Tuesday, March 6, 2012

History missing from sinking island piece-Part 2

The following correspondence received a little while ago on history missing from ABC's sinking island piece. This posted in the public interest. We now look towards ACMA to provide an independent review.

First the complaintDate: 16/01/12
Subject: factual error and lack of inquiry
Your Comments: The World Today report titled "Fears Islanders may soon be forced out of their homes" claimed that "The rise in sea levels and an increase in extreme weather events in the region make the islands at this time of the year particularly vulnerable."
Based on tide gauge data in the Torres Strait local sea levels are not rising. (see...http://www.psmsl.org/data/obtaining/stations/1749.php) There is also no evidence for an increase in extreme weather events in the region.
The low lying Islands are vulnerable to inundation and if ABC's reporter had bothered to look they would have found reports of islanders being evacuated in the late 1940s, a fact that would have been of interest to ABC's audience.
see http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/49657129
Please substantiate the claims made in relation to sea level rise and extreme weather events. Please also add an editorial line that makes it clear these islands have been evacuated in the past.

From Alan Sunderland
date: Tue, Feb 21, 2012 at 9:33 PM
subject: factual error & lack of inquiry
Dear Mr Hendrickx,
Thanks for the feedback.
Based on the information provided to me by the program team, I don’t believe the ABC report on the Torres Strait Islanders broadcast on January 16 was accurate and not misleading.
Here are some points in response:
Two recent papers which provide climate projections for the region which include details about the number of extreme weather events that are likely to occur and have an impact on Torres Strait Islands. They are: “An assessment of climate change impacts and adaptation for the Torres Strait Islands, Australia” (2010) published in Climatic Change Journal, and “Observed and future of the Torres Strait Region” (CSIRO report from 2010). Specifically the reports state that the observed ‘above average’ rate of sea level rise is of 6mm a year, compared to the global average of 3mm a year. This observation is highlighted in the reports as particularly concerning.
The CSIRO report (2010) concludes that climate change impacts will affect daily life on the Islands, by impacting on their economic livelihoods.
Dr. Donna Green, interviewed in this story for The World Today, has completed a study into climate change affects on the Torres Strait Islands. For her report, published late last year (titled: What Legal Recourse Do Non State Islands Have To Obtain Resources to Adapt to Climate Change), Dr. Green conducted an analysis of extreme sea level heights for Mer Island. It suggests that by 2050, there will be an increase in the frequency of extreme sea level events that are usually associated with inundation events on the Island. The report also anticipates that the present ‘one in one hundred year’ sea level height of 1.43m above mean sea level may be exceeded on average at least every 10 years by 2050.
The IPCC has acknowledged in their most recent report that small island states are disproportionately impacted by climate change due to their susceptibility to rising sea levels
These impacts have also been acknowledged by Federal Parliament. A private members motion, passed in August 2011, reads that the House: “recognises that the Torres Strait Islander people have been experiencing flood devastation for the past 4 years.... and that “in light of evidence of continued flooding on the outer islands due to king tidal surges, calls on government to commit to restore and rebuild damaged seawalls.”
We didn’t broadcast information about the islands being inundated in the 1940s, but it was clear that inundation has been a problem in the past – the reference to the sea walls makes this clear.
Our understanding is not that inundation is a completely new phenomena, but rather to do with the increase in the frequency of inundation events, which is linked to climate change (rising sea levels, and increase in extreme weather events.)
We think this was a fair and balanced report based on published scientific research.

Alan Sunderland
Head of Policy & Staff Development
ABC News

Tue, Feb 21, 2012 at 10:19 PM
subject: Re: factual error & lack of inquiry
Thanks Alan,
I'll reply in more detail in the near future at ABC NEWS WATCH where your email below (above) will be repeated in full.
The information you have provided does nothing to justify the omission of the historical data from the report that would have given ABC's audience important historical context to the recent alarming reports. Your understanding may be that "inundation is (not) a completely new phenomena", however your audience were not given the chance to make this assessment due to your reporter's omission of the historical facts. Sea walls are built for a variety of reasons, hence your claim that "We didn’t broadcast information about the islands being inundated in the 1940s, but it was clear that inundation has been a problem in the past – the reference to the sea walls makes this clear." does not hold. Why not just simply state that similar inundations had resulted in complete evacuation of islands in the 1940s? I am not a journalist however I would have thought that providing historical context such as this would be essential in a report of this nature and would constitute "sound" journalism. Not having the pressures of commercial news networks I would have thought ABC would have had the capacity to stretch a little further and provide more information on this one. I remember it doing so in the past.
The ABC report also did not provide any information about the large uncertainties involved in IPCC sea level projections that you describe below, or that recent sea level trends around the Australian continent appear to be decelerating and hence call into question IPCC sea level projections used by Dr Green (see for instance HERE). As such it was missing in factual information, biased, lacked balance and like a lot of other recent ABC news articles on climate change it was simply misleading.
You are of course free to believe otherwise. It's amazing what people believe in this day and age.


Marc Hendrickx

Further posts on this when our complaint to ACMA has been submitted. We are yet to fully evaluate the CSIRO documents provided by the ABC as the are not relevant to the lack of historical context. Looking at the CSIRO report "Observed and Future Climates of the Torres Strait Region" there is also no historical context. No mention of previous inundations or evacuations. The report  An assessment of climate change impacts and adaptation for the Torres Strait Islands, Australia provides only a brief paragraph of the 1948 inundation and evacuation. It also mentions in regard to more recent inundations in 2005 that did not result in evacuations: "Although the recent inundation events have not been linked to climate change,they serve as an indication of the kind of events that may occur more frequently in the future as a result of mean sea level rise." 

We note that the reporter in question, the oddly named Hagar Cohen, has provided a longer report on the issue for Background Briefing on the weekend. This time towards the end of the 40 minute program the inundations and evacuations of the 1940s gained a mention. They deserved a little more prominence but its an improvement on the previous effort.

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