By Paul Homewood
Ken Pollock, one of our readers, forwarded this correspondence he had with the BBC regarding Justin Rowlatt’s Panorama programme last November:
Following his letter to Tim Davie, who promised to get his team to look into Ken’s complaint, the Panorama producer sent this letter:
Dear Dr Pollock,
Thank you for your email to the Director General which has been passed to me for a response.
I am the executive producer who worked on Wild Weather: Our World Under Threat.
You have forwarded a link to a blogpost which points to data showing that the numbers of deaths per hundred thousand in relation to weather and climate events has fallen over the years, contrasting this with the commentary in the programme, where the presenter, Justin Rowlatt, says:
“The world is getting warmer, and our weather is getting ever more unpredictable and dangerous. The death toll is rising around the world and the forecast is that worse is to come.”
This was part of the introduction to the programme and was intended to set out the challenge posed by more extreme weather events in the future. The death toll is indeed rising, with the overall numbers of people losing their lives going up year on year. The death toll is a cumulative figure, not an annualised rate. However, the annualised rate is also predicted to rise as a result of extreme weather caused by man-made climate change. We are sorry we did not make this clear enough or what the prediction was based on. A body linked to the WHO estimates current climate change deaths to be running at 150,000 a year; looking ahead the WHO estimates that number could reach 250,000 a year between 2030 and 2050.
As the blogpost you forwarded highlights, there is also data that shows an historical decline in the annual rate of deaths related to weather events. The World Meteorological Organisation published a report into deaths from weather related disasters over the past fifty years last Summer. It highlighted early warning and other interventions which have been significant factors in reducing the overall death rates from weather events and also acknowledged that the report’s reliance on reported death figures meant it may have underreported the numbers in some areas.
However, our programme was not looking back in time or at extreme weather trends in the past. We were considering the impact man made climate change is having now and in the immediate future. We focused on the changes to human habitation and behaviour that these weather patterns may result in. More frequent flooding, heatwaves etc will lead to greater issues around housing and sanitation, food supply and pressure for resources such as water. Humans have found ways to mitigate some of the impact but this is likely to become more difficult in the future, as the research from the WHO outlined above makes clear. The European heatwave of 2021, where a record temperature of almost 49C was recorded, was almost impossible without climate change according to the Met Office, as it was a ‘once in ten thousand year’ event. The Met Office shared with the programme its calculations that Europe will experience extreme, near 50-degree heatwaves every three years if greenhouse gases continue rising under what the Met Office describes as a ‘medium’ emissions scenario. Inevitably these heat waves will lead to avoidable deaths through wildfires as well as ‘excess deaths’ in vulnerable groups with a lower tolerance to extreme temperatures. It is this predicted escalation in the frequency of extreme weather events that the programme was highlighting and the unfortunate likelihood that the death toll will be driven up more quickly as a result.
Thank you for taking the time to bring this to the BBC’s attention and I hope this answers your concerns.
Executive Producer, Panorama
Dear Mr Telling,
Many thanks for your email, in response to my concern about your Panorama programme. I have studied your reply carefully and hope the following remarks will also be considered carefully. Feel free to pass them to Justin Rowlatt as well.
You give a sentence from Mr Rowlatt’s script. To take one phrase “weather is getting ever more unpredictable…”. In the following paragraph you say “the annualised rate is predicted to rise…”
I find these two sentences incompatible. You do not appear to realise that you are stating total opposites, and using the second – the predictability of an increase – as a justification for more or less everything else.
Then you state that the death toll is “cumulative, not an annualised rate”. Surely you recognise that that is an asinine statement. Naturally the death toll is cumulative. The death toll in the UK is cumulative. It is difficult to imagine it not increasing, if you quote cumulative figures.
“Bad weather conditions result in halving the yield per acre”. Ah, you say, but the amount of food produced has increased, as we are talking “cumulative” yields. Total madness, and not what we expect from Panorama.
Much of what you then write is drawn from the WHO, talking of death rates increasing in the 20 years after 2030 to 250,000 per year. These figures are based on the IPCC “predictions”, highly questionable in an “unpredictable” world. That WHO HELI report is full of conditionals, enough, one might expect, for you to challenge some of them, or at least refer to the source and the speculative nature of the “predictions”.
How can you write with a straight face that heatwaves will kill more and more people, without also accepting that cold kills 10 or more times as many people every year, and extra heat may save far more people?
Have you considered the government figures in their “Clean Air Strategy” on page 13 in the 2019 edition, that shows reductions in emissions of air pollutants over the last 50 years of between 65% (volatile organic compounds) and 95% (sulphur dioxide)? That was achieved in an industrial country at the same time that our economy was apparently encouraging all sorts of unwise behaviour, with regard to emissions.
Have you read and learnt from Hans Rosling’s book “Factfulness” that shows how ignorant we all are about the ways in which the world has got better over the last 50 years?
How do you reconcile the fact the Singapore and Helsinki have average temperatures differing by 22 degrees C, and yet you accept that a further 1 degree in global average temperature could spell disaster?
You appear to accept the WHO idea that “health shocks and stresses will push 100 million more people into poverty every year” What on earth does that mean? Digging a bit deeper into what they are on about and whether it was in any way credible would have been a better use of your airtime.
You state that avoidable deaths through wildfires will increase. I wonder what you really mean by that. You surely know that most of the Australian wildfires and those in the West of the USA were started by arson. Surely you know that the recent wildfires were nowhere near as bad as those in the West of the USA in the 30s and40s and in Australia in the 80s, when I filmed them for the BBC, and in earlier decades.
It is this sort of casual statement that betrays a lack of rigour in your thinking that I find most worrying. We expect better from the BBC and certainly from its flagship programme Panorama!
During my 22 years as a producer at the BBC, I became alarmed at the inadequate use of statistics by the corporation in current affairs and elsewhere. I had a meeting with the head of policy (Jim Wilson?), suggesting a statistics department to run parallel with the pronunciation unit, as it seemed many BBC people repeated statistics without understanding them.
The idea was rejected. In part it has been rendered redundant by the excellent programme “More or Less”, presented by Tim Harford, as it examines published figures and seeks to find out whether they are reliable or not.
In general terms, that is the job of the “executive producer” – to dig a bit deeper, or get a junior to do so. Sadly, I am not reassured that it has happened in this case.
Dr Ken Pollock,
The correspondence was in March, so evidently Mr Telling won’t be replying!
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May 22, 2022 at 04:09AM