BBC’s Climate Change by Numbers supports big risk in place of big facts

Everything is more interesting with colourful lights. BBC/Alex Freeman

BBC’s Climate Change by Numbers supports big risk in place of big facts

Everything is more interesting with colourful lights. BBC/Alex Freeman

The BBC is about to screen its first climate change-dedicated documentary in some years. The show, Climate Change by Numbers, is all about the statistics at the heart of the effort to understand the scale and pace of human influence on our climate. Three mathematicians – Hannah Fry, Norman Fenton and David Spiegelhalter – explore the background to three numbers:

  • 0.85˚C – The amount of warming the planet has undergone since 1880.
  • 95% – The degree of certainty climate scientists have that at least half the recent warming is man-made.
  • 1 trillion tonnes – The total amount of carbon we can afford to burn – ever – in order to stay below “dangerous levels” of climate change.

BBC Four chief Cassian Harrison said the show “puts aside the politics to concentrate on the science”. Nice try, but no: science and politics can’t be separated on this or indeed any other topic where there are wide economic and social consequences, and a good dose of uncertainty.

But everyone involved in the programme is doing us a great service in reminding us that climate science ought to be allowed to be just interesting sometimes. And this kind of approach offers a far more sturdy basis for public conversation than tired insistence upon a monolithic scientific “consensus”.

We’re only allowed another 0.5 trillion tonnes. Hunter Desportes, CC BY

In an exemplary move for a TV show the team includes three academic consultants. Two of them, Tamsin Edwards from The Open University and Doug McNeall from the Met Office Hadley Centre, have long been very active on social media inviting people into an understanding of their work as unfolding and ambitious. Tamsin asks us to learn to love the uncertainty in climate science:

We haven’t always sold the idea of uncertainty as not only inevitable but even exciting, and we’ve sometimes over-simplified our communication. That pause in warming of the atmosphere surprised the media and public, even though scientists always expected this kind of thing could happen in the short term.

This fits nicely with my own argument that appears in a book of essays Culture and Climate Change: Narratives. As a social scientist and policy researcher with a particular interest and involvement in the media I’ve long been frustrated by the predominant tactics aimed at mobilising public concern. Phrases like “the science is finished” and “the greatest challenge facing humanity” have sought to enrol the public and politicians in a grand cause. But these approaches may alienate as many as they attract.

It is far more robust to headline the natural science of climate change as a hugely ambitious risk assessment, the main contours of which have changed little since the early 1990s, and then explain that the rest of the research and policy effort is a big, messy risk management process. It is often forgotten that the IPCC’s First Assessment Report back in 1990 insisted “we are confident that … uncertainties can be reduced by further research. However, the complexity of the system means that we cannot rule out surprises.”

There are many responses climate models. Ackroyd & Harvey, Lost Souls

Focusing on risk frees the natural science to become a lot more interesting on its own terms, enchanting even. Explaining it as a backroom risk assessment operation, and inviting everyone into that room now and again to follow progress will help to build trust and engagement in some of the most interesting, complex and difficult questions human beings have ever set themselves.

But the natural science is only one, albeit centrally important, part of the climate change story. In cultural terms, climate change is a difficult body of new knowledge that holds significance for all the challenges that humanity has always faced regarding shelter, comfort, food and mobility. In media terms, however, the topic often seems strangely disconnected from mainstream business, politics and everyday life.

Art investigates relationships. Steve Russell, See You Later

Climate change is one of the strongest drivers of innovation in engineering and design, and is spurring radical new thinking in the arts, humanities and social sciences. It is catalysing major advances in lighting, mobility, communications, architecture, food and energy. It is also driving far-reaching and entirely novel conversations about where and how we redraw the boundaries of ethics and politics across time and space.

Not everyone is going to find all of this interesting. But slivers of these themes will be important to pretty much everyone. Giving full rein to the mad diversity of ideas set in motion by this difficult new knowledge helps to engage those people who are bored or alienated by an over-generalised and repetitive chorus of projected woe.