Another lukewarmer promotes unscientific climate change denial in the ‘Daily Mail’

London newspaper stand with Daily Mail advertising (Credit: ablokhin/istock)

With Extinction Rebellion bringing parts of London to a standstill, right-wing national newspapers have been growing increasingly desperate in their attacks on the protests, while also giving more space to the discredited claims of climate change deniers.

So it was entirely predictable that the ‘Daily Mail’ should have published a error-filled polemic by Dominic Lawson on 7 October, which combined sneering criticism of the motives of the protestors with the bogus argument that climate change is good for the world.

Mr Lawson’s article was littered with typographic errors as well as woolly thinking, showing that it had not even been copy-edited by the newspaper’s comment desk, let alone fact-checked.

The article, under the headline ‘Why a horseshoe bat in Kent exposes the sheer folly of today’s mass eco-protests’, began with the kind of Panglossian claim that is so typical of lukewarmers: “And now for some good news. One of Britain’s and Northern Europe’s rarest and most elusive mammals has been discovered living in the East of England for the first time in 115 years.”

Mr Lawson offered the following explanation for this apparently happy news about the greater horseshoe bat: “According to a spokesman for the Bat Conversation [sic] Trust, it seems possible that ‘the species is now able to expand its range into Kent due to climate [sic] changes’.”

The sloppy errors should have warned the newspaper’s readers that Mr Lawson was not being precisely accurate. In fact, the media release from the Bat Conservation Trust actually stated: “The reasons for the presence of this species in Kent are currently unknown. It is possible that an individual bat was blown off course or has travelled over from France, or that a bat has dispersed across the UK, from strongholds in the west of England or Wales. It is also possible that the species is now able to expand its range into Kent due to climatic changes. The habitats in the area that the recordings were made are not dissimilar to those in its western strongholds, prompting speculation that the records could represent more than just an itinerant bat.”

Mr Lawson then took aim at some of the favourite targets for climate change deniers, Greta Thunberg, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Roger Hallam and ‘the Guardian’ newspaper, before launching into his lukewarmer revisionism of the scientific evidence on climate change.

First he asked: “But what about our friends in the animal kingdom? Are they truly at imminent threat of global wipe-out as a result of the CO2 we emit? Despite Extinction Rebellion’s message, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — the UN body guided by the scientists in the field — says nothing of the kind. Its most recent report declares: ‘Overall, there is very low confidence that observed species extinctions can be attributed to recent climate warming, owing to the very low fraction of global extinctions that have been ascribed to climate change and the tenuous nature of most [such] attributions.’”

Mr Lawson failed to reveal that he was referring to an out-of-date report. The quotation he cited was taken from the contribution of working group II of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to the Fifth Assessment Report. It was published in 2014 and is not the most recent report by the IPCC on this issue. In 2018, the IPCC published its special report on ‘Global Warming of 1.5ºC’. It stated on page 218 of Chapter 3 that “a recent meta-analysis of 27 studies concerning a total of 976 species (Wiens, 2016) found that 47% of local extinctions (extirpations) reported across the globe during the 20th century could be attributed to climate change, with significantly more extinctions occurring in tropical regions, in freshwater habitats and for animals”.

Next, Mr Lawson stated: “In terms of the future, having modelled the effect of anticipated global increases in CO2 emissions from rapidly growing economies of the most populous nations, the IPCC states: ‘There is low agreement concerning the fraction of species at increased risk . . . and the timeframe over which extinctions could occur.’” This was also misleading for two main reasons.

First, by quoting from the 2014 report published by the IPCC, he again ignored the more recent 2018 report, which stated on page 218 of Chapter 3: “There is no literature that directly estimates the proportion of species at increased risk of global (as opposed to local) commitment to extinction as a result of climate change, as this is inherently difficult to quantify. However, it is possible to compare the proportions of species at risk of very high range loss; for example, a discernibly smaller number of terrestrial species are projected to lose over 90% of their range at 1.5°C of global warming compared with 2°C. A link between very high levels of range loss and greatly increased extinction risk may be inferred. Hence, limiting global warming to 1.5°C compared with 2°C would be expected to reduce both range losses and associated extinction risks in terrestrial species (high confidence).”

However, Mr Lawson also gave a false impression of the older IPCC report through his cherrypicked quotation. The 2014 report concluded that there was “high confidence that climate change will contribute to increased extinction risk for terrestrial and freshwater species over the coming century”. Mr Lawson failed to disclose this statement. The IPCC report also stated on page 300 of Chapter 4: “There is, however, low agreement concerning the overall fraction of species at risk, the taxa and places most at risk, and the time scale for climate change-driven extinctions to occur. Part of this uncertainty arises from differences in extinction risks within and between modeling studies: this uncertainty has been evaluated in AR4 [IPCC Fourth Assessment Report published in 2007] and subsequent syntheses. All studies project increased extinction risk by the end of the 21st century due to climate change, but as indicated in AR4 the range of estimates is large. Recent syntheses indicate that model-based estimates of the fraction of species at substantially increased risk of extinction due to 21st century climate change range from below 1% to above 50% of species in the groups that have been studied.”

So it is clear that Mr Lawson selected only part of the relevant quotation from the IPCC 2014 report and ignored the sentences that followed those he chose to quote, hence misleading readers.

Mr Lawson’s article then moved on to a favourite theme – the stimulation of plant growth by the rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere: “As a result partly of man-made CO2 emissions, Earth has actually become greener. Dr Ranga Myneni of Boston University has demonstrated by analysing data from satellite images of the planet, that 31 per cent of the global vegetated surface of the Earth has become greener over the past three decades, and only 3 per cent has become less green.”

Unfortunately, this was not correct. The most recent paper on which Dr Myneni is a co-author is ‘China and India lead in greening of the world through land-use management’, which was published earlier this year in the journal ‘Nature Sustainability’. The paper concluded that 40.91% of the world’s vegetated land showed a greening between 1982 and 2016, while 10.59% showed browning, as the Supplementary Information indicated in its Table 2. The paper stated: “Human land use is a dominant driver of the Greening Earth. The above results provide at least four arguments in favour of a greater role for a direct human driver than previously thought. First, cropland greening contributes the most to the net increase in leaf area globally since 2000 (33%). Six out of seven greening clusters overlap with the areal pattern of agricultural primary productivity that has previously been derived independently. Cropland greening is mainly attributable to the direct driver, without discounting the minor but opposing contributions of the indirect drivers (CO2 fertilization has been reported to increase crop production, whereas climate change has been reported to increase or decrease crop yields depending on the location).” Hence, Mr Lawson’s article was inaccurate about the figures and misled readers by failing to note that the authors had warned that climate change could hinder greening and promote browning of cropland.

Mr Lawson’s article also added: “Yet it turns out those satellite images have also shown a marked greening in dry areas such as the Sahel in Africa”. This exposed Mr Lawson’s lack of geographical knowledge. The paper on ‘China and India lead in greening of the world through land-use management’ shows an area of significant greening centred on the Central African Republic and South Sudan, which are actually located to the south of the Sahel.

Further on, Mr Lawson’s article stated: “While increased temperatures might save tens of thousands of lives a year in Northern Europe, where cold bears off so many mostly elderly people in winter, they are less likely to be a boon nearer the Equator.” This was also misleading because he failed to disclose to readers that while climate change is reducing the risks of cold weather deaths among elderly people in Northern Europe, it is also increasing the risks of deaths during heatwave periods. Earlier this week, the Office for National Statistics revealed that there were several hundred extra deaths in the UK during record-breaking heatwave conditions in July.

Mr Lawson then returned to the Sahel and quoted fellow lukewarmer Viscount Ridley: “The decline of famines in the Sahel in recent years is partly due to more rainfall caused by moderate warming and partly due to more carbon dioxide itself: more greenery for goats to eat means more greenery left over for gazelles, so entire ecosytems [sic] have benefited.” The quotation was from an article, under the headline ‘Why climate change is good for the world’, which was published in 2013 in ‘The Spectator’ magazine, a favourite platform for climate change deniers. It was not a scientific article and was riddled with mistakes.

It is true that rainfall has increased in the Sahel region over the past 15 years after severe droughts triggered famines during the 1970s and 1980s. It is not yet clear what has caused the recent increase in rainfall although some researchers have suggested it is due to climate change. There is no evidence that carbon dioxide fertilisation has caused significant greening in the Sahel region. Furthermore, the IPCC report on ‘Global Warming of 1.5ºC’ explicitly identified on page 259 of Chapter 3 a number of risks to the Sahel region from future climate change. It stated: “West Africa and the Sahel are likely to experience increases in the number of hot nights and longer and more frequent heatwaves even if the global temperature increase is constrained to 1.5°C, with further increases expected at 2°C of global warming and beyond (e.g., Weber et al., 2018). Moreover, daily rainfall intensity and runoff is expected to increase (low confidence) towards 2°C and higher levels of global warming (Schleussner et al., 2016b; Weber et al., 2018), with these changes also being relatively large compared to the projected changes at 1.5°C of warming. Moreover, increased risks are projected in terms of drought, particularly for the pre-monsoon season (Sylla et al., 2015), with both rural and urban populations affected, and more so at 2°C of global warming as opposed to 1.5°C (Liu et al., 2018). Based on a World Bank (2013) study for sub-Saharan Africa, a 1.5°C warming by 2030 might reduce the present maize cropping areas by 40%, rendering these areas no longer suitable for current cultivars. Substantial negative impacts are also projected for sorghum suitability in the western Sahel (Läderach et al., 2013; Sultan and Gaetani, 2016). An increase in warming to 2°C by 2040 would result in further yield losses and damages to crops (i.e., maize, sorghum, wheat, millet, groundnut and cassava). Schleussner et al. (2016b) found consistently reduced impacts on crop yield for West Africa under 2°C compared to 1.5°C of global warming. There is medium confidence that vulnerabilities to water and food security in the African Sahel will be higher at 2°C compared to 1.5°C of global warming (Cheung et al., 2016a; Betts et al., 2018), and at 2°C these vulnerabilities are expected to be worse (high evidence) (Sultan and Gaetani, 2016; Lehner et al., 2017; Betts et al., 2018; Byers et al., 2018; Rosenzweig et al., 2018). Under global warming of more than 2°C, the western Sahel might experience the strongest drying and experience serious food security issues (Ahmed et al., 2015; Parkes et al., 2018).”

Mr Lawson rounded off his revisionist account of the science of climate change by stating: “The key fact to bear in mind is that CO2 is not, in itself, a pollutant; nor detrimental to the air we breathe. The problem for us is the sooty particulates that come out of the exhaust of vehicles powered by internal combustion engines. They really do kill.” This was, yet again, misleading. Local air pollution is indeed an important problem and is responsible for about 7 million deaths worldwide each year, many of which are due to the use of fossil fuels. But there is a clear scientific consensus that carbon dioxide emissions from human activities are already causing climate change and creating harm around the world through impacts such as rising sea levels and changes in the frequency, intensity and distribution of extreme weather events, as all of the recent IPCC reports have documented.

Mr Lawson’s article systematically misrepresents the risks of climate change and misled the newspaper’s readers. Ironically, it has clearly demonstrated the importance of Extinction Rebellion’s demands to tell the truth.

 

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