Campainging on climate change

Interesting article Why the BBC should stand up to its climate campaign critics about whether the BBC should be campaigning on climate change. They have a charter, so they can go all lawyerly and examine whether they are acting in accordance with it. But the same question applies to scientists.

[Update: seems the BBC changed its mind

And perhaps unsurprisingly, some people are unhappy]

From the article: Peter Horrocks reportedly attacked the plans, arguing that “I absolutely don’t think we should [campaign on issues such as climate change] because it’s not impartial”. He added that: “It’s not our job to lead people and proselytise about it”. His views were echoed by Newsnight’s editor, Peter Barron, who argued that, “It is absolutely not the BBC’s job to save the planet. I think there are a lot of people who think that, but it must be stopped.” A recent BBC-backed report on impartiality appeared to support their criticisms, claiming that the broadcaster “has many public purposes of both ambition and merit – but joining campaigns to save the planet is not one of them”.

I agree with all of that, except for “because it’s not impartial”, on the grounds that I’m not sure whether such campaigning would be impartial or not (I agree that skeptics would say it isn’t, but they get their science badly wrong). OTOH… during WWII I’m pretty sure the BBC did its best to lead the war effort, and spent very little time presenting a “diversity of views” about whether Germany was right to invade Poland. No, climate change isn’t WWII.

The BBC certainly should be doing its best to present the science involved. My brief experience with watching cl ch stuff on TV is that production values and audience figures count for far more than accuracy (either way). Radio has done better. So I suppose I would argue that rather than navel-gaze about “partiality” they should concentrate on trying to communicate the science better, which I fear would mean getting people who understood it involved in the programme making (and I mean in the writing, making and editing, not just in being interviewed).

Should scientists campaign on climate change? Probably not.

[Update: this made it onto scitizen]


  1. #1 mark s


    I would say the Beeb are doing their job, communicating the issues of the day, without the distorting commercial pressures most broadcasters face. I would call it a responsible broadcaster.

    Surely Hansen is already ‘campaigning’ on CC, trying to offset the denial machines activities, and inform people of the consequences of our current policies. I would call him a responsible scientist.

    I watched a new documentry last night, by Richard Attenborough, about the changes taking place in our world. It took years for him to ‘wake up’ to climate change, and he is now keen to communicate what is clearly happening around us. I think that is a positive thing, not a negative, but he is ‘campaigning’ (interestingly not on the BBC, in this case), why is that wrong?

    If the scientific fundementals of AGW were still in question, i might agree to a more restrained viewpoint, but surely the realities need to be explained.

    Our media are still dominated by adverts offering an easy ‘greenwash’, for alarmed consumers. The Beeb is fighting against that, trying to emphasise how serious the issue is.

    I’m proud that the Beeb have stood up and been counted, maybe more scientists should be risking similiar criticism, because we are not really taking it seriously, as far as i can see.

    Cheers for the quality blog, Mark

  2. #2 Douglas Coker

    Thanks for pointing to James Murray’s piece. (More politics – most welcome ;-)) It’s very useful. The BBC should campaign on climate change. The question is … What does a successful campaign look like? Try consulting the social marketers. And of course better presentation of the science should be encouraged. They have some decent people Watts, Harrabin, Shukman (sp?) etc.

    The BBC and some within it seem to be terrified of upsetting “the powers that be” no doubt, in part at least, because Blair and Campbell gave them a good old duffing up over Hutton etc. They need to act with resolve and challenge political interference.

    Humphrys was remiss this morning in not asking Gordon Brown why he didn’t once mention climate change in an extended interview on the Today programme. (I’ve complained.) Brown is very definately not green which is very worrying and the BBC should challenge him on this.

    On the WWII analogy when I first came across this I was pretty dubious. Accusing cars drivers of being Nazis is stupid. But more recently I’ve heard far more persuasive ways of pursuing the comparison. Dig for Victory and elements of a command economy should be considered. Worth exploring as we face up to the task of dealing with this planetary emergency.

    Douglas Coker
    Enfield Green Party BTW!

  3. #3 Alexander Ac


    most of the scientist is not interested in climate change and things around it. Much different situation is, however around the “relevant” sc. community, i.e. climate scientists…

    while other scientists may feel sceptic about the issue of AGW, most of the climate sc. is not. Though a lot of climate scientists are concerned about it (e.g. blogging, TV interviews, etc.), their concern is not mirrored in the concern of the wide public (they have other problems to solve in the everyday life).

    Of course BBC will not campaign about the climate change, *unless* they are sure that it is the issues as important as WWII. The problem with climate change is, that when the problem reaches the seriusness of WWII – TV and other urgent campaign’s are for nothing.

    Again the same stuff – we have to act now, in order to avoid the worst effects of climate change in the future. But this reality (probably) will not be realised by enough majority of population enough soon…


  4. #4 Philip Martin

    Now if it had been Richard Attenborough we might have had a cliffhanger at the end of the programme…is he going to stick the knife into the stooge? Will Pinkie get away with not waking up to climate change earlier??? Watch next week’s installment!

  5. #5 Dunc

    Should scientists campaign on climate change? Probably not.

    Why not? I know they say you get your organs of opinion removed when you join the BBC, but I didn’t think it was necessary on getting your doctorate… Scientists are people too.

    [Its tricky. There is nothing at all wrong with reporting the results of your research accurately, or indeed in pointing out the flaws in other peoples arguements, based on accurate information.

    But it rapidly becomes clear that sticking to that will leave you ignored by the MSM, which wants more sex. That fairly rapidly heads you off towards providing your personal opinion, and its not clear why that opinion should be of interest.

    The "ideal scientist" (who of course doesn't exist) should be able to do good dispassionate science whilst being of the personal opinion that its all nonsense. I might believe that... GW is all we say it is, but that +2oC is nothing to worry about, and indeed might be a good thing. Should I "campaign" about that? -W]

  6. #6 ark

    oops…David Ateenborough, that is :-)


  7. #7 Adam

    “That fairly rapidly heads you off towards providing your personal opinion, and its not clear why that opinion should be of interest.”

    Well speaking as a non-scientist (or is this an argument from lack of authority fallacy?), I find individual scientist’s opinions interesting (certainly more than non), at least within their respective fields. As long as we are aware that they are generally going to go out on a limb and evidence for their opinion may circumstantial at best. There is a danger in following “gut” feelings too strongly, but the “sub-conscious” (for want of a better term) shouldn’t be under estimated. I’ve done a little work on expert systems and I’ve seen some people genuinely surprised by the knowledge and analytical skill that has been revealed by interview alone. As I say though, it does need to be caveated clearly (as I’ve seen in some cases, eg Greg Holland discussing hurricane intensity on a TV programme, where he stated that he expected intensity to get worse, but it said that it an opinion).

    “I might believe that… GW is all we say it is, but that +2oC is nothing to worry about, and indeed might be a good thing. Should I “campaign” about that?”

    I think the point here is the direction of the impetus of “should”. I don’t think any scientist should feel compelled, but I see no reason why they shouldn’t. If that’s what you believe, then there’s no reason why you shouldn’t campaign along those lines (all above caveats taken into account).

    Obviously if you think you shouldn’t then you’re making a choice, but would you campaign along those lines? Or is there some empirical evidence that they shouldn’t. ;)

    [Thanks for the useful comment. A problem with giving "opinion" is that it readily strays from what-you-know into what-you-don't, and climate being such a huge area this is easy to do (e.g. everything I say about hurricanes :-). This in turn is a problem because your audience don't know where these boundaries are. I'm presuming that (apart from the demonstrated insightful qualitites of my text) part of the reason people read what I write is that I'm speaking about things I know about. That can then produce some level of trust which carries over even when I don't, and this is especially likely if I wander off campainging -W]

  8. #8 Adam

    Re; William’s reply. That is a very strong danger – and it is why I for example, take Hansen’s sea-level statements very cautiously (though I am aware of the circles in which he moves might mean he’s expressing others’ thoughts, I think we need some glacier(?) etc. people to start backing him up IMVHO). I think there would need to be a heavy amount of discipline on behalf of the scientist to demark “knowledge” from opinion, expertise from acquaintance, etc. This would require more effort than not campaigning, more time, and certainly more discipline and I don’t think it is wrong to point out where these may be lacking on behalf of the campaigners – without resorting to ad homs, obviously.

    This may start to sound a bit wishy washy, but otherwise I feel we risk dogma.

    BTW I agree with this bit certainly: “part of the reason people read what I write is that I’m speaking about things I know about.” though I think some merely come to through stones.

  9. #9 Dunc

    That fairly rapidly heads you off towards providing your personal opinion, and its not clear why that opinion should be of interest.

    Well, if we’re talking about mass-media presentation, then it’s all based on personal opinion – and I’d rather go with the personal opinions of people who may know something about the subject than the personal opinions of people who don’t know anything about the subject. Sure, we’d all love to live in a world where carefully weighted and verified statements were the norm in mainstream science communication, but we don’t. We live in a world where Bjorn Lomborg gets more respect and column inches than all the serious climatologists put together.

    However, that wasn’t really my main point… My main point was that scientists are also citizens, and they have as much right (and indeed obligation) to campaign on matters they feel strongly about as any other citizen.

  10. #10 bigcitylib

    We do ask Dr.s what their opinion is on the diseases and etc. they study. Should we tell them to stop campaigning against, for example, childhood obesity?