The ‘Mail on Sunday’ uses fake news to attack Sir David Attenborough

Sir David Attenborough (Copyright: John Cairns, 2015)

Over the past few weeks, climate change deniers have launched waves of desperate attacks against Sir David Attenborough, using innuendo and false rumour to try to discredit his new programmes on climate change.

Sir David’s Netflix series Our Planet debuted earlier this month, including a moving sequence showing walruses in north-east Russia clambering up rocky cliff faces, then plunging to their deaths while clumsily attempting to descend.

The scenes were so powerful that they were featured in the Channel 4 programme Gogglebox, with viewers shown watching in shocked silence, tears streaming down their faces.

The Our Planet episode correctly indicated, on the basis of solid scientific evidence, that the walruses had been forced to gather in large numbers on the rocky shore around the cliffs because of the disappearance of the Arctic sea ice on which they would usually congregate.

The footage of the walruses was filmed in Chukotsk in 2017, when the sea ice extent reached a record low level as a result of the impacts of global warming in the Arctic region.

Ridiculous climate-denying propaganda campaign seeks to discredit Sir David

Despite the clear reason for the walruses’ fate, climate change deniers have been seeking to create confusion about the programme by spreading increasingly ridiculous rumours. First they blamed the presence of polar bears, then they suggested that drones used by the film crew may have frightened the walruses. It is perhaps only a matter of time before they accuse Sir David himself of pushing the walruses over the cliff!

The programme-makers have treated these unfounded allegations with scorn, but the bizarre conspiracy theories have continued to bounce around the echo chamber of climate change denial, with the Global Warming Policy Foundation and its tiny band of fanatical supporters at the centre of the propaganda campaign.

These desperation tactics have apparently been prompted by deep fears that Sir David’s programmes will sweep away any lingering doubts in the minds of the British public about the reality of climate change.

The climate change deniers have now targeted another programme presented by Sir David Attenborough. Climate change – the facts was broadcast on BBC1 on Thursday 18 April. Again, the attacks have used false claims to try to undermine Sir David and the programme-makers.

On 21 April The Mail on Sunday published a lengthy article by David Rose, who has a track record of misleading readers about climate change, containing a long list of criticisms about the programme. He writes: “Watching it did fill me with horror, but not at the threat from global warming. It was at the way Sir David and the BBC presented a picture of the near future which was so much more frightening than is justified.”

Mr Rose’s article is filled with inaccurate and misleading claims. “According to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC),” he writes, “our emissions were responsible for more than half of the 0.6°C-0.7°C global average temperature rise recorded between 1951 and 2010.”

This was a reference to the contribution of IPCC Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report, which was published in 2013. But Mr Rose has ignored a more up-to-date Special Report by the IPCC, which was published last year and found an even greater amount of warming. That report concluded: “Human-induced warming reached approximately 1°C (likely between 0.8°C and 1.2°C) above pre-industrial levels in 2017, increasing at 0.2°C (likely between 0.1°C and 0.3°C) per decade (high confidence).”

The IPCC report also states: “Since 2000, the estimated level of human-induced warming has been equal to the level of observed warming with a likely range of ±20% accounting for uncertainty due to contributions from solar and volcanic activity over the historical period (high confidence).” Thus both the amount of warming and the human contribution to it are both higher than Mr Rose claims.

A classic ‘lukewarmer’ attack on scientific evidence

This is just one example of many attempts Mr Rose makes in his article to downplay the amount and impact of global warming, an established tactic by so-called ‘lukewarmers’, who do not deny the basic physics but do deny the scale and magnitude of risks arising from climate change.

Mr Rose is wrong on even straightforward facts, which he cites after denouncing as “risible” and “dishonest” 16-year-old Greta Thunberg’s claim that nothing is being done about climate change in the UK. He writes that, “Government statistics say 56 per cent of electricity came from low carbon sources in 2018”. In fact, the provisional data published by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy indicate that 49.4% of the electricity supplied in the UK last year was generated from domestic low-carbon sources.

Similarly, he erroneously claims that “the Government has pledged to ‘decarbonise’ electricity by 2030”. In fact, the Government’s Clean Growth Strategy of October 2017 suggested that annual emissions from the power sector could be reduced by 80 per cent by 2032 to 16 million tonnes of carbon-dioxide-equivalent. The Strategy states: “By 2050, we anticipate that emissions from the power sector could need to be close to zero.”

However, Mr Rose’s most inaccurate and misleading statements relate to the programme’s portrayal of the scientific evidence for climate change. He writes: “One of the film’s most questionable aspects was its claim that extreme weather events such as floods and storms have already got worse and more frequent, thanks to global warming, along with wildfires.”

Referring again to the contribution of IPCC Working Group I, Mr Rose writes: “But its Fifth Assessment Report, published in 2013, stated there are ‘no significant observed trends in global tropical cyclone frequency over the past century’. It added: ‘No robust trends in annual numbers of tropical storms, hurricanes and major hurricane counts have been identified over the past 100 years in the North Atlantic basin.’”

This is an example of Mr Rose cherry-picking statements in order to provide a misleading impression of the IPCC report. He ignores the following statement from the same report: “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.”

Mr Rose continues with a reference to the IPCC’s 2018 Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C: “A separate IPCC report last year said that cyclones in the tropics would in future be less numerous, although some would be stronger.” In fact, the report actually states: “Consistent with the majority of studies performed for higher degrees of global warming, the total number of tropical cyclones is projected to decrease under global warming, whilst the most intense (categories 4 and 5) cyclones are projected to occur more frequently.”

Mr Rose then cites a paper by Zbigniew W. Kundzewicz and co-authors about flooding, published in the Hydrological Sciences Journal in early 2014: “So far, they said, ‘no gauge-based evidence has been found for a climate-driven, globally widespread change in the magnitude/frequency of floods.’”

However, the full quotation from the paper is: “Despite the diagnosed extreme-precipitation-based signal, and its possible link to changes in flood patterns, no gauge-based evidence had been found for a climate-driven, globally widespread change in the magnitude/frequency of floods during the last decades.”

This shows that the paper only considers river flooding, excluding coastal flooding caused by tropical cyclones. Indeed, the paper by Dr Kundzewicz and colleagues explicitly states: “The present article does not address coastal flooding caused by storm surges.”

Furthermore, Mr Rose fails to mention the conclusions of the IPCC’s 2018 Special Report, which state: “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).”

The report also 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).” It adds: “Mean sea level is increasing, with substantial impacts already being felt by coastal ecosystems and communities (high confidence). These changes are interacting with other factors, such as strengthening storms, which together are driving larger storm surges, infrastructure damage, erosion and habitat loss.”

Misleading readers on wildfire facts and statistics

 Mr Rose’s article also unfairly criticises Sir David and the BBC programme for linking wildfires in California last year to climate change. Mr Rose writes: “Surprisingly, several recent scientific papers suggest that wildfires have been declining in recent years – even in California, where statistics gathered by the local agency, Calfires, says the number across the state has roughly halved since 1987, following a peak in the 1970s.”

This statement is inaccurate and misleading. The United States Fourth National Climate Assessment, which Mr Rose has ignored, provides a synthesis of the scientific evidence on the link between climate change and wildfires in the United States. The report states: “Over the past 20 years, a warm, dry climate has increased the area burned across the Nation…The duration of the season during which wildfires occur has increased throughout the western United States as a result of increased temperatures and earlier snowmelt. Increased vapor pressure deficit and reduced summer precipitation have deepened summer droughts in the West and thus increased wildfire risk.”

Apart from mischaracterising the conclusions of recent scientific papers, Mr Rose also misrepresents the wildfire statistics for California. He neglects to point out to the newspaper’s readers that the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or CAL FIRE (not ‘Calfires’ as it is described in Mr Rose’s article), is responsible for less than 60 per cent of forest land in California, mostly at lower elevations, while the rest, mostly at higher elevations, is managed by the United States Forest Service.

A comprehensive recent review entitled Different historical fire-climate patterns in California, by Jon Keeley and Alexandra Syphard, published in the International Journal of Wildland Fire in 2017, found that the annual area burned on land overseen by CAL FIRE had declined in all but one of five ‘climate divisions’ of California since the 1920s. However, the area burned on the US Forest Service’s land had increased in every region since the 1960s.

Keeley and Syphard point out that “seasonal variations in temperature appear to have had minimal influence on area burned in the lower elevation, mostly non-forested, landscapes” and “temperature has been a significant factor in controlling fire activity in higher elevation montane forests, but this varied greatly with season – winter and autumn temperatures showed no significant effect, whereas spring and summer temperatures were important determinants of area burned”. They go on to write that “current season precipitation has been a strong controller of fire activity in forests, with drier years resulting in greater area burned on most United States Forest Service (USFS) lands in the state, but the effect of current-year precipitation was decidedly less on lower elevation California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection lands”.

In their conclusions, Keeley and Syphard write: “With respect to how climate influences fires, we recognise three types of ecosystems: (1) flammability-limited, (2) fuel-limited and (3) ignition-limited systems.” They continue: “Flammability-limited ecosystems are best represented by higher elevation montane coniferous forests where the annual window of opportunity for significant fires varies markedly from year to year in response to seasonal climates. These are the most climate-limited fire regimes and expected global warming will likely increase area burned by increasing the length of the fire season and the severity of drought effects on fuel moisture.”

Thus the evidence provides a very different picture from the one offered by Mr Rose’s article. He chooses to cite figures for the number of fires, rather than the area burned, and he ignores wildfires in forests at higher elevations that are most affected by the impacts of climate change.

Wrongly questioning the impact of climate change on biodiversity and coral reefs

Mr Rose’s article contains further misleading claims about the risk of wildlife extinctions due to climate change. In the BBC programme, Sir David stated: “Scientists believe that 8% of species are now at threat of extinction solely due to climate change.” This is an accurate representation of the main finding of a paper entitled Accelerating extinction risk from climate change, by Mark Urban of the University of Connecticut, published in the journal Science in May 2015. The paper presents a meta-analysis of 131 studies and concludes: “Overall, 7.9% of species are predicted to become extinct from climate change.”

Mr Rose’s article wrongly criticises this part of the programme, complaining that it “appears to oversimplify the findings of the IPCC”. He then quotes the contribution of Working Group II to the Fifth Assessment Report in 2014.

But if Mr Rose had bothered to read the IPPC’s Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5C – its most up-to-date – he would have been able to see a reference to the paper by Dr Urban in the following passage from 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 (Urban, 2015).”

Mr Rose has criticisms too of the way in which the programme portrayed the impact of climate change on coral reefs. During the programme, Sir David states: “Over 90% of the increased heat trapped in our atmosphere has been stored in the oceans. I’ve witnessed the devastating effect this is having. In the last three years repeated heat stress has caused a third of the world’s corals to first bleach and then die.”

This is an accurate representation of a conclusion from The State of the Climate in 2017, published last year by the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. A section of the report entitled ‘Unprecedented three years of global coral bleaching 2014–17’ points out that high sea temperatures caused global coral bleaching events in 1998, 2010 and in 2014–17. It states: “Lasting an unprecedented 36 months, the third global event brought mass bleaching-level heat stress (Alert 1) to more than 75% of global reefs; nearly 30% also suffered mortality-level stress (Alert 2).”

Mr Rose is apparently unaware of this work and sought to cast doubt on the programme’s narrator, writing: “Attenborough made yet another contentious claim about corals, claiming that one third of the world’s reefs have perished due to ‘heat stress’ in the past three years. It is true that the record high temperatures recorded during the powerful ‘El Nino’ event of 2015/16 – which saw the central Pacific warm by several degrees and drove warmer weather elsewhere – damaged corals badly. But many have begun to recover, including those of the supposedly moribund Great Barrier Reef.”

Mr Rose’s attempt to blame the coral bleaching solely on El Niño is completely contrary to the conclusions of scientists. For instance, The State of the Climate in 2017 states: “While many stressors can cause bleaching, ‘mass’ coral bleaching (covering hundreds of kilometers or more) is primarily driven by prolonged anomalously warm ocean temperatures coupled with high subsurface light levels, exceeding corals’ physiological tolerances. Heat stress causing mass coral bleaching can be monitored accurately by satellites and has increased in frequency and severity with a warming climate.”

The State of the Climate in 2017 also points out: “Occurring at an average rate of once every 25–30 years in the 1980s, mass bleaching now returns about every six years and is expected to further accelerate as the oceans continue to warm. Severe bleaching is now occurring more quickly than reefs can recover, with severe downstream consequences to ecosystems and people.”

More fake news – on temperature rise

 Mr Rose’s article goes on to accuse Sir David and the programme of misleading viewers about the amount of warming that the IPCC has warned could occur in the future. He describes the programme’s “most provocative claim of all” as being: “that IPCC computer model projections show that by the end of this century, world average temperatures will be between three and six degrees higher than now”.

In fact, this is a misrepresentation of Sir David’s voiceover during the programme, which was actually: “But based on our current trajectory the various models predict that by the end of the century our planet will be somewhere between 3 and 6 degrees hotter” – a statement that refers to a pre-industrial baseline rather than now.

Sir David’s statement is an accurate approximation of the results from the most recent set of projections published in the contribution of IPCC Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report in 2013. The report describes four representative concentration pathways (RCPs) showing global mean surface temperature to the end of this century. The pathway showing the highest level of warming was RCP8.5, showing a “likely” (i.e. 66–100% likelihood of occurrence) rise in global mean surface temperature of between 2.6°C and 4.8°C by 2081–2100 compared with 1986–2005. The report also notes that the global mean surface temperature for 1986–2005 was between 0.55°C and 0.67°C higher than for 1850–1900, which is usually assumed to be equivalent to pre-industrial temperature. This means that RCP8.5 projects a rise in global mean surface temperature of between 3.15°C and 5.47°C compared with pre-industrial levels by the end of this century. The programme-makers used rounded figures of 3°C and 6°C.

The second volume of the United States Fourth National Climate Assessment, which was published last year, notes in Chapter 2: “The observed acceleration in carbon emissions over the past 15–20 years has been consistent with the higher future scenarios (such as RCP8.5) considered in this assessment.”

Mr Rose wrongly claims that “there is evidence that RCP8.5 is almost certain not to take place” because “it posits population increases far higher than those now thought likely by many demographers”. In fact, RCP8.5, which assumes a growth in global population to about 12 billion by 2100, is in line with the latest projections published by the United Nations. The IPCC report states that the representative concentration pathways “specify concentrations and corresponding emissions, but are not directly based on socio-economic storylines”.

It is perhaps not surprising that there are so many inaccurate and misleading claims in Mr Rose’s article. He has written many fake news articles about climate change and has been sanctioned a number of times for misreporting by the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO).

Over the past two years The Mail on Sunday has been forced to publish three adverse adjudications about inaccurate and misleading articles by Mr Rose, on 9 October 2016, 19 February 2017, and 5 March 2017.

IPSO can expect to receive shortly another complaint about Mr Rose’s latest display of disregard for the facts.

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.