The Climate Change ‘Debate’ – Part 1

“This debate will go on and on. It’s been an interesting discussion and hopefully we’ll come back to it again.” [Miriam O’Callaghan, RTE’s Prime Time, 25th November 2008]

Miriam O’Callaghan concluding a recent Prime Time segment ‘Questions raised over global warming’, making the surprising claim that there exists a ‘debate’ over the science of climate change.

All the more surprising given the preceding segment raised no questions about the validity of the science. It offered no new discoveries and only half heartedly revisited old criticisms.

But ‘Ireland’s flagship current affairs programme’ saw fit to hold a debate, so perhaps there is more to it than meets the eye. [Star of the Day, RTE Guide]

Balancing Act

Prime Time, RTE and their broadsheet counterparts consider themselves opinion leaders and shapers. They present themselves as conduits for informed analysis and claim to ask the ‘hard questions’, sometimes making for ‘tie-loosening telly’.

In this edition of Prime Time, RTE sought to satisfy ‘one of the traditional pillars of good journalism’, the need for a ‘balancing’ argument – to counteract a possible perception of bias towards coverage of climate change science.

In doing so RTE have sought out ‘sceptics’, unqualified in the field and who have been in the pay of an industry whose survival depends on undermining the scientific consensus, to ‘balance’ the ‘debate’.

US media watch dog Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting explained the potential pitfalls of this balancing act:

“By giving equal time to opposing views, the major mainstream newspapers significantly downplayed scientific understanding of the role humans play in global warming. Certainly there is a need to represent multiple viewpoints, but when generally agreed-upon scientific findings are presented side-by-side with the viewpoints of a handful of skeptics, readers are poorly served. Meanwhile, the world dangerously warms.” [Journalistic Balance as Global Warming Bias, Jules Boykoff and Maxwell Boykoff, FAIR, December 2004]

A judgement reiterated by professor of Social Sciences, Media and Communication, Sharon Beder:

“In their attempts to be balanced on a scientific story, journalists may use any opposing view even when it has little scientific credibility in the wider scientific community. This can be very misleading. In the case of global warming, the fossil fuel industry has taken advantage of this convention by funding a handful of dissidents and demanding that they are given equal media coverage despite their poor standing in the scientific community.” [The Age, Caving in to ideological critics, October 18 2006]

Don’t get too technical or I’ll lose my audience

Global warming sceptics are most likely not professionals in the field of climate science. They are however suitably adept in the art of polemics. And debates lend themselves to polemics far more readily than they do to facts, making the climate expert’s task far more difficult than the sceptics.

Simply giving the appearance of wielding facts is often just as good as, and arguably far more effective than, inundating listeners with complex theories and formulae. For instance, the following exchange took place during the ‘debate’, the only discussion of climate change in the whole programme as it happens:

Dr. Kieran Hickey: “Global temperature has risen 0.2 degrees centigrade every decade since 1980, in Ireland it’s actually 0.4 degrees.”

Phelim McAleer: “But Kieran must know that in the last 13 years it has not warmed up on the earth.”

Dr. Kieran Hickey: “If you take each individual year it does show change. If you look at the underlining trend you can see clearly that that the underlying trend is upwards.”

Phelim McAleer: “Two minutes ago you said in every decade since 1980 its gone up by 0.2, you’re now agreeing that in the last thirteen years it hasn’t warmed at all.”

Dr. Kieran Hickey: “I haven’t said that at all, the warming trend is there, you can’t compare the decadal figure with the yearly annual variability.”

From this exchange it may appear to the uninitiated, and no doubt even the initiated, that Dr. Hickey was forced to concede the point to Mr. McAleer. That the sceptic had caught the climate expert out; perhaps there are some holes in the science.

But this is obviously not the case, as we’ll see in a moment. The difficulty is that science, and most scientists for that matter, are not ‘designed’ to convey complex information in sound bites – the commodity of mainstream media discourse.

This forced and unnatural succinctness is designed to maintain audience interest, as presenter Miriam O’Callaghan made abundantly clear: [to Dr. Hickey] “Don’t get too technical or I’ll lose my audience.” This imbalance of discourse lends itself to the ‘sceptic’, who need only question a certain complex part of the thesis in the knowledge that the expert will have insufficient time or audience attention to refute the claim.

A Seed of Doubt

It might be useful to address Mr McAleer’s claim to show just how complicated it can be to tackle some of the more disingenuous arguments against climate change. To do this it may be simplest to use a graph. The following graph shows the ‘Global average temperature anomaly 1975-2007‘:

As you can see from the graph the global average temperature measured on a decadal interval between 1998 and 2008, indicated by the highest blue line, shows a temperature increase of only 0.09°C. However, as Dr. Hickey says, you cannot compare the decadal figure with the yearly figure.

Depending on the interval you choose to measure, be it 10 year, 8 year or 2 year the trend may change. If you were to take a 2 year interval you may find global temperatures decreasing in some of the two year periods, but it would be impossible to say on the basis of this that the underlying trend has not been upwards. This trend, indicated by the red line, shows that the climate has been warming consistently since the 1980’s.

This assertion is supported by the vast majority of climate experts:

The fact that “over the last ten years, global temperatures have warmed more slowly than the long-term trend…does not mean that global warming has slowed down or even stopped. It is entirely consistent with our understanding of natural fluctuations of the climate within a trend of continued long-term warming.” [Met Office, Global warming goes on, 23 September 2008]

Unfortunately for the scientist, he is bound by certain terms of reference and modes of discourse that the polemicist or sceptic is not. Dr. Hickey is compelled to concede that the decadal figure does not reflect the magnitude of warming in the underlying trend.

However, this is no way concedes support for Mr. McAleer’s contention, it is simply to say that if you isolate smaller arbitrary parts of a systematic analysis you can find data which conflicts with the underlying trend.As Harry McGee commented in his article on Mr. McAleer’s forthcoming film “None of these arguments are new.” And yet for some reason the serious, ‘quality’, liberal media, which provide the ‘best journalism in Ireland, seem inclined to continually entertain them. [Film-makers taking on our ‘global warming hysteria’, The Irish Times, 15th November 2008]

A Contrarian Policy

We wrote to RTE to question their judgment in hosting this debate:

Dear Sir/Madam, [sent to]

The segment titled ‘Questions raised over global warming’ on the Tuesday 25th November edition of Prime Time, including excerpts from the as yet unreleased documentary ‘Not Evil Just Wrong’ and discussion between Dr Kieran Hickey and Phelim McAleer, was designed to lead viewers to believe there is an ongoing ‘debate’ over the validity of the science underpinning the theory of Global Warming.

Presenter Miriam O’Callaghan concluded the segment commenting: “This debate will go on and on. It’s been an interesting discussion and hopefully we’ll come back to it again.”

The programme was misleading in that, despite what the title of the segment suggested, the former corporate documentary maker Phelim McAleer [Mine Your Own Business, Phelim McAleer’s last documentary was funded by Canadian mining company, Gabriel Resources] did not raise any valid questions over the science of global warming. He simply reverted to a fundamentally flawed and reductionist line of reasoning which alleges that since the proposed solution to global warming is a decrease in carbon emissions, moves by environmentalists to encourage that necessity evidenced an anti-development, anti-capitalist motivation and in his view demonstrated a preference for animals over humans.

On the contrary, George Monbiot, a popular and respected figure in the environmental movement (there is obviously no real cohesive movement called the ‘environmental movement’, there are simply millions possibly billions of unconnected or loosely connected people that recognise the negative impact on health and the economy that degradation of the environment will likely have) recently wrote: “Forget the sodding polar bears: this is about all of us.”*

When all the experts agree that urgent, costly and potentially unpopular action is required to combat global warming how can RTE justify presenting discredited opinions as informed debate?

Yours sincerely,

David Manning

Ken O’Shea, RTE Editor of Current Affairs, responded the next day:


Thank you for your email re: Tuesday night’s programme. I’m sorry you disagreed with our choice of story on the night in relation to climate change. However, I disagree with some of the points you raise. First of all, it was made abundantly clear in the studio introduction to the piece that we were intentionally going to hear the other, “controversial”, side of the climate change debate. We made it very, very clear that the vast majority of international scientific opinion believes that climate chance/global warming is a deeply serious reality.

But we also said that there are some people who believe the gravity of the situation may have been overstated. Although you may not agree with that, there are a substantial number of scientific and non-scientific individuals who do not agree with the current consensus on climate change.

We said we were going to show excerpts from a controversial – and we stressed that – documentary which challenged the consensus. Throughout the excerpt, we ran a caption which made it clear that it was not a Prime Time report, but a cut-down of somebody else’s documentary.

And after that, we had a debate with an internationally known Irish scientist who vigorously and coherently challenged all aspects of the filmmakers thesis.

Regular viewers will know that we have extensively covered the climate change issue in recent years, investing considerable resources both and home and abroad in telling what we know to be a vital, urgent and serious issue. We have had many scientific experts – national and international – on our show talking about the gravity of the situation. For instance, a few months back we paid for a ferry (!) ticket for George Monbiot to come over from London to talk about his work.

But one of the major functions of any current affairs operation is to examine all sides of an argument and I think we should always have a little room for dissenting voices on every issue. That feeds and informs the debate. And, crucially, it allows people to make up their own minds, once they are presented with both sides of the argument.

Thanks for taking the time to write to us, audience feedback is critical to what we do.


Ken O’Shea

To read Part 2 of this MediaShot follow this link.

* George Monbiot’s point is that projections which suggest the Arctic’s late-summer sea ice is likely to disappear almost completely towards the end of the 21st century is not just a concern for polar bears, it “is about all of us.”

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