The BBC has spent hundreds of thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money asking 33,000 people in Asian countries how climate change is affecting them. The £519,000 campaigning survey by little-known BBC Media Action is designed to persuade the world to adopt more hard-line policies to combat global warming.
It was immediately condemned yesterday as a flagrant abuse of the Corporation’s rules on impartiality and ‘a spectacular waste of money’ by a top academic expert.
Every year, BBC Media Action gets £22.2 million from the taxpayer via the Foreign Office and Department for International Development.
Its climate survey, published this month, is called From The Ground Up: Changing The Conversation On Climate Change. In it, farmers and villagers in India, China, Vietnam, Nepal, Pakistan and Indonesia were asked how climate change was ‘affecting their lives already’ and about their future concerns.
They described less predictable rainfall, droughts, declining harvests and an increase in respiratory disease caused by dustier soil, and blamed them on global warming.
The survey does not clarify whether these descriptions are supported by data, nor whether climate change is indeed the cause. It also includes graphs showing a steep rise in global temperatures – but they end abruptly in 2000, when temperatures stopped rising at all.
The report ends with advice, apparently written for climate activists: ‘Do not talk about scientific or technical abstractions. Talk about the problems they face in their daily lives… Speak in language that makes sense to people in terms of how they experience climate change.’
BBC Media Action has a £40 million annual budget, and the proportion not funded by the taxpayer is paid by the European Union, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the US government.
Its website states it ‘belongs to the BBC’, and ‘builds on the fundamental values of the BBC to guide its work’. Its chairman is Peter Horrocks, director of the BBC World Service Group. Trustees include newsreader George Alagiah.
John Whittingdale, chairman of the Commons Select Committee on Media and Culture, said last night he was ‘astonished’ to see the BBC involved with a survey of this kind.
He added: ‘The BBC brand carries with it a huge reputation for impartiality and objectivity. Even though this is not a mainstream, licence-fee-funded activity, for the BBC to attach its label to something which is so politically controversial is unwise.
The BBC has already been attacked for paying too little attention to climate change sceptics, and this bears those criticisms out.’
Richard Tol, professor of economics at Sussex University and a leading authority on climate change impacts, said the BBC ‘would have been better advised to invest this money in proper research’.
He said the survey’s assertions are often contradicted by more reliable sources. He said: ‘Objective data do not corroborate the survey’s reported impacts on health, droughts, predictability of rainfall, and crop yields. Attribution of any of these effects to climate change is by and large beyond the current level of scientific knowledge.’
Prof Tol was one of the ‘co-ordinating lead authors’ of a report on the consequences of warming by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in March.
UN figures show harvests have been rising across Asia for decades. The March IPCC report stated: ‘The worldwide burden of ill-health from climate change is relatively small compared with effects of other stressors and is not well quantified.’
On rainfall, it stated: ‘There is now low confidence in the attribution of changes in drought since the mid-20th Century to human influence.’
Prof Tol said the survey results were academically worthless: ‘Interviewing 30,000 people across six countries is expensive, and cannot tell us much – previous research has shown people’s recollection of past weather and climate is very unreliable, and people’s attribution of observations to causes is worse.’
The BBC survey’s campaigning intention is suggested by a chapter entitled The Policy Context which tells readers that next year, world leaders will meet at a UN summit in Paris to hammer out a new treaty to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
‘2015 is a propitious moment for reorienting the way that we talk about climate change,’ the survey report says. The Paris talks will ‘open a window of opportunity… to articulate a climate change perspective rooted in people’s needs’.
Dr Benny Peiser, director of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, which argues that the threat from climate change is overblown, said it seemed Media Action was ‘the campaigning arm of the BBC, [its] propaganda bureau’ and the survey is ‘a blatant abuse of the BBC charter’.