26 Feb 2023

Climate minimisation still has a foothold in media

From Mediawatch, 9:08 am on 26 February 2023

National MP Maureen Pugh was censured by her bosses and made to walk back her words after calling man-made climate change into question earlier this week. But similar sentiments still find a platform in the media.

Esk Valley on 20 February following Cyclone Gabrielle.

Esk Valley on 20 February following Cyclone Gabrielle. Photo: RNZ/ Nick Monro

On Tuesday, Maureen Pugh was asked whether she thought climate change was caused by humans.

She replied that she was waiting for climate minister James Shaw to help her track down some evidence for the most extensively studied environmental phenomenon of the last 50 years.

"I am waiting on the evidence from the minister to provide that evidence," she said.

The West Coast-Tasman MP was quickly rebuffed by her own party over her request for research assistance.

National’s deputy leader Nicola Willis kindly offered to save Shaw some trouble and lend Pugh some material from her own bookshelf.

"I’ve got a lot she can read, she’s going to be doing a lot reading," she told reporters.

Three hours later, Pugh had apparently skimmed enough of the evidence to convince herself that anthropogenic climate change is real after all.

"I regret that my comments this morning were a bit unclear and would have led some to believe that I was questioning the causes of climate change and that is clearly not my position," she said. "I accept the scientific consensus that human-induced climate change is real and there is a need to curb greenhouse gas emissions."

As a National Party communications staffer stood centimetres behind her, Pugh insisted she was speaking of her own volition.

"These are my words," she said. "I have not been instructed to say this at all."

Maureen Pugh delivers a statement on climate change in her own words

Maureen Pugh delivers a statement on climate change in her own words Photo: Newshub

If Pugh got the idea there’s no evidence for man-made climate change, perhaps it’s just because she’s been listening to the output of one of our major media companies. 

Her initial, regrettable, statement to reporters echoed almost word for word what Leighton Smith had to say in the most recent episode of his popular NZME podcast.

He recounted how he'd agreed to donate $1000 to anyone who could prove that man is responsible for climate change.

"Nobody would take it on. People were challenged. They wouldn't take it on. And there's a reason they wouldn't take it on: because they can't. And the same principle applies to James Shaw, who won't waste his time explaining anthropogenic global warming to people who ask him, because he can't. And he can't because there is none. No scientific established evidence."

Leighton Smith would be out of pocket if he could accept the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the World Meteorological Organisation, the World Health Organisation, or the United Nations, the American Geophysical Union, the European Federation of Geologists, the Royal Meteorological Society, or the American Medical Association, but presumably those agencies don’t cut the mustard when it comes to the standard of enquiry demanded by a former talkback host with no scientific qualifications.

This isn’t an isolated incident. Smith has used his platform to cast doubt on man-made climate change for decades.

That wouldn’t be such a concern if he were a lone voice shouting into the void.

But his podcast goes out to thousands of people, and is introduced with the sting "now, the Leighton Smith podcast, powered by Newstalk ZB". 

Smith isn’t the only one at Newstalk ZB that’s dabbled in forms of climate denial, or at the least, climate change minimisation.

The station’s most popular host Mike Hosking had this to say on Seven Sharp back in 2014.

"Bad news. I'm afraid the IPCC – the International Panel on Climate Change – has issued its latest report. It's 2600 pages long and spans 32 volumes. But I can sum it up for you. Ah, we're stuffed. The seas are rising, the storms are coming, the locusts are close, we are going to climatic hell in a handcart. That's of course, if you believe them. Which, as it turns out, I don't."

In recent years Hosking has taken to accepting that climate change is happening, while arguing we shouldn’t have to do too much about it.

In 2019, he argued against making climate-friendly adjustments to society under the headline 'stop giving the climate nutters credibility'. 

"This seems, in so many respects, an ironic age. We are running the very real risk of curtailing our lives and our outlooks on what might turn out to be a fad or a whim. 

"Climate change I talk of. Climate change and its obsession is taking over rational thought. Now this is not to say climate change isn't real, but it is to say we don't know what to do about it. We might think we do, but we don’t.

"And whatever it is we do do, whether that in any real tangible way is going to solve it, or if in fact it's solvable at all, is another part of the whole debate," he said.

Perhaps Willis can let him borrow her books after Pugh is done with them, because there’s a lot of research – including from the IPCC – on the most effective ways to combat climate change.

Hosking’s colleague Heather du Plessis Allan has occupied a similar position, arguing climate change isn’t important enough to be at the top of the government’s policy agenda in an editorial from 2020.

"I know I’m not supposed to say it but bugger it, I’m just going to say it anyway. Climate change is not the biggest problem this country has at the moment. It is not our highest priority 

"We are responsible in this country for about 0.17 percent at last count of global emissions. And yet today, here we have this farce of the government declaring a climate change emergency and instructing the public service to carbon neutral by 2025."

In 2022, she followed that with another similarly themed missive headlined ‘Does climate change really matter when push comes to shove?’

As it turns out, it does. In the aftermath of Cyclone Gabrielle, she said the catastrophe might spur people to back climate action.

"In the last couple of days, I have read versions of the same headline over and over again: Will this be the climate crisis event that spurs action? Do you know what? I think it might be. 

"I think for a lot of people, this might be the summer that really drives home the fact that climate change is coming for you."

Maybe that action would have been spurred earlier if more of our leading commentators had used their platform to explain why climate change is an issue that matters to New Zealanders, rather than to cast doubt on its significance.

At least these commentators are coming round to the idea that climate change is a big deal.

Over at the Herald, opinion writer John Roughan has clung to a different line for the better part of 20 years.

In 2007, he described himself as a climate sceptic and said that with luck, climate change would soon go the way of the "recently approaching ice age".

In 2009, he said climate change was either "wildly overstated or the solutions ridiculously inadequate". 

"Either way, it is hard to take climate change seriously," he added.

In 2014, he scoffed at the prospect of the sea rising by half-a-metre, and compared climate mitigation to what he saw as unnecessary earthquake strengthening measures.

"Major earthquakes are terrifying but the threat to life in old buildings is probably no greater than the dire consequences predicted from climate change. Both could be given that reliable Kiwi risk-assessment: She'll be right," he said.

In 2017, one year after the Herald signed up to Covering Climate Now, which calls for responsible climate reporting, Roughan wrote a column shrugging off a dismal summer that many linked to the effects of climate change under the headline: ‘Year of extreme weather not so bad’.

Credit to Roughan, he’s consistent. Even with huge swathes of Auckland flooded, and Tairāwhiti and Hawke's Bay devastated by a climate change-fuelled cyclone, he’s stuck to his guns.

He began his column on 18 February noting that people in the background of the cyclone coverage on TV news were generally smiling, before positing that those grins were evidence of our nation’s sunny outlook on a warming future beset by regular meteorological disasters.

"Climate change is here and we know now we’re going to be alright," he wrote.

That would be news to his NZME stablemate, Hawke's Bay Today editor Chris Hyde, who wrote an impassioned editorial on how climate change has affected his district which was published on the front page of the most recent edition of the Weekend Herald.

"Blame can and probably will be pinned on failing infrastructure and poor warnings and unwise land use, but that’s not helpful right now.

"What we know is that our climate gave our region a storm on a scale we’ve not seen. Help us. Reduce your emissions. Push those in power to make change.

"Don’t send us a cake, and then let us drown again."

There are also several people across the country who might call Roughan's optimistic assessment into question, including Tolaga Bay farmer Bridget Parker.

In a widely shared interview with RNZ, she explained the damage Cyclone Gabrielle had done to her community.

"We knew Gabrielle could be bad. We prepared for the worst. But nothing prepares you for this carnage. And is anyone coming to help? We just cleaned out everything. We've got great mates, but where's the bloody army? Can't they come in here and bring some bulldozers and graders and shit. Why are we just left alone every time this happens? The whole district needs the army in here, end of story."

Or as Hawke's Bay resident Andrew Biggs put it on Twitter, "we are smiling cause if we don’t our kids will cry".

The sobering reality facing Hyde, Parker, Biggs and many others has reinforced a broad consensus on New Zealand’s need to mitigate and adapt to climate change. 

As Maureen Pugh showed earlier this week, not believing the science on man-made climate change, or the need to curb greenhouse gas emissions, is now too extreme a position for either of our major political parties.

For some reason, the same still can’t be said of all of our major media organisations.