Sebastian Payne

An inconvenient interview: Andrew Neil defends his grilling of Ed Davey

An inconvenient interview: Andrew Neil defends his grilling of Ed Davey
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Andrew Neil’s interview on Sunday Politics the other week triggered much reaction – and protest from those who do not believe that there is a debate to be had. Andrew has replied at length today, and we thought you might be interested in what he has to say. First, the offending interview:

The viewers included one Dana Nuccitelli, who works for a private Californian environment company and blogs at the Guardian. He objected to the Sunday Politics graph showing the absence of warming and said it should be 'should be totally disregarded and thrown out'. His conclusion:

'Throughout the show Neil focused only on the bits of evidence that seemed to support his position. He focused exclusively on the slowed global surface warming while ignoring the warming oceans, melting ice, and rising sea levels. He focused on and exaggerated the costs of climate policy while ignoring their benefits… True skepticism requires considering all the available evidence, not just that which seems to support your desired conclusion.'

Here’s an edited version of the reply (you can read the whole thing on his BBC blog here). As to the charge that Andrew used a line of questioning that 'seemed to support his position…':

'This is partly right. We did come at Mr Davey with a particular set of evidence, which was well-sourced from mainstream climate science. But it was nothing to do with advocating a "position". First, the Sunday Politics does not have a position on any of the subjects on which it interrogates people. Second, it is the job of the interviewer to assemble evidence from authoritative sources which best challenge the position of the interviewee. It is for viewers to decide how well the interviewee's position holds up under scrutiny and the strength of the contrary evidence or points put to him or her.

1. No consensus The recent standstill in global temperatures is a puzzle. Experts do not know why it is occurring or how long it will last. Climate scientists have proffered a variety of possible explanations. But there is no consensus. Extensive peer-reviewed literature regards it as established yet unexplained. It is widely accepted that the main climate models which inform government policy did not predict it (which raises interesting issues of the models' predictions about the future course of temperatures).

For many climate scientists the plateau - which may or may not have long-term significance - has come as something of a surprise. Recently Nature, which has published extensively on global warming, called it one of climate science's greatest mysteries So it is legitimate to ask if the government takes the pause seriously and if it has any implications for policy ie, if there is a pause in warming, is there a case for the government to pause or slowdown its expensive efforts to decarbonise the economy until the picture becomes clearer?

2. Man-made heating We chose 1980 as the start date for the graph because that is roughly when the IPCC says man-made warming became the dominant factor in global temperature rises.

The IPCC said in 2007: "The rapid warming observed since the 1970s has occurred in a period when the increase in greenhouse gases has dominated over all other factors." It said that, prior to then in the 20th century, any man-made heating was offset by other natural variations in the climate; but that human-released greenhouse gasses are the dominant explanation of the rise in temperatures post the 1970s. Global temperatures between 1940-80 were broadly constant. They started rising in 1980; and especially here. So it is reasonable to start the graph circa 1980 to show how temperatures rose thereafter - overwhelmingly as a result of greenhouse gasses, according to the IPCC - until the late 1990s; and then started to plateau, albeit at a high level compared with the rest of the 20th century.

3. Principle point Mr Davey said in his interview - that we should not concentrate just on land temperatures, but look at what was happening to ocean temperatures and the polar ice melt for evidence that global warming was continuing unabated. A reasonable point. But in a 15-minute interview we wanted to stick with the metric that most viewers would understand. At the Sunday Politics we are also used to public figures who try to change the metric when the one they've put their faith in does not behave as expected. We try not to let that happen. Moreover, the purpose of the interview was not to question all aspects of climate science, just the one metric that has commanded most attention. Other possible indicators of climate change - ice melt, ocean temperatures and extreme weather events - are a matter of widespread debate in which the science most certainly is not "settled". 

4. Unfounded claims The differences that separate climate scientists even within the "consensus" are over the speed and extent of warming, the consequences (economic and environmental) and the importance of other climate factors which are not man-made and which may affect the climate's sensitivity to the rise in C02 emissions. Only those who have been dismissed as "deniers" deny that man is playing any role whatsoever, though the word is often applied to sceptics too (and even, ridiculously, to the Sunday Politics!).

Contrary to many unfounded claims on Twitter, the research work behind our interview and the evidence it gathered was not influenced by any deniers. We relied on Nature magazine, the work of the Climate Research Unit, Professor Judith Curry of Georgia Tech and Professor Hans von Storch of Hamburg University among others, all of whom think man-made global warming is real and some of whom have been at the very heart of the climate science community. We quoted no deniers or even sceptics. All our evidence came from mainstream scientists who do not doubt the fundamental tenets of global warming.

At no stage in the interview was it ever claimed that global warming is not real or that it is not man-made. It is not for the Sunday Politics to take such positions. Our focus was on a global temperature plateau which could be a challenge to the forecasts of climate models which have determined government policy.