Benny Peiser is a social anthropologist best known for his work on the portrayal of climate change. The founder of CCNet, a leading climate policy network, Peiser is co-editor of the journal Energy and Environment and director of the Global Warming Policy Foundation.
Following the BBC's recent decision to uphold a complaint against comments made by climate change sceptic Lord Lawson on the Today programme, we spoke to Peiser about scientific consensus and climate change in the media.
The BBC's head of editorial complaint recently said that Lord Lawson’s views are not supported by any evidence from such things as computer modelling scientific research; thus, they should strengthen their editorial procedures to avoid misleading the public.
Do you think there is such a thing as a unanimous scientific consensus about climate change today?
I think this is irrelevant. I mean, there is a general agreement on CO2 and greenhouse gas: that we are pumping CO2 into the atmosphere and that this will have a warming effect. This is agreed by everyone so that is not the real issue. Even the sceptics agree to that. So, this is a red herring, because no one denies the basic physics, no one denies the basic facts.
And that was not part of the discussion at the BBC anyhow. It was about the flooding this winter and whether it was caused by climate change, as well as what to do about climate change. And, of course, there is no consensus about these issues. So, the BBC is using a red herring to deny critics of climate policies and climate alarmism a forum.
A question of rhetoric then?
No. It's a bit like saying, “do you accept that there is a European Union?” This is the consensus, right, and because Euro-sceptics don’t accept that there is a European Union, they shouldn’t be interviewed on the BBC because they deny the existence of the European Union.
It’s an argument that no one denies, but which is used to silence critics of the policies, and the subsidies, and the billions of pounds being thrown at the problem. So I think it is basically censorship, using a scientific argument that is standing on water. No one really questions this general consensus.
So this is a problem of censorship? We know that climate change is a debate that attracts some extremely strong opinions. Why do you think this is?
This is not about scientific proof. It’s about how serious is it and what should we do about it, you see. It is only the BBC who claims this is about scientific proof. As I’ve just said, no one is questioning the basic physics; no one is question the basic consensus. So this is not about denying climate change or denying the effects of greenhouse gas or that there is human contribution… this is all a red herring. This is about denying anyone who criticises the green lobbyists and the green agenda from raising their criticisms. This is what is at stake. It’s not about the science.
So do you think that, when it comes to the media, it is a one-sided kind of alarmist perception of risk that comes into question?
Of course, because they are well-known for pointing out everything that is alarming and being silent on reports that show it is not as alarming. So you have a bias in favour of alarm, and a kind of ignoring any evidence that suggests that it might not be that alarming.
It’s about people who think we are facing doomsday, and people who are thinking that the issue of climate change is exaggerated. And if you deny anyone sceptical of the apocalyptic doomsday prophecies, then you get in a position where the BBC is so biased that MPs are beginning to consider cutting the license fee, or abolishing the license fee altogether, because people are beginning to be upset by the BBC’s bias.
This is a self-defeating policy; the BBC is digging its own grave by annoying half of the population who are known to be sceptical about the alarmist claims which are not substantiated, which are not founded on any evidence. They are only based on on some kinds of computer modelling, which is not scientific evidence.
So scientific evidence, such as computer modelling and research, is being used as an instrument in the rhetoric?
Well there is a big difference between observation, what you actually observe in reality – that’s what I would call evidence – and computer models that try to model the climate in 50 or 100 years time. I wouldn’t call that evidence. There is a difference between evidence and people saying, “if we don’t act now then in 50 or a 100 years time we will face mega catastrophe”. That’s not evidence, it is speculation.
So, for example, if someone were to say, “scientific knowledge or evidence is always a requirement to express criticism toward the prevailing views on climate change as portrayed in the media,” would you agree with that kind of comment?
No, of course not. Because what is scientific knowledge, you know? Who decides what scientific knowledge is? Do you have to be a climate scientist to have scientific knowledge or do you have to have enough information? Who decides who’s qualified to decide what the right policy is? Because at the end of the day, the scientist cannot tell us what is the best approach to deal with climate change.
The scientists have no idea about costs and benefits; about policy and economics. The scientists only know the atmosphere, they know how the atmosphere functions. But if you want to decide what to do about climate change then the climate scientists are really the least likely to understand what policies or alternatives there are.
The climate debate is not just about the science, but also about policies, about economics, costs, benefits. That’s where the scientists are unequipped, and where the economists and policy makers are those at the forefront of the debate. The BBC makes it out as if it was all about the science, but it isn’t. There are so many other questions where the climate scientists simply haven’t got the expertise, or certainly less expertise.
Do you think this is part of the reason why there was a controversy with Lord Lawson when the argument was made that he shouldn’t be censored because he had an argument more in terms of economics and policy making, rather than science?
Of course. And in any case, if the BBC were to adhere to this policy, they would never ever again interview Ed Miliband or any MPs or Minister or policy maker on climate change, right? For example, you mention Lord Lawson, who has written extensively about climate change issues over the last six, seven years. If he can’t be interviewed because he is not a scientist, well then you cannot interview any politician.
Do you think Lord Lawson is an authoritative and representative figure of the views of climate change when it comes to critics or sceptics?
Well of course. He’s one of the world’s leading authorities who has written, as I said, extensively on climate change. He is not a climate scientist, but I just said this was not about science. It is about what to do about climate, how Britain may again be flooded in the future. So it’s not about science, it is about what are the best ways of dealing with flooding in the future.
In the press, the argument has been put forward quite regularly that sceptics or critics are already over-represented in media coverage, which is said to be misleading the public. Is that a fact? Or do you think the BBC should give more air time to climate change critics/ sceptics?
Well they haven’t in the past. Take Lord Lawson. That was the first time ever that he’s been interviewed on climate change. And if you think about the hundreds of reports over the years by the BBC, climate sceptics are a very and increasingly rare species.
Climate sceptics are definitely not under-represented, but simply absent when it comes to the number of media outlets. However, because there is that bias in the BBC and other news organisations, they are finding their own outlets. The climate-sceptical bloggers are increasingly popular and have huge readerships, and a number of newspapers can see that there is a real market for more balanced views.
Take for instance the Times, the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. These newspapers have realized that the BBC and others are ignoring alternative views and so they are providing the half of the population who are sceptics an opportunity to have more balanced reporting. They can see the big opportunity that the BBC is ruling out.
As I said, from surveys, more than half of the British public is sceptical, so if the BBC alienates more than half of the population then they only have themselves to blame if the British public don’t anymore want to pay for the BBC.
Do you think there might also be a confusion created by separating people in two strict camps: either you are a sceptic or you are a firm believer in climate change? Perhaps there could be a more constructive critic of authoritative knowledge or prevailing rhetoric?
When the BBC interviewed the sceptical scientists like Professor Carter they also got complaints from those who said it was wrong, so it’s not about knowledge or because you are not a climate scientist. They don’t even interview scientists who are sceptical, and on the very rare occasion – once every two years – that they perhaps have an interview with a sceptical scientist, they also get complaints. So this is not about people not being knowledgeable, it’s that people don’t want to listen to any critics. That is as simple as that, they do not want to, or do not like the idea of a debate on this issue.
Do you think this is because it threatens the status quo and stability on the issue of climate change?
Well, they realise that ‘facts’, the simple facts of climate change do not adapt to some kind of doomsday alarming scenario. That is their biggest fear. And that is what they don’t want the public to hear. They want their message to be that we are facing global disaster and unless we act now it will be too late. They don’t want to hear anyone who says, “hold on! Look out of the window, it’s not as bad as the models predict…”
So it is rhetoric of risk?
At the end of the day there is a big industry behind this campaign, let’s not forget. There’s a huge green energy industry which relies on billions of subsidies on government policy. All the people who own wind farms and solar panels and bio-fuel lands all rely on government support. Without the alarm there would not be that much money going into their pockets. So there are big industrial claims behind this campaign who make hundreds of millions of pounds on the back of this alarm.
Why do you think that climate change discussion generally has divided largely along political lines? For example, some might associate scepticism about climate change with right wing politics etc.
Well in Europe this is not the case. That is the case in the U.S. and perhaps in Australia. In Europe, it is really that almost all parties have signed up to the climate agenda. There is no political divide on the climate agenda. I mean, it's beginning to look as if more and more governments, both left and right, are becoming concerned because the costs are piling up and because Europe is becoming uncompetitive as a result. So there is a growing concern that Europe, through its climate policies, is damaging the economy and making energy costs ever more expensive, and that therefore European industries are becoming increasingly uncompetitive. But that is a general concern, not a left or right issue, though in the US it is, yes.
Do you think the problem of competitiveness is related to the avoidance of a more constructive debate?
Well initially, 10 or 20 years ago, the Europeans thought that the climate alarm would help their economy. They thought that Europe would create or produce renewable technologies which could then be exported to the rest of the world. That was the idea, but they forgot that China and other Asian countries could produce these renewable technologies much cheaper and much quicker. So now they are concerned about the Chinese selling solar panels to Europeans, and the Europeans subsidising Chinese solar panels.
So, there are all sorts of big problems in the whole concept that climate change policies could be good for the economy. In reality they have just added to energy costs and it’s a much bigger problem now for many governments around Europe, not least because the shale revolution has brought down the energy crisis in the U.S. and is making live industry in Europe very difficult. As I said, there are other issues involved aside from the science which make the climate debate so contentious, because you are talking about a multi-billion Euro industry that relies on governments to keep handing out money.
If the alarm goes, a lot of green industries that rely on subsidies will go bankrupt as they rely on people being alarmed. Without the alarm, we would not have wind and solar energy; we would not have the need for renewable energy without the climate alarm.
How could the discussion about climate change be improved in the media more generally? How could we make the discussion more constructive?
Well, it is difficult. By and large you improve it by making it as factual, as objective, and as balanced as possible. Also, moving away from the basic scientific issues to focus on the real, big divides and problems which have to do with what we are going to do about climate change. That is where the big question mark remains. And, as you may have noticed, it is much more difficult and more complex than the simplistic way the BBC portrays the controversy.