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UNCORRECTED TRANSCRIPT OF ORAL EVIDENCE
To be published as HC 25 4-iv
House of COMMONS
TAKEN BEFORE the
SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY Committee
CLIMATE: PUBLIC UNDERSTANDING AND POLICY IMPLICATIONS
MONDAY 9 september 2013
DR JAMES RANDERSON and CATHERINE BRAHIC
FIONA HARVEY, LEWIS SMITH and richard black
Evidence heard in Public Questions 151 - 209
USE OF THE TRANSCRIPT
This is an uncorrected transcript of evidence taken in public and reported to the House. The transcript has been placed on the internet on the authority of the Committee, and copies have been made available by the Vote Office for the use of Members and others.
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Taken before the Science and Technology Committee
on Monday 9 September 2013
Andrew Miller (Chair)
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Dr James Randerson, Assistant National News Editor, environment, science and technology, The Guardian, and Catherine Brahic, News Editor, environment and life sciences, New Scientist, gave evidence.
Q151Chair: Could I welcome our two witnesses and, just for the record, invite them to introduce themselves?
Catherine Brahic: I am Catherine Brahic, Environment News Editor at New Scientist.
Dr Randerson: I am James Randerson, Assistant National News Editor, which means I sit on The Guardian’s news desk and deal with both print and web, but I have specific responsibility for environment and science news.
Q152Chair: Welcome to both of you. You are both experienced journalists. I know that the world of journalism is not totally isolated in your respective newspapers and publications; you have some cross-over with your colleagues elsewhere.
One of the odd things is that, when we announced this inquiry, we found it extremely difficult to get a response from some parts of the media. We proactively invited papers here like The Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail, and eventually they both said no. In a slightly shorter time scale, The Times, The Economist and The Sun either could not send someone along or it was too short notice. Can you speculate on why there is a reluctance on the part of the media to help us solve some of the difficult problems that we are tackling?
Dr Randerson: It is a bit hard to comment on the motivations and reluctance of my colleagues in other parts of Fleet Street. It is a pity, because it would be good to hear their point of view on different things. I do not know. Perhaps it was in the box marked "a bit difficult", but it should not be.
Q153Chair: But the editorial of the Daily Mail is regularly commenting on climate change issues. Why do you think they would not help us?
Dr Randerson: Only they can answer that question.
Catherine Brahic: I cannot possibly fathom that. I would agree with James that it is a shame and we would have liked to hear their contributions as well, but it is difficult to speculate.
Q154Chair: We would have welcomed their views. What difficulties are there when reporting subjects like climate change compared with other issues?
Catherine Brahic: It is an incredibly difficult and complex topic-obviously, New Scientist deals exclusively with science news-compared even with other domains that we cover. The uncertainty issues are also considerable in climate science and can only really be compared with certain biomedical issues. It is also not just a scientific issue. It is a scientific issue that is inherently enmeshed in social, economic, financial and political issues, and that makes it a very emotional scientific topic, unlike some others.
Dr Randerson: I concur with all that. It is a very big topic and it is complex. There are elements of it where there are uncertainties; there are elements where there are fewer uncertainties, and those two different areas can become confused. It also has a tendency to be very political.
I have been reading some of the previous evidence sessions. There has been an elephant in the room, touched on by some speakers but not really addressed. There is a tendency among some people on either side of the debate to argue backwards, whether or not they are doing it consciously. There is a certain strain of opinion on the left that climate change is a good issue for them, because one way of countering it is along the lines of saying that big business, free markets and so on are bad. There are some people who think that is a good route to go down and will shift that on to their scientific position. Likewise, on the other side of the debate, there are people who see that and think, "This is a bad issue, and we will aim our fire at the science," when they have not made up their mind based on the science.
I am not suggesting for a minute that all the actors in the debate are arguing on those terms, but it has a tendency to be quite political. The scientific aspects of it also follow through to different potential policy outcomes, which themselves are quite complex and indeed international in terms of global climate agreements and so on. All that makes for quite a difficult mix in terms of reporting on it.
Catherine Brahic: The politics of it tend to be very entrenched, so people tend to have opinions that they stick to. Everything they hear is used to support their own entrenched opinion. Unlike, say, theoretical physics, you tend to take the science to back up your point of view, which differentiates it from the other topics that we cover.
Q155Chair: What is it that would make a climate story an interesting one? What is of interest at the present time?
Dr Randerson: It is the same sort of test that we would apply to any science news story. Is it interesting to the readership? Is it surprising? There is an element of entertainment there as well, I suppose. What impact is this going to have on me? What are the potential policy implications, and so on? All of those things feed into a mix that is about newness and interest to the reader.
Catherine Brahic: We tend to look at whether something is true to the best of our knowledge; whether it is verified and held up by the science; whether it is relevant to our readers; and whether it is something that they will be inherently interested in and want to relate to their friends. It is the factor of the conversation down at the pub. Is it something that is going to generate some kind of conversation?
A lot of climate science fits the other two factors, so it will be true and verified to the best of our knowledge and relevant to everybody’s life, but inherently quite dull because it relates to a very small aspect of climate science, which is probably interesting only to the scientists themselves. So the third factor-interest-is important to a news editor as well.
Q156Chair: I am not sure whether either of you is familiar with each other’s editorial processes. Are there differences in the way your two publications approach climate stories?
Catherine Brahic: James used to work at New Scientist and so is very familiar with the workings of it.
Dr Randerson: I have been at The Guardian for seven years, but before that I was at New Scientist. In many ways, it is similar in that we are generally working with the same sort of source material for many kinds of stories-new scientific papers and so on. The difference is in asking the question, "Will this be of interest to our readership?" New Scientist has a slightly more specialised readership, who are more interested in and tend to be better informed about many of the issues-not to a huge degree, but obviously to some degree. So there would be a slightly different editorial calculus going on.
Catherine Brahic: Our readers tend to have a scientific background. They are not necessarily scientists; in fact, the majority of them no longer practise science, but they will often have a first degree in science. They read New Scientist in order to stay connected to the science; they already have an interest in it, so we do not need to captivate them probably in the way that The Guardian needs to. We also stick strictly to the science, so we cover less of the climate policy and probably some of the harder economic aspects than The Guardian. Our readers tend to be more interested in the science itself.
Dr Randerson: It is probably worth saying that we probably do more domestic politics as well on the issue than New Scientist.
Catherine Brahic: Yes.
Q157Chair: So the challenge of captivating people is perhaps the reason why some newspapers allow their headline writers to go a little wild on some of the science stories. Is that your suggestion?
Catherine Brahic: I would not want to comment on the policies of other newspapers, but the purpose of a headline is to catch the reader’s eye. That is fundamentally why it exists.
Chair: Enough said.
Q158Stephen Metcalfe: The Guardian has more extensive science and environmental science coverage than any other paper. Why is that?
Dr Randerson: We took a strategic decision about five years ago that, looking at the swathe of opinion in the scientific literature and the voices of people like the Royal Society and so on, this was a major scientific issue, with potentially profound societal and economic consequences. We felt it was difficult to do that justice through the normal way of covering any other issue, so we took the strategic decision to up the register of our coverage.
We now have seven full-time-equivalent journalists-reporters-covering science and environment. The two science reporters are doing other issues as well, as are the environment reporters, but none the less there are seven reporters and two specialist editors-of whom I am one, but I have other responsibilities as well-and three specialist sub-editors. That was part of a decision to do the topic justice, to go beyond just reporting individual scientific papers and try to give more joined-up, long-range coverage, including things like explainers, analysis and so on.
Q159Stephen Metcalfe: I think that is very good and excellent. Was it just because you thought this was a major issue, or did you feel it was not being covered fairly elsewhere? Did you see a niche for this in the market, or was it just that you felt it was your responsibility in some way?
Dr Randerson: I suppose there is an element of both. Perhaps there is a kind of Reithian motivation behind it, but we also saw that people were very interested in these topics, and they tend to do very well online. It is a controversial issue particularly in the US, where there is much less coverage of the general scientific position, and, therefore, as a global media organisation there was a real opportunity for us there.
Q160Stephen Metcalfe: Do you recognise a trend in other papers away from covering something as complex as environmental issues in such depth-that they are losing their expertise in this?
Dr Randerson: It is probably true that the amount of coverage of climate change has gone down, particularly since 2009. There was a high water mark around the time of the Copenhagen international summit, but there are many reasons for that to do with the worsening economic situation, politicians had other preoccupations, and the fact that we were told ahead of that summit that it was incredibly important that a global deal be done-and in effect, it was not. Probably a lot of readers turned round and said, "Hang on a minute. We’ve been told this is really important, and the politicians are now telling us that it is not that important." A combination of all those factors has perhaps fed into that.
As to whether expertise has gone elsewhere, I can think of a few people who have left newspapers-Mark Henderson at The Times, Roger Highfield at the Telegraph-but, by and large, they have been replaced by other people. I do not know whether there is a general flow of people out, if you see what I mean.
Q161Stephen Metcalfe: You would not agree with the statement that there is a trend to lose that. People might be moving, but they are being replaced.
Dr Randerson: My sense is that probably there has not been a flow of expertise out of newspapers, but that is not totally evidence-based.
Q162Stephen Metcalfe: Would you say that perhaps there has been a trend towards that in other news agencies?
Catherine Brahic: I want to see the staff numbers to say whether there is a flow of expertise. I agree with James that there has been a general decrease in the amount of coverage. That is not necessarily a reflection of the staff; it is probably more to do with either disillusionment on the part of readers or a general sense of reader fatigue. We are certainly getting a sense that our readers are less interested, but these things go in cycles.
There is probably a broad cycle going on right now of a decline in interest and an increase in fatigue since 2009, but within that every year I see cycles of readers becoming more interested in climate science, commenting more on articles and then dropping off and migrating into other areas-biomed, neuroscience and so on-and then coming back. There are a lot of cycles in reader interest going on. Again, that is possibly due to background economic and social forces and also the fact that you can hammer readers with the same gist of an article only so often.
If we are talking about climate science, the science has not actually changed that much. The fundamental message is very much the same: humans are emitting greenhouse gases and those are causing climate change. After that, we are talking about the nitty-gritty of how much, when, what the consequences are and so on, but the general overarching narrative has not changed that much. It is the same story being told over and over again.
Q163Stephen Metcalfe: Does it matter now that there is less coverage and public interest? As a supplementary, which drives which?
Catherine Brahic: It does matter, because the public need to understand climate science and what is happening. As to whether it matters that they follow the latest papers that explain climate sensitivity and how much that has changed by a fraction of a degree and so on, probably not.
What matters is that the public understand that the message is still the same, it is still there, and it is not an issue that has gone away. It can be compared with flu stories. We are constantly being warned that there is going to be a massive outbreak of some kind of super flu that will cause a huge number of deaths, and the crisis seems to be averted every time. That is probably because scientists are working very hard in the background and producing excellent vaccines, and there is a lot going on in order to avert that, but every new crisis that is averted means that the public do not see the forecasts being played out. That is possibly a little similar to what James said about Copenhagen in 2009. They were told that something was going to happen and there would be a sea change. That did not happen, so there can be a sense of, "Let’s go round this merry-go-round all over again. Is it going to change?"
Dr Randerson: As to whether it matters, I endorse what has been said. It does matter that people understand where the uncertainties and lack of uncertainties lie within climate science. I would endorse the idea that perhaps it is not essential that every little cough and spit of the science is understood. The really interesting stuff now is in the policy implications. What does that mean? Should we do something about it? What should we do? Which energy sources are cost-effective and which are not? Can we afford it? What kind of international climate deal is on the table and could be done, and what are the barriers to that? All of those are, in a way, much more interesting questions than the core climate science, which has not really changed.
Catherine Brahic: We are seeing the story shift towards that. We are seeing reader interest shift towards that as well, so we are internally debating how to react to that.
Q164Stephen Metcalfe: How to feed the public interest in that.
Catherine Brahic: Yes.
Q165Stephen Mosley: Following on from that, most people get their knowledge of what is happening scientifically and what is happening in climate change in particular from the media, but it is much more interesting to debate what happens next, what sort of policy implications there should be and what we should do.
Why are you not talking about those things? Why are you still having almost a black and white debate within the media as a whole as to whether or not it is happening? Why can you not accept that the science is valid and that carbon dioxide does cause global warming? The interesting thing is whether we should do anything about it, and, if so, what. Why are you not doing that?
Catherine Brahic: This is where it becomes very unfortunate that some of our colleagues have not responded to your calls. At New Scientist, we do not debate the question any more of whether or not climate change is happening. We probably state it in certain articles that require it, but if every new study that says climate change is happening does not get covered we cover the implications.
As to the solutions, at the minute there is an ongoing internal debate within New Scientist about how we change our coverage. We are already reflecting the increased interest in solutions, so we are covering more of those, but to what extent do we do that? Editorially, we are going to be very different from The Guardian, but the politics of it are not our core area. We cover science, so the types of solutions that we would and do cover are more technological than political ones.
Q166Stephen Mosley: It is saying that this solution is feasible and will cost this much.
Catherine Brahic: The modelling of outcomes of various economic approaches or energy solutions and so on are things we would cover, but the political and sociological solutions are things we leave more to the general press.
Dr Randerson: With respect, you might be asking the wrong people that question.
Q167Stephen Mosley: To an extent maybe not, because The Guardian has a particular stance: climate change is happening and something has to be done about it. That is one perspective, although in terms of the perspective of not doing something, or doing something different, many might see The Guardian as being blinkered in that view, so I think it is fair to ask you as well as those who are more sceptical.
Dr Randerson: I see what you are getting at. Atmospheric physics does not vote for any particular party. As I alluded to in my first answer, the issue is that there is a vacuum in this debate to some degree on the centre right. Many centre right thinkers and politicians have ceded ground to the left and think this is an issue of the left, which is ridiculous. It should be an apolitical issue. The science is there and it is posing serious questions that we have to answer.
I agree that one answer might be that we should not do anything about it because it is too expensive. There might be other answers along the lines that we should put lots of money into nuclear power, which may or may not be attractive to a lefty greeny. I would argue that we do talk about lots of different solutions, but it is quite hard. I would extend an invitation to any centre right thinkers who would like to engage with us and give us that kind of stuff. We would welcome it with open arms because that is a hole in the debate, and the sort of solutions they want to put forward may look rather different from those that come from a lefty greeny, if I can use that shorthand.
Q168Stephen Mosley: We have seen evidence from Kent council and others saying that a focus on science turns people off basically-that is probably not the case with the New Scientist but the more general media-and that most just want a clear headline message. Would you agree with that?
Catherine Brahic: Yes. There is also a reasonable amount of evidence coming from researchers in the States showing what I was alluding to earlier. People tend to be entrenched in their views. If you throw science and graphs at them, that does not change their entrenched positions; in fact it can sometimes harden them. Climate change is a very emotional topic. Science is appealing to people to change their lifestyles fundamentally, and that can be very scary. There is other research to show that, when people are afraid, they stop using their reason and thinking about it and have a very emotional response. You can probably ascribe that to some people’s response to climate change.
The environmental psychology research suggests that the way to change people’s attitude when faced with that kind of situation is not to present a lot of graphics and complicated science but to use voices with which they identify, for the same reason that, if it is claimed a certain vaccine causes autism, you have a backlash from scientists, 99% of whom say that is rubbish and the vaccine does not cause autism, but mothers across the country claim that it does and that it has. People listen to those mothers because they tend to respond to the voices that speak to them which are closest to them and with which they can identify.
I am just relating the findings of various environmental psychologists. Our audience is very different because it is inherently interested in the science and comes to us for the science; so we still throw graphs and science at them, but our audience is not necessarily representative of the general public.
Dr Randerson: As to a clear message, when reporting all scientific issues you have to pick your battles within the science and decide what you are going to present as a narrative and which caveats to leave out. That is inevitable in any complex field, not just science but economics or whatever it might be.
With respect to climate science in particular, you have to distinguish between those things that are controversial, such as exactly what climate change may do to hurricane intensity in the north Atlantic, and those that are less controversial. If we are not clear about where the controversy lies within the science specifically, I do not think we are doing a good service to our readers, but I do not think that means we should patronise our readers by not presenting uncertainty and risk. People are capable of understanding the concept of risk and an insurance policy against an event where there is uncertainty as to whether it is going to happen and exactly how bad it is going to be.
I am a little uncomfortable about the idea of sanitising the message, if that is what is being suggested, but that is the science. When it comes to what you can do about it, there is a whole separate strand of coverage where you can say, "If you take from it that you want to do something, what are the most effective things you can do? Is it worth getting a solar panel on your house? What would be the carbon savings from cutting your water use by x amount?", and things like that. You can be clearer there about exactly what the carbon benefits are of various actions.
Q169Stephen Mosley: I think you said that science and technology was enjoying a renaissance as it is going online. The science and technology page is very popular online. How is the move to media affecting coverage of scientific topics in general and climate change as well?
Dr Randerson: From our point of view, at The Guardian we have an across-the-board philosophy of being quite open and embracing digital media in a way that gives a greater richness to our coverage. It is about recognising that the journalists are not the experts here and that there are multiple sources of information and publishers now out there from the Royal Society, to an NGO and a blogger.
We still have our traditional 800-word news stories, or whatever it might be, but, alongside that, you can have more nuanced coverage that uses this information in quite interesting ways. Live blogs are a way of linking out to a lot of quite detailed material without getting too bogged down in the core of the coverage. Equally, we have a strand called "The Eco audit", which is a rolling analysis blog that unfurls over the course of a few hours. It invites submissions from readers, and journalists will go out and ask for information from interested parties, experts and so on. In this particular strand, we ask a question about whether wind farms cut carbon emissions, or something like that, and go out and answer that question with large chunks of information from external sources. In that way you can give the reader a much richer experience. For those readers who want to get deep into a topic, they can really understand it.
To give another example, we have been building up what we call "The ultimate climate change FAQ", which is a series of short articles on common questions that people ask about climate science but also about policy as well. All of the science articles within that are checked over by the Met Office to give them a stamp of authority, but they are all bite-sized and short, so if you do not want to go into a huge amount of detail but want a fairly pithy answer to your question it is there. There are 30 or 40 of these answers now in the FAQ.
That is not the sort of thing you would have in a traditional newspaper, but the internet allows that.
Catherine Brahic: New Scientist is quite a different product from The Guardian in this respect. All our magazine coverage goes online. We have a website that is able to respond more rapidly to some of the latest climate news, but it probably focuses more on the analysis than some of the others. We do not do Reuters-style immediate response to every single news item that comes up. Maybe we are a little bit more picky and choosy about that.
The big difference that the media and internet have made to the coverage of climate is that it is a real popularisation of the topic. Climate change is one of those topics where people comment a lot and you get enormous debates. Very often, the comment thread at the bottom of articles-whether it is on our website, The Guardian’s or anywhere else for that matter- will be longer than the article itself. That is a good thing, in my opinion. It is always a good thing when the public can get involved in the debate, but it is also a bit dangerous to read those threads and take them as a representation of the public views at large. They tend to be the views of people who have very strong opinions, and even those who are quite angry about the topic will comment.
In response to our articles, especially about climate change but also other topics such as evolution, we were getting so many comments that one approach was to create a registration barrier. You had to sign up. It was not a paying barrier at all. You had to put in a user ID or something, so there was an extra step and you had to be committed to that comment in order to make it. That reduced the number of comments considerably, but the climate change articles, especially anything that relates to politics, get a huge amount of comments.
I was live tweeting from Copenhagen and that was incredibly popular. The audience feel much more in touch with day-to-day and minute-by-minute unrolling of events, and there seems to be an appetite for that.
Q170Graham Stringer: You partly dealt with my question in answer to Stephen, but I will ask it in a different way. There has been a reduction in the coverage of climate change in the media and a fall-off of interest in the public, and a fall in the number of members of the public who think it is a serious issue. Is there a cause and effect either way between those two statistics?
Catherine Brahic: I do not think it is down to just two factors. It would be oversimplifying to take it back to just the media feeding into the public and the public feeding into the media. There is a bit of a cycle going on there, but are readers or the public less interested in climate science now because they do not believe in it, or because they are fed up with false promises, or is it because they are more preoccupied with the price of milk? It is a little difficult to boil it down to just the media feeding less of it.
Dr Randerson: It is clear that the political action has shifted somewhat since 2009 for very understandable reasons, so perhaps politicians are talking about it less.
Q171Graham Stringer: Do you think politicians lead the agenda in terms of the public’s interest, or is it the media and then followed by politicians?
Dr Randerson: Obviously it is a complicated mixture, which I accept.
Graham Stringer: It is.
Dr Randerson: Certainly, from an editor’s point of view, if politicians are talking about it, we report it. It gives us something to report, so if politicians are not talking about it there is one fewer source of stories. The political action has been elsewhere, for understandable reasons, but I do not think that means necessarily that there has been a radical shift in where the public is at.
Q172Graham Stringer: In terms of interest-this may or may not be relevant to the media-we do not have a very well attended meeting today. When we had Professor Jones here in 2010, people were queuing all round Portcullis House to see him being questioned. Do you think some of the conflict has gone out of it? Certainly, at the time of the University of East Anglia’s climategate there was a great deal of public interest.
Dr Randerson: There was a remarkable moment back in 2008 when politicians on all sides of the House voted for the Climate Change Bill. I do not say "remarkable" to comment on that particular piece of legislation and whether it is good or bad, but it has incredible scope and reach into the future. It has immense economic implications for business, international competitivity and so on. Despite that, there were only three votes in the House against, so it was a moment of great unity in a sense.
Looking at the media coverage now across the piece, there are perhaps more sceptical voices. I know you heard from James Painter in a previous session, who said that about one fifth of voices quoted in the media about the science are on the sceptics’ side of the debate, which is well out of kilter with the recent study that suggested that 97% of papers published in peer review journals went along with the mainstream view of the science. There is quite a lot of conflict in the media generally, so, if it was just about conflict generating interest, one would imagine there would still be that level of interest.
Catherine Brahic: But climategate and the Phil Jones incident came at a hugely politically charged moment. That was all in the run-up to Copenhagen. A two-year machinery had been launched in Bali two years before in 2007 to promote the fact that the next Kyoto protocol was going to be signed in 2009 in Copenhagen. Everybody was watching that event and climate change in the run-up to it, and I believe the e-mails were released a month before. That was another remarkable moment two months immediately before the Copenhagen summit going through to the end of the year. That highlighted the conflict and got everybody involved in it. It is difficult to compare that piece of history with now without taking that into account.
Dr Randerson: There was a subsequent release of e-mails a year or so afterwards that had barely made a ripple.
Catherine Brahic: They did not get nearly as much coverage.
Dr Randerson: There was clearly more to it than just the release of the e-mails.
Q173Graham Stringer: When this Committee was looking at the terms of reference of this inquiry, we found it difficult to come to a definition of climate change. We have talked about it easily here. Can you give us a definition?
Dr Randerson: I think the helpful way of describing it is the elements that make up a scientific case, so clearly we are talking about anthropogenic climate change. We are releasing large amounts of CO2 that have been locked up underground. We know from basic atmospheric physics that CO2 is a warming gas, and that will have an impact on the regional and local climate in ways that scientists tell us are potentially quite profound, particularly if we keep doing it for long enough. I do not know whether that is what you are after or you want something a bit more pithy.
Q174Graham Stringer: It is interesting that people use the word and have different definitions of it. If you go back to the original discussions on global warming, there is a pretty obscure definition about global average temperature anomalies, but there is a definition. However, although everybody now talks about climate change, there is not a clear definition.
Catherine Brahic: I am surprised. I find it remarkably easy to define. It is very much what James just described. It is the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere as a result of burning of fossil fuels, by and large, and the consequences of that accumulation. Carbon gets locked into the earth over the course of millions of years in the form of fossil fuels. It takes millions of years for that process to happen naturally. In a matter of seconds, when we burn fossil fuels-oil, coal, natural gas-we release it into the atmosphere, and as a result it creates an imbalance in a cycle that is normally timed and very balanced. We are now seeing a huge accumulation of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. As James has explained, for very well understood reasons, that increases the greenhouse effect and warms the planet.
There is perhaps a little confusion over the difference between climate change and global warming. The terms are used interchangeably now, but global warming really refers to the warming-just the increase in average temperatures across the globe. Climate change is a slightly more holistic term that encompasses all of the environmental changes which are going to happen as a result of that warming, so changes in sea level rise because ice melts or slides into the sea and therefore the oceans rise. As a result, we get more storm surges and more forest fires because tinder is more readily available. You get changes in biodiversity. There is a huge slew of changes after that, but, fundamentally, it all starts with an accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
Dr Randerson: I think you have answered it. The phrase "climate change", as opposed to "global warming", journalistically describes something that is more relevant to people’s lives. People want to know what is going to happen to the climate and how that will affect them, so that has an advantage. Clearly, a change in local and regional climate is one of the things that scientists are forecasting.
Chair: You mentioned James Painter’s research, which takes us neatly to Sarah’s questions.
Q175Sarah Newton: It does; thank you, Chair. I wanted to explore the research of James Painter and also Andrew Montford. Both of them were looking at the whole issue of polarisation, accepting what you were saying that there is less reporting. The reporting now tends to be more polarised and is even taking on a very emotional or political aspect: the believers versus the nonbelievers. Why do you think this polarisation has happened and is happening, perhaps going back to some of your opening comments about how the issue has become hijacked by particular strands of politicians? Perhaps you might share that with us.
Dr Randerson: Undoubtedly, there are people in the debate who have vested interests or a comfortable position on one side of the debate or the other in the way I tried to describe earlier. Rather than make the case on the basis of policy, there is a tendency to take it back to the science, because there is a lot of material to work with in terms of complexity and uncertainty to sow doubt and so on. Talking on that side of the debate, that is what is going on with some people.
I do not think it serves the reader very well to play up uncertainties in the science where basically there really is not any. Obviously, there will be one or two people who disagree, but I do not think that is helpful for the reader. There seems to be more of that happening than five or 10 years ago, but that is because of the implications. I alluded to the Climate Change Act earlier. The implications are so huge in terms of the economics, technology, global conflict and business-all those things.
Climate change is the elephant in the room in so many news stories we deal with that there are lots of people who want to get in on the action. Combine that with a tendency for news desks to like things that are new and surprising and favour the underdog. A general issue with science reporting is that mavericks tend to get more coverage than perhaps they deserve. I am speculating, but I suspect that a combination of, "We’ve heard this story already and I want a different kind of story" is the sort of thing that goes on.
Q176Sarah Newton: You make an interesting point about the mavericks getting perhaps a disproportionate amount of media coverage-I am not talking about New Scientist at all but about broadsheet and popular journalism, which really informs the vast majority of people’s opinions-because of the desire for something new and to make it a bit more sexy and interesting. If somebody comes along with a contrary view, they get a disproportionate amount of coverage compared with the scientific base. I can see that point. Why do newspapers in particular take certain lines? Obviously, The Guardian has a particular line and other papers are taking different ones. Why do you think that is? You are all exposed to contrary science or mavericks.
Dr Randerson: I am speculating into the mind of Paul Dacre and things like that. It is a difficult world to enter. As I said at the beginning, the elephant in the room is that this debate is perceived to be in one political camp and it should not be. People have reacted very strongly against that and feel it is a proxy for a political agenda and want to make sure that politicians have no part of it. They are making a political case as well.
Everyone should step back and say, "Here is the science on which, by and large, people can agree, although there will be something on which they do not agree. Let’s have a mature discussion about what we do from here." It seems to me that there was an attempt by the previous Government in the Stern report to say, "Here’s the economic case for doing something about it," but it is really about policy being mixed up with science.
Q177Sarah Newton: Policy is being mixed up with science. Here is a really important opportunity to do what you say to try to pull apart the policy, which people are getting increasingly focused on-for example, they hate windmills or want windmills, or they want nuclear power stations or do not want them. The policy and science are getting muddled up. Here we have the next big report coming out looking at the scientific basis for climate change. Understanding what you have both said and your deep commitment to trying to get the science out there and inform people, in your preparations for the report in October on the IPPR’s latest round of research how are you approaching that? How are you planning to try to achieve that?
Dr Randerson: Presumably, you mean the balance between science and policy.
Q178Sarah Newton: How do you disaggregate it and see what we can agree on in the science?
Dr Randerson: Basically, the IPCC report has different elements to it. There is the basic science and then the impact. In a sense, the basic science part of it will be difficult to report because they will be saying largely the same thing as last time, perhaps with a higher degree of certainty. The fact that there is a major international report is itself news, but it will probably say roughly the same thing.
In terms of disentangling policy from it, we will just report what the report says. That news story will not go into tub-thumping in the form of a news story, "We must do something about it." The leader pages may get into that territory. We try to be very careful about keeping the two separate. When we are reporting a science paper, we just report what it says and try to give an indication about the uncertainties of the particular issue we may be writing about, but, as to the policy, whether the UK should engage in fracking and to what extent the planning rules should be relaxed so that there are more wind farms are very different things. There will be a line in there saying that the impetus for this is energy security, reducing greenhouse gases or whatever, but we try to be very careful about those stories being about the policy. With respect to your question about the IPCC, the reporting of that will probably not go into policy, except in a very labelled and badged way because the actual report will not go into that in any detail.
Q179Sarah Newton: We had a degree of consensus when taking evidence from people who very happily called themselves climate change sceptics and are authors on the subject. They did believe that the climate was changing but they just did not think it was all as a result of man-made changes. One of their criticisms was that, because everybody was following that one line of pursuit, other aspects of climatic change impacting weather were not being pursued. When you consider your own reporting-perhaps this is a chance for Catherine to come in-do you look at some of the science around climate change not related to greenhouse gases and CO2 emissions going up?
Catherine Brahic: The fact is that the majority of science is around greenhouse gases, and there have been polls or surveys looking at published science. We are talking about publication in peer review journals. The vast majority of that is around greenhouse gases. I do not think it is true to say that everything else is being completely ignored. There is quite a lot of research happening at the minute around solar effects, for instance, and we do report on that, but none of it finds a solar effect that is causing the current warming. If it did, we would certainly report on it-but it does not.
Dr Randerson: I would endorse that. I do not think it is correct to say that scientists are not looking at the alternative point of view. That is a way of constantly re-evaluating and testing the consensus view, if you like. When those papers come up we look at them, but there are not very many of them. We look very carefully at the ones that say it is all down to solar activity and is nothing to do with anthropogenic CO2 or whatever, but they tend not to stand up to scrutiny.
Q180Graham Stringer: It was interesting that at our last evidence session Andrew Montford said a very similar thing. He said that virtually everybody-not everybody-agrees that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. The real debate is about how much warming it is causing, and whether it is a relatively trivial amount or it will be 6º over the next century. Do you accept that is the case, and that to characterise people as deniers, extreme warmists, or whatever the phrase is, misrepresents the debate, which is about trying to estimate the impact of the increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere?
Catherine Brahic: It definitely misrepresents the scientific debate. Well, it is not really a debate. The science that is happening is a slew of studies in order to determine how much warming we will get by, say, 2100-by the end of the century. There are lots of projections and they vary. As to the amount of variation you get as a result of scientific uncertainty-this is going into nitty-gritty detail-there is a factor called climate sensitivity, which is how sensitive the atmosphere is to a given increase in carbon dioxide. How many degrees, or fraction of a degree, of warming do you get for x amount of additional CO2 in the atmosphere? That is ongoing, and there are lots of studies looking at that.
But the amount of variation you get as a result of that scientific uncertainty is absolutely nothing compared with the amount of variation you get as a result of the societal and economic uncertainty. When you look at graphs that start, say, today and go forward to 2100 and give you a range of possible outcomes for the future, varying between 1.5º and 6º of warming, those different lines do not describe scientific uncertainty but things which are known as climate scenarios, where climate scientists plug into their models how many children people will have on average, what the global economic situation will look like, where we will get our energy, how global trading will change and so on. They describe what we would define as a series of possible futures for the world and say that, if we choose to do x, we will get 2º of warming, but, if we choose to do y, we will get 4º of warming. Those are not scientific uncertainties; they are uncertainties of choice; it is what we decide to do in the future.
I sometimes get frustrated by the debate about scientific uncertainty. People say, "We don’t really know how much the planet will warm." The uncertainty that science contributes to that is so small compared with the uncertainty that is contributed by us not knowing what choices we will make for the future of our planet. I do not know whether I am describing that well.
Graham Stringer: I understand what you are saying.
Catherine Brahic: The scientific uncertainty is being worked on and lots of studies are going into that. That is probably going to make up a chunk of the first IPCC report that James was describing. The great uncertainty is about what we decide to do in the future: where we decide to get our energy from; how the population is going to change and how Governments are going to change in future.
Q181Graham Stringer: Post-Leveson, when the Press Complaints Commission has gone, do you think that grossly inaccurate reporting of science should be subject to the new body that replaces the Press Complaints Commission?
Dr Randerson: I know the frustrations of scientists who have seen their work misrepresented, or have been misquoted and those kinds of things. It is a very difficult area. I can see very difficult arguments being made among people who do not necessarily have the expertise to do it. Having said all that, it feels wrong that people should be able to write things that are completely inaccurate. To what extent at the moment are other issues subject to the PCC in that way? I am not quite sure. Certainly more needs to be done.
Q182Stephen Mosley: Catherine, you talked about scientific and different types of uncertainty.
Catherine Brahic: I am sorry; that was-
Stephen Mosley: When scientists talk about uncertainty and things like risk, they mean different things to the public at large and can in some ways, sometimes, scare the public if they talk about risk, uncertainty and this, that and the other. Do you think there is a better way of talking about these things?
Catherine Brahic: Uncertainty is one of the hardest things to communicate because it is not what readers want. Readers want a message, and also their views are generally governed by headlines. We always strive to describe the uncertainties within the article. Is there a better way of doing it? We have not come up with a better way of doing it internally. We do it as best we can. The difficulty I find in my job is more about getting it across in the headline rather than the bulk of the story. In the MMR debate, the EPSRC found that people’s opinions were formed largely by the headlines, so it is then about the use of terms like "may" and "could".
I do not have a straight answer to this because I am not sure there is one, but that is where the greatest difficulty lies. It is not satisfying to write a headline that has those conditional terms, and yet you need to include them because the findings are often uncertain and somehow you need to encapsulate that in the headline. Uncertainty can be dealt with quite reasonably in the body of an article, but the greatest difficulty lies in getting it across in the headline.
Dr Randerson: We have to strive to do it because the alternative is to gloss over uncertainty where it lies, which I do not think is acceptable. People can engage with this. I was giving the insurance analogy earlier. People can get their head round the idea of an uncertain future and wanting to prepare for it. It comes into all sorts of news stories. The calculations about whether to bomb Syria are based on uncertainties about the future outcomes, even uncertainties about exactly what has happened with respect to chemical weapons. The world is full of uncertainties on which newspapers report, so climate change is not special in that regard.
I agree with the comments about headlines. It is particularly tricky in headlines because you have to be able to sell a story and make people want to read it and you have only a few words to do it in, so it is very hard to hedge it. That is tricky, but, fundamentally, the article has to do the work in terms of explaining uncertainty.
Q183Chair: Thank you very much. Dr Randerson, perhaps I will send you a note next time I see an offending headline in The Guardian.
Dr Randerson: Please do.
Chair: Perhaps you will both rush into print to answer Graham’s challenge about a good definition. Thank you very much for your attendance. It has been very helpful.
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Fiona Harvey, Environment Correspondent, The Guardian, Lewis Smith, Freelance Journalist, and Richard Black, former BBC Environment Correspondent, gave evidence.
Q184Chair: Can I thank you all for coming this afternoon? I would be grateful if you would introduce yourselves for the record.
Lewis Smith: My name is Lewis Smith. I am a freelance reporter.
Fiona Harvey: I am Fiona Harvey. I am the Environment Correspondent for The Guardian.
Richard Black: I am Richard Black. Until about a year ago, I was one of the BBC’s Environment Correspondents. I now work for a body called the Global Ocean Commission, but I am here in my personal capacity. For the record, I did not leave with a six-figure pay-off.
Q185Chair: All of you have extensive experience of reporting climate change. What particular issues do you face when reporting complex and contentious scientific subjects like this?
Richard Black: Climate change has its innate problems. It is an evolving and complex science, and it becomes more and more complex as we learn more and more about it. If I were describing climate change to someone now, I would start in a different way from the way I did three or four years ago. For Mr Stringer, I would describe it as all the consequences of the extra energy being trapped in the earth system by greenhouse gases. That is a definition I would use now; I would not have used it three years ago.
Having said that, intrinsically I do not think it is any more difficult than immunology, for example. The most difficult articles I ever had to write for the BBC were on maths prizes. You try to explain the field of maths, what it is relevant to and what that person’s contribution is. That is much more difficult than doing climate science from a journalist’s point of view. Climate science is almost unique in that you have very powerful political forces that actively do not want science to be communicated effectively. That is the meat and drink of politics. It is far from unique in the media, but in science it hardly ever happens. This is one of the few cases. I think that is one of the reasons communication does not always work very well that you cannot overlook.
Fiona Harvey: I would agree. One of the problems here is that you are trying to describe incredibly complex systems. This is about the universe and everything that surrounds it. You are talking about everything to do with this planet, its natural systems and also the man-made effects upon it, and you are trying to do that for a lay audience who may not have a great deal of interest in or knowledge of science and may not know terms that we take for granted-for example, greenhouse gas, the anthropogenic warming effect and issues like that. You are trying to convey that in a way that is not only informative and gets across these very complex ideas but is fresh each time, because you cannot write the same story every day, every week or whatever. You are trying to convey this in a way that captures the reader’s interest.
Q186Chair: Is there a difference of view between the journalist and editor on how it should be handled?
Fiona Harvey: Probably. Editors have a tougher job in a way because they have always got lots of competing stories. As a journalist you are working on a few stories but they are yours. You have delved into them in great detail, you know what they are about and have an attachment to them. When the editor sees them, he sees a list of stories, all of which are about vastly different things. One might be about climate change; another might be about politics, the media, business or whatever, and the editor has to choose between them and which ones to give prominence to and place on a page or website. The editor has that to deal with, whereas the journalist has just one big thing to bring forward.
Q187Chair: From a freelance perspective, that must be a bit challenging.
Lewis Smith: From a freelance perspective, it is less challenging because when you are staff your first hurdle is the news desk, which is always mindful of what the views of the editor may be. When I was on The Times I was very well aware that I could use the term "climate change" quite freely, but if I used the term "global warming" I had to make damn sure it was absolutely spot on.
This is where politics come into it. You can report on climate change in much the same way as every other subject. You tell the story, break it down and turn it into nice simplified language that everybody can understand, but getting it published fairly is a different matter. That is where political views come into play, whether it is The Guardian, The Times or The Daily Telegraph. The BBC is pretty much exempt; it is a lot more fair-minded about everything, possibly because it does not have an owner.
Q188Chair: Are the science community and people like the Science Media Centre more effective at getting the message across to editors about some of these difficult subjects?
Richard Black: I am not sure that the Science Media Centre has much impact on editors. It is a useful service for reporters and the contact services it maintains are quite useful, but in terms of contact with editors there are others out there who are much more effective. They are higher up the political food chain and have been much more effective at talking to editors and persuading them that a certain line is right, or that there is more uncertainty than scientists would have us believe.
Q189Chair: Let us go back to your old employer. Given the independence of your previous employer, who up the food chain would be the right person to do the Science Media Centre’s job on the key news editors?
Richard Black: BBC News is unusual in the sense that it has so many different bits of output, all of which have different editors, who will have a slightly different take not only in terms of what they think the science is but what their audience wants. The science that one did for the website is very different from the science for Radio 4, for example. Newspapers are much easier to deal with because, generally, you have a nice linear chain of command and there will be one person who is the controlling mind. I defer to my colleagues for greater expertise on this.
Q190Chair: Newspapers have it easier.
Fiona Harvey: Newspapers tend to have more of a single focus than the BBC, which has so many outlets over such different audiences. Newspapers tend to have a clearer idea of who their readers are, but that is a very big generalisation. When you look on the web, newspapers in the UK now have a worldwide audience and a much more diverse readership than they had in print. We are all much more diverse and looking at a much more diverse picture.
Q191Chair: Let us take a recent story. Was the Daily Mail’s attack on Owen Paterson on GM foods-by the way, I am on Owen Paterson’s side on this-pandering to their readership or their owners?
Fiona Harvey: I cannot possibly imagine what was going on in the minds of the editors at the Daily Mail, I’m afraid, having never worked there. You would have to ask the Daily Mail.
Chair: They did not want to attend.
Q192Sarah Newton: It seems that what we are really talking about-we touched on this before, and you listened to it-is this argument about policy masquerading as science. Richard talked about this being driven very much by politics and not the science. Can I tease out what you mean by "politics"? What we mean by it is probably party politics. I am assuming that you mean politics in its widest sense-about people wielding influence. All of you have mentioned the food chain and political decisions. What do you mean when you talk about political decisions?
Richard Black: I certainly did not mean in the narrow sense of party politics. As James Randerson mentioned, back in 2008 there was a remarkable cross-party consensus here. If you look at the Climate Change Act, that has implications in terms of energy policy. The science, plus a sense of global responsibility perhaps-I do not know-drives you to a certain policy area, but there is a constituency within Westminster and outside it that does not like that and, therefore, the science must be challenged and brought into doubt.
It is a little like Soviet Russia and Lysenkoism, where genetics could not be right because it conflicted with communism. Therefore, genetics must be wrong because communism was a doctrine. It is a little like the situation here. You have a free market libertarian view that cannot deal with the consequences of the science. Therefore, the science must be challenged and put into doubt. I do not think this is unique in Westminster or the media, but it is difficult for people with a science tradition to deal with, because usually science is very good at sifting out bad and good arguments. Eventually, via a slightly messy procedure sometimes, you end up with reality, but that is much more difficult in the arena of climate change.
Lewis Smith: There is a large element of polarisation. It is not party politics; it is whether people are or are not willing to believe in climate change, and that colours everything that the newspapers, as well as you, do.
Fiona Harvey: It is also important that most editors are used to hearing from politicians much more than scientists. Editors will have lunch with politicians or members of the House of Lords, whereas very rarely in the course of their daily lives and jobs will they come across a scientist face to face. Richard was talking about food chains and that is part of it. Editors swim in these rather rarefied seas where they talk to law makers, policy people and things like that. Such people tend to have more of the ear of your average newspaper editor than an average scientist ever would.
Q193Stephen Metcalfe: Climate change, climate science and global warming have been with us for some time now. Has the way it is covered and reported changed during that time? How do you think the reporting of it will change in the future? We heard from the previous panel that we have been marched up to the top of the hill and told that catastrophe is just over the horizon-the example used was a flu pandemic-and it never arrives, so there is scepticism about whether this is being talked up. How do you think things have changed, and where will we end up in terms of getting people to take this seriously enough so that policymakers can have an impact and push through things that need to change?
Lewis Smith: A few years ago, the emphasis was far more on what the science was saying. Is there or is there not climate change? Is there global warming? More recently, with general acceptance that there is climate change to one degree or another, the coverage is far more on how it is dealt with and what solutions there are, and there is a far greater degree of polarisation with the rise of Lord Lawson’s group and similar organisations and the money that oil companies in America put into trying to contradict what is said.
As for the future, I do not know. It will depend on what happens. If, as we expect, climate change continues, sooner or later we will get a catastrophe that will get people’s attention and they will react to that.
Richard Black: Coverage of climate change has changed. If you go back a decade or so, journalists tended to be quite a lot looser about terms like "chaos", "catastrophe" and that sort of thing. We have tightened up, and some of the pressure from people with a contrary viewpoint has perhaps been good for us because of that tightening up. The story became much more political around 2006 when Tony Blair put it on the agenda for the UK presidency of the G8, and that peaked in Copenhagen. As you have discussed, subsequently the volume of coverage has gone down. To add to the earlier discussion, I do not think that is surprising. Coverage of tennis goes up during Wimbledon. Things have to be happening in order for people to report on them.
We are, however, seeing a rise of, "Is global warming happening? Is climate change real?" For example, just this weekend there was an article in The Mail on Sunday. It was quite an extraordinary article because of the sheer number of things that are wrong in it. Depending on how generous you want to be, there are between 10 and 15 things wrong in that article, but it goes in a newspaper. This is something that The Mail on Sunday clearly does not have a problem with because it has done it many times before. Complaints have been submitted and mistakes pointed out, and the same thing carries on happening. Whether one wants to see that as part of a polarised or increasingly variegated media landscape, or see it in terms of a political game, depends on how one looks at it. In terms of coverage, I cannot see anything on the horizon that will give us massive changes.
Fiona Harvey: I agree with what Richard and Lewis have said. One way in which coverage has changed is that, if you go back a decade, climate change was very much covered by science and environment journalists only. It did not really make it out beyond that. When one got more political emphasis, one saw non-specialists-lobby journalists, political journalists and so on-taking on more of these stories, and perhaps they do not always have quite the same depth of knowledge, background reading and context as specialist journalists. That quite significant change happened a few years ago. Now that climate change has slightly come off the news agenda, the actual science is once again the preserve of science and environmental journalists, but you still see some political stories written by political correspondents rather than specialists, and that has consequences.
Q194Stephen Metcalfe: It seems to me-I think there is some evidence for this-that there is disproportionate coverage of the sceptical viewpoint compared with the number of scientists who would back that view. Do you think that has any influence on the way in which climate change is covered at the moment? Does the sceptical voice have too big an influence? Is it given too much credibility, and is there anything we can do about that?
Lewis Smith: It is given vastly too much credibility. What more do I need to say? There is not a lot you can do about it as far as I can see. Newspapers thrive on controversy; without it, they do not sell. It is as simple as that. If you want to be an editor of a newspaper, you know full well that you have to give people a reason to buy the paper-the more exciting the headline the better. You do not get exciting headlines with, "We all agree."
Richard Black: The sceptics, deniers, contrarians-whatever you want to call them-have managed to paint themselves as David in a fight with Goliath, which is a very appealing situation. Everyone has some kind of empathy with that. It is not really true, but they have done a very effective piece of image management.
Q195Stephen Metcalfe: Bearing in mind that they are probably all watching us now as we speak, do you think this issue is too important to play that kind of game?
Richard Black: Absolutely.
Q196Graham Stringer: Lots of our submissions, from both sides of the argument, have blamed the media for the confusion about the word "consensus" in terms of global warming. Do you think that is fair?
Richard Black: I would have a lot of sympathy with that. For me, it is not about what proportion of scientists would say this or believe this. Certain things come to be facts in science, and there is a body of evidence that you can look at. As with so many other areas of science, there is one set of things that is more or less proven because we have so much good evidence on it, and another set of things that seems to be in the range between this and that, and that is all you can say about it.
There are other bits where we really do not know. If you take the key issue of climate sensitivity and talk to scientists about it, most of them will say, "Here is the range. We are not really sure where climate sensitivity is. A number of studies indicate this and a number indicate that, but it is in the range." It is profoundly unscientific to say, "Because it is probably in that range, we will assume it is at the lower end and take off a little more and proclaim it as fact."
Fiona Harvey: What needs to be emphasised is the degree to which there is consensus on climate change. Consistently we see that the vast body of evidence and scientific research points to the glaring conclusion that climate change is not only happening but is caused mostly by human actions. If you look at other issues at the moment-GM or badger culling-where is the scientific consensus? You have quite a lot of debate on that, people from both sides quoting different pieces of scientific evidence. When you look at climate change, you can see a very clear consensus. When you talk about where the uncertainty lies, it is very much around the edges. In other scientific issues that are politically active at the moment, that is not the case. We should be taking note that climate change does have a massive weight of opinion behind it.
Q197Graham Stringer: Going back to your original statement about definitions of climate change, one of our earlier contributors said that we should move away from "global warming" and "climate change", and use the term "energy balance". Would you agree with that? That is almost, but not quite, what you said.
Richard Black: In a strict scientific sense, that is probably about right, but it is a bit meaningless to people. Global warming came about in an era when basically all we had data on was the atmospheric temperature. Now that we have data on the oceans, ice and all kinds of things, we can see that there are changes throughout the whole earth system, but it is still an uncomfortable term because some climate change is natural. Then you bring in the word "anthropogenic" and nobody understands what you mean, so it is tough.
Q198Sarah Newton: I would like to come back to something that Fiona said, with which you all agreed, which is that, over time, this is being seen now far more as a political issue than a scientific one, so it is very difficult to get the scientists’ voices heard. Do you think this is because of who is doing the reporting? Scientists are becoming very leery about being quoted, because they are not dealing with you guys, whose professional background they would respect, but lobby journalists or political correspondents, who perhaps will not respect them and will misquote them.
Fiona Harvey: Very few lobby correspondents do talk to scientists. They talk more to politicians and NGOs rather than directly to scientists. As to whether scientists are becoming more wary, in my experience, they have always been rather cautious in their dealings with the press, and that is a good thing. They have to be careful to get their message across in ways that are clear, understandable and will not be misinterpreted.
When you get to the real experts, they are still as willing to talk as they ever were. Our job as journalists is to use experts and build up a relationship of trust with them so that we can discuss these issues and report them fairly. That is what goes on. When it comes to more politicised reporting, mostly scientists do not get a look in.
Richard Black: I would very much agree with what Fiona said. If I may add to her earlier point about editors, not only do editors have much more contact with politicians than scientists, but, if they have been journalists themselves, they will tend to come up through political journalism, where there is always spin, and everyone has a reason and an angle. It is genuinely quite hard for them to appreciate that most science is not like that. There are scientists who are like that, but most of them are not. You are dealing with evidence, and it is a different mindset.
Q199Stephen Mosley: Following on from that, there is a difference between opinion pieces and news reporting. Do you think the public recognises the difference between the two and can tell that sometimes these pieces might be coming from different angles?
Richard Black: It is very nice when they are clearly delineated and you have news on the outside and opinion in the middle. A lot of American papers are much better at doing that than British ones. It depends a little on who the writer is. If someone is flagged as a correspondent, you are expecting it to be newsy. The problem comes when the two things are conflated, as we have seen with The Mail on Sunday.
As to whether people differentiate, I do not honestly know, but I guess it is something that some social scientist somewhere is looking at, if they have not done it already.
Fiona Harvey: To pick up Richard’s point about delineation of news versus opinion, you can do that quite clearly in a newspaper. You have a page of news and a page of comment. It is different on the web, because people might come to an article from many different angles. They might click on a link from Twitter or wherever, so they might not be aware that they are coming to the opinion part of the website. Maybe it is for the media to make that clearer in the way that we present things, but it probably does blur things in the mind of the reader.
Lewis Smith: There are also inherent biases in newspapers. If you look at wind farms, for example, you are far more likely to find an anti-wind farm story in The Daily Telegraph than in The Independent. It is never going to be delineated as opinion, but in reality it is opinion; it is the way the newspaper perceives what its readership wants to read.
Q200Stephen Mosley: James Painter’s research suggested that media sources in the UK and US represent 80% of the sceptical voices in his study. I do not know much about Mr Painter’s research. Was he looking at just English language sources or across the board, or do you find that British and American journals tend to be more sceptical than elsewhere?
Lewis Smith: I do not have the experience to answer that.
Richard Black: He has looked at more than English language. I cannot give you chapter and verse, but I think the study around Copenhagen involved six countries. I am pretty sure he went into some of the BRIC countries. I am sure he went outside the narrow medium of English. If there is a spiritual home of scepticism, it is in the Anglo-Saxon- speaking world. For example, one of his other findings was that, during the Copenhagen summit in the developing world output he looked at, virtually no climate scepticism was reflected in their newspapers, whereas obviously in English and American papers there was.
Q201Stephen Mosley: What do you think the impact of that is?
Richard Black: It has a very discernible impact on the politics of some countries in the Anglo-Saxon-speaking world when it comes to climate change. You can probably turn that around and say that the coverage reflects to a certain extent the politics. For example, in the US there is a whole TV channel-Fox-where accepting climate change is not really on. It seems you have to take the opposite point of view. You have newspapers where very little space is given to climate change and you have some very powerful campaigning groups, and there is always a synergy between the media output and the people who are feeding things to the media. It has to be seen as part of one ecosystem. It must have an effect on public opinion and the political process.
This is going to sound very pejorative, but I do not mean it to be. One of the dangers is that it legitimises wavering. If you have a politician who does not know very much about climate science, is not particularly bothered about it but sees that it might be a bit populist to paint him or herself in the anti-climate change clothing, having stuff in the media along the same lines legitimises his stance a little bit. We are definitely seeing that at work in the States and Canada as well.
Q202Graham Stringer: We were all much amused when recently George Osborne fell out with Ed Davey about carbon targets and wind farms. Do you think that row within Government affected the public perception of climate change?
Fiona Harvey: I think it made, maybe, not just the underlying climate change issues but also the policies around climate change more polarised, because there was a perception that senior politicians were trying to appeal to a certain part of the populace and had the idea that they could win support by being sceptics, contrarians or by bashing renewables or other aspects of climate change policy. That is new in the last three years-in fact since the coalition came to power-because, while they were in opposition, those were not the things that they were saying. That has affected the way stories are written in some parts of the press or the media more broadly, and we as journalists have had to grapple with that in the past two and a half years.
Q203Graham Stringer: Do you think that generally the Government present a simple, clear evidence-based narrative about climate change?
Fiona Harvey: No, not in the least.
Q204Graham Stringer: Do you want to expand on that?
Fiona Harvey: You said it yourself. There is a perception of a row within certain sections of the coalition over some of these policies. That row is not just among the three main parties; it is also taken up outside. On the one hand, you have the Green Party and on the other hand you have UKIP. Nigel Farage is very anti-wind farms; he says that at almost every opportunity. This has an effect on the political discourse and what we should do about climate change.
Richard Black: Ministers need to be honest. Ed Davey’s recent statements about fracking being consistent with UK climate policy are just not true. About 18 months ago I did a simple piece of maths when I was still working with the Beeb. If you take the projections of the Committee on Climate Change, they build various scenarios. What is the cheapest and most economical way for us to get to our 2050 target? In their view, you do that by virtually decarbonising-which is their phrase-the electricity supply by 2030.
If you run the numbers and assume there is no coal generation, you can have only 10% of your electricity from gas by 2030; otherwise, you are out of line with their projections. If we frack and continue building gas-fired power stations without carbon capture and storage, we will miss the climate change targets, unless we have a coherent policy in another part of Government. If you say, "That’s okay because we’ve come up with a way of cutting transport or agriculture emissions much quicker," then it is coherent; otherwise, what they are saying is just not real. I do not think the Government do themselves any favours when that sort of thing happens.
Q205Chair: So when the IPCC publishes its next report, going back to Mr Black’s Wimbledon analogy-I do not quite see it as being the same as Andy Murray in the final in terms of journalistic interest-will we see any peaking in coverage on this subject?
Richard Black: Yes, I think we will, but it will not be the same kind of blanket coverage that we saw in 2007 with that report, when I know that, for the first part of it, the BBC even sent Fiona Bruce to Paris to copresent the "Ten O’Clock News". I do not think we will be seeing that sort of depth and breadth of coverage. As Catherine and James said earlier, the basic science story really has not moved on very much. Although there are interesting little angles, the basic story is still there, and interest among editors is not at quite the same pitch as it was in 2007.
Lewis Smith: If there is to be a peak, it will be a very small one. There just is not the interest at the moment.
Q206Chair: Especially, I guess, because the most likely storyline to emerge is that the climate is still changing. From what all three of you have said previously, in different ways, editors will not buy that as much of a story.
Lewis Smith: It is not much of a story, is it? It is, "Same as last time, boys."
Q207Chair: But it is a fact.
Lewis Smith: From what we have seen from leaks from the IPCC, they are not going to be saying a huge amount that is new, but the science is already there. We do not really need an awful lot more science to tell us whether or not there is global warming. What we need now are solutions, whether they are miracle solutions from scientists on how to capture carbon or societal changes in how we deal with this and reduce the impacts as much as we can.
Richard Black: There is also austerity in many media organisations. Editors are thinking much more carefully about whether they will pay for flights and hotel rooms than they were back in 2007.
Q208Chair: So the newspapers are concerned about the carbon footprint.
Richard Black: That would be a turn-around.
Q209Chair: By the sound of it, the three of you are all saying that what we really need are better editors and politicians.
Richard Black: I would like to move it slightly outside the media framework. There are so many issues. MMR was mentioned earlier. It would be lovely if you had a much more critically scientific public. When I was at school, we learned history with kings, queens and dates. My daughters have learned history by looking at sources and analysing their credibility. What were they trying to spin? What can we deduce from this? What can we corroborate? It must be possible to do something similar with science education, and, from what I have seen, that is not really happening.
Chair: Given the comments that have been made, I am not sure whether any member of the Committee will be in the right place in the food chain and get invited to some of the places where decisions are made. Can I thank you very much for your contribution? It has been an enlightening session.