BBC programme fooled again by climate change deniers

The ‘Today’ programme on BBC Radio 4 has again demonstrated that its editor and producers are too easily fooled by the inaccurate and misleading claims of climate change deniers.

On 11 November, the programme broadcast just after the 7:30 am news bulletin a recorded interview with Myron Ebell, director of the Center for Energy and Environment at the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington DC, about the progress of the 23rd session of the Conference of the Parties (COP23) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which is taking place in Bonn, Germany.

The Institute’s website states that the lobby group is “dedicated to advancing the principles of limited government, free enterprise, and individual liberty”. Mr Ebell does not have any scientific qualifications and his Institute does not disclose its sources of funding. He also chairs the so-called ‘Cooler Heads Coalition’, which campaigns to “challenge global warming alarmism and oppose energy rationing policies”. Mr Ebell was also reportedly a member of President Trump’s transition team, although he does not have any formal position in the current administration.

During the interview with Mishal Husain, Mr Ebell was invited to explain his views about the science of climate change. The following exchange occurred:

Mishal Husain: Do you believe global warming is a problem?

Myron Ebell: I think it could become a problem but I certainly don’t think it is an imminent crisis in the way that the alarmists try to make us believe.

Mishal Husain: And does that mean you do not see the emissions as not a problem?

Myron Ebell: The predictions made at the beginning of the era of global warming alarm have so far proven to be wildly inaccurate and they’ve all been much higher than predicted. And the impacts have been much milder than predicted. So I think we’ve seen a tiny bit of warming in the last 20 years but if you believe the alarmists we should have seen a lot. So I think there’s something basically wrong with the theory.

Many of Mr Ebell’s claims are demonstrably false. For instance, his assertion that the projections of global warming over the past 20 years have been “wildly inaccurate” is completely untrue. Working group I of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change included in the first chapter (see page 131) of its contribution to the Fifth Assessment Report in 2013 an analysis of how observed changes in global mean surface temperature compared with previous projections. It concluded: “As in the prior assessments, global climate models generally simulate global temperatures that compare well with observations over climate timescales. Even though the projections from the models were never intended to be predictions over such a short timescale, the observations through 2012 generally fall within the projections made in all past assessments.”

However, the interviewer did not challenge Mr Ebell about any of his inaccurate and misleading statements. Instead, the segment with Mr Ebell was followed by a live interview with Professor Joanna Haigh, Co-Director of the Grantham Institute – Climate Change and the Environment at Imperial College London, who was invited to comment on how the discussions at the summit in Bonn were being affected by President Trump’s announcement that he intends to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement. The following exchange occurred:

Professor Haigh: Well the climate process is carrying on and all the countries apart from the US have signed up to the Paris Agreement and the meeting this week is now thinking about how they’re going to implement and better the commitments made at that stage. Can I just correct one thing, at least one thing, that Mr Ebell said in terms of the predictions of global warming. If you look at the predictions that have been made by computer models they are bang on actually. There’s a spread of course. There’s a range of uncertainty but they are completely on the picture and they are predicting warming more and more.

Mishal Husain: Um. He’s looking at it sort of, you know, a span across history but I mean I think if we leave that to one side for a moment and just talk about the politics of all of this.

It is bizarre that the interviewer attempted to defend Mr Ebell’s false claims about the science of climate change when Professor Haigh corrected them. Listeners were left with the erroneous impression that Professor Haigh had misinterpreted Mr Ebell’s statements.

This is the latest example of the ‘Today’ programme breaching the BBC’s Editorial Guidelines on accuracy. The decision to interview Mr Ebell seems to have been an act of defiance by the programme’s editor, Sarah Sands, and her producers, following complaints about an interview with Lord Lawson in August.

Lord Lawson made a series of inaccurate and misleading statements about the science and economics of climate change on the programme on 10 August, but the BBC initially rejected the complaints, stating: “The BBC accepts there is broad scientific agreement on climate change. This does not mean, however, that we would never interview someone who opposes this consensus and there are times when it is editorially appropriate to hear from a dissenting voice. On this occasion we heard a minority view on the politics and the economics of the subject that has the support of the President of the United States, as well as from voices that back the consensus.”

However, on appeal, the BBC Executive Complaints Unit accepted that the interview with Lord Lawson had breached its Editorial Guidelines on ‘due accuracy’. Unfortunately, it also indicated that only very weak action was being taken as a result of the complaint: “BBC News management discussed the issues arising from the finding with the Today team”.

The truth is that climate change deniers are finding it far too easy to dupe the ‘Today’ programme into broadcasting their propaganda because the editors and producers seem willing to overlook the need for accuracy in the pursuit of being ‘impartial’ between facts and fictions.

In July 2011, the BBC Trust published the results of its review of the impartiality and accuracy of the BBC’s coverage of science, which included an independent assessment by Professor Steve Jones, a geneticist at University College London.

Professor Jones warned that, in the BBC’s coverage of global warming, “the impression of active debate is sometimes promoted by statements that are not supported by the facts”. The ‘Today’ programme appears not to have learned this important lesson and repeatedly allows climate change deniers to mislead and misinform its listeners.

Earlier this week I wrote a letter to Fraser Steel, Head of Executive Complaints, and David Jordan, Director of Editorial Policy and Standards, to ask them to take stronger action in response to the upheld complaints about the interview with Lord Lawson, with the aim of preventing further breaches of the Editorial Guidelines. I did not expect the flaws in the BBC’s editorial processes to be exploited again so soon. I hope that the BBC will now use this latest breach as an opportunity to tackle the obvious systemic problems at the ‘Today’ programme.

 

Bob Ward is policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment and the ESRC Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science.