13 January 2013

When will the BBC report climate change properly?

Last year thousands of people signed a petition to the then Director General of the BBC, George Entwistle, calling for better coverage of climate change on the BBC. Major problems, identified by a 2011 BBC Trust report, included too much 'false balance' between climate sceptics (like Nigel Lawson) and the scientific consensus (represented by actual climate scientists), whilst news presenters were found to be ill-equipped to cover science stories effectively.

Since then, a new Director General has taken office, and a second BBC Trust report has been produced on the subject of science and impartiality, which implied that all the problems had been solved. But on the Today programme last Wednesday morning, John Humphrys said: "The Met Office does not believe that global warming will be as severe as it had previously predicted."

That’s so misleading that it’s almost complete rubbish. The new modelling by the Met Office predicts near-record levels of global temperatures between 2013 and 2017, but says that these will be lower than they would have been because natural cycles will cool surface temperatures, masking the underlying warming trend. Of course, in some of the years to come, natural cycles will work the other way, exacerbating warming. Long term predictions are unaffected. And it should be noted that the Met Office is still predicting that at least two years between 2010 and 2015 will break global average temperature records.

The other key issue which the BBC reporting completely failed to spot is that surface temperatures and global warming are not the same thing. Heat that goes into melting ice, or warming the oceans, or more hurricanes, is as much a factor in climate change as heat going into raised surface temperatures.

We need to think in terms of the earth's energy balance (heat received minus heat radiated), which is far too high, and getting higher. Climate scientists are certainly struggling to predict where heat will end up – almost everyone underestimated the amount of heat being soaked up by the Arctic ice. But this should not be translated into “global warming has stopped” or “global warming will not be as severe as previously predicted”.

The BBC’s children’s news programme, Newsround, which quoted the Met Office’s Chief Scientist as saying “the warming trend has not gone away”, and which put the Met Office revision into its proper perspective – that of a short term, five year forecast - did better at reporting this story than the flagship of BBC News, the Today Programme. The presenting by John Humphrys, and the characteristically sceptical reporting by the BBC’s Environment Correspondent, Roger Harrabin, leads one to the conclusion that they do not understand - or perhaps accept - the science.

Over the last decade, the BBC has played a critical role in giving the British public the impression that there is a debate between scientists over climate change, rather than accepting the scientific consensus which is that manmade climate is real, that we are outside worst case scenarios for most climate trends (eg melting of Arctic sea ice and the Greenland/Antarctica ice sheets), and that there is precious little time to turn things around.

When will the BBC, and particularly the Today Programme, get its head around climate change and report it properly? If the BBC had reported a war involving national survival this badly, it would have been closed down.