Climate change is the subject of a complex debate in which, increasingly, experts disagree with each other. Nearly all of them believe in man-made global warming, but they're not sure how bad the problem is or how to tackle it. Meanwhile, the 'sceptics' are no longer dominated by scientifically illiterate amateurs. Many of them believe in anthropogenic global warming, though they don't think it's happening today.
Quentin Letts is the Daily Mail's parliamentary sketchwriter and theatre critic, celebrated for his sometimes caustic but more often gentle wit. He also presents a Radio 4 slot called What's the Point of...? in which – says the Beeb – he 'casts a critical but amicable eye across institutions at the heart of British life'. His targets, if you can call them that, have included the National Trust, the Methodists and the great British pub. Yesterday he chuckled his way through an episode about the Met Office.
'Amicable' is just the right word. Letts spoke to an old farmer with an accent straight out of the Archers who prefers to look at the sky rather than trust the wireless; to Angus MacNeil MP, the SNP chairman of the Commons Energy and Climate Change Committee, whose seafaring constituents would drown if the Met Office gave them bad advice (which it doesn't); and to retired BBC weatherman John Kettley about the knitted sweaters he was sent by fans.
Letts paid tribute to the secret work the Met Office does in advising the Armed Forces and told us that, whatever you may think, its short-term forecasting has got better. But he didn't like its 'sexed-up press releases' or nannyish advice to carry an umbrella in case of rain. Still less did he appreciate the apocalyptic warnings to jump into the nearest Ark in the event of flooding.
'With trepidation', he tackled the subject of climate change – unavoidably, given the way the Met Office bangs on about it. First he spoke to Labour MP Graham Stringer, a former analytical chemist who sat on the Commons Science and Technology Committee until May and is standing for re-election. Stringer told him that the Met Office's short-term forecasting was reliable but that its medium- and long-term projections were 'pretty random'.
The point was reinforced by Peter Lilley MP, a physics graduate who describes himself as a 'lukewarmist' – i.e., he thinks CO2 emissions can warm the planet but not by very much. Lilley recalled the 2004 Met Office prediction that temperatures would rise by a catastrophic 0.3°C by 2014. The actual increase? 'Zilch', said Lilley. So he's fed up with Met office lobbyists demanding 'even more money for even bigger computers so that they can be even more precisely wrong in future'.
Letts asked Helen Chivers, Met Office head of news, about the 2004 global warming prediction. She said that knowledge of earth systems was still evolving 'and things change over time'. There was no attempt to defend the 0.3 per cent prophecy – and Chivers even seemed to agree that the Met Office can be a bit alarmist at times.
The programme's conclusion was that the Met Office is jolly good at short-term forecasts, saving lives in the process, but that its comically inaccurate attempts to predict climate change are dangerously close to political lobbying. Letts didn't advocate privatising the outfit, but he didn't see why the option shouldn't be discussed. A final trademark chuckle and that was that.
Cue an entirely predictable outburst from The Guardian. Richard Black, director of the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit and former BBC science correspondent, observed that both Stringer and Lilley are trustees of Lord Lawson's moderately sceptical Global Warming Policy Foundation. Fair point; perhaps Letts should have made it. But Black's argument that Radio 4 breached BBC editorial guidelines by interviewing one climate change sceptic (Stringer), one 'lukewarmist' (Lilley) and one believer (MacNeil) was a bit rich. Not so long ago the Beeb spewed out 'warmist' propaganda as news and treated any dissident as a Right-wing nutjob (unfairly – only some of them were). Still, that's what you pay for when you buy The Guardian.
Harrabin, on the other hand, is paid by us – the licence payers. And he's employed by the corporation that made What's the Point of the Met Office? Yet, judging by his Twitter feed, his views are even more partisan than those of Black. When he's not plugging a Guardian conspiracy theory involving US Republican sceptics and BP, he's wringing his hands at the cut to wind subsidies or lamenting the lack of civil servants to enforce 'smarter' environmental laws. Also, he feels the need to add '@GeorgeMonbiot' to many of his tweets, so the great man doesn't miss them.
Yesterday – see above – he went into overdrive. 'Accusation', he declared, as he linked to Black's attack on Letts. The sceptics got 'their' programme when the BBC allowed Quentin Letts to raise an eyebrow at the Met Office's alarmist and utterly false claim that thermometers would shoot up between 2004 and 2014.
Don't get me wrong: Roger Harrabin is a highly respected science writer. He doesn't set out to deceive his readers. But, as Letts might put it, What's the Point of a supposedly impartial 'environment analyst' who – apparently – takes offence at his bosses allowing another journalist to offer views different to his own?