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 Rundschau to 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 FR is 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 the FR 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.
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.
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 FR wants 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 FR has 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.
(a) By 2020, "between 75 and 250 million people” in Africa are expected to be exposed to increased water scarcity due to climate change.
In the IPCC report, the peer reviewed paper by Arnell (2004) is named as the source of this statement. Rahmstorf also points this out. It is a study – supported by computer simulations – that predicts the development of the water supply for the entire population of the earth. These simulations are based on several models of global population development and several climate models. Accordingly, they often result in wide margins between the worst case scenario and the best case scenario. In three tables, the global data are broken down into regions, including Africa. The study claims that by 2025, between minus 23 and plus 200 million people in Africa could be affected by increased water scarcity due to climate change. In other words: in the best case, 23 million fewer Africans could be living in arid regions in 2025 by comparison with 1995. In the worst case, it could be 200 million more Africans. The source of the information "75-250 million people” mentioned in the IPCC Synthesis Report is unclear. These figures are certainly not to be found in this form in the reference study cited. Only in Table 7 of the study, in which the number of Africans who could be affected by water scarcity “in the absence of climate change" is predicted, the margin in the worst case reaches 250 million people. In this table, however, the figures for the best case are much higher than 75 million.
The inference to be drawn is that the accusation raised in the article – that the IPCC’s Synthesis Report fails to provide a scientifically sound basis for its assertion – may well be applied to this message. At the same time, it means that the impression created by Rahmstorf in his blog (26 April 2010), i.e. that this assertion was backed up by the above-mentioned study, is incorrect. Rahmstorf includes a link to the study, but in all probability he had not examined it with the necessary care, or else he would probably have noticed the inconsistencies.
(b) "By 2020, in some [African] countries the yield from rainfed agriculture could decline by up to 50 percent."
The source of this prediction is the report by the Moroccan Ali Agoumi, which refers to Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia and was published as part of a series by the Canadian Institute for Sustainable Development. It is grey literature, not a peer reviewed study.
The report suggests that, in dry years, yields could be reduced by up to 50% in Morocco and by up to 8% in Algeria; Tunisia is not mentioned here. Strictly speaking, to be more accurate, the Synthesis Report would have to have stated that by 2020, yields in Morocco and Algeria might be reduced by up to 50% in dry years.
This point does not justify the allegation that the literature cited by the IPCC did not support the assertion that in “some” African countries yields may decline. However, firstly, one can say that the message conveyed in the IPCC report seems exaggerated, and secondly, that the classification of the statement in the Synthesis Report as a "high confidence statement" seems highly questionable. Admittedly, the IPCC does not actually turn North Africa into the whole of Africa, as the editors of the FR claim in their headline, but, instead, it does speak of some countries in the whole of Africa when actually referring to two North African countries. No doubt this is a difference. However, given that newspapers do not serve the same purpose as textbooks, the error does not strike one as particularly serious, especially as the core message implied in the heading – that the IPCC was exaggerating the situation - can certainly be applied to the facts in my opinion.
It is necessary to differentiate carefully between these actual facts and the significance that is being attributed to them. In her article, Irene Meichsner calls the facts scandalous. Her assessment has clearly been influenced by the uproar about perceived or actual errors in the IPCC report dominating the end of 2009 and the beginning of 2010. Such strong judgements of this kind may seem somewhat out of place in a news article. However, they are certainly legitimate in terms of the freedom of expression.
Stefan Rahmstorf’s attitude to the IPCC’s statement that some African countries were threatened by drought is not entirely clear. In his blog, he makes the impression that he still finds it acceptable. Bit in a discussion with, amongst others, Martin Claussen of the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg, published in the journal zeo2 in summer 2010, he agrees with Claussen who describes this statement as a "mistake" and urges the IPCC authors to be more precise about their formulations in future. This would avoid such uproar in the media.
All in all, it can be claimed that, after examining the factual core of the article, the major allegations it contains stand up well to close scrutiny. There are no foundations in particular for Rahmstorf’s verdict that the charges were invented and factually inaccurate. Furthermore, one cannot understand why Rahmstorf should convey the impression that the evidence for the passages quoted from the IPCC Synthesis Report were completely adequate and, on balance, accurately cited.
Only the criticism relating to the heading of the article in the FR seems to be appropriate, but this was not thought up by Irene Meichsner’s. This headline is not objectively correct. Nonetheless, it is astonishing that the FR should so demonstratively and publicly distance itself from its own article. In this case, a brief correction would certainly have sufficed. As it is, one cannot fail to get the impression that a daily newspaper is employing a grand gesture to disassociate itself from its own critical article at the behest of a renowned scientist without having verified the objections raised by the scientist first. The readers get the impression that the editors consider the article to be false because the facts are not correct. Thus in addition to the mistake in the heading, the editors make a second, and from my point of view, much more serious error: it is not the facts themselves that are the problem, but how they are interpreted. It is strange that the FR seems to have made no effort to defend the core information in its own article against a poorly substantiated criticism.
Against this backdrop, the malice, which Rahmstorf shows for the author of the article, seems like personal defamation that has no place in public disputes. Not even – or, should I say, especially not - when it comes to a subject as important as climate change. Much of Rahmstorf's way of behaving in this case is reminiscent of what he has always argued against so eloquently: the facts are polished until they support a predetermined interpretation. This case is only superficially about facts that may be true or false. Rather, it is about the importance which is assigned to specific facts in the reporting on climate change. These interpretations are not sacrosanct. There is no one who can or would want to deny Stefan Rahmstorf and other climate scientists the right to criticise interpretations they consider inappropriate and to counter them with others. But anyone who, like Rahmstorf, fails to distinguish carefully between facts and interpretation and applies the one-dimensional criterion of right and wrong to both, enters the arena of a public battle of opinions. Disguised as a scientific expert, he is really a political agitator. He does not fight against false factual claims, but against unpopular interpretations, and in this case he also employs unfair means, as the verdict of the Cologne court documented. The fact that Rahmstorf has now changed or entirely removed certain passages from his blog post of 26 April 2010 without informing his readers about it, all fits into the picture.
The moral of the story is not very encouraging - because Rahmstorf has had considerable success. The move that led to the article being withdrawn by the FR made it onto the front page of the New York Times, as Rahmstorf, obviously rather gratified, tells his readers in his blog of 25 May. His initiative is mentioned in the New York Times as one of several successful attempts by climate researchers to publicly correct grossly distorted or false reports. In some cases this may be justified. In this particular case, it is nothing less than a demonstration of how to try and suppress unwelcome interpretations using an authoritarian concept of truth and with the help of a media conspiracy theory based solely on isolated cases and thus basically void of empirical substance.
Irene Meichsner – who had to fight her legal battle for her reputation on her own - has had enough of climate issues for the time being. She no longer writes about this subject.
N.B.: The German-language text is authoritative; the English-language version is merely a helpful translation.