One of the most talked-about programmes of the past week – a primetime documentary on BBC1 – featured two people many seem to regard as living saints.
One was the presenter, Sir David Attenborough, the other Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenage activist inspiring climate change ‘school strikes’ in several countries, including Britain.
The film’s title was Climate Change: The Facts, and these, Sir David claimed, are now ‘incontrovertible’. The film’s message was so bleak it could have been made by Extinction Rebellion, the eco-anarchist protest group which has brought Central London to a standstill.
No one has done more to convey the marvels of the natural world than Attenborough, and his long career has rightly earned him public acclaim.
Sadly, on this occasion, I believe he has presented an alarmist argument derived from a questionable use of evidence, whose nuances he has ignored.
1: In the film an orangutan bounds along a felled tree trunk towards a digger bucket in a Borneo forest
According to Sir David, climate change, is the ‘greatest threat’ to humanity in thousands of years. ‘We are facing the collapse of our societies,’ he intoned, insisting we ‘must all share responsibility… for the future of life on Earth.’
Attenborough is about to turn 93, while Thunberg is just 16, but they issued the same warning. ‘It’s our future and we can’t just let it slip away from us,’ she told viewers. Yet ‘nothing is being done, no one is doing anything’.
The film rounded off a week which had already seen the BBC invite Extinction Rebellion extremists on to its news shows to expound the message – without serious challenge – that unless we cut greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2025, ‘our children will die’.
Last year, the BBC issued guidelines instructing editors that inviting comment from ‘climate change deniers’ was ‘false balance’. In practice, this has meant that those who accept climate change is real, but less threatening than some such as Attenborough claim, have effectively been banished from the airwaves.
Now the Corporation has given acres of airtime to protesters demanding the overthrow of democratic governments and an almost immediate end to fossil fuel-derived power, heating and transport – in other words, the abrupt termination of civilisation as we know it.
Thunberg has become a global media darling, her pronouncements cherished as if they were holy writ.
‘I want you all to panic,’ she told the Davos economic forum in January: and Attenborough’s film may well have persuaded viewers to do just that – and, perhaps, to join the Extinction Rebellion barricades.
2: After reaching the machine, the orangutan makes a desperate grab for it as a tree is about to be crushed
Watching it did fill me with horror, but not at the threat from global warming. It was at the way Sir David and the BBC presented a picture of the near future which was so much more frightening than is justified.
Climate science remains a field riven by deep uncertainties. The film largely glossed over these – and where faced with alternatives, it plumped unerringly for the most pessimistic version of the ‘truth’.
Let me be clear: I am not a ‘denier’. Global warming and climate change are real, in large measure caused by humans. According to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), our emissions were responsible for more than half the 0.6C – 0.7C global average temperature rise recorded between 1951 and 2010.
But I am also convinced that the ‘panic’ Thunberg desires and Attenborough’s film will encourage is not helpful when it comes to making policy designed to tackle it. Moreover, it is a grotesque travesty of the truth to claim that ‘nothing’ has been done: for example, since 1990, UK emissions have fallen by 43 per cent, according to the Government’s Committee on Climate Change. Not only that, Government statistics say 56 per cent of our electricity came from low carbon sources in 2018, our last coal-fired power station will close in six years and the Government has pledged to ‘decarbonise’ electricity by 2030.
Above all, the Climate Change Act requires Britain to reduce its 1990 carbon emissions by no less than 80 per cent by the year 2050, making us the first major economy to make such a dramatic commitment. To say that ‘nothing’ has been done is as risible as it is dishonest.
3: The digger arm is raised by the controller and the animal tumbles down on to the forest floor
One of the film’s most questionable aspects was its claim that extreme weather events such as floods and storms have already got worse and more frequent, thanks to global warming, along with wildfires.
It did say that attributing reasons to any single event is difficult, and derived from probabilities. But in the words of interviewee Michael Mann, a US climate scientist, the effects of climate change are ‘playing out in real time’, and are ‘no longer subtle’. Cue images of monster waves and hurricanes, accompanied by doomy music.
But is this true? The IPCC, regarded by mainstream scientists as the world’s most authoritative source, says there have been some changes, such as higher rainfall. But its Fifth Assessment Report, published in 2013, stated there are ‘no significant observed trends in global tropical cyclone frequency over the past century’. It added: ‘No robust trends in annual numbers of tropical storms, hurricanes and major hurricane counts have been identified over the past 100 years in the North Atlantic basin.’
A separate IPCC report last year said that cyclones in the tropics would in future be less numerous, although some would be stronger.
In 2014, a group of IPCC experts published a paper about flooding. So far, they said, ‘no gauge-based evidence has been found for a climate-driven, globally widespread change in the magnitude/frequency of floods.’
Another memorable segment of the film showed a father and son narrowly escaping from one of several devastating fires last year in California. These, too, were ascribed to global warming. Surprisingly, several recent scientific papers suggest that wildfires have been declining in recent years – even in California, where statistics gathered by the local agency, Calfires, says the number across