One question, two channels: Channel 4 and ITV tackle climate change and the UK’s cold winters
- 11 Apr 2013, 18:00
- Roz Pidcock
Last night, Channel 4 news and ITV attempted a
discussion of topical climate science - with varying degrees of
success. Each posed the question of what could be contributing to
this year's prolonged cold winter in the UK. We take a look at what
A rather unhelpfully-titled report - 'Did scientists
get it wrong about global warming?' - began proceedings on
Channel 4 last night.
Science editor, Tom Clarke, described how the UK has
seen "unprecedented" cold weather this winter, asking:
"In a world of global warming, why
does it feel like it's getting colder?"
Clarke acknowledges cold winters in the UK don't
necessarily give a good picture of what's happening to the climate,
but adds that "of late global temperatures haven't been going up
He says warming in the atmosphere and surface ocean
appears to have "levelled off" in recent years, following a period
of faster warming in the 1980s and 1990's. According to Clarke,
this lack of warming prompts the question of whether global warming
Only part of the picture
What the Channel 4 piece could have highlighted - but
didn't - is that earth's atmosphere is just one part of the climate
system. The heat that stays trapped in the atmosphere is only a
small fraction of the sun's energy that
The oceans take up more than 90 per cent of that
heat. What's more, recent
research suggests in the same time
atmospheric warming has slowed, the rate at which the deep oceans
taken up heat has accelerated.
The Channel 4 report does include an explanation from
Oxford climate scientist Myles Allen on where the current slowdown
in surface warming
sits with previous decades. Allen
"It's not that the past decade has
been cold, the past decade has still been far warmer than decades
in the mid 20th century. It's just that the decade before then was
extremely warm ... now we're just back to where we would have
expected to be."
Channel 4's report at least ends with the reasonably
"[T]he laws of physics mean [carbon
dioxide emissions] can only warm our planet. In the long run,
temperatures won't be going down."
But, conclusion aside, the majority of the piece -
based around questions like, "Does this uncertainty mean climate
scientists misled us about how much the earth is warming?" - serves
to reinforce the incorrect argument that global warming has
'stopped', or at least create confusion.
From here, Channel 4's news piece goes on to launch a
policy discussion. Presenter Cathy Newman hosts the studio debate,
pitching questions to Nigel Arnell, professor of climate change at
the Walker Institute, and climate skeptic journalist Bjorn Lomborg.
Newman sets the tone for the interview by asking Arnell:
"The extreme rise in temperatures
that many of you predicted hasn't happened, will you accept you
over-egged the pudding?"
Arnell has a fair go at highlighting the points the
preceding report should have covered, saying:
"We know the climate system has got
patterns of variability, rhythms of change and uncertainty within
it ... there have been periods in the past where temperatures have
stabilised for a bit before going up ...There are lots of reasons
why the climate system doesn't change incrementally year on
A discussion of the UK's energy policy and commitment
to the European Union's climate mitigation targets ensues, led by
Newman's next question:
"We can ease up then, surely, on
green subsidies that are costing us a fortune on our electricity
bills, can't we?"
Lomborg agrees that "global warming is happening",
but he adds:
"[W]e have had this campaign
... which has led to panic and bad decisions ... We have instituted
policies that cost a fortune and do virtually no good."
We've looked at Lomborg's perspective on climate
policies before. Essentially, he argues money would be
better spent by holding back on mitigation strategies now in favour
of research into new, cheaper technologies.
Lomborg also makes the startling claim that EU
climate policies are going to cost the UK over £20 billion a year
for the next century. It's an argument he
first made in 2010 - you can see his
here. It's fair to assume this is a
high end estimate, however. The EU predicts its climate policies
will cost the whole of Europe around
£40 billion in 2020.
Most economists disagree with Lomborg's overall
argument. For example, Professor William Nordhaus at Yale
has said those who claim it's better to
'wait and see' rather than act now on climate change risk incurring
far greater costs in the future.
To be fair to Channel 4, the rate of temperature rise
is important, and might have a bearing on climate policy. So it's
easy to see why Channel 4 wanted to discuss cold winters,
temperature rise and green policies. But by conflating the three
issues - for example by asking a climate scientist to debate with a
policy commentator - the programme failed to do any of them
ITV News: Climate change and colder
ITV news did a much better job of exploring the link
between the UK's seemingly endless winter and climate change in the
first of a
series of reports this week.
Arctic sea ice cover has been declining by about four per cent per decade, which scientists
have attributed largely to human-induced warming.
Reporter Lawrence McGinty explains that some
scientists are looking at how warming in the Arctic could be
affecting UK weather. McGinty interviews a polar scientist at
Rutgers University, Jennifer Francis, who we also spoke to
a few weeks ago.
Francis told Carbon Brief that temperatures are
rising faster in the Arctic than at lower latitudes, changing the
difference in temperature and pressure between them. This alters
atmospheric circulations, including the
jet stream - a stream of fast-flowing
air in the atmosphere which can influence UK weather patterns. The
jet stream's path becomes more meandering, which allows cold Arctic
air to reach further south, affecting weather patterns in
mid-latitude countries like the UK.
Nonetheless, this is a very new area of research and
it's not possible to attribute any particular event directly to the
changes in Arctic ice. The Met Office's Julia Slingo, McGinty's
second interviewee, makes this point well. Slingo adds:
"If this is how climate change could
manifest itself, then we need to understand that as a matter of
Overall, it's refreshing that ITV got a couple of
climate scientists to outline a key, current, scientific
Keeping it clear
What might be contributing to the UK's prolonged cold
winter is a complex and important question. To do it justice, it
should be answered clearly - as the two channels' approaches