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August 22nd, 2014

A major national newspaper may be creating needless confusion in its coverage of climate change


Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Blog Admin

August 22nd, 2014

A major national newspaper may be creating needless confusion in its coverage of climate change


Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

BobWardIn this article, Bob Ward questions whether a leading national newspaper, The Times, has been misleading its readers when it comes to reporting on climate change. He draws on a specific example, arguing that the content of an academic paper and its author may have been misrepresented. 

Earlier this week, I contributed a blog to The Staggers on the website of New Statesman magazine, which exposed a campaign by the editor of The Times to confuse readers of his newspaper about climate change. The newspaper is doing this primarily by promoting the views of a prominent climate change ‘sceptic’, Viscount Ridley, while refusing to publish any letters which point out misleading and inaccurate claims in his articles.

Some of the most egregious examples I cited related to Viscount Ridley’s denial of any link between climate change and this year’s winter floods. Little did I know that evidence would very soon emerge of the campaign by The Times extending beyond its opinion columns to its news pages.

In the print edition on 20 August, the newspaper published a short article on page 13 under the headline ‘Population growth blamed over increase in flooding’. The first three paragraphs of the article stated:

“The increase in flooding in Britain is due to urban expansion and population growth rather than climate change, a study suggests.

Derek Clarke, a lecturer in civil engineering at the University of Southampton and co-author of the study, ruled out a link between last winter’s devastating floods and climate change.

However, the Met Office does not agree, and Dame Julia Slingo, its chief scientist, said: ‘all the evidence suggests there is a link’ with global warming.”

This was grossly misleading. The study mentioned in the opening paragraph was a new paper, published in the Hydrological Sciences Journal, on “Trends in reported flooding in the UK: 1884–2013”, by Andrew Stevens, Derek Clarke and Robert Nicholls of the University of Southampton. The title of the paper immediately indicates that the paper did not consider the flooding that took place this winter between December 2013 and February 2014.

It reported an interesting new analysis showing that much of the increase in the reported flooding incidences in the UK between 1884 and 2013 could be attributed to a rise in the number of properties being built in areas exposed to risk along coasts and rivers. The authors did this by normalising the number of incidences, assuming that the number of properties exposed to flood risk increased at the same rate as the growth in the UK’s total number of properties and its population. After normalisation, no long-term increase in flooding incidences could be detected by the authors.

But they acknowledged an important limitation of their analysis. They had not been able to take into account how natural and man-made flood defences may have affected the occurrence of flooding. For instance, if flood defences had improved gradually over the period, they could have compensated for any increase in the risk of flooding due to rising sea levels and intensifying rainfall caused by climate change.

This is a fundamental aspect of normalisation studies, which was discussed in a paper by my colleagues Fabien Barthel and Eric Neumayer in 2011. For this reason, the paper by Derek Clarke and his colleagues does not discuss what impact climate change may be having on the risk of flooding in the UK, in stark contrast to the impression given by the article in The Times.

The press release from the University of Southampton did not claim that the paper had considered the impact of climate change, and the coverage by the BBC also made clear that the paper did not explore its effects. I was rather curious about how The Times had managed to get it so hopelessly wrong. So I was interested to find in the print edition on 21 August, tucked away at the bottom of page 31, the ‘Corrections and clarifications’ column states:

“We quoted an observation by Dame Julia Slingo, chief scientist at the Met Office, that “all the evidence suggests there is a link” between climate change and the recent floods (Population growth blamed over increase in flooding, August 20). We have been asked to make clear that Dame Julia made the remark at the time of last winter’s severe storms and not in response to the academic study under discussion in our article”.

This was the newspaper’s grudging admission that it had not actually spoken to Dame Julia Slingo, but had instead dredged up a quote from a few months ago and reproduced it to give the false impression that she is in disagreement now with the authors of the new paper.

But what about the views attributed to Dr Derek Clarke in the article? I contacted him by e-mail on 20 August to ask if his comments had been accurately represented. He told me in response: “What we looked at in the analysis was the incidence of flood events with reported impacts to people and property. We were not looking at hydrological flood flows and we did not look at the drivers of the events but their effects.”

He confirmed that he had been “misquoted” by the newspaper and that it had subsequently changed the online version of the article after he complained. The opening paragraphs of the online version now state:

“The increase in the number of floods in Britain is due to urban expansion and population growth rather than the early impacts of climate change, a study suggests.

The research challenges the claim that the devastation caused by last winter’s floods was linked to Britain’s weather becoming more extreme as the world gets warmer.

Derek Clarke, a lecturer in civil engineering at the University of Southampton and co-author of the study, said: “Every time we have one of these big floods, someone will say it’s an example of climate change. It’s a very easy flag to wave.”

While climate change is likely to lead to more severe floods in the future, he added, there is no evidence that the impact is already being felt.

After the storms that left large parts of the southwest under water last winter, Dame Julia Slingo, chief scientist at the Met Office, said that “all the evidence suggests there is a link” with climate change.”

I think this amended version of the article still misrepresents the views of Dr Clarke and the content of the paper. What is even more worrying is that the article was written by Hannah Devlin, the newspaper’s science editor. She does not often cover climate change and usually does an excellent job of reporting developments in science. Is she now being put under pressure by her editor to write articles that are more in line with Viscount Ridley’s ideological approach to climate change?

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the British Politics and Policy blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting. Featured image credit: Sonali Campion

About the Author

BobWardBob Ward is policy and communications director at the ESRC Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy and the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at London School of Economics and Political Science.


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This work by British Politics and Policy at LSE is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported.