A case of climate change communication and miscommunication, where science, satire, politics and the media collided with a crash.
I doubt that James Delingpole set out to deceive a nation with this blog post, but I’m sure he and his employers at the Daily Telegraph are pleased with all of the publicity.
Delingpole blogged that — “in order to convey the emotional truth about man-made climate change” — a future edition of the Times Comprehensive Atlas Of The World would not include the low-lying Maldives, Tuvalu and much of Bangladesh.
Instead they would be submerged beneath the rising seas.
Anyone who reads Delingpole regularly will know that he throws scorn on any suggestion that climate change is a real problem that is worth doing something about. The blog post was a standard cocktail of satire and sarcasm, seasoned with Delingpole’s own particular worldview.
It used a fictional character to imply that the Maldives was overstating its vulnerability to rising sea levels “to blackmail the international community into giving the Maldives more aid money”.
And while many readers would have chuckled at the content and soon forgotten it, some media outlets in the Maldives thought Delingpole was telling the truth and republished his words as something the Daily Telegraph had “reported”.
A senior opposition politician there then launched a mass text message that blamed the government and its publicity-seeking stance on climate change for the nation being erased from the map.
Delingpole’s post was prompted by the real Times Atlas, whose publisher recently made a spectacular blunder when it said the 2011 edition “has had to erase 15% of Greenland’s once permanent ice cover”.
Maps of Greenland in 1999 (left) and 2011 (right) editions of the Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World.
If that much ice had melted, the sea level would have risen by one metre and submerged vast areas of land around the world. Clearly that has not happened but too few journalists bothered to check and the world’s media was soon reporting the error as fact.
Then something out of the ordinary happened. Scientists reacted and set out to reclaim reality.
For Dr Poul Christoffersen — a lecturer at the Scott Polar Research Institute at the University of Cambridge — what followed was a lesson in how scientists should mobilise in response to the spread of a scientific falsehood.
Very quickly, scientists began to criticise the 15% figure on Cryolist — a publically accessible email list for anyone “everyone studying and with interests in snow, ice, and all things frozen”.
In clear and sometimes comical terms, they explained why the figure was wrong and what the real story was.
Christoffersen and some colleagues then issued their own press release to set the record straight and point out that satellite images showed ice where the atlas’s new map showed none.
Media outlets began to retell the story, and took a little more care to be scientifically accurate this time around. Before long, the publishers of the Atlas had issued an apology for their inclusion of the false statistic and said they would review the maps.
As geoscientist Dave Mayer said on Twitter “I think everyone wins”.
Everyone, that is, except people in the Maldives and the other low-lying areas worldwide.
Because as Christoffersen points out, while the Atlas got the statistics wrong, the real level of ice melt in Greenland and elsewhere is indeed serious.
“The current annual loss of ice from Greenland is about 200 cubic kilometres per year. This is about 0.007% of the total ice volume, but the same as 6mm/decade in terms of sea level rise. This is a substantial number which excludes losses from other ice sheets and ice caps, and mountain glaciers, which tend to melt faster.”
“So we should worry about climate change and its impact, not only on the Greenland Ice Sheet, but ice masses across the world as a whole.”
As the dust began to settle the Maldives expressed outrage. In a letter to the editor of the Daily Telegraph, the country’s Acting High Commissioner to the UK wrote that:
“to suggest, even in satire, that the plight of our country in the face of sea-level rise is simply some kind of con-trick to raise guilt money from the international community is despicable and hurtful to all of us, whose country is indeed one of the most vulnerable on Earth to global warming.”
The irony is that this came on the same day that the Maldives announced a new mandatory target to generate at least 60% of its electricity from solar power by 2020. This move is both ambitious and astonishing as it comes from what until earlier this year was on the UN list of Least Developed Countries.
This story, which unfolded in under a week, holds lessons for anyone who communicates about climate change. First, journalists need to take more time check with experts the scientific claims they encounter in press releases from commercial interests such as publishers.
Second, those who feel wronged should blow their own trumpets rather than feel offended by a mere blogger. The Maldives will do more to put itself on the map by telling the world about its efforts to decarbonise its economy than seeking an apology that will never come.
Third, scientists can learn from the Cryolist crew and learn to engage the media on their own terms when journalists get things so badly wrong. By debunking bad science reporting as soon as it appears, they can defuse timebombs of the kind that led to the Himalayagate scandal which hit the headlines ten years after a false statistic was published.
And last, anyone reading James Delingpole’s blog should take it for what it is — an often funny, usually polemic, and always partisan mix of politics and biting satire that reflects the views of a vocal minority but cannot claim to report the news.