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BBC Trust on climate: Let's debate climate policy but reflect the "agreed scientific factbase"

  • 20 Jul 2011, 14:40
  • Christian

The ' BBC Trust review of impartiality and accuracy of the BBC's coverage of science' by Professor Steve Jones has just been published. Here are some quick extracts from the strongly worded section on climate change - a more considered blog will follow. 

The section that deals specifically with climate change reporting is titled:

"Man‐made global warming: a microcosm of "false balance"?"

The report suggests that communicating clearly the complexities of climate science is a difficult job:

"[The BBC's Environment Analyst] made it clear to us quite how seriously the issue was taken, how hard it has been to persuade people to understand estimates of risk (upon which much of the argument turns) and how much better politicians, self‐publicists and paid pundits are at forensic oratory than are the scientists invited to state their case."

The section on the response the BBC gets from climate 'denialism' notes:

"[Proponents of the idea that global warming is a myth] … practise denialism: the use of rhetoric to give the appearance of debate. This is not the same as scepticism, for a sceptic is willing to change his or her mind when provided with evidence. A denialist is not. Many among them see themselves as intellectual martyrs in a war against political correctness and as worthy successors to Galileo. Whatever the claim - AIDS has nothing to do with viruses, the MMR vaccine is unsafe, complex organs could never evolve, or even that the 9/11 disaster was a US government plot - the syndrome has some consistent themes."

"The tale is told of a vast conspiracy to hide the truth and of dissent quashed by secret forces. People with strong opinions should be given equal weight with experts. Any evidence that contradicts their ideas must be publicised and the rest ignored, while any statement of doubt about conventional wisdom is trumpeted from the rooftops. Standards of proof should be set so high as to be impossible to attain."

"Most important in the context of this Report, any concession by the establishment that it is less than certain of the accuracy of its claims - that there is, in other words, room for discussion - is taken as a statement of surrender."

The problem, the report suggests, is that:

"On one side are the deniers, most of whom hold libertarian views, while on the other are the alarmists, usually from the left. The BBC has shown signs of being trapped in the middle."

However, it draws a distinction between the politics and policies of climate change, and the scientific factbase:

"Where policy is concerned, the argument is far from resolved. Science can inform the debate, but policy implications of global warming remain a legitimate part of the news agenda. In its submission to this Report, the Global Warming Policy Foundation (active in casting doubt on the truth of man‐made climate change) told me that they are producing a review with a focus on climate science and science policy. As they say, "... it is one thing to get basic science facts right yet quite another to promote (or criticise) particular science policies". That is a reasonable point and they should, no doubt, have a voice in this debate. All of us involved in this debate need to remember that we are entitled to our own opinions but none of us are entitled to our own facts."

By contrast, when it comes to the science, there is an agreed factbase which should be reflected in coverage:

"That is not the case for warming itself, for the evidence is overwhelming. Starting in 1959 with measurements on Hawaii it is clear that the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is rising. Ice cores shows that for half a million years before the Industrial Revolution its level fluctuated between 180 and 300 parts per million. Since around 1800 it has risen from 280 to 390 parts per million; a 40% increase. Basic physics shows that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. There have been many computer models of what may happen in future, and although there remains controversy as to how much the feedbacks - melting ice, rising seas, dying plants - will multiply the direct effect of the gas, almost every climatologist predicts a period of rising temperature. Three independent sets of records of global temperature agree that 2010 was one of the three hottest years since figures were first collected and that nine of the ten warmest years on record have been since 2000. To bring matters up to date, 2011 saw the warmest April in Central England for 350 years."

"A 2008 survey to which thousands of Earth scientists responded found that 90% agreed that temperatures have risen since 1800 and that 82% consider that human activity has been significant in this. 96% of specialists in atmospheric physics agreed with the first statement, and 97% with the second. Truth is not defined by opinion polls but it is difficult to deny the consensus."

The Trust's report then turns to the issue of 'false-balance' in the BBC's coverage:

"The presentational style of some coverage ... has continued to suggest that a real scientific disagreement was present long after a consensus had been reached. Jeremy Vine's introduction to a 2010 Panorama makes the point: "What's up with the weather?": "Does anyone believe the claims anymore? ... A freezing winter and allegations that the scientists have misled us have set the experts at loggerheads". That antagonistic statement is typical of how the agenda on climate change is sometimes set. It suggests that there are two equally valid points of view that must be sorted out - ten years after consensus had been reached that (whatever the cause) climate change is happening."

"As the Content Analysis indicates, there was a (to put it kindly) nuanced News and Current Affairs treatment of the 2010 Muir Russell Report on the University of East Anglia's "Climategate" story. The report's findings were, in order, that the honesty of the scientists involved was not in doubt, that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's conclusions were not undermined by their work, and that they had been insufficiently open about the presentation of some of their data. The major point was the acceptance of scientific accuracy - but most news reports led on the last, openness, point; and most included a substantial contribution by climate sceptics whose claims had been refuted rather than accepted by the Report itself. Newsnight had a lengthy discussion in which a prominent climate change denier spoke first, last, and for the longest time although the piece was reporting the dismissal rather than the acceptance of his claims."

(The commentator referred to is Lord Lawson - the GWPF described the programme as a ' Welcome sea change' in the corporation's coverage).

"The impression of active debate is promoted by prominent individuals such as Lord Monckton and Lord Lawson. The BBC still gives space to them to make statements that are not supported by the facts; that (in a February 2011 The Daily Politics show) 95% of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere comes from natural sources, while in fact human activity has been responsible for a 40% rise in concentration, or (a November 2009 Today programme) that volcanoes produce more of the gas than do humans (the balance is a hundred times in the opposite direction). For at least three years, the climate change deniers have been marginal to the scientific debate but somehow they continued to find a place on the airwaves."

Lord Monckton is described in slightly bizarre terms:

"Things are, perhaps, improving. Lord Monckton is, without doubt, a man who adds to the gaiety of nations and is a skilled communicator of his views. However, a recent BBC Four investigation ("Meet the Climate Sceptics", Storyville, 31st Jan 2011) of his activities made his isolation from mainstream beliefs very clear."

The report finally notes the challenge of the narrative that has become established around climate science:

"The climate story has lessons about impartiality that could be useful in a wider context. It promotes the essential lesson that science is a process and not a result, that as information grows its narrative can alter and, occasionally, may even change direction. Uncertainty is part of the system and often means that a discovery can be stated only in terms of probability. Unlike the deniers, scientists accept that they could be wrong. To do so is not to admit that they are dishonest."

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