Climate blueprint release annoys reporters, confounds broadcasters

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A blueprint to bring down our carbon emissions by 2050  – and change the way we all live – came out this week. There was excellent media coverage of the detail but some journalists complained they were denied the time to report it properly. Meanwhile, some broadcasters leading debate in the media didn’t seem to have read much of it.

TVNZ news viewers saw the PM clutching a report she said was “one of the most significant pieces of work” for the government. But some journalist said they weren’t given enough time to be able to report it properly. Photo: screenshot / TVNZ 1 News

“The biggest economic transformation since the 1980s – and many of us don’t even know it.”

That was how Stuff’s climate editor Eloise Gibson and reporter Olivia Wannan put it in an article published ahead of the Climate Change Commission’s report (PDF) made public last Sunday.

The government isn’t obliged to turn any of the advice into policy – but many pundits and politicians predict it will – whether we like it or not – to meet our obligations to get our carbon emissions down.

No new gas-guzzling cars. No gas in new houses. Fewer farm animals. These were just some of the recommendations that made headlines – and made talkback radio light up this week.

On last Sunday’s 6pm TV news viewers saw the prime minister and Climate Change Minister James Shaw facing reporters clutching copies of the report setting out the commission’s advice and the evidence to backstop it.

The level of detail, over 600 pages, made it no easy task to report on the day it came out – and the task was made harder by the way it was released to some reporters.

“Unfortunately  – because of the way it was released – it has been impossible to analyse,” wrote Richard Harman on the subscription-based news site Politik.co.nz

For most journalists, the first details came in a joint press release issued by the PM’s office on Sunday morning. Both documents were made public at 2pm last Sunday – just an hour before the press conference.

Some complained there nowhere near enough time to absorb the details before their first reports or to identify the most searching questions to put to the ministers at the press conference after the big reveal.

Some reporters had been given a heads-up under embargo, though potentially commercially-sensitive numbers had been redacted. But many reporters had no advanced access at all, even if they asked for it last week and made a strong case.

None of the reporters Mediawatch spoke to was given any details before last Thursday.

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Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

Was the commission ‘playing favourites’? Did they not trust some reporters – or their outlets – to observe an embargo?

“We worked through as a board the question of how we would deal with the release of a large, complex amount of advice that included market-sensitive data concerning things like wholesale electricity prices and shadow pricing for emissions,” the commission’s chair Dr Rod Carr told Mediawatch this weekend.

 

“I asked the team to … redact anything that might be market-sensitive and how we would limit access to the document prior to its release, knowing there would be six weeks of consultation. It’s not a matter of trust it’s a matter of controlling slip-ups,” he said. 

 

“Our engagement team … proposed a number of people distribute the document to – including about 200 journalists –  partly through the Science Media Centre and other interested groups,” he said. 

 

“But in my view (that) was too extensive. I invited them to name journalists familiar with climate change matters and who had engaged with the commission over the previous six to 12 months – and are knowledgeable and more likely to be able to interpret the data in the short time it was available before release,” he said. 

 

Did the commission fear “Shock ban on gas cookers and BBQs”-type headlines overshadowing its report?  

“There was no intention to try and avoid the inevitable headlines that these things provoke. I wasn’t worried about the conversations or sensational headlines. It was genuine concern about the market-sensitive data. People reading between the lines early could’ve accused us of being naive about the effect on prices and values – and that would’ve been damning,” he said.

As chair I take responsibility. We have received feedback and concern. We are open to considering how we deal with the release of complex data that may have market-sensitive information. We are not headline-chasing. We’re trying to develop a deeper understanding of this complex issues,” he told Mediawatch. 

Feedback from the public

How the draft report was reported to the public matters – because there’s only six weeks for people to have their say.

The commission will release final advice by 31 May. The government will then respond with an Emissions Reduction Plan before the end of the year.

But on Newstalk ZB last Monday, Kerre McIvor told listeners submitters would be wasting their time.

“You might as well be talking to your bum. This government has already said it is dedicated to going down this path,” she said.

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Many of her fellow talk radio hosts reckoned it was a bum deal – but not always with reference to what was actually in the report.

Newstalk ZB’s Tim Dower told his early-rising audience on Monday he was alarmed by the recommended 15 percent reduction in farm’s herds.

“Does this mean 15 percent less meat and dairy?” he asked.

It’s quite clear in the report and the summary of advice the recommended herd reduction doesn’t mean that at all.

“Is there a deviant agenda behind this? Are we going to be force to be vegans?” he asked his listeners.

Any ‘deviant agenda’ was all in his mind. There is nothing at all in the report about veganism – let alone a compulsory quota.

One of a series of explanatory videos posted by the Climate Change Commission He Pou a Rangi

Meanwhile on the AM Show, host Duncan Garner and his sceptical sidekicks were sidetracked by electric cars’ appeal.

“The good news is electric cars are cheaper now – but I can’t stand the look. They’re like an apology on wheels,” said the host. Mark Richardson agreed, and said he would not drive a Tesla if he was gifted one.

On Magic Talk, Peter Williams told his listeners “in 10 years time you will not be able to buy a nice European or Japanese car running on petrol or diesel”.

But there will probably be plenty to buy and sell for years after that. The commission recommends winding down imports of ‘fossil-fueled light vehicles’ – or conventional cars and vans – by 2032, but estimates electric cars will be just 40 percent of the national fleet in 2035.

A better analysis came from Newsroom’s David Williams, pointing out our linkage to Australia’s car market is an obstacle not mentioned in the report.

Peter Williams later told a caller “no-one has read the report,” which he said was 800-pages long and “only available in precis form”.

It had been available in full to everyone online since last Sunday, both as digests and broken down into individual easy-to-scan chapters.

Williams told his listeners none of the commission’s recommendations “would have any impact on the world’s weather anyway”. As one of the most vocal climate change skeptics on the air in New Zealand, Peter Williams knows climate and ‘the weather’ are different things.

The AM show’s Duncan Garner also said that a 15 percent cut to farm herds must mean a corresponding cut in food production.

Fortunately Federated Farmers president Andrew Hoggard popped up on the show minutes later to tell him it didn’t:

“Our cows can produce considerably more than they do at the moment if you give them the right conditions,” he said.

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Kiwi farmers have already proved this, he said.

“Sheep numbers were around 70 million a couple of decades ago. Now we’re down at 30 million or less – and we’re still maintaining the same output in terms of meat,” he said.

In the commission’s projections, sheep and beef and dairy animal numbers fall 15 percent by 2030 but the total volume of milk produced “remains flat” – and the total volume of meat produced actually increases slightly.

Newsroom’s Marc Daalder  – who had read the report – knew that it said “a herd with fewer cows that maintains the same production – through higher production per cow –  would require less feed overall”.

Both Andrew Hoggard and Steve Carden, the chief executive of Landcorp, told Marc Daalder all this would dovetail with developments  – such as the so-called ‘methane vaccine’ – in near future.

Magic Talk Drive host Ryan Bridge was also fretting on behalf of farmers and that reduction in herd size.

Working overtime, Federated Farmers’ president Andrew Hoggard took his call to explain what the report actually said.

“Read the report. Don’t rely on the reports about it,” he said.

There’s been a lot of reporting and analysis this week by journalists who understood the significance of what was in these big reports – and worked hard to sum it up for the public even if the details were released to them in a way that made that a bigger task than it should have been.

But there has also been a lot on air from people with opinions on the bid to cut emissions in the next 30 years who didn’t really engage with the report at all.

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