False balance in media reporting on climate change is a big problem for one overarching reason: there is a huge gap between the 97 percent expert consensus on human-caused global warming, and the public perception that scientists are evenly divided on the subject.
This can undoubtedly be traced in large part to the media giving disproportionate coverage to the opposing fringe climate contrarian views. Research has shown that people who are unaware of the expert consensus are less likely to accept the science and less likely to support taking action to address the problem, so media false balance can be linked directly to our inability to solve the climate problem.
The BBC is one such culprit, having repeatedly given climate contrarians disproportionate air time on its programs. Frequent recent BBC guests include blogger Andrew Montford and politician and founder of the anti-climate policy think tank Global Warming Policy Foundation, Nigel Lawson. The former was recently interviewed on BBC Radio 5 Live’s Stephen Nolan show, together with climate scientist Paul Williams from the University of Reading. The latter was invited onto the BBC Radio 4 Today program alongside climate scientist Brian Hoskins from the Imperial College London and Royal Society.
As climate experts, Williams and Hoskins were excellent choices to discuss the subjects at hand – climate science, models, and the link between climate change and the extreme weather causing flooding in the UK. On the other hand, Montford and Lawson are not climate scientists, nor even scientists of any sort. Williams and Hoskins are entirely capable of discussing the knowns and uncertainties in their areas of expertise, which calls into question the BBC’s motives for inviting non-scientist climate contrarians onto the shows alongside these experts.
Whatever the reason, as could have been expected, both Montford and Lawson repeated several falsehoods on these shows. For example, Montford incorrectly claimed “we haven’t had any warming at all for the last two decades,” and Lawson made the same assertion for “the past 15, 16, 17 years.”
As well as the specific concern about climate change, there are some interesting observations about the types of commentator the BBC uses.