BBC BLOGS - The Editors
« Previous | Main | Next »

Climate change debate

Steve Herrmann Steve Herrmann | 13:02 UK time, Saturday, 12 April 2008

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.

A graphic of the BBC News websiteOn 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."


Shouldn't you publish the correspondence from the WMO to prove your point. I don't think anyone's going to give you the benefit of the doubt here.

  • 2.
  • At 12:23 AM on 13 Apr 2008,
  • Tim Dennell wrote:

I saw the BBC article as attempting to explain the effects of La Nina (Spanish for ‘the girl child’; the cool phase of the Pacific’s oscillating cycle of warm and cool ocean & atmospheric currents) to the public, as many will be unaware of it and its effects.
If there was anything that could twang nerves in the blogphere, it’s in the heading: ‘Global temperatures to decrease'.
‘La Nina to cause a drop in temperatures in 2008’ would have been more accurate. The BBC came late to this story, its worth comparing it with The Times report headed ‘La Nina threatens to wreck world’s weather’ from Sept.`07.
You’re right, adding more detail didn’t change the substance of the article.

If nothing else El Nino/La Nina demonstrates how relatively small fluctuations in regional sea temperatures can have a worldwide effect.
The current La Nina formed in late summer `07. Last year’s heavy flooding in West Africa and this years above-normal snowfall in China and in the northwest United States & northern Great Lakes region and the record number of cyclones in the south-western Indian Ocean are all recognised signatures of La Nina's influence, pushing air streams and atmospheric bodies of moisture around. This year’s La Niña is likely to turn out to be the strongest since 1988-89, about 1.5C (2.7F) cooler than normal.
Expected La Niña impacts for April-June `08 include a continuation of above-average rainfall over Indonesia and below-average rainfall over the central equatorial Pacific whilst for the United States there’s an increased probability of below-average rainfall over parts of the Southwest extending from Texas to Nevada. Its likely La Nina will fade in the second half of this year.

The reason the BBC’s heading was likely to cause twang nerves the way it did is because of the claim made elsewhere that 1998 was the last hottest year recorded and that global warming has now ceased.
Something I’m unconvinced by; according to NASA figures 2005 is now the hottest year globally, unless you include part years in which case it's 2007.
The six warmest years are now in descending order: 2005, 2007 and 1998 (tied), 2002, 2003 and 2006.
1998 was exceptional, but then there was an exceptional El Nino in the Pacific that year (the strongest El Nino of the 20th century) that amplified temperatures by releasing a lot of heat from the ocean. 1998 in fact broke the previous record by .2 degrees C. (And that previous record went all the way back to 1997.)

If you want to look at short term variability, 2007 was very interesting. In `07 many European countries had their warmest January on record. January temperatures in The Netherlands were the highest since measurements were first taken in 1706, averaging about 7.1°C (2.8°C) above 1961-1990 average whilst in Germany the temperatures were 4.6°C above the 1961-1990 average.
England and Wales last year had their wettest May and June since records began in 1766 due to the jet steam further north than usual. At the same time Britain suffered flooding, a July heat-wave (with record temperatures) claimed hundreds of lives in Southern Europe, with up to 500 dying in Hungary alone. Germany had its driest April followed by its wettest May since 1901. In many European countries April was the warmest ever recorded. Temperature records for summer heat were broken in south-eastern Europe in June and July and in western and central Russia in May. In India, a heat wave during mid-May produced temperatures as high as 45-50°C. The Asian cyclone season has now been very intense two years running and there were droughts in Australia and China and southern USA, but bad flooding in regions of South & North America, across West, Central and East Africa, Indonesia, China, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal. Heavy rains also hit southern China in June, with nearly 14 million people affected by floods and landslides. Oman and Iran had their first documented cyclone since 1945. Argentina and Chile saw unusually cold winter temperatures in July while South Africa had its first significant snowfall since 1981 in June.
I'll point out the obvious, which is that warmer air holds more moisture, it has to go somewhere. Also that in regions where the air temperature falls below zero then this moisture falls as snow. Doubtless blog writers that subscribe to the “Oooh its cold somewhere today, therefore there’s no global warming” approach could cherry pick from 2007 whatever best suited an argument for cooling, but it’s the longer term trends that matter. I’m hoping that 2007 was an aberration, not the start of a trend.

We measure time in terms of human life-spans, so a few years seems a long time to us and we get impatient (many seem to expect temperatures to leap immediately) but any warming and consequent climate change would have to be measured over longer periods. Climate is defined by averaging out variability over a longer-term period. It’s looking at trends. Changes to climate are really about changes to the average over a period of 30 years or so. So you won’t, by definition, see climate change from just one year to the next (recovering from the last ice age – caused by Milankovitch cycles - temperatures only rose by 1 degree C per 1,000 yrs. The rise of 0.6 degree C last century was abnormally fast.) so we’re looking ahead in the medium to long term up until the end of this century.

So the underlying arguments are: a) How much further (if at all) will temperatures rise and b) what any consequences might be.
For (a) we won’t really know for sure for a few decades yet. As for (b), as the El Nino/La Nina cycle demonstrate, it may be more productive to think of likely impacts of climate change in terms of wetter/dryer rather than a simple warmer/cooler.

  • 3.
  • At 01:13 AM on 13 Apr 2008,
  • Steve wrote:

What a disappointing explanation.

Two facts were accurately reported in the original version of the story. One was subsequently removed, the other was obfuscated.

The fact that was obfuscated is that the earth's temperatures have not risen for ten years. The fact that was removed is that some people then extrapolate that some people think global warming has stopped.

When the "addition" of material serves to remove and obscures facts, then the revision is less accurate than the original.

Mr Harrabin emailed a campaigner:

"Have a look in 10 minutes and tell me you are happier. We have changed headline and more."

Please, BBC. Report the facts - don't tell us how to feel, we can make our own minds up.

  • 4.
  • At 07:05 AM on 13 Apr 2008,
  • robert ronson wrote:

Aye right! You caved in.

  • 5.
  • At 08:25 AM on 13 Apr 2008,
  • Neil Hyde wrote:

In a word , NO the BBC are not getting it right !

Even HMG do not believe their own spin. The whole scare story is a means of raising taxes based on unproven mathematical models.

If the BBC wishes to report science , amongst hundreds of other sources , look at this :


  • 6.
  • At 01:07 PM on 13 Apr 2008,
  • T W Miller-Jones wrote:

Original Wording:-

"The World Meteorological Organization’s secretary-general, Michel Jarraud, told the BBC it was likely that La Nina would continue into the summer. This would mean global temperatures have not risen since 1998, prompting some to question climate change theory."

Revised wording:-

"The World Meteorological Organization's secretary-general, Michel Jarraud, told the BBC it was likely that La Nina would continue into the summer. But this year's temperatures would still be way above the average - and we would soon exceed the record year of 1998 because of global warming induced by greenhouse gases."

In my view dropping the reference to some people questioning climate change (which, as you say above, is true) is significant and should have been flagged up.

  • 7.
  • At 01:45 PM on 13 Apr 2008,
  • Dan wrote:

Spin, spin, spin. Perception is more or less reality of the times. So whatever....

  • 8.
  • At 01:45 PM on 13 Apr 2008,
  • Neil Hyde wrote:

I can see from the fact that my earlier comment has not been posted , despite not breaking any rules, that the BBC is still trying to censor/control public opinion.

  • 9.
  • At 01:58 PM on 13 Apr 2008,
  • Dan wrote:

Spin, spin, spin. Perception is more or less reality of the times. So whatever....

  • 10.
  • At 04:39 PM on 13 Apr 2008,
  • David Cunningham wrote:

I am sure that much of this global warming hype is soley for governments to use as en excuse to add yet more tax burdens on populatuons already overburdened with tax as well as steeply rising food prices, and of course fuel prices. This year in the Centre France we have had a long, damp and cold winter. The forecaster say it is 5 degrees C below seasonal averages. This is not just a small blip but a large drop.

  • 11.
  • At 11:25 AM on 14 Apr 2008,
  • Alex Bennee wrote:

In the open source world there is no such thing as a hidden change.
Perhaps you should consider exposing a minor revision number to your
articles even if you don't always update your timestamp (which may
have an impact on RSS readers and the like).

This post is closed to new comments.

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.