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Court Case: Science Journalism Vs The Federal Environment Agency

Michael Miersch

In spring 2013 the German Federal Environment Agency published a brochure in which it accused some of Germany’s leading science journalists of “not conforming with the established scientific knowledge.” Two and a half years after two journalists filed a lawsuit against the government agency, a court hearing will take place on 18 November. 

In spring 2013 the German Federal Environment Agency (UBA) published a brochure titled “And yet it heats up: what is behind the debate on climate change.” This booklet could be initially ordered in printed form, but now is only available as a PDF download.

In the 120-page booklet, the arguments and motives of scientists and authors who do not share the views of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) are discredited. It is also directed against journalists who reported on doubts about the predictions by the IPCC and PIK.

Unusually for a government agency, the brochure mentions the names of some journalists whose articles allegedly “do not conform with the established scientific knowledge” (quote from the UBA brochure). These names are highlighted by yellow markings. The journalists listed are Günther Ederer, Dirk Maxeiner and Michael Miersch. All three are award-winning journalists, book authors and documentary film-makers with prestigious awards to their names. Professor Dr. Fritz Vahrenholt is listed too; he is the CEO of the German Wildlife Foundation, an author and a former Environment Senator in the state of Hamburg.

The agency accused those named of spreading false information. “We show how doubts about the state of knowledge of climate science were disseminated on purpose”, the brochure informs its the readers.

Between the lines, it is suggested that critics of the IPCC and PIK are probably corrupt and controlled by interest groups (such as the coal and oil industry).

Another frequently repeated allegation against sceptical journalists is that they are not climate experts. Which is quite true in the case of journalists, but it is not a legitimate accusation. Just like politicians, journalists cannot have an academic training for all the subjects they cover.

Rather embarrassingly, however, the authors of the government brochure themselves are not climate scientists either. The authors are Dr Harry Lehmann, Dr Klaus Müschen, Dr Steffi Richter and Dr Claudia Mäder. Initially, the agency withheld their names in the original brochure. Only in response to the criticism did the agency add the names of its authors.

The publication’s lead author is Dr. Harry Lehmann. The physicist is in charge of the division 1 of the UBA “Environmental Planning and Sustainability Strategies”. He has not done any scientific research on climate change or related areas of atmospheric physics.

Incidentally, Lehmann is also a member of the “Association of Friends and Patrons of the Potsdam Institute”. According to the statutes of the association, its purpose is to support the Potsdam Institute (PIK) “mainly by providing funds”.

According to the magazine FOCUS, the UBA has awarded a dozen research contracts totalling around two million euros to the PIK since 2007 but has not – as it is legally required – advertised them throughout Europe.

The awarding practices of the Federal Environment Agency (UBA) were “a massive and remarkably frequent violation of the procurement law,” FOCUS quotes procurement law expert Heiko Höfler. The UBA defends the disputed grants, claiming that they were given under a “procurement law exception”. Höfler is not convinced by the claim though: “This is not provided by the terms of the agency. There is much to suggest that it is a protective claim.”

Co-author Dr. Klaus Müschen is Head of Climate Protection and Energy of the UBA. He studied electrical engineering and social science at the University of Hannover and worked as a vocational teacher in Lower Saxony and Hamburg and was then Assistant Professor of Electrical Engineering at the University of Hamburg. Later Müschen was in charge of the Department of Climate Change, Air Pollution Control and Local Agenda 21 in the Senate Department for Urban Development in Berlin for more than 15 years.

Dr. Steffi Richter has worked in the UBA department led by Klaus Müschen. The internet knows hardly anything about Dr Richter. This very likely indicates that she has no significant, if any, research experience in climate science, because otherwise one would find her publications and conference contributions somewhere.

Dr. Claudia Mäder is the author of the children book “Pia, Alex and the Climate Project – An adventurous journey of discovery”, which can be ordered for free from the UBA. Here again, there is no evidence of scientific climate research or publications.

For a start, the accusation of incorrect reporting on climate issues is inappropriate because the two journalists Dirk Maxeiner (a former columnist of the newspaper Die Welt and freelance writer) and Michael Miersch (former columnist of Die Welt and science editor at the magazine FOCUS) did not take any scientific standpoint and did not make any climate forecasts in their publications. None of the maligned authors called into question that the climate is changing, as alleged in the brochure.

For the purposes of journalistic reporting, Maxeiner and Miersch allowed scientists to express doubts about some of the IPCC and PIK predictions in their articles and books. The questions they raised were: How good are computer models that predict massive global warming for the future? How strongly does carbon dioxide influence the climate, in relation to other factors? And: Would a warmer climate be just disastrous for humans and nature, or would it also have benefits?

On all of these questions there is ongoing scientific research and debate which are important to be reported.

The publication of the Environment Agency brochure caused outrage among journalists and lawyers.

“Sceptics are not welcome” wrote the ZDF journalist Reinhard Schlieker on ZDF-Online. “The Ministry of Truth strikes”, wrote law professor Thorsten Koch. Jan-Eric Peters, the then editor-in-chief of the Die Welt group, wrote that it was “a scandal that a government agency has published a quasi black list of unpopular journalists and alleges that they intentionally spread falsehoods, in a brochure funded by taxpayers’ money.”

The German Federation of Journalists complained to the then Environment Minister Altmaier.

Martin Schneider, Chairman of the Science Press Conference (WPK) declared: “It is not for a government institution to determine which opinions may and which may not be expressed. Journalists may and must represent different positions, and they may and must again and again question established scientists.” Furthermore, it could not be the task of a public authority to declare, quasi officially, certain scientific positions as official truth.

Josef Joffe, editor of the liberal weekly Die Zeit, wrote: “This intervention is probably unique in the history of the German Federal Republic. A public authority becomes a party in a scientific controversy and distributes seals of approval – so to speak “examined by the state” – to the disputants … There is no “Ministry of Truth” in this country’ as in George Orwell’s novel 1984, but the Environment Agency has taken a step in this direction.”

The internationally renowned climatologist Professor Hans von Storch called the UBA brochure: “nonsense.”

Ranga Yogeshwar, a physicist and TV science journalist, said of the brochure: “Instead of shooting against individual journalists, the Federal Environmental Agency should point out that the different points of view belong to the climate science.”

“It is the height of impudence to accuse critics of climate policy that they put findings of climate research in question,” says the vice-leader of the Christian Democrat faction in the Bundestag, Arnold Vaatz. To question evidence is a core task of science.

Dirk Maxeiner and Michael Miersch have appointed the Berlin lawyer Dr Katy Ritzmann to enforce a withdrawal of the government brochure in court. Two and a half years after filing the lawsuit, the oral hearing before the Administrative Court in Halle will take place on 18 November 2015.

When: Wednesday, 18th November 2015 at 13:15
Where: Verwaltungsgericht Halle – Room 1063 – Thüringer Straße 16 – 06112 Halle – Germany

Michael Miersch is Managing Director of Nature Education at the German Wildlife Foundation. Prior to that, he worked as a journalist for major German magazines for three decades, most recently as Head of Science with FOCUS.  He was a columnist with the WELT Group for 11 years. He is also a documentary filmmaker for ARD. Together with co-author Dirk Maxeiner, Miersch wrote numerous books about political and environmental issues, some of which have been bestsellers. Among them, “Encyclopaedia of the Eco-Errors” and “Beautiful Thinking”. His books, articles and columns have been translated into many languages and have received awards at home and abroad, among others the “Ludwig Erhard Prize” and twice “Science Book of the Year”.