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Newsletter 8th September 2007

- The BBC and Planet Relief - NGO lobbying in Brussels - "Climate models prove more reliable" - The mystery of the disappearing bees

The BBC and Planet Relief

After what seems to have been a degree of heart-searching, the BBC has backed out of plans to run a “Planet Relief” TV special on climate change next January. This was intended to “raise awareness” of the issues, in a similar way to Live8, which sought to increase concern about global poverty.

The reasons for the Beeb’s change of mind are not entirely clear. The official spokeswoman said that it had nothing to do with concerns raised by some commentators about impartiality. In her words “BBC One aims to bring a mass audience to contemporary and relevant issues, and this includes the topic of climate change. Our audiences tell us they are most receptive to documentary or factual style programming as a means of learning about issues surrounding this subject, and as part of this learning we have made the decision not to proceed with the Planet Relief event. Instead we will focus our energies on a range of factual programmes on the important and complex subject of climate change. This decision was not made in light of the recent debate about impartiality.”

But it seems that senior news editors would beg to differ. Peter Horrocks, head of TV news, wrote in the BBC’s own editors’ blog “It is not the BBC’s job to lead opinion or proselytise on this or any other subject.” In a similar vein, Peter Barron, the Newsnight editor, remarked at the Edinburgh Festival “It is not the BBC’s job to save the planet.” Well said, both Peters.

Whatever the motivation (and to us, it is difficult to believe that the decision was not influenced by a degree of discomfort at being seen to promote a campaign), it has not been universally welcomed. Mark Lynas, environmental campaigner, for one, is quoted as saying “This decision shows a real poverty of understanding among senior BBC executives about the gravity of the situation we face. The only reason this became an issue is that there is a small but vociferous group of climate sceptics lobbying against taking action, so the BBC is behaving like a coward and refusing to take a more consistent stance.”

Which just goes to show that the BBC was absolutely right to pull the programme. Hard-line environmentalists seem to view the media purely as channels for their own views, and deviation from this is unacceptable to them. This is becoming positively Stalinist. And we prefer to believe less in the existence of a “small but vociferous group of climate sceptics” whose lobbying success seems to be out of all proportion to their size (though doubtless funded by some international capitalist conspiracy) and more in the ability of rational people to understand that there is a range of views on both the science of climate change and the policy options necessary to address it.

Just because a person believes something to be right does not make it fact. The BBC should have no role in promoting belief as fact.

NGO lobbying in Brussels

It was recently reported that the European Commission was the main contributor to the finances of Friends of the Earth Europe, an NGO whose role is to lobby the Commission (and other EU institutions). Does the Commission want someone else to tell us it is doing the right thing, or is this just a hypocritical piece of window dressing? Knowing Brussels, it is certainly not as simple as that, but it undoubtedly seems like a poor use of taxpayers’ money.

Now (well, last week, to be precise) comes a survey on EU lobbying by European Voice. This quote may make the reason for the FoE International funding clearer: “Environmental NGOs appear to have had more success than development NGOs…Apart from running effective campaigns, a consensus has built up around the environmental agenda which is broadly supported by the EU institutions. Successive environmental commissioners have also been close to the environmental lobby groups and have been effective at batting off corporate interest groups which can be opposed to environment-friendly policies.” (our italics).

So there you have it: environmental NGOs are preaching to the converted. What they should recognise, however, is that the “consensus” exists in the cosy world of EU officialdom and NGOs rather than among all citizens and also that “corporate interest groups” are not opposed to good environmental policies, but may disagree with some things which environmental lobby groups hold dear. Unfortunately, if these dynamics continue to play out, we will see a continuing tide of highly precautionary, increasingly stringent and largely unnecessary legislation.

“Climate models prove more reliable” is a large-scale experiment which uses spare time on people’s personal computers to run climate models with a range of starting assumptions. The results from 57,000 model runs have been analysed by a team led by Dr Christopher Knight from the University of Manchester, together with colleagues from Oxford University and the Met Office. Sylvia Knights from Oxford gave an interview to, under the somewhat misleading title “Climate models prove more reliable”.

The reliability aspect turns out to be for the distributed computing itself: the team concluded that the hardware on which the model was run had very little influence on the final result. That is simply that the climate model ran as it should. To quote “…the effects of some of the numbers – for example those to do with how to represent a cloud in the computer model – turned out to be very important”. Good. That’s what models are supposed to do: show possible effects of different variables. It still doesn’t make them real, and results generated should still be treated with caution.

The mystery of the disappearing bees

Colony Collapse Disorder is the term used to describe a mysterious loss of enormous numbers of bee colonies in recent years. It is estimated that between 50 and 90% of commercial colonies in the USA have been lost in the last three years, although other regions have also been affected.

Because the cause is unknown, a range of environmental bêtes noires have been postulated as the culprit: mobile phones, pesticides, genetically modified crops and climate change. However, it now seems that a specific virus – Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus – is the only one which emerges from genetic screening as being present in collapsed colonies but not healthy ones. Of course, this is not necessarily the end of the story; the presence of this virus may be an indicator or a secondary cause. Nevertheless, the search for a cause seems to be progressing. Science beats knee-jerk reactions any day.