As the ‘Climategate’ news cycle creaks on, pundits are busily delivering advice on how scientists can do their jobs better. “It is time for the IPCC to be disbanded,” declares Ann Widdecombe in the Express, “and replaced by a group of open-minded, fact-orientated, cautious scientists who are interested in truth, however inconvenient.” “Scientists, you are fallible,” proclaims Simon Jenkins in the Guardian. Climatologists “are no different from bankers, politicians, lawyers, estate agents and perhaps even journalists. They cheat. They make mistakes. They suppress truth and suggest falsity.”
These are strange statements, given that climatologists have meanwhile willingly acknowledged and corrected genuine errors, and offered suggestions on improving IPCC processes. The journal Nature published a series of suggestions from five prominent climate scientists on ways forward for the IPCC. The Guardian ran a similar story full of scientists suggesting reforms. Climate modeller William Connolley critiqued the thoroughness of IPCC Working Group II, while defending its use of “grey” literature. Other scientists suggested separating the IPCC’s Working Groups. The evidence suggests the scientific profession puts reflection, doubt and criticism at the heart of its practice.
By contrast, the media’s reluctance to address its own failings is stark. Recent weeks have seen a deluge of “inaccurate, misleading or distorted information” in climate change reporting – precisely the kind of material it is the Press Complaints Commission’s (PCC’s) stated role to guard against. But, as its exoneration of Jan Moir’s falsehoods over Stephen Gately’s death has highlighted, this “self-regulatory” industry body remains toothless.
On climate change, various recent journalistic performances have been particularly outrageous. Jonathan Leake of the Sunday Times attacked the IPCC over a “bogus” and “unsubstantiated” claim on the Amazon’s sensitivity to reductions in rainfall. Yet Leake was well aware – having been informed by two leading experts, one of whom he went on to selectively quote – that the IPCC had got its facts right.
Leake later accused the IPCC of inaccurately connecting climate change to more frequent extreme weather events – citing its (allegedly) problematic treatment of a single economic study. “UN wrongly linked global warming to natural disasters”, Leake’s headline screamed. Barack Obama had mentioned the link, we were told. The issue of developing countries’ adaptation funding was predicated on it.
This was transparent nonsense. The group behind the study exonerated the IPCC’s “fair” and “appropriate” treatment, which included “suitable caveats”. The IPCC had obviously not based all future projections of extreme weather events on one economic study – as it quickly pointed out. Adaptation funding – which covers impacts of all kinds – was obviously not founded on one study on extreme weather.
Then there’s the infamous David Rose – a journalist who persistently promoted the fictitious Iraq-Al-Qaeda connection in the run-up to the Iraq war. Rose recently mangled the work of climate scientist Mojib Latif in the Mail, portraying him as dissenting from the scientific consensus – a claim Latif said he “cannot understand”. Rose conflated the man’s climate forecasts with spells of cold weather that “are not related at all”, in Latif’s words. “You can’t compare the two.” Latif’s work suggested that climate change might be offset by short-term variations up to 2015 – not a “mini ice age” lasting up to 30 years. “I don’t know what to do”, as Latif exasperatedly put it. “They just make these things up.”
Rose subsequently smeared the IPCC. On its Himalayan glaciers error, lead author Murari Lal, Rose claimed, “admitted it was included purely to put political pressure on world leaders”. Rose quoted Lal directly: “We thought that if we can highlight it, it will impact policy-makers and politicians and encourage them to take some concrete action.” Both claims, Lal revealed, were simply false.
These are not isolated mistakes: the press have bent over backwards to misrepresent climate scientists in recent weeks. The Times claimed that Bob Watson had identified an “apparent bias” in the IPCC’s errors. Watson stated: “I was interviewed for an hour, and it was obvious that the reporter wanted me to say that the authors were biased – I said I did not believe that.” The mistaken Himalayan glacier melt forecast repeatedly described as a “central claim” of the IPCC was barely reported at all when its report was released – unsurprisingly, since it appears nowhere in the summaries where its “central claims” can be found. Rajendra Pachauri was excoriated for calling criticism of this error “voodoo science”. He was criticising a report that mentions neither the 2035 claim nor the IPCC.
These are egregious journalistic failings, well within the PCC’s remit. Sadly, its handling of similar complaints has been woeful. Nine months after the Telegraph’s Christopher Booker penned an article calling sea-level rise “a colossal scare story”, for instance – prompting a complaint from Bob Ward of the Grantham Research Institute – the Commission ruled that “It is not of course for the PCC to make findings of fact on where the truth about climate change lies”. The body is of course obliged to make judgments on clear factual inaccuracies, and Ward had exposed a whole selection. Yet Booker was exonerated; his article remains.
In effect the PCC relieves columnists of the obligation to base articles on facts – a tendency which has now reached absurd heights. In theory, the body requires newspapers “to distinguish between comment, conjecture and fact”. Yet it recently ruled that the words “the fact is” – prefacing a review of published research findings – did not indicate a statement of fact. A shocking betrayal of readers this may be – but it is fortunate for papers. Fundamental inaccuracies permeate innumerable comment pieces on climate science – and not just on climate science. Far from deterring “inaccurate, misleading or distorted information”, the PCC acts as a rubber stamp.
The UK desperately needs a press that does not defraud the public on matters of basic science. A responsible media requires accountability: without effective regulation, through the enforcement of legally binding standards by a genuinely independent body, this will inevitably remain a distant prospect. Sure, the IPCC could arguably use some reforms. But the PCC needs to be replaced.
A version of this post was first published on Left Foot Forward.