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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Tim Shipman's Diary

The Sunday Times political editor on poker, pasta – and being called fat by Andrew Marr.

A couple of Saturdays ago, I was having dinner with my wife at Padella (which serves the best pasta in London) when the phone rang. It was an irate David Davis. “You’re reporting that a friend of mine has said Philip May wants Theresa to quit. It’s not true. I don’t even know Philip May.” I calmly explained that I wasn’t accusing him and I had his friend on tape. “Who was it?” he asked me. I wasn’t saying. “Well, it’s not bloody helpful,” the Brexit Secretary said before hanging up.

The following day, I woke up to watch Philip Hammond explain to the BBC’s Andrew Marr why his cabinet colleagues had leaked me details of how the Chancellor had branded public-sector workers as “overpaid”. “I don’t know who [Tim Shipman’s] sources are,” he said, after inaccurately suggesting that I was being fed information as part of some Brexiteer conspiracy to discredit the cabinet’s leading Remainer.

On Monday, I did an interview with Eddie Mair in the back of a beer garden in Ireland, where I’m playing cricket. In reality, the leaks had much more to do with colleagues irritated at Hammond’s sometimes grating behaviour. Word reaches me that he regards it all as very unhelpful. It seems odd after 16 years in political journalism to have to say this, but we’re not here to be helpful. It might make sense if our politicians gave us less to write about. Over the past three years, they have delighted us enough.

Back for seconds

Voter fatigue is a recognised problem. No one talks about journalist fatigue. We all hope that Theresa May rejuvenates on her Swiss walk (perhaps regenerating into Jodie Whittaker). Thanks to the decision she took when she last went walking, I’m facing the obliteration of another summer holiday writing a second political tome covering the period since my Brexit book, All Out War, up to the general election. What looked at one stage like the boring second album is now a rip-roaring tale of hubris and nemesis. When I asked for title suggestions on Twitter, there were plenty of votes for “Mayhem” and “Mayday”. The most imaginative was: “The Snarling Duds of May”. Sadly, it’s too long for my publisher.

Catching the big fish

The new-found attention from writing books is a double-edged sword. To my delight, then embarrassment, Andrew Marr referred to me twice as “the doyen” of the print lobby. “We keep trying to stop him,” Marr’s editor, the redoubtable Rob Burley, confided at a rival magazine’s summer party. The following week, Marr said: “The biggest fish in the pool, if only physically, is Tim Shipman…” I got a text from a special adviser friend asking: “Are you paying him?” I pointed out that Britain’s best-known political interviewer had just called me a fat bastard live on national television.

New blood

I make my debut on BBC2’s Newsnight alongside Ash Sarkar of Novara Media, one of the new websites that cheerlead for Jeremy Corbyn. She is nerveless and fluent in her mid-twenties, when I was a tongue-tied naif. People who get the Corbyn phenomenon are rightly getting more airtime. Off the air, she tells me that she’s a “libertarian anarchist” and then asks me where I live. “Are you going to smash it up?” I ask nervously. She smiles. Ash’s main concern is to paint the town red in the Saturday-night sense. A Labour MP draws attention to her Twitter biog, which concludes: “Walks like a supermodel. Fucks like a champion. Luxury communism now!” Bravo. I think…

Brexit gamble

I was greatly cheered by the induction in the Poker Hall of Fame of the late Dave “Devil­fish” Ulliott, the player who did the most to create the TV and online poker boom in Britain. Westminster has a few useful card sharps – Paul Stephenson, formerly of Vote Leave, among them – but I don’t know any politicians who play. By contrast, the US presidents Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon were all accomplished poker players.

When I worked in the US, I interviewed a member of Barack Obama’s poker circle when he was a state senator in Chicago. The cautious, composed and occasionally bold player he described was the mirror image of the politician we came to know. His Republican rival in 2008, John McCain, preferred the chaotic gambling of the craps table and his erratic campaign reflected that. Too many of the current cabinet seem to be dice men. What we wouldn’t give for Devilfish running the Brexit negotiations.

Blundering through

Anyone who has ever dealt with McCain would have been saddened by the news that he is suffering from brain cancer, but his resilience almost makes you feel sorry for the tumour. McCain is undoubtedly the most media-friendly politician I have ever met. When I travelled on his plane in 2008, he took every question from the foreign press pack and made us feel welcome. Through him, I also met Steve Duprey, the former boss of the New Hampshire Republicans. He was fond of explaining Duprey’s first law: “In politics, before considering malevolence, always assume incompetence.” I have had much cause to remind myself of that over the past three years.

Paranoid android

If you are looking for a summer read, I recommend Jonathan Allen’s and Amie Parnes’s Shattered, a great insider account of Hillary Clinton’s disastrous 2016 presidential election effort. It shows how a flawed candidate with little ability to connect with the public presided over a paranoid regime of advisers engaged in Shakespearean bloodletting that led to them coming a cropper when fighting a charismatic populist. On second thoughts, you could always wait to read my second book this autumn. 

Tim Shipman is the political editor of the Sunday Times. “All Out War” is now available in paperback (William Collins)

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue