- 01 октября 2013, 23:30
How can letting a geologist appear as a legitimate climate scientist to ridicule the IPCC report be in the public interest?
Outside his native Australia, Bob Carter is hardly a household name. But last Friday his gravelly brogue was inescapable, at least for anyone tuned to BBC radio news bulletins. The news in question was the finding by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that human activity is "extremely likely" to be the dominant cause of the global warming that is "unequivocally" taking place.
At breakfast time, Radio 4's Today programme informed listeners that despite extensive efforts, the BBC had been unable to find a single British scientist willing to challenge the IPCC's findings. At that point the BBC might have concluded that the IPCC's views represent an overwhelming consensus and left it at that.
Instead, BBC news editors evidently cast their net wider. By lunchtime World at One was introducing Prof Carter as an Australian geologist, speaking for the "Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change", or NIPCC. Someone who is not a climate scientist, in other words, representing a Not-The-IPCC body. Indeed, it turns out that the NIPCC is backed by the Heartland Institute, a US-based free-market thinktank that opposes urgent action on climate change.
In a remarkable interview that dominated the entire World at One coverage, Carter poured scorn on the IPCC's findings. He drew on his geological expertise to argue that there was no more point in trying to mitigate climate change than in trying to prevent earthquakes. He claimed that, unlike the intensively peer-reviewed findings of more than 800 IPCC researchers, the NIPCC's work was truly independent, while cheerfully admitting that family foundations in America paid for it. He implied that it represented a widely held scholarly view, pointing to "around 47" scientific collaborators. He did not specify how many of these were climate scientists.
In words graven above the entrance to the old Broadcasting House, the BBC's first governors dedicated themselves to the dissemination of "whatsoever things are honest and of good report". To present Carter as an authoritative commentator on climate science may not be downright dishonest. But it is certainly not of good report. By the most generous standards it is a serious lapse if not a betrayal of the editorial professionalism on which the BBC's reputation has been built over generations.
In 2011 the BBC Trust invited Prof Steve Jones of University College London to review the impartiality and accuracy of the BBC's science coverage. In the case of climate change, Jones found that there had indeed been a tendency towards "false impartiality … too often, bodies it turns to in such discussions have a social and political rather than a scientific agenda".
With one purely organisational exception, the BBC at the time accepted Jones's recommendations. It is therefore puzzling that David Jordan, the BBC's head of editorial standards, should this year have gone out of his way, when giving evidence to MPs, to say that Jones had "made one recommendation that we did not take on board. He said we should regard climate science as settled … we should not hear from dissenting voices on the science of climate change."
In fact, Jones made no such recommendation. He had, in effect, merely urged the BBC not to give an undeserved appearance of scientific authority to those with no supporting credentials. So why did Jordan go to the trouble of repudiating him? Could it have anything to do with the "long meetings" about climate change he revealed he had recently conducted with Lord Lawson and Peter Lilley, both well known for their lack of scientific credentials and their robust critiques of the views the IPCC has now endorsed?
As Danny Boyle recognised in his much-applauded Olympic ceremony last year, the BBC is part of who we are in Britain. For some time, and unconnected with climate change, vultures have been circling around it. The BBC should now explain how its decision to give such a platform to Carter serves the public interest. Otherwise it will be undermining its friends when it needs them most, and throwing the scavengers a piece of its own flesh.