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To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring

To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi

August 11, 2017
5 min read

Nigel Lawson: climate denier
Radio 4’s Today programme has been criticised for once again interviewing ex-Chancellor Lord Lawson about climate change, which he denies is happening. The show interviewed Al Gore about his new documentary An Inconvenient Sequel and seems to have felt it should balance Gore’s call for action with the opposite view.

The peer was predictably contrarian. He wrongly said climate scientists believe the world’s weather is getting no more extreme and in a moment of straight-up climate denial, said temperatures have fallen over the last decade (in fact, each of the last three years were the hottest on record), while the interviewer, Justin Webb, made no attempt to challenge these errors. The transcript (and rebuttals) are here.

Tension and spectacle

No doubt there will be complaints about the segment. These complaints might even be upheld – this is exactly the kind of ‘undue attention to marginal opinion’ that the BBC Trust criticised in its 2011 review of science coverage.

But even if a complaint is upheld, can we expect the broadcaster to change? After all, it’s been through exactly this before. In 2014 the BBC Editorial Complaints Unit agreed that Today was wrong in its handling of an interview with the same guest and the same presenter, when Lord Lawson’s denial was presented as of equal standing with climate science.

The BBC doesn’t seem to have learned from that mistake and it’s not obvious that it will learn from this one. But the problem isn’t particular to the BBC – it’s with climate change and how it’s described.

Suppose you’re a producer and you have a story about some warning of how bad climate change will be and how essential is that the world cuts emissions. It’s an important issue, so you agree to run an item on it.

But it hardly sounds new and risks being a bit dull. How can you generate tension to show your audience that there are disagreements and decisions to be made? You won’t get that tension if you invite on Friends of the Earth. So instead you call up someone – like Lord Lawson – who will baldly reject the core of the story and will guarantee a fight. It’s terrible for public debate but it’s a much better spectacle than two people agreeing about how awful climate change is.

An upheld complaint about this latest climate denial might make a producer think again for a while. But sooner or later they – or their successor – will need to spice up some dull but important climate change story and will look for an obliging Tory peer.

It doesn’t have to be like this. There are plenty of disagreements about climate change that are far more interesting and important than fabricated rows about whether it’s happening.

Better arguments to have

One example is about who will be able to fly as the world cuts emissions. Even allowing for efficiency improvements, restricting emissions from planes means limiting flights – a major challenge as increasing affluence will mean more people want to fly. How should we do this? It could be done by putting up ticket prices, which would mean poorer people fly less. It could be done by restricting capacity – the Airports Commission’s recommendation of Heathrow expansion counts on not expanding other UK airports. Or, if the burden is to be distributed evenly, perhaps there should be an allowance system for flights tickets.

There are arguments about what to do as the effects of climate change grow more and more severe. When more land is flooded by rising sea levels and increasingly ferocious storms, which areas should be protected and which abandoned, and who pays the bill? And what help should be given to people living in poorly designed housing that will cook when heat waves become longer and more extreme?

And nuclear power divides those who are worried about the climate. Some argue it is an indispensable technology that doesn’t produce a large volume of greenhouse gases and can be counted on to produce electricity on a large-enough scale to replace coal and gas plants. But some environmentalists are appalled by nuclear power, seeing it as no improvement on coal. This is a contentious question of priorities – where costs, safety and hazardous waste are balanced against the need to cut emissions quickly.

What’s important about these arguments is they give the tension a producer needs, without depending on disagreements about whether climate change is real. They entirely take place between people who accept that cutting emissions is crucial for the world to avoid dangerous warming – but they aren’t boring. If these debates become the questions that journalists ask about climate change, deniers will have to either catch up or find that they are no longer invited to take part.

These disagreements are already happening between climate policy specialists but they’re rarely aired in public. If we’re to stop the BBC calling up a denier for the next story about climate change, those of us worried about the issue need to show that there are far better subjects for a fight.

Leo Barasi’s book, ‘The Climate Majority: apathy and action in an age of nationalism’, will be published in September by New Internationalist.