Bob Ward exposes the falsehoods in Viscount Ridley’s Times article about a ‘walrus comeback’.

Climate change deniers whose views are dictated by an extreme ‘free market’ ideology have a clear modus operandi. For instance, over the years they have shifted between different bogus arguments to justify their opposition to climate policies.

First, they denied the Earth was warming, until people could see for themselves that this was nonsense. For a brief period in the late 1990s, they claimed that the warming had stopped, until a series of record warm years undermined their false narrative. Then they denied that the increase in global temperature was due to greenhouse gas emissions from the consumption of fossil fuels and other human activities, until a series of scientific reports confirmed that there was no other explanation. Most recently, climate change deniers have embraced a lukewarmer narrative, claiming that the risks of climate change impacts are insignificant, but their arguments have been undone by a growing catalogue of more frequent and intense extreme weather events that have been attributed to the rise in global temperature.

One other infamous tactic employed by climate change deniers is to carry out personal attacks on influential experts in the hope of silencing them one way or the other. Professor Phil Jones contemplated suicide after he and his family received death threats following a concerted campaign by climate change deniers to misrepresent the content of emails that were hacked from the University of East Anglia in 2009. And Professor Michael Mann has been subjected to many years of abuse and persecution by climate change deniers, who have included American politicians.

A more recent target has been Sir David Attenborough, perhaps the most trusted person on British television, who has highlighted the impact of climate change particularly on wildlife. In 2019, he narrated ‘Our Planet’, a series of programmes for Netflix. One episode featured distressing footage of Pacific walruses falling to their deaths while trying to scramble down cliffs. The images received widespread media coverage, prompting climate change deniers to launch a propaganda campaign against Sir David, alleging that he and the programme-makers had fooled audiences into believing the tragedy was linked to climate change when polar bears were to blame.

This attack on the programme’s integrity was quickly debunked and discredited. Yet the propaganda campaign continues, with the most recent example of misinformation occurring in The Times newspaper on 4 January 2023. In an article packed full of falsehoods which must have escaped any fact-checking by the newspaper, Viscount Ridley, who has a track record of misrepresenting the truth about climate change, wrote: “When Netflix showed footage of walruses falling to their deaths off a cliff in Siberia in 2019, Sir David Attenborough’s voiceover blamed climate change. It later emerged that a polar bear had stampeded the animals off the cliff.”

This is patently untrue but Viscount Ridley obviously subscribes to the view that the more a falsehood is repeated, the more people will believe it. And this falsehood was reinforced with other bogus claims in his article, which wrongly argued that walruses are currently thriving in a warming climate.

The basis for Viscount Ridley’s Panglossian assessment was the latest sighting of an Atlantic walrus in British waters, a rare but growing occurrence, which some have attributed to the consequences of climate change. But his article stated: “The reason for the recent British ‘walrush’ is because walruses are doing well, not badly.”

He pointed out, this time correctly, that the population of the Atlantic sub-species of walrus has been recovering in Svalbard, Norway, since a ban on hunting was introduced in 1952. The Norwegian Polar Institute estimated that the population reached more than 5,500 in 2018. The Institute has recently teamed up with the British Antarctic Survey and WWF to seek the help of the public in making new estimates of the walrus population in Svalbard, using images from space. And it has warned: “After more than 60 years of protection, the population size in Svalbard is still small, and the species is still on the Red List as a threatened species.”

The walrus was classified as vulnerable on the Red List of Threatened Species, which is compiled by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, in 2016, with the IUCN noting that, “climatic warming will surely require them to live in a much different environment as sea ice recedes and disappears from many of the areas they have used in past centuries”.

Numerous scientific studies have recorded changes in the feeding and breeding behaviour of walruses as the Arctic warms. A recent review of the evidence by scientists in Greenland, Norway and Denmark concluded that walruses are already being affected by climate change, but “while the Pacific walrus seems to experience negative effects of warming and decrease in sea ice, the Atlantic walruses may be less affected”.

Viscount Ridley even denies the extent to which the Arctic climate is changing. His article stated: “Arctic sea ice has declined hardly at all in winter since 2002, and by about 20 per cent in late summer.” In fact, analysis by the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Colorado shows a definite downward trend in Arctic sea ice extent since 1979 for all months of the year. The maximum winter extent usually occurs in late February or early March. The average area covered by ice was nearly 700,000 square kilometres lower in March 2022 compared with 20 years earlier – as shown in the graph below.

Source: National Snow and Ice Data Center

It is clear that Viscount Ridley and other climate change deniers are still prepared to resort to extreme and desperate misinformation tactics in order to promote their political agenda.

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