Misinformation in ‘The Times’ and the ‘Daily Mail’ about hurricanes and climate change

TV news coverage of Hurricane Irma (Credit: MSNBC)

In the wake of Hurricane Irma, two of the most desperate attempts to deny any link with climate change have been made by Richard Littlejohn and Viscount Ridley.

While climate change cannot be blamed for the occurrence of hurricanes, it is clear from the scientific evidence how global warming is making the impacts worse.

First, hurricanes need sea surface temperatures of 26.5 Celsius degrees or more to appear. While many other factors influence formation and development, warmer waters tend to result in stronger hurricanes. Global warming due to human activities has raised sea surface temperatures by about 1 Celsius degree over the past century.

Second, it is basic physics that a warmer atmosphere can hold more water vapour than a cooler one. And that means heavier rainfall from hurricanes. Global warming due to human activities has raised the temperature of the lower atmosphere.

Third, one of the most destructive effects of a hurricane is the storm surge created by winds pushing the sea ahead of it. Global warming due to human activities has raised sea levels by increasing the temperature of sea water and melting glaciers and land-based ice sheets.

However, Viscount Ridley and Richard Littlejohn ignored the scientific evidence and instead used their respective rants in ‘The Times’ and the ‘Daily Mail’ to offer some alternative facts about climate change and hurricanes.

The headline for Mr Littlejohn’s polemic, ‘The Great British Tsunami of 1014’, was an indication that he had not managed to grasp the facts.

He started predictably enough with: “As Hurricane Irma leaves behind her trail of devastation in the Caribbean and Florida, the usual suspects are predictably blaming so-called climate change”.

However, he fatally undermined his attack with his next two sentences: “But there’s nothing new about extreme weather events. Never mind the tropics, I wonder if the global warming alarmists bothered to read the story in Saturday’s Daily Mail about the great tsunami which hit Britain more than 1,000 years ago.”

That’s right. Mr Littlejohn thinks tsunamis are extreme weather events. You couldn’t make it up. Even the article in the ‘Daily Mail’ last Saturday noted that scientists have suggested that the tsunami in 1014 was caused by a meteorite impact. But it seems that Mr Littlejohn mixed up tsunamis, which are usually caused by undersea earthquakes, with storm surges, which accompany hurricanes. His mistake is ironic because he reportedly owns a property in Florida, which is currently coming to terms with billions of dollars of damage caused by the storm surge from Hurricane Irma.

The rest of Mr Littlejohn’s article was intended to satirise the views of anyone who takes seriously the risks of climate change. Given this, and Mr Littlejohn’s obvious ignorance of the subject, it is perhaps not surprising it was filled with pure drivel, written in mock Old English, such as “the tsunami was occasioned by a vast chunke of rock, called an asteroid, falling from the Heavens through this hole in the ozone layer”.

Viscount Ridley’s article for ‘The Times’, under the headline ‘We are more than a match for hurricanes’, was not quite as daft, but just as blatantly misleading.

His column began with a cherry-picked quote from page 216 of Chapter 2 of the contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2013: “Current data sets indicate no significant observed trends in global tropical cyclone frequency over the past century”. However, he chose not to tell his readers about the sentence that followed it: “Regional trends in tropical cyclone frequency and the frequency of very intense tropical cyclones have been identified in the North Atlantic and these appear robust since the 1970s”.

Next, Viscount Ridley selectively quoted from a statement on ‘Global Warming and Hurricanes’ on the website of the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory of the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration which warned: “It is premature to conclude that human activities–and particularly greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming–have already had a detectable impact on Atlantic hurricane or global tropical cyclone activity”.

But again he neglected to mention the very next sentence: “That said, human activities may have already caused changes that are not yet detectable due to the small magnitude of the changes or observational limitations, or are not yet confidently modeled (e.g., aerosol effects on regional climate)”.

Viscount Ridley also claimed that “it was not exceptional warmth, but exceptionally low wind shear (high-altitude wind) that led to Irma’s birth”. But the experts have already made clear that warm sea surface temperatures were, along with other factors including low wind shear, a significant contributor to the development of the hurricane. For instance, the National Hurricane Center indicated when it first formed on 30 August that “Irma is expected to steadily strengthen during the next couple of days while it moves through a low-shear and moist environment, and remains over warm sea surface temperatures”.

Indeed, on 9 August, the Center had upgraded its forecast for the remainder of the hurricane season to “above-normal” based on a number of factors, including the presence of “above-average” sea surface temperatures in the region where Irma formed.

The reason for all this cherry-picking to misleadingly downplay the impact of climate change on Hurricane Irma became apparent in the second half of Viscount Ridley’s article where he argued that the world should seek only to adapt to hurricanes rather than seeking to stop them becoming worse by reducing emissions of greenhouse gases.

Viscount Ridley, who is an adviser to Lord Lawson’s Global Warming Policy Foundation, likes to describe himself as a ‘lukewarmer’ because he does not reject the basic physics of the greenhouse effect. But the truth is that his arguments rely on cherry-picking facts and denying the scientific evidence that shows the risks of unmanaged climate change are unacceptably high. And like Richard Littlejohn, he uses newspaper columns to promote propaganda rather than accurate and reliable information about climate change.

The articles by Viscount Ridley and Richard Littlejohn are clearly inaccurate and misleading, but neither ‘The Times’ nor the ‘Daily Mail’ have been willing so far to publish any letters criticising them, a further sign of those newspapers’ contempt for their readers.


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.