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Ideology And Climate Change: How To Silence Journalists

A freelance journalist becomes the target of the renowned climate researcher Stefan Rahmstorf, who in the struggle for the supposed truth does not stop short of personal defamation.

In the name of the people, a ruling was announced on 9 February this year, which was remarkable: the defendant was sentenced by the 28th Civil Chamber of the Cologne District Court, Germany, “to (…) refrain from giving the impression that

a) the claimant had plagiarised the blogger Richard North and the journalist Jonathan Leake;

b) the claimant had asked the defendant via the editors of the Frankfurter Rundschauto remove the name of the claimant from the blog post of the defendant “FR withdraws article against the IPCC” and name only the Frankfurter Rundschau.”

In addition, the defendant must pay the claimant €511.58 plus interest and pay two-thirds of the cost of litigation. The Chamber justified its sentences by noting that it was a case of untrue factual allegations, which infringed the claimant’s personal rights “because the objective misrepresentation cannot be classified as value-free.”

This ruling is particularly intriguing because the defendant is the climate researcher Stefan Rahmstorf who has often sharply criticised false representations in media reports in his blog (http://www.scilogs.de/wblogs/blog/klimalounge). At least in this case, in which he sets his sights on an article in the Frankfurter Rundschau of 8 February 2010, he seems not to have heeded the rules that he has repeatedly urged journalists to observe: the acquisition of expertise on the matter and the correct representation of facts.

The article in question

It appeared in the Cologne newspaper Stadt-Anzeiger (KStA) and in abbreviated form in the Frankfurter Rundschau (FR) on Monday, 8 February 2010. The article in the FRis entitled: “New errors by the Climate Council: IPCC turns North Africa into Africa as a whole” whilst the KStA speaks “Of droughts, that do not exist; new allegations shake the IPCC – severe famines in Africa from 2020 not proven.”

The author is Cologne-based journalist Irene Meichsner, a freelancer who regularly writes for the KStA and others.

The report can be roughly divided into four parts:

1. An introduction in which fairly judgemental opinions are strongly expressed to arouse interest:

In the first sentence, the focus is on Rajendra Pachauri, current head of the IPCC, who has tough times ahead of him. At the same time, the readers are reminded of the “glaring errors of his organisation”, whereby the author can assume that the readers still remembered them at the time. She only explicitly mentions the false claim that the Himalayan glaciers would have largely melted by 2035. She goes on to explain what the recent error is all about, using the highly judgemental term “scandal”. It is said to be “in a different league altogether” because this time Pachauri was “personally involved”. By contrast with the previous cases, the error had found its way into the Synthesis Report, the “holy of holies and the politically most relevant IPCC paper.” Here, too, the issue is given the seriously judgemental, label “Africagate.”

2. The core content of the article:

It contains the actual allegation. Based upon the IPCC’s Synthesis Report it states:

On page 50 it is predicted that by 2020, (a)* “between 75 and 250 million people” in Africa will be exposed to increased water scarcity due to climate change. In addition, (b)* “by 2020, in some countries, the yield from rainfed agriculture could decline by up to 50 percent”. It was to be assumed that “agricultural production, including access to food, will be at high risk in many African countries.” “This would further adversely affect food supply security and increase the problem of malnutrition.” The IPCC report fails to provide a scientifically sound basis for this claim. (*letters added by author, not included in original article)

The core content is followed by

3. the justification of the allegation, printed in bold, with reference to relevant research by the blogger Richard North and the newspaper The Sunday Times:

The author presents the source the IPCC refers to in this context and questions its scientific validity without developing the argument at this point – one of several weaknesses in the article:

“The IPCC report is based on Ali Agoumi, an employee of the Moroccan Environment Ministry and of the company Eco Securities that earns money partly by trading pollution credits. Agoumi is the author of a report on the ‘Vulnerability of North African countries to Climatic Changes’, which the environmental organisation, International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), headquartered in Canada, published in 2003.”

It is explained that this source, quoted by the IPCC, only partially confirms the assertions made in the Synthesis Report.

“The (…) key witnesses named by Agoumi refer (…) only to three North African countries: Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia – it is impossible to derive any consistent statements about the potential consequences of climate change on water resources and agriculture in Africa from these sources.

The fourth and longest part of the article deals with classifying the facts and justifying the judgemental statements contained in the introduction. The accusation is backed up by quotations from climate experts. The author traces where statement (b) has been made and by whom (Pachauri, Ban Ki-Moon). The statement was also incorporated in a speech by Pachauri to high-ranking politicians, including the U.S. President. The impression is created that the IPCC is at best presenting an exaggerated scenario of the threat in Africa. The politically relevant, quintessential message of the article would seem to be the opinion that the “credibility of the IPCC and its boss (…) is severely damaged.”


Stefan Rahmstorf’s criticism

The Potsdam climate researcher comments on the allegations contained in the article in two blog entries and in a letter sent to the editors of the FR (25 March 2010) that he later published. The first entry of 20 February 2010 (“Errors in the IPCC report?”), however, does not yet refer to the article in the FR or the KStA, but only to Richard North’s blog and the simultaneously published article in The Sunday Times, which originally provided the core allegations that Irene Meichsner raised in her article. Only the second entry of 26 April 2010 (“FR withdraws article against IPCC”), which has been updated and augmented several times, specifically deals with the article in theFR and its author (http://www.scilogsde/wblogs/blog/klimalounge/mediencheck/2010-04-26/frankfurter-rundschau-klimarat-ipcc-africagate).

The particularly relevant statements made by Rahmstorf in this context can be divided into three categories:

1. Objections to the allegations made against the IPCC both in the article published in the FR and in the corresponding headline. The objections refer, firstly, to the factual allegations made in the article and, based on this, secondly, to the interpretation of these facts.

2. Interpretations that relate to the entire former reporting of the alleged or actual errors in the IPCC report.

3. Judgements about the author of the article in the FR.


1. Objections

A) Rahmstorf says the heading of the FR article was false. At no point had the IPCC confused North Africa with the whole of Africa.

B) Rahmstorf denies the allegation that the statements by the IPCC ((a) and (b) above) lacked a scientifically reliable basis. The IPCC had “evaluated and described the scientific literature absolutely correctly.” With regard to statement (a), he adds a link to the source in his reply to the FR. It clearly is scientific literature (Arnell, 2004).With regard to statement (b), the question of scientific status is left open. In his blog post of 20 February 2010, Rahmstorf himself calls Agoumi’s report grey literature. Here he admits that “these results were far too condensed for the short synthesis report, so that nuances and relativisations were lost” and thus one could “criticise the IPCC here.” Rahmstorf says: “The Agoumi reference is accurate and also correctly stated. Nevertheless, The Sunday Times [and also the FR – author’s note ] (…) makes a scandal of the issue with Africagate – mainly because Agoumi’s study has not been peer-reviewed…”

C) Rahmstorf calls the allegations in FR “fictitious” (26 April 2010).

D) Rahmstorf attempts to invalidate the allegation that the IPCC exaggerated the threat in Africa. In his blog post of 20 February 2010, he cites text passages, which in the IPCC report directly follow the passages that mention yield losses of up to 50%. These passages document the fact that the IPCC report also mentions positive effects of climate change in Africa, which for Rahmstorf makes it “(sound like) a balanced assessment of risks and opportunities, based on the evidence available at that time.” The passages, however, are not from the Synthesis Report, but from Volume II of the IPCC report. Rahmstorf makes this difference clear in his blog post.


2. Interpretations

Rahmstorf interprets all the reporting about actual or alleged errors in the IPCC report as a media scandal “in which a few journalists have led the public astray with exaggerated or completely invented pseudo-scandals. Far too many people have naively and willingly followed them without seeing through the farce.” (20.2.2010) These articles “have significantly influenced public opinion (according to various survey results) and cast doubt on science, and this despite the fact that it is (…) a topic of central importance to the future of humanity.” (26.04.2010) For Rahmstorf, the article in the FR was an example of a journalist blindly taking the opinions of individual “climate sceptics” like Richard North or Jonathan Leake at face value.


3. Judgements about the author

In this particular case, the accusations, which Rahmstorf makes against the author of the FR article, are quite strongly worded. They are basically capable of raising doubts about the journalist’s integrity. He accuses her of “uncritically plagiarizing” North and Leake. In addition, he accuses her of not having read the IPCC report she has written about. Finally, he implies that the journalist had not stood by what she had written herself by claiming – a claim the Cologne Regional Court would later classify as an untrue factual assertion – that “Ms Meichsner has since asked me via the editors of the FR to remove her name from my blog post above, and only name the FR. Sorry – I, too, use my name to vouch for the quality of my articles.”


The reaction of the Frankfurter Rundschau to Rahmstorf’s criticism

On 30 April 2010, the FR publishes a double page spread (p.14/15) addressing the allegations previously made against the IPCC: the Himalayan glaciers; the allegation that the IPCC’s prognosis on the potential consequences of climate change on the Amazon rainforest was only based on a study by green environmental activists; the accusation of data manipulation (Climategate) by the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia and the allegation of inadmissible generalisation with regard to the consequences for Africa. The author Irene Meichsner only discovers that the FRwants to distance itself from the article with a rather grand gesture over two pages from a third party after Rahmstorf has publicized the procedure on his blog and immediately before it is published. Evidently, nobody at the FR saw any need to make contact with the author of the article.

On the double page spread, all the previous allegations against the IPCC are interpreted as a “campaign” by sceptics, “designed to bring the IPCC into disrepute”. They are either presented as unfounded or their significance is greatly relativised.

With regard to the specific charge of generalisation about Africa, the FR itself acknowledges that it had only been mentioned in the heading and not in the article itself. After a brief description of the “allegation”, the “basis” and the “substance” of the facts presented in Irene Meichsner’s article, the FR writes under “Moral: The FRhas deleted the article from its online edition.”


This particular case deserves special attention

This particular case deserves special attention first of all because a freelance journalist has successfully defended herself against the malice a renowned scientist poured on her. It may motivate other journalists not to put up with absolutely everything in disputes over the quality of their work but to defend themselves, even if this involves an enormous effort.

It also deserves attention because the Potsdam climate scientist Rahmstorf is not the only scientist who complains about mistakes or distortions in reporting. Possibly he is someone who does it particularly loudly. The notion that one can deal with media coverage of science in the role of the scientific expert merely by invoking a true-false category would be widely agreed upon. However, this particular case illustrates that scientists have to negotiate difficult terrain, which may hold risks for their own credibility.

It also deserves attention because it is a good lesson on how the mass media should not handle their own products. It could be taken as a warning as to what you should beware of in times of cross-media and inter-medial publishing, if you want to avoid degenerating into the role of a faceless content spinner.

Finally, this case is particularly interesting because it allows insights into the intellectual temptation to boost various simplifications of complex relationships by referring more or less explicitly to a truth, which inevitably leads to a division into right and wrong, good and evil, friend and foe. In his “History of Political Thought”, the historian Karl Dietrich Bracher has described such a process as the “essence of ideologisation in society” which answers to the need for orientation with supposedly true insights. This ideologisation is without the slightest doubt dangerous for climate reporting, because it ultimately does not satisfy the need for orientation, but causes disorientation. This can also be illustrated by this particular case and may justify examining it in greater detail than would usually occur in public discourse. One should begin with statements (a) and (b) in the article and the question whether they really are backed up by the literature cited by the IPCC, in other words, whether in this respect the Synthesis Report really is based on a “scientifically sound source”, as Rahmstorf suggests – regardless of whether it is a peer reviewed paper or grey literature. The articles in the FR and KStA do not explore this question in detail. […]

Full story here: WPK, Die Wissenschaftsjournalisten, December 2011