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13 Feb 2014

An Open Letter to the BBC on Lord Lawson’s Today Programme appearance

To Jamie Angus, the Editor, Today Programme.

Dear Jamie,

I am writing to complain in the strongest terms about your piece on this morning’s programme on climate change and the current floods which featured Sir Brian Hoskins and Lord Nigel Lawson.  I write both in my own capacity and on behalf of Transition Network, a charitable organisation supporting thousands of communities around the world taking practical and positive local action in response to the climate crisis, and for whom the distraction such articles present is deeply unhelpful.  

The overwhelming majority of peer-reviewed science on climate accepts that human activity is resulting in the warming of the climate. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have reviewed all the published science on climate change, and concluded:

Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, sea level has risen, and the concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased.  Each of the last three decades has been successively warmer at the Earth’s surface than any preceding decade since 1850.

Yet Lord Lawson has repeatedly stated his belief that climate change is “a belief without any serious scientific substance” and today argued there is no link with the extreme weather and flooding of recent days.  Yet a 2012 report published by DEFRA identified flooding as the greatest threat to the UK posed by climate change, with up to 3.6 million people at risk by the middle of the century.  Every 1 degree of warming leads to the atmosphere being able to hold 7% more moisture than previously (as this paper from the journal Climate Research shows), and we have already increased 0.8°C on pre-industrial levels.  Dame Julia Slingo, presenting a Met Office report on the recent flooding, told Sunday’s World at One programme: 

“All the evidence suggests there is a link to climate change. There is no evidence to counter the basic premise that a warmer world will lead to more intense daily and hourly rain events.” 

My specific objections are as follows:

  1. That you had Lord Lawson on at all: Lawson is not a climate scientist, he is an ex-politician.  He has published no peer-reviewed science on climate change.  His Global Warming Policy Foundation actively lobby for pro-fossil fuel policies, for the eradication of policy and legislation on climate change, while refusing to reveal the sources of their funding, while somehow taking advantage of charitable status.  He has nothing of value to say on this subject. 
  2. “Nobody knows”: on several occasions, Lord Lawson stated that, in relation to the science on climate change, that “nobody knows”, referring to climate science as “this extremely speculative and uncertain area”.  This is grossly misleading, and, in the light of recent extreme weather events, sows seeds of doubt for which there is no basis.  As discussed above, there is a clear consensus that human activity is affecting the climate.  He stated on Today “I don’t blame the scientists for not knowing … I just blame them for saying they know when they don’t”.  Climate scientists always present their findings in degrees of certainty, degrees of likelihood, never in terms of certainty.  To present that lack of certainty as “not knowing” does the entire scientific community a huge disservice. 
  3. Cherry picking: Lord Lawson stated that there has been no increase in extreme weather events, taking as his example tropical storms, stating that “last year was unusually quiet” for tropical storms.  Yet no mention of 2013 being the hottest year in Australia since records began, or recent floods in Thailand or the US, melting permafrost in Siberia and Alaska, to mention just a few. To pick tropical storm activity in one year is cherrypicking.  Anyway, as seen with Typhoon Haiyan, the intensity of those storms is increasing.  
  4. The ‘Pause’ myth: He stated that there has been “no recorded warming over the last 15-17 years”, a myth promoted by climate sceptics.  He cited the latest IPCC report as agreeing with him, but the IPCC report was actually very clear on this: 90% of warmth is being absorbed by the world’s oceans, as a result of increased trade winds, as well as blaming the solar minimum the world is currently going through.  In fact, the temperature of the world’s oceans is rising sharply as they absorb the equivalent of, according to Skeptical Science, 12 Hiroshima bombs per second, with impacts on sea level, marine life and the oceans’ acidity levels, which are at their highest for over 300 million years.  
Your piece presented the illusion that there is still a debate about the science that human activity is changing the world’s climate.  At its close, your presenter said “it’s a combination of the two, as is this whole discussion”.  No, it’s not.  Nigel Lawson is an ideologue, not a scientist.  To put him alongside a scientist who has published peer-reviewed science on climate change is like asking a qualified aviation engineer and a florist for their advice as to whether an aeroplane is safe to travel on, and attaching equal weight to their opinions.   
I usually enjoy the Today Programme, but today I could quite happily have hurled my radio from the window into the unseasonal hail storm lashing the windows outside.  There is no need for “balance” in pieces about climate change.  Does the BBC now feel compelled to have someone who thinks that smoking is good for you every time smoking is discussed?  Are we now to expect a member of Occupy to be offered the right of reply every time Robert Peston discusses the economy?  The BBC has a duty to reflect reality, rather than allowing dinosaurs like Lord Lawson to fill the airwaves with unscientific and deeply-irresponsible views.
And yes, as an organisation, unlike Lord Lawson, Transition Network is only too happy to disclose our funders.   
Rob Hopkins
Transition Network
43, Fore Street, Totnes, Devon. TQ9 5HN.