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

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.

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.

DebateTech
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Politicians: it's no longer OK to know nothing about technology

It’s bad enough to joke about not being "techy"; it's worse to write a piece of legislation from a position of ignorance. 

Earlier this week, facing down a 600-strong battalion of London’s tech sector at a mayoral hustings in Stratford, Zac Goldsmith opened his five minute pitch with his characteristic charm. “I’m not very techy!” he exclaimed. “I understand coding about as well as Swahili!”

Pointless jibe at a foreign language aside, this was an ill-chosen way to begin his address - especially considering that the rest of his speech showed he was reasonably well-briefed on the problems facing the sector, and the solutions (including improving broadband speeds and devolving skills budgets) which could help.

But the offhand reference to his own ignorance, and the implication that it would be seen as attractive by this particular audience, implies that Goldsmith, and other politicians like him, haven’t moved on since the 90s. The comment seemed designed to say: “Oh, I don't know about that - I'll leave it to the geeks like you!"

This is bad enough from a mayoral hopeful.  But on the same day, the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament filed its report on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill, the legislation drafted by the Home Office which will define how and how far the government and secret services can pry into our digital communications. Throughout, there's the sense that the ISC doesn't think the MPs behind the bill had a firm grasp on the issues at hand. Words like "inconsistent" and "lacking in clarity" pop up again and again. In one section, the authors note:

"While the issues under consideration are undoubtedly complex, we are nevertheless concerned that thus far the Government has missed the opportunity to provide the clarity and assurance which is badly needed."

The report joins criticism from other directions, including those raised by Internet Service Providers last year, that the bill's writers didn't appear to know much about digital communications at all, much less the issues surrounding encryption of personal messages.

One good example: the bill calls for the collection of "internet connection records", the digital equivalent of phone call records, which show the domains visited by internet users but not their content. But it turns out these records don't exist in this form: the bill actually invented both the phrase and the concept. As one provider commented at the time, anyone in favour of their collection "do not understand how the Internet works". 

Politicians have a long and colourful history of taking on topics - even ministerial posts - in fields they know little to nothing about. This, in itself, is a problem. But politicians themselves are often the people extolling importance of technology, especially to the British economy - which makes their own lack of knowledge particularly grating. No politician would feel comfortable admitting a lack of knowledge, on, say, economics. I can’t imagine Goldsmith guffawing "Oh, the deficit?  That's all Greek to me!"  over dinner with Cameron. 

The mayoral candidates on stage at the DebateTech hustings this week were eager to agree that tech is London’s fastest growing industry, but could do little more than bleat the words “tech hub” with fear in their eyes that someone might ask them what exactly that meant. (A notable exception was Green candidate Sian Berry, who has actually worked for a tech start-up.) It was telling that all were particularly keen on improving internet speeds -  probably because this is something they do have day-to-day engagement with. Just don't ask them how to go about doing it.

The existence of organisations like Tech London Advocates, the industry group which co-organised the hustings, is important, and can go some way towards educating the future mayor on the issues the industry faces. But the technology and information sectors have been responsible for 30 per cent of job growth in the capital since 2009 - we can't afford to have a mayor who blanches at the mention of code. 

If we’re to believe the politicians themselves, with all their talk of coding camps and skills incubators and teaching the elderly to email, we need a political sphere where boasting that you're not "techy" isn’t cool or funny - it’s just kind of embarrassing. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.