The risks of climate change TV

Updated Wednesday 23rd July 2008

Joe Smith explores the role of the broadcaster in telling the climate change story

Channel 4’s Great Global Warming Swindle cut through what Ofcom termed the ‘current orthodoxy’ in media treatments of climate change. It had a far-reaching impact on audiences in the UK and internationally. The commissioning and broadcast of the programme, C4’s ensuing decision to ‘defend, defend, defend’ and Ofcom’s odd and nervous judgement all say something interesting about the difficulties broadcasters have with this enormous and complex topic.

Taking good risks in response to what we know about climate change is one of the central challenges of our age. The media are very influential players in this game in that they set the boundaries of public debate.

The risk taken by the commissioners who put Swindle on air already feels like it comes from another age. C4’s capacity for provocation and creativity now needs to be applied to a new target. Public service media have a responsibility to equip society for a long and difficult conversation about how we reduce the likelihood of climate change, and how we prepare for the environmental changes that past emissions have locked us into. Anything less and the public are being swindled.’

Channel 4 Headquarters Creative commons image Icon Creative commons image ajburgess under CC-BY-NC-ND licence under Creative-Commons license

Registered OU students and staff can see the full article going through the OU e-journals link on the library website. I’d recommend that anyone in any doubt about the reasons to complain about the programme view the full complaint at Ofcom Swindle complaint.

But the story behind that complaint is interesting in itself. A concerned member of the public got up off his sofa after viewing the film and spent the next 18 months convening a massive effort by leading scientists that went through every frame of the film detailing its inaccuracies. His story appears on the BBC News Website.

For a bit of light relief people might want to catch Burn Upthis Wednesday and Friday, a BBC Two, two-part thriller centring on big oil and climate talks. After you’ve seen the opening 30 seconds there’s not much doubting its status as fiction, but the writer Simon Beaufoy (Full Monty) took enormous pains to get his research right on both the politics and the science. The American big oil characters take a pounding, and if you were making a documentary on the subject you’d have to acknowledge that there have been some rapid and surprising developments in relation to how corporate America is responding to the issue now. But as a sketch of why the US has been such an obstacle on climate change policy its very efficient. He talked to key players in oil companies, science and politics in working the story up. The production company are Kudos, the people that make Life on Mars and Spooks, so it's a good watch. The filming on three continents, the glossy production values and a glimpse of Rupert Penry-Jones' buns should bring a new audience  to climate change.

Take it further

Read the Ofcom judgement in full in the Ofcom Broadcast Bulletin Issue 114


For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?

Other content you may like

Nature & Environment 

Climate change: Think risk not fact

Dr. Joe Smith, Senior Lecturer in Environment at The Open University discusses how we should focus on risk when looking at climate change. 


Science, Maths & Technology 

Letter to a Climate Sceptic

Why is there so much scepticism around climate change? And why does it continue to cause controversy among scientists? In 2009 the ‘Climategate’ news story, regarding stolen emails from the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit, became symbolic of public mistrust in climate science. In this audio, in the form of an open letter, The Open University’s Dr Joe Smith defends the science behind climate change and argues that “climate change is one of the challenges of the age. One that we will all be judged for”.

10 mins

Nature & Environment 

What shall we tell the children?

The public have been badly served by politics and the media on climate change. The presence of a David Attenborough blockbuster on the topic in a primetime slot shows things have changed for the better in the past year or two.


People, Politics & Law 

Climate change: the kale smoothie of TV

Is climate change the kale smoothie of TV schedules: unappealing but somehow fashionable and even essential to the diet? 


Nature & Environment 

App zeros in on loss of equatorial glaciers

Smartphone app developed to highlight that there will be no glaciers left on the world’s equatorial mountains in 25 years.


Nature & Environment 

Speed of Arctic changes defies scientists

The Arctic climate is changing so quickly that science can barely keep track of what is happening and predict the global consequences, the UN says.


People, Politics & Law 

Climate change: island life in a volatile world

What impact will global warming really have? This free course, Climate change: island life in a volatile world, examines the potential problems faced by the people of the Pacific Island of Tuvalu as a result of rising sea levels. Where would you go if your island is only a few feet above sea level? Who would you blame?

Free course
15 hrs

Nature & Environment 

Climate change’s costs are still escalating

Scientific reports released for a conference today on disaster risk reduction warn that people are already dying and economies being hit by climate change − and that the dangers are growing.


Nature & Environment 

Soil could save Earth from overheating

New research shows that changing the way we farm and manage soils so they store carbon rather than lose it would help avoid dangerous climate change.