Roger Harrabin’s Radio 4 “Uncertain Climate”

This show sounded like a major apologia and a minor mea culpa from the BBC’s chief climate change analyst . It was, though, mostly depressingly familiar.

[Note: It may be useful to note that I have a bit of a grievance in this subject area. I have wrestled with it for nearly a quarter of a century and I am not sure whether I am more flummoxed that “my side” of the argument is under-reported or that my own contribution has been.]  

The poverty of our national climate debate has always been striking. It is mostly stuck in a sterile discussion about science and refuses seriously to engage in morality or policy. It is also hung-up on starkly opposed “camps”, rather than about insights.

As Roger Harrabin’s work suggests, and this show emphasised, the problem does indeed involve scientific uncertainty. But he – typically of most environment specialists – has never been very good at discussing the problem of discerning the real-world impacts of whatever changes to the climate mankind is assumed to be making. And, much worse, he and they have never been awfully good at discussing the huge problem of responding politically and economically to these multiple uncertainties. 

Mr Harrabin says that he agonised over the journalistic proprieties of reporting the scientifc uncertainties surrounding climate change. He realised that it was problematic to accord as much “weight” to climate change science “deniers” as to mainstream climate change “alarmists”, though the BBC, like all media outlets found the confrontations attractive and even dialectically useful.

However, in everything he said until a year or so ago, I took it that he was in the mainstream camp in thinking that climate change was likely to be disastrous and that it was obvious any progress toward international treaties to reduce mankind’s carbon footprint was morally good and any impediments were bad.

This latest programme sounded to me like a formal statement of a slight but significant retrenchment by Mr Harrabin. In it, he noted that it was less certain now in what degree climate change would be disastrous. He noted a stand-up row he had with Al Gore when as a diligent reporter he challenged the ex-vice president and alarmist cheerleader over some assertions in the latter’s An Inconvenient Truth.

In short, this programme seemed like a careful statement of Mr Harrabin’s having become more sceptical than he once was, but without admitting any major change of position. It’s as though he can now put a little distance between himself and the mainstream scientists. Not as to their science, but as to their naive enthusiasm not to undersell their anxiety that the world was going to hell in a handcart, and their willingness to assume that it was obvious what to do next.

He did not discuss his seeming acceptance of the view that almost any steps to make the rise less likely made obvious sense and would be acceptable to the world’s publics if only politicians would make it so; and – crucially – that any voices to the contrary were nefarious and industry-funded.

It is indeed problematic for journalists that there are few people who clearly state that (a) that climate change may be quite bad or worse and that (b) it may not be worth trying to stop and/or (c) that even if we ought to respond mightily we will probably respond weakly (at least for now). Bjorn Lomborg comes the nearest to articulating the point, and is usually misrepresented as not accepting the mainstream alarmism. Yet this is I think the tacit and unspoken real view of very many serious people. It is mine.

Even Mike Hulme on the Today programme this morning seemed to stick to the weaker of the positions I think he holds. He usefully remarked that more or less scientific certainty was no longer the point. Political will is. This matters because almost everyone still frames the debate as one about scientific uncertainty. (But Mike Hulme spoke as though useful action against climate change was morally desirable and even politically feasible, though I have read him elsewhere saying that it might not be. [See here and here.)

Mainstream broadcasters like Mr Harrabin have always been next to useless about the human, economic, political and sociological outcomes which flow from the belief that mankind is warming the world with consequences which are extraordinarily hard to predict. I think that is why they shelter in the endless and sterile “deniers vs alarmist” debate.  

We’ll see what happens next week, as Roger Harrabin discusses the vastly over-blown Climategate and its supposed consequences. So far, Mr Harrabin has been at pains to display his credentials as a non-partisan, intelligent and diligent reporter of the state of the scientific debate. He has shaded in a slight sense of his increasing deployment of a pinch of salt. He has given us no sense that he thinks he was ever wrong about the terms in which he and his organisation discussed the climate change policy dilemmas.

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Publication date

30 August 2010