Deny, distort, denigrate: the sentiment of climate-focused letters to the editor in The Australian across July—December 2019

DISCLAIMER: This is a qualitative, subjective analysis. If you’re not interested in the methodology skip down to the plot in Results.

What to do when deniers deny ever having denied? In a valiant act of self-sacrifice I decided to spend my weekend reading every single climate-focused letter to the editor that was published by The Australian in the last six months. I had hoped to do editorials and commentaries, but alas, the tool [1] I was using to scrape articles wasn’t playing nice and kept forgetting luminaries like Chris Kenny. I classified each letter I read according to the following four criteria:

  1. Did the letter support or oppose the scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change?
  2. Did the letter support or oppose action seeking to mitigate anthropogenic climate change?
  3. Did the letter support or oppose individuals/entities arguing for more climate action?
  4. Did the letter support or oppose the existence of a link between natural disaster incidence rates/severity and anthropogenic climate change?

Because the criteria were often inextricably linked (for example, a letter criticising Greta Thunberg’s 2019 UN Climate Action Summit ‘How dare you’ speech may reasonably be characterised as being not only opposed to an individual arguing for more climate action [criterion 3], but also to action seeking to mitigate anthropogenic climate change [criterion 2] and the scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change [criterion 1]), I did not record the particular criteria that each letter met. Instead, letters were simply classified as belonging to one of the following categories:

CategoryDefinition
Supportivesupported at least one criterion (plain English: supportive of climate science/action)
Opposedopposed at least one criterion (plain English: opposed to climate science/action)
Nuancedopposed at least one criterion and supported at least one criterion, often implicitly (plain English: supportive in one breath and hostile in another. For example, denigrating climate protests and renewable energy whilst at the same time advocating for nuclear energy, which at least implies that something should be done about climate change)

These judgements were necessarily subjective; I’ve provided some example letters with their classifications below [2] to give a sense of how I was interpreting the criteria.

I also excluded letters that I classified as:

CategoryDefinition
Irrelevantthose that had been included in the letters by my aggregation tool but which had nothing to do with climate change
Uninterpretablethose I had difficulty interpreting the sentiment of
Lacking contextthose I lacked enough context to be able to judge confidently

Finally, there were a minority of letters that were too hard to stick into only one category. Here I enacted the principle of charity as described in Results below – if I considered them to be borderline opposed/nuanced say, then I instead reclassified them as nuanced. In other words, they were reinterpreted in the direction that would suit a newspaper trying to defend its credibility on such a weighty matter.

Results [3]

CategoryNumber of letters
Supportive48
Opposed206
Nuanced31
Borderline supportive/nuanced2
Borderline opposed/nuanced27
Borderline irrelevant/opposed1
Borderline irrelevant/nuanced2
Borderline uninterpretable/opposed1
Irrelevant106
Uninterpretable2
Lacking context11

Table 1: the sentiment of n = 437 letters towards climate science/action published by The Australian for July—December 2019. Letters were aggregated by Factiva [1] in the first instance, hence the large proportion of irrelevant.

After filtering out those that were irrelevantuninterpretable, or lacking context, as well as waving my charitable magic wand (transforming supportive/nuanced to supportiveopposed/nuanced to nuancedirrelevant/opposed to irrelevantirrelevant/nuanced to nuanced, and uninterpretable/opposed to uninterpretable), I was left with:

CategoryNumber of letters
Supportive50
Opposed206
Nuanced60

Table 2: the sentiment of n = 306 letters towards climate science/action published by The Australian for July—December 2019.

Which prettily plotted by month looks like this:

Discussion

The figure largely speaks for itself – by my reckoning, for any letter published in The Oz on climate change, there’s a greater than 2/3rds chance (206 letters out of 306, about 67%) that it expresses unambiguous opposition to any one of: the scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change, action seeking to mitigate anthropogenic climate change, individuals/entities arguing for climate action, or the link between natural disasters and anthropogenic climate change.

Supportive letters were a rare sight; I commend those who wrote them.

Conclusion: The Letters to the Editor page of The Australian is arguably one of the country’s greatest continuing contributions to fantasy literature. Hostility towards the science of climate change and those who seek climate action is by far the dominant discourse for climate-focused letters.


Footnotes:

[1] I used Factiva (a tool – ironically owned by News Corp – that aggregates and classifies media content) to gather the letters. I searched for all articles published by both the print and online versions of The Australian from July through to December 2019 that were tagged with the subject ‘Climate Change’ and the text ‘letters to the editor’. This captured the traditional Letters to the Editor commentary pages, as well as the Post of the Day and Last Post sections if they contained climate change related content.

[2] Since the letters are paywalled unfortunately I can’t share exact copies for my examples – you’ll have to make do with summaries and quotes here. I’ve included an extra nuanced example since those are the classifications that ought to be the most contentious.

Example 1, by RB on 23/9/2019.

Defends climate striking youth. Suggests those attacking them “consider the possibility that they are wrong”.

Judged supportive for supporting re. criterion 3.

Example 2, by ID on 18/11/2019:

Approves of Chris Kenny column called “Climate crusaders exploit fires to push their alarmist view”. Rejoices in article telling “the Greens and fellow travellers the facts about climate change and its so-called effect on bushfires”.

Judged opposed for opposing re. criteria 3 and 4.

Example 3, by JE on 24/7/2019:

Defends Bjorn Lomborg and the work of his Copenhagen Consensus Centre. Argues that other problems ought to be addressed ahead of climate change.

Judged nuanced for implicitly supporting re. criterion 1 (the author acknowledges the existence of climate change) and opposing re. criteria 2 and 3.

Example 4, by RH on 8/11/2019:

Denigrates scientists that signed joint statement on climate action. Suggests they ought to be advocating for nuclear power. Also suggests that they ought to realise that economic growth leads to the best outcomes for the environment.

Judged nuanced for implicitly supporting re. criterion 1 (doesn’t dispute the existence of climate change), and opposing re. criteria 2 and 3.

[3] My classification of each individual letter can be found here (use the metadata sheet to interpret) and the R code I used to process the data and create my figure here.