UK’s top scientists slam Times newspaper over climate denialist stories

An eminent group of some of the UK’s top names in science, business and policy has sent a letter to the editor of the Times newspaper harshly criticising its coverage of climate change – which in recent days has included reports claiming that the global temperature will not rise during this century, and that ocean acidification is not a concern. I reproduce this letter in full below:

(this story is also covered by the Guardian’s Damian Carrington)

John Witherow
Editor, The Times
The News Building
News UK
1 London Bridge Street SE1 9GF

April 20 2016

Dear John,

We are writing because we are concerned that some of your recent coverage of man-made climate change and energy risks bringing discredit on your paper.

The Times occupies a special place in the history of British journalism, with the best claim of any to having been the nation’s newspaper of record. Accordingly, a respected Times is an essential ingredient of a healthy national discourse.

The particular article that stimulated this letter appeared on 23rd February, entitled “Planet is not overheating, says Professor”, by your environment editor Ben Webster. It concerned a “study” purporting to show that there is no statistically valid evidence for man-made climate change, and therefore the planet will not warm significantly by the end of the century.

That a paper of The Times’ standing chose to report on this study at all is astonishing, given its poor quality. Since your article appeared, scientists have commented, for example, that the method used involves ignoring everything that science has discovered about atmospheric physics since the discovery of greenhouse warming by John Tyndall more than 150 years ago. They have shown that already global warming has proceeded more rapidly than the upper bound of the study’s projections. It was performed by someone who is not a climate scientist, used methods that are unverified in the climate change context, was not peer-reviewed, and was commissioned and paid for by an NGO pressure group, the Global Warming Policy Foundation.

On social media it has, literally, been a laughing stock.

Were this article an isolated example of poor quality and/or distorted coverage, it would merit no comment. However, it is but one example, albeit a particularly egregious one, in a sequence that appears designed systematically to undermine the credibility of climate science and the institutions that carry it out, and the validity of programmes aimed at reducing emissions.

As if to demonstrate the point, a week later you carried another article by Ben Webster (Scientists ‘are exaggerating carbon threat to marine life’, 1st March) claiming that scientists have exaggerated the significance of ocean acidification – an article that the researcher on whose work it was based, Dr Howard Browman, has criticised using terms such as “cherry-picking”, “sensational” and “disappointing”; while Climate Feedback, an initiative in which climate scientists rank news articles according to accuracy, concluded that this one’s scientific credibility was ‘very low’. This was followed by a comment article by Melanie Phillips (Science is turning back to the dark ages, 4th March), which opened with the same claim as Ben Webster’s article, in either ignorance or disregard of Dr Browman’s comments, and ended by re-treading the amply disproven claim from 2009 that climate scientists had “suppressed research findings to ‘hide the decline’ that had occurred in global temperature”. Three separate inquiries found this had not been the case.

As Editor, you are of course entitled to take whatever editorial line you feel is appropriate. Are you aware, however, how seriously you may be compromising The Times’ reputation by pursuing a line that cleaves so tightly to a particular agenda, and which is based on such flimsy evidence? The implications for your credibility extend beyond your energy and climate change coverage. Why should any reader who knows about energy and climate change respect your political analysis, your business commentary, even your sports reports, when in this one important area you are prepared to prioritise the marginal over the mainstream?

Two aspects are particularly concerning. The first is that neither the quality bar that broadsheet newspapers regularly apply to scientific evidence, nor the simple concept of balance, appear to exist in all of your paper’s reporting on climate change (although we note, for example, that your coverage at the close of the Paris climate summit was both balanced and comprehensive). The second concern is that many of the sub-standard news stories and opinion pieces appear to concern, in some way, GWPF. Whether any newspaper should involve itself repeatedly with any pressure group is a matter for debate; it would be deeply perturbing to find that a paper as eminent as The Times could allow a small NGO, particularly one whose sources of financing are unknown, a high degree of influence.

Please do not mistake our comments as an attack on press freedom. Nothing could be further from the truth. A healthy, vibrant, inquisitive press is a vital component of a mature democracy, and neither science nor “green” business should be exempt from proper scrutiny. But trust is also essential for any newspaper, particularly one as distinguished as The Times. If you lose trust, you lose everything; and on this issue, you are losing trust.

We recognise that energy and climate change are complex issues in which it is often hard to distinguish fact from fabrication. However, climate science has proven remarkably robust to repeated scrutiny, and multiple lines of evidence indicate that climate change and ocean acidification pose serious and increasing risks for the future. There are divergent views on the best policy response, and these issues need wide discussion. But there is abundant evidence also that decarbonised energy systems can provide energy security at reasonable cost if they are properly planned.

As people who have taken considerable interest in these issues over many years, we would, with respect, urge that you make these facts the centrepiece of debate reflected in your coverage, rather than the viewpoints of one highly marginal and increasingly out-dated pressure group.

Yours sincerely

John Krebs (on behalf of the names listed below)

 

Lord Krebs Kt FRS
The Rt Revd and Rt Hon Richard Chartres KCVO ChStJ PC FSA
Lord Deben PC
Lord Hunt of Chesterton CB FRS
Baroness Brown of Cambridge DBE FREng
Lord May of Oxford OM Kt AC FRS FAA
Lord Oxburgh KBE FRS Hon FREng
Lord Puttnam Kt CBE HonFRSA Hon FRPS
Lord Rees of Ludlow OM Kt FRS FREng
The Earl of Selborne GBE DL FRS
Lord Stern Kt FRS FBA
Lord Turner of Ecchinswell
Lord Willis of Knaresborough

 

13 Comments

  1. Clyde Davies

    “it would be deeply perturbing to find that a paper as eminent as The Times could allow a small NGO, particularly one whose sources of financing are unknown, a high degree of influence.”

    It would nevertheless be entirely expected if, say, the sources of funding of both this newspaper and the GWPF were found to overlap to a substantial degree.

    Reply
  2. JohnM

    Let me summarise the letter and add my comments in parentheses.

    – We have a theory that must be true (despite the absence of evidence that it is true in the real world)

    – No-one who is not a certified climate scientist is allowed to speak on the matter (despite them potentially having better expertise in the issues they address or simply being able to compare the prediction with the observations and say that predictions were wrong)

    – Only peer-reviewed papers are allowed (despite this review being rarely by more than 3 people who might have biases of their own, including the common pals-review, and despite peer-review being shown to be far less than 100% accurate in identifying errors in papers).

    – We say ocean acidification is a threat (despite (a) numerous stuies saying that the change is negligible and if anything beneficial to the majority of marine life, and (b) a warming ocean will absorb less CO2)

    – We say that the inquiries into “hiding the decline” were correct (despite their bias and failure to rigorously and impartially address the matter)

    – We say that you should look at the scientific evidence (despite neither we nor the IPCC having any).

    – We say that your newspaper lacks balance in these matters (despite more than 95% of reports in the mainstream media being in our favour)

    – We say that you shouldn’t trust the GWPF because its financing sources are unknown (despite us being firmly on the gravy train of government money)

    – We say that climate science is robust and that multiple lines of evidence show it poses a threat (despite none of us having credible evidence to specifically link greenhouse gases to temperature other by te climate models that the latest IPCC report shows are flawed).

    – We’re the authority and you’d better believe it (even if we can’t prove a thing).

    Reply
    1. Clyde Davies

      Drivel.

    2. Bob D

      Let me summarise your comment for you.

      You are happy to display your lack of understanding of this subject in a public space. This is because you lack the self-awareness needed to recognise your lack of understanding, and you think your views are facts.

      You can’t help coming up with ways to back up the views you already have. You have very little interest in people who make genuine attempts to search for truths about the world because you have never really considered what that means, let alone how to recognise it.

      Any attempt to communicate with you will be futile. You will keep saying the same things for years, because they are the things in your head and that’s what you do.

      If you reply to this, it will be rather sad but also quite comical.

    3. Scott

      Bob,
      You are right of course. BUT I can summarise John’s comments far more simply. Deny the evidence, so to claim there is no evidence. A clear obfuscation, which is the AGW denialists last best hope in public discourse and persuasion.

      In other words, pure bollocks. No need to give it any more respect than that. Just BS.

    4. Clyde Davies

      Now I have some more time to spare, let me forensically examine this sackload of ordure from the denialist stable:

      “– We have a theory that must be true (despite the absence of evidence that it is true in the real world)”

      There is a huge and still growing body of evidence to suggest that CO2 emissions are having a warming effect. Numerous sources such as land and sea temperature measures or satellite measurements all corroborate the same conclusion: the climate is warming. For instance, this show the deviation from the mean over the past one hundred and forty years:
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Global_warming#/media/File:Global_Temperature_Anomaly.svg

      “– No-one who is not a certified climate scientist is allowed to speak on the matter (despite them potentially having better expertise in the issues they address or simply being able to compare the prediction with the observations and say that predictions were wrong)”

      Anybody can say whatever they like on this issue. you just have. Doesn’t mean that you, they or anybody else have a *right* to be taken seriously. Nobody is *obliged* to listen to denialist claptrap.

      “– Only peer-reviewed papers are allowed (despite this review being rarely by more than 3 people who might have biases of their own, including the common pals-review, and despite peer-review being shown to be far less than 100% accurate in identifying errors in papers).”

      Peer review has served science for a very long item now and there is no reason why it should suddenly be found wanting just because the climate is involved.

      “– We say ocean acidification is a threat (despite (a) numerous stuies saying that the change is negligible and if anything beneficial to the majority of marine life, and (b) a warming ocean will absorb less CO2)”

      What ‘numerous studies’ are these? In which journals precisely? And how many more ‘numerous studies’ have said precisely the opposite? As CO2 acidifies the ocean then it’s a legitimate cause for concern, especially as corals and crustaceans would find it difficult to impossible tp lay down shells.

      “– We say that the inquiries into “hiding the decline” were correct (despite their bias and failure to rigorously and impartially address the matter)”

      EIGHT HIGHLY RESPECTED SCIENTIFIC COMMITTEES absolved the CRU of any wrongdoing or attempt to mislead. This ‘decline’ referred to the well-discussed tree ring divergence problem but this remark was taken out of context.

      “– We say that you should look at the scientific evidence (despite neither we nor the IPCC having any).”

      Yeah, no evidence at all, of course. I mean, nobody would regard say the imminent collapse of the Larsen B Ice shelf as evidence, would they?

      http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/may/15/antarctic-ice-shelf-larsen-b-disintegration-nasa

      – We say that your newspaper lacks balance in these matters (despite more than 95% of reports in the mainstream media being in our favour)

      “– We say that you shouldn’t trust the GWPF because its financing sources are unknown (despite us being firmly on the gravy train of government money)”

      Until the GWPF comes clean about its funding sources then its motives are suspect. And what’s more, it hasn’t submitted (let alone had published) a single paper to a peer reviewed journal that I have ever heard of. Perhaps it’s because it can’t get the basic facts right:
      http://www.carbonbrief.org/lord-turnbulls-gwpf-briefing-paper-the-really-inconvenient-truth-suffers-from-basic-factual-innaccuracies

      “– We say that climate science is robust and that multiple lines of evidence show it poses a threat (despite none of us having credible evidence to specifically link greenhouse gases to temperature other by te climate models that the latest IPCC report shows are flawed).”

      You really don’t understand science at all, do you? because this science dates back to 1829! When Joseph Fourier proved that the Earth would be a lot colder were it not for its protective atmospheric blanket. Then John Tyndall quantified the relative warming effect of various gases, and found that CO2 was significant. Then in 1896, Svatne Arrhenius derived the relationship between radiative forcing and CO2 concentration.

      If you understood the science then you’d have some appreciation for how long it’s endured. But the only thing you understand is the implications it might have for your lifestyle.

      “– We’re the authority and you’d better believe it (even if we can’t prove a thing).”

      Yes, they are the authority, because they’ve got the publications and the track record and the PhDs and have run the gauntlet of peer review again and again and again. Whereas I’ll bet you have published a single damn paper in your life.

      I’m getting sick to death of reading utter bullshit about this subject written by glib right-wing morons. In fact, If I tried I couldn’t set out to write something more wrong than your analysis.

      If you want to pick fights, don’t lead with your chin.

  3. Dr.K.SParthasarathy

    “The Times ” appears to be moving with the times! The degradation of one of the most respected dailies in the UK to the level of tabloid journalism in handling serious subjects such as climate change is worrying indeed.It is appropriate and timely that the daily is put on a caution notice by some of the top scientists and leaders in the UK. Though the printed word has lost its influence in the digital world, attempts to encourage skewed perception by mainstream printed media must be resisted by every one.

    Whether there are deliberate efforts to influence and mislead public perception on climate change is debatable. The controversy on whether 97% consensus exists among scientists on climate change became hot news now. It appears that such a debate itself is started by climate deniers. Analyzing the sophisticated nuances in policy pronouncements of political leaders in USA is keeping journalists busy now. Let us hope that the critical appraisal of wise men will encourage The Times to make the much needed course corrections and redeem the daily’s past glory and reputation before it is too late.

    Reply
  4. A G Foster

    Were there any climate scientists among the signers?

    Reply
    1. Clyde Davies

      From the Guardian article:

      “The signatories of the letter, all members of the House of Lords, include Lord Deben, current chair of the government’s official advisers on global warming, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), as well as Lord Krebs, who chairs the CCC’s adaptation committee and is a former president of the British Science Association.

      Seven of the signatories are Fellows of the Royal Society (FRS), the UK’s elite science academy, including two past presidents, Lord Rees and Lord May. The latter is a former government chief scientific adviser. Among the other FRS are Lord Hunt, former head of the Met Office, Lord Oxburgh, former chair of Shell UK, and Lord Stern, author of a landmark analysis of the economics of climate change and a former chief economist at the World Bank. Lord Turner, a former chair of the CCC, and the Bishop of London, also signed the letter.”

  5. Nick Cook

    Following in the tradition of the Late Prof. Sir David MacKay, I’ve done some maths; here are a couple of factoids I’ve come up with to try to put our (humanity’s) energy usage into perspective.

    1. Most people I am sure will be aware of the devastation caused by the huge amount of energy released by the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima in the Second World War. In these terms the total amount of energy the UK (Just the UK) uses every year, (that’s for everything, transport, heating, electricity generation etc.) is roughly equal to that released by 150,000 Hiroshima bombs, that’s one Hiroshima atomic bomb explosion about every 3.5 minutes.

    2. On a global scale humanity uses about 12 Mt. St. Helens eruptions’ worth of energy every day, about 1 every 2 hours.
    Although this isn’t a particularly scientific analysis I would suggest that the most reasonable conclusion to draw from the above factual calculations would be that the huge amount of fossil energy we use is on the balance of probability having a significant affect on the planet.

    Reply
    1. Clyde Davies

      It’s worth asking a climate denier how this kind of consumption could *not* be expected to have any effect upon our environment. I’d love to see how they wriggle out of that.

  6. glen osborne

    i am not a scientist. I was a tugboat captain, therefore very interested in weather. I retired and planted a coconut farm with some 40 mango trees as well. I have witnessed extreme changes in weather patterns and tree response in the 10 years that have recently passed. my opinion is that the oil was in the ground and we were sound. we decided to take it out and burn it in extremely large quantities. how can this not effect the climate? we are changing the surface weight of the earth and the friction coefficient of the air that we spin in. this has got to effect the gyroscopic inertia, with its effects on the climate. only a self centered consumer or an ignorant capitalist could ignore the changing world around them.

    Reply
  7. Steve

    The Times have a moral responsibility to report truth and give voices to all arguments. I remember watching Brian Cox give the Beeb a good ticking off for reporting opinion as fact and fact as opinion. I may not believe in gravity. It doesn’t change that I am subject to it. Man made climate change is much the same. In my opinion.

    Reply

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