International climate change conference

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services


The review involves a complaint about a segment November 26, 2011 on CBC Radio's Quirks & Quarks program on the impending international climate change conference in Durban, South Africa. There was no violation of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

On November 26, the CBC Radio program Quirks & Quarks featured a segment on the impending international climate change conference in Durban, South Africa.

The segment featured a discussion between host Bob McDonald and Alanna Mitchell, a science writer and regular contributor to the program. Mitchell was to attend the conference aimed at creating an international covenant on curtailing emissions. Such an agreement would replace the so-named Kyoto Protocol due to expire at the end of 2012.

The 18-minute segment discussed, among other subjects, the results under the Kyoto Protocol, the performance of Canada as a signatory and the United States as a non- signatory, the paradox of China as a developing green leader with a persistent abundance of fossil fuel-based production, the emergence of carbon trading systems, the concern about extreme weather events and overall global warming, and the positive developments within industry.

The segment featured audio clips from Andrew Weaver of University of Victoria, the Canada Research Chair in climate modeling and analysis, and Gordon McBean of University of Western Ontario, president-elect of the International Council for Science.

Among other things in the segment, Weaver said Canada has developed a bad reputation internationally on this issue and McBean, co-author of a recent

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on extreme weather events, said many such events can be attributed now to climate change.

McBean told the program that “the number of great catastrophes” is going up and will continue to do so in the decades to come. Mitchell said the more carbon-based gases in the atmosphere, the more the climate will be disturbed.

The complainant, Randy Hughes, wrote November 28 to take issue with McBean's characterization of the report, which Hughes said only attributed a small proportion of extreme weather events to human causes. He further said the segment lacked sufficient skepticism or mention of controversies involving the claims by authors of climate change reports.

Hughes asserted “the science of climate change is progressively moving toward the conclusion that the uncertainties are large and growing.”

The segment “was misleading to the point of being dishonest” and only presented a small and biased slice of information about the Durban conference, he said.

Jim Handman, the executive producer of Quirks & Quarks, responded December 12. He noted McBean was co-author of the report Hughes asserted had been unfairly reported, “and since we presented his actual summary in his own words, we have little reason to doubt their accuracy.”

Handman said the segment “did not deal very much with any of the science of climate change,” but noted that those in the talks in Durban, including the Canadian government, agree “the only question is what to do about it and when. That is where the uncertainty lies, not in the science.”

Hughes wrote back December 13: “In this day and age you'd have to live in a cave to not understand that the debate is not over, the science is not settled. It seems that every week there's a new revelation from the world of climate science that casts doubt” on the global warming position.

The problem, he said, is that “all of you at the CBC have decided for all of us that the science is settled” and that “unfortunately you have an agenda. You are proponents of a particular point of view and you consciously and scrupulously sanitize your coverage of global warming to the detriment of journalism and the citizenry to which you report.”

He pointed to other scientists who have taken a skeptical view, suggested they be included in such segments, and said reporting “options are only limited by your imagination, which appears to be in short supply at the CBC.” He asked for a review by this Office.

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices policy intersects with this matter.

“On issues of controversy, we ensure that divergent views are reflected respectfully, taking into account their relevance to the debate and how widely held these views are,” the policy says.

On matters of health and science: “We take care to understand properly and reflect the true implications of medical and scientific study results that we obtain, especially those involving statistical data. We will exercise caution with regard to results disclosed at a conference but not yet published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.”

Although one element of the policy is aimed at defining coverage of human health, it has relevance on the issue of climate change in discussing a general approach to “take particular care to avoid arousing unfounded hopes.”


The United States National Research Council, in summarizing the science on climate change, says “there is a strong, credible body of work, based on multiple lines of research, documenting that climate is changing and that these changes are in large part caused by human activities. While much remains to be learned, the core phenomenon, scientific questions, and hypotheses have been examined thoroughly and have stood firm in the face of serious scientific debate and careful examinations of alternative explanations.”

There has not been a peer-reviewed journal publication by climate scientists, nor any national or international scientific body of standing, dissenting with this view.

The relevant scientific consensus — that is, the consensus among scientists whose work is in the relevant field — is that climate changes are in large measure generated by such activities as burning fossil fuels and deforestation and are largely irreversible. The relevant scientific discussion involves the extent of such damage and the principal political discussion involves how to tackle and mitigate the human-caused effects.

It is true that several scientists in other fields have expressed skepticism in popular media about climate change research, but they have not produced peer-reviewed material to support their opinions.

CBC's standards, and those of most other news organizations, urge caution in dealing with any scientific or health claims that do not pass a scientific journal's peer review. In the absence of such content, it would violate policy for CBC News to compare rigorous science with opinions and raise false hopes.

The segment put its focus on international performance, on policy and on the conference's quandaries in effecting practical measures. It did not have any need to further review this science or in any way suggest the science was open for debate.

The segment's focus was on the performance of countries under the Kyoto Protocol and on the ambitions for the Durban gathering. There remained uncertainty about the ability of leaders to reach an agreement.

McBean's description of the IPCC report he co-wrote was not inaccurate. The report predicted more hot days, more heavy rains, and several other effects, and it determined that even seemingly minor shifts in climate could have profound, catastrophic consequences in heavily populated and economically developing regions of the world.

There was no violation of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

Kirk LaPointe
CBC Ombudsman