RTÉ to make climate-change programming ‘a priority’

Oireachtas committee criticises broadcaster for low level of environmental coverage

RTÉ is to increase coverage of climate change in response to growing audience demand, according to its director general, Dee Forbes.

The expanded content produced by the national broadcaster will go beyond news and current affairs, she told the Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action on Wednesday.

The public service broadcaster has been criticised repeatedly for its coverage of climate change, notably on flagship programmes such as Prime Time and Morning Ireland, in recent years.

In 2017, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) suggested Irish broadcast media could be doing more to report on climate issues, while other analysis by academics and environmental groups have also highlighted the issue.

Ms Forbes said coverage of climate change and environmental issues was regularly reflected in news and current-affairs coverage. This was also evident across a wide range of programmes including Eco Eye, Ear to the Ground and through reporting by environment correspondent George Lee.

The subject was also being “well represented in various political debate programmes such as Drivetime, Today with Sean O’Rourke, Late Debate, or Saturday with Cormac Ó hEadhra”.

“A cursory review of coverage over the past six months on this issue demonstrates that RTÉ is making genuine efforts to engage with this subject across a diverse range of output and from a wide range of perspectives,” she added.

Given growing levels of public interest and concern around this issue, the topic of climate change “will be a thematic priority in our news and current affairs coverage” this year, Ms Forbes said.

The topic was complex, she noted, and there was work to be done in communicating the science of global warming.

There was also a need to outline to audiences what they could do to mitigate climate change effects.

She believed an Operation-Transformation approach might work in that regard, but felt it should not be “finger-wagging” and was open to discussing with the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment how that might be done.

Independent TD Thomas Pringle cited a two-week survey of Morning Ireland which found that 0.92 per cent of the programme was dedicated to environmental matters.

In response, managing director of news and current affairs Jon Williams said two weeks did not strike him as being representative of coverage.

Mr Pringle then said: “Put the facts out there.”

Mr Williams replied: “Listeners can judge for themselves.”

“That is not good enough,” Mr Pringle added.

Ireland is set to experience a less stable climate and more intense extreme weather events as global warming takes hold, Met Éireann director Eoin Moran told the committee.

Climate change has become the new reality as the world warms to levels not seen in the past 125,000 years, while the weather forecaster's acceptance of the science of human-induced global warming, as detailed by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was "unequivocal".

This contrasted with views published by Prof Ray Bates, a former head of research in Met Éireann, in the Farmers Journal, he confirmed.

In Ireland, last year’s summer drought and storms Desmond, Ophelia, and Emma were all “part of the trend of more frequent high-impact weather events” influenced by climate change, he added.

Mr Moran said the forecaster’s job was to support “impacts-based decision making relating to the weather”.

If Labour TD Seán Sherlock had detected reticence in its coverage, it was to do with struggling to explain clearly what they do, he said.

“But we don’t tell you what to do. As scientists you shouldn’t cross that line.”

Green Senator Grace O’Sullivan said Met Éireann was a superb and trusted resource, but she believed there was a communications deficit.

“That concerns me in getting the [climate-change] message across.”

Instead of adopting a conservative approach, it should be more pro-active, she added.

Party colleague Eamon Ryan said the UK Met Office gave far more prominence to climate change, and he questioned if current five- to 10-day forecasting was sufficiently good in detecting climate-related events.

Mr Moran said Met Éireann worked with the WMO and leading scientists in constantly updating its forecasting.

Its “ensemble system” deployed 51 forecasting models at any one time in a super computer.

On weather warnings, he said Met Éireann followed best international practice.

Head of forecasting Evelyn Cusack added, however: "Unfortunately, spurious warnings are being issued by other organisations without a meteorological background."

The committee has concluded hearings and is due to report shortly on how the Government should adopt the Citizen’s Assembly recommendations on climate, and on actions needed in the National Energy and Climate Plan, to be finalised and submitted to the EU by the end of 2019.

It is also likely to make recommendations on increasing carbon tax.