Posted by Co2sceptic on Jan 14th 2013
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The reporting of the Met Office’s new half-decadal prediction of global temperatures, which now forecasts no rise in warming over the next five years (in sharp contrast to previous record warm forecasts) – has highlighted two lessons in reporting climate change. One is the violation of the old maxim that people are entitled to their own opinions but not their own facts – in climate change reporting it seems that facts can be flexible. The other is that it seems you can’t please anyone, anytime. Here is the BBC’s original broadcast of the recent Met Office forecast put out at 7.00 am Tuesday 8th January, BBC Radio 4.

Newsreader: The Met Office has revised downwards its projection for climate change through to 2017. The new figure suggests that although global temperatures will be forced above their long-term average because of greenhouse gases, the recent slowdown in warming will continue. More details from our environment analyst Roger Harrabin.

Roger Harrabin: Last year the Met Office projected that as greenhouse gases increase, the world’s temperature would be 0.54 degrees warmer than the long-term average by 2016. The new experimental Met Office computer model, looking a year further ahead, projects that the Earth will continue to warm, but the increase will be about 20% less than the previous calculation. If the new number proves accurate, there will have been little additional warming for two decades. The Met Office says natural cycles have caused the recent slowdown in warming, including maybe changes in the sun and ocean currents. Mainstream climate scientists say that when the natural cooling factors change again, temperatures will be driven up further by greenhouse gases.

I have said before that I did not think Roger’s script was very good, the use of figures was confusing in my view, but I think he did get the story basically right; that the Met Office has a new projection to 2017, based on a new computer model, and that will mean little additional warming for two decades (although I would have said none). He said the temperature slowdown was due to natural influences and that temperatures would eventually go up again.

‘Headlines Are So Important’

But what people hear and what they think they heard can be two different things, and any mention of a pause in global warming raises the wrath of those who have strong opinions about climate change but who haven’t looked too closely at the details. Some contacted the BBC’s Feedback programme to complain.

Feedback dealt with the global warming story in a programme broadcast on the 11th January. Phone comments from two members of the public were included to kick the piece off; both complained about the coverage for reasons that were either incorrect, off the point or trivial.

“My name is Ruth Jarman, I live in Hartley Wintney in Hampshire. Yeah, I think the headlines are so important, because some people that’s all they listen to. This one is not only not clear, I think it’s actually misleading. This is tosh – well, as near tosh as you can get to, on Radio 4. The research looks only up to 2017, and so may be useful for people who intend to be dead by then, but others of us may be interested in thinking a little longer-term. That slowdown in warming is just that – it’s still a warming. And I don’t think this was made very clear in the programme.”

Personally I think this complaint is nonsense, in poor taste, and not borne out by what Roger actually said. He dealt with all the points Ms Jarman complains about.

The other member of the public said this; “My name’s Hilary Gander. I thought this was rather strange, since I hadn’t heard it from other sources, so I listened to the actual news item. And what it turned out to be was that the Met Office was saying that natural cooling factors – such as ocean currents and things that happen naturally with the sun – were driving this cooling. And that after these changes had, kind of, run their course, temperatures would go up again. So, to preface it with that sort of introduction seems, well, confusing.”

Again I can’t see what she is moaning about. I suspect she just didn’t like the news.

Not long after the broadcast it was pointed out by bloggers that these two members of the public were not your average public: Hilary Gander is a climate activist and founding member of the Campaign against Climate Change. Ruth Jarman is also a climate activist and member of the Hartley Wintney Solar Action Group. It is inexplicable why their affiliations were not mentioned by the BBC but instead as “just some of the listeners who contacted me or tweeted @BBCR4Feedback to raise their concerns.”

The other person interviewed on Feedback was Prof Julia Slingo, the Met Office’s Chief Scientist. She was not happy with Roger’s report either.

Roger Bolton (Feedback presenter): The Met Office, on whose figures the report was based, also had a lot of people getting in touch. Professor Julia Slingo is their chief scientist. I asked her if she thought that the Today headline “The Met Office says it does not believe that global warming will be as severe as it had previously predicted” was accurate.

Julia Slingo: Absolutely not. I mean, just to put the record straight, we had not put out, ourselves, a report. We have, over several years, on an annual basis, placed our decadal forecasts on our research pages. They are experimental, they are research in progress, and these were picked up by the sceptic blogs and the story was taken from there.

How the story came out is not as important as the story itself. When asked what headline she would have preferred to hear Prof Slingo said: “Our headline would have said that our latest forecasts for the next five years show that the Earth will continue to be at record warm levels, similar to those we’ve seen over the last decade, and with a fair chance that new records will be made during that period.”

This goes to show that in general one should not let scientists be journalists. It misses the whole point of the story, and it is in itself misleading. To say the Earth will continue to be at record warm levels similar to that seen over the past decade is a long-winded way of saying the next five years will see the same global temperature as the past ten’ (actually the past 15 years.) In other words no significant warming for two decades. Roger is right, and Slingo is spinning.

Roger Bolton: “However, the Today Programme also say to us: “Roger Harrabin’s subsequent report, within the news, explained fully the time scale of the revised figures and the reasoning behind it.” Do you think he did?”

Julia Slingo: “No he didn’t, because he didn’t – he still presented this as a projection of climate change, and these forecasts are not that. They are actually a forecast of how the natural variability of the climate system may affect the trajectory of warming, just in the next five years. And we are absolutely clear that this in no way changes our long-term projections of climate change and the seriousness of the situation.”

Here again Slingo misses the point. The key aspect of the story was that a 5-year prediction of no additional warming (or if you must, “the Earth will continue to be at record warm levels, similar to those we’ve seen over the last decade”) will mean 20 years of no warming trend. This fact is significant as climate models strain to explain it if they can explain it at all. The five years into the future is just a part of the story.

Slingo added: “I think it’s the interpretation of the forecasts that we are very unhappy about and that totally misrepresent the integrity of the science that we undertake and the messaging that we would have given on these forecasts, if we had had an opportunity to comment.”

In other words the BBC interpretation put on the decadal forecast was inconvenient although not in itself wrong. The comment about misrepresenting the integrity of the science is waffle. Slingo also said, “If, of course, we’d had the chance to present the story ourselves, we would have of course put the appropriate messaging around it.”

That’s why we have journalists – so that people can’t put the “appropriate” message on a story. The BBC’s report was not perfect but it was in essence correct. Journalists have a duty to be correct, not to be liked or approved of.