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The BBC's coverage of the Bali climate conference was a disaster

[This piece matches an analysis of some BBC Online climate coverage at www.livingissues.com]

The BBC and climate change: a journalistic disaster
a note by Richard D North
7 January, 2008

The Big Picture
The BBC's coverage of the science, economics and politics of man-made climate change has been pretty bad. That's odd, because serious BBC people really fret about getting it right.

Most recently, in December 2007 the BBC's environment specialists got very excited about the negotiations in Bali, as though these mattered a great deal and might have been much better than they turned out to be. (Lucy Williamson, a BBC regional reporter, seemed to do much better.)

Actually, the Bali Roadmap turned out to be pretty unexceptional, almost predictable.

Bali produced something like the best climate treaty possible. It is good in the degree it resists the campaigners' and media's yearnings that it be "strong" and detailed. It is bad in the degree to which it implies vigorous policy is nearly agreed.

Most progress of the kind the campaigners and media want will happen inspite of the treaty, if at all.

The background
The BBC's coverage of climate change policy has been and remains awful.

To be fair, the print media has been little better. So it is just possible that the problem is that environment reporters can't write about real-world policy.

The essence of the thing is that the BBC's specialists have decided that it is obvious the climate situation demands that Something Must Be Done, and it doesn't matter if the "something" which is done is ineffective. To believe either that the climate situationis not serious, or that useless action is, well, useless, is (in this view) obviously wrong.

What the BBC didn't tell
An international climate change treaty is not necessary or sufficient to "Save the Planet"
The "stronger" a climate change treaty sounds, the less honest it is
No imaginable policy will make any serious difference for decades
No big-cost climate policy is likely to happen quickly

The fundamental untruth
The Big Lie is that the international treaty process can happen quickly and Save the Planet.

How the BBC see the story
It assumes:
1 a "strong" climate treaty is the only desirable outcome
2 "the science" has been settled
3 We are close to making policy which can make a difference

What the story should have included:
1 the "stronger" a climate treaty, the less likely it is to be realistic
2 there is huge scientific disagreement about everything that matters about climate change
3 we are nowhere near making effective policy

What's good about Kyoto/Bali
It sketches out where we might go - the "roadmap" talk is good.

What's very bad about Kyoto/Bali
It deceives people into thinking our generation might Save the Planet.

Lessons for the media
The media's politics and economics correspondents should get their heads round the issues and start looking at policy from their own specialist points of view.

The reality of international climate change politics
The crucial triangle of UN/EU "activists", the rich non-EU world "resisters", and the Developing World are locked in dances which are economic, cultural and political.

The activist rich countries like big language even if they know they won't deliver on it. The resisting rich countries like small language and even then might not deliver on it.

The developing world talks loudly about not having caused the problem not least to cover its deep reluctance to play its part in policy, unless there is serious cash on the table for them. The activist rich play along with the developing world's Don't Blame Us position and the resisting rich stress that the developing world is growing its greenhouse gas emissions very greatly.

Behind all this is the politcal reality that the world is not ready to make big sacrifices in economic growth in order to address climate change.

None of these positions is "attractive" but they interlock to produce the inevitability of treaties which will be weak in wording or effect or both.

What treaties really are
Treaties ought to be about what the signatories have agreed to do. They shouldn't overstate the case, nor be moral statements.

An honest reaty is more attractive than an aspirational one. That is why the "bad" outcome from Bali is actually better than the one the campaigners and media would have preferred.

There are further nuances which matter.
The UN/IPCC position is that Kyoto/Bali at its strongest gives a 50/50 chance of staving off really quite bad climate change. That means that even if we are determined we only have a 50/50 chance of avoiding disaster.

Even this is not a consensus. It is now scientifically respectable to say that very bad climate change is inevitable (see Fred Pearce's "Heat") and it is also respectable to say that it may be cheaply avoidable (UN/IPCC). These are not reconcilable and neither motivates dramatic action.

The consenus says that climate change is anthropogenic and bad. But its more honest moments stress that the "nett", "global" effect is much less bad than the worst effects for the worst effected places. Roughly speaking, for various reasons, the "poor" are slated to suffer more than the "rich".

It seems crazy to suggest that there is a consensus - scientific, political or economic - as to what to do about it. The "rich" have never put themselves out for the "poor".

The Something Must Be Done school
It is easy to assume that Something Must be Done and that the more action there is, the better. In reality, if only doing a great deal can make a difference, people may be reluctant to do very much at all.

The mismatch between policy and rhetoric
Politicians are very tempted by policy which buys them peace and quiet, especially if it is an easy "sell". But in climate change, doing very little may have effects little different from doing nothing.

The BBC in some detail
We know the BBC is a bit worried about its work in this field, not least because its correspondents and editors are discussing it a good deal.

There is no evidence that Roger Harrabin, David Shukman, Richard Black or Susan Watts are willing to report climate change policy as though the Something Must Be Done was other than obviously right.

The specialists seem to believe in the UN/IPCC consensus "science" process as being objectively rational and have firmly linked it with the UN's Kyoto/Bali treaty process. The upshot is that anyone who supports the UN attitude to Kyoto/Bali is OK and everyone else is some sort of enemy.

So the BBC's coverage implies that the UN secretariat's boldest hopes for the Kyoto/Bali process are the only "right" position. The second is that the UN and the EU (which drive the process) are OK and the US are not OK. The developing world is forgiven any failings, because it has contributed little to the problem so far.

What a realist might say
A realist might well believe that:
1) we may need cheap and convenient policy to reduce mankind's carbon footprint
2) one must weigh the costs of averting change against the costs of dealing with its effects
3) any carbon-reduction strategy will be half-hearted for at least a decade
4) market factors my increase energy costs more than climate policy
5) any likely policy would likely have next to no effect on climate change, at least quickly
6) the Kyoto/Bali process is vital to preparing mankind for eventual "big policy on climate

Lessons for the BBC
If the BBC is stuck with the view that "Something Must Be Done" it should:
Scrap all foreign travel for its climate specialists
Scrap sending London-based presenters to foreign news stories
Scrap its holiday shows
Scrap Top Gear

In summary

It is surely very likely that the BBC's specialists have come to believe that it falls to them to overcome the ignorant scepticism of their audience and especially to do so in the face of disinformation put about by some American corporate and political interests.

The BBC's specialists are not the kind of people who enjoy discussing human reality and frailty in the face of potential disaster. They believe that some progress in the right direction is better than none and those that don't see this are not fully moral.

The BBC's specialists don't seem to have bothered to challenge their own comfort zone.

In effect, then, the BBC's specialists have become campaigners. To say the least, they have lost interest in the counter-intuitive.

They may be morally right in all this and even scientifically right. But they don't understand that they really might not be. In any case, they are at best naive in policy terms.

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