by joking about how climate scientists “fear warmth”, whereas for him it is clear that “We humans normally seek a warmer climate for our holidays. Maybe warming is good for us?”  More importantly, Plimer turns climate change into a part of planet Earth’s geological history. He in effect naturalises, or, rather, re-naturalises anthropogenic climate change into a natural phenomenon, so that we don’t have to worry about the environmental impacts of our industries and actions. According to Plimer, the climate change of the past century was not driven by human action, but by planetary and galactic factors, as has always been the case during the history of our planet. There has been no warming since 1998, and CO2 emissions don’t matter . Plimer’s evaluation of decades of international climate science is: “If we humans, in a fit of ego, think we can change these normal planetary processes, then we need stronger medication” . One of the scientists who reviewed Plimer’s book, summarises the quality of its content and argumentation:
The arguments that Plimer advances in the 503 pages and 2311 footnotes in Heaven and Earth [sic] are nonsense. The book is largely a collection of contrarian ideas and conspiracy theories that are rife in the blogosphere. The writing is rambling and repetitive; the arguments flawed and illogical. […] It is not ‘merely’ atmospheric scientists that would have to be wrong for Plimer to be right. It would require a rewriting of biology, geology, physics, oceanography, astronomy and statistics. 
None of Plimer’s claims are new; they are familiar messages by climate change deniers. In a book on the role of science in public life, the authors point out not just the organised lobbying campaign against climate change by industries and people connected to them, but also the media savviness of climate change deniers: they know that they need to lobby and that it is about who wins the attention of the public, the media and the politicians .
Plimer loudly proclaims his credibility, but is quiet when it comes to his credentials: his professional expertise (a geologist, not a climate scientist), and his industry and political affiliations. Plimer is closely linked to political groups working actively to stop or at least delay action on climate change. He is listed as an associate of the Institute of Public Affairs, a Melbourne-based conservative think tank ; an allied expert for the Natural Resources Stewardship Project in 2007, a Canadian advocacy group that opposes the Kyoto Protocol  and he is a member of the academic advisory council for Nigel Lawson’s global warming skeptic group . Plimer has strong connections with the mining industry. He is Professor of Mining Geology at the University of Adelaide, as well as currently director of three mining companies, and making a considerable income out of these directorships . This extensive link to fossil fuel networks is not generally disclosed by the media outlets that cover Plimer’s opinions.
Plimer has turned into a celebrity climate change sceptic; a supposed rebel and a maverick, who speaks for “the average punter out there”. The oft-repeated statement about Plimer in the media is that he is “one of the few scientists” who disagree with anthropogenic climate change . This characterisation of Plimer and his role in the debate has been widely taken up by, accepted, and disseminated in the media.
The Logic of the Media and Constructing the Story of Climate Change
The daily deadlines of journalism, for example, make the coverage of scientific data difficult over time; this influences the practice of source-media relationships. Time, space, and scientific literacy pressures often lead to one-source stories, and the over-reliance on one source, usually an “expert.” When it comes to who the groups and individuals are who are seen as credible and legitimate environmental news sources, the media are likely to pick agents who have developed a strategy on how to gain access to the media as potential sources. The selection of sources is ideological and hierarchical, and groups with vested interests develop media strategies accordingly.
The media principle of balance, which still defines good practice within news production, leads to the presentation of two opposing points against each other in dramatic fashion. This inhibits coverage of scientific complexity; moreover, what is in reality a tiny minority begins to look like a valid counter balance . In the case of reporting climate change, many scientists criticize the media for perpetuating indecision by including both scientific and non-scientific claims, as if they were of equal validity (see for example Veron ). Bjorn Lomborg (another celebrity denier, of The Skeptical Environmentalist fame ) and Ian Plimer are just two examples of the media making use of mavericks and outsider voices, and staging a struggle between scientists where there is consensus.
Ian Plimer and his particular version of climate change denial has all the makings of a good story; he is David fighting the Goliath that is the IPCC; there is a conspiracy by elite scientists against the average person; and, ultimately, there is nothing to worry about. This simplistic set of narratives is more palatable than climate change considered as a dangerous risk, requiring massive changes in our energy systems and lifestyles. Simplifying the story in this way is a powerful strategy: climate sceptic arguments are attractive, because they offer an escape route from the fact that things will have to change.
Recurring story structures (such as conflict) are germane to the media, and Plimer provides fodder by drawing extensively on popular culture in Heaven and Earth. Conspiracy theories and echoes of Dan Brown and Michael Crichton (whose State of Fear similarly turns global warming into a hoax by environmental groups to protect their business, and similarly gives this story a veneer of research by bolstering it with thousands of footnotes ) feature extensively in the book. With this kind of storytelling, Plimer provides his version of what Ulrich Beck has described as the staging of environmental risk . Simplified stories touch “cultural nerve fibres,” provide and utilise “cultural symbols”  and, therefore, are influential within public debate.
Another reason Plimer appeals to the media is because of the logic of the spectacle. With his authoritative, polemic, and polarizing style, he has turned himself into a spectacle within the climate change debate. Among the main logic of the spectacle is the accumulation of spectacles . In a sense, the quality of what Plimer does and says in his media appearances and book doesn’t matter, as long as he and his messages continue to be represented. Having access to media space in itself already provides a certain degree of credibility, particularly for people with no specific knowledge of the issue. When individuals are cited as having an affiliation to a well-known institution and a title, as in the case of ‘Ian Plimer, Professor of Mining Geology at Adelaide University’, there is automatic credibility.
One example of how the Plimer incident works within the logic of the spectacle is the Monbiot vs Plimer debate. After Plimer’s claim that climate change is a hoax was recycled enthusiastically in the British magazine Spectator in July 2009, George Monbiot, well-known for his environmental commentary for the Guardian newspaper, criticized both author and book for many mistakes that had already been pointed out in numerous book reviews by scientists (see for example Ashley; Lambeck ). Plimer then challenged Monbiot to a public debate, hosted by the Spectator; Monbiot agreed on the condition that Plimer first answers a few questions about the sources for his claims, which Plimer replied to by accusing Monbiot of scientific illiteracy. The whole incident resulted in a considerable amount of media attention (interviews, blog entries, etc.) for both Monbiot and Plimer. Eventually, Plimer pulled out and the Spectator cancelled the debate. Finally, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s program Lateline hosted a debate between Plimer and Monbiot on 15 December 2009 .
This all is an example of how the media construct debate: as a staged debate, a fight between two opposing people and opinions, a duel in which its surrounding spectacle and the fact that it is happening counts for more than the content or the quality of the debate. The Plimer vs Monbiot interaction perpetuates the logic of the spectacle. The debate took place live on ABC’s Lateline, presented by Tony Jones. It began with a discussion of Copenhagen and the hacked emails of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia. Over the course of the program, almost 25 minutes, the debate turned into a squabble. Plimer accused Monbiot of bad manners, and Monbiot insisted that “Plimer just will not answer the questions.” Since Plimer and Monbiot met for this debate after a long and public communication over the points of contention, this debate potentially offered opportunity for serious discussion, especially since there was almost half an hour of airtime available. But the time was mostly wasted.
There was nothing new in the debate to qualify the situation or supplement the media exchange that had already happened. Both Plimer and Monbiot repeated their messages: Plimer insisted people were trying to silence him and that climate change is about that “governments just cannot resist the opportunity to tax us more”; Monbiot insisting that Plimer answer his questions about the sources for his claims in Heaven and Earth. Monbiot’s repeated “Answer the question, Professor Plimer” made him look tedious. Monbiot used the debate to reiterate the point that Plimer was evading questions. But anybody who followed the exchange between Plimer and Monbiot already knew that, and didn’t need to have that point repeated for 30 minutes. Plimer meanwhile used the debate as a PR opportunity and kept waving a copy of his book at the camera. He also successfully diverted the debate to a discussion of the East Anglia emails and the errors found in the 4th IPCC report in November 2009, rather than a discussion of himself and the quality of his claims. This pushed both Monbiot and Jones into having to defend the science community and spend time on explaining how these incidents do not mean what Plimer claims they mean. Both Plimer and Monbiot repeated the stances they had already taken, and for the viewer there was in the end no new piece of information that would help to make a decision on who to trust and what to believe.
There would have been, for example, the opportunity to clear the question of the credibility of experts used by the media. Plimer repeatedly made the strong accusation that both Tony Jones and George Monbiot are journalists with no scientific credentials and expertise. Plimer focused on the crucial point of legitimacy, raising the question of who legitimates certain participants and discourses in the debate. This is crucial for the processes that create the credibility of participants in climate change debates. The media play a considerable role in this, and one would have thought that Jones and Monbiot, both experienced and respected journalists, would have jumped at this opportunity. But neither journalist managed to turn this into an opportunity to press Plimer on his credentials. Neither pointed out that Plimer did not have any expertise or scientific credentials in the fields he is speaking on, and purporting to be an expert in. Monbiot insisted that the role of the journalist is to keep pressing people to answer the questions they do not want to answer. But neither he nor Jones manage to ask pressing questions of Plimer that would clarify for the audience who Plimer is, and how to evaluate his role in the debate.
Instead, the debate remained stuck in the formula of conflict; there is accusation and counter-accusation, petty nitpicking rather than quality arguments being made, and two men becoming increasingly agitated and angry. There were two people on two opposing sides, on stage together for their duel. At the end, it is not clear who is left standing, and who was right or wrong. It just stopped because the program ran out of time. The message of this staged debate (the episode was titled “Monbiot, Plimer cross swords”) was that there are people with opposing views. This kind of polarizing helps to reinforce confusion and uncertainty.
The following day the Guardian published Monbiot’s write-up of the debate: “So at last we’ve had our fight”, Monbiot announced, and that he won the “battle” and “showdown”. The fact that a high-quality journalist such as Monbiot was dragged into this logic demonstrates just how limited the media are by their own logics and conditions of production. The debate between Monbiot and Plimer indicates that the reason why there is such a disproportionate level of confusing and confused climate change coverage, erring on the side of climate change denial in the face of a scientific consensus, cannot merely be attributed to the neglect of the media’s responsibility as fourth estate; it also has to be explained by the logic of the media itself. The logics and conditions of production currently ruling the media misrepresents facts, and underinforms on the political, historical and scientific contexts. This currently determines the quality of the public debate on climate change.
The Political Dynamic of the Climate Change Debate
The Plimer incident poses questions about the responsibility of the media, and of the social function of journalism and news as one of the prevalent forms of mass media that communicate regarding the environment. If providing the sites and tools for a high quality debate on climate change is part of the media’s role, giving a prominent voice to climate change denial as part of its construction of debate—or, rather, staging of debate—is problematic. It is particularly problematic if this kind of media coverage feeds off, rather than reports on, climate change denial, and fails to provide the historical and ideological contexts of that debate.
Since 2009, the media have been full of reports on the rise of climate change scepticism, supposedly as a backlash following the 2009 UN Summit in Copenhagen, as well as the East Anglia emails in November 2009 and the criticism of the IPCC over the use of information that had not been rigorously checked. This version of the climate change story fails to convey that this rise in climate change denial has a history. In 1996 Paul Ehrlich (author of the seminal The Population Bomb ) described efforts made to “minimise the seriousness of environmental problems” and to “fuel a backlash against ‘green’ policies” , and he points to the role of the media in this backlash .
The media spectacles over climate deniers remind us that there is a strong anti-green current. Contemporary manifestations of eco-bashing continue this tradition from at least the 1990s onwards, in which environmentalism has been constructed as a political threat, and environmentalists as the new socialists. The Rio Earth Summit in 1992 can be seen as a “watershed for international environmentalism, but also as the beginning of the conservative backlash against climate science”, .
The historical background of today’s climate change debate is characterised by battles between warnings from climate scientists, and attempts by fossil-fuel companies to protect their commercial interests . Conservative forces are fighting the social and cultural transformation required to deal with climate change, defending the political and economic status quo, and holding on to such ideologies as the power of technology and science, progress, or mastery over nature. Climate change denial is part of this green backlash: an orchestrated campaign financed largely by coal and oil industries , , .
What is the role of the media in all of this? The media campaigns of climate change deniers have been highly successful . In the first half of this essay I have argued that this is largely because the logic of the media offers many opportunities for the strategies of climate change deniers. The two media logics whose workings are part and parcel of the history and success of climate change denial are the logic of noise and the logic of networks.
What has been fascinating to observe in the case of Ian Plimer is how quickly commentators picked up Heaven and Earth, and wholeheartedly repeated its assertions. Commentators amplify voices, and as such amplifiers play an important and potentially powerful role in public debate. In Australia, the media figures who have reinforced Ian Plimer’s climate denial message were mostly the conservative Murdoch and Fairfax columnists. Their initial coverage of the book’s publication provided free publicity, and constituted a form of promotion rather than news coverage.
Andrew Bolt (radio commentator and newspaper columnist), Christopher Pearson (The Australian columnist), and Miranda Devine (Sydney Morning Herald columnist) , all celebrated Plimer’s book. Christopher Pearson, for example, judged the importance of the book in the following terms:
I expect that when the history of global warming as a mass delusion comes to be written, Australia’s leading geologist will be recognised as a member of the international sceptical pantheon. As far as the progress of what passes for national debate is concerned, in all likelihood 2009 will be seen as the turning point and divided into the pre and post-Plimer eras .
Bolt, Pearson, and Devine are well-known right-wing commentators in Australia. In his book on climate change politics in Australia, Guy Pearse discusses the role and close connections of the media conservatives within the political scene of greenhouse policy . Chris Mitchell, editor of the Australian (where most of the media support for Plimer came from), won the 2008 APPEA JN Pierce Award (from the Australian Petroleum Production & Exploration Association) for Media Excellence for coverage of climate change policy . The Australian Petroleum Production & Exploration Association Ltd. is the peak national body representing the oil and gas industry. In Australia, this group of media figures is one of the voices telling the public that climate change is a green religion that lacks a scientific basis, and its amplification of the climate scepticism message has been a cycle of reinforcement.
Many of these media sceptics are regular speakers at conferences and fundraising events for organisations funded by the big polluters. Andrew Bolt, Christopher Pearson, Alan Jones, Miranda Devine, and Michael Duffy, for example, have all given speeches at think tanks vociferous on climate change policy . There is a deliberate membership overlap and these connections are not mentioned. The same is the case for the small group of “experts” this group of conservative commentators relies on as sources, both locally and internationally. Among them are Ian Plimer, Fred Singer, and Bjorn Lomborg; and, “virtually every source cited involves only a few degrees of separation from polluter cash” .
There is criticism of news media generally that they are failing their social role and responsibility. But in the case of climate change, there is a particular case being made of the failure of the media. In the context of the political dynamic currently at work in the climate change debate—political inaction in the face of urgency; denial in the face of evidence—the question of whether news reporting of climate change might be part of the reason for the green backlash needs to be considered. The logic of noise needs much more attention in our analysis of the media, particularly given the increasing trend in the media to give voice to commentary and political opinion.
Do the mediations of the debate in the mainstream media provoke confusion about climate change, about what is fact and fiction, and hence delay the search for (technological) solutions, policy development, and social and political action? Social researchers repeatedly make the point that confusion causes disengagement from politics and the political process. Climate change is going to be one of the defining problems of humanity. As such it is a textbook example of the need for knowledge and information in order to know how to act politically. The media—and particularly the news media—have been traditionally seen as central to the right to know in order to participate.
The media provide one of the most prevalent interfaces between scientists, policy makers, and members of the general public. Therefore, we need media that can help us ask the obvious questions: are the climate change deniers qualified; are they doing research in the climate change field; are they accepting money from the fossil fuel industry?  The media need to take the processes of authorising they perform for the public more seriously. Taking a closer look at the “credibility” of the “experts” relied on by the climate change denial campaign and amplified by the media reveals that most, like Plimer, have tangential qualifications and links to polluters and polluter-funded front groups. A closer look, minus the noise of the media, also reveals that they actually are a small number of people.
We also need to think through the logics of the media in the context of making sense of science and its role in society. The public understanding of science is limited, in a time of the increasing “politicisation of scientific research” . This is why popular science books by scientists, such as by Plimer, matter. Rather than fostering confusion about science, or perpetuating the myth that the everyday person cannot understand science, the media could help to increase science literacy. A recognition of the limitations in media expertise (the news media, for example, have to give an account of other fields of expertise, such as climate science, but can only really give an account of itself as a field), and the different logics at work (science seeks consensus; media seeks conflict), would also help to think through and re-think the role of the media in public debate over climate change.
Finally, we need media that participate in discussions about the relationship between debate and social change. What kind of information, communication, and images can we use to shape perception and opinion and inspire action? In the context of environmental issues, such as climate change, Ulrich Beck has described the core of the relationship between media and politics: we have to rely on the symbolic politics of the media. The symbols that translate for us the many environmental risks are being produced in the battle over the meaning of these risks. The key question therefore is “Who discovers (or invents), and how, symbols that disclose the structural character of the problems while at the same time fostering the ability to act?” 
Caught up in the political dynamics of the debate, the media miss the purpose and the politics of the climate change debate: that the function of the debate is to prevent climate change . Part of the responsibility of the news media is to introduce new knowledge to the public. A book on the social construction of climate change asks the crucial question:
How is new knowledge introduced to the public? What roles do scientists, the media, leaders at all levels, interest groups and NGOs play in constructing knowledge for the public? 
This is part of the social role and responsibility of the media, alongside its logic of spectacle for entertainment and business purposes.
Why worry about the quality of the climate change debate? Because undermining and misinterpreting environmental data prolongs an already difficult search for solutions . To change our attitudes and to act in the face of climate change needs nothing short of a revolution . Plimer and his recycling of climate change denial messages and the re-recycling through the media represents conservative resistance to the transformations necessary in the face of global climate change; it is merely clinging onto the ideologies of mastery over nature and (economic) progress. Faced with the task of dealing with change, defending conservative values with no new vision will not create a public debate that can be of public benefit. A media consultant recently suggested that in the era of ecological challenges, we might need a “public-benefit journalism” , a journalism that benefits the public in the long run, not only particular groups with vested and short term interests.•
Angi Buettner is a lecturer in Media Studies at Victoria University of Wellington, Aotearoa New Zealand, where she researches in the areas of media and politics, news culture, and environmental communication. Her most recent publication is Holocaust Images and Picturing Catastrophe: The Cultural Politics of Seeing (Ashgate 2011). She was aided in the writing of her piece by her research assistant Misha Jemsek and by the discussions with Tony Schirato.
This article originally appeared in Issue 1 of Tvergastein, Interdisciplinary Journal of the Environment. A longer version of this article has previously been published as “Climate Change in the Media: Climate Denial, Ian Plimer, and the Staging of Public Debate” in New Zealand Journal of Media Studies 12.1 (2010): 79–97. It is available online here.