Humiliating mistakes by 'The Mail on Sunday'

 Bob Ward

18 September 2013

‘The Mail on Sunday’ is facing humiliation after two articles published earlier this month which attacked the evidence for climate change were revealed this week to contain embarrassing errors.

The two stories on Arctic sea ice and the forthcoming report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) were written by David Rose, who has been assigned by the newspaper’s editor and deputy editor, Geordie Greig and Gerard Greaves, to undermine the science of climate change through a campaign called ‘The Great Green Con’.

But the campaign is now is disarray as the newspaper has been forced to admit that Rose’s Arctic ice story was based on a typographic error, and the other article contained major mistakes and misrepresentations.

On 8 September, ‘The Mail on Sunday’ published an article| by Rose on page 13 under the headline ‘Record return of arctic ice cap as top scientists warn of global COOLING’.

The opening paragraph stated: “A chilly Arctic summer has left nearly a million more square miles of ocean covered with ice than at the same time last year – an increase of 60 per cent”.

The story was quickly copied by other newspapers in the UK, such as ‘The Daily Telegraph’| as well as other media| abroad. Meanwhile, climate change ‘sceptics’, such as Lord Lawson’s Global Warming Policy Foundation|, eagerly reproduced the article on their blogs and websites as evidence that global warming has stopped.

Rose told me by e-mail that the source of his claim that the ice extent was 60 per cent higher this year was an announcement posted on the website of the United States National Snow and Ice Data Center on 4 September: “August 2013 ice extent was 2.38 million square kilometers (919,000 square miles) above the record low August extent in 2012. The monthly trend is –10.6% per decade relative to the 1981 to 2010 average.”

Elsewhere on its website|, the NSIDC indicated that the average Arctic sea ice extent in August 2012 was a record low figure of 1.82 million square miles. This should have led Rose to claim that the Arctic sea ice was 50.5 per cent higher last month, but further faulty reasoning led him to conclude the difference was 60 per cent.

However, the NSIDC| confirmed to me yesterday that the main figure used by Rose for his article was mistyped and that the mistake was corrected on 10 September, showing that Arctic sea extent in August 2013 was only 29 per cent higher than was recorded for the same month last year.

In an email to me yesterday, Natasha Vizcarra, the media liaison for NSIDC, stated:

“When we published the report, it contained a typographical error in the difference between the August 2013 monthly ice extent and the record low August extent in 2012 (and the corresponding square mile conversions). If you subtract the August 2012| extent of 4.72 million square kilometres from the August 2013| extent of 6.09 million square kilometers, you get 1.38 million square kilometers, not 2.38 million square kilometers. Our readers noticed the error and we corrected the typographical error on September 10. There are no plans to make a statement on the change because it was not an error in the data.”

Although Rose obviously did not realise that the NSIDC figures were in error, other parts of his article were deliberately misleading.

For instance, he failed to point out that the August 2013 average sea ice extent was the sixth lowest figure for that month since satellite records began in 1979, and lower than any August before 2007.

And nowhere did he admit that the August 2013 average extent of 2.35 million square miles was almost 15 per cent less than the 30-year average between 1981 and 2010 of 2.75 million square miles, and consistent with the measured rate of decline of more than 10 per cent per decade.

So even allowing for his unfortunate blunder in using a typographic error as the main source for his story, it was completely misleading for Rose to create the impression that the Arctic sea ice extent is at a record high, rather than close to record low levels.

In addition, Rose wrongly implied that annual global average surface temperature shows cooling over the past 15 years. In fact, the Met Office’s data shows that the linear trend between 1997 and 2012 was a warming of 0.05 centigrade degrees per decade. And the trend in global surface temperature does not, in any case, explain why Arctic sea ice extent was lower in August 2012 than last month.

Furthermore, it was completely false for Rose to suggest that a previous article in ‘The Mail on Sunday’ had “forced the UN’s climate change body to hold a crisis meeting”. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change pointed out in a statement |on 11 September, the only meetings it is due to hold have been scheduled for many years.

Rather predictably, Rose also included an attack on the BBC, but this again amounted to a misrepresentation of the truth. Although the BBC website did feature an article |in December 2007 in which Professor Wieslaw Maslowski suggested that Arctic sea ice in the summer may disappear by 2013, Rose failed to mention that the BBC also published an article| in April 2011 in which Professor Maslowski updated his projection to suggest the ice could be gone by 2016.

I wrote a letter to the editor of the newspaper last week to point out these inaccuracies, but instead of publishing my correspondence, he commissioned an article for last Sunday’s edition about the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in which I was criticised for describing Rose’s previous work as “error-strewn”.

Rose’s new article focused on a leaked copy of the draft summary of the new IPCC report on the physical science basis for climate change, which is due to be published in Stockholm on 27 September.

The newspaper devoted two-page spread| to it on pages 12 and 13, under the headline ‘World’s top climate scientists confess global warming is HALF what we said’.

The article claimed that the last IPCC assessment report, published in 2007, “said that the planet was warming at a rate of 0.2C every decade”, whereas the leaked draft “says that the true figure since 1951 has been only 0.12C per decade”.

This was an outright misrepresentation. The draft summary of the new report does state that the linear trend in warming between 1951 and 2012 has been 0.12°C per decade. But the 2007 report| indicated that the linear trend in global surface temperature over the 50-year period between 1956 and 2005 was a warming of 0.13°C per decade.

However, that was not the only falsehood in Rose’s article. He claimed that “a forecast in the 2007 report that hurricanes would become more intense has simply been dropped without mention”. In fact, the 2007 report| stated that it was likely that, for a range of scenarios of future greenhouse gas emissions, an increase in intense tropical cyclone (including hurricane) intensity activity would increase during the 21st century. The draft summary explicitly states that this increase would be more likely than not in some ocean basins in the last 21st century.

Rose also suggested that “IPCC scientists accept their forecast computers may have exaggerated the effect of increased carbon emissions on world temperatures”, but the draft summary states that there is very high confidence that models are able to reproduce the rapid warming that was recorded during the second half of the 20th century.

The summary does indicate that the models generally do not reproduce the slowdown in warming since 1998, during which the rate of increase in global surface temperature has been 0.05°C per decade. This may be due to unpredictable natural variability in the world’s climate, and because some models have overestimated the impact of rising greenhouse gas concentrations.

So by cherry-picking from his leaked draft and misrepresenting its content, Rose’s article provided a thoroughly misleading impression of it.

Yet Rose went even further by providing a false picture of the scientists who prepared the report. He suggested that Professor Myles Allen of the University of Oxford “said this should be the last IPCC assessment”. But Professor Allen told the fact-checkers at Carbon Brief|: “I did not say this should be the last IPCC report."

Last night Rose and his editors admitted partial defeat by retracting the online version of article and publishing an amended version under the headline| ‘World's top climate scientists confess: Global warming is just QUARTER what we thought - and computers got the effects of greenhouse gases wrong'.  

While the headline error in the original article were removed, the others remained.

These are not the first articles that Rose has written for ‘The Mail on Sunday’ campaign on ‘The Great Green Con’ which have been shown to contain shocking mistakes.

On 16 March he produced another error-strewn article| which attacked mainstream climate science, including a box headed ‘1977 - THE YEAR WE WERE TOLD TO FEAR TERROR OF...GLOBAL COOLING’.

But as Greenpeace| pointed out, the newspaper illustrated the box with a fake cover of ‘Time’ magazine that it had download from the web.

However, these latest howlers are likely to cause most embarassment, not just for Rose, but also for Geordie Greig and Gerard Greaves.

And it should also provide a sobering lesson for other editors and reporters who have been treating the ‘The Mail on Sunday’ is a credible source of ‘sceptical’ stories about climate change.

Bob Ward is policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment|  at London School of Economics and Political Science.

 

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  Bob Ward