In Our Time last time
Jan 5, 2015
Bishop Hill in BBC, Climate: Models, Climate: other

Fifteen years ago this week the BBC's In Our Time show dedicated one of its shows to the subject of climate change (H/T Leo Hickman). In a break from its normal practice, Melvyn Bragg was joined by only two guests, only one of whom could even loosely be described as an academic. Sir John Houghton, the then chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, would best be described as a scientific administrator, having previously been the chief executive of the Met Office; George Monbiot is of course an environmental campaigner and journalist, although for the occasion - perhaps hoping to be taken more seriously - he also described himself as visiting professor of philosophy at the University of Bristol.

2000 was an interesting time in the climate debate. With the world having just entered the third millennium, thoughts of catastrophic futures seem to have found fertile ground and the global warming scare was therefore starting to gain ground. The IPCC's Second Assessment Report had laid the foundations for the scare a few years before; the ink was barely dry on the Hockey Stick papers and the onslaught of the Third Assessment was not far away. This is the context for the BBC's decision to use an environmentalist and a environmentally minded bureaucrat to provide what the corporation calls "due balance".

The intervening years have not been kind to the arguments put forward by Monbiot and Houghton. In fact it's hard to find anything very much that they said that would be accepted as mainstream in 2015. Monbiot opened his account of the global warming problem with the familiar claim that wet parts of the world would become wetter and dry parts dryer, a view that seems to be a complete fiction. He also gave an airing to the oft-repeated, but very tall tale about potential disruption of the Gulf Stream, which is now dismissed almost out of hand by the IPCC.

Then we had George repeating a claim by the Red Cross that the numbers of people being displaced by climate change was exceeding the number displaced by war. Tens of millions of climate refugees were said to have already fled their homes, with hundreds of millions more expected in the future. Houghton was quite happy to support Monbiot on this point. But again, the idea has been allowed to die a quiet death in subsequent IPCC reports.

It went on and on. There was the absurd claim that the melting of the Himalayan glaciers will cause problems for farmers in the Ganges valley, as if the monsoon did not exist. Floods and drought were said to be about to become more intense and more frequent, despite the fact that there are no such trends in floods and droughts worldwide. And there was a bizarre claim about the correlation between carbon dioxide levels and temperature rises, with Monbiot claiming that that the strength of the correlation meant there was a less than 2% chance that the relationship was not causal.

It was a shocking performance, at once unscientific and brazenly alarmist. In fairness, Bragg tried hard to challenge some of what was said, but the gulf in expertise (if that's the right word to describe what was taking place inside the heads of Monbiot and Houghton) was stark and he was unable to make any headway.

What fun it would be if Bragg were to revisit the subject now.

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