Keeping denial alive at the BBC: the falsehoods of Paul Hudson

Given the Telegraph’s position as one of the foremost bastions of spurious climate change coverage, it’s hardly surprising that the paper was quick to seize on a recent piece of misguided misreporting from the BBC – a repackaged blog post by local weather reporter (and now, apparently, the BBC’s “climate correspondent”) Paul Hudson entitled “Whatever happened to global warming?”. According to the Telegraph’s blogs editor, Damian Thompson, Hudson’s article “represents a clear departure from the BBC’s fanatical espousal of climate change orthodoxy”. “BBC executives”, he tells us, “have swung the might of the corporation behind that orthodoxy, often producing what amounts to propaganda.”

Elsewhere, the paper quotes one delighted-sounding Piers Corbyn:

“It is a surprise – a welcome one – that the BBC has put it as bluntly as they have. More often than not they (the BBC) put forward the brainwashing views of CO2-driven, man-made climate change. …

“He said climate change was a “weapon of mass taxation.”

““All the political parties want to use climate change as an excuse to raise taxes,” he added. “Also it is a tactic for the Western powers to control the world energy supply.””

Is it possible that Western powers might have more efficacious means of controlling the world energy supply than conjuring a conspiracy of the world’s climatologists, in an effort to confront the biggest, most powerful vested interests in the world head-on? One can but speculate. Certainly, Corbyn’s account of the way in which the entire climate science community was thus manipulated will be fascinating to hear. Implanted chips, perhaps?

Corbyn of course has every reason to sound delighted: he is one of the main sources cited in Hudson’s original article. Despite having his work noted here alongside such luminaries as the UK’s Hadley Centre and respected members of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Corbyn has no expertise whatsoever in the field of climate science. Nor, it seems, has he ever written anything that has passed a peer-review – whether on climatology or any other subject.

Hudson’s article is undoubtedly a seriously irresponsible piece of science reporting, ranking alongside the notoriously ignorant and dangerous “balanced” reports on the purported health dangers of the MMR vaccine. His original blog piece is titled “Whatever happened to global warming?” – reposted as a BBC online article with the marginally less sardonic, but no less misleading title “What happened to global warming?” As Joseph Romm points out, this title has been chosen to characterise the hottest decade on record. Hudson repeats the canard that temperatures have “levelled off” since 1998 – a phenomenon that only shows up in the Hadley Centre’s data, and even then only as a reduced warming trend, not a “levelling”. As Stefan Rahmstorf at RealClimate points out, such misrepresentations are made more plausible because “lay people … tend to connect the end points, rather than include all ten data points into a proper trend calculation”. In reality, for the Hadley data, as the Centre themselves state – on a page Hudson cannot but be aware of, since he cites it – “After 1998 … warming slowed significantly”. It did not stop.

More importantly, this supposed “levelling” is entirely absent in the data from the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. And the reason for this divergence between data sets has already been accounted for: the globe warms faster at the poles, and the Hadley Centre’s data excludes the Arctic, which has absorbed a significant amount of the warming. Even then, over a period of around a decade, the levels of warming and of background temperature variability we can expect to see (~0.2 ºC) are roughly the same. Even if they were to balance each other out completely over this short time period, this would not imply anything that was not entirely compatible with the entire canon of mainstream climatology. Not only do the Hadley Centre acknowledge this, moreover; it is reflected in their projections. As they state, again on the very page Hudson cites:

“Recent Met Office research investigated how often decades with a stable or even negative warming trend appeared in computer-modelled climate change simulations.

“Jeff Knight, lead author on the research, says: “We found one in every eight decades has near-zero or negative global temperature trends in simulations. Given that we have seen fairly consistent warming since the 1970s, the odds of one in eight suggest the observed slowdown was due to happen.”

“Vicky Pope, Head of Climate Change Advice at the Met Office, said: “Decades like 1999–2008 occur quite frequently in our climate change simulations.”

To state, as Hudson does, then, that “climate models did not forecast [this] even though man-made carbon dioxide, the gas thought to be responsible for warming our planet, has continued to rise” is not only wrong, but staggeringly, bewilderingly wrong. And one only has to look at the evidence he cites to prove it.

In any case, this non-event, Hudson seems to have decided, sets the stage for a “debate” on whether global warming is over, and global cooling upon us. The only credible mainstream scientist he is able to cite to this effect is IPCC member Dr Mojib Latif of Kiel University’s Leibniz Institute of Marine Sciences, and in doing so he repeats the wholesale mangling of the man’s data that has recently appeared across the media (not to mention the wider climate change denial community). Though Hudson does at least repeat Latif’s major point, that any “cooling will be temporary, before the overwhelming force of man made global warming reasserts itself”, he represents the man’s conclusions thus: “we may indeed be in a period of cooling worldwide temperatures that could last another 10–20 years”. Yet Latif has made no such prediction. As he has pointed out, “my only forecast is to 2015 … I can’t really predict two decades in the future”. As Noel Keenlyside, Latif’s co-author, has explicitly stated, “our results show a pick up in global mean temperature for the following decade (2010−2020). Assuming a smooth transition in temperature, our results would indicate the warming picks up earlier than 2015.” Hudson, in other words, has not only distorted Latif and Keenlyside’s conclusions – he has inverted them.

Apart from this, Hudson cites the aforementioned Piers Corbyn, whom he refers to as a “solar scientist” – presumably on the basis of the man’s MSc in astrophysics. Corbyn is “so excited by what he has discovered” about the warming influence of solar particles – though curiously he appears to have “discovered” and been busy promoting exactly the same thing around a decade ago – “that he plans to tell the international scientific community at a conference in London at the end of the month.” This is presumably the same conference later visited by the BBC’s Richard Black, which attacked the entire community of climatologists globally for perpetrating a “fraud”, and which a climate researcher from Imperial College described to Black as “a prime example” of “woefully poor scientific literacy”. It had, in other words, absolutely nothing to do with the “international scientific community”.

Alongside this, Hudson cites the non-peer reviewed assertions of Don Easterbrook, who claims that “oceans and global temperatures are correlated”, and that as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) moves into a cooler phase, this “virtually assur[es] us of about 30 years of global cooling”. Hudson forgets to mention that the PDO is a fluctuation between warm and cool phases, with no net impact on the long-term global temperature trend; and that oceans have in any case continued to warm, as expected. Any of this could have been verified by checking the peer-reviewed scientific record – as opposed to reproducing profoundly dodgy claims from a profoundly dodgy website. Nevertheless, a lay reader would be unable to tell the difference between these and the credible scientific evidence with which they are juxtaposed.

Perhaps as significant is the rhetorical frame Hudson introduces, as if to suggest that these claims are of equal scientific status; that the issues are surrounded by uncertainty; and that there is a genuine, ongoing debate within the scientific community. “So what on earth is going on?” Hudson asks in his first paragraph, before introducing his contending “sides”. He “balances” the claims of Piers Corbyn and “sceptics” on solar-derived warming against a single paper published two years ago – giving the misleading impression that there was an ongoing debate on whether the sun was responsible for climate change at any point over the last 20 years. He uses the term “sceptics” – with its connotations of hard-headed rational inquiry – to describe climate change deniers, while referring to “scientists who are equally passionate about man’s influence on global warming” – with all the emotive connotations that implies. He talks about the forecasts of “[b]oth sides” of a debate on which not a single peer-reviewed article in the literature demurs from the consensus position.

Finally, in his astonishing conclusion, Hudson states: “One thing’s for sure. The debate about what’s causing global warming is far from over. Some would say it’s hotting up.” As a conclusion to a piece purportedly reviewing the scientific evidence and debate, this is a staggering misrepresentation, suggesting that divisions have suddenly erupted across the scientific community. Yet the consensus remains as solid as it ever was; the deniers remain as vocal as they ever were. As Daniel Cressey points out on the blog of the journal Nature, “Corbyn and Easterbrook are both global warming deniers”, and “both have been publicising their doubts for some time … To summarise then: two scientists who have previously said they didn’t believe in global warming still don’t believe in global warming.” So what exactly has changed? What exactly is “hotting up”?

As if this were not enough, Hudson repeated these claims in a report for The Politics Show two days later – misleading viewers on temperatures “levell[ing] out”; misrepresenting Latif’s conclusions; and drawing an equivalence between two duelling sets of “man-made scientists” and “skeptics”, concluding that “it seems the debate is far from over”. For good measure, Hudson appears on-screen at various points surrounded by greenery – narrating, he tells us, from inside “Tropical World”, where “temperatures are already hot – and some people think that this is what the planet will be like later this century” – as though the most we had to worry about from climate change was a proliferation of tropical foliage. By contrast, the “drastic cuts” world leaders in Copenhagen are set to make (in Hudson’s fevered imagination, presumably) “will make a profound difference to the way we live our lives”. The overall impression conveyed is that we risk creating a world of tropical abundance, should we fail to make drastic changes to our lifestyles to solve a problem that may or may not exist.

The Telegraph’s version of the BBC’s record is, of course – as with most of its commentary – the reverse of the truth. The BBC has continually and credulously provided a platform to climate change deniers, including many with direct links to fossil fuel and tobacco industry PR machines; has starved the issue of the publicity it badly deserves, pushing it down the agenda; and has continually applied utterly selective standards of “balance” and “impartiality” to its coverage of the issue. These are topics for another day. As things stand, Hudson’s reporting alone is demonstrably guilty of:

• Utterly misrepresenting the current state of global warming trends;

• Cherry-picking a single source of data (from the Hadley Centre, without reference to GISS) to support this line;

• Cherry-picking only the most recent findings that rule out the sun as the cause of current global warming trends, without reference to the solid consensus on man-made warming over the last 20 years, reflected in the peer-reviewed literature – misleadingly conveying the impression of an ongoing debate within the scientific community;

• Reinforcing the impression of such a debate by juxtaposing peer-reviewed findings from expert sources with non-peer reviewed assertions from non-expert sources, without acknowledging their status as such;

• Further reinforcing this impression by citing misleading credentials for non-expert sources;

• Presenting old claims from these sources as new findings;

• Uncritically reproducing unchecked, non-peer reviewed claims as scientific evidence;

• Misrepresenting scientific understanding of the effects of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, reproducing the claims of an unchecked, non-peer reviewed account without context;

• Utterly misrepresenting the findings of Dr Mojib Latif on short-term temperature variability;

• Using these misrepresentations to suggest that a genuine debate has recently emerged within the scientific community, in the absence of any substantive changes.

If Hudson were revealed to have misled the public on the science surrounding a major public health issue – what substances it was safe to inject into one’s children, say – we might justifiably expect a major public outcry. Yet on the basis of these misrepresentations, on an issue that the NHS confirm to be the biggest global health threat of the 21st-century, astonishingly Hudson appears not only to have avoided censure, but to have been summarily promoted to the status of “Climate Correspondent” for the BBC. Would it not be more appropriate for the Corporation to ask whether he should be contributing content for them at all?

  • christian

    This is a really useful run-through, thanks.

    It would be good to keep producing short bullet point summaries of categories of misrepresentation in the future.

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  • Jac

    I follow Hudson’s blog with interest and I often find his position to be firmly on the fence in regards to warming. I was listening to his radio show yesterday and was gobsmacked to hear him suggest the ‘fine tuning’ argument for the existence of god. He also elaborated that a family member was a pastor or similar.

    Can’t help but wonder if religious ideologies intrude on his scientific world view.