Papers should run accurate articles about climate change. Photo: Getty
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The danger of ideology-based newspaper coverage of climate change

A warning against the publication of columns promoting climate change denial.

Last week, The Times provided further evidence that its coverage of climate change is being dictated by dogmatic ideology.

On Monday, it published a column by Matt Ridley, under the headline "Scientists must not put policy before proof", accusing the Royal Society and the World Meteorological Organisation of “poor scientific practice” because of its recent announcements about the impact of rising greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere.

First, he complained that the World Meteorological Organisation should not have released a preliminary analysis showing that “the year 2014 is on track to be the warmest, or one of the warmest years on record”.

Ridley argued that instead the WMO should have noted that “this year is unlikely to be significantly warmer than 2010 or 2005”.

What he neglected to admit was that 2005 and 2010 are the two warmest years ever recorded, and that 13 of the 14 hottest years have occurred from 2000 onwards, providing clear evidence of global warming.

He also criticised the WMO’s decision to make the figures public on 3 December as policy-makers from around the world assembled in Lima, Peru, for the United Nations climate change summit.

Yet, Ridley’s article coincided with the final week of negotiations over a new international agreement on climate change, and was no doubt intended to undermine the confidence of the UK Government in the scientific evidence.

His column also criticised a Royal Society report about "Resilience to extreme weather", which was published last month.

He claimed that the Society had decided to “cherry-pick” information for the report, and “could find room for not a single graph to show recent trends in extreme weather”.

This was utter nonsense. The report includes a table summarising changes in extreme events that have been observed since 1950, based on a comprehensive assessment of the scientific evidence by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Among the conclusions highlighted by the Royal Society report were “medium confidence that anthropogenic influences have contributed to intensification of extreme precipitation at a global scale”, and “medium confidence that anthropogenic influence has contributed to some observed changes in drought patterns”.

The use of the term “medium confidence” reflects the fact that it is difficult to detect statistically significant trends in extreme weather, which, by definition, are rare events.

Writing in the Foreword to the report, Sir Paul Nurse, the President of the Royal Society, indicated that “by presenting evidence of trends in extreme weather and the different ways resilience can be built to it, we hope this report will galvanise action by local and national governments, the international community, scientific bodies, the private sector, and affected communities”.

Finally, Ridley dredged up false allegations about “the hiding of inconvenient data” by scientists at the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia.

This was based on e-mails that were distributed on the web in November 2009 by climate change "sceptics" to try to undermine efforts to agree a new international treaty in Copenhagen.

An independent inquiry into the content of the so-called Climategate e-mails concluded that, “on the specific allegations made against the behaviour of CRU scientists, we find that their rigour and honesty as scientists are not in doubt”.

But Ridley ignored this inconvenient fact and instead ranted that “the scientific establishment closed ranks”.

Yet he made no criticism of the hackers who illegally obtained the e-mails, or of the police investigation which failed to bring the criminals to justice.

Readers of The Times may be shocked to learn that the newspaper would publish an article that was riddled with so many inaccurate and misleading statements.

However, the number of errors is perhaps no surprise, given that Ridley, a hereditary Conservative peer, has a PhD in pheasant breeding, but no qualifications in climate science.

What may be of even more concern to readers is that The Times chose not to disclose that Ridley is a member of the all-male Academic Advisory Council of the Global Warming Policy Foundation.

The Foundation was set up by Nigel Lawson in 2009 to lobby against government climate policies.

Earlier this year, the Charity Commission concluded that the Foundation had violated its rules because, “it promoted a particular position on global warming”.

The Times seems to be heavily promoting the views of climate change "sceptics". Earlier this year, there was controversy when an article by the newspaper’s science editor, Hannah Devlin, was altered to put a "sceptical" spin on climate change research. Devlin has since announced that she is leaving The Times to join the Guardian.

Given the apparent increasingly ideological approach of The Times to its coverage of climate change, it may not be long before many more of its readers follow Devlin’s example.

Bob Ward is a Fellow of the Geological Society and policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment and the ESRC Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy at the 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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What I learnt when my wife and I went to Brexit: the Musical

This week in the media, from laughing as the world order crumbles to what Tristram Hunt got wrong – and Leicester’s big fall.

As my wife and I watched Brexit: the Musical, performed in a tiny theatre above a pub in London’s Little Venice, I thought of the American novelist Lionel Shriver’s comment on Donald Trump’s inauguration: “A sense of humour is going to get us through better than indignation.” It is an entertaining, engaging and amusing show, which makes the point that none of the main actors in the Brexit drama – whether supporters of Leave or Remain – achieved quite what they had intended. The biggest laugh went to the actor playing Boris Johnson (James Sanderson), the wannabe Tory leader who blew his chance. The mere appearance of an overweight man of dishevelled appearance with a mop of blond hair is enough to have the audience rolling in the aisles.

The lesson we should take from Brexit and from Trump’s election is that politicians of all shades, including those who claim to be non-political insurgents, have zero control of events, whether we are talking about immigration, economic growth or the Middle East. We need to tweak Yeats’s lines: the best may lack all conviction but the worst are full not so much of passionate intensity – who knows what Trump or Johnson really believe? – as bumbling incompetence. The sun will still rise in the morning (as
Barack Obama observed when Trump’s win became evident), and multi­national capital will still rule the world. Meanwhile, we may as well enjoy the show.

 

Danger of Donald

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t deny the risks of having incompetents in charge. The biggest concerns Trump’s geopolitical strategy, or rather his lack of one. Great power relations since 1945 have been based on mutual understanding of what each country wants to achieve, of its red lines and national ambitions. The scariest moments come when one leader miscalculates how another will react. Of all figures in recent history, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, with his flamboyant manner and erratic temperament, was probably the most similar to Trump. In 1962, he thought President Kennedy, inexperienced and idealistic, would tolerate Soviet missiles in Cuba. He was wrong and the world only narrowly avoided nuclear war.

How would Trump respond to a Russian invasion of the Baltic states? Will he recognise Taiwan as an independent country? Will he scrap Obama’s deal with Iran and support a pre-emptive strike against its nuclear ambitions? Nobody knows, probably not even Trump. He seems to think that keeping your options open and your adversaries guessing leads to “great deals”. That may work in business, in which the worst that can happen is that one of your companies goes bankrupt – an outcome of which Americans take a relaxed view. In international relations, the stakes are higher.

 

Right job, wrong time

I rather like Tristram Hunt, who started contributing to the New Statesman during my editorship. He may be the son of a life peer and a protégé of Peter Mandelson, but he is an all-too-rare example of a politician with a hinterland, having written a biography of Engels and a study of the English Civil War and presented successful TV documentaries. In a parallel universe, he could have made an inspirational Labour leader,
a more thoughtful and trustworthy version of Tony Blair.

No doubt, having resigned his Stoke-on-Trent Central seat, he will make a success of his new job as director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. If nothing else, he will learn a little about the arts of management and leadership. But isn’t this the wrong way round? Wouldn’t it be better if people first ran museums or other cultural and public institutions and then carried such experience into parliament and government?

 

Pointless palace

When the Palace of Westminster was largely destroyed by fire in 1834, thousands gathered to enjoy the spectacle. Thomas Carlyle noted that the crowd “whew’d and whistled when the breeze came as if to encourage it” and that “a man sorry I did not anywhere see”.

Now, with MPs reportedly refusing to move out to allow vital renovation work from 2023, we can expect a repeat performance. Given the unpopularity of politicians, public enthusiasm may be even greater than it was two centuries ago. Yet what is going through MPs’ minds is anyone’s guess. Since Theresa May refuses them a vote on Brexit, prefers the Foreign Office’s Lancaster House as the location to deliver her most important speech to date and intends to amend or replace Brussels-originated laws with ministerial orders under “Henry VIII powers”, perhaps they have concluded that there’s no longer much point to the place.

 

As good as it gets

What a difference a year makes. In January 2016, supporters of Leicester City, my home-town team, were beginning to contemplate the unthinkable: that they could win football’s Premier League. Now, five places off the bottom, they contemplate the equally unthinkable idea of relegation.

With the exception of one player, N’Golo Kanté (now at Chelsea), the team is identical to last season’s. So how can this be? The sophisticated, mathematical answer is “regression to the mean”. In a league where money, wages and performance are usually linked rigidly, a team that does much better than you’d predict one season is likely to do much worse the next. I’d suggest something else, though. For those who won last season’s title against such overwhelming odds, life can never be as good again. Anything short of winning the Champions League (in which Leicester have so far flourished) would seem an anti­climax. In the same way, the England cricket team that won the Ashes in 2005 – after the Australians had dominated for 16 years – fell apart almost as soon as its Trafalgar Square parade was over. Beating other international teams wouldn’t have delivered the same adrenalin surge.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era