This is an open letter to Jamie Angus, Editor of Radio 4’s Today programme. I am grateful to Rob Hopkins at Transition Towns, who wrote a letter yesterday with many relevant points I have plagiarised. Basically: the BBC should not treat fantasists and apologists as if they had a respectable position on climate science. I have also made a formal complaint on the BBC’s website.
Dear Mr Angus,
I am writing to complain in the strongest terms about your item on 13 Feb with Professor Sir Brian Hoskins (imperial College, Fellow of the Royal Society) and Lord Nigel Lawson (lived at 11 Downing Street for a while in the 1980’s). I could not believe the airtime you gave to Lord Lawson’s fantasy world.
Your piece presented the illusion of a debate about the science of climate change and the impact of human behaviour. Your presenter closed with “it’s a combination of the two, as is this whole discussion”. It isn’t. Does it make sense to ask an ESA scientist and a one-time economist for their advice as to whether an rocket can make it into orbit – and then give equal weight to their opinions? Which rocket will you be getting on?
The BBC is giving anecdote and political stunts primacy over science or engineering. The anecdotes of poor people living with flooding or UKIP witterings are given greater airtime and credibility than the views of experts. Reality TV show contestants get more exposure on Question Time than scientists.
The overwhelming majority of peer-reviewed science on climate accepts that human activity is resulting in the warming of the climate. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have reviewed all the published science on climate change, and concluded:
Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, sea level has risen, and the concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased. Each of the last three decades has been successively warmer at the Earth’s surface than any preceding decade since 1850.
Despite this authoritative view Lord Lawson has repeatedly stated his belief that climate change is “a belief without any serious scientific substance” and in your piece argued there is no link with the extreme weather and flooding of recent days. Yet a 2012 report published by DEFRA identified flooding as the greatest threat to the UK posed by climate change, with up to 3.6 million people at risk by the middle of the century. Every 1 degree of warming leads to the atmosphere being able to hold 7% more moisture than previously (as this paper from the journal Climate Research shows), and we have already increased 0.8°C on pre-industrial levels. Dame Julia Slingo, presenting a Met Office report on the recent flooding, told Sunday’s World at One programme:
All the evidence suggests there is a link to climate change. There is no evidence to counter the basic premise that a warmer world will lead to more intense daily and hourly rain events.
My specific objections are as follows:
1. That you had Lord Lawson on at all: Lawson is not a climate scientist, he is an ex-politician. He has published no peer-reviewed science on climate change. His Global Warming Policy Foundation actively lobby for pro-fossil fuel policies, for the eradication of policy and legislation on climate change. They refuse to reveal the sources of their funding, while somehow taking advantage of charitable status. What are his evidence-based claims to be a credible commentator on this subject?
2. “Nobody knows”: on several occasions, Lord Lawson stated, in relation to the science on climate change, that “nobody knows”, referring to climate science as “this extremely speculative and uncertain area”. This is grossly misleading; as the reports above show, there is a clear consensus that human activity is affecting the climate. He stated on Today “I don’t blame the scientists for not knowing … I just blame them for saying they know when they don’t”. Climate scientists always present their findings in degrees of certainty, degrees of likelihood, never in terms of certainty. That’s because they are scientists, not idealogues. To present a proper assessment of evidence as “not knowing” does us all great disservice.
3. Cherry picking: Lord Lawson stated that there has been no increase in extreme weather events, taking as his example tropical storms, stating that “last year was unusually quiet” for tropical storms. Yet no mention of 2013 being the hottest year in Australia since records began, or recent floods in Thailand or the US, melting permafrost in Siberia and Alaska, to mention just a few. To pick tropical storm activity in one year is cherrypicking. Anyway, as seen with Typhoon Haiyan, the intensity of those storms is increasing.
4. The ‘Pause’ myth: He stated that there has been “no recorded warming over the last 15-17 years”, a myth promoted by climate-change deniers. He cited the latest IPCC report as agreeing with him, but the IPCC report was actually very clear on this: 90% of warmth is being absorbed by the world’s oceans, and Sir Brian Hoskins tried to spell this out. Lord Lawson would not listen to him and your interviewer let him get away with his dismissal. In fact, the temperature of the world’s oceans is rising sharply as they absorb the equivalent of, according to Skeptical Science, 12 Hiroshima bombs per second, with impacts on sea level, marine life and the oceans’ acidity levels, which are at their highest for over 300 million years.
5. Unrealistic impartiality: you do not give airtime to holocaust deniers. Your own website says that ‘Deniers dismiss all assertions that the Holocaust took place as conscious fabrications, or as psychotic delusions’ – about on a par with the dismissal of scientific method and a huge mass of evidence about climate change. You (rightly) actively promote mass vaccination rather than give a ‘balanced’ platform to those who jeopardise children’s health. Impartiality is not itself an unbiased position, as you well know.
I usually enjoy the Today Programme, but yesterday I could have hurled my radio from the window into the swollen river outside my door. There is no need for “balance” in pieces about climate change. The BBC has a duty to reflect reality, rather than allowing dinosaurs like Lord Lawson to fill the airwaves with unscientific and deeply-irresponsible views. Instead, more of Sir Brian and those like him, who know what they are talking about and present their position with honour and evidence.