To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring

This was originally published by Red Pepper

Radio 4’s Today programme has been criticised for once again interviewing ex-Chancellor Lord Lawson about climate change, which he denies is happening. The show interviewed Al Gore about his new documentary An Inconvenient Sequel and seems to have felt it should balance Gore’s call for action with the opposite view.

The peer was predictably contrarian. He wrongly said climate scientists believe the world’s weather is getting no more extreme and in a moment of straight-up climate denial, said temperatures have fallen over the last decade (in fact, each of the last three years were the hottest on record), while the interviewer, Justin Webb, made no attempt to challenge these errors. The transcript (and rebuttals) are here.

No doubt there will be complaints about the segment. These complaints might even be upheld – this is exactly the kind of ‘undue attention to marginal opinion’ that the BBC Trust criticised in its 2011 review of science coverage.

But even if a complaint is upheld, can we expect the broadcaster to change? After all, it’s been through exactly this before. In 2014 the BBC Editorial Complaints Unit agreed that Today was wrong in its handling of an interview with the same guest and the same presenter, when Lord Lawson’s denial was presented as of equal standing with climate science.

The BBC doesn’t seem to have learned from that mistake and it’s not obvious that it will learn from this one. But the problem isn’t particular to the BBC – it’s with climate change and how it’s described.

Suppose you’re a producer and you have a story about some warning of how bad climate change will be and how essential is that the world cuts emissions. It’s an important issue, so you agree to run an item on it.

But it hardly sounds new and risks being a bit dull. How can you generate tension to show your audience that there are disagreements and decisions to be made? You won’t get that tension if you invite on Friends of the Earth. So instead you call up someone – like Lord Lawson – who will baldly reject the core of the story and will guarantee a fight. It’s terrible for public debate but it’s a much better spectacle than two people agreeing about how awful climate change is.

An upheld complaint about this latest climate denial might make a producer think again for a while. But sooner or later they – or their successor – will need to spice up some dull but important climate change story and will look for an obliging Tory peer.

It doesn’t have to be like this. There are plenty of disagreements about climate change that are far more interesting and important than fabricated rows about whether it’s happening.

One example is about who will be able to fly as the world cuts emissions. Even allowing for efficiency improvements, restricting emissions from planes means limiting flights – a major challenge as increasing affluence will mean more people want to fly. How should we do this? It could be done by putting up ticket prices, which would mean poorer people fly less. It could be done by restricting capacity – the Airports Commission’s recommendation of Heathrow expansion counts on not expanding other UK airports. Or, if the burden is to be distributed evenly, perhaps there should be an allowance system for flights tickets.

There are arguments about what to do as the effects of climate change grow more and more severe. When more land is flooded by rising sea levels and increasingly ferocious storms, which areas should be protected and which abandoned, and who pays the bill? And what help should be given to people living in poorly designed housing that will cook when heat waves become longer and more extreme?

And nuclear power divides those who are worried about the climate. Some argue it is an indispensable technology that doesn’t produce a large volume of greenhouse gases and can be counted on to produce electricity on a large-enough scale to replace coal and gas plants. But some environmentalists are appalled by nuclear power, seeing it as no improvement on coal. This is a contentious question of priorities – where costs, safety and hazardous waste are balanced against the need to cut emissions quickly.

What’s important about these arguments is they give the tension a producer needs, without depending on disagreements about whether climate change is real. They entirely take place between people who accept that cutting emissions is crucial for the world to avoid dangerous warming – but they aren’t boring. If these debates become the questions that journalists ask about climate change, deniers will have to either catch up or find that they are no longer invited to take part.

These disagreements are already happening between climate policy specialists but they’re rarely aired in public. If we’re to stop the BBC calling up a denier for the next story about climate change, those of us worried about the issue need to show that there are far better subjects for a fight.

The Climate Majority: Apathy and Action in an Age of Nationalism will be published on 21 September by New Internationalist.


  1. Barnesian says:

    The problem isn’t denying climate change (or specifically the human cause of climate change). According to scientists it is almost certain that humans are the cause of the recent change in climate but not 100% certain. Science progresses by being challenged. That is healthy.

    The problem is lying (or being mistaken about the facts) and not being challenged on it. That isn’t specific to climate change. It happens much more in the world of politics. The BBC is sometimes good at challenging falsities (viz Andrew Neil) but it expecting too much to expect every interviewer to be such an expert or so well briefed that they can confidently challenge. The most one can expect is an apology and a correction later.

  2. Neville says:

    Agreed about the media difficulties about getting an interesting and controversial debate but this business of “right to reply” is ludicrous. Everybody in the scientific community agrees that climate change exists and is mostly if not almost entirely caused by man. This is like denying evolution or believing that the world is flat. These people do not get airtime apart from when they are being ridiculed.

    Let’s have some genuine lively debate around what steps we should be taking urgently to stop the death of the planet. The most important issue today is the future of the planet and whether the human race has already sown the seeds of it’s own destruction. I know what is boring, “brexit”.

  3. Richard Burnett-Hall says:

    When it comes to scientific matters, the BBC’s tendency to give air time to people who do not know what they are talking about, but are nevertheless convinced that their opinions are correct, may be attributed to a need to provide “balance” between differing publicly held views. However, as is all too obvious to many of us, it is much readier to air a supposedly entertaining dogfight that educates no-one, than to risk arriving at a “boring” consensus that acknowledges that most science does not consist of certain facts but, at best, an accumulation of useful working hypotheses that have widespread support among those who have studied them, and have not yet been disproved.

    Much of the Today programme is concerned with, and the presenters take their cue from, day-to-day politics, where leading politicians (and, all too often, economists), make it their business to pretend that their positions are undoubtedly right, and that all contrary ones are wrong. This concentration on assertion, rather than true debate, merely reflects the adversarial nature of a largely two party House of Commons where MPs are overly concerned with the impression they make on the public rather than on their opponents and colleagues. Such behaviour is of course fostered by the first-past-the-post electoral system – it would be far more counter-productive, and much less prevalent, if the House of Commons consisted of, say, four or more parties of roughly similar strengths, requiring coalitions for there to be effective governments.

    This highly assertive, adversarial, approach is totally unsuitable for presenting scientific issues, but we have to accept that BBC presenters, by and large, have little or no understanding of the scientific method, and of the uncertainty that is an inevitable and crucial component of all science. So far as I can tell, the only Today presenter who has any scientific training at all, is Sarah Montague, who at least has a degree in biology. None of the others have any background that suggests they are capable of interviewing effectively those with opinions on anthropogenic climate change, in the way they probably are on, say, Brexit, the Middle East, or schooling in the UK. This in turn reflects the old British habit of seeing an arts degree as in some way a superior education as compared with those in science, and more appropriate for a radio/TV presenter. But to overturn that probably means overturning the entire BBC.

    Let’s have some focus on how to achieve a truly sustainable economy and what that would entail, and the consequences if we fail to act soon enough.

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