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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 rain

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 scientists 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 climate makes 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 than certainty.

But perhaps that's a bit heavy for breakfast listening. And besides, the media want to know whether climate change is causing THIS RAIN NOW.

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 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 climate.

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 'sides'.

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.

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