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.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

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

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