Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme duped by climate change sceptic Lord Lawson

It has been a bad few days for the BBC and Radio 4’s flagship ‘Today’ programme after it was again humiliatingly duped by climate change ‘sceptics’.

At 7:10 am on Thursday 10 August, one of the programme’s presenters, Justin Webb, interviewed the former Vice-President of the United States, Al Gore, about his new film, ‘An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power’.

Mr Webb quizzed Mr Gore about aspects of the economics and science of climate change. The former Vice-President cogently and accurately pointed out that the direct subsidies worldwide for fossil fuels are much bigger than those for renewables, and correctly rebutted the accusation that he had gone further than scientists by ‘joining the dots’ between trends in extreme weather events and climate change.

Later in the programme, at about 8:35 am, Mr Webb was joined on the telephone by Lord Lawson, Chair of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, to respond to the interview with Mr Gore.

Predictably, Lord Lawson launched a personal attack on Mr Gore, and in doing so made many bogus claims about climate change which were not challenged by the presenter.

Lord Lawson began by wrongly asserting that climate change policies mean that England has “one of the highest energy costs in the world”. In fact, the latest figures from the Department for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy show that UK households pay lower electricity and gas prices than many other countries in the European Union. And while the UK’s industrial electricity prices are relatively high compared with the rest of the European Union, they are not the highest for small and medium-sized businesses.

He then falsely suggested that in England fossil fuels are taxed and that renewables are “heavily subsidised”. In fact, electricity generated by both sources is subject to VAT and to the Climate Change Levy. And while in the UK renewables received £5 billion in direct subsidies in 2015-16 through the Renewables Obligation and Feed-in-Tariffs, according to the National Audit Office, the International Monetary Fund estimated that fossil fuels enjoyed more than £40 billion in implicit subsidies in 2015 because they escape taxes that reflect the real costs they create through climate change, local air pollution and other harm.

But in addition to misrepresenting the truth about the economics of climate change, Lord Lawson also promoted myths about the science.

He misrepresented the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change by stating that it “concedes that there has been no increase in extreme weather events”, even though its most recent assessment report in 2014 concluded that there had been “changes in many extreme weather and climate events have been observed since about 1950”, including more heatwaves and heavy rainfall events in many parts of the world.

Even more bizarrely, Lord Lawson added that global mean temperature has “slightly declined” over the past 10 years. His statement was at odds with the analysis by the World Meteorological Organization which concluded that annual global mean surface temperature has increased since 2006, with last year ranked as the warmest on record.

A few days later, the Global Warming Policy Forum, the official lobbying arm of Lord Lawson’s Foundation, admitted on Twitter that he had based his incorrect statement about global temperature on an “erroneous” graph promoted by an American climate change ‘sceptic’, Joe Bastardi.

While it was entirely predictable that Lord Lawson, given his track record, promoted so many falsehoods about climate change, it is perhaps surprising that the ‘Today’ programme again allowed him to mislead its audience.

In February 2014, Lord Lawson was also given airtime to make false claims about climate change. Although the BBC initially attempted to justify the interview, numerous complaints prompted a proper investigation which eventually decided that its Editorial Guidelines had been breached.

That sequence of events is now being repeated, with the BBC attempting to defend its decision to allow Lord Lawson to broadcast ‘sceptic’ propaganda with the following statement: “The BBC’s role is to hear different views so listeners are informed about all sides of debate and we are required to ensure controversial subjects are treated with due impartiality”.

But I and others have submitted formal complaints to the BBC, pointing out that the interview was in clear violation of its Editorial Guidelines on “due accuracy”.

Even if the BBC upholds these complaints, past experience indicates that no lessons will be learned by the ‘Today’ programme and it will not be long before it broadcasts more ‘alternative facts’ from climate change ‘sceptics’.

 

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