Decision of the Complaints Committee – 11246-21 Extinction Rebellion v The Spectator
Summary of Complaint
1. Extinction Rebellion complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Spectator breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Stupid Fuels”, published on 6th November 2021.
2. The article was a comment piece that gave the writer’s opinion that “[n]et zero is a disastrous solution to a nonexistent problem”. The article reported that the “government’s COP26 targets are ambitious (and eye-wateringly expensive)” but that we had failed to ask ourselves “Are we really facing an existential threat? Or might the climate change ‘crisis’ in fact be quasi-religious hysteria, based on ignorance?”. It acknowledged that the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere had been increasing. However, whilst “[t]he know-nothings […] customarily refer to this as pollution […]it is the very reverse: so far from carbon dioxide being pollution, it is the stuff of life. It is the food of plants, and without plants there would be little animal life and no human life”. The article said this was because “increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere [helps] to stimulate plant growth, known as the fertilisation effect”. The article continued that increased CO2 in the atmosphere “warm[s] the planet slightly” and said that “[t]his is no bad thing: many more people die each year from cold-related illnesses than from heat-related ones”. It appeared as a companion piece to another article, by a different contributor, headlined “No choice; The urgent case for net zero”.
3. The article also appeared online under the headline, “Net zero is a disastrous solution to a nonexistent problem”.
4. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1 because it claimed that “many more people die each year from cold-related illnesses than from heat-related ones”. The complainant said this was inaccurate as there was a wealth of peer-reviewed data that demonstrated that the reverse was true. It said that, where studies have looked at the impact of climate change on temperature-related deaths, it had been shown that rising temperatures caused an increase in deaths; for example, the complainant cited studies that suggested climate change increased the number of heatwaves which led to greater food insecurity. The complainant further said that heat-related illness would increase due to climate change on account of the nature of certain diseases (such as skin cancer and asthma), how they spread (such as Covid-19), and a reduction in treatment options (due to deforestation and receding rainforests).
5. The complainant also said the article also breached Clause 1 because it made claims about CO2 fertilisation that were misleading. The article had claimed that CO2 was “the stuff of life”, which the complainant disputed. It provided a paper that stated “[t]he more CO2 you have, the less and less benefit you get” and that research had found that increased CO2 levels led to nutrient deficiencies within people’s diets, due to a reduction of nutrients in plants.
6. The publication did not accept a breach of Clause 1. It stated that the article under complaint was an opinion piece and the writer was entitled to give his views on a controversial subject. It provided a research paper published in the Lancet which had demonstrated that temperature-related mortality was falling despite rising global temperatures. This study had claimed that “[f]rom 2000–03 to 2016–19, the global cold-related excess death ratio changed by −0.51 percentage points (95% eCI −0.61 to −0.42) and the global heat-related excess death ratio increased by 0.21 percentage points (0.13–0.31), leading to a net reduction in the overall ratio”. The findings of the study stated: “Globally, 5,083.173 deaths… were associated with non-optimal temperatures per year, accounting for 9.43%... of all deaths (8.52%... were cold-related and 0.91%... were heat-related)”. The publication stated that this supported the assertion in the article that “many more people die each year from cold-related illnesses than from heat-related ones”. The publication also referred to another two studies which stated there had been more cold-related deaths than heat-related ones.
7. Regarding the point of the complaint about the impact of CO2, the publication did not accept a breach of Clause 1. It stated that the article said that CO2 stimulated plant growth. The research cited by the complainant questioned the nutritional value of crops as a result of increased CO2, it did not suggest that increased CO2 did not stimulate plant growth.
8. The complainant said the publication had selected parts of the study that would support the article’s claim that there were more deaths from cold-related illnesses than heat-related ones but that the co-author of this paper had said that the research had not analysed whether the changes in heat-related and cold-related deaths during the period examined was due to temperature changes or other factors.
Relevant Code Provisions
Clause 1 (Accuracy)
i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information or images, including headlines not supported by the text.
ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and — where appropriate — an apology published. In cases involving IPSO, due prominence should be as required by the regulator.
iii) A fair opportunity to reply to significant inaccuracies should be given, when reasonably called for.
iv) The Press, while free to editorialise and campaign, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.
Findings of the Committee
9. The article under complaint was a comment piece and was clearly distinguished as such. However, it had claimed as fact, rather than as conjecture or comment, that “many more people die each year from cold-related illnesses than from heat-related ones” and as such the publication was required to provide a basis for such a claim. The publication had referenced three studies that it considered showed that there were more deaths related to cold than heat, whereas the complainant had provided studies that he said showed the opposite.
10. The publication had cited research papers published in a well-known peer-reviewed journal in order to support the statement, including one that explicitly concluded that: ““Globally, 5,083,173 deaths… were associated with non-optimal temperatures per year, accounting for 9.43%... of all deaths (8.52%... were cold-related and 0.91%... were heat-related)”. The Committee was satisfied that this paper, which had appeared in a respected scientific journal, provided a basis for the claim of fact that “many more people die each year from cold-related illnesses than from heat-related ones”. While other papers might reach alternative conclusions, the commentator was entitled to rely on the findings of this study. The Committee was therefore satisfied that the publication had taken sufficient care over the accuracy of the statement and there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
11. The Committee then considered the point of the complaint regarding whether CO2 was the “stuff of life”. It acknowledged the evidence provided by the complainant that showed that increased CO2 could adversely affect the nutritional density of food. However, where the point being made in the article was that CO2 stimulated plant growth, and where the complainant did not dispute this, there was no breach of Clause 1.
12. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
Date complaint received: 10/11/2021
Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 25/05/2022