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 happened next.

Channel 4 

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 much, either".  

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 has "stopped". 

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 hits earth. 

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 have 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 says:

"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 definitive conclusion: 

"[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. 

Policy matters 

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 year." 

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 report 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 University 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 justice.

ITV News: Climate change and colder winters

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 urgency." 

Overall, it's refreshing that ITV got a couple of climate scientists to outline a key, current, scientific debate.

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 show.

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