Climate change: a burning question on tv

This week, RTE (the national broadcasting authority of Ireland) aired a program on climate change. ‘A burning question was an hour-long TV documentary on climate science, climate scepticism and the role of the media in this debate. The program was produced by Earth Horizon Productions, directed by Paula Kehoe and edited by Dónal Ó Céilleachair. I watched the program out of general interest and was intrigued to see my name listed in the credits (I think this arose from several discussions I had with Dónal).

I thought the program very good overall, with some reservations. It’s hard to cover such a topic in an hour, so the producers employed some media tricks that few scientists enjoy. I’m not sure cutting to a vox pop every few minutes throughout the program casts much light on the subject matter (besides, are the opinions of random individuals stopped on the street a reliable gauge of the view of the general poulation?). Secondly, the constant switching from expert to expert in a cyclic merry-go-round of byte-sized interviews tends to confuse rather than elucidate. Thirdly, I thought the program could have had more on climate skepticism (see below).

That said, the core of the program was solid. The main presenter was Duncan Stewart, an award-winning architect and environmentalist well-known for his excellent TV series Eco-Eye. There were some very good interviews, notably with heavy hitters such as former UN High Commision Mary Robinson, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and IPCC Chairman RK Pachauri.

Duncan Stewart of Earth Horizon Productions

The key scientist of the program was superb; Peter Lynch, a leading climatologist at University College Dublin, gave the lie to the old media adage that experts make poor communicators. Professor Lynch explained the basic principles of the enhanced greenhouse effect in exemplary fashion, starting with the work of pioneers such as Fourier, Tyndall and Arrhenius, and finishing with modern measurements of carbon dioxide emissions and surface temperatures. Interesting that the best way to explain science is often to describe it in chronological order of discovery!

Prof Peter Lynch of UCD

There were many other good contributions in the program; in particular from the environmental writer John Gibbons (on the societal impacts of climate), from Professor John Sweeney (Professor of Geography at UC Maynooth and member of the IPCC) and from economist and boadcaster David McWilliams (on the economics of climate change). One of the most lucid summaries was given by former UN High Commisioner Mary Robinson – describing the expected impacts of climate change on the poorest societies in the world, and the importance but difficulty of concerted international action, she left one wishing other politicians had as good a grasp of the subject.

Prof Mary Robinson, former UN High Comissioner

Justin Lewis, a Professor of Journalism and Media Studies at Cardiff University, talked a little about the role of the media in the public perception of climate science. He explained the basic problem clearly; that in the media’s attempt to present a balanced debate view, the observer is left with the impression of a great 50/50 debate between experts, rather than the overwhelming consensus that exists. This is the familiar problem of a ‘balanced debate’ in the media that pays no attention to weightings. Lewis also touched on ‘climategate’, contrasting the great publicity afforded to the hacked East Anglia emails with the minimal media attention given to the results of the subsequent enquiry (the ‘perpetrators’ have since been exonerated).

Prof Justin Lewis of Cardiff University

I thought this section very interesting, but there could have been more: for example, there was no mention of the obvious point that “Scientists Right!” is not much of a media story, while “Scientists Wrong!” is. By definition, the minority viewpoint will always get more publicity, a fact the public should be made aware of. I also thought that more time could have been spent on the analysis of the role of journalists. Given the dominance of the media in our lives, this is a key issue in the pubic perception of science (and of anything else). In particular, there was no mention of the issue of political bias. Much of the climate scepticism in the US media is driven not by business interests, but by journalists of a particular political viewpoint: the viewpoint of right-wing conservatives who oppose government regulation and taxation in all forms.

In general, I thought the program could have had more on climate skepticism, rather than simply dismissing it as ‘vested interest’. In my opinion, there are at least five distinct categories of skepticism (with many overlaps):

(i) A tiny minority of genuine scientists with no links to industry or politics (such as Freeman Dyson or Richard Lindzen), who remain unconvinced of the scale or extent of man-made warming. Such minority opinion is important, but exists for almost every scientific theory (an obvious fact that is almost never stated in the media).

(ii) A larger group of economists, political scientists and intellectuals such as Bjorn Lomborg who remain unconvinced. This community are strong on economics but they are not scientists and rarely understand the reliability (and limitations) of experimental measurements – another fact that is rarely highlighted in the media.

(iii)A huge community of commentators, journalists and bloggers who seem to have almost no appreciation of the difference between random, informed, and expert opinion. A great deal of these reject the opinion of the majority of scientists as biased and subscribe to all sorts of ‘rent-seeker’ conspiracy theories.

(iv)The vested interests of big business; as in the case of the tobacco lobby, there are still climate scientists who are paid to believe what they believe

(v)The political viewpoint of conservatives and anti-regulation interests; I suspect this last sector is much more influential than is generally realised.

Overall, I enjoyed the program very much – it’s hard to cover everything in one hour. I nearly fell off the couch when I saw my name in the credits!


Justin Lewis has a book out on climate science and the media – ‘Climate Change and the Media’ looks well worth a read


Filed under Global warming, Science and society

9 responses to “Climate change: a burning question on tv

  1. Coilin MacLochlainn


    I just read your comment on thinkorswim and went to link to your website. Which of those three in the photo are you? Who is Lochlainn O Raifeartaigh? I presume your late father, but you don’t explain. What’s with those personal exchanges and chit-chat in comments? I presume the actual good stuff on your site is your articles, lecture notes and blog.

    I wouldn’t agree with you on airing the thoughts of your five categories of denialists. As Duncan’s programme explained, it is exactly because we have given so much air-time to the contrarian view (in the purported interest of balance) that the public is so confused and the world is failing to get on message and tackle the problem. Even your innocent comment doesn’t help. I thought it was a clever device by Duncan to use selected vox-pops as it would have helped to draw in the general viewer, many of whom think and feel the same as the vox-poppees. If he had instead included dyed in the wool denialists he would have weakened the message of his programme.

  2. cormac

    I see what you mean Colin – it’s nice to have at least one program where scientific opinion isn’t drowned out by the sceptics, or presented as a 50/50 debate. However, I am certainly not advocating that the different categories be represented on the program, but that they be listed and recognized for what they are.

    That said, I do believe points raised by skeptics should be tackled, if only because ignoring your opponent’s argument is never a good way to convince the public. Also, the teacher in me enjoys dealing with points raised by skeptics – mainly because a great many of them were once reasonable questions that have been satisfactorily answered by the evidence long since!
    Re vox pop, I watced the program with my Mum, and she too the opinios of the experts were almost drowned out by the Joe Duffy approach…

  3. Paul Creedon


    Thank you for pointing out the fact that this programme lacked an alternative point of view from ‘skeptics’. This was no surprise to me as those pushing the ‘man made climate’ theory/religion will not tolerate anybody that disagrees with them. This is the reason why they consistantly use language such as ‘skeptic or denier’as a means of silencing or putting down alternative points of view. Duncan Stewart is a classic example of this. In fact after the show aired I pointed out a few things on his website by way of a comment and he later deleted this. It seems the only comments he allows are those that are in alignment with his point of view.

    A Burning Question’ was just another example of this mentality. It was obvious that those interviewed such as Gibbons, Sweeney etc were carefully cherry picked to push one view only. John Sweeney for example is put forward by enviros as Ireland’s leading independent climate scientist. This is the same guy who stood before the oirechtas last year claiming that we were going to have plagues of malaria/mosquitoes here and unprecedented hot weather etc even though we have just had the wettest 6 years in recorded history in Ireland since records began. Sweeney needs his funding of course and by extension he needs there to be a climate ‘problem’. He has received €2.27m in climate related funding between 2002 and 2008. If there is no climate problem there is no funding for him. By the way, He is also on the board of directors of Friends of the Earth which is an environmental campaigning organisation. So much for him being objective.

    The supposed climategate exonerations you mention were a whitewash. The so called “independent” investigation was led by Sir Muir Russell – a vehement supporter of the notion of anthropogenic global warming.

    Mary Robinson, who was a fine president, now a globalist, represents a political organisation called the UN which has its own agenda including pushing the man made climate change theory and treaties. If you listened to the words she used at the beginning of the programme you will have noticed that the cat was let out of the bag when she used the phrase ‘climate justice”. This is nothing but code language for redistribution of wealth. This phrase derives from ‘social justice’ originating in marxism and redistribution of wealth is a key policy of environmentalists. Isn’t that what the carbon tax is? It’s not a coincidence that some refer to them as watermelons i.e. Green on the outside and red on the inside.

    Prof. Peter Lynch was the key scientist you say but he did manage a few whoppers didn’t he. I am referring to his one about the ozone. A chap called Dobson discovered ozone depletion in the antartic in the 1950’s long before those evil cfcs came along. It was shown to be seasonal. Lynch hypothesised about freon etc lasting 100 years. However 2 australian scientists, Aslim Khalil and R.A. Rasmussen in 1988 disproved this (days or weeks not 100 years) as well as showing freon to be 4 to 8 times heavier than air. Incidentally no ozone hole ever developed in the north pole, but isn’t the northern hemisphere where all the cfcs are used? The montreal protocol was another UN mugging.

    Oh do i need to go on……..What about that fellow james hansen and that hockey stick chart that duncan was showing us……..yes the one with the dramatic rise in temperature at the end. Steve McIntyre of canada exposed this chart as a fraud. This chart omits the medieval optimum warm period and the little ice age. Also, It pastes together two completely temp records i.e. tree rings and air temp to give that rather dramaic visual effect….

    Kind Regards

    Paul, Cork

  4. Paul Creedon

    Ps. I forgot to mention the whole consensus thingy. Heres’ a nice quote from Michael Crichton

    –I want to pause here and talk about this notion of consensus, and the rise of what has been called consensus science. I regard consensus science as an extremely pernicious development that ought to be stopped cold in its tracks. Historically, the claim of consensus has been the first refuge of scoundrels; it is a way to avoid debate by claiming that the matter is already settled. Whenever you hear the consensus of scientists agrees on something or other, reach for your wallet, because you’re being had.

    “Let’s be clear: The work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Consensus is the business of politics. Science, on the contrary, requires only one investigator who happens to be right, which means that he or she has results that are verifiable by reference to the real world. In science consensus is irrelevant. What is relevant is reproducible results. The greatest scientists in history are great precisely because they broke with the consensus.

    “There is no such thing as consensus science. If it’s consensus, it isn’t science. If it’s science, it isn’t consensus. Period. . . .

    “I would remind you to notice where the claim of consensus is invoked. Consensus is invoked only in situations where the science is not solid enough. Nobody says the consensus of scientists agrees that E=mc2. Nobody says the consensus is that the sun is 93 million miles away. It would never occur to anyone to speak that way. .–

    (Michael Crichton, “‘Aliens Cause Global Warming’,” reprinted in Wall Street Journal, November 7, 2008.)

  5. Paul Creedon

    One minor correction on my part. It wasn’t dobson himself who discovered it but he developed the dobsonmeter used to measure atmospheric ozone and set up measuring stations between 1024 and 1958.

  6. Paul Creedon

    1924 I mean. Not 1024 of course.

  7. cormac

    Hi Paul. Not sure I agree with most of your points.
    Re Micheal Crichton, I read his book last summer, enjoyed it as a novel. However, his thesis (and yours) of a giant conspiracy seems to me to be far-fetched, and completely unsustainable in a world where scientists enjoy proving each other wrong.
    Re consensus, it’s about what most scientists currently think the evidence implies – this is not static, nor is it about closing the door, or silencing dissent.

  8. Paul Creedon

    Thank you kindly Cormac for your reply. Just for the sake of clarity, I have not read the Crighton book that you are referring to. Also, I did not mention anything about a giant conspiracy. This is something that you have now projected on to my comments.

    The Crighton quote is from one of his lectures I believe. The reason I used this is because I believe it quite aptly sums up the fact that ‘consensus’ is NEVER the determining factor in any scientific matter. Radical environmentalists (and other stakeholders in the AGW theory) on the other hand are in fact the ones who push this idea of consensus as a means of bulldozing into law their green ideology to which we must now all become enslaved.

    ON TV3 2 days ago there was a climate debate hosted by kevin myers on the Vincent Browne show. There was one warmist present (whose name I don’t know) and his sole contribution to the discussion was “the debate is over, the debate is over, we must act now”. (In other words we must pass laws urgently that restrict peoples lifestyle and freedom etc) Radical leftists such as him are always in a hurry hiding behind the veil of some perceived crisis and I find it very disconcerting that we now have a situation in Ireland where the tail is wagging the dog. He is a perfect example of what Crighton was talking about.

    As far as my previous comment is concerned, which of my points specifically do you believe are incorrect and why?

    Kind Regards


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