'You can't absolutely prove, can you, that CO2 is responsible for global warming?' The Today programme out of its depth on climate science
- 13 Jul 2012, 14:30
- Christian Hunt and Ros Donald
The Today programme is the BBC's flagship radio news programme.
At best, it is characterised by challenging, critical reporting
that is informative, asks difficult questions and sets the news
Why then, can the programme's standards slip so badly when it
comes to reporting climate change? Listening to this
morning's interview between John Humphrys and president of the
US National Academy of Science
Ralph Cicerone, it was clear that the programme was out of its
Just two days after a poorly-handled
phone-in on Radio 5 that pitted skeptics against campaigners
over whether climate change has "caused" the recent wet weather,
Cicerone found himself defending the basics of climate science
against a set of increasingly strange arguments put to him by
presenter John Humphrys.
Here's a run-down of the interview:
Today programme: Lots of rain is a reason to be
skeptical about climate change
"You'd need to be a very brave person to come to this country
during this excuse for a summer and warn of climate change,"
Humphrys opens. "Do you accept that if you live in a country like
this where we've had a series of rotten summers [...] that
actually, we're entitled to be a bit skeptical?"
To be fair, this question has been
in the news recently, but the 'is climate change happening or
not' structure it introduces leads to problems almost
Citing the weather in one country and suggesting it raises doubts
about whether climate change is happening is daft. As Cicerone
points out, at the same time as it's been wet here, the US has
hottest six consecutive months on record. In a warming world,
winters and summers still
Today programme: The climate is always changing, and we've
just had an ice age
"But that's the climate, isn't it?
It does all sorts of odd things. We remember the great ice
age in this country a few centuries ago … The weather changes -
that's what weather does."
Putting aside the question of how old Humphrys actually is, this
is inaccurate - he may have been referring to the '
little ice age', in which case this is a mistake. We have
not had an ice age
Cicerone addresses the point anyway - pointing out that there
have been localised temperature fluctuations in the past, such as
Warming Period. But scientists are starting to "sort out just
how large those differences were", he says.
This prompts Humphrys to question how much scientists actually
know about climate change - "So you don't know that yet?" Humphries
interjects. "You don't know whether it's local?"
We know more than we did, Cicerone explains. Average temperatures
in almost every spot where the temperature has been recorded have
gone up over the past 30 years. That's a global warming trend,
not localised weather or temperature patterns.
Today programme: We shouldn't spend "unimaginable" sums of
money because of a "catastrophe" that "isn't actually
Humphrys asks: How can we justify spending "vast, unimaginable
sums of money to protect ourselves against a catastrophe"? After
all, some "distinguished scientists say it isn't actually
Cicerone politely points out the degree to which this question is
loaded: "I don't think I've heard anyone make such a proposal". He
says money will be needed both to counter carbon dioxide emissions
and to adapt to "what's coming".
But Humphrys isn't giving up:
"The money that's spent, say, on
capturing CO2 from power stations [...] that could be spent
alleviating poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa, for instance. It is, in
that sense, it is a zero sum game."
Cicerone was apparently too polite to say this, but someone
needs to brief Humphrys better - CCS
doesn't exist on a commercial scale yet and isn't currently
capturing a whole lot of carbon dioxide.
Money is being spent on research. But "unimaginable sums"?
Today programme: You can't prove carbon dioxide causes
Returning to the science, Humphrys goes for broke:
"You can't absolutely prove, can you,
that CO2 in the atmosphere is responsible for global warming?"
You can demonstrate that CO2 has a warming effect in a lab, as shown here by
none other than the BBC News website, and it is a well-established
scientific fact that excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is
warming the planet. Most climate skeptics don't suggest
Cicerone responds: "We will never have absolute proof, but to all
reasonable standards, yes, we have the evidence."
"So to somebody like Richard Lindzen...
he is a scientist as well, and he says effectively that you've got
it wrong and CO2 emissions are not doing what you believe they are
If the issue in question is whether carbon dioxide warms the
planet, then Humphrys is wrong. Professor
Richard Lindzen, one of a few prominent skeptic scientists,
doesn't argue carbon dioxide is not warming the planet. Rather,
he argues that CO2 will have a smaller effect on the climate
than the mainstream scientific view.
Cicerone politely corrects him:
"That's not quite what Dick Lindzen
says. Dick is concerned about the future effects of whether or not
there is an amplification of the original warming due to CO2. I
think he's wrong[...]. Most scientists believe that there is going
to be an amplification of the original CO2 stimulus."
So the research for this interview was off again. But the
attempted reference to Lindzen is quite revealing in itself - it
suggests that if there is a scientist who disagrees with the
mainstream analysis, this is a justification for suggesting the
(pretty basic) fact that CO2 causes warming is wrong.
But of course, Lindzen is not representative of mainstream
scientific thinking on this issue. This is the kind of reporting
BBC Trust review of the corporation's science coverage
criticised for giving too much weight to minority views - not just
on climate, but also on coverage of GM crops and the MMR
Today programme: Surprised that climate scientists aren't
predicting the apocalypse
Finally, Humphrys asks Cicerone what we should do about the
problem he seems barely convinced exists. He sounds positively
disappointed when Cicerone advocates energy efficiency as a
relatively low-cost "first step" to improving "almost every
country's" response to climate change.
"You don't sound - if I can use this
word - apocalyptic - you're not saying if we don't do these things
we will go to hell in a handbasket - we're going to fry in a few
Cicerone explains that while some people might say this, he sees
it as unhelpful. Indeed, research shows that apocalyptic visions of
the future can be
What to make of this?
If the Today programme brought this level of research and
preparation to interviewing politicians, it probably wouldn't be
taken particularly seriously.
In covering other stories the programme doesn't take the approach
of casting doubt on well-established scientific conclusions.
Compare, for example, the approach Humphrys took during
the programme's coverage of the
Higgs Boson discovery.
It appears the programme has decided it doesn't need to engage
substantively with the science of climate change in order to report
on it. It's an approach that prevents the programme from
effectively interrogating the genuine scientific debates in this
field - and probably hampers its discussion of relevant policy
debates as well.
We find it hard to believe that there isn't enough scientific
expertise available at the BBC to produce coverage of climate
science on the Today programme that is informative, challenging,
well informed and lively. But there's no evidence of it on this