We need to issue a correction. In last week’s post titled “Good news for Pacific islands becomes bad news for global warming”, I quoted Andrew Bolt who in turn quoted this statement from The Telegraph:

More than 75 million people living on Pacific islands will have to relocate by 2050 because of the effects of climate change, Oxfam has warned.

In fact, this is what Oxfam said (my emphasis added):

People are already leaving their homes because of climate change, with projections that 75 million people in the Asia-Pacific region will be forced to relocate by 2050 if climate change continues unabated.

After Bolt quoted the same newspaper report in his column last Friday, the Herald-Sun published this letter to the editor from Oxfam:

Climate does pose a danger

ANDREW Bolt’s article, “Theories fall to take atoll” (June 4), quotes Oxfam as saying that “more than 75 million people living on Pacific islands will have to relocate by 2050 because of the effects of climate change”. The number of people quoted refers to the Asia-Pacific region, not just the Pacific islands, and comes from Dr Norman Meyers, one of the world s foremost experts on environmental migration.

I apologise for repeating the inaccurate statement. I also think this serves as an interesting example of how reasonable statements get turned into alarmist misrepresentations as they spread, which I’ll say more about below.

The discussion on my original post turned to whether we have uncritically accepted exaggerated predictions about global warming. The focus of my original post wasn’t on testing the credibility of the “alarmist” quotes Bolt made use of – I only pointed out that the specific new research he used in his counter-claims didn’t get a clear representation, especially when it came to its caveats and limitations.

But the misrepresented Oxfam claim shows at least one way that apparent alarmism can come about. It starts with Oxfam producing a report [3.3MB PDF] that cited the sources of their claims, that was worded to recognise that these are probabilistic forecasts (things that may happen) rather than absolute predictions, and that recognised not every case of displacement would mean migration to another country:

By 2050, approximately 150 million people may be displaced because of climate change[3]. Seventy-five million of these are likely to be in the Asia-Pacific region, with that number growing to around 150 million[4] by 2100. Many people will resettle within their own country, and Pacific island governments are already tackling climate change related relocation and resettlement. But not all people forced to leave their homes will have the option of moving within their country.

[3] Myers, N. 1993. “Environmental refugees in a globally warmed world”. BioScience 43, pp 752–761.

[4] Nicholls, R.J. 1995. “Synthesis of vulnerability analysis studies”. In Preparing to Meet the Coastal Challenges of the 21st Century, vol. 1. Proceedings of the World Coast Conference, Noordwijk, 1–5 November, 1993, CSM-Centre Publication No. 4, Ministry of Transport, Public Works and Water management, The Hague, The Netherlands, pp 181–216

Those key features remained in the Oxfam media release, although some detail was lost:

“People are already leaving their homes because of climate change, with projections that 75 million people in the Asia-Pacific region will be forced to relocate by 2050 if climate change continues unabated. Not all will have the option of relocating within their own country, so it’s vital that the Australian Government starts working with Pacific governments to plan for this now,” [Oxfam Australia Executive Director] Mr Hewett said.

The Telegraph‘s article actually included that direct quote from Andrew Hewett. Unfortunately, the quote was in the second-last paragraph, while their article opened with these headings:

Climate change to force 75 million Pacific Islanders from their homes
More than 75 million people living on Pacific islands will have to relocate by 2050 because of the effects of climate change, Oxfam has warned.

And that’s where the inaccuracies came in – “75 million Pacific Islanders” rather than 75 million in the Asia-Pacific region, and “will” rather than “may”.

From there, Bolt quoted the leading paragraph. Did he not read the rest of the article and miss the more accurate and cautious language in its body? Or did he read both and decide to go with the more sensational claim, which also happened to misrepresent what Oxfam had said? I don’t know, but the fact is that inaccuracy helped to bolster his claim that there have been overblown warnings from the green alarmists about rising sea levels, which made the value of the new research findings he (inaccurately) reported seem in greater contrast with the hype. And I didn’t pick him up on that first bit.

But once a misrepresentation like the Telegraph’s appears in an article, it’s easy to see how it can spread. Bolt quotes it; someone (e.g., yours truly) quotes Bolt; search engines index it; and on it goes. I’ve written previously about examples where the end of a chain of commentary about scientific reporting looks nothing like the claims in the scientific reports themselves. It doesn’t even require sinister intent, although it seems likely that some distortions will come via intentional selective and inaccurate representations. All it takes to start things is the careless choice of words, especially as the findings are condensed further and further to fit into media reports. And the key lesson, for me as much as anyone else, is that guarding against it takes time, effort, and the vigilance to read critically everything that is reported.

P.S. While looking over material for this post, I found my way back to something I wrote a couple of years ago about research on land loss in the Asia-Pacific region and how it is misused. My conclusion makes me think nothing much has changed:

So, there is Bolt’s detailed reporting of the new Bangladesh research. A finding that shows a small landmass growth unrelated to climate change gets turned into a rebuttal of the notion that rising sea levels could be a problem for a low-lying country. From this point, it can become another one of the “facts” that Bolt can state in any of his attack pieces on global warming, shopping bags, activist judges, or anything else where teh Left is a target. Leftists think we should respect human rights? These are the same Gore-worshipping bozos who said Bangladesh would sink into the sea.

And I’ll end by pointing readers to a much more concise comment on this point, courtesy of PhD Comics.

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