Climate Change at the BBC.

I am a little late to the party, the programs I want to talk about were broadcast last week, March 2nd -5th*. Work and other video editing have delayed this, and a couple of ‘how to’ video editing posts, and a ambient-minimalist audio-visual bit of nonsense… so no graphics, but anyway

Climate Change by Numbers
Climate Change: a Horizon Guide.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

*Update, I just noticed I had the dates wrong, and the Climate Change: a Horizon Guide. is repeated on March 11th

The most hyped and commented on was the ‘Climate Change by numbers’ program. This took three numbers-
1) the temperature rise of 0.8degC
2) the 95% certainty that the rise is anthropogenic
3)the consequent extreme unwisdom of burning more than  1 trillion tons of fossil fuels. It explained the scientific strength of each.
The second program was ‘Climate Change:a Horizon Guide.
This followed a format the Horizon program has used before with good effect. With over thirty years of past programs they can make a documentary about the historical development of a technology or science referencing their own past output. Here are BBC links which can give access to the full programs for a while if you are in the UK, or the BBC server thinks you are….

Climate change by numbers

Climate change: a Horizon Guide

The Good.

Both programs established the claims they made about climate science by referencing the historical development and intimate linkage to other scientific advances. Both effectively showed how research methods from different fields of science informed and expanded the field of climate science. Computers, satellite imaging and statistical techniques which were validated in other scientific disciplines became integral tools in climate science.
The climate Change by numbers program presented a strong case for the consilience of the science. How its integration with the rest of our expanding knowledge was total, any claim that it can be rejected without undoing a lot of other ‘settled’ science was shown to be unwarranted.
The Climate Change: a Horizon guide also referenced the influence of developing science and technology in other fields on the increasing confidence that climate science developed in its conclusions. It started with a program from the 1970s warning of the danger of global cooling and the possibility of a imminent and rapid descent into an ice age. Or at least a Little one. There was real concern at the time about the impact of rising SOx emissions, they were known from volcanic effects to cool the climate, and there had been around a decade of apparently cooling temperatures as emissions went up. In its defence, the Horizon review did show the admittedly short sequence, by a young, dark hair scientist, explaining that there was also a possibility that rising CO2 could warm the planet to a dangerous extent and that the CO2 levels should be watched… He reappeared in a later clip, older and balding describing how scientific doubts, uncertainty and scepticism had been replaced by the weight of evidence  forcing acceptance of the AGW effect.
It followed this first foray for Horizon into climate with a overview of how the effects of SOx were soon recognised as being overestimated. There was also a massive reduction in SOx emissions imposed by government regulation. Not because of a fear of an ice-age, but because the acid rain was killing forests, fish and people, in large numbers.
And from the end of the 1970s temperatures just rose…
By the end of the 1980s as excerpts from past programs demonstrated, the science had got increasingly certain about the cause and size of the problem. It highlighted how the past is another country, they did things differently then… there was little doubt expressed in the political arena about the validity of the scientific findings and reports. It looks, and sounds almost surreal now, but the speech by Mrs Thatcher to the UN in 1989 highlighting the global danger of rising CO2 emission and the consequent threat of global warming that would require a collective global response was then mainstream. It only sounds so radical and extremist now because of the shift in political attitudes, especially in the US, against such a position. Have a look or a read of Mrs Thatcher’s speech, it really is rather well structured and packed with a activist rhetoric rather lacking from the political discourse on the subject today.


However as the program went on to show the science continued to advance and develop independently and despite the apparent increase in political divergence. Advancing technology provided better current data and the ability to digitise and process much more historical data. As the other, ‘by number’ program had shown, while it may be possible to quibble about 5% either way, most of the central core of climate science became as well established as any other mature scientific field. Like its contemporary Darwinian evolution. In respect of which, did anyone catch the nice link Mrs thatcher made in her UN speech between Darwin, our common ancestry and our common global environment, using his view of Tahiti from a mountain and our view of the Earth from space as points of inspiration.!
It also reported the stranger dichotomy concerning the apparent seriousness with which climategate emails were discussed and the essential irrelevance it had on the mainstream science. A ‘scandal’ that never was.

So both programs had a strong case to make for the solidity and certainty of the key findings of climate science, showing how they are part of, and embedded in, the progressive development of all science over that last few decades.

The Bad.

Well the Climate change by numbers program referred to the controversy, or how something was controversial rather too many times, but I will return to that. Others, see the comments at ATTPs blog, have pointed out that the examples from other fields and disciplines given were sometimes a little simplified, or not quite used as claimed. Although I suspect you have to be rather well acquainted with the field to notice the difference between Kriging and the way geometric interpolation is actually applied in some of the temperature reconstruction. I must admit to one aspect I found increasingly bad. The light-sticks and pens used to ‘draw’ the graphs and formulas on the screen. Now I understand WHY the program makers did it. There is always a problem with showing a graph or any other graphic in such a program. It interrupts the presenter and intrudes as a ‘foreign’ visual element. either overlaying the whole screen, or seen indirectly on another screen within the picture being knowledgeably viewed by the presenter. Which breaks the presenter camera eye contact. How neat it must have seemed to have the presenters draw the graphs themselves with the lightsticks as they walked and talked, so that the graphics used were an integrated part of the presenter-audience communication flow. Obviously there is some new software plugin that enables a video-editor to isolate some lights in a scene and ‘paint’ them across the whole timeline of the clip. It is an imitation of an effect used by Piccaso to ‘draw’ with light, using a torch and a long-exposure still photo. There are ways to do it by ‘hand’ in video-editing, but I wager the recent appearance of this effect is the result of  new software automation of the effect.
The presenters were not Piccaso. Walking with the sticks nearly always produced wobbly graphs with almost as many bumps and variations in the axis as there was in the data. Although I noticed the last presenter was rather more careful about even and level movement of the light sticks and made a better job of drawing straight. However nobody can write well in reverse unless they practise or are Leonardo. So drawing formulas in the air also produced some near illegible handwriting because for a presenter facing the camera they have to ‘mirror-write’ for it to read the right way for the viewer. I noticed after the first attempt, the rest of the equations and graphics were just drawn on in post….
The other program, a Horizon Guide had very little bad about it. another walking talking female presenter linking a straight historical replay of clips from past BBC science programs on climate change. With the premise, or intention to show the historical development and increasing scientific certainty about climate change it did an exemplary job. It was I think the better, and more interesting of the programs. But both had a common flaw…

The Ugly.

The first program, Climate change by number, did a good job ( bar the indulgence in the light-streak graphics effect) in presenting and justifying the case for the science, at least around those three numbers, being settled. They are really no more open to credible doubt than the cause of the tides or plate tectonics. The second made an even stronger case for just how firmly established the science is behind the claims and warning given by Mrs Thatcher to the UN in 1989. MUCH more certain and better understood now than then.
Both were clearly replying to or even defending against,  an unstated counter argument. Why have a whole program discussing how certain we about three core findings in a scientific field if we are so certain about them.?! If you spend over an hour defending the validity and legitimacy of these aspects of climate science, it would be as well to define and explain WHAT counter arguments have prompted such an expenditure of effort. I do get the communication problem, and the dangers of giving legitimacy to spurious denial by even mentioning it, but both programs did more than just fail to quote the opponents of the science they were making such efforts to validate. They entirely failed to give a reason for the approach and tone of the programs.

It was if a program had been made exhaustively proclaiming the efficacy, safety and rationality of using vaccines without ever mentioning that there are people who dispute this. Worse, without ever investigating or discussing WHY those that reject the science might be motivated to do so when as the programs firmly established there is no scientifically legitimate reason to do so.

Perhaps rather than take direct aim at the enemy the programs were intended as warning shots, intended to miss, but perhaps the volume of the gunfire will make the opposition keep their heads down.
It still generated two documentaries that were interesting, well made as far as achieving the aims they had, but I think both were rendered slightly pointless by avoiding the issue of WHY they were protesting the factual basis of climate science without any discussion of who there might be questioning it.
And why.


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