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.

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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.