Skip to content

Peter Lilley: Complaint Regarding BBC Newsnight 5th September 2012

Peter Lilley MP

From: Peter Lilley
To: David Jordan, BBC, Director Editorial Policy and Standards
Date: 11 September 2012

Subject: Complaint re Newsnight 5th September

Dear Mr Jordan,

I would be grateful if you would look into my complaints about the Newsnight programme on Wednesday 5th September in which I participated (having just published a substantial critique of the Stern Review of the Economics of Climate Change) along with Natalie Bennett (newly elected Leader of the Green Party).

First, though least important, the BBC reneged on assurances I was given about the nature of the programme. Second, the introductory sequence was misleading, inaccurate and biased. Third, and most important, it demonstrates a systemic bias in the BBC’s approach to Climate Change.

1. Breach of assurances

I was told beforehand that although the programme would use the current record low in Arctic summer sea ice extent we would not discuss the science but ‘take the IPCC assessment of global warming as given’ and discuss what should be done about it. It was impressed upon me that I must not get into discussions of the science. I was perfectly happy with that a) because it is impossible sensibly to discuss both the scientific issues and the economic issues in a single brief item, b) because that was the approach I had taken in my report – I take the IPCC science as given and certainly do not dispute the reality of the greenhouse effect.

Despite those assurances, our discussion was preceded by a lengthy introductory film claiming to provide “new evidence”, “obtained by the BBC” that the ice was going to melt far earlier than previously thought and that this would lead to far more rapid, dangerous and unstoppable global warming. In fact it contained no “new evidence” only a piece of non-peer reviewed, non-research containing the tired old alarmist meme that “it’s worse than we thought” trotted out by a well known climate alarmist who has made the same assertions before; but this time implicitly endorsed by the BBC science editor who “obtained this evidence”.

I was therefore faced with a dilemma. If I adhered to my instructions and the original game plan it meant effectively accepting a highly tendentious bit of alarmism which contradicts the IPCC assessment of the science. On the other hand if I responded to this contentious piece I had to leave the points made by the Green Party leader unanswered. It also meant abandoning the original, sensible plan to focus on the economics/policy responses.

While the trailer was being shown I expressed my dismay at the bias of its contents to Jeremy Paxman who indicated that he would let me respond, which he did. I should make it clear that I have no criticism of the way Jeremy Paxman handled the programme – on the contrary my impression was that he was annoyed that the preamble had made a sensible discussion focused on the economics impossible.

I am happy to discuss either the economics or the science. And I have plenty of experience of being ‘ambushed’ in media interviews and can respond accordingly. If the blogosphere and my inbox are to be believed I came off best, the Green Leader was discomforted and Paxman dismayed. But that is not the point. It is wrong in principle to renege on assurances given. And the net result was to reduce the discussion to a muddle. The viewers were deprived of a meaningful discussion of the policy options.

2. BBC’s uncritical endorsement of a shoddy piece of alarmism posing as ‘new research’ 

More important is the bias displayed by the preamble.

* Susan Watts’ opening claim that this was a “new” thesis is untrue. The albedo effect and the possibility of methane emissions have been fully integrated into the IPCC assessments and projections as well as climate models for decades.

* Far from being “new research” Prof Wadhams has made similar alarmist claims in the past e.g. in “Planet Earth We Have a Problem: Feedback dynamics and the acceleration of climate change” June 2007.

* If “the new figures given to the BBC” do show that “the loss of Arctic ice is massively compounding the effects of greenhouse gas emissions” to a far greater extent than is assumed in the climate models collated by the IPCC then it follows that the underlying climate sensitivity must be far less than those models have assumed. If more of the observed warming has been the result of the albedo effect then less of it must have been the result of all other factors. Thus once the sea ice has melted and the maximum albedo effect is operating, the additional effect of further CO2 emissions will just be proportional to this lower underlying sensitivity. So the temperature will rise thereafter less rapidly than previously predicted. This fairly basic point does not seem to have struck either your science editor or Professor Wadham.

* The assertion that the summer ice will regularly disappear “within a few years” (or even happen soon after 2030 as attributed to the Met Office) contradicted the IPCC assessment which was not even mentioned. The IPCC Assessment Report Summary for Policy Makers says: “Sea ice is projected to shrink in both the Arctic and Antarctic under all SRES scenarios. In some projections arctic late-summer sea ice disappears almost entirely by the latter part of the 21st Century” (my emphasis). The Working Group1 report Chapter says “the coupled models show a range of responses in Northern Hemisphere sea ice area extent ranging from very little change to a strong and accelerating reduction over the 21st century” but as shown in the accompanying chart no projection shows an ice free summer before 2070.

* Prof Wadhams’ assertion that “the temperature” has been rising was accepted by your programme makers uncritically. As was his almost meaningless phrase that “parts of the Arctic Ocean are as warm in summer as the North Sea in winter” (very cold in my experience!) In fact the remarkable thing has been the unchanging arctic temperature in summer – see appended charts. Global warming may be supplying heat to melt ice but it has not raised the temperature and a major factor affecting ice cover is wind blowing the ice out of the Arctic Ocean.

* I was assured beforehand that, although the peg for the programme would be the fact that the area of arctic has reached a record low it would be made clear that this constituted a record only for the period covered by satellite measurement. That fact was barely mentioned. Moreover, no mention was made of previous periods of Arctic warming/low ice cover – and the similar alarm to which they gave rise. For example, between the World Wars there was a period of warming and summer melting giving rise to reports like this by the US Weather Bureau in 1922 “The Arctic ocean is warming up, icebergs are growing scarcer and in some places the seals are finding the water too hot. Reports all point to a radical change in climate conditions and hitherto unheard-of temperatures in the Arctic zone. Expeditions report that scarcely any ice has been met with as far north as 81 degrees 29 minutes. Great masses of ice have been replaced by moraines of earth and stones, while at many points well known glaciers have entirely disappeared.” Likewise, the President of the Royal Society reported to the Admiralty in 1817 “A considerable change of climate, inexplicable at present to us, [has] taken place in the polar regions, … the cold that .. for centuries past enclosed the seas in the high northern latitudes in an impenetrable barrier of ice has during the last two years, greatly abated [so] the arctic seas may at this time be more accessible than they have been for centuries past”.

* Even if these previous periods of low ice cover were not due to warming they would have caused the same powerful albedo effect as predicted by Prof Wadhams. Yet he was not challenged as to why that did not then occur. Were your experts unaware of this evidence or did they deliberately ignore it? That question is not rhetorical. Please could I have a reply to it.

* I understand that the BBC has a rule that contentious material must not rely on a single source. Yet the preamble seemed to rely on Wadhams as its sole source.

3. Systemic bias in BBC approach

The most worrying aspect of this episode is the systemic bias it reveals in the BBC’s handling of climate change evidence. The BBC has taken the position that the views of ‘climate sceptics’ will not be given airtime since the science has been settled by the IPCC. That does not affect me personally since my challenge is to the economics not the science. Nonetheless the BBC should be even handed. Most climate sceptics do not deny either that the climate has warmed or that increasing levels of CO2 will raise the global temperature other things being equal. They merely argue that the increase will be smaller than the IPCC suggests, is less certain and that other things may not be equal.

If their views are not worth broadcasting why is prominence given to those who dispute the IPCC consensus by asserting that warming will be greater, more certain and sooner than the IPCC projections? Inevitably the BBC lays itself open to the charge not just of inconsistency but of backing the side of the argument which gives ammunition to those of the statist, liberal left persuasion who want to control every aspect of the economy – a position with which the BBC has allowed itself to be associated.

I note that the BBC Environment analyst Roger Harrabin has challenged newly appointed Ministers to state whether or not they ‘accept the IPCC assessment of the threat of global warming’. That is the test of orthodoxy the BBC demands of ministers suspected of scepticism. Why is no similar test applied to alarmists whose claims conflict with the IPCC? Instead they are endorsed by the BBC.

Of course the IPCC assessment may be wrong in one direction or another. But the BBC cannot credibly suppress the views of those who think the IPCC too alarmist while promoting those who think it too cautious. So far as I am aware the BBC has never even referred to the Council of National Science Academies’ criticism of the IPCC “for emphasising the negative impacts of climate change … and reporting high confidence in some statements for which there is little evidence”.

I note that the BBC is to devote a whole programme to Professor Wadhams’ alarmist views (complete with obligatory pictures of polar bears and melting icebergs). Will there be any critical balance?

I would be most grateful if you would look into these complaints.

Yours sincerely

Peter Lilley
Rt Hon Peter Lilley MP
Member of Parliament for Hitchin and Harpenden