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Barbecue summer? Newsnight turns up the heat on man from the Met Office

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Richard Cable | 10:36 UK time, Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Viewers of Newsnight on Tuesday evening will have enjoyed the spectacle of Nick Robinson gently roasting Ewen McCullum, Chief Meteorologist at the Met Office, over his organisation's prediction earlier this year that we were 'odds-on for a barbecue summer'.

But as cool drizzle descended across the UK, Mr McCullum resolutely refused to engage in the spirit of playful chiding. 'When you're forecasting so far ahead you have to base the forecast in probabilistic terms and quite frankly I don't think the media grasped that. It tends to be very deterministic so clearly the barbecue summer and the heatwaves got the headlines,' he said.

Nick was having none of it. Producing the Met Office press release, he quoted the fateful headline 'The Coming Summer is Odds On for a Barbecue Summer', adding, 'there aren't many journalists who would have turned that into a headline that says, 'Barbecue Summer - 'Maybe, Says the Met Office.'

Quite. And this highlights the core problem with much of the debate around climate change. As many of the excellent and voluminous exchanges on Bloom blog comments will demonstrate, the devil with the science of anthropogenic global warming is in the detail - detail that is crucially lost when scientists and/or their media advisors cherrypick the tastiest findings of their research and turn it into exciting headlines.

The rationale is obvious and shares much with consumer product launches. We want people to sit up and pay attention to the stuff we've made and done, so we tease them in with a juicy tidbit. Problem is, the juicy tidbit is often the only part of the story that makes it into the public consciousness, and then only in a considerably fattened and jucified state. This doesn't matter if we're talking about a pair of trainers, but it is of considerable importance if it shapes the policies, via the electorate, that will determine the future of the planet.

An example? This is how a report entitled 'Changes in Continental Freshwater Discharge from 1948-2004' comes to be press released as 'Water Levels Dropping in Some Major Rivers as Global Climate Changes' before finally being transmogrified by the international press into 'Major rivers drying up'. As the Bloom post 'Major rivers aren't drying up (or how alarmism doesn't help)' demonstrates, the science by no means supports the sexy headline.


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