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Government & BBC must improve climate communication

2 April 2014

The Government is failing to clearly and effectively communicate climate science to the public, according to a report by the Science and Technology Committee

The MPs found little evidence of co-ordination amongst Government, government agencies and public bodies on communicating climate science, despite policies at national and regional level to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

Andrew Miller MP, Chair of the Science and Technology Committee:

"Climate policy touches on many aspects of Government policy, it is important, therefore, that there is a consistent message across the whole of Government on the issue. The mandate to act on climate can only be maintained if the electorate are convinced that the Government is acting on the basis of strong scientific evidence so Ministers need to do more to demonstrate that is the case.

All Ministers need to acquaint themselves with climate science and clearly and consistently reflect the Government approach in all their communications, especially with the media."

BBC reporting of climate science

The report also criticises the BBC for its reporting on the issue. It points out that BBC News teams continue to make mistakes in their coverage of climate science by giving opinions and scientific fact the same weight. The report concludes that while politicians, lobbying groups and other interested parties should be heard on the issue, the BBC should be clear on the role of its interviewees and should not treat lobbying groups as disinterested experts.

The BBC has strict guidelines for the coverage of politicians and political parties and it could benefit from applying a similarly stringent approach when interviewing non-experts on controversial scientific topics such as climate change.  The report calls on the BBC to develop clear editorial guidelines for all commentators and presenters on the facts of climate that should be used to challenge statements, from either side of the climate policy debate, that stray too far from the scientific facts.

Andrew Miller MP said:

"Given the high level of trust the public has in its coverage, it is disappointing that the BBC does not ensure all of its programmes and presenters reflect the actual state of climate science in its output. The Today programme and other BBC News teams continue to make mistakes in their coverage of climate science by giving opinions and scientific fact the same weight. Some editors appear to be particularly poor at determining the level of scientific expertise of contributors in debates, for instance, putting up lobbyists against top scientists as though their arguments on the science carry equal weight."

The report points to evidence that the majority of the public do not have a good understanding of climate change and its causes and that a significant number of people would like to be better informed. However, the BBC’s Head of Editorial Policy David Jordan insisted, when giving evidence to the inquiry, that there was no lack of understanding among the BBC audience on climate. The MPs are not convinced that the BBC has a clear understanding of the information needs of its viewers and listeners. The report notes that the BBC rejected Professor Steve Jones' recommendation to avoid false balance on climate.

A trusted source of scientific information on climate change

If the Government is to demonstrate its climate policies are evidence based, it needs to be an authoritative and trusted voice on the current state of climate science. It is important that climate science is presented separately from any subsequent policy response. The report recommends that the Government work with the learned societies and national academies to develop a source of information on climate science that is discrete from policy delivery, comprehensible to the general public and responsive to both current developments and uncertainties in the science.

To achieve the necessary commitment from the public, the Government must demonstrate a coherent approach to communicating both the scientific basis and the proposed solutions to climate change. The current lack of a clear narrative from Government reflects a lack of leadership the issue.

Andrew Miller MP, concluded: 

"The Government's hands-off approach to engaging with the public and the media, relying heavily on scientists as the most prominent voice, has a resulted in a vacuum that has allowed inaccurate arguments to flourish with little effective challenge.

Science is the ultimate sceptic, challenging theories and opinion and ready to abandon or adapt as the available evidence changes. Genuine scepticism should be embraced by the climate science community. Dogma on either side of the debate should be revealed as such."


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