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Harrabin's Notes: Raising the error bar

In his regular column, BBC environment analyst Roger Harrabin says that one certainty in the climate debate is the existence of uncertainty - and that it must be addressed.

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Being at the business end of a microphone presents its own challenges

Commenting on climate change for the popular media is a miserable business - especially when it involves attempting to convey subtle and complex information whilst being interviewed live.

Sometimes I pity those scientists, politicians and climate sceptics who try to make their case on the airwaves. And I am more convinced than ever about the need for a new language of climate change, based not on scientific certainty but on uncertainty, risk and values.

Because the inquisitorial style of media interrogation based on the "battle for scientific truth" or the "search for right and wrong" regularly forces commentators into statements that are not quite accurate and often not helpful.

In one recent broadcast, for instance, I found myself uttering the words: "So climate science has not changed, but public opinion is changing." Now, this statement is at once right and toe-curlingly wrong. I'll explain how we got to it.

We started the two-way (in the BBC that's what we call an interview with a correspondent) skipping through the news about the latest deadline for announcing controls greenhouse gas emissions. So far, so straightforward.

Their tactic of declaring war on sceptics and denying that debate exists is also almost certainly counter-productive, as well as being wrong

Then we delved into the scientific controversies that have dominated headlines - the embarrassing Climategate, the inexplicable Glaciergate and the inconsequential false alarm over what some bloggers have dubbed Amazongate (which I discussed in my last column).

Then to the broadcast words I regret in my upsum: I declaimed that despite the media frenzy recently, climate science hadn't changed - but the battle for public opinion was changing.

On one level that's correct, on another it's nonsense. Studying the climate is the most complicated systems science ever attempted, and in all sorts of ways the science is changing all the time.

There were, for instance, two important scientific advances last week - or at least, they look important from the point in understanding that we're at now. Both of them narrow bands of uncertainty.

One shows how the oceans and forests conspire to increase man-made warming, but by not nearly as much as previously believed. The other shows that shifts in water vapour in the atmosphere have contributed to recent temperature changes.

Based on past evidence, both studies suggest that the largest extremes of climate projections may not be realised. This is good news (although some scientists warn that the climate may be much more volatile in the future).

The bad news is that the authors of both studies insist that increasing levels of CO2 are stressing the planet beyond its capacity for self-regulation. And CO2 emissions are booming and will continue to do so, the way global politics is going.

That doesn't mean that there aren't plenty of uncertainties about what will happen. The trouble is that the climate debate has become so febrile that the people who govern us, and thus our emissions, are loath to mention the U-word.

You have to survey the history of the debate to see why: from the early days when climate science was emerging, the fossil fuel industry funded multi-million dollar campaigns promoting uncertainty to delay action to control emissions.

Climate scientists have grown used to reacting in a defensive way. And just such a mentality could underlie the reluctance of the University of East Anglia (UEA) to release raw data to be picked apart by sceptics.

The polarisation has left casualties on both sides. Some of the individuals questioning climate science with a properly sceptical mind - and they are almost all individuals rather institutions - are accused of being lackeys of the fossil fuel companies, or of being climate change "deniers", a divisive and insulting term which simply inflames the situation.

The politicians are casualties too. Imagine the following hypothetical broadcast interview.

Minister: "Of course, there are still uncertainties over how exactly the climate will change, but…"

Presenter interrupts: "Sorry, minister, did I hear you say there are uncertainties, with people's fuel bills rising. Are you telling us you are not 100% certain about all the science?"

Now you can see where this is heading, and in a spin-savvy world, most politicians have decided that this is not a profitable route to follow. But in my view their tactic of declaring war on sceptics and denying that debate exists is also almost certainly counter-productive, as well as being wrong.

What we need is a new discourse which acknowledges the majority view on climate science, accepts uncertainties and encourages debate among scientists over their observations of the world - a debate framed in the language of risk and uncertainty in which economics and societal values play a central role.

Will we see such a debate? Don't bet on it. There is more fun to be had for some journalists when combatants are throwing bricks at each other. The pity is that it's public understanding of climate change that's being damaged, and maybe the planet as well.

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