A BBC News journalist's willingness to report more than climate orthodoxy should be encouraged not condemned.
A news feature written by a regional BBC reporter has turned out to be a surprising hit on the corporation’s online news site. In ‘What happened to global warming?’ (1), Paul Hudson, weather presenter and climate correspondent for the BBC’s Look North in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, asked why the rise in global temperatures seems to have levelled off since the last record-breaking year of 1998. In doing so, he sent the BBC’s visitor statistics soaring.
Following its publication on 9 October, Hudson’s article was the most popular page on the BBC’s science pages for the next week. Climate-sceptical columnists and bloggers praised the BBC for taking seriously an issue that they have been flagging up for a while. The Telegraph’s Damian Thompson hailed it as ‘a clear departure from the BBC’s fanatical espousal of climate change orthodoxy’ (2). Everyone else, it seems, from the Guardian to Nature, are furious for the same reason: because the BBC is taking seriously an issue that sceptics have been flagging up for a while. Joseph Romm, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, called it an ‘utterly backwards piece of nonsense’ (3). Such was the volume of outrage that Hudson’s senior colleague, Richard Black, has been motivated to write a rare defence of BBC editorial policy (4).
Some of the criticisms of the article – such as Nature’s complaint that he was over-reliant on unpublished research findings (5) – might well be justified. But one wonders where was Nature at the start of the year when the BBC reported insurance company Munich Re’s unpublished – and highly contentious – research that claimed to show that climate change was causing an increase in the severity of natural disasters. This article of the BBC’s was lifted almost verbatim from Munich Re’s press release, issued before the research had even been made available for scrutiny (6).
Likewise, where was the scramble to complain about a host of other erroneous and unjustifiably alarmist BBC stories about climate change? Here’s a small selection of the howlers from this year alone: an account of how climate change is driving craneflies and golden plovers to extinction, based on a single study (on a single, tiny population at the edge of the species range), which had itself recorded no decline in the numbers of either species; a story linking this summer’s fires in Nepal to climate change based on conversations with concerned conservationists; a report that sought the opinions of green NGOs – and not a single scientist – in order to claim that ‘scientists say’ government CO2 emissions targets ‘do not go far enough’ (7).
Hudson might have made some errors, but unlike the authors of these BBC stories, he has not constructed his story out of nothing. The question of whether this century is experiencing a freeze on global temperatures – and, if it is, what that might mean – is one ripe for debate, and has no simple answer. Hudson is certainly not the first journalist to ask it. Last year, Reuters ran two stories on the subject, one with an almost identical headline to the BBC’s (8), and another which quoted no less than Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), as saying that the apparent temperature plateau deserved further investigation (9).
Some further investigations have now been conducted. An analysis by the UK Met Office of its own HadCRUT3 dataset, published in August in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, found that even during the period 1999-2008 (which therefore excludes the 1998 high-point – yes, proper Met scientists cherry-pick, too), the world warmed at only 0.07 degrees Celsius per decade compared to the 0.18 degrees Celsius per decade recorded between 1979 and 2005 (10).
The size of the effect depends on what dataset you use, however, as well as the precise years you choose to start and end with. The effect is less pronounced in NASA’s GISTEMP dataset, for example, which also differs from HadCRUT3 in that it identifies 2005, not 1998, to be the warmest year on record. The authors of the influential Real Climate blog, who are eminent and high-profile climate scientists (although not, as many would assume, spokespeople for climate science), have conducted an analysis – albeit unpublished – which, they argue, accounts for the different pictures painted by HadCRUT3 and GISTEMP, and which they say means the latter should be seen as the more accurate dataset (11).
In another study, in the April issue of Geophysical Research Letters, researchers fitted a linear trend line to a third dataset and found ‘no real trend’ for the period 1998-2008. But the same was true for the periods 1977-85 and 1981-89, even though, across the longer timescale of 1975-2008, there was ‘substantial overall warming’ (12).
All of which suggests that, while there is evidence to support the claim that global temperature rise has at least slowed over the last decade or so, 10 years is not long enough for that to be particularly significant in the wider scheme of things. The authors of the latter paper, as well as the Met Office, Real Climate and others, have gone to great lengths to emphasise that it is the underlying long-term trend that is important, not decade-long fluctuations.
That might be so. But if scientists are concerned that there is too much focus on the short-term deviations from temperature trends, they might want to ponder why that is. Because, in their attempts to engage the press and public about climate change, and generate a sense of urgency over the issue, climate scientists and their research institutions are themselves guilty of turning the latest twists and turns of the lines on climatological graphs into the subjects of a rolling news service.
Their press releases generate countless news stories about what records will be, are being, or have been broken this/last/next year/month/week. Every January since 2001, for example, the Met Office has issued a forecast of the global surface temperature for the coming year. In 2007, it press-released its latest ‘startling forecast’, predicting that ‘2007 is likely to be the warmest year on record globally, beating the current record set in 1998’. It soon became clear that the Met Office had got it startlingly wrong. But by the time it was writing its end-of-year news release, entitled ‘A year to remember’, the one thing the Met Office failed to remember was that start-of-year forecast, concentrating instead on the merits of their brand-new 10-year forecast (13).
Summer Arctic ice-melt is another storyline that research institutions – in this case, the US National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) – choose to present in real-time, issuing a press release seemingly for each new data point they gather. Hence the Observer’s news story announcing that ‘Ice at the North Pole melted at an unprecedented rate last week’ (14).
But even a week is a long time in the politics of climate-change awareness-raising. NSIDC maintains the tension by issuing daily pictorial updates on the progress of summer ice melt for our viewing pleasure.
Given that these institutions reject their own advice to concentrate on the long-term picture, they should not be surprised if others with less orthodox standpoints and objectives do the same.
But then, it’s hard to see what might prompt them to heed their own words. Because without the sense of urgency generated by the perpetual live feed of news fodder, climate science stands to lose more than its viewing public and media allies. It also risks losing its political utility. The unfolding, present-tense narrative of lines on charts fuels the commentary about the conflict between the ill-intentioned sceptics and ‘deniers’, and the honest scientists, seeking to destroy or save the world respectively.
Meanwhile, time will tell if the BBC is brave enough to run any more articles that risk angering the climate change orthodoxym, but that would be one step in a positive direction. Controversial stories like Hudson’s that take unorthodox lines should be welcomed. Scrutinised, yes, but not vilified. Mainstream writers on the subject should be relaxed about them - after all, it’s not as if they’re going to end up proving the theory of man-made global warming wrong or anything, is it? As the sceptics’ argument that global warming has stopped – whether it’s right or wrong - has shown, a few more unorthodox opinions might even benefit climate science itself by stimulating some productive lines of research.
Stuart Blackman is a freelance science writer and an editor of the Climate-Resistance blog
(1) What happened to global warming?
, BBC News online, 9 October 2009
(2) The BBC’s amazing U-turn on climate change
, Telegraph, 11 October 2009
(3) The BBC asks ‘What happened to global warming?
’ during the hottest decade in recorded history!
, Climate Progress, 13 October 2009
(4) Biases, U-turns, and the BBC’s climate coverage
, BBC News online, 13 October 2009.
(5) Climate sceptics celebrate BBC story, 12 October 2009
(6) How you pay for tomorrow’s scares, today, Register, 12 January 2009
(7) See the following articles at Climate Resistance: Auntie’s Tall Tale Of Daddy Long Legs; No Fire Without a Smokescreen, B*llsh*t B*ll*cks Cr*p
(8) So what happened to global warming?
, Reuters, 16 May 2008
(9) World warming despite cool Pacific and Baghdad snow, Reuters, 11 January 2008
(10) Do global temperature trends over the last decade falsify climate predictions?, Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, August 2009
(11) A global warming pause?, Real climate, 6 October 2009
(12) Is the climate warming or cooling?, David R Easterling and Michael F Wehner Geophysical Research Letters, Vol. 36, April 2009
(13) 2007 - forecast to be the warmest year yet Met Office news release, 4 January 2007; A year to remember, Met Office news release, 2 January 2008
(14) Meltdown in the Arctic is speeding up, Observer, 10 August 2008
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