The transformation of climate change from a scientific to a political issue became clear last night when the BBC dropped plans for a day-long TV special on global warming.
The scrapping of Planet Relief, an awareness-raising broadcast similar in concept to programmes such as the poverty-focused Comic Relief and Live8, and planned for early next year, marked a watershed moment: it showed that opining about climate change is now as significant in Britain as scientific fact.
Environmentalists and politicians fiercely criticised the BBC for abandoning the programme, for which Ricky Gervais and Jonathan Ross had been provisionally lined up as presenters. The corporation said that it had decided it was not the BBC's job to lead opinion on the global warming issue. However, critics complained that the effect of the decision was to imply that there was no scientific consensus on the reality of climate change and its human causes, and accused the corporation of being swayed by increasingly vocal climate-change sceptics.
Chris Huhne, Liberal Democrat spokesman on the environment, said: "The consensus about global warming in the science community is now overwhelming, so accusing the BBC of campaigning on such an undisputed threat is like suggesting it should be even-handed between criminals and their victims."
The green activist and author Mark Lynas said that the decision showed "a real poverty of understanding among senior BBC executives about the gravity of the situation we now face.
"The only reason why this became an issue is that there is a small but vociferous group of extreme right-wing climate 'sceptics' lobbying against taking action, so the BBC is behaving like a coward and refusing to take a more consistent stance," he said.
Planet Relief was a working title for the TV special, which was being developed by Jon Plowman, head of BBC Comedy. While the event might have been similar in scale to Comic Relief or Children in Need, it would not have involved fundraising.
It was intended to raise awareness of the issue of climate change. The BBC had been in discussions with the National Grid about the possibility of calling on viewers to participate in a mass electricity "switch-off" or if that had not proved feasible, to turn off the electricity at selected iconic landmarks.
The abandonment of the programme came about after an intense in-house debate about exactly how the corporation should treat the global warming issue, now becoming increasingly politicised in Britain. It could be broadly said that action on climate change, while favoured by many across the political spectrum, has a particular appeal for radical groups, not least because industrial capitalism is seen as being the principal cause of the problem.
By extension, some voices on the right regard it as just another radical cause, oppose it instinctively and seek to cast doubt on its scientific basis. The BBC has been under fire, especially from right-wing commentators, for proselytising in its presentation of some concerns, and some senior executives had doubts about the Planet Relief proposal in particular, suggesting it would leave the corporation open to the charge of bias.
Speaking at the Edinburgh International Television Festival this month, Newsnight's editor, Peter Barron said: "It's abso- lutely not the BBC's job to save the planet." The head of television news, Peter Horrocks, wrote in the BBC News website editor's blog: "It is not the BBC's job to lead opinion or proselytise on this or any other subject."
However, a spokeswoman for BBC1, the channel on which Planet Relief would have been shown, insisted that last night's decision was not made "in light of the recent debate around impartiality." She added: "BBC1 aims to bring a mass audience to contemporary and relevant issues and this includes the topic of climate change.
"Our audiences tell us they are most receptive to documentary or factual-style programming as a means of learning about the issues surrounding this subject, and as part of this learning we have made the decision not to go proceed with the Planet Relief event. Instead we will focus our energies on a range of factual programmes on the important and complex subject of climate change."
Mark Lynas dismissed the argument that Planet Relief was dropped for purely editorial reasons as "PR guff". "This is all to do with the fact that climate change is such a political issue and it's too hot for the BBC to handle," he said. "It's intellectual bankruptcy. The entire scientific community is telling the world that it's the biggest threat to human civilisation. What more evidence do you need?" Tony Juniper, executive director of Friends of the Earth, said the decision was very disappointing "considering the huge potential for the BBC in helping us more quickly make the shift toward a low-carbon society."
Andrew Neil, who presents the Daily Politics and This Week on the BBC, said: "I'm delighted the BBC has cancelled it. Our job is to cover these things, not to comment on them. There's a great danger that on some issues we're becoming a one-party state in which we're meant to have only one kind of view. You don't have to be a climate-change denier to recognise that there's a great range of opinion on the subject."