Another example of the echo chamber of climate change denial

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The British echo chamber of climate change denial has been heavily used over the past couple of weeks as part of a campaign to spread misinformation about extreme weather events.

The echo chamber repeats and amplifies the messages of climate change deniers in the hope that their propaganda can distort the public and policy debates.

It makes use of both social media and little corners of the British media which have been co-opted to promote fictions instead of facts about climate change.

The latest distorting echo from the chamber is a polemic by Viscount Ridley in ‘The Spectator’ magazine, which provides a ready platform for proponents of climate change denial.

‘The Spectator’ permits Viscount Ridley to promote climate change denial without disclosing to readers his financial interests in fossil fuels or his membership of the “Academic Advisory Council” of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, a lobby group set up by Lord Lawson 10 years ago to campaign against policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the consumption of oil, coal and gas.

Viscount Ridley’s latest article, under the headline ‘Lying with science: a guide to myth debunking’, alleges that the media is complicit in spreading false information about science.

Ironically, Viscount Ridley’s account is filled with hypocrisy and inaccuracy, demonstrating why climate change deniers (or ‘lukewarmers’ as he prefers to describe himself) cannot be trusted.

Viscount Ridley targets a statement in a report on ‘This is a crisis: Facing up to the age of environmental breakdown’, which was published last month by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR): “Since 2005, the number of floods across the world has increased by 15 times, extreme temperature events by 20 times, and wildfires sevenfold.”

This statement was attributed by the authors to an analysis of information in EM-DAT, the international disaster database, carried out by Jeremy Grantham, whose Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment provides funding to the London School of Economics and Political Science for the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment.

Soon after the report was published, IPPR admitted that the timescale indicated in the statement contained a typographic error, and the authors quickly corrected the starting data from 2005 to 1950 instead. Nevertheless, climate change deniers continued to attack it, complaining that the EM-DAT database is incomplete for disasters before 1998.

I explained in a previous commentary why the EM-DAT figures have limitations as indicators of the occurrence of extreme weather events, even though it is the world’s most comprehensive record of disasters.

It is very difficult to calculate long-term trends in the global occurrence of extreme weather events because of the lack of data for many parts of the world. But in countries and regions where there are long-term records, trends are beginning to emerge, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has highlighted.

This statement was highlighted in some media coverage of the report, including by the BBC. It acted as a lightning rod for attacks by a network of climate change deniers who are attempting to mislead the public and policy-makers into wrongly believing that climate change is not having any impact on extreme weather.

The attacks started with Paul Homewood, a retired accountant who recently wrote a pamphlet rejecting the evidence that climate change is affecting tropical cyclones for the Global Warming Policy Foundation.

Mr Homewood used his personal blog to attack the IPPR report. It was not long before the echo chamber started to operate, with links to Mr Homewood’s blog spread via Twitter and other social media by other climate change deniers, before being picked up by Christopher Booker, who frequently regurgitates Mr Homewood’s claims in articles for ‘The Sunday Telegraph’ and the ‘Daily Mail’. Mr Booker has also written pamphlets for the Global Warming Policy Foundation.

Other climate change deniers also added to the noisy repetition of Mr Homewood’s allegations, including a spite-filled rant by James Delingpole for Breitbart. And now there has been the entirely predictable contribution from Viscount Ridley in ‘The Spectator’.

He focused specifically on the reference to trends in floods and drew attention to the following statement which appeared in the Fifth Assessment Report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2013: “In summary, there continues to be a lack of evidence and thus low confidence regarding the sign of trend in the magnitude and/or frequency of floods on a global scale.”

However, he neglected to mention that this statement by the IPCC applied only to river flooding and omitted coastal flooding, which is included in the EM-DAT database. He also failed to acknowledge the IPCC report’s recognition that rainfall is increasing in some parts of the world and reducing in others as a result of climate change’s impacts on the hydrological cycle. These regional differences make a global trend difficult to detect.

The most recent report by the IPCC on ‘Global Warming of 1.5°C’ provides a rather more complicated picture than Viscount Ridley conveys in his article. On river flooding, it states: “In summary, streamflow trends since 1950 are not statistically significant in most of the world’s largest rivers (high confidence), while flood frequency and extreme streamflow have increased in some regions (high confidence).”

On coastal flooding, it states: “Sea level rise (SLR) and other oceanic climate changes are already resulting in salinization, flooding, and erosion and in the future are projected to affect human and ecological systems, including health, heritage, freshwater availability, biodiversity, agriculture, fisheries and other services, with different impacts seen worldwide (high confidence).”

While the increase of 15 times in the number of floods since 1950 that is calculated from the EM-DAT database may be partly due to under-reporting of older events, it also reflects increased river and coastal flooding in many parts of the world, and of course a huge increase in the number of people who are exposed – the global population has almost trebled since 1950 from about 2.6 billion to more than 7.6 billion today.

It is important to note that EM-DAT records only extreme weather events that have a major impact on human populations. To be included, one of the following criteria must be fulfilled: 10 or more people dead; 100 or more people affected; the declaration of a state of emergency; or a call for international assistance.

However, Viscount Ridley’s article makes the entirely false claim that the EM-DAT database “only includes very small disasters such as traffic accidents but [sic] only for recent years”.

But this is not the only serious inaccuracy in Viscount Ridley’s article. He also asserted that “Jeremy Grantham, just happens — you guessed it — to fund the Institute for Public Policy Research”. This is untrue. The IPPR, unlike the Global Warming Policy Foundation, transparently publishes details of its funders on its website: the Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment is not one of them.

What is even more striking is the extreme hypocrisy of Viscount Ridley’s attack on the IPPR report. He has a disgraceful track record of misrepresenting the scientific and economic evidence on climate change.

For instance, in 2013, Viscount Ridley wrote an article for ‘The Spectator’, under the headline ‘Why climate change is good for the world’, which claimed economic analyses show net benefits for moderate levels of global warming. In fact, it was based on inaccurate data which had misrepresented the conclusions of economists who found that global warming creates net costs. Viscount Ridley has never acknowledged the fundamental flaws in his article.

In 2016, Viscount Ridley delivered the annual lecture for the Global Warming Policy Foundation, and falsely alleged that scientists had suppressed the results of their research showing an increase in leaf cover in many parts of the world.

Last year, Viscount Ridley, who is a hereditary member of the House of Lords, misled the British Parliament by wrongly claiming that the IPCC had concluded the net economic effects of climate change would be positive for the next 40 to 50 years.

Viscount Ridley’s inaccurate and misleading articles in ‘The Spectator’, ‘The Times’ and the ‘Wall Street Journal’ play an important role in the echo chamber of climate change denial within and outside the UK.

In 2015, the coal company Peabody Energy submitted a document to the President’s Council on Environmental Quality arguing against federal regulations on climate change, arguing: “The most ubiquitous “greenhouse gas,” carbon dioxide, is a benign gas that is essential for all life”.

Peabody’s submission cited Viscount Ridley’s articles several times, including an inaccurate and misleading opinion piece for the ‘Wall Street Journal’ with the headline ‘Fossil Fuels Will Save the World (Really)’.

Also in 2015, Greenpeace revealed an email exchange with Professor William Happer, a prominent climate change denier, who had just set up the CO2 Coalition to dispute the scientific evidence for greenhouse gases driving global warming.

Professor Happer’s messages noted a key role carried out by Viscount Ridley as “someone who the CO2 Coalition is in close touch with”.

Professor Happer is now leading President Trump’s new advisory group of climate change deniers who are expecting to undermine expert reports.

We can expect Viscount Ridley and the other contributors to the echo chamber of climate change denial to play a big role over the coming months in spreading Professor Happer’s propaganda.

 

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