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When climate change denial is promoted in mainstream news

Including articles and comments from figures such as Matthew Ridley and Nigel Lawson without balance misleads the British public.

Greenpeace activists led by Aurora, a giant polar bear puppet, through Westminster. Photo: Getty

On 12 August, the Times newspaper published a long article by Matthew Ridley under the headline The world's gone to Hell, but trust me, it is getting much better.

Ridley argued that a number of indicators showed that the quality of life has been improving across the globe.

However, he provided an inaccurate and misleadingly rose-tinted picture of environmental degradation. For instance, Ridley claimed that “forest cover is increasing in many countries”. This gave a false impression of reality. The most recent study of the issue, published last year in the journal Science, found that 0.8m square kilometres of new forest were added between 2000 and 2012, but 2.3m square kilometres, roughly the same size as Portugal, were lost during the same period.

Similarly, Ridley's article suggested that “there is no global increase in floods”, and “there has been a decline in the severity of droughts”. Both statements were grossly misleading. Climate change is increasing global average temperature, but its impact on extreme weather differs across the world. Some regions are becoming wetter while others are becoming drier.

The most authoritative assessment of the evidence was presented by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change last year. It concluded that “there continues to be a lack of evidence and thus low confidence regarding the sign of trend in the magnitude and/or frequency of floods on a global scale”. However, the report also highlighted that it “assesses floods in regional detail accounting for the fact that trends in floods are strongly influenced by changes in river management”. 

It stated: “Although the most evident flood trends appear to be in northern high latitudes, where observed warming trends have been largest, in some regions no evidence of a trend in extreme flooding has been found”. The assessment also found that “it is likely that the frequency and intensity of drought has increased in the Mediterranean and West Africa and decreased in central North America and north-west Australia since 1950”.

I wrote a short letter to the newspaper to correct the mistakes in the article, but it refused to publish anything that indicated Ridley had made errors. It is not the first time The Times has published inaccurate statements by Ridley and censored any attempts to fix them. 

Although Ridley has no qualifications in climate science (his PhD thesis was on The Mating System of the Pheasant), he is a member of the Academic Advisory Council of renowned climate change sceptic and former chancellor Lord Lawson's Global Warming Policy Foundation. This organisation has been labelled by the Independent as “the UK's most prominent source of climate-change denial”.

Earlier this year, the same newspaper featured another article in which he disputed any link between the flooding caused by record rainfall in the UK last winter, again citing a lack of global trend as his justification. I wrote to The Times to point out he had ignored the IPCC's findings about regional increases in flooding, but the newspaper would not agree to publish any letters that drew attention to Ridley’s mistakes.

Is it a coincidence that these articles, which clearly dispute the findings of mainstream climate science, began when John Witherow became the newspaper's editor last year? In his previous role as editor of The Sunday Times, he was implicated, as George Monbiot discovered, in a controversy over an article that severely misrepresented the views of a researcher, Dr Simon Lewis, about the impacts of climate change on the Amazon. The senior editorial team of The Sunday Times apparently used a blog by a climate change sceptic to re-write a report by its environment editor, and reportedly introduced a number of errors and distortions. Dr Lewis complained, and the newspaper was eventually forced to print a humiliating apology, although it did not address claims about the role its editors played in the fiasco.

Many of the UK's national daily newspapers now seem to be attempting to undermine their readers’ understanding of the scientific evidence on climate change. It should be no surprise then that there are still significant numbers of the public who are being misled by the UK media into wrongly believing that there is no scientific consensus about the causes and consequences of climate change.

Bob Ward is a Fellow of the Geological Society and policy and communications director at the Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy and the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at London School of Economics and Political Science.