No debate: The tweet that brought a shift in BBC climate change coverage

Tired of being asked to debate climate deniers despite the overwhelming scientific consensus that anthropogenic climate change is happening, Dr Rupert Read refused to appear on a BBC show to debate where there is no debate. His tweeted response drew a reaction even he couldn’t have imagined.

Nigel Lawson
Nigel Lawson

The BBC's climate change coverage has often been criticised for affording equal weight to climate change deniers, such as former Chancellor Lord Lawson (picture), when the overwhelming scientific consensus is that anthropogenic climate change is happening.

Dr Rupert Read
Thu 13 Sep 2018

At the start of August, I was rung up by the BBC. Would I come on, in the context of the raging drought and horrific climate-induced events in Greece, the USA, and more places besides besides, to debate the reality of anthropogenic dangerous climate change with a denier?

My normal responses would have been to say: “Yes”.

But, while my ego was assuming that I would take the opportunity, and before I could open my mouth, something else rose up within me; from my gut. A visceral distaste — and a call of the conscience.

I just couldn’t do it anymore. I couldn’t pretend that there was any debate to be had with these pseudo-scientists, the deniers. I couldn’t stomach the absurdity of debating with them while the planet literally burns. From my precautionary perspective – wherein it is obvious that the right thing to do is to cut back emissions drastically, recognising that we are in an emergency, and that the risks of continuing with business as usual far outweighs any benefits – I couldn’t make sense any more of engaging with these utterly reckless people who think it is okay to carry on polluting like there’s no tomorrow… almost as if they don’t want there to be one.

I said: “No”. I expressed my willingness to take part in lots of other debates about climate – e.g. Is a carbon tax what we need? And/or a Green New Deal? In fact, are we even going to be able to stop climate change at all? — but not, any longer, to participate in the charade of debating these dangerous jokers, the denialists.

That was that. They eventually found someone else (a climate scientist) willing to go on instead of me. And I got on with my day.

That evening, I thought back to what had happened earlier, and decided to put together a quick tweet on it.

BBC Radio wanted to have me on today to debate a climate-denier in the context of the drought/heatwave.
I said NO.
I told them it was a disgrace that they still give climate-deniers airtime at a time like this.
I won’t be part of such charades any longer.
Please RT if you agree.

— Rupert Read (@GreenRupertRead) 31 July 2018

I thought that maybe what I’d done, the little gesture of refusal I’d made, might resonate with some people. I thought maybe I’ll even get 30 or 40 re-tweets out of this! I underestimated you...

Before I went to bed that night, I already had 1000 re-tweets. That’s more than for any tweet I’d ever previously done, on any subject, in 10 years on Twitter.

The next morning, I woke up to find that the tweet now had 10,000 re-tweets. Clearly, I’d tuned into something. Many people said how refreshing it was, at last, to have someone refuse to tolerate the absurdity of the ‘debate’, and to insist instead on #climatereality.

I was then contacted by the BBC nationally, to get all the details straight. I started getting calls from the media not only in Britain, but also abroad. The story even made it to Australia!

I was commissioned to write a Guardian op-ed, setting out my reasoning in detail for why we should boycott debates with denialists on the reality of climate chaos, and for why that would force a change of approach from broadcasters.

I was contacted by the BBC Radio station that had sought to have me on, and they apologised, and asked to meet with me. We discussed how they could avoid making the same mistake again; how they could have a discussion around climate that didn’t flatter (i.e. that didn’t need to include) the deniers.

And that tweet meanwhile just kept on growing. It was re-tweeted by some very notable names, including, most intriguingly of all, by Richard Sambrook, former Head of News at the BBC, who agrees — like many BBC journalists who contacted me privately — with what I had called for.

It’s now been re-tweeted by 42,000 people, and liked by 60,000. It’s been seen by over five million people.

I decided it was time to get together a letter signed by distinguished politicians, writers and scientists, so that together we could put forward the same point of view: that the time for debate with denialists is past. The letter, signed by 60 of us, including Caroline Lucas, Jonathon Porritt, Peter Tatchell, George Monbiot and major politicians from Labour, the Lib Dems and Greens, made a splash, appearing in print nationally.

Then, last Friday, another article appeared in the Guardian. Making the connection with our multi-signed letter, it showcased a brand new leaked memo the central point of which was that the BBC has finally accepted that it gets coverage of climate change ‘wrong too often’ and so the BBC has at last told its staff: “You do not need a ‘denier’ to balance the debate.”

This is exactly what was at issue when I got the call from the Beeb at the start of August. Blimey; we won! The deniers are fading into the dustbin of history. The BBC is finally waking up. And activism can work.

Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s needs, but not every man’s greed – Mahatma Gandhi