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  • Writer's pictureGeoff Russell

A plea for professionalism in climate journalism in Australia

The IPCC Assessment Report 6, Working Group III devotes considerable attention to dietary change as a necessary part of tackling climate change; citing various studies including one estimating the potential for a 29% reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions from a switch to plant-based foods.

The report also points out that carbon dioxide removal (CDR) will be essential to get to net-zero; with reforestation being the principal method.

The link between reforestation and dietary shift should be obvious.

Much of the 3.4 billion hectares used by grazing animals globally was formerly forested. That land would reforest if the grazing animals, mostly cattle and sheep, were removed. You wouldn't have to plant it; meaning actively rewild it, just remove the grazers. In Australia, that's about 70 million hectares of the 100 million hectares cleared during the past couple of hundred years. That 70 million is the area of modified pastures. Our cattle and sheep also graze another 344 million hectares of native vegetation. The land used for human housing, in contrast, is about 3 million hectares, roughly evenly split between cities and rural towns.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) also understands the climate science around food.

The IEA's 2019 Net-Zero by 2050 plan understands that net-zero can't happen without agricultural reform; which mostly means getting rid of ruminants. So the IEA plan factors in the clawback of 200 million hectares globally from grazing industries as an essential part of the plan.

Put simply; food as usual isn't an option any more than business as usual.

The IPCC puts it pretty bluntly (p.12-74):

... even if fossil fuel emissions were eliminated immediately, food system emissions alone would jeopardize the achievement of the 1.5 degrees C target and threaten the 2 degrees C target.

Stop reading and think about that.

It means it doesn't matter whether we close down all our fossil fuel industries, switch to electric vehicles, change all steel and concrete manufacture to some, as yet not quite clear, but clean, method. If we don't change our diets, meaning, at the bare minimum, slashing our intake of ruminants, then we are toast.

This isn't a new bit of science, the numbers were first (as far as I know) calculated by Canadian researchers Nathan Pelletier and Peter Tyedmers back in 2010.

The very clear implication is that dietary shift isn't a side issue, it's not a frill, it's not optional; it's a necessary part of fixing the climate.

But you wouldn't know that reading either Nick O'Malley, National Environment and Climate Editor for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, or Adam Morton, the Guardian's Climate and Environment Editor.

How can you cover climate change and ignore between 1/3 and 1/2 of the science about the problem? Where are their articles covering the necessity for dietary change in the climate science literature and IPCC reports? Where is their analysis of the impacts of such calls in Australia and globally? I'll apologise if I missed them, but if google can't find them, then they probably weren't written.

In Academic Journals, but not in newspapers, it is normal for authors to list conflicts of interest. These are often financial, but not always. If your love of steak or hamburgers colours your journalism, and leads you to ignore critical information in your articles, then your readers have a right to know. These two editors are highly influential and we all have a right to know why they aren't doing their job and reporting the science.

Australia's biggest warming impact

Australia is an unusual place. Our greenhouse gas emission profile isn't like the US, or anywhere in Asia or Europe. We have more cattle than people and they (along with sheep) are our largest climate forcing; larger than all our coal and gas fired power stations.

But you wouldn't know that from O'Malley and Morton. Unfortunately, this pair is typical of the overwhelming majority of Australian journalists who are seemingly in denial about the link between animal agriculture and the climate.

In a June 2021 article, Morton reports on feeding seaweed to cattle as a means of reducing methane. It reads like a desperate bid to assure readers that the price of a roast couldn't rise to $100. You can sense the relief in his writing. He also mentions that the meat industry claims to have a net-zero plan. But does Morton focus any perspicacity or diligent analysis on either the seaweed or net zero claim? I'll bet he'd apply all his critical faculties to any claim about "clean coal". Instead, all he gives is a lazy uncritical parroting of the claims. A senior editor should do better.

Let's think about that seaweed claim in a way that any competent and unbiased investigative journalist would.

Australia's beef cattle population varies between about 21 and 25 million depending on the overseas markets. At any time, how many cattle are in feedlots (so that you can feed them seaweed): about 5%. So the potential for methane emission reductions is roughly 5%; assuming those in feedlots can be fed to produce zero methane (unlikely). Animals in feedlots typically produce less methane per kilo of growth, because of the less fibrous nature of the diet, but they grow quicker, so getting an accurate number is complex; their share of cattle methane could be a little higher than 5%, maybe as high as 10%; but whatever it is, it's small.

Alternatively, instead of a little thinking, you could check some data; like Australia's annual UNFCCC Greenhouse Gas Inventories; these itemise the methane from cattle in feedlots and those on pasture. They put the ratio of methane from animals on feedlots to those on pasture at about 6.8%. So the miracle seaweed tech Morton reports on has the capacity to reduce the 6.8% ... while missing the 93.2%.

For Morton to not bother with even the simplest of analysis of the seaweed claim is revealing.

For his part, O'Malley, In September 2021, managed to write a whole article about the Global Methane Pledge to reduce methane without once mentioning cattle. Instead, he uses the accurate but misleadingly vague term "agriculture" and reports simply that methane from agriculture is reducing while methane from our gas industry is expanding. His readers would probably be surprised to know that when O'Malley was writing that, the "reducing" emissions from livestock were 75% higher than those "increasing" emissions from the gas and coal industries. Why did he ignore this important context?

But doesn't methane come from other agricultural activities as well as livestock? So isn't O'Malley correct to use the inclusive term? Again, it pays to look at the data. Our UNFCCC submissions put the methane from agriculture at 2,167,000 tonnes; of which 2,160,000 tonnes came from livestock.

Why are so many journalists so quick to swallow meat industry net-zero propaganda without the same level of scrutiny they'd give fossil fuel spruikers of clean coal?

Back to the IPCC. What's the IPCC response to meat-and-climate-deniers like Morton and O'Malley, who clearly don't want anything to do with shifting to plant-based diets; or even to heavily reduced meat diets. Does the IPCC report say something like: "Dietary shift has no social license, so we'll ignore it?". Absolutely not. That would be to give up on fixing the climate. Instead, the IPCC surveys the literature on dietary change and how best to achieve it. They also consider meat alternatives, cell cultures and so on. That's what you do when you both understand the science and are committed to fixing the climate. Dietary change is tough. The IPCC know that because that's what the psychological data says. But to give up is to deliberately condemn the planet to considerably more warming.

Quality news sources also get it

In addition to IPCC and IEA, quality news sources also get the connection between meat and the climate and between meat and many other problems. Here is a graphic from a recent piece in "The Economist", June 23rd this year. The article highlights the desperate global food plight and the role of the meat industry in making it worse. We hoard grains for meat production in exactly the same we hoarded global vaccine production.

New Scientist not that long ago had a feature issue about vegan diets. Note the highlighting of the "Climate Change" bubble in the image.

More recently, June 15, NewScientist has an in depth piece reporting the latest scientific findings on the impacts of various diets on biodiversity. Announcing the result of the comparison it notes:

To no one’s great surprise, the meat-heavy US [or Australian] diet, rich in processed food, would be catastrophic, condemning around 200 species to extinction, 40 per cent of them outside the US. These irreversible losses – mostly of plants – would be driven in the main by the conversion of natural habitats to pastureland

To "no-one's surprise"? They are clearly talking about objective observers, not our two featured so-called environment editors. Or perhaps I'm wrong, perhaps they understand the science but just refuse to offend red-necked Australian news editors and Greenies (or greenies) by writing about it. The Greens have a long history of backing animal agriculture, not surprising given that they had a cattle breeder for a leader in Richard Di Natale.

The above quote singles out the US diet, but if anything, the Australian diet is even more environmentally catastrophic than the US diet; because we have more extensive cattle meat production.

I could multiply the examples, but I think the case is made. Our pair so-called "environment" editors is simply out of step with both the science and with professional journalism on the environment. They should perhaps be writing in the social pages on who attended which BBQ and with whom.

About leopards and spots

Given the above "form", we should be skeptical of whatever this pair of journalists, along with most other Australian BBQ-addicted journalists, write about climate science or action.

If they have biases that prevent them from writing factually about the food aspect of climate science, what other biases do they have that influence their work?

Enter nuclear power.

Where to start.

A picture is best. Here's the state of global energy. Keep in mind that electricity is only about 1/4 of all energy, so having the bars of equal length is a little misleading and really deserves a footnote.

Both the IEA and the IPPC understand this image. Look how tiny the orange solar power strip is. After 20 years of news headlines about the rapid growth of solar power and how cheap it is, you'd be forgiven for expecting a wider bar.

The IPCC gets it ... and includes nuclear in all four of its suggested pathways to net zero.

The IEA also gets it. Its Net-Zero by 2050 plan is heavily supportive of wind and solar; not least because it provides an employment pathway for the geophysical skills base of the oil and gas industry. Renewables require a massive expansion in new mines and the fossil fuel industry is well placed to provide both the brains and the muscle for this mineral boom.

But the IEA also calls for a doubling of nuclear power by 2050 and an end to premature closures of old plants.

Look again at the image. To remove the purple strips on the picture while betting the planet on the glacially slow growth over the past 20 years of the orange and green strips would condemn the planet to toast. Journalists have been incompetently and misleadingly focusing on the high growth rate of wind and solar for 20 years without bothering to explain how trivially easy it is to grow quickly when you are tiny. All the reports about this or that massive growth rate in either wind or solar have been designed to push an agenda and suck in investment and government subsidies.

The global energy image makes abundantly clear that if the international anti-nuclear movement succeeds in removing the purple strip, then we can kiss the benign climate of the past 10,000 years goodbye.

When O'Malley is flaunting statistics on the poor current build rates of nuclear power outside China, he conveniently ignores that nuclear power still generates three times more electricity than solar and substantially more than wind. Bias is most obvious not in what people say, but in what they omit. Neither Morton or O'Malley has realised that the growth rates for both solar and wind are trending down; not up!

The IEA Net-Zero by 2050 plan calculates the required compound growth rates of wind and solar between 2020 and 2030 at 18% and 24% respectively. As you can see from the following graph, both are already behind schedule and trending in the wrong direction.

At 70,000-100,000 tonnes of material for each gigawatt of solar panels, and another 100,000 tonnes for 8 hours of overnight battery storage, the limiting factor is opening new mines fast enough to fuel the river of minerals that need to flow through factories to produce wind and solar power.

Electric vehicle battery capacity also requires material and the mining and production of these are even further behind the IEA schedule (which calls for 200 battery gigafactories (35GWh/year) by 2030 (we currently have about 22 with plans for perhaps another 10 by 2030). We aren't just behind on batteries for EVs, we are a long way behind.

We have few options for transport other than electric vehicles, so that wasting battery capacity on grid storage will make hitting EV targets even harder than they already are.

Regardless of what Morton and O'Malley think about nuclear power, we can't fix the climate without it. Globally, it is essential.

A sensible person would be asking why the Chinese and South Koreans can build nuclear plants quickly and cheaply. This implies that slow build rates in the West aren't a matter of the technology; so what are the problems? How can they be fixed? A sensible person would be asking whether the lack of social license in some Western countries is based on science or nonsense.

To be globally anti-nuclear is either to deny we have a climate emergency or simply not understand the basic ratios represented by the global energy image above.

If the global West can fix its nuclear build rates, then will sunny Australia be a special case? Would we still want to try for net-zero without nuclear? The IPCC report supports wind and solar power but sounds a word of caution:

Economic, regulatory, social, and operational challenges increase with higher shares of renewable electricity and energy. The ability to overcome these challenges in practice is not fully understood. {high confidence}

This is a polite way of saying we don't actually know how to build renewable electricity grids and it gets tougher as we get a higher and higher share of renewables.

In 2020, the Australian Electricity Market Operator published a Renewable Integrations Study (RIS) subtitled "Stage 1" ... the subtitle is revealing.

With the Appendices, the RIS is 350 pages worth of intermittent renewable engineering problems. Some are trivial, others are extremely complex. I discuss some of them in "Modeling grids and telling fibs".

In short, Australia is betting on unproven technology. Maybe we can get to net-zero with renewables and no nuclear, but maybe we can't.

We certainly can't get to net-zero with 28 million cattle. So who would trust journalists who ignore both the climate science on methane and the IPCC and IEA on nuclear? Ditto political parties who deny the science on animal agriculture like our Greens.

Recall the IPCC attitude to the social license on plant-based diets?

If the social license on plant-based diets is a problem, then it needs to be fixed, not ignored. The same should apply to nuclear power. The appendix below will explain a little about how nuclear power got its image problem; and again, incompetent journalism has plenty to answer for.

Appendix: Incompetent radiation journalism, coming your way since 1986

Suppose you woke up to a headline: "2,000 dead in Pitcairn Island tsunami". Your level of surprise would depend on whether you knew the population of Pitcairn. It's 47. Oops!

Newspapers around the world screamed "2,000 dead" on April 30th 1986; four days after a steam explosion blew the top off a reactor and damaged a building at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in what is now Ukraine. Was it likely there were 2,000 people anywhere near the reactor? No. But nobody bothered to check.

If anybody had checked, they'd have found there were only 173 workers on site at the time of the explosion. Because journalists knew nothing about nuclear reactors, they believed something as impossible as that 2,000 could be killed in Pitcairn Island.

Journalists at the time took the word of a US diplomat from Kyiv, Keneth Adelman; who, obviously, knew nothing. What was Adelman's field of expertise? Shakespeare and Bible studies. That's oops number one.

Now suppose you heard that 1,000 people contracted and died from bowel cancer in Sydney last week. Your level of surprise would depend on whether you knew that it usually takes decades for bowel cancer to kill you. Bowel cancer simply doesn't kill quickly; nor does radiation. That's oops number two.

Fast forward to 2012. ABC Journalist Mark Willacy, stationed in Japan at the time of the 2011 Tohuko Earthquake and Tsunami, an event which killed 19,747 people with another 2,566 people missing, writes a book about the Fukushima accident ... which killed nobody.

The accident would also have rendered nobody homeless if not for Prime Minister Naoto Kan's decision to ignore the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) guidelines on when an evacuation should be considered and order one anyway. A terrified Kan ordered the sick and elderly thrown into buses in the middle of the night to protect them from something that would never have hurt them. Willacy had access to Kan and details his fears of a nuclear explosion "like at Chernobyl"...

What? Oops number three, four, five through to about 50!

How could Kan, the Prime Minister of the only country ever to experience a nuclear explosion (two), not understand the difference between those explosions and a steam explosion?

Each of the World War II nuclear explosions leveled hundreds of hectares, killing anybody in the blast radius and a little beyond. The Chernobyl steam explosion blew the top off the reactor and damaged a single building. Nuclear power reactors don't use weapons-grade material; so they can't explode. That's why they call weapons-grade material "weapons-grade".

Kan and Willacy's ignorance has plenty to do with the media and the way they choose the carcasses on which to have their feeding frenzies. Willacy named his book after the event which killed nobody. The word "Fukushima" quickly became synonymous with the event, not the city or prefecture. Compare the number of books written about Chernobyl and the number written about Ufa.

WTF is Ufa?

Ufa could have become an event, like Fukushima or Chernobyl, but it is still just an ordinary city. A city near where a gas explosion a few years after Chernobyl killed 575 people, including 121 children. They were on a train passing a gas plant at the wrong time. Another 800 or so were left with horrific burns. Some of the same US doctors who treated the firefighters at Chernobyl also treated burns victims at Ufa. Compare the Ufa toll with the 2 deaths of the Chernobyl (steam) explosion and 28 in the weeks after from burns and radiation. In the years since Ufa, some people may have succumbed to their injuries or from cancers due to the plume of carcinogens from the explosion; but we'll never know because nobody bothered to estimate those cancers. In contrast, we know that among the 160,000 cancers each year in Ukraine from alcohol, tobacco, obesity, inactivity, processed meat and other causes, there are 110 or so thyroid cancers due to Chernobyl. Fortunately, thyroid cancer rarely kills, so there have only been about 15 deaths over the years. For comparison, over the past decade, about 9,000 Germans have died prematurely because of additional fossil fuel pollution due to their decision to shut their nuclear power plants.

As the Fukushima media circus took off, helicopters were flown over the stricken plant to provide information; much as they do in bush fires. Crikey's Guy Rundle wrote about these "suicide" missions (they were nothing of the kind). Rundle claimed: "The Japanese crews will slough their skin and muscles, and bleed out internally under the full glare of the world’s media. [like they did at Chernobyl ... except they didn't]". We know exactly what happened to the helicopter pilots of Chernobyl, nothing. Every radiotherapy patient on the planet, millions each year, receive many times the radiation dose that the Chernobyl helicopter pilots got; and they get that dose day after day after day! The Chernobyl helicopter pilots got exposures of about 1/4 Gray in each flight, and most did only one flight. A radiotherapy patient might get 40-60 Grays during their treatment. The dose is split into smaller doses of one or so Grays per treatment. Media ignorance and incompetence on such matters is profound.

Australia's journalists (I've named four, but the criticism applies to many more), are stunningly lazy and ignorant about radiation. They don't know anything about dose or units or types. How can you, for example, travel to the most radioactive area around Chernobyl and lie down in a high radiation area in complete safety? They don't know. Why are tourists lazing around on radioactive beaches in Brazil while topsoil in areas in Japan with far less radiation have been shoveled into black plastic bags at great expense? They don't know. But, to be fair, nor do I, it's just the kind of thing which happens when ignorance rules.

Journalists invariably also don't know anything about modern DNA biology; which makes them easy suckers for anti-nuclear misinformation. Back when the anti-nuclear movement was born, people thought DNA damage was rare and invariably dangerous and cumulative. That was what scientists believed in 1959. These days they know better. These days they know that every day every cell in your body receives about 10,000 pieces of DNA damage. Raise background radiation by 400 fold (far higher than any member of the public received even briefly after Fukushima) and this count rises by 12 to 10,012. There are now big text books about DNA repair. It's the repair genius of DNA that requires radiotherapy to be repeated day after day after day to kill cancer (or any other) cell.

Here's the cover of an 1,164 page textbook on DNA repair; something not dreamed about when the anti-nuclear movement began. Every assumption behind the early predictions of cancers and birth defects from nuclear accidents is now known to be wrong; which is why they haven't happened. UK journalist George Monbiot, to his credit, worked this out in 2011 when he reevaluated his views about radiation following the Fukushima meltdowns. But the myths continue and get passed on in the oral tradition of journalists who simply don't bother to inform themselves; with Australia's journalists being among the worst on the planet on this issue.



Jul 02, 2022

Interesting article. I don't really know how to chase up the numbers you quote about methane emissions, but the size of the problem strikes me as a little exaggerated. A while back I found an FAO article that seems to say that globally, enteric emissions account for about 5-6% of global GHG emissions on a CO2eq basis. I would be surprised to find Australia significantly different. Using the Paris Agreement Inventory from AGEIS, I come up with (in 2020) 416 Mt of CO2 and CH4 expressed as a CO2eq for energy, 18Mt from industrial processes and 61Mt from agriculture. This tool does agree that the majority of emissions from agriculture on a CO2eq basis indeed comes from methane (though on…

Geoff Russell
Geoff Russell
Jul 03, 2022
Replying to

Hi, most of Australia's cropping is for animal feed, not human food. Humans in Australia typically eat less than 3m tonnes of cereals/year. Our livestock consume about 13m tonnes. Our grain harvest oscillates between about 15m tonnes (in a bad year) and 30m tonnes. In a good year we export millions of tonnes, in a bad year we import feed grains.

Regarding the 20 year factor for methane. ALL climate modelling uses instantaneous impacts of the gas concerned. In the case if methane this is much closer to the 20 year impact figure than the 100 year impact figure. The 100 year GWP is purely an accounting tool to simplify reporting ... it isn't used by climate science models ...…

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