Clive James: Spare Me TV’s Climate Change Experts

  • Date: 08/05/14
  • Clive James, The Daily Telegraph

Perhaps the Beeb, in view of the current shifting of the emphasis in climate science from mitigation to adaptation, is now, at last, dialling down the alarmism.

[....] No, this was a bigger idea: an idea relevant to countless BBC programmes about the environment over the course of the past decade and a half. Let me try to evoke the moment in which the idea occurred. Simon was talking to a man in charge of a South Australian wine factory which covered thousands of acres with its enormous shining silver vats and bins. The factory produces a zillion bottles of wine per year, and uses, in the process, a gazillion gallons of water.

The water is drawn from the Murray-Darling river system. If it occurred to you to wonder what would happen to the output of wine if the input of water were to be restricted, it occurred to Reeve too. So did he ask the professionally knowledgeable bloke in charge of the wine whether he anticipated any restrictions in the water supply?

No, he asked a climate change expert. In Australia, climate change experts are not hard to find. Indeed it is very hard to keep them out of your car: unless you wind the window all the way up, one of them will climb in. This climate change expert was called Tim. Armed with his ability to read the future, Tim predicted that any dry area of the Murray-Darling system was “an indication of what’s coming”, and that “what Australia is experiencing here now” would eventually be experienced by “hundreds of millions of people around the world”.

Simon nodded his moustache sagely but didn’t once ask whether the flourishing wine industry was not part of what Australia is experiencing here now. Nor did he ask whether, in view of climate change, the wine industry was doomed. It was then that the big idea hit me. Why hadn’t he asked the wine grower? It would have been easy to frame the question, perhaps along the lines of: “In view of what is happening to the planet, have you any plans for selling all this colossal acreage of silver metal for scrap?”

It would have been worth asking the wine grower because his whole way of life depends on what he thinks about the water supply, whereas, with Tim, nothing depends on what he thinks about the water supply except his next research grant and his prospects of getting on screen with the visiting TV presenter so that they can shoot off their mouths together. And at that point I started thinking about all those BBC environment and nature programmes from the immediate past that might just turn out, in retrospect, to have been souping up their science with science fiction.

But you can see the attraction. Sensationalism makes for a splash of danger, and sometimes, when the danger isn’t there, you miss it. In a re-run of the classic little wildlife programme of 2006 Rabbits of Skomer (BBC Four) you could see the danger, or lack of danger, that some animal shows faced before the global warming theme got going.

On the island of Skomer the rabbits, like the puffins, face no mammal predators. In the air, the odd short-eared owl or greater black-backed gull lurks hungrily, but on the whole the rabbits have got it made. They stick their heads up out of their holes and sniff, but all they find is a camera crew looking at them. There is not a single whiff of oncoming planetary doom. If the show were being made now, there would have to be a climate change expert called Tim to say that the whole island will soon be a hundred feet under water with sharks cruising through waves dotted with the corpses of rabbits and puffin chicks.

Or perhaps not. Perhaps the Beeb, in view of the current shifting of the emphasis in climate science from mitigation to adaptation, is now, at last, dialling down the alarmism. Perhaps they put the Skomer rabbits back on air as a portent of the nature programmes they will make next, with the future restored to its erstwhile position as the long stretch of time about which not even science can know everything.

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