The BBC is warning its staff to avoid false balance on climate change coverage, and accepting that its past coverage of the issue has been problematic, in a note published today by the climate change blog Carbon Brief. The move follows criticism and apologies over its climate change coverage.
In particular, the note emphasized that “You do not need a ‘denier’ to balance the debate,” and offered employees a training course on climate change reporting. “Manmade climate change exists: If the science proves it we should report it,” according to the note.
In October, the BBC apologized for allowing climate denier Lord Lawson’s claim that global temperatures have not risen in the past decade to go unchallenged on BBC Radio 4’s Today program. At first, the program claimed that it was simply allowing space for “dissenting voices,” citing the fact that those views are “reflected by the current US administration.”
It’s not the first time BBC has waded into murky ethical waters on the matter. In 2014, they faced similar criticism over another interview with Lord Lawson. However, the new incident highlights the dangers of the Trump administration’s rejection of scientific facts, and specifically, the risk that it could present a legitimate platform for climate change deniers hoping to be seen as legitimate dissenters.
This, of course, could not be further from the truth. While scientists are still studying and theorizing on the specific processes and projections involved in climate change, the fact that temperatures are rising as a direct result of human activity is no longer up for legitimate debate. Studies have shown that 97 percent of climate scientists agree that it’s extremely likely that the warming seen in the past century can be directly attributed to human activities. The nature of this type of science means it is difficult to attribute each climate or extreme weather incident to any once cause, and the dire nature of the need to mitigate climate change means we can’t wait for scientists to attribute each individual temperature change, flood, or drought to the effects of carbon emissions. With most of the world’s leading scientific organizations stating their explicit support of this conclusion, it’s time to take scientists at their word.
And these misguided attempts to balance that scientific reality with climate change denial is certainly not limited to the BBC. Nor is it limited to the usual right-wing outlets such as Fox News, although they are among the worst offenders. As Bill Nye pointed out, CNN has invited climate change deniers to debate the issue.
“I will say, as much as I love the CNN, you’re doing a disservice by having one climate change skeptic, and not 97 or 98 scientists or engineers concerned about climate change,” he said.
According to a report by Media Matters, the coverage of the 2013 United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change fifth assessment report by both the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post gave the three percent of climate skeptics “over five times the amount of representation [they have] in the scientific community.”
And of course, Fox News has long propagated climate skepticism in the face of a vast amount of scientific evidence to the contrary. A 2011 study by researchers from Yale and several other universities found that Fox’s news coverage routinely ignored the scientific evidence on climate change. The study noted:
“Notably, Fox also provided substantially more coverage on climate change than the other two networks, thereby amplifying doubt about global warming within the cable news landscape.”
Last year, a study showed that nearly 90 percent of Americans were not aware there is a scientific consensus surrounding climate change. Given the dire need to reduce emissions in order to get rising temperatures under control, and the necessity of political willpower in making this happen, this is a highly dangerous state of affairs.
The BBC’s recent move is a step in the right direction. Other networks should follow its lead.
While good journalism depends on making room for debate and presenting a balanced viewpoint, giving equal weight to two sides of an issue on which scientists have come to a clear consensus is irresponsible. We live in an increasingly partisan era of politics, and it’s understandable that otherwise competent journalists might lump climate change in with other, more subjective debates. As long as the facts are presented, the press has a responsibility to do just that. But aiming to give climate deniers as much weight as scientists fails to do so, and just perpetuates a problem that puts the entire world at risk.