Existence of climate change never at issue

The ‘Prime Time’ debate on climate change set out to discuss solutions, not the existence of the problem, says Donogh Diamond.

THE strangest thing about Victoria White’s Irish Examiner column last week criticising Prime Time’s debate on climate change is that she makes no reference whatsoever to anything that was actually said in the programme.

There is much about what various people expected to be on it, but as to what was actually said: Not a word.

If she had concentrated on what was in the programme, she would have noted that all four panellists agreed that climate change was real, that humanity was greatly contributing to it, and that no one on the panel questioned the consensus of the International Panel on Climate Change in relation to the basic science on that issue.

The panel consisted of one of the country’s leading climate scientists, Professor Ray Bates of UCD; Trócaire director Eamon Meehan; Joe Curtin of the Institute of International and European Affairs (who replaced Professor John Sweeney of NUI Maynooth); and Dr Ben Peiser of the Global Warming Policy Foundation in London.

Although the vast majority of climate scientists and commentators agree that climate change is taking place, and that humanity is greatly contributing to it, our audience would not necessarily have been aware that all our panellists were of that view, and the discussion opened with a question along those lines. This was always our intention, simply to allow the audience to know the parameters of the debate we intended to have.

It appears the objections to our programme all arose from our intention to set out those parameters. This seems extraordinary. One would have thought that climate change campaigners, in particular, would want the panellists to make their position clear on this central issue from the outset, and for the audience to know those positions.

We never had the slightest intention of having a 50:50 debate as to whether climate change exists or not, something we were happy to tell anybody who took the trouble to contact us.

Ms White asks: “Who am I to assess the state of scientific knowledge on climate change?”

Assessing the state of scientific knowledge on a range of subjects is a key part of any analytical journalist’s job. It would be a strange editor who, through his or her own research, and with the assistance of a very talented editorial team, couldn’t make a reasonable judgement on the state of scientific knowledge in relation to this vitally important global issue.

The differences among the panel arose in relation to the question of what to do to combat climate change.

Prof Bates, Eamon Meehan, and Joe Curtin were all broadly in favour of action to reduce CO2 emissions, whereas Dr Peiser suggested attempts to reduce global CO2 emissions significantly were unlikely to succeed, and that helping vulnerable communities to adapt to climate change (“adaptation” can involve building tidal barriers, for instance, or helping communities to move from very exposed coastal areas) was a far more effective way of dealing with the problem. This was clearly a minority view, but we felt it was an interesting one and one which our viewers were entitled to hear. We were also aware that all sides in the debate recognise that some level of “adaptation” to climate change is necessary.

We noted that there was a difference of opinion on whether the recent unusual weather in Ireland could be attributed to climate change, something we felt might interest our viewers.

On that question, there was a very clear difference of opinion between Prof Bates and Prof Sweeney, whom we had intended to be part of the panel.

It is important that while we reflect the scientific consensus around any particular issue, that we are also prepared to reflect dissent. In the vast majority of cases, we feel that allowing both the consensus and the dissent to be heard — once both are given their proper weight — is our duty and our responsibility.

It was heartening to see that some of those who chose to boycott the programme on the basis of their perception of what it would contain, contacted us in writing after it was broadcast to say they felt the programme was fair and balanced and reflected the current state of scientific knowledge on the subject. It is unfortunate that, given her apparent commitment to fair journalism, Victoria White chose to write her article without making a single call to Prime Time and without reflecting the fair and responsible approach we took to this important subject.

* Donogh Diamond is editor of RTÉ’s Prime Time.

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