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22/10/2014

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Everyone is entitled to their own opinions but not their own facts

Phil Willis pours cold water on the BBC’s coverage of climate change.

Phil Willis pours cold water on the BBC’s coverage of climate change.

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There are few more sensitive or contentious issues for parliamentarians than climate science. It is constantly in the news, commands copious amounts of media coverage and, crucially, significant public interest. All this despite the almost universal agreement that the earth’s climate is changing and human activity is a significant cause.

So the decision by the Commons Science and Technology Committee to begin an inquiry into ‘Climate: public understanding and its policy implications’ was hardly a surprise.

Weighty questions about the level of public understanding of climate change; trusted sources of information; the role of government scientists and advisers; the impact of relevant public policies; all these came under scrutiny – as did the role of the media, which informs so much public opinion.

Public scepticism about human role

Of course little new evidence was forthcoming about the science, with everyone from the government’s chief scientist to the editorial staff of the Mail and Telegraph accepting, in the words of the latter, ‘climate is changing and the reason for that change includes human activity.’

This view is endorsed by the 5th Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, whose meta-analysis of the work of 259 scientific groups in 39 countries concluded: ‘Human influence on the climate system is clear.’

With such a broad consensus, MPs found it surprising that over the past 10 years public acceptance that humans were responsible for modifying the climate had fallen from 90 per cent to 73 per cent. Yet that is the fascination of climate change: as the facts become clearer, so the debate changes.

Growing interest in mitigation

There is no longer a ready opening in the media for uninformed and fanciful opinions such as ‘gay marriage causes floods’; those affected want a rather better explanation of the causes of their distress. More importantly, they want to know how the effect of rising water levels or more frequent storms can be mitigated.

Householders and businesses faced with rising energy bills are rightly concerned about the switch to renewable energy sources to reduce carbon dioxide. Indeed as the confusion between climate and weather grows, so the public and the media’s interest in the economic and social impact and mitigation of the effects of both climate and weather increases.

Media’s role

The debate about impact and mitigation goes right to the heart of public policy. The way the public receives reliable and trusted information, to enable them to judge policy or form opinion, is crucial.

However whilst the role and responsibility of government is clear, it is the media that will have a significant part to play in enabling greater public understanding. In view of this, it was initially disappointing to see so little evidence being produced by the media, and reluctance on their part to appear before the Committee as witnesses.

In the end there was a surprising level of agreement from the print media about their role. The Mail and Telegraph, often portrayed as sceptics, were clear about the current state of climate science and saw themselves as reporting the science and commenting on it as it affected their readers.

They were right that it is not their role to communicate policy. That is the duty of ministers who should articulate their work better, evidence their conclusions more clearly and defend their actions more robustly.

BBC disappointing

But what was surprising was the response from the BBC. Despite having an excellent record on reporting science, it sought to justify its continued near-obsession with ‘balance’ by giving undue prominence to climate change sceptics. This policy was challenged by Professor Steve Jones in his report to the BBC Trust in 2011, but supported by the Board to echoes of approval by well known climate sceptics.

This I suspect will be a continuing challenge if we are to engage the public with a better understanding of the policy implications arising from the climate change.

Giving equal weight to fact-free opinions is not about balance: it is about deception. In the words of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the US diplomat: ‘Everyone is entitled to their own opinions but not their own facts.’

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Phil Willis
Lord Willis of Knaresborough is a member of the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee
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