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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This election has sparked a weird debate – one in which no one seems to want to talk

 The noise level hasn’t risen above a low gurgle in the background.

If this is a general election in which the tectonic plates are shifting, they’re the quietest tectonic plates I’ve ever heard. All the parties are standing on pretty radical platforms, yet the noise level hasn’t risen above a low gurgle in the background, like a leaking tap we can’t be bothered to get fixed.

Big issues are being decided here. How do we pay for care, or health, or education? How do we square closed borders with open trade, and why isn’t anyone talking about it? Democracy is on the line, old people are being treated like electoral fodder, our infrastructure is mangled, the NHS is collapsing around us so fast that soon all that’s left will be one tin of chicken soup and a handful of cyanide capsules, and we face the prospect of a one-party Tory state for decades to come. All this and yet . . . silence. There seem to be no shouts of anger in this election. It’s a woozy, sleepy affair.

I knew something was afoot the moment it was called. Theresa May came out of No 10 and said she was having an election because she was fed up with other parties voting against her. No one seemed to want to stand up and tell her that’s a pretty good definition of how functioning democracy works. Basically, she scolded parliament for not going along with her.

Why were we not stunned by the sheer autocratic cheek of the moment? With news outlets, true and fake, growing in number by the day, why was this creeping despotism not reported? Am I the only one in a state of constant flabbergast?

But the Prime Minister’s move paid off. “Of course,” everyone said, “the real argument will now take place across the country, and we welcome,” they assured us, “the chance to have a national debate.”

Well, it’s a pretty weird debate – one in which no one wants to talk. So far, the only person May has debated live on air has been her husband, as Jeremy Corbyn still wanders the country like an Ancient Mariner, signalling to everyone he meets that he will not speak to anyone unless that person is Theresa May. Campaign events have been exercises in shutting down argument, filtering out awkward questions, and speaking only to those who agree with every word their leader says.

Then came the loud campaign chants – “Strong and stable” versus “The system’s rigged against us” – but these got repeated so often that, like any phrase yelled a thousand times, the sense soon fell out of them. Party leaders might as well have mooned at each other from either side of a river.

Granted, some others did debate, but they carried no volume. The Ukip leader, Paul Nuttall, achieved what no one thought possible, by showing the country that Nigel Farage had stature. And there’s a special, silent hell where Tim Farron languishes, his argument stifled at every turn by a media bent on quizzing him on what sort of hell he believes in.

Meanwhile, the party manifestos came out, with titles not so much void of meaning as so bored of it that they sounded like embarrassed whispers. Forward, Together; The Many Not the Few; Change Britain’s Future: these all have the shape and rhythm of political language, but nothing startles them into life. They are not so much ­clarion calls as dusty stains on old vellum. Any loosely connected words will do: Building My Tomorrow or Squaring the Hypotenuse would be equally valid. I still pray for the day when, just for once, a party launches its campaign with something like Because We’re Not Animals! but I realise that’s always going to stay a fantasy.

Maybe because this is the third national vote in as many years, our brains are starting to cancel out the noise. We really need something to wake us up from this torpor – for what’s happening now is a huge transformation of the political scene, and one that we could be stuck with for the next several decades if we don’t shake ourselves out of bed and do something about it.

This revolution came so quietly that no one noticed. Early on in the campaign, Ukip and the Conservatives formed a tacit electoral pact. This time round, Ukip isn’t standing in more than 200 seats, handing Tory candidates a clear run against their opponents in many otherwise competitive constituencies. So, while the left-of-centre is divided, the right gets its act together and looks strong. Tory votes have been artificially suppressed by the rise of Ukip over the past few elections – until it won 12.6 per cent of the electorate in 2015. With the collapse of the Ukip vote, and that party no longer putting up a fight in nearly a third of constituencies, Theresa May had good reason to stride about the place as cockily as she did before the campaign was suspended because of the Manchester outrage.

That’s why she can go quiet, and that’s why she can afford to roam into the centre ground, with some policies stolen from Ed Miliband (caps on energy bill, workers on company boards) and others from Michael Foot (spending commitments that aren’t costed). But that is also why she can afford to move right on immigration and Brexit. It’s why she feels she can go north, and into Scotland and Wales. It’s a full-blooded attempt to get rid of that annoying irritant of democracy: opposition.

Because May’s opponents are not making much of this land-grab, and because the media seem too preoccupied with the usual daily campaign gaffes and stammering answers from underprepared political surrogates, it falls once again to the electorate to shout their disapproval.

More than two million new voters have registered since the election was announced. Of these, large numbers are the under-25s. Whether this will be enough to cause any psephological upsets remains to be seen. But my hope is that those whom politicians hope to keep quiet are just beginning to stir. Who knows, we might yet hear some noise.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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