A rule of thumb for the mainstream media is that the reporting of ideas that are damaging to powerful interests will tend to begin and end at ‘square one’ – investigation and discussion rarely proceed beyond the superficial. The more influential the media, the more this tends to be the case. TV news reporting of climate change is a classic case in point.
Time and again TV news reporters stand beside footage of extreme weather conditions, and then graphics of squiggly rays of solar radiation entering the atmosphere, striking the earth and being trapped by a blanket of greenhouse gasses. But this is as far as the discussion goes. Even now, long after scientists have reached an overwhelming consensus that human-induced climate change is a very real threat, the media are questioning whether global warming is happening, is human-induced, or is the result of cyclical changes. For at least 15 years, as temperatures have soared, records have been broken, and freak weather events have continued to grow in frequency and intensity, the media has been trapped in its own self-imposed Groundhog Day, asking: ‘But is this evidence of global warming?’ According to the BBC’s Fergus Walsh, for example, as far as the recent cataclysmic floods in Europe are concerned, “The likeliest explanation is that the wild weather over Europe is just one of those things which Nature throws up from time to time.” (BBC1 Six O’Clock News, August 13, 2002)
On August 13, Media Lens wrote to Walsh, challenging his assessment:
Dear Fergus Walsh
On tonight’s report (BBC 1, Six O’Clock News, August 13, 2008) you said that it was “impossible to say” if global warming was to blame for the current floods in Europe. You said that the likeliest explanation was that it was “just one of those things”. These are remarkable claims. As long ago as March 2000, climate expert Dr Mike Hulme of the Climate Research Unit of East Anglia University said:
“There is no longer such a thing as a purely ‘natural’ weather event. This is the important message to take away from Mozambique, or indeed from any such extreme weather event, such as the heavy rainfalls in Venezuela before Christmas or the windstorms in France after Christmas.” (Quoted, The Guardian, 15.3.00)
Elsewhere Hulme has said:
“We can no longer say we are still unsure whether extreme weather events are caused by global warming or not. When we look at the Mozambique floods, at Venezuela, we are witnessing events that are now +clearly+ tainted by human actions.” (Interview with author, 8.7.00)
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has drawn similar conclusions. You dismissed the extreme temperatures during the first 6 months of this year as “one of those things”. And yet the IPCC has stated:
“There is new and stronger evidence that most of the warming observed over the last fifty years is attributable to human activities”. (IPCC Report, ‘Climate Change 2001’, July 2001)
In April 2000, climate scientist Professor Eugenio Sequeira of Lisbon’s New University, declared:
“It is very probable that climate change is behind the current drought and forest fires, as it was probably the cause of flooding in Mozambique.”
Even John Gummer, who was environment secretary in the last Conservative government, told BBC News Online: “We talk of natural disasters, or acts of God, but they’re the acts of human beings. We’ve changed nature.” (Quoted, Alex Kirby, The Guardian, 15.5.00)
What are your grounds for rejecting these authoritative views?
Media Lens received this reply from Fergus Walsh on August 14:
Dear Mr Edwards
Thanks very much for paying such close attention to my report. My comments were based on lengthy discussions with the Met Office in Bracknell and with other experts. We spoke to the Climate Research Unit of East Anglia yesterday and broadcast an interview with Professor Phil Jones on Radio 4. He made the point that you have to look over a long period of time to link anything to climate change. You have to look back with hindsight over a thirty to forty year period to look for trends of what might be happening to specific extreme events. He said “Even with this particular event (the floods in Europe) it’s not one we would have immediately linked to climate change because our models suggest that if anything by the 2030s and 2040s central Europe should become drier in summer.”
It is not the case that I dismissed the extreme temperatures during the first six months of this year as “one of those things”. In fact I was referring to the floods in Europe. My script was “The likeliest explanation is that the wild weather over Europe is just one of those things — which Nature throws up from time to time.”
Thanks again for your email — this is obviously a hot topic and I’m sure you will be interested to know what happens at the Earth Summit later this month — we’ll try to keep you informed and make no errors!
Media Lens responded on August 14:
Dear Fergus Walsh
Thanks for your prompt reply, I really appreciate your taking the time to answer my questions. Phil Jones’ point on the latest freak weather “it’s not one we would have +immediately linked+ to climate change” (my emphasis) is quite different from your much more categorical assertion that “The likeliest explanation is that the wild weather over Europe is just one of those things — which Nature throws up from time to time.” Other climate scientists I’ve spoken to have refused to supply a simplistic soundbite of the kind Jones has given, citing the huge complexities of the issue. It’s obviously very difficult to trace cause and effect (as it often is with smoking and cancer), but in a rapidly warming world the “likeliest explanation” is surely that warming +is+ playing a role.
Your “just one of those things” comment has to be seen in the context of your remarkable comment last week that while everyone accepts that global warming is happening, there is disagreement on whether this is human-induced. Is there? The consensus of the IPCC is that global warming +is+ human-induced. When presenting the argument that cyclical factors may be involved, you should surely have pointed out that if this is the case then it is extremely bad news as it means an addition of natural cyclical warming to human-induced warming – a double whammy! Your reports last week and this week gave the impression that what is happening is probably ‘natural’, which will have been interpreted by many people as meaning that everything is okay – natural means normal.
I hope you don’t think I’m being unduly critical or harsh; it’s not my intention. I really think the BBC should be doing very much more to raise awareness of this truly awesome threat.
Since our exchange with Walsh, others have spoken out on the evidence linking global warming and the floods. Reporting in the New Scientist, Fred Pearce wrote:
“There is fresh evidence linking the floods to global warming. The warmest ever summer in the northern hemisphere has fed exceptional amounts of moisture into rain systems forming over the Atlantic. Also, the rapid melting of Alpine glaciers has added to the unprecedented rush of water down some of the continents largest rivers… Glaciologists say that events in the mountains, where most of the rain fell, made matters worse. Towards the end of summer, mountain rivers are already swollen by meltwater, and global warming has increased this flow, says David Collins, a glaciologist at the University of Salford.” (Fred Pearce, ‘Europe’s wake-up call – short-sighted land management has allowed global warming to wreak havoc’, New Scientist, August 24, 2002)
In the same issue, a New Scientist editorial noted:
“Reports of once-in-a-hundred-years floods are now pretty much annual events.”
Friends of the Earth issued a press release on the subject:
“Devastating floods over much of Europe are a warning of the havoc that climate change will wreak if the burning of coal, oil and gas is not drastically reduced… Recent floods in China have already been blamed on climate change. [Associated Press: ‘Mild Winters, dust, and floods in new places: China’s extreme weather linked to global warming’, 13 August 2002] There is some disagreement between scientists but German and US experts say that climate change could also be a factor in the European floods. [Dr. Freidrich-Wilhelm Gerstengarbe of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, quoted by MTI – the Hungarian Press Agency; Kevin Trenberth of the National Centre for Atmospheric Research in the US, Financial Times, ‘Blame for flooding may be misplaced’, 15 August 2002] The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says it is highly confident that climate change will lead to increased flood damage globally due to more intense rain storms.” [IPCC 2001, ‘Climate Change 2001: Synthesis Report’, p.72]. (Friends of the Earth, Press Release: ‘Floods Across Europe EU Nations Must Stand up to Bush at Earth Summit’, August 15, 2002)
Why did the BBC choose to stick with its high school graphics and not report this evidence? The reason is that the people and organisations that run society are fiercely opposed to even trivial action on global warming – action threatens profits and power. Time and again the BBC has shown that, as part of the establishment, its job is to report in a manner that is ‘acceptable’ and ‘responsible’, as defined by unacceptable and irresponsible interests.
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. In writing letters to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
Write to Fergus Walsh:
Email: [email protected]
Write to Richard Sambrook, director of BBC News:
Email: [email protected]