Why I want balance on climate change coverage

Debate versus "debate".

I want balance in my reporting on climate change. I need to be exposed to views different to my own, to get the facts required to be able to defend my views when they’re right, or reassess them if they’re wrong.

I want balance between people who say aviation can be made clean, and those who say it is inherently unsustainably polluting.

I want balance between people who say nuclear capacity can be increased in time to aid the short-term cuts to emissions, and those who argue it is too slow and expensive to build.

I want balance between people who view carbon reduction as the only priority for green politics, and those who maintain that it is one problem in many. Between the people who would barrage the Severn for clean energy, and those who would burn dirty fuel to save endangered species.

I want balance between those who think CCS can capture enough carbon to matter, and those who don’t.

I want balance between the technological utopians and the people who argue every facet of our lives will need to change.

I want balance between the photovoltaic cell manufacturers, the wind turbine machinists, the nuclear physicists, and the myriad other sources of carbon-neutral energy.

I want balance between people who argue for 80 per cent reductions by 2050, and those who say that needs to happen 20 years sooner.

With some of these debates, I take sides. With a few, I think the other side is dangerously wrong. But, as much as a might wish otherwise, these are discussions we need to have. 

What I don’t want, or need, is balance between those who argue climate change is a problem, and those who argue it isn’t. Between those who want to do something to stop it, and those who want to save their money and spend it on mopping up the bodies later.

These are not questions on which there is confusion, on which there are strong arguments on both sides where concerted debate is necessary to sort out competing claims. These are questions which are settled, and which have been settled for years. Absent compelling new evidence, there is no point in repeating the historical debates. And that evidence the sort likely to be supplied by climatologists, not Telegraph bloggers -

I have no interest in arguing with these people. I don’t need to hear their viewpoints, or learn ways to rebut them, because I don’t plan on wasting my time talking to them about it in the first place, and doubt they plan on being convinced any time soon. They don’t want debate, they want uncertainty, doubt and, above all, delay. 

So when the BBC is revealed to have consulted a range of voices on guiding its climate coverage, from members of the IEA and CBI, through industry groups like NPower and BP, to organisations like Greenpeace and Tearfund and academics from Oxford, Imperial and Harvard universities, I am cheered. But the fact that they didn't feel the need to hew to false balance, to invite people to rekindle quenched fires for no reason other than their own desire to do so, is even better news.

Are wind farms the best way to cut carbon? Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.