Is the washout summer proof of climate change? Could Radio 5 have made a worse programme?
- 11 Jul 2012, 15:00
- Ros Donald
The bad weather plaguing the UK this summer has affected people
in strange ways - not least the BBC, which appears to have
forgotten the section of the corporation's science review advising
on how to report the science of climate change. Radio 5's 'Your
Call' breakfast discussion 'Is the washout summer proof of
climate change?' was an excruciating trawl through just about every
example of bad practice the BBC Trust report highlighted.
Ignoring what scientists have been saying and framing
the debate around whether climate change is "causing" the
Around a year ago the BBC Trust released a
review of the accuracy and impartiality of the BBC's science
coverage, headed up by UCL's Professor
Steven Jones. Jones concluded that on controversial science
topics like climate change or GM, the BBC was lending too much
weight to "critics on the fringes" of scientific areas with an
established body of theory.
Well, time moves on. Today, the
Committee on Climate Change issued a climate adaptation report
advising the government to invest in flood defences due to the
likelihood of future heavy rainfall. But rather than discussing the
report or getting into the details of links between weather and
climate, it apparently seemed like a good time to engineer a debate
over the fundamentals of climate science.
Yep - rather than taking the opportunity to debate policy
responses to climate change, as Jones advised, Radio 5 producers
decided on a segment with greens and skeptics debating whether
climate change is at the root of the UK's awful summer, despite
warning about seeking simplistic answers to the question of how
climate change will affect the weather.
The top-line view from the science community is that the changing
extreme weather more likely in future. There are scientists who
say models are
improving, and it might be possible in future to be more
precise. At present, however, it's really difficult to tell what
weather is down to natural variation and what can be blamed on
global warming - and answers come in terms of probabilities, rather
But perhaps that's a bit heavy for breakfast listening. And
besides, the media want to know whether climate change is causing
Setting up a debate on climate science between
campaigners - not scientists
Given that a scientist probably wouldn't give a definitive
answer on whether climate change is causing this rain now, Radio 5
appears to have decided against asking any climate scientists.
Instead it got its researchers to call up green campaigners and
climate skeptics to battle the simplistic question out. Ding
In the green corner, the Green
Alliance's Dustin Benton and Greenpeace's Doug Parr. Parr
has a DPhil in atmospheric chemistry, but isn't a practicing
climate scientist. Appearing for the skeptics, Telegraph columnist
James Delingpole, who is great for trotting out as many
controversial views as possible but also freely admits to not
reading scientific research on the subject, and climate skeptic blogger Richard North, a
sometime research partner of the Telegraph's other
skeptic-in-chief, Christopher Booker.
Adjudicating was Radio 5 presenter Rachel Burden - who, to be
fair, may not have known she was going to be presenting on this
topic today and certainly didn't seem particularly clued up about
climate science. She hosted it just as she would any other talk
radio discussion, trying to goad the greens into saying that
climate change is causing the rain, and reiterating that the
skeptic theory that sunspots are causing global warming is "what
some people think" even after Benton had explained that it
isn't what most scientists think.
Both Parr and Benton repeated that the relationship between
weather and climate is too complex to categorise so simplistically.
But why are we asking people to communicate about the subtleties of
climate attribution when they are a) not research scientists, and
b) have to argue against a bloke who believes they're Communists and that it's all
the sun's fault anyway? Such is talk radio. Deal with it. At least
it wasn't breakfast television - they'd probably have had wet
sponges thrown at them at the same time.
Representing scientific fact as just another opinion in
a wider debate
One of the worst things about this dismal segment is just how
confusing it was. With climate campaigners who probably thought
they were going to talk about flood defences defending climate
science itself against skeptic polemicists, no wonder most public
callers just sounded bewildered.
It leads to the real question: should anyone have to defend the
basic fundamentals of climate science in this kind of debate on the
BBC? All but a tiny proportion of scientists agree that climate
change is real, humans are causing it and this will have
complicated but on balance detrimental impacts on our society -
impacts the CCC report, sidelined by Radio 5, explores.
The BBC Trust report set out guidelines for the BBC to follow to
ensure minority views about climate science aren't given equal
weight in a way that misleadingly suggests there's a big debate
going on amongst scientists over whether humans are changing the
But old habits apparently die hard. We wrote last week about
Andrew Neil's decision to get a Friends of the Earth campaigner to
argue with - again - Delingpole over whether
global warming has stopped. By all means, give skeptic
campaigners airtime. But, as Jones suggested, there should be an
effort to show all views on this issue in a context that informs
the audience about where the weight of scientific opinion lies,
rather than lazily presenting green and skeptics as the two
That the people producing Radio 5's programming think that this
was a useful way to discuss climate science and adaptation suggests
a lot of people at the BBC haven't got the
memo. Or maybe the BBC needs rethink its internal rollout of
the BBC Trust review.