Richard Black, our website environment correspondent, has been tackling an ambitious challenge he set himself earlier this year. He wanted to get a better understanding of what so-called "climate sceptics" think, what arguments or evidence they have to counter the view that human activities such as industrial emissions of greenhouse gases and deforestation are bringing potentially dangerous changes to the Earth's climate.
He also asked website readers to email him with any research or data they had which supported the view that the scientific establishment is itself biased against climate sceptics.
He got a lot of feedback (though not as much as he expected) and it’s taken him more or less until now to sort through it. You can see the results here and in a series of articles this week by Richard and others on the website science pages.
They do a great deal to shed light on the arguments and investigate the evidence behind them. We wanted to give them proper consideration, in part to counter accusations that we simply ignore the sceptics’ views. But this also raises issues about how much weight, over time, we should give to their views, and what impartiality means on an issue like this. Richard and his colleague Roger Harrabin (BBC News' environment analyst) have written a thoughtful piece in the BBC’s in-house magazine, Ariel, explaining what they think. You can read it below.
By Richard Black and Roger Harrabin.
- Two significant climate conferences in the next few weeks offer the BBC a huge opportunity to improve our audiences’ understanding of this fraught and complex issue but they also present a challenge to the BBC to ensure that we report impartially. Because if we do not have a strong grasp of the fundamentals of the climate debate we risk presenting our audiences with a set of opinions which is out-dated, driven by spin or simply wrong.
- Back in the 1980s the battleground was defined in caricature as bi-polar, with naive lentil-eaters on one side and ruthless big business on the other. But in the new reality the centre ground in climate science, economics, politics and business has shifted seismically, leaving us struggling sometimes to locate a new core of impartiality. We are still living with criticism over our coverage of MMR when we gave the impression that each side was underpinned by science of approximately equal weight. We must get it right on climate.
- In the new reality, there is all-party agreement in Westminster for the UK to cut CO2 emissions by at least 60 percent; climate change has become a dominant theme at the Davos business forum; people round the world are expressing alarm about the climate; a recent survey showed a majority in Britain now regard being concerned about the environment as a social norm.
- A main reason for the shift in global opinion is the resolution of the most fundamental questions in climate science by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Earlier this year the IPCC concluded that it is beyond doubt that the climate is warming and more than 90 percent likely that human activities have driven most of the recent change. These findings will probably be underlined at this week’s meeting of the IPCC in Valencia and should feature prominently in our reporting.
- The IPCC is the world’s official climate change assessment forum. It relies on published research and peer-reviewed so its prognoses are inherently conservative. Its reports are by acknowledged leaders in their fields surveying thousands of pieces of evidence and employing the scientific method of sceptically testing hypotheses to reduce uncertainty.
- The IPCC process is bloody, and some scientists are upset if they believe their work to be under-represented in the policymakers’ summaries that are vetted by the world's major governments. Sometimes politicians do try to sway IPCC conclusions but their endorsement of the final report means that all governments involved, including the US and Australia, agree that greenhouse gases should be cut. The disagreement is over how much emissions should be cut, how soon, and by whom.
- In a recent survey of 140 climate scientists, 18 percent found the IPCC too alarming but 82 percent either thought the IPCC represented a reasonable consensus – or said it was not alarming enough. No one agreed with the statement that global warming is a fabrication and that human activity is not having a significant effect. All the world’s major scientific bodies have endorsed the IPCC concerns about the risk of increasing greenhouse gases.
- Given the weight of opinion building up around the IPCC it makes sense for us to focus our coverage on the consensus that climate change is happening, is serious, but is manageable if tackled urgently.
- We do not need consistently to ‘balance’ the reports of the IPCC. When we broadcast outlying views we should make sure we do not over represent them and we should keep a rough balance of views from either side of the IPCC. If we do not, we will distort the issue and risk misleading or confusing our audience.
- We must also be more savvy about the way we treat outlying views – and we should make it clear to our audience when an interviewee holds a minority position.
- On one side of the IPCC are some knowledgeable, sceptical climate scientists. They mostly agree that the Earth is heating, and agree that greenhouse gases are probably contributing. But they think future temperatures will be determined much more by solar changes than atmospheric changes – and they do not think IPCC computer models are smart enough to forecast the climate accurately. They mostly think the economic benefit of using fossil fuels outweighs the risk of increasing CO2 levels.
- A more extreme position is taken by some libertarian commentators who distrust government and big institutions and who characterise climate change as a swindle. Their views appear to be supported by hardly any climate scientists.
- Then there are the ‘sceptics’ (particularly in the US) funded by big business to run ‘think tanks’ spreading uncertainty and thus delaying action. We need to think hard about how and when we invite these various groups to contribute to the debate. Would we, for instance, serve our audiences by inviting lobbyists for tobacco firms to challenge the scientific links between smoking and lung cancer?
- To the other side, the scientific outliers (17 percent of the survey above) fear that the IPCC’s statement of alarm is not expressed loud and hard enough. They think the IPCC’s need to proceed with governmental consensus forces it to suppress the most worrying science.
- At the extreme of this group is James Lovelock who forecasts that the temperature will not rise steadily as the IPCC graphs suggest, but will suddenly jump 6C to a new (and catastrophic) stable state in a matter of decades, eventually leaving the earth unable to support more than a billion people. It’s too late to stop the process, he says.
- No member of an independent expert panel on Lovelock run by the Today programme last year was prepared to say he was definitely wrong. But if we over report the Lovelock view we will be accused of fostering alarmism and despair.
- If an individual approaches the climate issue with a distinct ideological position from the left or the right it makes sense for us to explain their political position to the audience. We should avoid all the jargon hurled by some of those at the extremes of the debate – such as climate change deniers, climate believers, doomsters or warmers.
- We must be smarter, too, with the language and labels that we use when describing groups. The Scientific Alliance, for instance, is run by a scientist but was set up by a businessman to counter green fears and campaign against green taxes. Friends of the Earth’s views on climate science are close to the IPCC consensus. But our recent broadcasts referred to Friends of the Earth as a ‘green group’ and The Scientific Alliance as a ‘group formed to promote rational debate about science’.
- We must also be smarter in the way we interpret the often vociferous views expressed on climate in our vibrant inter-active space. While welcoming a diversity of voices, we must make sure that we do not conflate self-selecting audience responses with a broad audience opinion.
- Where then should our priorities lie? Well, some important scientific debates on climate are still running – but most governments have taken a position based on risk analysis that they cannot wait for 100 percent certainty on the science because that will be far too late to act. Based on the broad IPCC consensus governments are developing policies to cut emissions and adapt to changes that are projected to happen, so it is surely in this area of policy that the BBC should expend most of its effort. That means keeping more extreme views from either side in proportion and when we do report them, giving them similar space.
- That does not mean we need soft consensual journalism – because as many nations attempt to make the leap to low-carbon economies the policy cauldron contains a rich mix of controversial ingredients: how to save rainforests (the most efficient way of protecting the climate), biofuels, equity between rich and poor, the deal to tie in big developing nations, the response of the United States, how to force clean technology on to the market, fair eco-taxation, how to finance adaptation, carbon pricing, the most economic ways of saving emissions, political leadership, public ambivalence, population, consumption, off-setting, nuclear and many more...
- We should confidently take these debates forward, with a modern, accurate sense of impartiality in mind. This will help us to follow the BBC Trust’s goal of engaging people as citizens as well as audiences, and it will maximise the BBC’s unique contribution to an informed democracy.