What will they think?

I often wonder what people, in the future, will make of the overall coverage of global warming and climate change today. We’ve just released the first chapters of the IPCC’s Assessment Report 5, written by 100s of climate scientists. It makes it very clear that climate scientists are almost certain that humans are the cause of global warming and that if we don’t cut emissions, global warming will continue and could have damaging impacts. We have evidence that the agreement in the scientific literature, with respect to global warming, is extremely strong (Cook et al. 2013 for example). Also, anyone who works in a physical science environment will probably agree that there is virtually no dispute about anthropogenic global warming (AGW) in such environments. So, we currently have an overwhelming agreement amongst experts in the field and a similar level of agreement amongst those who are most likely to understand the fundamentals.

So, is this reflected in the general media coverage? Last night we had Nigel Lawson – an ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer and Oxford PPE graduate – on BBC’s Question Time, talking about climate science. I’ve just listened to this and he wasn’t talking about the economics of climate change, or policies associated with climate change; he was discussing climate science itself. I was equally perturbed by the fact that Ed Davey too discussed climate science. In light of this, Martin Robbins has started a petition encouraging the BBC to give scientists proper representation on Question Time.

In the UK we also have various other people, such as James Delingpole, Matt Ridley, and David Rose, who write regularly about climate change. The BBC also recently included Andrew Montford in a news report about climate science (today Andrew Montford reports that the recent Cowtan & Way paper is Climate magic and also appears to be defending Christopher Monckton). It’s not just that these people have a voice, it’s that some policymakers seem to regard their views as more credible than those of actual experts. Nigel Lawson’s Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF) seems to have remarkable influence despite it typically presenting views that are not consistent with the mainstream scientific evidence.

So, I just sometimes wonder what people will think of this when they look back on this era. A time when there was a remarkable level of agreement within the scientific community. A time when these scientists were producing synthesis reports that presented the evidence and discussed the likely implications. A time when we’re starting to see direct evidence of climate change. And yet, we have policymakers who take the views of non-experts ahead of the views of the actual experts. When some would rather believe that the vast majority of experts are either benefiting from promoting AGW, or are too blinkered by groupthink to recognise the truth; rather than recognising that it’s much more likely that this is true of the minority of non-experts who promote these views than of the scientists themselves.

I imagine that they will look back in wonder at how this could possibly have happened. How could we have ignored the views of the experts while accepting those of people who are not only non-experts but who are, in many cases, people without any obvious scientific training? You would like to think that many will be embarrassed by this. That they will look back themselves and wonder how it wasn’t obvious who’s views should have been taken seriously and who should have been ignored. Of course, what I suspect will happen is that certain parts of the media will rewrite history to make it appear that the Nigel Lawson’s of this world were simply keeping scientists honest (by questioning and probing their research) and that the fault lies with scientists who acted inappropriately and/or didn’t provide sufficiently convincing evidence. Obviously I don’t really know what will happen, but I doubt that we will look back with pride at how we’ve behaved today.

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62 Responses to What will they think?

  1. > some policymakers seem to regard their views as more credible than those of actual experts. Nigel Lawson…

    To be fair, Lawson isn’t a policy maker, he’s a has-been. It would be better to find a current exemplar.

  2. > look back in wonder…

    But several of the still-respected US Prez were slave-owners; people occasionally mention this but no-one really cares much. See, I can’t even remember which ones. Washington? It all fades into the murk. People, looking back, will see a transition era in which pols and people were reluctant to accept the theory, and that faded away. Some of those (are) reasonable, some not, but looking back it will be hard to tell.

  3. I wasn’t referring to Lawson when I wrote that. I was referring to policy makers today who seem to take the views of the GWPF seriously when these views are at odds with mainstream science (for example).

  4. Or, at least, I was intending for that to refer to Lawson, but I can see how it might appear that way.

    I suspect you’re right in your second comment. Far enough into the future it will be seen as some kind of transition period where we just didn’t realise what was “correct” and what wasn’t. In a sense I was thinking more of a time when people alive today may still be alive and can look back more critically at what we’ve done today, rather than the distant future when people alive then will seem disconnected from how we’ve behaved today.

  5. The BBC is constantly attacked by the right. They have to over-compensate in self-defence. Climate science is the victim.

  6. John, yes there does seem to be an element of that. Some pandering to the right so as to protect the license fee may well be occurring. Of course it doesn’t seem to help, so I don’t know why they bother.

  7. They will have their own problems and may have some consideration because of their cocaine party that is against government funding of a quantum computer because cats are either dead or alive.

    And if they know about our age, they will wonder why we acted as if a transition to a renewable society would be difficult. Wasn’t is a natural development, clearly cheaper and better in almost every respect and hard to hold down?

    There were once predictions that with the growth of traffic London’s streets would be covered with meters of horse dung. It didn’t happen because we got cars and public transport. The future people, will look at us like we look at people that lived then and claimed that horses are wonderful, that they are the foundation of our economy and society, that without them we would go back into the middle ages, that the mass of the dug is small compared to the mass of the earth and can’t possibly be a problem and especially that cars are ugly and loud.

  8. AAshleySharp says:

    In a way, a small part of me hopes those who run contrary to the perceived wisdom are correct. I would accept some serious humble pie consumption if it mean’t the worst aspects of climate change were not realised despite our lack of action. One or two encouraging signs apart, our collective failure to act in a way commensurate to the risk leads me to despair. Its sometimes tempting to take the head in the sand, cross your fingers and hope approach.

  9. Victor, what you say is something that I always find it a little ironic about what some say. There seem to some who argue that we shouldn’t be worrying because we’re innovative and will always find a way to solve problems. Yes, that’s true but we do so by actually doing something and not by sitting back and waiting. It’s almost as though such people think that somehow someone will magically find a solution and don’t realise that you need to actually to do something to find a solution.

  10. AAshleySharp, I agree. Apart from the fact that it would be galling if they did turn out to be right, them being right is preferable to them being wrong. To a certain extent I think we have to hope that they are right about the ECS being lower than we’ve previously thought. If not, our inaction means that some of what we could have avoided becomes unavoidable.

  11. Paul says:

    >It makes it very clear that climate scientists are almost certain that humans are the cause of global warming and that if we don’t cut emissions, global warming will continue and could have damaging impacts.

    It would be useful to have a discussion as to why this is the correct phrasing as opposed to say:
    It makes it very clear that climate scientists are certain beyond a reasonable doubt that humans are the cause of global warming and that if we don’t cut emissions, global warming will continue and will have damaging impacts.

  12. Paul, I don’t have any issues with your phrasing. Probably slightly more correct than what I’ve written.

  13. AAshleySharp says:

    I found the most alarming aspect of BBCQT last night was the response from the Nikki King: “Who do we trust, I just don’t know who to believe” (to paraphrase from memory). That demonstrates just how successful those who seek to muddy the waters have been. And also perhaps a damning assessment on the failure of mainstream science to clearly and simply convey its message (present company excepted!).

  14. No we should not sit back and wait. Then the vested interests would win. I am simply hopeful and think we are doing a good job.

    But the direction is right. Maybe it could go a bit faster, but likely not even that much more. Against the propaganda, market economies are not that flexible and if we would introduce renewable energy too fast, we would start to have to close down relatively new conventional power plants, which would be costly. And we still need to build continent-wide grids and energy storage systems to compensate for the variable character of some renewable energy sources.

    In Germany the conventional oligopolistic energy companies are taking large hits, are worth almost nothing any more on the stock market now that they have to compete and consequently have also lost much of their lobbying power. This will soon happen elsewhere. I would sell my stocks, πŸ™‚ if I had them, especially if I would need the money for my pensions.

    No matter how much I like blogging, let’s not act as if the blogosphere influences the course of history. The BBC might do so a little.

  15. BBD says:

    I’m sure our descendants will agree that we had the best public policy money could buy.

  16. One of the things one often fears in science is being right for the wrong reason. Your method works, but the theory behind it is completely wrong.

    If the ostriches are “right”, they would be right for the wrong reason. Like a creationist accidentally contributing to evolutionary theory.

  17. OPatrick says:

    It would be great to have someone who’s a genuine expert in the field on Question Time when the likes of Nigel Lawson, who’s main public activity appears to be to spread unjustifiable levels of doubt and confusion about climate change, are on. However, even a well meaning generalist like Ed Davey should be able to do better at countering the disinformation if they were better prepared.
    There’s no hope that Davey could have sufficient knowledge to counter every point that Lawson makes – ‘scepticism’ is an easy game to play and Lawson’s deeply immersed in it – but what he could do is point out the ways in which these games are beng played. Question Time is not really the place to engage in meaningful debate on anything other than the nature of the debate itself.

    Perhaps in the future some of those who are well versed in the ways the game is being played could provide a simple primer to guests who up against the likes of Lawson on the best ways to deflate their arguments. A brief outline of what the likely talking points are going to be and some key responses to these, ways to give a better picture of the wider context along with which paths they shouldn’t be drawn down if they don’t want a false impression of the science to be sown.

  18. AAshleySharp

    And also perhaps a damning assessment on the failure of mainstream science to clearly and simply convey its message (present company excepted!).

    Personally, I think that scientists probably have done quite a good job. We’re on IPCC report 5. They’re quite readable. Scientists aren’t trained in marketing and don’t expect to have to deal with amateur skeptics who happen to have a media profile. So, I’m sure they could have done many things differently but I find it hard to be too critical given what they’ve had to deal with.

  19. AAshleySharp says:

    Accepted, however Lawson et al rely on the majority not being bothered to actually read IPCC reports; they give a digested re-hash based on whatever reinterpretation they feel will give them the most publicity (Lawson’s Telegraph article on the IPCC report springs to mind). I am not pointing the finger at scientists in general (I used to be a research scientist so I have a little insight into how difficult it is to convey complex, multifaceted discussions to the lay person), I do, however, wish scientific interpretation was less reliant on NGOs and the twitterati.
    I’m not saying scientists should be policy advocates or enter into political discussion (the danger with having scientists on Question Time would be that they are asked about social policy or crime statistics when they are no more qualified to pass comment on those subjects than Lawson on climate science). However I do strongly feel that the scientific community, collectively, should be better at getting their message out there. Although the IPCC do an astounding job of synthesising the current state of research, they aren’t particularly good at communicating to the general public (IMHO). Scientists in general (the MMR furore being a prime example) need to learn how to better explain risk and probability etc and not be afraid to challenge the likes of Lawson, with specific examples from within their own area of expertise. Kevin Anderson being a good example, even if he does risk straying onto political ground occasionally….

  20. AAshleySharp, you make an interesting point. I mentioned in the post that most who work in a physical science environment probably agree that they rarely encounter any skeptics. What I didn’t add is that many I encounter who understand global warming and largely accept the basic science don’t really realise that some skeptic arguments are taken seriously by some. I think many assume that it’s so ridiculous that noone could take it seriously. Maybe if more realised that some of these ridiculous ideas were taken seriously, they may take communicating with the public and policy makers more seriously. Admittedly many are probably too busy doing their own research to do so.

  21. BBD says:


    I tend rather to blame the media for the prominence given to ‘sceptical’ views – when climate science is discussed, there is no need to put a microphone in front of Lawson and chums when it should be in front of a climate scientist.

  22. AAshleySharp says:

    BBD, doesn’t that perhaps suggest that ‘we’ are collectively bad at communicating, or rather PR? When I was writing grant applications, awarding bodies specifically asked how the results were going to be communicated to the public. I remember writing some platitudes and standard issue box fillers, when we should be thinking that the public understanding of science is the most important aspect of the research. Peer respect, a good publication record and regular grant awards are crucial, but they mean little if the work contributes little to the public discourse.

  23. Maybe if more realised that some of these ridiculous ideas were taken seriously, they may take communicating with the public and policy makers more seriously.

    I wonder whether the “skeptic” arguments are taken seriously. I feel not even the “skeptics” take them seriously. When you point out obvious citation errors, where the sentence on WUWT tells a completely other story as the paragraph it was in, nobody cares, NOBODY CARES.

    A classic example could be the story about the trend in humidity. Another example could be Watts claim to have a spike in readership, which was fake. These are all stories someone can check without any knowledge of science. But they simply do not care.

    The are happy being misinformed by their own ilk. They are happy to spread the nonsense to their friends. They do not care that their opinion is based on quicksand. They just want to keep their ideology and are willing to violate reality for it. And not to have to admit this in a conversation, they get their talking point at WUWT.

    I do not see how more science communication with the public could help even a little bit. I am sorry to say.

    Scientists should still do so, we are funded by the public and the public has a right to hear what we do with their hard-earned money.

    But more or better communication by climate scientists will not change the “debate”. This is where I am less optimistic.

  24. AAshleySharp, I think there’s a difference between communicating with the public/policy makers and having to deal with amateurs who think they know better than experts. Some scientists are good communicators and some aren’t. However, typically you engage with people who are interested in knowing more. Sometimes they’re quite well educated themselves and the discussion can be quite detailed. Others times they may know little about the subject and the scientists are essentially teaching them something. What I think scientists have trouble dealing with are non-experts who think they know more than they really do. How do you deal with Nigel Lawson or James Delingpole for example? You’d like to think that policy makers would ignore such people and listen to scientists. It seems, however, that some policy makers are choosing to do the opposite. Scientists can’t force them to listen. So, as much as I agree that scientists need to do more than simply publish papers and get research grants, there’s not much they can do if others are not willing to listen (or at least engage constructively).

  25. BBD says:


    Scientists ‘bad at PR’.

    But you do science. You aren’t trained or paid to do PR. It’s not your domain of expertise. So it’s not your fault that vociferously self-promoting ideologues are hogging the microphone. That’s what *they* do.The problem exists at the editorial level in the media. Partisan non-experts should not be given the opportunity to misrepresent climate science. That’s an editorial decision.

  26. My last comment seems to be stuck in the spam folder.

  27. Victor, indeed. I wonder why your comments keep ending up in the spam folder. Are you secretly trying to sell handbags or something πŸ™‚

  28. I don’t know. 😐 I also have problems on Climate Etc. and The Black Board.

  29. johnrussell40 says:

    ‘Question Time’ is a programme where the panel members are not told the questions in advance and consequently they have to have an opinion on every subject that comes up. Therefore unfortunately there’s never likely to be a climate scientist invited onto the panel as they are, by definition, one subject specialists. This leaves the platform open for people like Lawson to provide the ‘expertise’ and they take the opportunity to feed the public whatever distortion of the facts meets their agenda. I’m sure the BBC producer who booked Lawson probably thought no more deeply than, “oh, a climate change question; Lawson is always talking about that”.

    Of course climate change will almost certainly have a truly massive impact on the world in 30, 50 or more year’s time, whereas almost every other topic discussed will be pretty much forgotten except to a few historians. But one needs to be knowledgeable about the subject to know that. We know how vital it is — but to everyone else it’s just another problem the world is trying to come to terms with and is therefore not worthy of any particularly special attention. It’s going to take quite a while for public realisation of the importance to sink in. This is why spreading the word is such an important activity — as important as doing the actual science.

  30. John, you make a good point. I’d forgotten that on question every panel member provides their view on every question. So, yes, I can see why putting a scientist on could be problematic. However, there are some that would do well. Brian Cox, Paul Nurse, Martin Rees, to name a few. They would all be sufficiently public to be of interest but would at least understand the science better than Nigel Lawson.

  31. Victor, if you’re also having trouble at Climate Etc. and The Black Board maybe I should check that I haven’t selected the “moderate scientifically credible comments” option πŸ™‚

  32. toby52 says:

    After Bush in the US, Harper in Canada, Abbott in Australia and now Cameron in the UK, this seems to be just what happens under any conservative – right-wing government. They are just so beholden to big business that they influence they can bring to bear on media outlets is enormous. Lawson may be a has-been, but I wager his contacts and old-boy networks are still pretty influential, and will be more so when the Tories are in office.

    Not that left-wing governments are free of this (grabbing the media high ground) but at least there is less of it.

  33. toby, I suspect you’re right that politicians today (and maybe not only just today) are beholden to seomeone or some group. I certainly wouldn’t argue that one side is more or less influenced than the other. Ignoring experts, though, is something that is difficult to both justify or explain (without suggesting some kind of scientific conspiracy).

  34. πŸ™‚

    But I do not think that Black Board Lucia fears a good debating partner.

  35. Doug Bostrom says:

    Having the whole picture, people in the future will be able to draw various timelines of steadily increasing skills with science, technology, comprehension and consequent reactions, obfuscation and prevarication. Some of these lines cross and interfere with one another.

    Start when– in order to stop bounding epidemics– London had to deal with building sewers and a public water supply, thus confronting and briefly struggling with the little industries that supplied water and removed sewage, themselves applications of crude technology.

    Continue through the era of tetraethyl lead in gasoline, only just recently ended, a period when a single industry learned how to prolong its existence for decades by casting doubt on established facts, leaving a trail of destruction still emerging.

    Follow along as more collisions arise and multiple threads of progress intersect while medicine confronts tobacco, biologists question ubiquitous use of pesticides and industries involved in these events and many others gain ever more refined methods of protecting their domains.

    Now we’re in a period where the advancing continuum of geophysical research progress is delivering unwelcome messages. This is going to be quite conspicuous in retrospect.

    First was the news of chlorofluorocarbons and stratospheric ozone depletion, a case dispatched with relative ease due to stark disparities between necessities, relative ease of substitution, comparatively flimsy and poorly skilled industry reaction.

    Our descendants will then see the result of our dawning realization of the impacts of massive hydrocarbon combustion. This iteration of technical skill bounding ahead of completely informed due diligence is something quite novel. Here new information confronts a cohesive, knife-edged, amply armed industrial constituency of unprecedented scale. It’s an industry benefiting from the experience of inducing cognitive degeneracy learned by all its ancestors. It’s an industry with a demand for its products that is exceptionally difficult to end. Here’s a situation unparalleled in scope and depth by all previous variations of what has become a familiar story.

    It’s not going to look good, that’s for sure. I think we’ll be the subject of some bitter criticism.

  36. That's MR Ball to you. says:

    Well, speaking of Stephen Harper, it’s worth remembering that he’s an Evangelical Christian who belongs to a church that preaches that evolution and climate change are both lies. Many of his cabinet ministers are born-again Christians. His previous Minister of Science & Technology refused to state publicly that he believed in evolution, and his current Minister of Environment refuses to state that climate change is real. And on top of that he’s beholden to big business. Where “beholden” means that oil industry groups ghostwrite public policy, and our government ministers fly to Washington to lobby Congress on behalf of the oil industry at Canadian taxpayers’ expense. Frankly, I take a negative view of this government.

    “Here new information confronts a cohesive, knife-edged, amply armed industrial constituency of unprecedented scale.”

    This industrial constituency, combined with a public who has little or no interest in biology or science in general, is what I fear. They’ve already demonstrated that they can marshal huge financial resources to generate pro-business propaganda and influence public policy. Several large corporations are amongst the largest financial entities on the planet, but are incapable of governing beyond bottom-line profitability. What’s going to happen when these corporations and their pet nations start slugging it out over the last public water supplies, for example? What are they going to do in the face of climate-change induced social unrest?

  37. John Mashey says:

    Steve Schneider was a friend, and he was about as good as it gets on doing good science and communicating it well to audiences of any level (which is hard) and audiences of very mixed levels (really hard). Jo Haigh @ imperial College is good, and there are many more

    But really, climate science has been subjected to a well-organized disinformation effort even more substantial, if not as long-lived as that by tobacco companies, whose tactics weer adopted wholesale, but with Internet amplification from very early. Some of the same entities do both, and they aer internationally well-connected. See FOIA Facts 5 — Finds Friends Of GWPF about a fascinating email from GWPF’s Academic Advisory Council Chair David Henderson, where the interesting part was the CC list. You will recogniize names, but make sure you look at the UPDATE at end about the UK’s Institute for Economic Affairs, its relationship with GWPF and much longer efforts for the tobacco companies.
    Now, if somebody is willing to help tobacco companies, who only stay in business by killing children slowly, confusing people about climate is child’s play. Disinformation about climate is well-coordinated worldwide, especially in English-native countries. So, people should stop blaming climate scientists for poor communications. (Some are already very good, and more are learning, and AGU now has regular sessions on this … but they will never be the slickest PR people, among other things, as it is far easier to disinform and cause doubt.)

    Imagine if physicists were attacked endlessly for claiming electrons existed, and got FOIA blizzards for saying so, death threats, hate mail, dragged in front of Congress, vilified by politicians, etc. Most scientists have a hard time imagining that (except for some other environmental scientists and some medical researchers who have no trouble at all believing it.)

    Sadly, unlike many political issues, climate change has huge inertia. See for example a very rough, simple Sea Level Rise mapper, Tyr +1m. What indeed will people lvi in March or Peterborough think? (A: unclear anyone will be living there.) Or look at Hull. At that, UK is better off than many – scroll over and look at the Low Countries. Google Images: netherlands floating houses

  38. Rachel says:

    I think people of the future will look back on us and view us in the same way that we view the people of Easter Island. What were they *thinking*? Someone cut down that last tree and they must have known it was the last tree.

    We have known about this problem for more than half a century. Yes, I know the physics of the greenhouse effect dates even further in the past but for at least half a century we have been aware of this as a significant problem that we need to address. And yet nothing much has happened to change our trajectory and the problem has got worse.

    Climate scientists are not to blame either. Climate scientists have been amazingly good at communicating this problem and they go beyond the call of duty in this regard. Stephen Schnieder is a great example. Spending his valuable time in a room filled with contrarians and patiently and respectfully answering all of their questions, as he did, is way beyond what is required. How many immunologists do you see taking the time to do this with anti-vaccination campaigners?

    I agree with what others have said about the real problem stemming from the misinformation campaign waged by vested interests and the inexplicable idea that someone with no expertise in a particular field can be given equal weighting with genuine experts by the media. And then there’s the almost weekly misrepresentation of scientists or the things they’ve said.

    There is one difference (there are probably lots of differences actually but this one is quite significant I think) between the way scientists communicate and the way people like Monckton communicate which probably hasn’t helped. Scientists are so unsure of themselves and they don’t pretend to know something which they don’t fully understand. By contrast, the Moncktons of the world are so certain. Bertrand Russell once said, “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser men so full of doubts”. I think the reason that Monckton and others are so convincing to so many is because they’re so sure of themselves. They have an unquestioning belief that climate scientists have it all wrong and the people who are taken in by them get a sense of security in this certainty. Then we have the scientists who communicate their uncertainty with honesty and people find it easier to reject because they don’t like that uncertainty. A good example of this is an appalling tv debate on Australian morning television between Monckton and climate scientist, Ben McNeill. Monckton completely dominates the whole conversation. He picks a topic that is not Ben McNeill’s area of expertise – so Ben can’t really respond – and then he forces it down our throats.

  39. Rachel says:

    My theory with regards to your comments being spammed is because you often include links to your own website in them. So the spam filter sees your website address with your name and then sees you’ve got links to that address in the comment and so assumes it is some kind of marketing. Then when you make additional comments without any links in them the spam filter remembers you.

    The links back to your own website are always very good so I don’t think you should stop including them. The spam filter is supposed to learn so hopefully with each un-spamming of your comment the system will get better. Although it does seem to be taking its time.

    You’re not the only one who has this problem by the way. One of John Mashey’s comments got collected last night.

  40. andrew adams says:

    To be fair to the BBC, Question Time is a political discussion programme, not a scientific one. It has features scientists on the panel in the past but not necessarily because their particular field of expertise was relevant to the subjects which were likely to come up. I don’t know to what extent Lawson and Davey were there because the subject of climate change was likely to be raised or if it was just a coincidence – in general I think the guests are invited a while in advance but they do sometimes change the lineup at short notice if there are particularly significant events in the news. But it’s not the same as giving Montford airtime as a “balance” to the views of scientists in a report specifically about the science.

    Given that action on climate change is largely a political question it’s reasonable that it should be discussed on forums such as QT, but there is always the danger that you will get a dissembler such as Lawson who may appear well informed and plausible to a lay audience even if their arguments are nonsense. I actually think Davey did OK – he made decent arguments on hurricanes, the “pause” and China and pointed out Lawson’s involvement with the GWPF. Stella Creasey obviously wasn’t up on the details of the science (I would not particularly expect her to be) so sensibly deferred to expert opinion. I agree Nikki King’s “shucks, I don’t know who to believe” argument was embarrassing – there are plenty of places she can go to get an overview of the science in layman’s terms and if she doesn’t want to do that then fine, just take a view on who is a credible source of information.

  41. andrew adams says:

    On the subject of disappearing comments I seem to have problems in general with blogs which use Blogger as a platform, and Rabett Run in particular. I never have problems with WordPress blogs – occasionally I might go into moderation but there is always a message saying so.

  42. OPatrick says:

    “I think people of the future will look back on us and view us in the same way that we view the people of Easter Island. “

    I suspect you are right, but perhaps not quite in the way you meant. Easter island now is a good example of how different agendas affect the way we view history – and with Easter Island I think there is a genuine argument that both sides may be equally at fault. There won’t be some utopian age of common sense in the future, societies will still be experiencing stress and hardship – likely far more so than ours – and there will still be resistance to taking action to deal with the very real problems they face. People will look back at what we are doing today and distort this history to fit their agendas. I think someone has already mentioned that certain people are laying the foundations for blaming problems on those who sounded the alarm.

  43. Andrew, I think John made a similar point above. It is a valid point. I had forgotten that on QT, everyone has to answer all the posed questions. So, that does make a forum more appropriate for policy people than for scientists (although there are some who would be suitable). One reason I probably forgot is that I had to eventually stop watching QT. I used to get so incensed by some of the answers given by some of the panel members, that I couldn’t sleep afterwards πŸ˜‰

  44. andrew adams says:

    Wotts, sure – the other point is that it’s often not possible to predict what subjects will come up more than a couple of days in advance so having the right kind of “expertise” on the panel would be difficult anyway. I think the question is not so much is not so much what they are discussing on Question Time but the lack of in-depth discussion of climate change elsewhere on the BBC.
    I agree though that having QT on just before bedtime does not help to get a good night’s sleep πŸ˜‰

  45. chris says:

    Yes, I find it almost impossible to watch QuestionTime for the similar reasons (to avoid blood boiling!).

    This is quite a good illustration of some of the problems with the program:

  46. chris says:

    ooops apologies for embedding a link. Remove this if you don’t like it!

  47. Rachel says:

    I’ve never seen Question Time before but I’m definitely going to have to watch it now πŸ˜‰

    O Patrick. I’m not entirely sure what you mean. Who were the two sides on Easter Island? I thought it was just that the civilisation there exploited the natural resources to the extent that it led to their collapse. But I agree that in the future we will probably distort our own history. I think scientists will be blamed for not sounding the alarm loudly enough although I know that most people here think it will be the other way around, that they will be blamed for being alarmist.

  48. Chris, no problem with embedding things. Very apt.

  49. BBD says:


    I think scientists will be blamed for not sounding the alarm loudly enough

    Quite possibly. I’ve even heard it argued that the loudest voices will belong to those currently denying the scientific evidence. After all, it’s a logical continuation of the misrepresentation and misdirection tactic. Keep blaming the scientists whatever they do. And meanwhile, keep claiming that every proposal to mitigate and/or adapt is unworkable and/or too expensive…

  50. Rachel says:

    Yes, well those loud voices are not exactly well-known for acknowledgement and correction of mistakes. I can see the same loud voices saying in the future, “but why didn’t you warn us?” or “you weren’t clear enough about the dangers”.

  51. dana1981 says:

    I often wonder the same thing.

    I would guess they’ll view it much as we view the US during the civil rights battle in the 1960s. Engaged in long-standing immoral and harmful behavior, with a growing realization among the public, and certain groups fighting against it very hard. Overall the era is viewed as an embarrassment to the country (to the world in this case). We know wonder how people could have thought and behaved in that manner, and how the government let it continue for so long.

  52. danolner55347852 says:

    Anyone happened to watch BBC coverage leading up to AR5 who knows anything about climate reality will have noticed a definite tack towards “skepticism”. Some truly awful coverage, lapping up arguments about the “pause” making their way into mainstream news broadcasts. This has flummoxed me a bit. Some speculate it’s the BBC trying to curry favour with the coalition, perceiving them to be, at heart, climate skeptic, in an attempt to stave off the treatment the NHS has received at their hands. I don’t know – most prominent coalition ministers do not question the science. I’m still extremely puzzled.

    As to the future: I suspect there’ll be a warped whig history to tell a story of whoever came out on top and why it was always meant to be that way.

  53. BBD says:

    dan olner

    I’m extremely puzzled too. Like you, I see a serious problem at the editorial level which is understandable in the right wing press but little short of bizarre in the BBC. Perhaps this is an attempt to mollify the government, but if so I had no idea that the corporation was really so desperate and insecure.

  54. danolner55347852 says:

    Maybe there’s a more mundane explanation about changes in personnel. It’s not all their coverage – but then there’s question time. I can’t bring myself to watch it, the thought is too depressing…! SO important that such publicly visible fora get that stuff right. Horrifying to think what the beeb are actually doing.

  55. OPatrick says:

    Rachel, I’m basing this on half remembered conversations rather than a detailed knowledge, but I think the Easter Island story is more nuanced than it is sometimes made out to be. I don’t think there is much doubt that the Easter islanders explotied their environment to a dangerous extent, but there is reason to believe that the collapse of their civilisation had other causes too. A very brief google found this example, but I’m sure there is much more that could be said, and has been said.

  56. Doug Bostrom says:

    BBC has been through harrowing times of late. If they’re trying to telegraph a submissive attitude to the Cameron and his troupe of dewy-eyed romantics it’s not surprising.

  57. Rachel says:

    Ok, thanks Patrick. ScienceDaily is referring to Jared Diamond’s book in the first paragraph which is the story that I’m familiar with. I’ve just had a bit of a search and I see that there are people who fiercely contest Diamond’s version of events. I had no idea. According to this version – The myth of Easter Island’s ecocide – it was rats that caused deforestation.

  58. Steve Bloom says:

    A number of us explored the criticisms of Diamond’s Easter Island material in considerable depth at Planet 3.0 and found them wanting. Note that Diamond was relying largely on the work of others, so the personalization to him was a little strange. IIRC there were two threads.

  59. Pingback: Reason Mag: Climate “Science” Anything but Settled | The Firewall

  60. Rob Nicholls says:

    This is an important area, the BBC’s coverage of climate is often (though not always) terrible, (with Lord Lawson a fairly frequent and and often unopposed contributor on news items relating to climate change) so thanks for this post.

    I’ve sensed a big lurch to the right at the BBC since the tories came to power but I don’t have any hard data to back this up. I don’t know if climate change coverage is worse than it was before the last election, but I’m only saying that because it was often terrible already. (e.g. the BBC’s reporting of “climategate” at the time the fake scandal broke was just appalling, and this was before the change of government.) I don’t know how much of the poor reporting is due to political bias towards an establishment that doesn’t want action for obvious reasons, and how much is just due to a combination of lack of knowledge among journalists and pressure from those whose views vary wildly from that of the IPCC. (I’ll call them contrarians although there is no label for them that I like. Given the comments I’ve seen on blogs about the “commie BBC”, which is allegedly “part of the IPCC’s world government conspiracy”, I assume BBC journalists get loads of irate and confusing mails from such contrarians every time there’s an article about climate change, it must wear people down over time).

    Perhaps it’s naΓ―ve but I personally believe that there are many at the BBC who truly do not understand the difference between the IPCC (with its state of the art review of all the available evidence carried out by hundreds of field experts) and a blog page by Andrew Montford.

  61. Rachel says:

    Thanks, Perhaps I’ll go and have a look at Planet 3.0. I do think it a bit strange that rats could be the cause of deforestation on Easter Island. Humans chopping them all down seems the more likely explanation. Deforestation is something we are rather good at.

  62. Rachel says:

    Wow, I just found it and there are some striking parallels with the controversy in climate science. Here’s the link for anyone else who may be interested: http://planet3.org/2011/11/14/the-statues-that-walked/

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