How Fleet Street is still misleading the public over climate change

The right-wing press is attempting to fool the public into believing that its opposition to green policies is based on robust evidence, rather than dogmatic ideology.

One of the most important findings of the Leveson inquiry was that some newspapers publish intentionally inaccurate and misleading articles when promoting a political agenda. Nowhere is this betrayal of the public interest more glaringly obvious than in the coverage of climate change policy.

In his final report, Leveson stated: "I have come to the conclusion that there does exist a cultural strand or tendency within a section of the press to practice journalism which on occasion is deliberately, recklessly or negligently inaccurate".

He also pointed out that "there can be no objection to agenda journalism (which necessarily involves the fusion of fact and comment), but that cannot trump a requirement to report stories accurately". Leveson added: "Particularly in the context of reporting on issues of political interest, the press have a responsibility to ensure that the public are accurately informed so that they can engage in the democratic process".

It is unclear whether the new regulatory regime for the press that is eventually introduced as a response to the inquiry will put an end to these deliberate distortions and misrepresentations. Meanwhile, some newspapers continue to exploit the weakness of the existing self-imposed rules.

The Telegraph, Mail and Express titles have been campaigning vigorously for the past few years against public policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as part of a broader agenda to promote a heady mixture of free market fundamentalism and anti-environmentalism, which is also championed by UKIP and the right-wing of the Conservatives.

Like their political allies, these newspapers have attempted to fool the public into believing that their opposition to renewable energy, carbon pricing and other measures is based on robust evidence and reasoning, rather than dogmatic ideology.

A clear example of this strategy was provided this weekend by a double-page spread in the Mail on Sunday, under the headline "Ecotastrophe!", which warned that the UK’s climate change policies would "drag us to a new Dark Age".

The article was written by David Rose, who regularly produces articles that both reject the scientific evidence for climate change and exaggerate massively the costs of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

His latest polemic reprised a previous article from August 2012 in which he drew attention to the fact that a key MP and two members of the independent Committee on Climate Change had openly-disclosed links to green companies and organisations.

Rose’s new article included extensive quotes from Professor Gordon Hughes, but failed to reveal his affiliation to the Global Warming Policy Foundation, a lobby group set up by Lord Lawson to campaign against climate change policies.

Professor Hughes was commissioned by the foundation to write a pamphlet attacking the case for wind energy, which was later shown by researchers at Imperial College to contain fundamental flaws.

Rose frequently relies on the foundation for stories and gives great prominence to the views of its spokespersons. Despite his apparent concern over conflicts of interest, Rose has never mentioned, let alone investigated, the £1m from secret donors that the foundation has received to finance its lobbying activities.

But the most serious distortions by Rose were contained in a sidebar to his main article, headed "Exploding the myths about climate change".

For example, Rose claimed that it is a myth that "the world is continually getting warmer", and suggested that there has been "a pause" in global warming since January 1997. However, he failed to tell readers that the trend in annual global average temperature over the past 16 years has been upwards, albeit at a slower rate of increase than previously, and that it is not statistically significant because this period is too short to detect the warming signal with certainty among the noise created by natural short-term climate variability.

He also described the fact that "global warming is already causing extreme weather" as a "myth", and stated that "if anything, weather has become less, not more extreme in the past 50 years". But a review published last year by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) of the latest research found an abundance of scientific evidence for increases in heat waves, droughts and heavy rainfall events in many parts of the world since the middle of the 20th century.

Most incredibly, Rose dismissed the possibility of the Arctic eventually becoming free of sea ice during the summer, instead asserting that "the growth of Arctic winter ice this year is the fastest on record". But he ignored the fact that the area covered by sea ice in the summer has declined by almost 50 per cent since 1980, much faster than scientists predicted.

Articles such as this not only hide the true motivations behind a newspaper’s agenda, but also damage democratic debate by providing inaccurate and misleading information to the public.

A crucial test for any new press regulations will be the extent to which they deter these kinds of gross distortions and misrepresentations, while still allowing newspapers to legitimately pursue their own agenda on issues such as climate change.

A general view of Drax Power Station at night in Drax, north Yorkshire. Photograph: Getty Images.

Bob Ward is policy and communications director of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at London School of Economics and Political Science.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.