This car crash of a ‘fact-check’ allows us to see that misrepresentation and deception have become the tool-in-trade of the internet fact-checker.
LAST week, an organisation called Climate Feedback attempted what it claimed was a factcheck of an article James Delingpole had written about a report we at the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF) had published a few days earlier.
The report was about the impacts of climate change and had been put together by Indur Goklany, an American scientist whose involvement in climate goes back to 1990, when he was on the US delegation to the First Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
The Climate Feedback article didn’t garner much attention, but it’s interesting to look at it because it is reveals the tactics that are used to try to discredit anyone who criticises the official ‘narrative of doom’. These tactics are now widely used in other fields too, so the story has relevance beyond the world of climate and energy.
Climate Feedback invites climate scientists to comment on newspaper articles. For Delingpole’s piece, ‘a majority of reviewers tagged the article as ‘Cherry-picking, Inaccurate, Misleading.’ Let’s see what they said to justify that claim …
‘It is repeating a series of claims made in a blog post from the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF) …’
That’s from the first paragraph, and already alarm bells should be ringing. Firstly, note that there is no link to Delingpole’s article.
This is highly unprofessional in the first place, but it’s actually worse than that: Contrary to what Climate Feedback says, there was no GWPF blog post about Goklany’s report. There was only the report itself. Naturally, it was the report to which Delingpole linked.
And in case anyone should think this was an inadvertent error by Climate Feedback, the organisation repeats later on the claim that Delingpole was citing a blog post, but then goes on to claim that it was ‘not peer-reviewed’.
This appears to show that Climate Feedback knew full well there was a formal report behind the Delingpole article, but it didn’t want to mention it. It just got tangled up in the web of its own mispresentations.
Moreover, the claim about the review of Goklany’s paper is clearly a figment of the writer’s imagination, since Climate Feedback is not party to the internal processes at the GWPF.
In fact, we have a board of academic advisers who review all our reports. In view of the many attempts to pick holes in them, we’d be foolish not to.
So we can see from the start that Climate Feedback set out to deliver a poisonous narrative to its readers.
Goklany’s report and Delingpole’s article were both carefully pitched, and the Climate Feedback team were therefore forced to resort to contradicting official sources, such as the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report, in order to come up with some ammunition.
For example, Delingpole’s claim that ‘most extreme weather phenomena have not become more extreme, more deadly or more destructive’ reflects perfectly the IPCC’s position that it has ‘low confidence’ that there have been increases in drought or hurricanes.
The best it can say of extreme rainfall is that there have been more areas with increases than decreases. Only on heatwaves does its confidence in the existence of an increase rise to the giddy heights of ‘medium’.
So when Climate Feedback’s authors claim that the IPCC reports say otherwise, I have to tell them that this is not what appears in the IPCC’s Summary for Policymakers.
Another example of blatant misrepresentation of Delingpole’s article is where it says that he ‘presents an assumption that climate change will increase drought globally and then refutes this non-existent expectation of climate science’.
It’s hard to know where to begin with this. Firstly, Goklany’s report and Delingpole’s article are entirely backwards-looking. Neither says anything about the future of drought, or of any other weather phenomenon.
As to it being a ‘non-existent expectation of climate science’, I refer readers again to the Summary for Policymakers of the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment, which said that it was ‘likely’ that we would see increases in the intensity and duration of drought ‘on a regional to global scale’ by the end of the 21st century.
The Fourth Assessment said much the same thing. This news also needs to be relayed to Climate Feedback reviewer Dr Daniel Swain, who claims that ‘it doesn’t really make sense to make blanket statements regarding overall global drought trends’. The IPCC does, Dr Swain.
And on and on it goes. Climate Feedback says that Delingpole ‘deliberately ignores multiple factors that affect some phenomena to argue against the influence of climate on them. For instance, while fatality (sic) due to weather events has either remained constant or declined over time for some types of weather events, this is primarily due to improvements in warning and evacuation systems and has little to do with climate change …’
This is profoundly misleading. Delingpole is simply discussing claims that climate change would lead to a decline in human welfare. Listing the 99 per cent fall in mortality from extreme weather shows simply that human welfare has not become worse, contradicting the official narrative of doom.
It says nothing about climate change. Delingpole doesn’t say it does; he doesn’t insinuate it does; nor does he even hint obliquely that it does. Nor does Goklany. This is simple misrepresentation by Climate Feedback.
Some of the Climate Feedback critique is embarrassingly wrong. For example, when it discusses wildfires, it says ‘the area burned by wildfires in the western US has also increased significantly due to climate change (see figure below)’.
Quite why a graph relating to wildfires in the Western US should trump the observation of Delingpole (and Goklany) that global wildfires have decreased is beyond me.
But worse, the Climate Feedback author appears not to actually have understood the graph – because it doesn’t show an increase in wildfires in the Western US. It’s a cumulative graph, which means it will always increase. That’s what ‘cumulative’ means.
Figure 1: Cumulative forest area burned by wildfires in the western US from 1984-2015. From Fourth National Climate Assessment (2018).
And that’s just the introduction. There are pages and pages of this kind of thing, representing the detailed comments of the ‘reviewers’. It would be boring to go through everything, but let me use a couple of them to give you a flavour.
Hurricane expert Kerry Emanuel takes Delingpole to task for saying that hurricane frequency is not increasing. His objection is not that what Delingpole says is not true, but that he ‘neglects to mention that there was never a consensus prediction that the frequency of all hurricanes would increase’.
Really? Because when I refer back to the Summary for Policymakers from the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report, I find it stated that it is ‘likely’ that there will in an increase in hurricane activity. The Fifth Assessment says it’s ‘more likely than not in some basins’.
Emanuel also takes issue with Delingpole’s claim that damage from extreme weather is decreasing, saying:
Since the early 1970s there has been a 380 per cent increase in global weather-related damage normalised each year by world domestic product. Some of this is demographic; for example, there has been a 200 per cent increase in coastal population, but much of the rest is owing to worse weather disasters, as measured by damage.
I had thought that claims of increasing hurricane damage had well and truly been quashed by now, but it appears not. I was not familiar with this counter-claim of a 380 per cent increase since the 1970s, and Emanuel gave no citation, so I emailed him to ask where it came from.
It turns out that he had worked out the figures himself, although he was a little vague about the details. The figures were derived from the EM-DAT database of global disasters, he said, and that he had extracted data covering meteorological disasters and drought.
Later, he corrected this to say that the data covered only tropical cyclones. Moreover, he said he ‘believed’ that he had adjusted the values with world Gross Domestic Product figures from the World Bank. He didn’t think he had used the consumer price index figures maintained by EM-DAT.
It’s not very impressive, is it? But what makes it worse is that EM-DAT long ago made it clear that its database is not reliable for damage estimation prior to around 2000.
Insurance claims are the main source of damage data, and more and more people around the world have cover, so there is an underlying increase in the value of damage recorded that is due simply to more and better reporting.
This is the increase that Professor Emanuel has found. To be fair, the good professor is an atmospheric physicist, so a lack of familiarity with the data is perhaps unsurprising.
We see the same thing in Professor Jennifer Francis’s comments on sea level rise. She appears taken aback when Delingpole quotes Goklany as follows:
‘A recent study showed that the Earth has actually gained more land in coastal areas in the last 30 years than it has lost through sea-level rise.’
Dr Francis is also an atmospheric scientist too, specialising in the Arctic, so you can understand why she might not be too familiar with the sea-level literature (but not why Climate Feedback would have chosen her to comment in this area).
Either way, she splutters:
‘Please provide this peer-reviewed study by a legitimate practising environmental scientist to support this counterintuitive statement.’
Given that the relevant paper, by Donchyts et al, published in Nature Climate Change, was cited in Goklany’s report, it does seem that Professor Francis either couldn’t be bothered to check the details, or that she had not even been made aware of the GWPF report’s existence.