Climate change debate
A recent story about global temperatures by BBC Environment Analyst Roger Harrabin has been the focus of controversy in a number of blogs, and some of you have e-mailed us to ask about it. Here Roger sets out the background to the story, published on the BBC News website, and gives his reaction to the discussion it provoked:
By Roger Harrabin
"Climate change provokes some of the fiercest online debate, and for the past week the blogosphere has been buzzing over our report on global temperatures trends.
On 3 April we broadcast a TV news report based on an interview I had sought with the head of the WMO, M. Jarraud (which you can watch here). It said temperatures would dip a little this year because of the cooling La Nina current but even then, 2008 would still be much warmer than the long-term average. It said that a minority of scientists questioned whether temperatures would carry on rising as projected, but that the great majority said they would continue to be driven upwards by CO2. We then published an online version.
I subsequently received suggestions that the article should offer more background. The WMO wanted to emphasise M. Jarraud’s view that a slight temperature decrease in 2008 compared with 2007 should not be misinterpreted as evidence of a general cooling. Some of the feedback seemed helpful so we altered and expanded the report - improving it substantially for the general reader, in my view.
Among my e-mail exchanges was one with an environmental campaigner who published our e-mails implying that we had changed our article as a result of her threat to publicly criticise our report. We didn’t change it for that reason. We changed it to improve the piece. But we’ve stirred the wrath of some of our readers as a result.
The main criticism was not about the revised version of the story itself, which contains the same facts as the original plus extra background - but that we changed the report apparently under pressure and did not signal the changes.
The BBC’s guidelines on tracking changes were laid down by Steve Herrmann, editor of this website: “When we make a major change or revision to a story we republish it with a new timestamp, indicating it’s a new version of the story. If there’s been a change to a key point in the story we will often point this out in the later version… But lesser changes - including minor factual errors, corrected spellings and reworded paragraphs - go through with no new timestamp because in substance the story has not actually progressed any further…. pages of notes about when and where minor revisions are made do not make for a riveting read.”
Nature magazine’s website said about our WMO report: “To my mind there are only two questions to be answered here. The first of these is should the BBC have flagged the article as having been changed? The answer here is yes if they thought the original version was wrong, and no if they thought they were just altering for readability. As they think the change is minor then there isn’t really a need to flag it.“
So let us apply both sets of criteria to the WMO story. Was the original copy wrong? No, it was not. Was there any material change? I don’t think so. Should we therefore have flagged that the story had been altered? We didn’t think that was necessary, but with hindsight it might have been a good idea.
We will continue with our reporting of climate change – the policy and the science. Doubtless our audiences will continue to tell us if they think we are getting it right."