Last week I wrote about a new scaremongering report from the IPPR that was given an unquestioning blaze of publicity by the BBC and other media, despite containing numerous errors. Some of the false claims originated from an article by a man called Jeremy Grantham, who isn’t a scientist but just happens to provide a significant amount of funding for the IPPR.
I wrote a complaint to the BBC about one particular false claim about flooding in the report, read out to millions of listeners by Martha Kearney on the Today Programme. I haven’t yet had a reply.
However, the issue was discussed on Radio 4 on Sunday evening on “More or Less”, which questions statistical claims made in the media. The programme was pretty good, and made some of the same points I made in my blog post, including the dubiousness of the IPPR’s claim that 2005 was a “typo” for 1950, and the fact that the IPCC says there’s no trend in flooding. The presenter Tim Harford interviewed Mark Lynas, one of the few on the warmist side who raised doubts about the IPPR report.
So, credit due to Tim Harford and Mark Lynas. But nul points to the UK climate science community. As far as I’m aware, no climate scientists commented publicly on this; they seem to be quite happy to have false statements about their field presented to the public, as long as they are false in the direction of exaggeration and alarmism.
You can listen to More or Less here on the Radio 4 site or here on BBC Sounds. Later on in the programme there’s an item debunking the latest alcohol scare, featuring an interview with statistician David Spiegelhalter.
It’s probably not accessible to some readers, so below is a transcript, with links to some of the tweets referred to. Alex Cull has done a more professional transcript at his site.
Tim Harford: On Tuesday, Today Programme listeners woke up to the news that the left-leaning think tank the Institute for Public Policy Research had new statistics that showed the scale of the damage we humans are doing to the planet.
Martha Kearney: When you look at the scale of the problems outlined in the report like the number of floods increasing by 15 times since 2005, extinction rates increasing by a huge rate, are these reversible?
TH: The same numbers were reported in the Guardian and elsewhere, but they just didn’t sound quite right to some people, for example Mark Lynas, author of Six Degrees, a book about the effects of climate change.
Mark Lynas: So this jumped out at me, because I was just in the middle of doing some research about the impacts of climate change, and it struck me that the claim that was being made about floods increasing by 15 times in the last few years since 2005 did not ring true with what I understood about the science so far.
TH: So what happened next?
ML: This is one of those rare instances where twitter actually leads to a positive engagement and a friendly result on a debate about something. I tweeted that this didn’t sound right to me and one of the authors of the IPPR report responded and said that actually it was a typo and that where they put since 2005 that should have been since 1950 that these increases in climate damages had supposedly happened.
TH: I’m not sure that’s really how typos work, maybe we should call that a mistake rather than a typo, but anyway, fine.
ML: Yes, and also I still wasn’t quite satisfied with that either because it still didn’t sound right, because if you look at the IPCC, where all of the scientific consensus material is written in these weighty reports every few years, they say they’re not confident that there’s been any increase in flooding around the world, so heavy rainfall’s got worse, yes there’s an increase in heatwaves, but nothing like the magnitude of what was being claimed in the IPPR report, and I wanted to know the source, and they said it came from Jeremy Grantham, who’s a rich person who writes reports on environmental things, and his source supposedly was the database of emergencies and disasters, and then twitter being amazing, the administrator of the database then got onto this, and said that they didn’t think it was correct for their database to be used to claim trends in numbers of floods.
TH: Why not? It sounds like a reasonable source?
ML: It does, but the thing is there’s lots of other things that affect flood impacts other than just climate change, for example what’s happening in the built environment, more structures there which are likely to get flooded, so economic growth and population changes can have a much bigger impact on recorded damages than just climate trends.
TH: OK, so the source of the claim was a database, and the administrator of the database says you shouldn’t use our database to draw conclusions about the impact of climate change. So what do we know about the impact of climate change on extreme weather, flooding and so on?
ML: We actually know quite a lot. The IPPR had said that floods had increased 15 times since 2005, or corrected to 1950, but if you look at what the scientists are saying, so look at the IPCC, and if I quote you from their latest report issued only a few months ago they say “In summary, streamflow trends since 1950 are not statistically significant in most of the world’s largest rivers, while flood frequency and extreme streamflow have increased in some regions”, so it’s very different from what the IPPR were claiming, and, you know, I’m not a climate sceptic, I’m not someone who goes out there trying to debunk what’s being said about the urgency of climate change, but if you overstate the case, and you use erroneous facts and figures, then I think you undermine a lot of what was in the report which I thought was actually very valuable.