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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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.