Blog

'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

© BBC

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 agenda.

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 depth.

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 immediately.

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 experienced the hottest six consecutive months on record. In a warming world, winters and summers still vary.

Today programme: The climate is always changing, and we've just had an ice age

Humphrys continues:

"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 recently.

Cicerone addresses the point anyway - pointing out that there have been localised temperature fluctuations in the past, such as the Medieval 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 proven"

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 proven."

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 global warming

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 otherwise.

Cicerone responds: "We will never have absolute proof, but to all reasonable standards, yes, we have the evidence."

Humphrys responds:

"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 doing,"

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 that the 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 vaccine.

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.  

Humphrys responds:

"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 years."

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 counterproductive.

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 showing.

Email Share to Facebook Stumble It
blog comments powered by Disqus