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Insight into the scientific credibility of The Guardian climate coverage

Posted on 18 October 2016 by Guest Author

This is a re-post from Climate Feedback


Over the past two months, Climate Feedback has asked its network of scientists to review 5 widely read articles published by The Guardian. Three were found to be both accurate and insightful. Two were found to contain inaccuracies, false or misleading information, and statements unsupported by current scientific knowledge.

Insightful climate reporting in The Guardian

Climate Feedback’s analysis of The Guardian article written by Damian Carrington and published on September 23, “Greenland’s huge annual ice loss is even worse than thought,” was found to be accurate by all the reviewers.  For instance, Dr. Lauren Simkins qualified it as “a succinct and accurate assessment of past and present ice mass loss from the Greenland Ice Sheet that is supplemented by insightful comments from scientific experts.” Another analysis, of The Guardian’s “Disasters like Louisiana floods will worsen as planet warms, scientists warn,” written by Oliver Milman and published on August 16, rated that article as having “high” scientific credibility, with Dr. Ben Henley noting that

The article is accurate. The issue of increasing precipitation extremes due to climate change is presented well. Heavy precipitation increases have been observed, and are projected to worsen with climate change.

Guests’ misleading claims go unchallenged

By contrast, two articles published in The Guardian’s Saturday interview section and The Observer ranked “low” on Climate Feedback’s “scientific credibility” scale. On August 21, The Guardian/The Observer featured an article that bore the sensationalistic headline “Next year or the year after, the arctic will be free of ice.” The article, an interview with scientist Peter Wadhams that also serves to promote his latest bookmixes scientific claims with the author’s speculation. As scientists explain in Climate Feedback’s analysis of the article, Prof. Wadhams’ core claim is unsupported by current scientific understanding: scientists’ best projection is for an ice-free arctic in a few decades and the inherent uncertainty in the climate system makes it impossible to pin the exact year this will happen. Some scientists also noted that it would have been easy for the journalist to find out that Prof. Wadhams’ has a track record of making projections that do not occur. In his contribution to the analysis, Dr. Patrick Grenier noted:

The journalist has chosen to interview a researcher known for having made wrong predictions in the past, and he has chosen not to balance Wadham’s view against that of other sea ice experts. Wadhams’ alarmism is potentially harmful, because when such spectacular predictions are not realized some people may perceive the whole scientific community or science itself as untrustworthy.

On September 30, The Guardian published another interview, this time with former scientist James Lovelock, who was also promoting an upcoming book launch.  In the article Lovelock makes a number of claims about climate change that are at odds with current scientific understanding or simply untrue. For instance, he argues that “CO2 is going up, but nowhere near as fast as they thought it would. The computer models just weren’t reliable.” In Climate Feedback’s analysis, Professor Ken Caldeira notes:

This statement is just plain wrong. Atmospheric CO2 content has recently surpassed 400 ppm and this rate of increase is in line with model projections.

Verifying extraordinary claims

The publication of interviews that mix opinion and science, while failing to differentiate between the two, undermines the credibility of otherwise accurate reporting of climate issues in The Guardian. It also confuses the public on the issue and undermines the credibility of the scientific community. This type of coverage finds an eager audience in climate change contrarians who use it to paint the entire climate science community as unreliable. While the interview format is inherently just one person’s perspective, we argue it would be preferable for the journalist to fact-check and challenge extraordinary statements. As climate scientist Zeke Hausfather points out in his analysis of the Lovelock interview:

While the article presumably faithfully reports Lovelock’s opinions, when those opinions are couched as scientific statements more pushback (or at least nuance) might be warranted.

Doing so would bring coverage more in agreement with The Guardian’s guideline stating that “The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information,” thereby enhancing The Guardian’s credibility and better informing its readers.

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Comments 1 to 20:

  1. "[Lovelock] argues that “CO2 is going up, but nowhere near as fast as they thought it would. The computer models just weren’t reliable.”

    This is silly.  The CO2 increase is entirely a function of how much fuel we burn.  You can certainly construct a model to predict it, but it is only going to be as good as the fuel consumption forecast which is not a scientific question.  Whether the projections are high, low or precisely correct has no bearing on the science of climatology.  G.S. Callendar didn't think we would get to 400 ppm before the 23rd Century, but he predicted that the Earth would be about 1.0 C warmer than preindustrial times at that point.  So he was off by 200 years on the timeline, but within a tenth of a degree C on the effect.  So was that a reliable prediction or not?

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  2. I should mention the Callendar prediction was made in 1938.

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  3. I'm happy to find out that both articles found to be unscientific in this review:

    False alarmism by Wadhams and Denialism by Lovelock were not written by our SkS authors dana1981 nor John Abraham. I don't know if their writing have been scrutiniesd here but for my part, I praise them because I always find them accurate and informative. Thank you Dana & John for your contribution to both TheGardian and SkS.

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  4. Thanks chriskoz.  Climate Feedback hasn't looked at any of ours yet.

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  5. This confusing discussion in a selected press contributes little to the debate amongst authorities about measures to cope with the impact of climate change. The action being instigated in New York, London and the Netherlands to cope as much as possible with sea level rise and storm surges are examples of what should be given more publicity.

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  6. Denisaf @ 5, I dont find the article remotely confusing.

    You seem upset the article doesn't deal with how to build sea walls. This is because this particular  article is about climate science, if thats ok with you. Climate science is actually quite important, as is how it's reported in the media.

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  7. The Guardian does occasionally highlight worst case scenarios a bit much. The mainstream media can’t help themselves as they know this gets people buying newspapers.

    However overall in my experience, all praise for the Guardian for mostly getting it right with good, restrained, reliable, balanced coverage on climate change.

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  8. A bit of alarmism might help to propagate a message, but when it amounts to misinformation there's no doubt that the cause is undermined. 

    Just as every cold snap isn't proof that the climate isn't warming, every tornado, flood and tropical storm isn't caused by climate change, and nor is a day, month or a year of record high temperature empirical evidence thereof. 

    Of course, the media wants a climate change story, but unlike most news, climate change is not a 24hr phenomenon.  This, I think, is what makes "climate change" difficult for news media to sell as a news story, without introducing misinformation, either deliberately or by unavoidable inference. 

    And even when climate related news is scientifically factual it's often presented under the banner of an alarmist headline, such as, "Arctic Cities Crumble as Climate Change Thaws Permafrost", and often with a distressing  photograph for added visual effect and impact. 

    What needs to be appreciated is that the media needs to sell stories to make money, and climate change is a very long and mostly boring story.  

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  9. Art Vandelay @8, some media do indeed have rather alarmist titles on climate change, or get the facts wrong. No use pretending otherwise. 

    However The Guardian mostly do a pretty accurate job in my experience and without too much hype. The examples in the article tend to be the exception.

    And it goes both ways. Some media over emphasise skeptical climate change stories with bold headlines like "new study proves climate change is not happening / over rated / is a scam (etc)." The new study invariably either says nothing of the sort, or is just some think tanks ridiculous, opinion, as opposed to a peer reviewed study.

    The public most likely read between the lines, and know the truth is closer to the sober, measured reports by the IPCC. And this is more than concerning enough.

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  10. nijelj@9 wrote "And it goes both ways. Some media over emphasise skeptical climate change stories with bold headlines like "new study proves climate change is not happening / over rated / is a scam (etc)."

    A few years ago perhaps but not so much now. Out of interest I recently sifted through the mainstream media looking for climate headlines and found that the ratio of alarmism to denial was in the order of nearly 50 to 1.   

    Actually, unless you really go looking it's very difficult to find news stories that contradict the message that climate change is real and demands urgent attention. 

    Even the Guardian's interview with Lovelock isn't intended to contradict the prevailing climate change hypothesis and the claim that " CO2 is going up, but nowhere near as fast as they thought it would" is not necessarily a direct quote, and in the context of what followed I suspect that the quote was actually about temperature, not CO2, because Lovelock goes on (supposedly) to say that Singapore is one of the world's most desirable cities, because of, rather than in spite of, the temperature. 

    Personally, I liked the interview, mostly because I'm interested to hear a diversity of perspectives from a diversity of fine minds, so I wouldn't want the media to remove components of the interview for publication just because it may not be entirely factually correct. And if you start going down that road then where do you stop? For example, should Lovelock be prevented from expressing his views on the consequences of climate change, or the urgency or immediacy of required mitigation or adaptation etc?  If what he says contradicts the IPCC or science agencies around the world, some might say yes.

    To an extent this is a freedom of speech argument.     

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  11. Art,

    You cannot live in the USA if you see so much Climate Alarmism.  The Wall Street Journal, the largest selling newspaper in the USA, has a strong denialist editorial position.  Fox News is in complete denial of AGW.  You must cite a reference for your absurd claim that "Alarmism" outweighs "denial".  

    I just checked the news in the USA and I found that Denial outweighed Science 1000 to 1.  Why should your numbers count more than mine?

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  12. Art Vandealy @10

    You said "Out of interest I recently sifted through the mainstream media looking for climate headlines and found that the ratio of alarmism to denial was in the order of nearly 50 to 1.”

    What media in what country? Seriously your sample would be unlikely to be representative of the world as a whole.

    However America certainly stands out because we all watch their media a bit. I agree with M Sweet. My own observation is Fox news and others is certainly saturated with climate denial, sometimes overt and highly provocative, sometimes subtle.

    I live in NZ and the mainstream, dominant media are restrained in their reporting on evidence of climate change, (more so these days, it was somewhat alarmist in the past) but their sceptical leaning articles are somewhat more provocatively worded.

    It also depends on what one means by "climate alarmism". Predictions of sea level rise of half to one metre by centuries end are not alarmism. This is just reporting on the mainstream scientific position.

    Screaming headlines about two metres might be alarmism, but so is screaming headlines “new study shows sea level rise likely to be insignificant”. I say this as I have seen headlines like this occasionally on both sides of the debate.

    I take your point about freedom of speech, which is always just so important and a truly worthwhile value. However with the media it’s complicated. They can’t report everyones opinions because theres not enough space and it would become incoherent. Their job is to select stuff that is fact based and opinions that are at least coherent, even if provocative (if you know what I mean).

    Of course it depends on where the information is in the media. If we are talking the news or environment sections, people like the guardian are expected to be fact based and balanced. Therefore if they are reporting on sea level rise they should in my view focus on middle level, sober, IPCC based estimates. On that basis the article above was right to criticise the guardian.

    However various media have opinion sections as well. There can be more leeway here for the views of the eccentrics, so more extreme views, as long as we have a “range of views” to give some balance. I agree with you, I personally do like to see a range of views.

    I believe the average reader differentiates between the news and opinion sections easily enough. Its very important these sections are kept quite separate!

    Sadly with Fox, The Wall St Journal,  and some other media theres not much balance and it is skewed somewhat towards climate denial. Any balance is somewhat tokenistic with this crowd.

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  13. Michael@ 11, 

    Yes, you're right. I live down under in Australia, not the USA, so my perceptions are obviously shaped by our media which is obviously more balanced, or at least more devoid of extremism. 

    Our ABC and Fairfax press don't push climate skepticism / denial, and I should add, my use of the word "alarmism" doesn't imply exaggeration. Climate change is obviously something to be alarmed about.

    In Australia, it's really only News Corp media that pushes climate skepticism, but in recent times not so much, probably because the global temperature is at an all time high and weather events are increasingly conspiring against the skeptical narrative.

    And Nigalj@12, thanks for the assessment of NZ media. I would have thought that NZ was similar to Aus, although the Green movement is probably stronger on this side of the ditch.

    Good points re opinion too. Opinion is fine but when it's an uninformed or politically biased opinion it counts for naught, and readers of mainstream media rightly expect and deserve a well researched and considered opinion, and that's often lacking. 

    Also, media bias is often expressed in what isn't reported as much as what is.  An explample of this is a recent news article on a peer reviewed study that showed how the world is getting greener due to CO2. The story was run in the News Corp papers, though not surprisingly they omit most news on important climate research as well as news stories on climate related disasters. Mind you, this can cut both ways too, and news of research that finds isolated benefits of  CO2 or temperature is often only to be found in the News Corp media.

    Austrralia is no different to other western countries though, exhibiting a growth in support at (both) extreme ends of the political spectrum, and as one who sits more to the centre, I'm increasingly frustrated by this battle of polar opposites, where climate change and many other important issues, including economic and social, are used as political footballs instead of being actually addressed. 

    And on the subject of football, please don't mention the rugby. :) 

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  14. Art
    Of course we wont mention 'the rugby'. As any 'true ozzie' knows, Australian Rules is the only true football code in the enrire Universe. :-)

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  15. Glenn @14, I know southerners like to give themselves airs, but even they should recognize that Australia's northern border is not the Murray.  For what it is worth, Rugby League is by far the best of the three main winter codes in Australia; although I will readilly concede that arial ping pong slightly amuses.

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  16. Art Vanderlay @ 13.

    Yes fair enough in the main. I would categorise myself as a political and economic centrist, or moderate. Mildly centre left / liberal by instinct, but I would emphasis mildly. I try to analyse things and see both points of view, rather than going purely with my gut. My philosophy is markets are good, but government is often needed in smaller countries, for what should be self evident reasons.

    The huge political division in America seems counterproductive to me, and rather alarming, but things are not that divided in NZ. I get the impression Australia is between the two somewhere.

    I think this big huge division on climate science is very clear in America and reflected in polls and a range of evidence. I dont think the division is so large in NZ, - but there is still a clear division.

    Regarding climate change and the media.

    I think it's well proven that the vast majority of climate scientists agree we are altering the climate. I get bored about arguing whether its 75% of scientists or 90% or 95%. It’s provably a big majority, therefore I would expect the media to give some dominance to mainstream warmist views, and less to sceptical views. I don’t consider this alarmist as such.

    However it’s very important to still report on sceptical views, providing they are not barking mad ones. The media can't report every arm chair sceptics views as there are millions, so should be doing their homework and reporting the good sceptical views (although I personally think there are few of these left).

    I do think it’s fair that the CO2 and plant growth issue should perhaps have got a mention, however the caveat is that this extra growth includes weeds, and there’s evidence it’s not the desirable sort of growth and is offset by less growth of important crops etc. So any article on it should responsibly include the pros and cons. Often sceptical articles are very one sided, more so than warmist articles in my view.

    This is really important to me personally, namely that articles on climate science fairly represent the full range of evidence. I get angry when I read articles that simplistically say "research says climate sensitivity is low" because only a minority of reasearch says this. It's misleading. But obviously theres a place to at least report on such research.

    Regarding the NZ media, especially the Herald newspaper, which is dominant in NZ, news articles tend to give prominence to warmist reports on the science. For example "2015 was a hot year". However headlines generally lack too much hype. Sceptical research is not reported much in the news sections.

    However the opinion section of the Herald certainly contain a mix of warmist and sceptical views. But we still tend to get a fake balance of a 50 / 50 split of views, which is increasingly not justified given that most climate scientists think we are warming the climate. However I certainly have no problem with at least some sceptical views being published, provided they are in proportion to real opinion of climate scientists and not a fake balance.

    There is also a difference in numbers of articles and how headlines are reported and whether they scream out. I just think in NZ that warmist articles generally have more subdued titles these days.

    I won't mention the Rugby, but it’s really hard not to. Ha ha.

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  17. nigelj @16

    Here's another snippet:  I'm a regular reader of the weekly New Zealand Listener.  I notice that from time to time they publish articles on climate change that are, as far as I can tell, very accurate and informative.  Their letters to the editor include comments that generally support the science (including some from me).  Some years ago there were more letters denying the science but these have dwindled significantly since.  I find the Listener's coverage of climate change most encouraging.

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  18. "And on the subject of football, please don't mention the rugby. :)" Done -provided you dont mention the cricket, the league, the netball... :-)

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  19. Done -provided you dont mention the cricket, the league, the netball... :-)


    I think NZ is now the no.1 ranked RL team though too, so that leaves us with Cricket and Netball.

    Unfortunately, there's no equivalent to underarm bowling in Rugby.  

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  20. OK. Lacrosse it is then.

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