Roger Harrabin’s “Uncertain Climate”, part 2

RH, the BBC’s environment analyst, promised us a soul-searching assessment of his track record in reporting climate change over 20 years. Here’s a rather unenthusiastic assessment of his assessment. 

First, the good news. This programme gave us a fairly decent reading of the uncertainties surrounding the climate change scenarios one can derive from computer modelling as it now stands. And yes, it goes in both directions (meaning that things may be much worse or quite a bit better than the “likeliest” outcomes). And yes, RH admits to not having conveyed them very well.

But these uncertainties are as old as the reporting on the subject, and the BBC (amongst most other soft-left, liberal, green mainstream media) have always been bad at reporting them. But RH’s proffered reasons were less than adequate. He suggested that news-slots are too brief to convey such difficulties. He says scientists were not good at conveying uncertainty.

Along the way, he suggested that the drama of the mostly alarmed (if not alarmist) mainstream versus the compelling maverick sceptics (if not “deniers”) was allowed to frame the debate. This is certainly true. And there were large faults on both sides. The mainstream was mostly happy to be alarmed (if not alarmist) presumably because they (a) wanted action and (b) thought the deniers were bonkers. The sceptics were very often deniers or sounded like it. So (I think he thinks) poor RH was stuck with a bum debate to report.

But this way of reading things is flawed. I believe senior BBC correspondents are trusted enough to frame debates anyway they think right. This must surely be true when they are labelled as “analysts”, a tag which conveys that he is lifted into some stratosphere of widsom or at least coolness. In support of my theme that the BBC is not necessarily short of lofty scepticism, I would say that  its economics, security, diplomatic, foreign and even political correspondents are often properly cool in their assessments.  RH was not condemned to report the ongoing debate in the useless terms its main protagonists had slipped into.

In short, RH could have been the man who said that the mainstream science was actually riven with uncertainty (in both directions) and that the deniers were indeed pretty odd. More particularly, he could have kept alive the understanding that some impressive mainstream scientists were often very keen to stress the uncertainties surrounding the bits of the science they understood best.

Beyond all that, and not covered in these two shows, RH could have conveyed the huge improbability of the “international community” carrying out any agreements they might might have cobbled together in Kyoto-like processes. He could have pointed out that the “precautionary” or “insurance” approach was hugely flawed because there was no evidence that any nation was serious about paying the premium not least because there was precious little evidence that any plausible premium would seriously offer climate security.

There was a moment in Uncertain Climate 2 when RH said he had been concentrating recently on policy rather than sceince. And yes, I think there is some evidence that his policy reporting is better than it used to be.    

 But I fear the tone of this second mea culpa remains mostly that of an apologia. And we can guess why without too much pretending to see inside a man’s soul or mind. RH congratulates himself on going where environment correspondents seldom go: into the heart of the deniers’ camp, a Chicago conference. There he relishes meeting a self-confessed right-winger in a cowboy hat. Wow. I am pretty sure that RH has moved “rightwards” toward scepticism, but he has done so from what one can’t help feeling was a comfort zone which is (as in the case of most of its concerned greenish inhabitants) enamoured of the alarmist mainstream and its naive commitment the “Something Must Be Done” school of policy repsonse. The SMBD Fallacy arises not because it wrongly insists on action, but because it almost always falls for gestures whose value it over-rates.

I value RH and I value his worried determination to be fair to the debate and his shifts within it. I accept that the climate debate (both as to sceince and policy) is now getting somewhere close to where it needs to be. RH’s programmes help that a bit. But I fear (and here I am being a bit impertinent) that he has not dared internalise or express his role – the role of his old mindset – in clogging up the works. Be that as it may I confidently assert that worried or not he was a bigger part of the problem than he has admitted.

Of course I can also add that at any time in the past 20 years he could have recorded my own attempts to catch this argument properly, and never did. Perhaps I have been too little representative of either of the two “sides”: but that’s the point. Perhaps I have some other shortcomings (I don’t doubt it). But I have been pretty successful in articulating the scientific and policy hazards, and being so was not especially difficult.

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Publication date

07 September 2010