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IT is not easy watching one of your reporters get done over by Media Watch. Particularly when you have worked with the bloke for the best part of 20 years and not once had reason to question his journalistic integrity. But there was something about last Monday night’s mauling of Stuart Rintoul more troubling still.

Rintoul has done some great work over the past month examining the vexed issues of sea rise projections and the response of coastal councils to the risk of future inundation.

He exposed ludicrous planning laws stifling development at Port Albert, a fishing village on Victoria’s Bass Coast. Those laws are currently being being torn up by the Baillieu government.

He brought to national attention research by NSW researcher Phil Watson showing that sea levels around Australia over the past 100 years haven’t risen as quickly as scientists would have expected them to as a result of global warming.

For the first story he received the gratitude of a frustrated coastal community. For the second story he was pilloried, first in obscure, left-leaning blogs and finally on national television, for misrepresenting scientific research for “partisan political” purposes.

Anyone who has read Rintoul’s work over the years would appreciate what an ill-fitting charge this is. The wounds to Rintoul’s reputation will heal soon enough. The bigger concern is how important science can so quickly be lost in the tug-of-war between climate protagonists and self-styled media watchdogs who judge a yarn not solely on what it says, but the publication in which it appears.

Watson’s study, published in the internationally respected Journal of Coastal Research, crunched a century of data taken at tidal gauges at Fremantle, Auckland, Fort Denison and Newcastle and concluded that since 1940 there has been a weak “deceleration” of sea level rises.

This mirrors the findings of a study conducted independently by US researchers James Houston and Bob Dean from long-term tidal gauge measurements in America. This doesn’t mean sea levels aren’t rising. What it shows is that sea level rises aren’t yet accelerating in line with CSIRO modelling that predicts, on a worst case scenario, sea level rises of 1.1m by 2100. It is on these predictions that some local councils have framed planning regulations.

As Watson points out in his paper, such an acceleration may still occur. But it hasn’t yet and scientists don’t know why. Watson’s paper doesn’t try to predict what will happen to future sea rises. Instead, it tells us what has happened over the past century.

Dr Houston, a director emeritus with the US Army Engineer Corps, says the significance of Watson’s work should be considered in these terms: “If we do not understand the past or the present, what hope have we to project into the future? Studies such as Phil’s are important to unravel why sea level is not responding as we would expect.”

Nowhere is this question more pressing than coastal communities on Australia’s eastern seaboard where residents are being blocked from building beach-front houses, or are having to contend with prohibitive building codes, due to CSIRO predictions assuming a hockey-stick acceleration of sea level rises.

“A rational basis for sea level response must be built on solid analysis of all available data,” Dr Houston told The Australian from his base in Vicksburg, Mississippi. For the sake of disclosure, Dr Houston believes the earth is warming due to man’s activities.

“Even the low end of projections of sea level rise by 2100 will produce challenging coastal issues that society must consider,” he said. “It is up to science to provide the best information to society and up to scientists and engineers to stick to the science. Phil should be lauded for his analysis of data that sheds more light on sea level rise.”

Instead, Phil Watson was carpeted by his employer, the NSW Department of Environment and Climate Change, and prevented from giving interviews. Despite his prominent role and previously published work as team leader for the department’s coastal unit, he was given no opportunity to promote his peer-reviewed research published in the Journal of Coastal Research.

Watson was not quoted by Media Watch or by the various sites and blogs that paved the ABC’s way into the story.

Instead, the focus of the attack became Howard Brady, a scientist quoted in the Rintoul piece criticising the CSIRO sea level projections. Media Watch zeroed in on Brady’s lack of formal credentials in climate science.

Dr Houston agrees the weakness of The Australian’s report was the prominence given to the views of Dr Brady, a palaeontologist rather than climate scientist. “Leave out everything that Howard Brady said, and it is OK,” he said.

University of Queensland coastal engineering expert Peter Nielson, one of three peers who reviewed the Watson study before publication, agrees with Media Watch that “Howard Brady is not a climate researcher . . . rather a very articulate amateur”.

Yet like many articulate amateurs who have risen to prominence in the climate change debate — fellow palaeontologist Tim Flannery, economist and former diplomat Ross Garnaut, Malcolm Turnbull and most of the federal Labor front bench — a lack of formal qualifications is no barrier to having a say. Nor is it evidence of a deliberate attempt to misrepresent scientific findings.

Sea level science is incredibly complex and fits unevenly with observed global warming. Sea levels began to rise in the late 19th century, before significant greenhouse temperature rises. It has also risen steadily, rather than accelerating in the second half of the 20th century as carbon emissions spiked. Throw in the additional variables of ice melts from Greenland and Antarctica and predicting future rises is uncertain science, at best.

Journal of Coastal Research editor-in-chief Charles Finkl says the biggest impediment to understanding sea level rises is politics, rather than science.

For the sake of disclosure, Dr Finkl believes the earth is warming for reasons that have nothing to do with man’s activities.

The Australian, 8 August 2011