Shambolic media coverage of the Met Office’s new short-term forecast

Posted on 14 Jan 2013 in

One of the more remarkable aspects of the UK media’s shambolic reporting last week of the Met Office’s latest short-term global temperature forecasts is the way in which many journalists based their stories on inaccurate and misleading spin from the Global Warming Policy Foundation, without mentioning that the lobby group for climate change ‘sceptics’ still has not revealed its secret source of more than £1 million in funding.

The Met Office published on its website on 24 December its latest global temperature forecasts to 2017, which updated a previous decadal forecast published in 2011. The new model data show that, while global average temperature is expected to increase at a less rapid pace than indicated by the previous forecast, most of the calendar years between 2013 and 2017 will probably be warmer than 1998, the hottest year in the Met Office’s HadCRUT3 database, which extends back to 1850.

The Met Office’s web page states:

“Global average temperature is expected to remain between 0.28°C and 0.59°C (90% confidence range) above the long-term (1971-2000) average during the period 2013-2017, with values most likely to be about 0.43°C higher than average.

“The warmest year in the 160-year Met Office Hadley Centre global temperature record in [sic] 1998, with a temperature of 0.40°C above long-term average. The forecast of continued global warming is largely driven by increasing levels of greenhouse gases.”
The Met Office’s new forecast data show that the long-term trend in global temperature from 1970 to 2017 is expected to be a warming of 0.15°C per decade. Measured over the shorter period of 20 years from late 1997, during the peak of the major El Niño which elevated global temperatures, to 2017, the linear warming trend is expected to be lower than the long-term trend, at about 0.06°C per decade. And measured from 2007 to 2017, the rate of warming is expected to be higher, at about 0.18°C per decade.

But because the Met Office did not issue a media release to alert journalists to the new results, it was not reported by the UK media until the Global Warming Policy Foundation on 7 January published an inaccurate and misleading online summary of the temperature forecasts by Dr David Whitehouse, its ‘science editor’, under the headline “Met Office forecasts no global temperature rise”.

Dr Whitehouse, a former BBC science correspondent, has been churning out a steady stream of error-filled articles on the Foundation’s website to try to cast doubt on the evidence for climate change. His description of the Met Office’s latest findings was similarly flawed. He claimed, for instance, that there has been “a global temperature standstill (from 1997 to present)”, which is a favourite falsehood disseminated by climate change ‘sceptics’ and their promoters in the media, such as David Rose of ‘The Mail on Sunday’ and Christopher Booker of ‘The Sunday Telegraph’.
In fact, the Met Office’s HadCRUT4 database of monthly global temperature measurements shows very clearly that the linear trend in temperature between January 1997 and November 2012 (the figure for December 2012 has not yet been published) is a warming of about 0.05°C per decade, which is statistically significant at the 95 per cent level when simple linear regression using ordinary least squares is applied to the data (it should be noted that it is very difficult to determine whether temperature trends over such short timescales are really statistically significant because of autocorrelation effects).

Dr Whitehouse claimed that this supposed “standstill…could continue to 2017” and “would mean a 20-year period of no statistically significant change in temperatures”. But again this is untrue, as the linear warming trend of 0.06°C per decade in the Met Office monthly recorded HadCRUT3 and forecast data from November 1997 to October 2017, when analysed with simple linear regression using ordinary least squares, is statistically significant at the 95 per cent level. This warming rate over the 20-year period is just under half the long-term warming rate since 1970, and would mean that global temperature will probably rise by about 0.12°C over these two decades.

Yet, despite these fatal flaws, some unwitting news journalists rewarded the Global Warming Policy Foundation for its public relations efforts with coverage of the Met Office’s findings, laced with the same spin that had been added by the ‘sceptics’.
The main culprit was the ‘Today’ programme on BBC Radio 4, which included the following headline in its news bulletins throughout the morning on 8 January:
“The Met Office has revised downwards its projection for climate change through this decade. The new figures suggest that although global temperatures will remain above their long-term average, there will be no further substantial warming up to 2017.”
In fact, the Met Office’s data suggest that the linear rate of warming between 2007 and 2017 will probably be higher than the long-term trend from 1970.

The report on the BBC website, like the radio bulletin headlines, failed to acknowledge the Global Warming Policy Foundation as the source of the story, but referred misleadingly to “an apparent standstill in global temperatures” and stated:
“If the forecast is accurate, the result would be that the global average temperature would have remained relatively static for about two decades.”

Following the misleading coverage by the BBC, the Met Office published on its website more background about the short-term forecast, stating: “Small year to year fluctuations such as those that we are seeing in the shorter term five year predictions are expected due to natural variability in the climate system, and have no sustained impact on the long term warming”.

However, the Met Office’s clarification was ignored, and the prominence of the BBC reports prompted a characteristic herd reaction from many parts of the UK media, which surprisingly regurgitated the Global Warming Policy Foundation’s line.

For instance, ‘The Daily Telegraph’ claimed that “the Met Office has downgraded its forecast for global warming to suggest that by 2017 temperatures will have remained about the same for two decades”, under the headline ‘Global warming at a standstill, new Met Office figures show’.
Meanwhile, the ‘Daily Mail’ reported that “the Met Office has admitted that global warming has stalled”, and “officials say that by 2017, temperatures will not have risen significantly for nearly 20 years”. The article prominently featured quotes from Dr Whitehouse.

And the ‘Daily Express’ misled its readers even further with the statement: “The great global warming debate was blown wide open again yesterday when the Met Office predicted cooler than expected temperatures for the next five years”. The article, under the headline ‘Surprise surprise… global warming has stalled, admits Met Office’, included extensive quotes from Dr Whitehouse and his boss, Dr Benny Peiser, the Director of the Global Warming Policy Foundation.

It is very surprising that the Global Warming Policy Foundation found it so easy to persuade the BBC and many national newspapers to reproduce its inaccurate and misleading propaganda about the Met Office’s short-term global temperature forecast.

The Foundation has been engulfed in controversy since it was launched by Lord Lawson of Blaby, its chairman, in November 2009, just three days after the so-called ‘Climategate’ emails, which had been illegally hacked from the University of East Anglia, were posted on the websites of climate change ‘sceptics’.

The Foundation, which is registered as an educational charity, has been caught numerous times disseminating inaccurate and misleading information about climate change and has steadfastly refused to reveal its main sources of funding.

The Foundation’s total donations of £140,834 (PDF), which were quietly posted on the website of the Charity Commission on 20 December, reveal that it received £408,641 from unnamed donors in 2011-12. This is in addition to receiving total donations of £140,834 (PDF) in 2010-11 and £494,625 (PDF) in 2009-10, meaning the Foundation has been given more than £1 million from secret donors over the past three years.

The Foundation’s latest accounts include a statement from Lord Lawson, ending with: “I am most grateful to all our donors for their loyalty and continuing support, without which we would not exist”. Asked about the identity of the donors on a BBC Radio 4 programme last October, Lord Lawson admitted that many were his friends, but refused to name any of them.

‘The Guardian’ revealed in March 2012 that billionaire businessman Michael Hintze, a leading donor to the Conservative Party, has given money to the Foundation. However, the Foundation’s website states only that it is “funded overwhelmingly by voluntary donations from a number of private individuals and charitable trusts”.

The website also boasts that the Foundation has “encouraged media to become more balanced in its coverage of climate change”. Lord Lawson and his colleagues will no doubt be delighted with their latest propaganda coup, persuading many parts of the UK media to disseminate a distorted account of the Met Office’s new research, while escaping any serious scrutiny from journalists over their funding sources.