Wild Weather: Climate change deniers don't have an equal say

The complainant, Bob Perry, thought a Doc Zone documentary on the impact of climate change on weather and what governments are doing to meet the challenge was one-sided. It was based on the assumption that climate change is real. He wanted equal time for those who do not believe that climate change and global warming is a problem. I disagreed.

COMPLAINT

You wrote to complain about a documentary aired on the October 22, 2014 edition of Doc Zone, entitled Weather Gone Wild. Your specific complaint focused on the use of a graph to portray the rise of temperature since the Ice Age and a projection to the end of this century. You pointed out that the graph showed a straight line to portray the earth’s temperature since the end of the last Ice Age. You said that this was inaccurate because “paleotemperatures since the end of the last Ice Age are accurately known and in both duration and degree, vary significantly.” Furthermore, you believe that a true graph would show that temperature variations are irrelevant:

An accurate graph of 10,000 years of paleotemperatures clearly demonstrates the irrelevance of any few years of changing temperatures. The amount of anthropogentically generated global warming is de minimus. Earth is simply in another interglacial period of time. To broadcast incorrect data is misleading to the scientifically naive public.

You think proper charting would show there is no significance to current temperature fluctuations. You fundamentally disagree with the underlying assumption in this documentary – that climate change is a reality, the earth’s temperature will continue to rise, and that wild weather has become more severe and frequent. You point out that in the age of instant communication, not a single severe weather event goes unnoted, but that there are “scores more examples of all types of severe weather throughout human history and around the world, long before industrialization.” You reject the link between greenhouse gases and its impact on weather. You question much of the science used in this documentary, and reject that it is a documentary at all. You are a frequent critic of the portrayal of climate change on CBC news and current affairs programs and platforms. You ask why CBC “does not broadcast any other side of this debate other than anthropogenic global warming?” You added:

To not allow equal-time broadcast of relevant information other than AGW, [anthropogenic global warming], one could logically presume CBC is motivated to advance the AGW agenda. As a Canadian taxpayer who funds CBC, I object to any such motivation. What would the reaction of Canadians be if CBC, for example, broadcast only advancements in naturopathic methods of treating serious human health issues?

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Executive Producer of Doc Zone, Michael Claydon, responded to your concerns. He agreed with you that there have been severe weather events and fluctuations in temperatures throughout history. He explained that the purpose of the graph was to compare the “rise in temperature over 10,000 years with the rise in temperature over the last 100 years, and the projected rise to the year 2100.”

He explained that a more detailed graph would show fluctuations in temperature over time, but the overall movement of the graph is upward, and that the upward movement portraying recent times is more sharply upward. He told you the graph is based on data from several sources, “most significantly the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the international body of leading scientists who issue reports on climate change.” He added that the facts were checked by University of Western Ontario Professor Gordon McBean, President of the International Council for Science, and Paul Kovacs, founder and Executive Director of the Institute for Catastrophic Loss.

He concluded that there is a “certain amount of debate around the issue of climate change” but the information in the documentary is “accurate and accepted by the scientific community.”

REVIEW

The documentary entitled Weather Gone Wild focused on the response of many levels of government, especially cities, to recent catastrophic weather events: the recent flooding in Calgary and Toronto after intense storms, the devastation in New York City after Hurricane Sandy, and to the threat of rising oceans to coastal nations such as the Netherlands and cities like Miami. The fundamental underlying assumption is that these events are going to become more intense and frequent, and that they are the result of climate change. As Philip Levine, the mayor of Miami, states in the broadcast:

I don’t want to study global warming and rising tides. I am not interested in studying. It’s a fact. So to study it is repetitive, it’s not where we want to go. We need actual actions.

He is not alone in accepting the fact of climate change. Many jurisdictions, national, provincial and local are creating policy and planning for the future based on the reality of climate change. Over 200 science organizations hold the position that climate change is caused by human actions. No significant scientific body of international standing disagrees. There are a few that take a non-committal position. A recent study of the literature shows that an overwhelming percentage of peer reviewed literature written by climate scientists supports anthropomorphic causes of climate change. The United States government agency NASA has a website that deals with the question of climate change. The first question in a series on the site is “Climate Change: How do we know?” Here is the answer:

The Earth’s climate has changed throughout history. Just in the last 650,000 years there have been seven cycles of glacial advance and retreat, with the abrupt end of the last ice age about 7,000 years ago marking the beginning of the modern climate era — and of human civilization. Most of these climate changes are attributed to very small variations in Earth’s orbit that change the amount of solar energy our planet receives.

The current warming trend is of particular significance because most of it is very likely human-induced and proceeding at a rate that is unprecedented in the past 1,300 years.

Earth-orbiting satellites and other technological advances have enabled scientists to see the big picture, collecting many different types of information about our planet and its climate on a global scale. Studying these climate data collected over many years reveal the signals of a changing climate.

The heat-trapping nature of carbon dioxide and other gases was demonstrated in the mid-19th century. Their ability to affect the transfer of infrared energy through the atmosphere is the scientific basis of many instruments flown by NASA. There is no question that increased levels of greenhouse gases must cause the Earth to warm in response.

Ice cores drawn from Greenland, Antarctica, and tropical mountain glaciers show that the Earth’s climate responds to changes in greenhouse gas levels. They also show that in the past, large changes in climate have happened very quickly, geologically-speaking: in tens of years, not in millions or even thousands.

You mentioned that in correspondence with you, CBC’s syndicated science columnist Dr. Torah Kachur told you “the science on CBC is according to consensus and is sound when it comes to the impact of man on climate change.” You asked who makes the consensus decision. The answer is no one at CBC. The fact is, according to a recent literature review, 97% of climate scientists agree that climate changes are due to human activities. You point to CBC News Journalistic Policy on balance and fairness. The policy calls for a reflection of views, especially when it comes to issues of controversy:

We contribute to informed debate on issues that matter to Canadians by reflecting a diversity of opinion. Our content on all platforms presents a wide range of subject matter and views.

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. We also ensure that they are represented over a reasonable period of time.

Note it talks about their relevance to the debate and how widely held these views are. I appreciate that you and others reject the consensus scientific view of climate change. You feel the evidence you hold is as true and as strong as the consensus view. There are times that view should be acknowledged. But it does not oblige CBC journalism to buy into your view. In fact, that would create a false impression that the two views are equally held. In fact, were CBC journalists to decide to balance every discussion of climate change with a contrary view that it does not exist, they could be accused of creating false equivalence.

CBC policy also states that journalists should “provide professional judgment based on facts and expertise.” The judgment about how to frame the climate change discussion, as was done in this documentary, falls well within that scope. Within the discussion of climate change, different perspectives are necessary when dealing with discussion of impacts, or the best way to meet those impacts. This documentary, while emphasizing mostly negative impacts and examining ways in which communities are dealing with them, also pointed out a potentially positive impact: that Canadian farmers will be able to grow crops at latitudes where once it would have been impossible.

This documentary was not in violation of CBC journalistic policy, not in its underlying premise, nor in the specifics of the graph that you questioned. Mr. Claydon’s explanation is a valid one. This was not a detailed discussion about climate fluctuation. It was there to illustrate a trend. The script says:

So it took 10 thousand years for the earth’s temperature to rise 5 degrees. But it took only a century to go up another degree. And three more degrees are expected by the turn of the century. That means oceans are getting hotter too, causing them to expand. Add in the melting ice pack and all that water is rising along our coastlines.

These statements conform with the most widely held information about what is happening. Again, according to the NASA site, “global sea level rose about 17 centimeters (6.7 inches) in the last century. The rate in the last decade, however, is nearly double that of the last century. It also refers to global temperature increases, and shrinking ice sheets.

I, like Mr. Claydon, respect that you have strongly held views. This documentary does not reflect those views. But it does conform to CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman