Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Like a Rinehart Cowboy

By Ian Lowe

Will more anti-climate change cowboys ride into the media spotlight following Gina Rinehart’s purchase of a stake in Fairfax?

I have been concerned for some time about the refusal to accept the science of climate change by determined ideologues, and the level of attention The Australian gives to those fringe views. Until now, the science has usually been given a fair run in the Fairfax newspapers. But I worry about how long that will continue.

Gina Rinehart is Australia’s richest woman, mainly because she chose her parents more carefully than most of us. As well as being a determined campaigner for even more generous treatment of the mining industry than its current subsidies and tax breaks, she has also actively supported the climate change deniers.

For instance, last year she helped to fund a speaking tour by Christopher Monckton, a failed British politician with no climate science credentials at all who thinks that climate science is part of some sort of international communist conspiracy. GetUp! has now distributed a video that shows Monckton lamenting the fact that the Australian media lacks a far-right outlet like Fox News to broadcast his kind of views. He urged the mining industry to fund such a propaganda channel. Almost in the same week, we heard that Gina Rinehardt had bought a block of Fairfax shares.

I don’t want to seem paranoid, but I can’t help recalling that Andrew Bolt was given his own program on Channel 10 shortly after Gina Rinehardt bought into that television network. Part of Bolt’s re-invention of himself as a right-wing shock-jock is a consistent refusal to accept climate change science. He has other strange views that recently found him on the wrong end of a Federal Court judgement, but that’s another story.

If owning a block of shares gave Rinehardt the capacity to inflict Bolt on the TV network’s Sunday morning audience, will she now also be dictating editorial policy to the Fairfax press? Can we expect The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald to supplement their science writers with dedicated pseudoscience reporters promulgating the latest misinformation about climate change? It’s a worry.

*****

The report to the United Nations by its high level panel on sustainability received a fair bit of media attention, perhaps because it was released in January when antipodean sources are struggling for material. It is a very impressive document, well-argued and solidly based on the warnings science has been providing for 30–40 years. It sets out an agenda for national governments to re­direct their development aspirations, taking proper account of global environmental problems and resource limits.

When I read through the list of panel members I found a familiar name: K.M. Rudd, Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs and former Prime Minister. I hope that means the report’s recommendations will be speedily implemented by the Australian government. Watch this space.

*****

I advised readers in my December 2011 column to avoid the fierce summer sun due to the risk of skin cancer. Now research has given another reason. A newspaper health column in January reported a NSW study looking at levels of exposure to the summer sun between the ages of 30 and 50 among men who later developed prostate cancer. It found that “the cancer was twice as common among the 25% of men exposed to the most sunlight in the warmer months, compared with the 25 per cent who were in the sun the least”.

There is no obvious mechanism to explain the link, but cancer works in complex ways. While most people now know that smoking dramatically increases the risk of cancers of the lung and other parts of the respiratory system, I was surprised to hear an expert warn that smoking also exacerbates the risk of bladder cancer.

But before you take a solemn oath to avoid the outdoors, I should tell you that the very same newspaper column also reported a study of more than 11,000 adults which found that 31% were deficient in vitamin D, which is normally obtained from exposure to sunlight! The incidence of vitamin D deficiency was predictably higher among the physically inactive and those with higher levels of education, who presumably spend their summer reading science magazines rather than sitting on the beach. Clearly we need to calibrate our exposure very carefully.

Ian Lowe is Emeritus Professor of science, technology and society at Griffith University.