In its reporting of the IPCC’s Synthesis Report, the Daily Mail newspaper has once again demonstrated its contempt for its readers and the laughable system of press self-regulation by misrepresenting the latest authoritative scientific assessment of climate change, writes Bob Ward.

On 20 March 2023, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published the last part of its comprehensive Sixth Assessment Report (‘AR6’), the Synthesis Report. The Synthesis pulls together the findings of the IPCC’s three previous contributions to AR6, which have been published since August 2021 on the physical science basis, impacts, adaptation and vulnerability, and mitigation of climate change. As with the preceding parts, the Synthesis Report includes a Summary for Policymakers that was approved line by line by the 195 governments that are members of the IPCC.

The report makes sober reading. Among its main findings are: “Widespread and rapid changes in the atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere and biosphere have occurred. Human-caused climate change is already affecting many weather and climate extremes in every region across the globe. This has led to widespread adverse impacts and related losses and damages to nature and people (high confidence). Vulnerable communities who have historically contributed the least to current climate change are disproportionately affected (high confidence).”

It also concluded: “Continued greenhouse gas emissions will lead to increasing global warming, with the best estimate of reaching 1.5°C in the near term in considered scenarios and modelled pathways. Every increment of global warming will intensify multiple and concurrent hazards (high confidence). Deep, rapid, and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions would lead to a discernible slowdown in global warming within around two decades, and also to discernible changes in atmospheric composition within a few years (high confidence).”

While these statements for most people should be concerning, or even alarming, they are not alarmist. They are carefully crafted evidence-based statements, drawn mostly from academic papers in peer-reviewed journals. Indeed, the Summary for Policymakers can even be argued to be conservative because governments, including major producers of fossil fuels, have vetted every word. Some statements included by the authors in the final draft were removed or altered after interventions from some government representatives.

The Daily Mail’s coverage of the Synthesis Report

Most of the world’s media covered the report’s publication, many newspapers featuring it on their front pages and broadcasters leading news bulletins with it. However, some media that have a track record of promoting climate change denial apparently still could not bear to present an accurate portrayal of the latest research findings to their audiences.

For instance, the Daily Mail in the UK included an article about the report, albeit on page 10, by its environment editor Colin Fernandez, which in the print edition ran under the attention-grabbing headline of ‘Climate calamity close to point of no return, says UN’. The opening paragraph provided a strong summary: “Time is running out for humanity to curb global warming that will plunge the planet into disastrous flooding, heatwaves and famines, a major UN report warns.”

However, the newspaper also provided an opposing view in its leader column, written anonymously under the headline ‘Climate hysteria’. This stated:

“The prophecies of catastrophe by UN climate scientists yesterday were distinctly familiar. Disastrous global warming. Disastrous floods, heatwaves and famine. Time running out for humanity.

“Yet we’ve heard such hair-raising predictions many times over the years and they often fall short of reality.

“Nobody believes more strongly than the Mail that we should strive to look after our planet for our children and grandchildren.

But wouldn’t it be easier to trust the green lobby – and encourage people to make sacrifices to help the environment – if such hysterical language was avoided?”

These criticisms might have been justified had they been aimed at the hyperbolic language used in its own article, but they were a gross misrepresentation of the IPCC report. The report does not contain “hysterical language”: it does not use the words “disastrous”, “catastrophe” or “calamity”, and only uses “disaster” in relation to disaster risk management. Furthermore, the report’s authors are not “UN scientists” – or indeed “the green lobby” – but experts drawn from universities and other institutions around the world, including the UK. They are not employed or paid by the United Nations.

These falsehoods are part of the Daily Mail’s attempts to discredit the authors of the IPCC report and to fool its readers into ignoring their findings because they undermine the newspaper’s editorial line of denying the risks of climate change.

A further attempt to mislead is the claim that the IPCC’s scenarios “often fall short of reality”. These scenarios are used to describe potential impacts under different pathways for annual emissions of greenhouse gases; they are clearly not presented as if they would all happen at the same time. In fact, the range of projections for global average temperature that have been presented in previous IPCC reports have proved to be generally accurate, as the report on the physical science basis pointed out in August 2021 (see pages 184-187 here).

I wrote to the Daily Mail to complain about its inaccurate and misleading portrayal of the IPCC’s Synthesis Report. The response from the newspaper was typically dismissive, as I have experienced on many occasions, claiming that “whether something used ‘hysterical language’ is clearly a matter of interpretation, which we are entitled to express”.

The newspaper clearly refuses to accept that the leading article in question breached the Editors’ Code of Practice, which states: “The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information or images, including headlines not supported by the text.”

I have now submitted a complaint to the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), which was set up by a few of the UK newspapers, including the Mail titles, to police implementation of the Code. But I do not hold out much hope of the Daily Mail being held to account. IPSO has demonstrated on numerous occasions that it will allow newspapers to publish inaccurate and misleading claims about climate change, even though they harm the public interest.

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