Where is the BBC going with climate change?

Along with most baby-boomers I have always had the highest regard for the BBC as a provider of impartial commentary and a forum for rational discussion. In the 1980’s, when I campaigned on lead in petrol, air pollution and ozone depletion, they were a beacon of common sense and scientific accuracy. How then should we respond to the BBC having to apologise not once but twice over its coverage of climate change? First for an interview on the Today programme in February 2014 with Nigel Lawson and second for interviewing Bob Carter on The World at One in response to a report by the International Panel on Climate Change (September 2013). The BBC had been unable to find any UK scientist who was prepared to disagree with the report’s conclusions, but nevertheless managed to unearth a retired geologist from Australia who opined that man-made global warming did not exist.

Although the BBC has officially apologized for not making clear that these were dissident views, editors of the Today programme have continued to defend their decision. Jamie Angus, for example justified giving air-time to climate change sceptics on the basis that your average pub “will contain a couple of people who are unconvinced by the science” (Guardian July 14) The BBC’s founding governors required the organization to publicise what is “honest and of good report”, not to reflect the prejudices of Daily Mail readers.

In any event the argument is a circular one, because the more air-time the BBC gives to dissident views, then the more people you will encounter who dispute the scientific consensus. It is no coincidence that the number of people in the UK who doubt the science of climate change has gone from 4% in 2007 to 17% at a time when the evidence has strengthened in the opposite direction. This can be largely attributed to media coverage. Furthermore the BBC does not apply this policy in other areas. For example it was not until 1993 that the Catholic Church conceded that the Earth went round the Sun, but no one suggested that all BBC programmes on astronomy should include a Catholic priest! Lord Lawson’s views on climate change are no less absurd. Not only is he disputing the results of more than 200 years of scientific observation, he refuses to accept the conclusions of every major scientific body in the world including the US National Academy of Sciences, the IPCC and our own Royal Society.It is simply untrue to claim that global warming has stopped. Since 1998 there has been a slight slow-down in the rate of warming, but if you compare mean temperature increase by decade then there has been a steady increase since the 1970’s. In addition sea levels are continuing to rise and the ice-caps are melting faster than had been predicted. The problem for the BBC is that it is under constant attack by right wing newspapers and Conservative politicians, and because climate change is politically contentious the BBC seems to have decided to make the science controversial as well. But as the Chief Scientific Advisor to the Cabinet, Professor Mark Walport has repeatedly emphasized, “In science there has to be a right answer” Climate change is not an issue where you can split the difference, and the BBC’s obsession with balance is leading it into areas that are scientifically dishonest. Nigel Lawson launched his Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF) in 2009, just before the UN climate change conference in Copenhagen, and used the hacked emails from the Climate Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia to justify his initiative and to cast doubt on the science of global warming and the independence of key researchers. Subsequently there were no less than five official inquiries into “Climategate” including 3 in the UK, none of which found any evidence of scientific misconduct or manipulation of data, but these inquiries took years to complete and allowed climate change deniers free reign to argue that the science of global warming was suspect.

Lawson also criticised Professor Phil Jones and his colleagues at CRU for failing to provide data following FoI requests, but has himself consistently refused to declare who is funding GWPF, a stance that has been criticised by the editors of both the Lancet and the BMJ. Those seeking an explanation for GWPF’s existence should read “Merchants of Doubt” by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway which documents the activities of a right wing think tank in the US ,the George C Marshall Institute, which set out, in the 1980’s, to undermine the scientific case linking smoking with lung cancer, CFC’s with ozone depletion, and acid rain with power station emissions.They were of course on the wrong side of every argument, but their purpose was not to inform, but to confuse the public debate, to prevent consensus and to delay crucial legislation, which in some cases would have been life-saving.

The GWPF serves a similar function in the UK even though it is classed as a Charity. Recently a complaint about GWPF by Bob Ward from the Grantham Institute for Climate Change was upheld by the Charity Commissioners, and GWPF has been forced to separate its campaigning arm from its so-called educational activities. On July 15th item on this controversy in which it was claimed that the GWPF had fulfilled a useful role in forcing scientists to clarify areas of uncertainty. What these “areas of uncertainty” are was not specified. The BBC interviewed Benny Peiser from GWPF, who amazingly denied that GWPF was a campaigning organisation but not Bob Ward who had made the original complaint. Noone thought to ask Benny Peiser who funded GWPF or what qualifications he had as a climate scientist.

I am hugely saddened that the BBC has got climate change so hopelessly wrong, not just for its own reputation but because of the colossal damage that is going to be heaped on future generations. The truth is that BBC editors have no scientific background, they have largely failed to understand the strength of the evidence, and their presenters have been rendered toothless  in the face of climate change denial from the political Right.

Dr Robin Russell-Jones MA FRCP FRCPath

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