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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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.