to fringe arguments publicised in the press, evidence of the greenhouse
effect is clear, says the Royal Society’s Bob Ward
Climate change poses a huge potential threat across the world,
acknowledged by the UK’s scientific community, most of its
policy-makers and the overwhelming majority of the population.
But some parts of the press either knowingly or unwittingly are
promoting the views of an extremist lobby which denies the scientific
It is now well-established that the average global
temperature has been rising at an unprecedented rate and that the
emission of carbon dioxide and other so-called greenhouse gases from
human activities, such as the burning of fossil fuels, is largely to
blame. Although there are some uncertainties and differences of opinion
about the exact effects a continuing rise in greenhouse gas levels will
have, there is a consensus among scientists that the world’s population
will suffer, with the global average temperature predicted to increase
by a further 1.4 to 5.8 centigrade degrees by 2100.
The extent of
the scientific consensus is easily demonstrated. The United Nations and
World Meteorological Organisation in 1988 set up the Intergovernmental
Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to provide governments with independent
expert advice on the phenomenon’s causes and effects. Its last major
assessment, published in 2001 and based on the deliberations of about
2,000 researchers, concluded that most of the observed warming of the
past 50 years is likely to have been due to the increasing accumulation
of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
That consensus view is
independently reflected in the research papers peerreviewed and
published in scientific journals. Last year a survey published in
Science found that of 928 research papers about climate change
published between 1993 and 2003, not one rejected the IPCC’s assessment.
climate change means significantly reducing emissions of carbon
dioxide, and most industrialised countries have taken the first
important step towards achieving this through the Kyoto Protocol, which
took effect in February this year. Only the Bush administration in the
United States is still dithering, ignoring the advice of its best
scientific advisers, and supported by a well-organised but tiny lobby,
partly funded by oil companies, which does not want to see a cut in the
use of fossil fuels. And it is this lobby that appears to have
advocates in the British press.
For instance, The Daily Telegraph
bizarrely used the tsunami disaster as an opportunity to express a
denial of the scientific evidence. Even though the tsunami was
completely unrelated to climate change, a leader on 27 December
suggested there was little reason to cut carbon dioxide emissions:
“Whether or not this would have the effects claimed by ecologists – and
the science is inconclusive – any gain would be insignificant next to
the changes in temperature caused by forces outside our control.”
Collins, part of that paper’s “backbench” team, followed it up with his
own opinion piece on 7 February, claiming that the cuts in greenhouse
gas emissions set under the Kyoto Protocol were based on “bad science”.
Daily Mail has published seven opinion pieces in 18 months that have
expressed varying degrees of denial about the science of climate
change, and not a single piece offering the consensus view. The most
extreme came from Melanie Phillips in her opinion piece on 12 January
2004. The article presented a series of misleading arguments against
the findings of the scientific community, which she described as
“another variation of left-wing, anti- American, anti-West ideology”.
of the most striking aspects of this article is its faithful
reproduction of the propaganda put together by the denial lobby in the
US. For instance, the George C Marshall Institute, which received
$95,000 from ExxonMobil in 2003 for a “Global Climate Change Program”,
published a document in December 2004 outlining arguments against the
consensus scientific view. It was jointly produced by the Scientific
Alliance, a London-based pressure group, which heavily promoted to the
UK media a panel of climate change dissenters in February 2005 just
ahead of a major international meeting in Exeter of some of the world’s
The accusation that scientists are engaged in a
global conspiracy to hoodwink everybody about climate change is
reminiscent of the campaign by The Sunday Times in the early 1990s
which claimed that scientists were engaged in a plot to mislead the
public by identifying HIV as the cause of Aids.
Of course, most reporting has been balanced and accurate, earning high regard from the scientific community.
national newspapers reported prominently on 22 April 2005 findings that
climate change is largely responsible for a dramatic retreat of
Although the Daily Mail chose not to cover
that story, it did find space for a report that rising carbon dioxide
emissions might lead to grass growing quicker.
Nevertheless, at a
time when informed public debate is needed about measures to reduce
emissions of greenhouse gases, for instance through building wind farms
and increasing the price of petrol, undeclared campaigns by journalists
could mislead and do not serve the public interest.
Bob Ward is senior manager for policy communication at the Royal Society, the UK national academy of science.
“A guide to facts and fictions about climate change” can be found at http://www.royalsoc.ac.uk