Red herrings in the desert

By Tim Hunter

I grew up with David Attenborough. His programmes inspired awe, wonder and a thirst for knowledge. But now I find myself despairing every time a new programme is released as the underlying message that runs through every programme has become dogmatic and unscientific. However, I do try to watch with my 12 year old son, in the hope he would be as inspired by nature as I was at his age by Sir David and I bite my tongue whenever Climate Change is mentioned. A bit like enjoying the hymns on Songs of Praise but ignoring the God bit. In his recent series of Planet Earth II I confess I steered clear of it as much as possible as the pulpit mantras were spoiling the spectacle. But I did catch the end of his programme on deserts and I couldn’t contain my anger at the blatant untruth spoken as if it were gospel. So I complained to the BBC.

Here is my complaint:

Complaint to the BBC 29th November 2016

Full Complaint: During the programme “Planet Earth II: Deserts” David Attenborough states at 47 minutes, 40 seconds: “But our planet is changing. The worlds’ deserts are growing bigger, hotter and drier and they’re doing so faster than ever before.” This is factually inaccurate and without evidence. There are many studies (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1029/2005GL024370/full and many others) showing that the Sahara is shrinking and greening as it gains more water. As it greens, (according to NASA Earth Observatory) its temperature reduces. There is no empirical evidence that deserts are getting hotter, we simply do not have enough historical data and limited present data to draw such a conclusion, indeed satellite data clearly shows they are not during the period of satellite temperature monitoring. Further, the expectation from climate models is that the Sahara may return to savannah as a consequence of global warming. “Doing so faster than ever before” implies we know the speed of desertification occurring in the past as well as the present. Can the BBC please provide empirical data for both? The programme series is an excellent, indeed incredible, overview of our planet flora and fauna but it is biased with an agenda that spoils its factual overview. I can provide data to show that the original statement is false, misleading and biased and it is of great concern that the BBC is reporting and broadcasting without fact checking.

I received this automated response on 29th November 2016:

Dear Mr Hunter

Thanks for contacting the BBC. This is an automated acknowledgement to confirm we’ve received the attached complaint sent in this name. We’ve included the text of the complaint and a case reference for your records (see below).

We’ll normally include this text in our overnight report to BBC staff of all the complaints and other reaction we have received today (with your personal details removed). This means it will reach the right people by tomorrow morning. We’ll do our best to reply as soon as we can, but the time needed will depend on the nature of your complaint. If we’re not able to respond as soon as we’d like (usually within 10 working days) we’ll let you know.

I then received an update on 7th December 2016 as follows:

Thanks for contacting the BBC. 

This update is to let you know that we referred your complaint to the relevant people, but that it may take us a little longer before we can send our reply.

Please do not contact us in the meantime, although if you need to get in touch you can use our webform (please quote your reference number). This is an automated email sent from an unmonitored account so you cannot reply to this address. 

Although we reply to most complaints within 10 working days (around 2 weeks), we cannot achieve this every time. It not only depends on what your complaint was about, but also on how many others we are handling and sometimes may instead be due to more practical issues, such as whether a production team is available or perhaps away on location.

If there are other complaints about the same issue, our reply is likely to be the same to everyone. We may not investigate in detail if it seems there has not been a substantive breach of standards, in order to use the licence fee efficiently. Full details of our complaints procedures are at www.bbc.co.uk/complaints/handle-complaint/

In the meantime thank you for contacting us – we appreciate your patience.

Kind regards

BBC Complaints Team

I had forgotten about it during the Christmas holidays but remembered late in January that I hadn’t had any further reply so I wrote again on 22nd January 2017 complaining I had had no response and regurgitated my original complaint:

YOUR COMPLAINT:

Complaint Summary: I haven’t received a response

Full Complaint: During the programme “Planet Earth II: Deserts” David Attenborough states at 47 minutes, 40 seconds: “But our planet is changing. The worlds’ deserts are growing bigger, hotter and drier and they’re doing so faster than ever before.” This is factually inaccurate and without evidence. There are many studies (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1029/2005GL024370/full and many others) showing that the Sahara is shrinking and greening as it gains more water. As it greens, (according to NASA Earth Observatory) its temperature reduces. There is no empirical evidence that deserts are getting hotter, we simply do not have enough historical data and limited present data to draw such a conclusion, indeed satellite data clearly shows they are not during the period of satellite temperature monitoring. Further, the expectation from climate models is that the Sahara may return to savannah as a consequence of global warming. “Doing so faster than ever before” implies we know the speed of desertification occurring in the past as well as the present. Can the BBC please provide empirical data for both? The programme series is an excellent, indeed incredible, overview of our planet flora and fauna but it is biased with an agenda that spoils its factual overview. I can provide data to show that the original statement is false, misleading and biased and it is of great concern that the BBC is reporting and broadcasting without fact checking.

Again, time passed, and it was no longer eating at me, but recently I was delighted to receive a final response to my complaint. They had clearly given it a great deal of thought:

25th March 2017

Dear Mr Hunter

Reference CAS-4116292-1Z07G1

Thanks for contacting us about Planet Earth II on 27 November 2016. Please accept our apologies for the long delay in responding to you.

You were concerned about David Attenborough claiming that deserts are increasing in area due to climate change and increased temperatures.

We contacted the programme team with your comments, who told us:

“The sequence features a variety of images from locations within the biogeographical range of the Nubian ibex, centred around their stronghold, in what is strictly the Arabian Plate. The Arabian Plate corresponds very closely to an area described more commonly, as the Arabian Peninsula. The geology in the northern area where we filmed is very complex with the Arabian and African plate boundaries being reflected by a complex biogeography. We did acknowledge the Ein Gedi location in Israel in the credits.”

We hope this helps and thanks again for your interest in the programme.

Kind regards,

BBC Audience Services

Bizarre. I will pursue my complaint, I will not let them drown me in red herrings and may even write to my local MP who is fortunately Owen Paterson, and whatever else he may be, he is a realist when it comes to climate. This is not public service broadcasting and it is a shocking way to handle serious complaints of bias and factual error.

41 thoughts on “Red herrings in the desert

  1. Tim, Why not try to contact Sir David directly to find the source of his incorrect information? Possibly a wasted effort, but you never know. I would suspect that he was merely regurgitating a mantra fed to him by some jobsworthy. His whole acceptance of the climate change paradigm I’m sure has been upsetting for many who formerly held him in high esteem.

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  2. Tim, Reading again the latest communication you received from the BBC, it looks like what the programme team wrote was in response to some other complainant. They may have got the reply intended for you. If so, then they are probably as perplexed as you are. I wonder what they complained about.

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  3. Alan, contacting Sir David directly did cross my mind but everything I’ve heard him say on the subject leads me to presume he is quite closed on the subject and not open to dialogue, which is crying shame. I agree it appears I have received someone else’s answer, if it isn’t; then they really are playing games. I will take it up again and I will let you know how I got on. Joe, many thanks for those links, it helps to throw documented science at them

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  4. To be honest Phillip, I know it’s a waste of time and I could spend all my waking hours just making complaints but sometimes enough is enough; when something is so wrong and indoctrinating my kids

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  5. Is that a negative feedback on CC? If a reflective desert becomes green, desirable as that may be, it absorbs more energy and increases warming. A positive feedback, in other words.

    [PM: It’s a negative feedback because the increasing plant growth eats up more carbon dioxide, as explained in the first sentence of the abstract of the paper.]

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  6. I wonder when someone will model the increasing use of climate models and their spin-offs. Can’t be long now before the CO2 emissions associated with supercomputer use are tallied up – oh but I forgot climate crunching supercomputers will only be powered by unsustainable/intermittent electricity. Might explain a few things.

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  7. I lost my unfettered admiration of Mr Attenborough when he took us to view, and hear, birds of paradise, only for their unique songs to be totally obliterated by a multi-piece orchestra (not his fault, you might opine, but that of his production team – but, surely, he will have some control of the output?). It sank further when I found that he is a Malthusian, and is all in favour of culling the human race, and as I watched subsequent programmes, to hit what I had thought rock-bottom on the same point about deserts. It fell through the floor when he advocated shortening Mr Trump’s presidency with a bullet.

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  8. Bring back “Animal Magic” I say.

    Mr Attenborough grates with me for the same reasons given above.
    he has become the voice over of choice by the BBC for all nature progs & the b/s his script writers
    get him to spout & the fact he follows the script, means I no longer listen/respect the guy, sad but true.

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  9. Attenborough now just causes sadness. A still great communicator (just listen to most of his commentary for Earth II – he is as good as ever) who transferred his fascination with nature, past and present, to millions, who influenced (probably) tens of thousands to take up science or nature conservation. The good that he has done cannot be expunged by statements he makes in his declining years.

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  10. William.
    Many desert surfaces are not highly reflective, rocks are covered with very dark desert varnish. Also vegetated surfaces tend to be cooler as much of the heat is taken up by evapotranspiration.
    A little knowledge….

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  11. I did my O and A Levels in biology, with the relevant David Attenborough programmes on the school’s BETAMAX video. He was the best then, and those programmes educated 100s of millions around the world.

    I am personally sad and disappointed that his legacy is being tainted by BBC Script Writers.

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  12. For a short while I once thought Attenborough a possible candidate in my so far fruitless search for an admirable CO2 scaremonger but it was not to be. His view of humanity in general, and his crass remark about shooting Trump in particular have put him out of contention, and as illustrated by this post, his ill-informed contributions to the spreading of the disgraceful CO2 Scare degrade his more recent nature programmes. But as Alan notes, he has produced inspirational work in the past and perhaps in some grand reckoning that will be some compensation for the harms he is contributing to now.

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  13. John Shade. You might consider Jim Al-Khalili. He is developing into a superb science communicator (but still spouts the climate change mantra) and may one day be ranked alongside Attenborough. His latest BBC effort upon gravity was, to my mind, a near tour-de-force, ranging from the basics (Galileo and Newton) all the way to gravitational mysticism.

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  14. Alan, this image suggests the Sahara and Sahel are rather reflective: https://www.visibleearth.nasa.gov/view.php?id=60636 Check out your favorite deserts to find one that isn’t.

    Also if you or I or a forest is cooled by evapotranspiration, that is just a transfer of energy (e.g. that absorbed from sunlight) into water vapor. It doesn’t mean the planet is any cooler, does it?

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  15. Len, how much of the high albedo of the Sahara and other deserts is due to radiation losses at night (ie nothing to do with reflectivity)? The dark surfaces of many rocky deserts (the most common type) absorb energy during the day, becoming exceedingly hot, radiating this away at night.
    I note that the boreal forests and tundra, despite being vegetation covered also have high albedo. Why?

    With respect to differences caused by vegetation cover, you are talking about energy transfer, I was talking about temperature. Vegetation keeps temperatures down by transferring heat away as latent heat during evapotranspiration. That’s why oases are more pleasant than the open desert.

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  16. Alan (3:14pm), thanks for the lead. I’ll put him on my candidate list pending further info. So far, I see no signs that he is a CO2 Scaremongering leader, but he may well be a fellow-traveller of that odious cause. A search on his surname at BishopHill produces quite a few reservations about him. He seems to be an establishment figure, well in at the BBC and presumably bright enough to steer clear of ‘climate scepticism’ if he knows what is good for him in those contexts. A shame, really, but like Brian Cox, his main interests are probably far from climate science and neither of them wish to engage in any critical manner with it. Maybe one day they will, but a lot of worms will have to do a lot of turning first to help make that safe for them.

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  17. Alan, you asked “how much of the high albedo of the Sahara and other deserts is due to radiation losses at night (…)?

    The page says:
    “A new sensor aboard NASA’s Terra satellite is now collecting the most detailed and accurate measurements ever made of how much sunlight the Earth’s surface reflects back up into the atmosphere. By quantifying precisely our planet’s reflectivity, or albedo, the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) is helping scientists better understand and predict how various surface features influence both short-term weather patterns as well as longer-term climate trends. (Click to read the press release.)

    The colors in this image emphasize the albedo over the Earth’s land surfaces, ranging from 0.0 to 0.4. Areas colored red show the brightest, most reflective regions; yellows and greens are intermediate values; and blues and violets show relatively dark surfaces. White indicates where no data were available, and no albedo data are provided over the oceans. This image was produced using data composited over a 16-day period, from April 7-22, 2002.”

    So they are measuring the amount of sunlight reflected. Why would they do that on the dark side of the orbit?

    And you asked, “I note that the boreal forests and tundra, despite being vegetation covered also have high albedo. Why?”

    I don’t really know, but I’d guess there was still plenty of snow in April 2002. Do you have a better explanation? Does vegetation have high albedo? The yellows and greens over Europe, South America and Africa imply not.

    I’m not sure where you are going with the evapotranspiration argument.

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  18. More red herrings in the desert: I’ve hitch-hiked across the Sahara and motorbiked across Saudi and around Egypt’s Western Desert and in my experience oases are usually the least pleasant parts of such journeys. (And I spoke a bit of Arabic in those days. Godnose how it would go now.)

    Re the OP: Desert areas and those that are vulnerable to desertification *have* seen rising temperatures. Look at Berkeley’s view of Saudi, for example:

    http://berkeleyearth.lbl.gov/regions/saudi-arabia

    Better to concentrate on the real current causes of desertification: bad governance, bad pastoralism, bad agriculture and even bad firewood-gathering.

    And on the current inability of regional climate models to agree about the Sahara’s future climate,

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  19. Len. I concede now that some deserts are highly reflective (friend Wikki now tells me so) but I don’t know why. Why is the Sahara so reflective, whereas the Atacama Desert (arguably dryer) apparently much less so? Rocks absorb heat during the day and re-radiate this in the earlier part of the night. This commonly leads to the surfaces cooling to well below the dew point, allowing condensation to occur even from the relatively low humidity desert atmospheres. (In a blog discussion with Radical Rodent, she reports seeing ice forming on desert surfaces). I have seen desert surfaces covered with water (from dew) in the early mornings and believe desert vegetation gets much of its water from this source.

    Your speculation regarding the high reflectivities of boreal forests doesn’t really compute. There seems to be little difference in the image between areas covered by conifer forests (with trees designed to shed snow) and tundra where April snow might still cover the ground. If it is due to snow, why don’t all snow covered mountainous areas have high albedos? You can hardly discern the Andes. Similarly you might expect a significant difference between the albedo of equatorial forests and savannah/steppes. You can hardly separate them.

    I conclude that I don’t understand much about the reflectivity of the Earth as shown by that image. My taunt about “a little knowledge…” has come back to haunt me.

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  20. Dear Pedant, please note that I have already drawn attention to my culpability (9.12am). But if you are so very knowledgeable, please explain how a satellite-borne instrument can measure the proportion of the sun’s energy reflected from locations north of the Arctic Circle in December or January? I am very suspicious of this data set, presumably you are not.

    My experience of working in Egypt is that the vegetated Nile Valley is more comfortable than immediately neighbouring full desert, which feels considerably hotter. Working in the Eastern Desert I never had to wear sunglasses in rocky or reg-covered areas, whereas they were essential in sand-covered regions, where the reflections can be dazzling. Rocky areas also contain cavities between rocks that should act as near black bodies absorbing most of the incoming radiation. So my apparently incorrect belief that open rocky deserts should not so reflective is supported by some first-hand observations and deductions. I still do not understand why such deserts should be so reflective, and why different deserts seemingly reflect so differently. Perhaps you could help?

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  21. The poisonous mindset of the Malthusian/climate extremist is barely worth the trouble of engaging. Nut my hat is off to you for 5along the trouble to at least engage with the BBC and the their wretched devolution into a shallow reactionary anti-scientific organization. As to desert reflectivity, my bet is that physical geography and geology account for much reflectivity difference.

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  22. Man in a barrel, I believe the Graun is reporting that some Aussis are saying that parts of the GBR have died. I doubt that the Graun has a GBR reporter. Some of the videos of white ghostly reefs are very impressive.

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  23. This is funny – the Guardian has now changed its mind:

    No, the Great Barrier Reef is not dead in the water. Not yet

    I watched this Great Barrier Reef story unfold, and what started out as quite a conservative bit of science reporting quickly morphed into something else.

    “Oh Christ,” I thought, “James Delingpole is going to love this.” Skip forward a few hours and the columnist did his thing on Breitbart – don’t go looking for it, but let’s just say I was proved right. For a bleached reef is not a dead reef as you no doubt know – and the climate-change deniers have enjoyed the chance to throw around more allegations of “scaremongering” and their accusations that “Greenies don’t do science” – which is, of course, ridiculous.

    The Delingpole article they really do not want you to read is here.

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  24. Alan, whatever the exact reflectivity of deserts, does it not seem likely that greening, through CO2 fertilization or otherwise, would make it darker? In other words, more energy absorbed and less reflected to hurt the eyes.

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  25. Len. Actually your question I should now acknowledge is beyond my pay grade (and competence?). I have been paying particular attention to pictures of desert surfaces on news items over the past few days and, apart from mobile sands, they are invariably dark. Given that many xerophyllic plants have silvery leaves, it is uncertain (in my mind) that your assertion is correct, but I just don’t know.

    What is probable is that if desert greening is entirely a result of CO2 fertilization and is not accompanied by additional water supply (rainfall or condensation), then water supplies in deserts (actually semi-deserts) are lessening as a consequence of increased evaportranspiration losses. I have noticed this in several deserts (Australia, Middle East, North Africa and the USA) where water is more easily obtained from dried out water courses without trees, than from tree-lined examples. Rather counterintuitive.

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  26. My family had a collection of cacti (zerophiles) and they were all green. Except for their surprising flowers, which occasionally made a wonderful appearance. Like you, botany is beyond my level; I once had a cactus that i was rather fond of which had a permanent flower. It was only when moving house that I noticed that the flower was stuck on.

    All that said, the dogma is that greening will darken deserts and I’ve not seen anything that can contest that. After all, as you said, caves might a like black bodies and the gaps between leaves act like tiny caves.

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  27. The Guardian has flip-flopped again! The story linked above that used to say “No, the Great Barrier Reef is not dead in the water. Not yet”, as seen in this tweet,

    now has the headline “We must act immediately to save the Great Barrier Reef”!

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  28. As Alan Kendall noted a week ago (4th comment 05 Apr 17 at 5:16 pm) you got the reply to someone else. It’s interesting to speculate what goes on in the mind of an organisation like the BBC in a case like this. Some nutter has a bee in his bonnet about the biogeographical range of the Nubian ibex. Some other nutter is upset that the governments and the media of the entire planet are obsessed with a fanatasy problem of global warming. They’re both nutters, therefore it doesn’t much matter who gets which reply.

    Excuse me, BBC (UN, EU, 200 government signatories of COP21, Western media) but this is not an honest error. Anyone can get the biogeographical range of the Nubian ibex wrong, and stand corrected. Saying “we’re doomed” when we’re not and the data proves it is not in the same class.

    Keep up the good fight. And let’s all keep thinking about how to do it better.

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  29. ..“Act to stop bleaching in the vasty deep!”
    But why believe such action will succeed?..

    ‘Act’ here means ‘pay us some money’….

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  30. Oh, and I managed to get the BBC to admit that they were wrong once!

    They had an item on Chernobyl, claiming that it would be uninhabitable for, if memory serves, around 50,000 years. I complained that there were actually still people living there, who had refused to move.

    They changed their web page to read “Some parts of Chernobyl would be uninhabitable for 50,000 years”. I presume by this they meant the insides of the reactor. Still, it was a small victory…

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