Since November last year, the public has been bombarded with the story of stolen emails from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, revealing a supposed “scandal” of scientific malpractice, stupidly and lazily named “climategate”. Further media frenzy erupted over an erroneous Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change statement that 80 per cent of Himalayan glacier area would very likely be gone by 2035. Other climate-related storms in a teacup have been appearing in the corporate media almost on a daily basis. This nonsense is distracting attention from a mountain of evidence that human-induced climate change is accelerating and poses a deadly threat to civilisation.
James Hansen, the leading NASA climate scientist who first warned the US Congress of the dangers of global warming in 1988, gave us his view of media performance on “climategate”:
The media have done a great disservice to the public. This mess should be cleared up in the next year or so, although the damage may linger a while, because some people who paid attention to sensationalism may not bother with accurate explanations of the truth.
The impression left from this affair is that there are some parts of the media that care less about responsible reporting than about selling newspapers or other ware. Some of the problem may be honest ignorance, as the quality of science reporting has declined in recent decades. And of course some media are controlled by people who have a political axe to grind.1
Misleading the Debate on Climate
The excellent Realclimate website, run by authoritative climate scientists, has been diligently issuing rebuttals of the relentless barrage of disinformation churned out by the Daily Mail, the Sunday Times, the Daily Telegraph and, yes, even the Guardian, the self-proclaimed flagship newspaper of the environment.2
A persistent source of skewed journalism during this period has been Jonathan Leake, science and environment editor of the Sunday Times. Serious charges have been made by a number of critics, including climate scientists, about errors and distortions in his reporting.3
- On January 24, the Sunday Times published an article by Leake in which he accused the IPCC of wrongly linking global warming to natural disasters.4 The IPCC called it “a misleading and baseless story.”5
- On January 31, Leake asserted that an IPCC finding that up to 40 per cent of the Amazon rainforest is vulnerable to even small reductions in rainfall was “based on an unsubstantiated claim”.6 Leake’s article was based on “research” by Richard North. North is a well-known climate sceptic and contributor to the Bruges Group, a right-wing think tank.
Leake drew heavily from North’s blog in which the sceptic was keen to promote what he dubbed “Amazongate”, suggesting a major scandal. But scientists allege that Leake “ignored or misrepresented explanatory information” given to him by two climate experts and that he “published [an] incorrect story anyway”. Realclimate noted that the issue Leake raised is “completely without merit”.7
Journalist Andrew Rowell, who co-authored the WWF Amazon report that was criticised by Leake, wrote to the Sunday Times:
Not only did you fail to contact me, but you ignored credible evidence that the [40 per cent] figure was correct. You also ignored evidence that the figure had been backed up by peer-reviewed research both before and after our publication.
You spoke to Dr Dan Nepstad, one of the world’s leading authorities on fire in the Amazon. You ignored the fact he told you he had published an even higher figure in Nature in 1994 and that subsequent research validated our figure. What you published was demonstrably false and has seriously misled the debate on climate change.8
Although the Sunday Times did publish Rowell’s short letter, and one from David Nussbaum of WWF, this certainly does not compensate for journalism which is wrong and misleading.
- Leake has also attacked work done on sea level rise by the respected climate scientist Stefan Rahmstorf9 Rahmstorf stated that Leake’s “biased” article contained factual errors and asked for these to be corrected. The researcher received no response and the Sunday Times made no corrections. Two British scientists cited by Leake said that “they had been badly misquoted.” One of them even said that his experience with Leake had made him “reluctant to speak to any journalist about any subject at all”.10
- Climate scientists writing for the Realclimate website have cautioned that “there are well-organized lobby forces with proper PR skills that make sure these journalists are being told the ‘right’ story. That explains why some media stories about what is supposedly said in the IPCC reports can easily be falsified simply by opening the [relevant] report and reading [it]. Unfortunately, as a broad-based volunteer effort with only minimal organizational structure the IPCC is not in a good position to rapidly counter misinformation.”10
- As Realclimate observes: “the IPCC assessment reports reflect the state of scientific knowledge very well”. The researchers then continue:
What is seriously amiss is something else: the public perception of the IPCC, and of climate science in general, has been massively distorted by the recent media storm. All of these various ‘gates’ – Climategate, Amazongate, Seagate, Africagate, etc., do not represent scandals of the IPCC or of climate science. Rather, they are the embarrassing battle-cries of a media scandal, in which a few journalists have misled the public with grossly overblown or entirely fabricated pseudogates, and many others have naively and willingly followed along without seeing through the scam.
Realclimate calls for the media to issue formal corrections of mistaken reporting, but questions “whether the media world has the professional and moral integrity to correct its own errors.10
We wrote to Leake on February 16, asking for his response to the above points. He emailed back the following day to defend his reporting, but he was unwilling for his reply to be made public.
Journalistic scrutiny of genuine errors in climate science, and of the reluctance of besieged climate scientists to release data to notorious climate sceptics, is reasonable enough. But the media’s misinformation and distortion, and its failure to respond to criticism, suggests there is something seriously awry with journalism.
Worse still is media silence on the powerful forces that are obstructing real action on climate. Truly responsible and accountable media would be:
- Exposing the numerous corporate-funded think tanks, mainstream media and websites cynically pushing climate scepticism in an attempt to prevent action on climate change that would hurt short-term corporate profits.
- Exposing the long, wretched history of big business campaigns to manipulate and control the public mind to protect short-term profits. The record is fully documented, almost beyond belief, and virtually ignored. Media bias on this issue is so extreme that many members of the public perceive climate science, rather than climate scepticism, as the cynical product of greed for funding. Thanks to corporate media silence on these corporate machinations, the truth has been exactly reversed!
- Challenging corporate media for taking huge sums in advertising revenue to promote climate-wrecking products and services.
- Exposing the oil giants who use propaganda to falsely promote themselves as ‘green’.
- Highlighting the inherently biocidal logic of corporate capitalism, structurally locked into generating maximised revenues in minimum time at minimum cost to powerful private interests.
James Hansen puts it all in perspective in his recent book:
The gap between public perception and scientific reality is now enormous. While some of the public is just becoming aware of the existence of global warming, the relevant scientists — those who know what they are talking about — realize that the climate system is on the verge of tipping points. If the world does not make a dramatic shift in energy policies over the next few years, we may well pass the point of no return.11
- Hansen, email to Media Lens, February 18, 2010. [↩]
- See Realclimate, ‘Whatevergate,’ February 16, 2010. [↩]
- Realclimate, ’IPCC errors: facts and spin,’ February 14, 2010. [↩]
- Leake, ‘UN wrongly linked global warming to natural disasters,’ Sunday Times, January 24, 2010. [↩]
- IPCC, ‘IPCC statement on trends in disaster losses,’ January 25, 2010. [↩]
- Leake, ‘The UN climate panel and the rainforest claim,’ Sunday Times, January 31, 2010. [↩]
- Realclimate, ‘IPCC errors: facts and spin,’ February 14, 2010. [↩]
- Rowell, letter, ‘Real threat to Amazon,’ Sunday Times, February 7, 2010. [↩]
- Leake, ‘Climate change experts clash over sea-rise “apocalypse”,’ Sunday Times, January 10, 2010. [↩]
- Realclimate, ‘IPCC errors: facts and spin,’ February 14, 2010. [↩] [↩] [↩]
- Hansen, The Storms of my Grandchildren, Bloomsbury, London, 2009, p.171. [↩]