Hard Talk on the wrong track

by Bryan Walker on July 27, 2011

I wondered what Stephen Sackur might want to put to Rajendra Pachauri when he interviewed the IPCC chair on BBC’s Hardtalk this week. His agenda turned out to be depressingly predictable for the most part. The opening was not encouraging. Sackur referred to other options than a global climate deal in view of the stalled international negotiations, mentioning the abandonment of the Kyoto approach  proposed by David King recently. “Has Pachauri got the energy and the ideas to reframe the climate change debate?” he asked.

Well of course it’s not within Pachauri’s brief to try to frame the debate, as he pointed out when declining Sackur’s urging to express his opinion on the matter. His job is to bring the science to the attention of the negotiating governments, not to advance his opinions on how they might formulate their response. He leaves no doubt as to the necessity driving a response, and is clear that emissions reduction needs to be under way within the near future, but he can hardly go beyond that into the details of negotiation.

Sackur adopted an incredulous tone in relation to the recent weighty IPCC report on renewable energy sources to the effect that renewables could supply nearly 80 percent of the world’s energy by mid-century. The lack of realism, he claimed, was compounded by the report’s positing that world energy consumption would go down. Pachauri could do little more than refer to the surprising speed with which energy transformations can take place and to stress the remarkable gains available in energy efficiency. To Sackur’s reiterated incredulity he replied mildly that no one says the task will be easy, but pointed out that if it is not undertaken the impacts of climate change will create enormous problems for a large part of the world’s population.

Sackur was hot on the credibility trail, and moved immediately to the accusation that the inclusion of a Greenpeace advisor among the writers of the renewable energy report was a serious mistake.  Pachauri came back strongly.

”Not at all. Not a bit. We have had authors from Exxon Mobil…We take in individuals on the strength of their qualifications…It would be totally wrong and unfair to dismiss a good individual just because he’s working for Greenpeace.”

Next on the credibility list was the hoary old chestnut of the mistaken statement about the melting of Himalayan glaciers in the fourth assessment report. A regrettable mistake, said Pachauri immediately, adding that it was one error in 2000 pages of valuable material and pointing out that there was now a protocol in place by which correction of errors can be better achieved.  Sackur at this point even tossed in the climategate emails as somehow contributing to the credibility issue.

He then raised the issue of claims of a link between extreme weather events and global warming, suggesting with considerable vigour that it was stretching the science to make the connection. He quoted a recent statement from Pauchari, “We know (Sackur’s emphasis) there will be more floods, more droughts, more heatwaves and extreme precipitation events”, and claimed this meant that people would assume that specific events could be assigned to global warming. Pachauri had already made clear that it was events in the aggregate, the trend, that he speaks of, and could only repeat that he was not talking about a single event, a fact that he said he clarified and always does.

Then came the accusation in which Sackur wondered whether there had been a decision to become more vocal about the link to extreme weather events because the long-term message is not producing the action wanted from politicians, as if the IPCC is involved in manoeuvring its science to achieve a desired objective. To which Pachauri replied that the forthcoming report on the subject later in the year was being carried out at the behest of the governments of the world.

Geoengineering was introduced, with the suggestion that the IPCC was close to despair in pursuing the subject. It didn’t seem to matter how often Pachauri explained that the geoengineering survey was being undertaken because the governments have asked for it and that the IPCC was taking no position on the subject.

The interview finally moved to the question of Pachauri stepping down as chair. He said he had been appointed to see the 5th assessment through and would do that.

“I really cannot walk away. I’m in the middle of something that’s an ongoing activity.”

Pachauri handled the interview with dignity, making it quite clear that the function of the IPCC was to report on the published science and that it had a duty to inform the public of what the impacts of climate change are likely to be. But the aggressive attacking nature of the questioning made it difficult for him to do much more than defend IPCC procedures.

I know Hardtalk is meant to be hard hitting, but as I watched this interview I thought of Steve Jones’ remarks in his recent report on the impartiality and accuracy of BBC science reporting.

“…again and again news and current affairs return to the sub‐text that the correct way to treat a scientist on air is as if he or she were a politician: someone whose devotion to the truth is determined by a pre‐existing agenda.”

Pachauri is not a climate scientist, but as IPCC chair he represents their work, and the assessment reports are put together by scientists. The line of questioning Sackur adopted was suggestive that something less than scientific openness is at work in the IPCC, that manipulations are going on to fit an agenda. It didn’t correspond with the way the IPCC actually works, preparing reports as directed by UN bodies, following transparent procedures in doing so.

It’s a little dispiriting to see the IPCC treated by a BBC programme as if it is engaged in dodgy political tactics

I often appreciate Hardtalk interviews, including many conducted by Sackur. Maybe he was just playing devil’s advocate in this interview, but even if that were the case it’s a little dispiriting to see the IPCC treated by a BBC programme as if it is engaged in dodgy political tactics (“a shady pastime awaiting exposure by the bright beam of reportorial truth”, in Jones’ words), especially in view of the utter seriousness of the message its reports convey. Politics will no doubt play a part in the formulations of our response to climate change, but the IPCC reports themselves are hardly the product of political contriving. One hopes that the “new training programme for journalists on impartiality as it applies to science” promised by the BBC in response to Jones’ report might produce interviews aimed at eliciting scientific information before confidently challenging it.

Note: A short clip from the Hardtalk interview is available on the BBC website.

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bill July 28, 2011 at 12:38 am

Thanks for that, Bryan.

Boy, this much on Pachauri – one of the contrarian ‘Unholy Trinity’ along with Gore and Mann – and no trolling! They are quiet. :-)

I think this quote from Monbiot is relevant to many ‘high echelon’ journalists’ approach –

Most national journalists are embedded, immersed in the society, beliefs and culture of the people they are meant to hold to account. They are fascinated by power struggles among the elite but have little interest in the conflict between the elite and those they dominate. They celebrate those with agency and ignore those without.

A lot of them treat politics like it was a Soap Opera struggle for popularity between unlikely characters – reflexively taking the ‘deeds of great men’ approach to history – and judge them on whether they are winning, not whether they are right.

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