EITHERn Tuesday, shortly before wildfires swept through parts of south-east England, the Daily Mail published a comment piece by a writer called Stephen Robinson. “Why can’t the Met Office just tell us the weather, instead of spreading alarm and scolding us with doom-laden lectures?” he raged, accusing the UK’s leading center of climate and meteorological research of being “woke” and “alarmist”.
Who was this author? Every morning, I pore over the world’s media looking for coverage of the climate crisis as part of researching the daily newsletter for Carbon Brief. I’m very familiar with the various journalists and commentators who are on this “beat”, especially those in Britain. But I’d never heard of Robinson before. So I did a quick search and found his LinkedIn page about him. It turns out that he’s a “speech writer and consultant” for “companies operating in the energy sector”. How did this person secure such an influential slot in the UK’s bestselling newspaper?
The comment piece is one example of how the rightwing press is now seeking to undermine climate action by framing it as another ripple in the culture wars. The writer portrayed the Met Office’s (utterly sensitive) warnings about the extreme heatwave as “cod medical advice” and “nanny-knows-best” statements. Elsewhere, the Daily Express published an article on Monday by James Whale, who claimed that the reason we should all ignore the “climate-fanatic panic” was because “planets move and we have been getting closer to the sun for thousands of years”.
On the day that Robinson’s article was published, the Mail’s front page drove the point home in huge type: “Sunny day snowflake Britain had a meltdown.” Predictably, this hot take didn’t survive the day. The following morning, as much of the UK was reeling from a deadly blast of unprecedented heat, with the mercury rising as high as 40.3C in Coningsby, Lincolnshire, the Mail published an altogether different front page. “Nightmare of the wildfires” was accompanied by a tragic photograph of a burnt-out terrace of houses. Even so, the Mail did not make a single mention of the climate crisis in relation to the wildfires other than printing a picture of climate protesters “prolonging the misery”.
It’s not the first time the Daily Mail has plucked an unknown writer from obscurity to pen a piece of climate denialism. Thirty two years ago, it published a full-page article under the eye-catching headline: “global warming: Is it all hot air?” It was the first time a national newspaper in the UK had led its comment pages with a polemic seeking to belittle and question climate science. The timing wasn’t accidental. Just a few weeks later, in May 1990, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its first landmark report on the scientific evidence that showed human-caused emissions were warming the planet.
An organized, determined effort to undermine climate science had already been under way in the US for several years, but this was the point when it spilled over into the British mainstream media. Reading this article again today, it’s clear it established the playbook for this type of comment piece. The article promotes the same familiar tropes and false claims that chip away at the political will to act on the climate crisis. The 1990 article does contain one curiosity, though; it was penned by “Tony Berry”. A few years ago I searched the archives to see who this person was. But I couldn’t find a single other article by him. Again, this seemed like a case of the Mail giving a piece of prime media real estate to an unknown writer.
There has been a significant evolution in the genre of climate denialism screeds since then. Until the 2010s, many right-leaning newspapers routinely published articles quoting (or authored by) climate science deniers. One of the most infamous examples was the front cover of the Daily Express published on 15 December 2009, which falsely and ridiculously screamed “100 reasons why global warming is natural”. Check the date: it was just days before the UN climate summit in Copenhagen broke down in acrimony.
But in recent years, most of these newspapers have – albeit glacially and begrudgingly – accepted the science and largely ceased promoting these fringe voices. Instead, they have tended to direct their editorial cannons away from questioning the veracity of climate science and towards criticizing the policy response. (Some argue this is still a form of denial, but a policy debate – even if it is at times disingenuous and ill-informed – is progress.)
Now the rightwing media are seeking to frame those who are calling on the government to do more on the climate crisis as “culture warriors” and “woke” activists. One is left wondering when the penny will drop. How much scientific evidence do they need? How many extreme heatwaves, fires and floods do we all need to suffer before they change their minds? Are we really destined to watch satire become reality, as it did recently on GB Newswhich ran a TV interview that was eerily similar to the film Don’t Look Up?
Some of these newspapers (but notably not the Mail) trumpeted last year ahead of Cop26 that they would be increasing their coverage of the climate crisis, acknowledging it is a serious threat. One Telegraph columnist was even allowed to write this week: “I think you must be insane to still deny we have a crisis… It’s such a profound failure of politics and journalism – and of self – I struggle to understand it.” Another column sat under the headline: “Climate change denial is melting before our eyes.”
Yet all these newspapers still routinely attack the legally binding goal of net zero – and especially so during the continuing Conservative party leadership race, where they clearly hope to leverage their disproportionate influence on the minuscule caucus of voters who will decide the next prime minister. My long-range forecast for these newspapers? A prolonged, persistent period of wilful misinformation and doubling down followed by an unsettled spell of regret, recoil and recrimination.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism