“Bizarre, Absurd” by Dr David Golding – Complaint about the programme, “What’s the point of …the Met Office?” (Wed 5th August, Radio 4)

Dr David Golding[Editors Note: This is the text (slightly shortened) of a complaint sent by Dr Golding to the BBC. The views expressed are his personal views and should not be taken as representing the views of JRI]

Why this matters:

In my submission to the Leveson Inquiry, entitled “Old-style/New-style Abuse of Press Freedom”, in March 2012…. I stated that:

“The behaviour of the press relating to some of the great issues of the day not infrequently constitutes gross professional misconduct, involving blatant distortion of the facts and demonstrating utter contempt for the responsibility to provide well informed and balanced treatment.

“The potential damage to human welfare of such ‘campaigns of misinformation’ is several orders of magnitude greater than that involved in the abuses which led to the setting up of the Inquiry, however serious this may be, since, by undermining public support, they jeopardise the ability of governments to take the hard but necessary decisions which these issues demand.

“Professor Ross Garnaut, speaking as the Australian government’s advisor on climate change in 2008, stated that ‘The failure of our generation on climate change mitigation would lead to consequences that would haunt humanity until the end of time.’ If our generation does indeed fail in this way, the widespread abuse of press freedom in this connection will bear a heavy responsibility for the ensuing catastrophe – ‘a catastrophe that will exacerbate human suffering to a magnitude that perhaps the world has not yet seen’ (Archbishop Desmond Tutu).”

That’s why this matters!

Complaint about the programme

On Wednesday 5th August, the BBC broadcast a programme entitled “What’s the point of…” about the Met Office on Radio 4, much of which focussed on the Office’s work on climate change. The programme was arranged and conducted by Quentin Letts, the parliamentary sketch writer and theatre critic ……

This makes as much sense as having an HIV-denialist to monitor the value of STD clinics; a tobacco lobbyist to review the public provision of advice on health; or a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses to assess the work of the Blood Transfusion Service! I’m reminded of the response by Mr Justice Burton, when he was asked to rule that a climate sceptical video should be sent to schools to ‘balance’ the influence of Al Gore’s film, ‘An Inconvenient Truth’. The learned judge stated that this would be like giving equal weight to a position that the moon is made of “green cheese” (his very words) on one hand, to the current scientific position on the other! Bizarre? Absurd? Yes indeed, both!

There were the inevitable references (I counted three) to the ‘Barbecue Summer’…..

After that, it was an opportunity for three well-known climate sceptics, not one of whom has any standing in the scientific community, to denounce and repudiate the current scientific understanding of climate change. [No reputable, independent scientist featured in the programme.] None of them were challenged. Piers Corbyn said the Office had used its position to “promote the man-made climate change theory… which is fiction” – a ‘fiction’ which just happens to have been endorsed by the national academies of science of 80 countries!

The cost of developing renewable energy was pilloried by Graham Stringer MP, with no mention of the extraordinary way that cost has been tumbling in recent years, nor the vast subsidies enjoyed by fossil fuels ……

Many of the comments of Peter Lilley MP amounted to little more than vulgar abuse, accompanied by the presenter’s hilarity. The Met Office asks for expensive computers, so “they can be even more precisely wrong…”; “they are committed to a pseudo-scientific doctrine…” How passing strange then, that the Manifesto issued by the St James’s Palace Nobel Laureate Symposium (26-28th May, 2009)…. stated that “political leaders cannot possibly ask for a more robust, evidence-based call for action”!

Mr Lilley stated that, in contrast to the forecast for global warming by the Met Office for the decade 2004-2014, the rise in temperature had been “zilch”.

If he’d done his homework, he’d have known that “due to natural variability, trends based on short records… do not in general reflect long-term trends” (IPCC, Summary for Policy Holders, 2013)…. In any case, according to Michel Jarraud, Secretary General of the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), “there is no standstill in global warming”. Similarly, “during 2014, the majority of climate indicators continued to reflect a warming planet, with several setting new records” (“State of the Climate in 2014”, published by the American Meteorological Society, July 2015). 2014 was probably the warmest year on record …. and 14 of the warmest 15 years on record have all occurred since 2000 (WMO). ‘Zilch’ indeed!

One of Quentin Letts’ main criticisms was that the Met Office is “alarmist… terrible doom and gloom… getting almost biblical” and, regrettably, he succeeded in bullying Helen Chivers, the Met Office’s spokeswoman, into half-agreeing with him.

What she should have said was, “We’re by no means ‘alarmist’! Nevertheless, we do consider it our responsibility to draw attention to the truly alarming prospects for humanity and the rest of creation should we fail to respond to this challenge with vigour and urgency. However, I actually think our statements are quite mild compared with those of many leading scientists!”

• “We know what needs to be done. We cannot wait until it is too late. We cannot wait until what we value most is lost” (Nobel Laureates’ Symposium)…..

• “Never before have we faced such a global threat. The longer we prevaricate, the more difficult the task becomes” (Lord Robert May, speaking as President of the Royal Society).

• “We are getting almost to the point of irreversible meltdown, and will pass it soon if we are not careful” (Sir John Houghton, formerly chairman or co-chairman of Scientific Assessment for the IPCC). [about the Greenland icecap]

• “The Earth today stands in imminent peril… …and nothing short of a planetary rescue will save it from the environmental cataclysm” (Prof James Hansen, formerly NASA’s Chief Climate Scientist).

• “On our current trajectory, going to 4 degrees [C of warming] has… potentially catastrophic effects for human health and human survival” (Professor Anthony Costello, Director of UCL Institute of Global Health, June 2015).

………..

Mr Letts also asserted that the Met Office’s position on climate change is “said by some fellow scientists to be plain wrong”, but failed to make it clear that the overwhelming majority …. of active climate scientists …. accept the theory of man-made climate change, Indeed, the contrarian “fellow scientists” to whom he refers are rapidly becoming an endangered species! Furthermore, all the world’s reputable scientific institutions, including 80 national academies of science, have endorsed this position. [Of course, they may all be wrong, but I wouldn’t put any money on it myself!]

Just last month, the Royal Society, the UK’s national academy of science, drew attention to the fact that 24 “leading institutions [including the Society itself] say government must act now if serious climate risks are to be averted”. The Joint Communique stated that “The scientific evidence is now overwhelming … we must transition to a zero-carbon world by early in the second half of the century.”

Ironically, given the fact that Peter Lilley clearly prides himself on having studied Physics at university, one of the institutions involved is the Institute of Physics! The Institute’s President, Frances Saunders, said: “The scientific evidence that climate change is real, and that it’s caused by human action, is compelling. If we’re to limit its effects then we have to act sooner rather than later”….

Climate sceptics of the sort featured in this programme clearly have no conception whatever of the astonishing amount of work which has gone into the development of climate science! The 5th Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change consisted of three parts. The first part, published in 2013….. over 9,200 scientific publications were cited, more than three quarters of which had been published since the previous Report in 2007; it was produced by 259 authors and review editors, who received the help of 600 contributing authors and received comments from hundreds of expert reviewers. The Report was signed off by all the world’s governments.

The 3rd Assessment Report in 2001 stated that it was “likely” (at least 60% probable) that the warming observed since the mid-20th century is mainly due to greenhouse gas emissions; the 4th Report in 2007 considered this was “very likely” (at least 90%); but with the 5th Report, this issue is now considered …. – “extremely likely” (at least 95% probable).

…………….

The study of climate change must surely rank as the greatest collaborative endeavour in the history of science – it really does deserve better from the BBC than the treatment it received in this case!

David W. Golding CBE PhD DSc DCL

Associate, Institute for Sustainability, and Honorary Chaplain, Newcastle University

Statement revised 24th August, 2015

Note: Dr Golding was not the only person to complain about the programme and the BBC have issued an apology. (See for example the article “BBC apologises for radio 4 show that mocked climate science” Ed King Guardian Environmental Network Wednesday 7 October.)

Dr Golding has provided us a copy of the response he received from the BBC together with a follow-up letter where he explains why in his view the BBC’s response had not adequately addressed the issues he raised.

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