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‘Frozen Planet’ Gave Us Beautiful Images, But An Unbalanced Picture

Sir David Attenborough’s latest series went off course when it came to the state of the poles.

I took something of a personal interest in the last instalment of Sir David Attenborough’s Frozen Planet series, billed by the BBC as yet another grim warning of the dangers of global warming. Next day I was due to launch a report for the Global Warming Policy Foundation on the BBC’s notorious bias on this issue.

In fact, Sir David played it rather more cleverly than in previous forays. Accompanied by the usual breathtaking photography, he didn’t make his message too explicit. Instead he just conveyed that the polar ice caps are melting at an unprecedented rate, suggesting that this will cause a disastrous rise in sea levels.

In each case, however, he arranged his evidence in a notably loaded way, carefully omitting much of the information a less selective picture would have included. Like so many before him, his sequence on Antarctica – with 90 per cent of the ice on the planet – focused almost entirely on the Antarctic Peninsula, the one small part of that continent where ice is significantly melting – not because of atmospheric warming, but because a shift in ocean currents has brought in a flood of warmer water. Not mentioned, of course, was that most of Antarctica has if anything got colder in the past 50 years, its growth in sea ice counterbalancing the modest shrinkage of ice in the Arctic.

This too has probably been caused not by rising global temperatures, but by changing wind patterns, and warmer water coming in from the Pacific. Great play has been made of the new ability of ships to sail through ice-free Arctic waters. But ships were sailing freely along the northern coast of Russia 70 years ago. Meanwhile, winter ice further south, in the Sea of Okhotsk and the Baltic has increased markedly in recent years.

Sir David’s dramatic shots of Greenland may have tried to convey that its huge ice cap is rapidly melting. But a detailed study five years ago estimated the proportion of its ice lost by melting around its periphery at only seven thousandths of 1 per cent of the total, suggesting that it could make little significant difference to sea levels for thousands of years. All we might have asked for, to go with those stunning film sequences, was a rather more balanced picture of what is happening. That Sir David and the BBC did not give us.

The Sunday Telegraph, 11 December 2011