Skip to content

Nigel Lawson: Listen Up, BBC, The Climate Debate Is Far From Over

The BBC, in determining its policy towards the coverage of global warming, which is of course not simply a scientific issue but an economic and a political issue, too, ought to shred that section of the Jones review and revert to the impartiality laid down in its charter.

In the second half of July, when most of us were preparing to set off on our summer holidays, the BBC Trust published a lengthy review of the impartiality and accuracy of the corporation’s coverage of science, most of which was taken up with what was described as an “independent assessment” by the geneticist Professor Steve Jones.

A substantial section of Jones’s assessment was, understandably, devoted to the important issue of global warming. Regrettably, that section was characterised chiefly by ignorance and intolerance. I was saddened not only by these general defects but also by an unwarranted attack on me personally. So, to be completely fair, I should quote the section in full.

Claiming that there is no longer any scope for serious debate over global warming, and that the media “face the danger of being trapped into a false balance, into giving equal coverage to the views of a determined but deluded minority and to those of a united but less insistent majority”, Jones complains:

“The impression of active debate is promoted by prominent individuals such as Lord Monckton and Lord Lawson. The BBC still gives space to them to make statements that are not supported by the facts: that (in a February 2011 The Daily Politics show) 95% of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere comes from natural sources, while in fact human activity has been responsible for a 40% rise in concentration, or (a November 2009 Today programme) that volcanoes produce more gases than do humans (the balance is a hundred times in the opposite direction). For at least three years, the climate change deniers have been marginal to the scientific debate but somehow they continued to find a place on the airwaves.”

The false accusation that I am in the habit of making statements about global warming “that are not supported by the facts” was highly damaging not only to me personally but also to the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF), which since its inception in November 2009 has become a respected and reliable source of information relevant to the global warming debate, and of which I am founding chairman.

And not only had I not made either of the statements complained of — leaving aside the question of their veracity; I had not appeared on either of the two programmes. (Nor, for that matter, had Christopher Monckton, whose position on this issue is, incidentally, not the same as mine.) I immediately emailed the chairman of the BBC Trust, Lord Patten, to complain. Receiving no reply, and after consulting the trustees of the GWPF, I instructed my lawyers to demand an apology and retraction.

This the BBC did on the BBC Trust’s website in the following somewhat grudging terms:

“On 8 August 2011, the trust published an updated version of Professor Steve Jones’s independent review of the accuracy and impartiality of the BBC’s science coverage due to an ambiguity [sic] in the section on climate change … “The trust and Professor Jones now recognise that the passage as originally published could be interpreted as attributing statements made in those two programmes to Lord Lawson or to Lord Monckton. Neither programme specifically [sic] featured Lord Lawson or Lord Monckton and it was not Professor Jones’s intention to suggest that this was the case. Professor Jones has apologised for the lack of clarity in this section of his assessment, which has now been amended [by the removal of my name and that of Lord Monckton].”

But that does not dispose of the matter. The thrust of the Jones review is that in its coverage of global warming the BBC gives too much airtime to dissenters from the conventional wisdom such as me.

The very reverse is the case. Despite the authoritative role of the GWPF, invitations to either me or its excellent director, Dr Benny Peiser, to appear on air on this issue are almost as rare as hen’s teeth.

This is not because of any hostility to me personally. I am frequently invited to appear on BBC programmes about the economy, and from time to time I do so. But on global warming the BBC has a clear party line, and anyone who might provide an informed challenge to the party line is not wanted.

Jones’s mindset is revealed by his use of the term “climate change denier” to describe anyone, such as me, who is a dissenter about any aspect of the global warming orthodoxy. It is a term I find particularly disreputable and offensive, as it is clearly intended to group climate change dissenters with Holocaust deniers.

In its letter to my lawyers containing Jones’s grudging apology, the BBC litigation department wrote that “Professor Jones does not, however, resile from the statement … that your client promotes the impression of active scientific debate on the issue of global warming when in fact there is clear consensus to the contrary”.

In fact, as the name of my think tank makes clear, our concern is primarily in the area of policy: in the light of the facts, to the extent that we know them and understand them, what policy is it rational and proportionate to pursue?

We are, of course, interested in the views of well-qualified scientists. It was for this reason that we recently published The Truth about Greenhouse Gases, a briefing paper by William Happer, an eminent professor of physics at Princeton University. The paper should be read in its entirety, but at one point Professor Happer provides his own summary of the main thrust, in these terms:

“Let me summarise how the key issues appear to me, a working scientist with a better knowledge than most in the physics of climate. CO2 really is a greenhouse gas, and, other things being equal, adding CO2 to the atmosphere by burning coal, oil and natural gas will modestly increase the surface temperature of the Earth … The combination of a slightly warmer Earth and more CO2 will greatly increase the production of food, wood, fibre and other products by green plants, so the increased CO2 will be good for the planet, and will easily outweigh any negative effects. Supposed calamities like the accelerated rise of sea level, ocean acidification, more extreme climate, tropical diseases near the poles etc are greatly exaggerated.”

I do not know whether Jones regards Happer as “deluded”, still less what qualifications he has to do so; but it is interesting that he essentially torpedoes his own thesis, and implicitly agrees with Happer (although he wholly fails to grasp the significance of this), in one lone sentence of his review:

“Now, there is general agreement that warming is a fact even if there remain uncertainties about how fast, and how much, the temperature might rise [my italics].”

The difference between a slow and gentle warming (Happer puts it at something like 1C over the next 200 years) and a sharp, accelerated warming this century is massive and at the very heart of the lively scientific debate that Jones claims no longer exists. (Last week that debate was intensified by the publication of research suggesting that solar activity might lead to a cooling. Previously such a possibility was discounted by the scientific consensus.) The fact that there has been no recorded global warming at all so far this century adds credibility to the Happer view, but it is of course too soon to be sure. What is sure is that this has a profound bearing on what policies it is rational to pursue.

It is clear that the BBC, in determining its policy towards the coverage of global warming, which is of course not simply a scientific issue but an economic and a political issue, too, ought to shred that section of the Jones review and revert to the impartiality laid down in its charter.

No doubt it is influenced by the fact that all three political parties at present cleave to the conventional wisdom, and that there is thus no problem of achieving party political balance. However, some might reasonably contend that the unanimity of the three main parties makes it all the more important that, in the public interest, adequate airtime is given to informed dissent.

The Sunday Times, 16 October 2011