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How the BBC became a “football” in the climate culture war

Climate contrarians are losing their ideological battle as net zero makes increasing economic and environmental sense.

By Philippa Nuttall

The recent attacks against Justin Rowlatt, the BBC’s climate correspondent, are part of a long running culture war against the UK’s national broadcaster and its climate coverage. Ten years ago, the climate contrarians were still able to sow doubt and confusion. Today, however, British politicians and voters increasingly accept the science behind climate change and understand that the move to a net-zero society will have environmental, humanitarian and economic benefits. Despite an uptick in belligerence from certain right-wing politicians against climate action since the war in Ukraine began, the UK government continues to advance the clean energy transition, and polling shows that voters want more, not less, focus on cutting emissions.

Climate contrarians contesting the idea that human activity is driving the rise of temperatures, that extreme weather events are becoming more frequent or that global heating will cause death and destruction have existed for decades, especially in the Anglophone world. The creation in 2009 of the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF) by Nigel Lawson, the chancellor and energy secretary under Margaret Thatcher, provided an institutional home for this group of largely older men (research from 2021 showed that most climate change contrarians are 65 or older). Richard Black, a former BBC environment correspondent turned climate communications expert, singles out Lawson as a key contender for the title of “Contrarian-in-Chief” in his 2018 book Denied: The rise and fall of climate contrarianism

After leaving the House of Commons and becoming a peer in the House of Lords, Lawson recast himself “as a serious, rigorous, economically literate scrutineer who had run his rule over the various dimensions of climate change and found them wanting,” writes Black. His foundation created “a web of influence which, at its peak, penetrated deep into the British media and political establishments and framed most of the important conversations on climate change”. Before entering politics, Lawson served as an editor and columnist for various newspapers including many centre-right titles that have been historically hostile to climate action, including the Sunday Telegraph and the Spectator.

In recent months, in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the cost-of-living crisis, the foundation has enjoyed a revival with its ideas promoted by the Net Zero Scrutiny Group of Conservative MPs. While climate scientists have accused the group of opposing climate action tout court, supporters insist they are only opposed to the cost of reducing dependence on fossil fuels. The Conservative MP Steve Baker, one of the group’s founders, is a trustee of the GWPF. (It was Baker, writes Peter Geoghegan in his book Democracy for Sale, who made Lawson part of the “inner core” of the hard-Brexit advocating European Research Group.)

This week, the Green MP Caroline Lucas and Extinction Rebellion reported the foundation to the Charity Commission after the Guardian newspaper revealed the group received funding from fossil fuel interests. The letter to the Charity Commission, whose signatories included the writers Irvine Welsh and Zadie Smith described the GWPF as “a fossil fuel lobby group” that should be stripped of its charitable status.

[See also: Europe’s fossil fuel imports have funded Russia’s war]

The group has targeted the BBC for years, with its arguments splashed across the right-wing press, most notably in the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph.

In 2011, Christopher Booker, a journalist and columnist for the Sunday Telegraph (who died in 2019) who questioned the accepted science on a host of issues including climate change, authored a report for the GWPF entitled: The BBC and Climate Change: A Triple Betrayal. “On few issues… if any, has the BBC shown itself to be more conspicuously committed to a particular point of view than the belief in man-made global warming,” he wrote.

A foreword to the report penned by Antony Jay, (the co-writer of the TV political comedies Yes Minister and Yes, Prime Minister), offers some eerie parallels with today’s discourse “As the economic squeeze tightens, the case for a drastic slimming down of the BBC gets stronger every day,” he wrote. “Cash-strapped households might be glad of the extra £100 a year, even at the expense of repeats, movies, imported programmes, quiz show and panel games.” As for climate change: “In some ways, the strongest case of all is made by Christopher Booker: if the BBC is to be paid to propagate the opinions of a liberal elite minority, it should not be allowed to dominate the national airwaves as it does today.”

Scroll today through the blogs or social media feeds of climate-sceptics today and much of the criticism is directed towards the BBC. Meanwhile, the Defund the BBC campaign, aimed at getting rid of the TV licence fee, is only too happy to give a platform to stories by the Daily Mail about Justin Rowlatt’s climate coverage.

For years, the BBC opted for a policy of “false balance” whereby eminent climate scientists would be given equal billing with renowned climate sceptics. Climate scientist Peter Stott recalls in his book Hot Air how in 2013, after travelling to Stockholm to witness government delegates from around the world negotiate and sign-off the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, he was brought on to the Radio 4 programme World at One after Robert Merlin Carter, an academic and renowned climate change sceptic. “This was ridiculous,” Stott writes. “On the day of the most important scientific announcement on climate change for six years, the first news and current affairs programme to broadcast after its release was featuring one of the world’s most prominent climate deniers.”

The matter came to a head in 2014, when Radio 4’s flagship news programme, Today, invited the climate scientist Brian Hoskins, a professor of meteorology at Reading University, to debate the role of climate change in extreme flooding in Britain with none other than Nigel Lawson. A parliamentary report followed and a call for guidelines preventing programmes giving undue weight to commentators or lobbyists whose opinions do not reflect the balance of scientific evidence. In 2018, such guidelines were issued: “To achieve impartiality, you do not need to include outright deniers of climate change in BBC coverage, in the same way you would not have someone denying that Manchester United won 2-0 last Saturday. The referee has spoken.”

However, while the BBC has changed its approach, those who continue to question climate science or, at the very least, the need for an urgent response to the crisis, are unbowed.

Bob Ward from the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at LSE describes these individuals as “ideological extremists”. Opposed to regulating business and in favour of a small state, they are against an energy transition that will require large-scale government intervention. Hostility to climate action is rooted in “free market fundamentalism”, says Ward. It is an “ideological war”. Richard Black agrees, though insists individuals on both sides of the political spectrum are responsible. There are politicians on the left and right who want it to be a culture war,” he says. “The BBC is a football in these culture wars.”

As the “most powerful new organisation in the country” it is normal that the BBC is held to “higher standards” than other media, says Rasmus Nielsen, the director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and professor of Political Communication at the University of Oxford. In many ways, it is the BBC that continues to run the national conversation with its multiple platforms and channels targeted at all audiences.

This “ideological war” which seemed to have reached a ceasefire last year as the UK hosted Cop26, has now resumed with force, with some politicians and media using calls for embargos on Russian oil and gas and raging energy bills as an excuse to suggest now is not the time for climate action. This is “what happens in periods of economic difficulties,” says Ward. There is a “great danger” that the narrative becomes that environmental action is a “nice to have” and that climate action is pitted against the health of the economy, he adds.

But times have changed since the GWFP’s founding in 2009. The case for climate action on environmental and economic grounds is stronger than ever before. And despite their best efforts, climate contrarians are an ever more marginal force in the national discourse. Baker’s Net Zero Scrutiny Group boasts around 20 MPs; the decarbonisation-supporting Conservative Environment Network has over 130 members including many Tory back bench MPs.

The “evidence is now so strong and the reasons so clear” for the switch to a net-zero carbon economy, says Black. Climate concerns aside, “the invasion of Ukraine shows that we can’t continue to rely on fossil fuels and set our own foreign policy agenda,” he says. Renewables mean security of supply, “freedom from tyrants”.

“Politicians are beginning to understand that the policies we need for net-zero can also cut household bills, and going green can also increase productivity, economic growth and people’s pay packets,” says Shaun Spiers, the executive director of the think tank Green Alliance.

However, net-zero naysayers and climate contrarians “could have a restrictive effect” on climate action, admits Black. Any slowdown in reducing emissions courts disaster. As the climate activist and author Bill McKibben wrote in 2017: “Winning slowly is the same as losing.” In this sense, as Peter Stott says, “it is really important that the BBC doesn’t lose its nerve.”

[See also: Is the BBC misrepresenting climate change?]

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