“You Don’t Know Anything About It”

Unlike economic recession and wars, which pass, climate change does not, and there are deadlines if we want to avoid a point of no return. In fact, scientists calculate that Obama has four years in which to save the world.

That was BBC Newsnight’s Science Editor Susan Watts reporting in January 2009. It was the scientists’ starkest possible warning yet. Impressively, climatologists had managed to reduce Barack Obama to a number, feed him into their models and work out the precise length of time he would need to avert the end of the world.

Well, almost a decade later it’s easy to laugh, although maybe we shouldn’t. Quite a few things have shifted, in the arena of geopolitics anyway, but what has remained much the same is the quality of journalism at the BBC. On Monday 8th October 2018 Newsnight was again sounding the alarm about climate change, following the release of the IPCC’s latest report, and a time traveller from 2008 to this turbulent and strange era would have found it reassuringly familiar. Some things, it seems, are resistant to change.

Chris Cook, Policy Editor at Newsnight:

Some of the official predictions made about climate change sound biblical in scale. More drought, more famine, more flooding, more of the most powerful tropical cyclones – and of course, the seas rising. A familiar litany, and one, they say, we need to do more to fight. Something that will need rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society. Our current no-action path is like this – rising carbon emissions. And that would take us to a more than 4-degree rise by 2100.

Now that half-a-degree change may not sound like much. But scientists think it could radically reduce the harm done to our world by climate change. The thing is, though, to get there we have to reduce our net carbon emissions to zero by the year 2050. And that means huge changes to the way that we live. To how we get around, to how we generate electricity, to how we arrange our cities, to what we wear – even to what we eat.

After that the show has two parts, the first in which presenter Evan Davis brings on arch climate baddie Myron Ebell, ostensibly to enquire whether the IPCC report will have any effect on the current US administration, but actually just to mock. It’s a bit of theatre more than anything else, a prologue to the studio discussion that follows, and I don’t think Davis is really interested in what Ebell and the US administration think about the report, because he just knows they are wrong about everything.

But the dialogue is still revealing. At several points, Myron Ebell, who has been asked about policy, starts to talk about the climate models running too hot and is promptly – and rudely – shut down by Davis.

… I don’t want to hear your argument that the science is wrong, because you don’t know anything about it…

This is predictable territory and we’ve been here before with Nigel Lawson on the radio – it’s a case of you’re not a scientist and yet “you’re trying to show you know more about the science than the scientists!”

It’s an obvious tactic. The BBC won’t bring in a statistician like Ross McKitrick or a climatologist such as Judith Curry who might say something off-message about the climate models, preferring to hear instead from others, like the Tyndall Centre’s Corrine Le Quere, who think the models are just fine. The only critics occasionally allowed on are non-scientists – and the beauty of it is that their points can be automatically dismissed because they are not scientists. Effectively, the debate is over before it’s properly begun, each time.

Yet even that might not be enough, these days. This edition of Newsnight has triggered another round of soul-searching at the BBC, with James Stephenson (News Editor, BBC News and Current Affairs) being grilled by Radio 4’s Roger Bolton on Feedback for giving the likes of Myron Ebell any airtime at all. Bolton has the following to say on recent developments:

BBC staff are also being encouraged to enrol on a course detailing the do’s and don’ts of covering climate change. All of which is rather timely since on Monday the UN’s IPCC – the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – published a stark warning that urgent action was needed to avoid a global catastrophe. Cue a steady stream of politicians and scientists filling the BBC airwaves with their take on the significance of the report and what actions need to be taken – with no deniers anywhere, on radio at least. Some listeners and green campaigners see that as a distinct change in tone from the BBC, compared with previous times when the issue has been in the news, and they welcome it.

So catch these fleeting moments while you can. (NB. I recommend the blog isthebbcbiased for its excellent and thoughtful – and often gently humorous – commentary on BBC bias.)

Ebell, though, makes a valid point about the IPCC – as a political organisation:

It’s meant to be a promotional body, it’s not meant to be an objective scientific advisor – if you go back and look from Day 1, it has been a promoter, not a neutral scientific body.

This is lost on Davis who says, a few moments later:

Do you ever think there may be a small chance that the scientists have simply done the work, straightforwardly looked at their results, published their results in an open-minded and unbiased way, and presented their conclusions? ‘Cause really you’re just saying either you know more or that they are somehow lying to us about what they really have found and what they believe.

If he had done some fact-checking, as journalists used to do in olden times, Evan Davis could have realised that his model of how the IPCC works and how its reports are delivered to the world might be more than a little naive (and that’s being charitable). For a start, what the BBC and other media outlets have been using as their source is the Summary for Policymakers, a document that is edited, rewritten and approved by non-scientists such as lawyers and diplomats (see this article – and others – by Donna Laframboise for some of the detail). So in other words, it’s not the scientists setting an agenda and telling us how we should arrange our cities and what we should eat – this is the realm of policy, where policymakers past and present such as Myron Ebell and Nigel Lawson clearly do have the right to opine, according to the BBC, even though it may not hold their opinions in high regard.

A wider failure, however, is the wholesale lack of curiosity as to what exactly has changed since the last report of its kind. What new knowledge has brought on this shift from a 2-degree red line down to 1.5 degrees? Where are the workings-out? Where is it precisely that “they say, we need to do more” and what is that based upon? It would be unreasonable to expect paid BBC journos to go into the subject matter as deeply as Donna Laframboise, Jaime Jessop, Geoff Chambers, Ben Pile or Paul Matthews, but there is ample scope for more than a few searching questions. Why not bring a scientist such as Myles Allen (prominent IPCC contributor) onto the programme and make him sweat a little?

But none of this wrong sort of analysis gets airtime. The science is not to be questioned or even teased out in any great detail – it would be like someone bothering Moses about why there were no more or no fewer than Ten Commandments or whether “no other gods before me” implied that there were indeed other gods and if so, what might Baal, Moloch and the rest have to say about Yahweh and his attitude, and so forth. It would just not be the done thing to talk back.

Instead, all the discussion is about how we should implement this edict from on high whilst trying to avoid the uncomfortable truth that reducing “our net carbon emissions to zero by the year 2050” is (short of something like a modern equivalent of the Black Death) clearly unfeasible.

No, the way to do it, according to Bryony Worthington, is – as ever – collective action and to keep the message “coming across loud and clear” – “we’ve got the lead story and that’s where it should stay until we really make progress”. But the BBC and other activists have been very “loud and clear” about it for at least a decade and rather than spurring collective action (that messy realm of policy again) their tin-eared stridency has, if anything, contributed to a growing public indifference about climate change.

And outside the self-sealing BBC bubble, in the mass media outlets that need to pay closer attention to what their customers are interested in, climate is not the lead story for very long, nowadays. Less than a week later, co-leader of the Green Party Siân Berry was on the Andrew Marr Show, expressing her disappointment that this new “starkest possible warning” was nowhere to be found in the Sunday papers – except for a single story in the Observer. On page 6.

I’ll give the penultimate word to Nigel Tufnel of the fictitious band Spinal Tap:

You’re on 10 on your guitar. Where can you go from there? Where? … Nowhere, exactly. What we do is if we need that extra push over the cliff, you know what we do? … 11. Exactly.

The trouble is, for the BBC and fellow band members, the volume is set to 11 already (and no bum notes allowed!) but the world isn’t following them over the cliff quickly enough. Where can they go from there? 12, maybe?

Well, I suppose they now have 12 years to try and figure that out. It will be interesting.


  1. Robert Murphy on switching targets down from 2C to 1.5C.
    “One of the recurring themes of my work on the economics of climate change is that the very people who lecture the world on the dangers of “science denial” don’t actually follow their own advice. The recent announcement of the Nobel Prize in Economics, along with the release of the UN’s latest IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report, illustrates my claim perfectly. Specifically, William Nordhaus just won the Nobel for his work on basically inventing the economics of climate change. But while Nordhaus’ model shows that even a ceiling of 2° Celsius is too aggressive—with the costs outweighing the benefits—the media breathlessly tells the world that the latest “science” from the IPCC shows humanity that we have about a decade to implement draconian measures if we are going to achieve the goal of limiting warming to 1.5°Celsius.”

    “For starters (and I thank David R. Henderson for reminding me of this salient point), as of DICE-2007 (i.e., Nordhaus’ model back in 2007), the climate goal of limiting global warming to 1.5°C was a horrible policy, which would make humanity $14 trillion (in present-value terms, in 2005 US$) poorer than doing nothing at all. (See Table 4 of my article to see the details.)”

    “Now it’s true that the numbers have changed since 2007, and Nordhaus’ model would no longer give such a pessimistic assessment. However, back in 2013 Nordhaus argued in his then-new book on climate change that the optimal policy (depending on assumptions regarding participation among the world’s governments, etc.) would limit global warming from 2.3°C up to nearly 4°C, as Paul Krugman admits in his review of the book.”

    My synopsis of Murphy’s critique of the latest IPCC demands is https://rclutz.wordpress.com/2018/10/21/ipcc-freakonomics/

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think I discovered why the BBC chose to interview Ebell as a representative of the denierosphere. The Wiki article on Ebell quotes him as saying that a paper by Karl and Trenberth was “…nothing new — it’s just kind of a summary of what the establishment thinks is true”. The reference for this is an article written in 2004 by Liisa Antilla which you can find at
    The 14-year-old paper goes on:

    [According to Ebell] the warming of recent decades is not surprising since the planet had been in a ‘little ice age’ until the early 19th century y It isn’t much to worry about. The press coverage of Ebell’s views has not been limited to the US. A recent article relating to climate sceptics in the Independent (UK) reported that on BBC Radio 4 Ebell declared that Sir David King, chief scientific advisor to the government of the United Kingdom,45 ‘is an alarmist with ridiculous views who knows nothing about climate change’ (Connor, 17 January 2005).

    From the Connor article, which can be found at https://100777.com/node/1151

    In an interview with The Independent, Sir David King said he was being
followed around the world by people in the pay of vested-interest
groups that want to cast doubt on the science of climate change…

    Since then, he has given many lectures to international audiences but
found individuals among them who are there solely to create the
impression that he is presenting biased information.

    “They’ll be in the audience to stand up and raise questions to get
into the audience’s mind that I haven’t represented a balanced view,”
he said. “You have a group of lobbyists, some of whom are chasing me around the planet…” 
Sir David said.

    So BBC Radio Four has had Ebell on their files for over a decade as a mad troll paid to chase our Chief Scientific Advisor round the planet harrassing him. No wonder they chose him to interview.


  3. It is long, long past time for victims of the sanctimonious consensus parrots to face them down when they pull their bankrupt stale rhetorical games.
    It would have been fabulous for Ebell, to calmly day, “Well actually I do, and please don’t interrupt me again.” And to to simply talk over the parrot posing as a journalist.


  4. will the BBC be the last media out post that ‘really really’ ‘cares’ about climate change?

    Skeptical Science (Dana N.) lose their 97% consensus blog (as do the other bloggers) – I remember actually applying for one!

    “Note: this will be our final entry on Climate Consensus – the 97%. The Guardian has decided to discontinue its Science and Environment blogging networks. We would like to thank this great paper for hosting us over the past five years, and to our readers for making it a worthwhile and rewarding endeavor.”



  5. Alex, that was a meal served cold.
    Yet Ebell was right then and us right still. Meanwhile the BBC has only gotten further down the stupidification spectrum.


  6. Moonbat was furious about having an “arch denier” on Newsnight, and said something similar to Alex at the end of his tweet: “Nothing learnt, nothing remembered”.

    The Independent has a “news” article claiming that the BBC was “condemned” for inviting Ebell on. Which means they asked a bunch of climate activists (Mark Lynas, Bob Ward…) what they thought. A fine example of fabricated news.

    But at the end of that article there’s an interesting quote from BBC DG Tony Hall:

    “So, no equivalence between the climate change sceptic – and the overwhelming consensus of scientific opinion. But no exclusion of viewpoints because they’re generally felt to be beyond the pale. We won’t give in to pressure to silence dissenting voices – nor allow those voices to be seen as mainstream.”


  7. “On Monday 8th November 2018 Newsnight was…”

    Would that be October?

    [Thanks, fixed. PM]

    [Thanks, Robert and Paul! As soon as I had written the words “fact-checking”, should have known that Muphry’s Law would leap into action. :D]


  8. Our post-rational journalists in large part have embraced silencing dissenting voices. This speaks volumes about what the political groups they align with were after when they were the ones demanding and receiving tolerance and non-judgemental acceptance.


  9. As I remember it, Myron Ebell was interviewed on Newsnight back in 2006 by Jeremy Paxman, and Ebell had to withstand a ‘hatchet job’-type interview. After some effort, I managed to find a video of the interview:


    Ebell was attacked for his CEI organisation supposedly receiving funding from Big Oil, and for him not being a scientist, which Paxman seemed to think disqualified him from speaking on science-related issues.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Alex:

    The extraordinary job title Newsnight Policy Editor (only Purnell could have thought it up?) tells us so much about the BBC ‘s recognition that they are in big, big trouble over impartiality (pace the Bridcut and Prebble reports spanning more than 10 years and never really acted on). Is there another such personage Policy Editor anywhere? Would any other outfit seriously practising journalism need one?

    The challenge for Auntie is that in order even to begin to confront the problem effectively they first have to admit publicly that there is a problem. How does an immense, and extremely valuable global brand, which is founded on its erstwhile outstanding journalism, do that without bringing down the whole edifice? Trying to apply a sticking plaster by creating yet another post with a funny name is just an admission of failure.

    Your excursion into Biblical territory is fun. It reminds me of the aphorism attributed to G. K. Chesterton that ‘If people cease to believe in God they will believe anything’. That says a lot about the in which our attitude to the natural world has changed since the enlightenment, but unfortunately closer inspection reveals that (according to the Chesterton Society) in order to produce such a telling quotation it was necessary to scavenge two sentences in two different works by the author and join up the useful bits. Ah me!


  11. @ Dave, many thanks indeed for the video link – another for the collection…

    @ Tony, greenery would seem to be a poor substitute for traditional faith, despite its occasional religious trappings. Where’s the promise and the joy? It’s like signing up for perpetual Lent, without the prospect of Easter ever arriving.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. I would guess Myron Ebel knows a little more about climate science than this SR15 author:

    Stephen HUMPHREYS
    Stephen is also a Lecturer in the Department of Law at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). He has edited a book on climate change and human rights.

    Or this one, Maria Virginia VILARIñO
    Energy & Climate Manager at Argentinean Business Council for Sustainable Development

    Or my own favourite, Linda STEG
    Professor of Environmental Psychology.In 1996 she gained her PhD at the University of Groningen with a thesis entitled ‘Gedragsverandering ter vermindering van het autogebruik’ [Behavioural change to reduce car use]

    They are of course, unlike Ebell, amongst the World’s Top Climate Scientists.


  13. Alex,
    “Always Lent, never Easter”. That is very insightful, thanks.
    The author of the book where saving a land trapped in “Always winter, never Christmas” was an important part of the story would have approved, I bet.
    You hit on something important. The climate obsession, besides being anti-scientific and destructive of prosperity, is also damaging to the human spirit.


  14. almost a decade later it’s easy to laugh

    Some of us were laughing then. Panicking over a few molecules of a trace gas – give us a break.


  15. In reply to TonyN:

    I looked around for some information regarding the ‘policy editor’ for Newsnight, and they seem to be advertising for a new one (applications required to be submitted by Nov 21st).


    From the job advert:

    “Role Responsibility

    The Policy Editor is a central member of Newsnight’s team, making sense of UK policy. As a leading specialist brief the candidate must bring in original stories on a regular basis in the form of interviews, analysis and breaking lines.

    This is a prominent on air role that will involve fronting reports and packages, appearing live in the studio, conducting interviews, writing a blog and maintaining a lively social media presence.

    Are you the right candidate?

    You will provide in-depth expert analysis and original stories about high profile Policy issues and live events, putting them into context and interpreting wider implications.

    You will look beyond the daily news agenda and use your subject matter expertise and contacts to generate original journalism and analysis, finding the next story or developing a new angle for the BBC.

    The On Air Editor’s coverage, interpretation and opinions will inform and influence public opinion and influence the news agenda.

    You will be able to work under pressure, make valid decisions quickly and manage your time both under stress and on longer films.”

    It looks like the ‘policy’ that they’re talking about is ‘UK policy’, or trying to understand which way political events are going.


  16. @Alex & last poster Dave

    Alex – bit OT but have seen the Polar Bear Spat the Guardian has been covering –


    last one states as the header – “Polar bear numbers in Canadian Arctic pose threat to Inuit, controversial report says”

    they have it under the “Canada” section, which seems odd as we all know the WWF thinks they need saved because of MMCC & want us all to adopt one for a small fee per year.

    @Dave – “making sense of UK policy” for the BEEB seems second place to covering everything Brexit & what Trump is tweeting/doing (never remember the US covered so much, like every day).

    and for BBC local news in my area how fracking is causing earthquakes & how the activists are climate local heroes & if your cause is just you can protest/block roads etc & have any sentence quoshed if your defence is “it was for the children/planet”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.