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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle