TL;DR David Attenborough’s “Climate Change – the Facts” was unbalanced. It failed to mention twelve key facts. It also failed to interview experts whose views on energy policy have, rightly, been informed by these facts.
In its pre-prepared defence of the programme, already used as a stock response to at least three complaints we know of, the BBC has said:
Climate Change – the Facts represented the work of a wide range of scientists from the UK and US, as well as other countries, demonstrating the scale and scope of scientific endeavour and thinking around this complex subject.
Inevitably in a 60 minute programme there were some subject areas which could not be addressed in greater detail or which we did not feature.
We agree that the subject is complex and that 60 minutes isn’t long to cover it. But we strongly disagree that the programme presented the work of a “wide range” of scientists – or indeed of economists and engineers, whose input is equally or more valid in some areas. That no doubt helps to explain why some key facts were completely missed by the programme.
Here are twelve missing facts and, in the process, a number of people who would have helped make sense of them, ensuring the programme was more balanced.
There was no mention of trade-offs in the programme, by Attenborough or anyone else, but it is a fact that they abound in the science, engineering and economics of energy, as we seek to make sense of, and respond to, what we are learning about climate change.
Naomi Oreskes, a historian of science who trained as a geologist, was quoted as follows:
There are many reasons we haven’t acted on climate change. Science is definitely part of the story. The science is complicated.
We agree that the science is complicated. We strongly disagree that “we haven’t acted”. $1.5 trillion a year is a lot of money. The issue is whether the actions taken since man-made global warming came to prominence as an idea, in 1988, have made sense. That depends on whether we’ve been smart enough to make the right trade-offs, based on all the available facts. The following sections give some food for thought on that.
A bit later in the programme Oreskes also said:
It’s actually not that complicated. We need to shift our energy system away from fossil fuels that produce greenhouse gases and towards renewable energies that don’t.
We disagree that this part of the problem is “not that complicated”. The choices at every stage are extremely complex, especially when we take into account the impact on the poorest on the planet. This was expressed powerfully by Bill Gates late last year:
Gates considers those who say the proposed transition to a low carbon economy is easy a worse block to progress even than “climate denial”. We’d argue the denier label has been misleading at best but, in everything else, in a total of three minutes, Gates is streets ahead of anyone in Attenborough’s sixty minutes. So the BBC should have used Bill Gates. Or perhaps got him to present the programme.
2. Deaths from extreme weather events
Bjorn Lomborg tweeted about this in January:
He’s right. This is fact, not speculation. It needs a lot of explaining. But Climate Change – the Facts didn’t mention it. It would have benefited from the input of Lomborg, an economist, on all related trade-offs.
3. Deaths from indoor air pollution
Max Roser wrote this in 2015:
Indoor air pollution is by far the biggest environmental problem of the world. Every year, 4.3 million people die due to the exposure to household air pollution caused by indoor open fire. To bring this in perspective: This is 45-times the number of the global annual deaths from natural catastrophes … And much more than twice the number of people dying because of AIDS (1.5 million in 2013). It is probably the most unreported of the world’s big problems.
But the world’s biggest environmental problem was something else not mentioned by Climate Change – the Facts. How is it relevant? Once the poor have reliable 24-hour electricity these agonising deaths, many of them of young children, are eliminated. Which sets up vitally important trade-offs with all the other things we may wish to achieve with energy policy.
4. Global greening
The distinguished English-born physicist Freeman Dyson said the following in a conversation with filmmaker Marijn Poels in 2016:
Dyson: Roughly speaking there are two totally different things going on in the natural world. It’s the carbon dioxide in the climate that everybody talks about and there are the ecological effects of carbon dioxide which have nothing to do with climate. Which nobody talks about. They are totally separate and different.
In the case of the climate effects. This is a very complicated set of problems. We don’t understand climate, climate is very complicated and we are only beginning to understand what the effects of carbon dioxide may be. They’re maybe good or they’re maybe bad. But it’s not clear.
But if you look at the non climate effects of carbon dioxide, there is evidence they are very strong. They are easy to observe, easy to measure. They are overwhelmingly beneficial.
Poels: Can you give me an example?
Dyson: The carbon dioxide directly enables the growth of all kinds of plants. So more carbon dioxide means it is good for the wildlife, it’s good for the forests and it’s good for food, for the agriculture all over the world. It saves huge numbers of people from starving. The effects are out of all proportion more serious than the effects of carbon dioxide on climate. And that’s what’s never being said in public.
Poels: So what you are saying is that due to carbon dioxide the world is actually getting greener?
Dyson: Yes, it is getting greener, that is measurable.
Poels: And it has been measured?
But Climate Change – the Facts didn’t mention global greening. (And since Dyson spoke to Poels the news has got even better, with Australian researchers finding that plants are using water more efficiently because of the additional CO2.) This major, measurable benefit of increased atmospheric CO2 needs to play its part in all our energy thinking. Dyson would have been an ideal person to help the programme with this.
5. Fracking and nuclear power
In The Times on Monday 29th April the recently resigned UK commissioner for shale gas, Natascha Engel, wrote
Glueing yourselves to a government building, staging die-ins at Waitrose — these might get climate change to the top of the agenda, but they do nothing to reduce carbon emissions. Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg are clearly passionate about one of the most important issues facing us today, but that does not mean we must condone their methods or agree with their recommendations.
In fact, both are preventing us from dealing with the very thing they say they care so much about. Greta’s plea “to feel the fear I feel every day” and yes, “to panic” because “the house is on fire”, is a recipe for paralysis. Saying that the planet is burning and that mass starvation is at hand can only be counterproductive. Such terrors instils in children a fear of the future and will do nothing to motivate our inventors to find real solutions. But it will hustle politicians into bad decisions — almost certainly to make things worse.
In the past, hasty policy has had us driving now-discredited diesel cars. We are felling tropical forests to make space for palm oil to provide biofuel. We are burning “renewable” wood pellets that are significantly more carbon emitting than the coal they displaced. Now the government, in response to environmental pressure, has instituted a de facto ban on fracking. A temporary regulation has become permanent, requiring fracking to cease for 18 hours every time a micro-tremor is triggered, even though it is essentially imperceptible on the surface.
As the sometime commissioner for shale gas (I resigned over the weekend) it became clear to me that fracking was the only way to reduce our carbon emissions at any sort of scale. Properly regulated, the process is as safe as any other drilling industry. Over a million wells have been fracked in the US in 20 years with no reliable evidence of systemic health problems or pollution. More important, fracking is an essential element in any transition to a renewable future. The scale of that ambition is not generally recognised. If asked, people tend to say about a third of our energy is currently supplied by wind and solar. The real answer is less than 5 per cent.
So disregard the fact that wind and solar need fossil fuel power to back them up in times of calm and cloud — renewables currently provide a negligible amount of energy required. Getting from 5 per cent to 100 per cent renewable energy requires a transition strategy. Fracked gas with half the emissions of coal is the solution to that. If environmental groups really cared about reducing carbon emissions quickly, they would be fracking’s biggest supporters.
But Climate Change – the Facts didn’t mention fracking. It barely mentioned the role of nuclear power, which generates no carbon emissions from electricity generation, though it introduces other challenges. A combination of Natascha Engel and environmentalist Michael Shellenberger would have shed light on relevant facts and resulting trade-offs. Here, for example, Shellenberger challenges one of the BBC’s chosen experts with the views of another:
We suspect that deep divisions within the ranks of climate scientists like Hansen, and within the green movement, on these real-world “solutions” – and there is no single solution to any of this, only difficult trade-offs – made them unwelcome subjects to explore for the makers of Climate Change – the Facts. There should have been no such self-censorship.
6. Failed predictions
Since the 1980s there have been dozens of failed climate predictions, mostly from those urging radical emission reduction. (For example, this one, this one and this one.) The programme should have given some examples and asked contributors to explain them. Such basic journalism would foster humility and caution as complex trade-offs are being considered for the future. But that opportunity, like many, was missed.
7. How unrealistic “business as usual” is
The RCP8.5 emissions scenario also wasn’t mentioned. Jaime Jessop has explained how much this extreme case distorts future projections in the peer-reviewed literature. Jaime cites Matt Ridley, another informed thinker whose inclusion would have considerably widened what the BBC humorously called the “wide range” of its experts.
8. The “wide range” of climate sensitivity since the 1970s
It’s astonishing that Climate Change – the Facts didn’t mention climate sensitivity, central to the ongoing scientific debate about man’s impact on climate. For those not familiar with the subject, Nic Lewis gave a useful summary of the latest research in March. But one fact about the “official science” in this area is worth highlighting here:
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimated the range of climate sensitivity to likely be between 1.5 and 4.5°C in its Fifth Assessment Report, thus encompassing an uncertainty that has not narrowed since the early assessments of climate sensitivity in the 1970s.
A massive uncertainty at the heart of the science that hasn’t narrowed, officially, for over forty years, despite the research carried out during that period. That should be front-page news by now. Richard Lindzen, Judith Curry and Nic Lewis would have been key scientists to discuss this puzzle and the centrality of sensitivity to the debate. But the programme didn’t mention climate sensitivity. There’s no excuse for that in 60 minutes.
9. A drastic narrowing in the implied damage function
Unlike an unchanging range of climate sensitivity, the change of global target from 2°C to 1.5°C warming, from pre-industrial levels, announced as part of the Paris climate summit in 2015, would seem to imply radical progress in another area of climate science and economics: the study of climate impacts. Given we have already reached 1°C warming, counting from the Little Ice Age in the 18th century, the effective target in 2019 has suddenly been halved to 0.5°C. But this change was not mentioned, nor the obvious question about the reliability of impact studies it raises, given such a major moving of the goalposts only a few years ago.
10. Emissions by China and India
Robin Guenier wrote this in a comment in the Spectator in April:
There’s something else the programme didn’t tell you.
Since the key UN Earth Summit in Rio in 1992, global greenhouse gas emissions have increased from 22.5 billion tons per annum to 37 billion tons today – i.e. by over 60%. And it’s the developing countries, and especially major emerging economies such as China, India and South Korea and major OPEC countries, that are overwhelmingly responsible for that continuing increase. Yet they seem unconcerned about it – prioritising instead economic development and poverty eradication. Yet, together with two developed countries (Russia and Japan) that also don’t seem interested in reducing their emissions, they are responsible for about 75% of global emissions. They therefore effectively control the trajectory of human emissions – currently one of continuing growth.
That is by far the greatest obstacle to emission reduction. Yet, despite saying that we face “global catastrophe” if emissions are not reduced urgently, Attenborough didn’t even mention it.
Or as a commenter on this blog put it on 2nd May:
If the government were able to make the UK carbon neutral TOMORROW, China would put [a year’s worth of our] CO2 back into the atmosphere in just 10 DAYS.
Inclusion of Robin Guenier as an expert, albeit a less well-known one than Bill Gates, would have increased both the facts and balance of the BBC’s presentation.
11. The other 75% of emissions
Guenier points out that the countries he is concerned about, led by China, are responsible for about 75% of global emissions. This is a big problem for those advocating a low carbon world because these countries appear to have no intention of reducing their emissions. But Bill Gates also points out that only 25% of emissions have to do with the generation of electricity. Renewables are simply not capable of making steel, producing pesticides or powering a supertanker. In the programme, Attenborough mentions the same 25% but not the even greater challenge of the remaining 75%. It would have been simple to admit this snag in a couple of additional sentences. Gates himself looks to energy expert Vaclav Smil in this area and in others. Another key voice missing from Climate Change – the Facts.
12. The unpredictable history of technology
Much of the case for renewables depends on an assumed future breakthrough in battery technology. But technology breakthroughs in history have been both highly beneficial and unpredictable. They don’t happen to order, especially the order of governments. Michael Kelly, the Prince Philip Professor of Technology at Cambridge, made this vital point in a wide-ranging and fact-filled article in 2015 entitled For Climate Alarmism, The Poor Pay The Price. We know we don’t know as much about the history of technology as Professor Kelly. Nor, we assume, do the technical advisers of Climate Change – the Facts. It would have expanded the pool of expertise further to have included him.