Is the climate around global warming changing?

Rob Lyons

Monday’s Panorama was the BBC’s most balanced look yet at the real ambiguities of climate science and policy.

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It didn’t start well. Monday night’s edition of Panorama, entitled ‘What’s Up With the Weather?’ aimed to examine British attitudes to climate change and the state of the science in the wake of both ‘Climategate’ and the failure of the Copenhagen conference on climate change last December. And that seemed to mean presenter Tom Heap sticking a carbon dioxide detector into a car exhaust to prove it was helping to warm the planet.

The programme did, however, get better. What was striking about it was that the BBC, which has tended to be gung-ho in its presentation of the dangers of global warming, actually presented those who are sceptical of the orthodoxy in a reasonably fair way. In doing so, it accepted that there is a genuine debate – and not some Big Oil-funded attempt to pervert the course of environmental justice, as some earlier BBC programmes have suggested. That debate is about what has caused the moderate rise in temperature over the past 150 years, how much warmer things will get, and what the best policy is to deal with a changing world. In turn, this reflects (hopefully) a more rational turn in the politics of climate change.

One thing that became very clear was how much agreement there is between ‘sceptics’ (also known as ‘deniers’ in too much of the discussion about climate in recent years) and those holding a mainstream view. Well-known US climate scientist John Christy from the University of Alabama and Danish ‘Skeptical Environmentalist’ Bjørn Lomborg broadly agreed with Bob Watson, former head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and Bob Ward, from the Grantham Research Institute of Climate Change (both of whom have been vitriolic in their attacks on sceptics in the past) on the basic science of global warming:

  1. the world has got warmer over the past 150 years
  2. carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas
  3. human activity has emitted a lot of additional carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere
  4. this human activity is to some extent responsible for global warming

The differences of opinion come when we get to the issue of how much influence all those cars, planes, factories and farms have on the temperature and what it means for the future. Christy believes that the human influence is fairly small – about ‘a quarter’ of the current warming, he guesses. Watson and Ward believe that most of the recent warming has been due to humans and that this means markedly increased temperatures, with potentially disastrous consequences, if we do not decarbonise the economy. Lomborg is far from being a sceptic on climate science; he is really critical of the policy response rather than the IPCC’s estimates for future temperature. He believes that cutting carbon emissions drastically and quickly would be far too expensive and that what we need is a mix of research into low-carbon energy sources and a degree of adaptation to a warmer world.

What seems to have slowly dawned on those banging the drum for radical action on climate change is that the attempt to panic the population into accepting drastic cuts in living standards to counter rising temperatures has failed. Instead, this approach has merely confirmed for many people that the whole thing is a green conspiracy. In the programme, Heap talked to one ordinary couple about their attitudes to climate change. While the wife was convinced it was a major problem, the husband thought it was just a scare story. But this sharp difference of opinion soon collapsed when it came to the costs of switching to a low-carbon economy. While the orthodox approach to climate change would involve increasing the cost of energy (and therefore, pretty much everything else), this couple – like most others, one suspects – was concerned that energy prices were already too high.

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Zie video BBC panorama