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Temporarily Frozen Planet, Permanently Frozen Objectivity

Posted on 3 December 2011 by dana1981

The BBC has produced a new series titled Frozen Planet, which is a documentary about the Arctic and Antarctic that includes an episode on climate change called On Thin Ice.  Sadly, the BBC feels that sales in the climate denial-heavy United States will be more successful if it drops the climate change episode in sales of the series abroad.  The Discovery Channel has not yet decided whether to carry On Thin Ice in its USA broadcast of the series.

Recently, the series' narrator, Sir David Attenborough wrote an article about his travels to the Arctic, and his concerns about the rapid global warming-enduced melting he observed there and its numerous adverse impacts.  The article was published by the British magazine The Radio Times.

Nigel Lawson, a British former conservative politician and journalist, took issue with Attenborough's article and responded with his own article also published by The Radio Times.  In his response, Lawson criticizes Attenborough for a supposed lack of objectivity, but it would appear that Lawson's definition of "objectivity" involves little more than regurgitating long-debunked climate myths.  In fact, were Lawson a Skeptical Science reader, he would have known better than to make these false and misleading arguments, because we have debunked several of them in the very recent past.

Arctic Sea Ice Death Spiral

Lawson begins his list of criticisms of Attenborough's article by repeating the same myth we debunked when made by Roger Pielke Sr. less than a month ago - that Antarctic sea ice gain offsets Arctic sea ice loss.

"Had [Attenborough] wished to be objective, he would have pointed out that, while satellite observations do indeed confirm that the extent of arctic sea ice has been declining over the past 30 years, the same satellite observations show that, overall, Antarctic sea ice has been expanding over the same period."

Had Lawson wished to be objective, he would have pointed out that the small, statistically insignificant increase in Antarctic sea ice extent is no match for the rapid decline in Arctic sea ice extent (Figure 1).

global sea ice extent

Figure 1: National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) Antarctic, Arctic, and global (sum of the two) sea ice extents with linear trends.  The data is smoothed with a 12-month running average.

Had he wished to be objective, Lawson would also have noted that the decline in Arctic ice volume is even more rapid and concerning than the decline in extent  (ice is three dimensional, after all).  And an objective Lawson might have mentioned that he mass of the Antarctic ice sheet, especially the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) is declining.  Or that despite the slight increase in Antarctic sea ice extent, the Southern Ocean is warming - faster than the global trend, in fact.

Polar Bear Population Decline

Lawson proceeded to regurgitate the popular myth that polar bear populations are thriving:

"Had [Attenborough] wished to be objective, he would have pointed out that the polar bear population has not been falling, but rising."

Had Lawson wished to be objective, he would not have made this false assertion.  According to a 2009 report by the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group, of the 19 recognised subpopulations of polar bears, 8 are in decline, 1 is increasing, 3 are stable and 7 don’t have enough data to draw any conclusions. Figure 2 compares the data for 2005 and 2009.


Figure 2: Subpopulation status of polar bears for 2005 and 2009 (Source: Polar Bear Specialist Group)

The overall polar bear population is indeed declining, in large part due to the aforementioned rapid decline in Arctic sea ice.  The early retreat of summer sea ice means that bears have less time to hunt and therefore less time to build up fat reserves.  Additionally, the fragmentation and reduction in sea ice forces the bears to swim longer distances, using up some of their fat reserves. It also forces the bears to spend more time on land, with increased interactions with humans potentially leading to higher mortality.

Clouds Will Not Save Us from Global Warming

Lawson's next false assertion involves the cloud feedback:

"Had [Attenborough] wished to be objective, he would have mentioned that recent research findings show that the increased evaporation from the Arctic ocean, as a result of warming, will cause there to be more cloud cover, thus counteracting the adverse effect he is so concerned about."

Had Lawson wished to be objective, he would not have such a false, unsubstantiated statement.  It's difficult to tell whether Lawson's assertion here is based on the myth that globally, clouds will dampen global warming as a significantly negative feedback which was debunked by most recently and thoroughly by Dessler (2010):

"the short-term cloud feedback had a magnitude of 0.54 +/- 0.74 watts per square meter per kelvin, meaning that it is likely positive."

or whether Lawson is referring to research specific to the cloud feedback in the Arctic region.  If the latter, he would still be incorrect.  While it's true that clouds have a cooling effect via reflecting incoming solar radiation (increased albedo), had Lawson wished to be objective, he would have noted that clouds also have a competing warming effect by increasing the greenhouse effect.

Screen and Simmonds (2010) found that in the Arctic, the warming effect of the cloud feedback is greater in the spring, fall, and winter (Figure 3).  After all, during most of the year the Arctic doesn't get very much sunlight, so the influence of increased cloud reflectivity is not very large, except in summer.

arctic clouds

Figure 3: Impacts of cloud-cover changes on the net surface radiation.  Mean net surface radiation (short-wave plus long-wave) over the 1989–2008 period under cloudy-sky (solid lines) and clear-sky (dotted lines) conditions.  Means are averaged around circles of latitude for winter (a), spring (b), summer (c) and autumn (d). The fluxes are defined as positive in the downward direction. Red shading indicates that the presence of cloud has a net warming effect at the surface. Blue shading indicates that the presence of cloud has a net cooling effect at the surface. The dashed lines show the approximate edge of the Arctic basin. Symbols show latitudes where increases (triangles) and decreases (crosses) in total cloud cover significant at the 99% uncertainty level are found.

As Figure 3 shows, the net Arctic cloud feedback is very slightly negative (cooling) in the summer (Figure 3c), and positve in the winter, spring, and autumn (Figures 3a, b, d).  The question is whether the overall feedback is neutral or positive.  Screen and Simmonds conclude:

"In short, we find no evidence of changes in cloud cover contributing to recent near-surface Arctic warming."

However, cloud cover changes in the Arctic certainly aren't having the cooling effect that Lawson asserts.

Global Warming Continues

Lawson then repeats one of the favorite climate denialist myths - that global warming has magically stopped:

"Had [Attenborough] wished to be objective, he would have noted that, while there was indeed a modest increase in mean global temperature (of about half a degree Centigrade) during the last quarter of the 20th century, so far this century both the UK Met Office and the World Meteorological Office confirm that there has been no further global warming at all."

This myth is very easily debunked in Figure 4, and repeating it is no sign of objectivity.

skeptics v realists v3

Figure 4: BEST land-only surface temperature data (green) with linear trends applied to the timeframes 1973 to 1980, 1980 to 1988, 1988 to 1995, 1995 to 2001, 1998 to 2005, 2002 to 2010 (blue), and 1973 to 2010 (red).

Even if we go along with Lawson's cherrypicked starting date, his claim of "no further global warming at all" since 2000 is simply wrong (Figure 5).

warming since 2000

Figure 5: Average global surface temperature anomaly from HadCRUT, NOAA, and GISS since 2000 (blue), and linear trend (black)

The linear trend in this data since 2000 is 0.063°C warming per decade.  Lawson has conveniently selected the HadCRUT data, which has a known cool bias.  The average of the NOAA and GISS data since 2000 produces a 0.085°C warming trend per decade.  Even if we cherrypick the timeframe (since 2000) and dataset (HadCRUT), there is still a warming trend (0.02°C per decade).  Of course none of these trends is statistically significant, because 10 years is too short of a timeframe to establish statistical significance.  Lawson is focusing on short-term noise rather than long-term signal, as Figure 4 illustrates.  Nevertheless, his assertion of no warming is wrong.

Lawson Reveals His Motives

Lawson closes his article by spreading myths about climate solutions:

"if there is a resumption of warming, the only rational course is to adapt to it, rather than to try (happily a lost cause) to persuade the world to impoverish itself by moving from relatively cheap carbon-based energy to much more expensive non-carbon energy."

In fact, Lawson has crammed two myths into this closing sentence.  Firstly, economic studies consistently show that climate mitigation is cheaper than adaption.  Secondly, while the market price of fossil fuel energy is generally cheaper than renewable energy, when we account for all the costs, many renewable sources are cheaper in reality due to the massive external costs not reflected in the market price of coal (Figure 6).

coal costs

Figure 6: Average US coal electricity price vs. MMN11 and Epstein (2011) best estimate coal external costs.

If Lawson were truly objective, he would not ignore these inconvenient but very real costs.

Misinformation is not Objectivity

In every case, Lawson's "objectivity" is nothing more than repeating myths and spreading misinformation.  Perhaps Lawson would feel more at home in the United States, where climate denial prohibits scientifically-sound presentations like Attenborough's from being shared with the public, and where presenting Lawson's brand of misinformation is encouraged as being "fair and balanced."

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Comments 1 to 39:

  1. I'm a Limey/Pom and quite familiar with Nigel Lawson. Although he is not quite as absurd as Monckton, his attraction to myths is very similar and his politics are never far below the surface. What is it with (C)conservative politicians and climate change? Why is a political tradition linked with conservation and good business based on hard-nosed facts being so misdirected? Is it because they are linked to the businesses that will have to change the most to combat climate change? Excellent article by the way. I'm quite keen on seeing Attenboroughs final Frozen Planet episode distributed as widely as possible. So far the series has been wonderful.
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  2. “An Ethical Analysis of the Climate Change Disinformation Campaign: Is This A New Kind of Assault on Humanity?” is an ethical and moral critique of the climate change disinformation campaign. The critique was presented an event at COP-17 in Durban, South Africa on November 29th 2011. In addition to Donald A. Brown, Associate Professor Environmental Ethics, Science, and Law at Penn State University, a number of philosophers, scientists, and lawyers who work on the ethical dimensions of climate change participated in this event. They included Stephen Gardiner from the University of Washington, Jon Rosales from St. Lawrence University, Katherine Kintzell from the Center for Humans and Nature and the IUCN Environmental Law Commission Ethics Working Group, Kenneth Shockley from the University of Buffalo, and Marilyn Averill from the University of Colorado at Boulder. To access this “must read” report, click here.
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  3. Another important point to make is that the slight rise in Antarctic sea ice is predicted by climate models and is an expected result of a warmer climate. That's because the Southern Ocean is at a lower absolute latitude that the Arctic Ocean, and is outside of the permanent polar high. This means that it's a wet area (a lot of precip) as opposed to a dry area. Increasing global heat drives a more rapid hydrological cycle, and the wet areas get more rain and snow, including the Southern Ocean. The temperature at which ice freezes is determined by the salinity of the sea water, and with more rain and snow the surface waters become fresher and freeze at higher temperatures. Thus more rain and snow makes the sea more likely to freeze, while the warmer temps make the sea less likely to freeze. In the Southern Ocean, these two factors nearly balance out, but not quite. The slight increase of sea ice we observe is the correctly predicted outcome of these opposing forces. It's expected to last another few decades, when increasing temps will win out.
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  4. Good point keith. I recall a RealClimate post that pointed out that a delayed Antarctic ice response to global warming was predicted by climate models decades ago. I'm not sure why Lawson thinks one has to point out this expected Antarctic result when discussing the Arctic sea ice decline in order to be "objective." To paraphrase The Princess Bride, I do not think that word means what Lawson thinks it means.
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  5. John Hartz thank you for the link. I'd like to quote one more sentence:
    "We are here today to encourage greater reflection on the moral travesty of the climate change disinformation campaign. We will argue that this campaign is some kind of new assault on humanity."
    Greater reflection, indeed.
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  6. Riccardo #5: You're welcome. I highly recommend that SkS obtain permission to repost "An Ethical Analysis of the Climate Change Disinformation Campaign: Is This A New Kind of Assault on Humanity?”. Climate deniers such as Nigel Lawson are indeed skating on very thin moral and legal ice.
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  7. Keith @3 and Dana @4, Indeed. Manabe's seminal modelling work in the early nineties predicted this asymmetrical response of the polar regions. Recently Richard Alley hinted that this may be about to change in the near future, but he was not more specific. Lawson works for the disinformation and lobby group GWPF. These charlatans are again playing the trick of accusing others of exactly what you are doing, in this case not being objective. This disingenuous trick of the "skeptics" and those in denial about AGW is getting very tired and old. The GWPF have dubious and oft refuted people like Ross McKitrick, Plimer, Happer and Carter on their advisory council. Say no more...they are not interested in science at all but instead political and ideological spin.
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  8. Yes, the GWPF is horrid. They appear to be the ones who originally made the 'hide the decline' accusation about BEST, later parroted by Curry.
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  9. Actually Pete Dunkelberg has posted links to the Manabe paper's here.
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  10. How can we work to gether to get the essay on climate ethics published in local mainstream media?
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  11. Attenborough interview about the Frozen Planet series and climate change. I think it should work outside the UK:
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  12. @7"The GWPF have dubious and oft refuted people like Ross McKitrick, Plimer, Happer and Carter on their advisory council. Say no more...they are not interested in science at all but instead political and ideological spin." Not forgetting the politcal / sports scientist (and equally refuted), Benny Peiser
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  13. Just saw the Grand Old Man of natural history broadcasting, David Attenborough, interviewed on the BBC 10 o'clock news. He was clearly concerned, said the evidence for climate change was "incontrovertible", and that the changes "could be catastrophic". When asked about the dangers of being alarmist, he answered in a pained sort of voice "I try not to be". Apparently, the show on BBC next Tuesday is the one not being shown in the US, and is very much a personal statement by Attenborough. Sad that American viewers will not see this because the network magnates are chickensh*t scared of losing advertising revenue - that is the only reason I can think of for not broadcasting what should be the crown jewel of the series.
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  14. I think the changing graphics are great, but I would love to see an area chart of the sea ice extent gained in antarctica vs. that lost in the arctic (similar to the "where is the heat going - the oceans" figure). Maybe this is accomplished more simply as a bar graph of "net ice extent change since 1979" - antarctic (small positive), artcic (large negative), global (larger negative). Great Post!
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  15. Cornelius Breadbasket #1 You inquire why are conservatives so sceptical about climate change? It may be business links or maybe its related to the fact that conservatism is by its very nature opposed to change. So climate change and society changing to deal with it are both resisted.
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  16. Nicholas and DB - the final frame in the animated GIF shows global sea ice extent.
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  17. Amidst calls of RTFOP, apologies. Been a long day. Extraneous graph removed.
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  18. Daniel, I think your graph is mis-labeled and should ony read global sea ice area. Here is another graph showing the same data. . (source Cryosphere Today) The anomalies are the red line at the bottom of the graph. Two years ago at WUWT they used to use this graph to "proove" the sea ice was increasing, but since it is obviously going down now they no longer post it.
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    Moderator Response: [DB] I will contact Neven to get more info on it (from his graphs page).
  19. Keith Pickering's post at #3 and Dana's at #4 deserve to be highlighted. Lawson is ignoring (either though simple ignorance of basic science or through deliberate intent to obfuscate) the fact that Antarctica is sitting on a thumping great continental land mass, whilst the Arctic ice cap simply floats on ocean. He's also ignoring the thumping great ozone hole over the Antarctic. These factors greatly affect how much ice forms over each pole, over time. Consequence - the Arctic ice cover will essentially decrease consistently with global warming, whilst Antarctic ice cover will likely increase to a small degree in initial stages but decrease with more extreme warming anomalies. To say otherwise is to misrepresent the science: in effect, it is to lie about the science... I hope that Attenborough takes the opportunity to clear up the matter, and to show the public just how mendaciously Lawson is playing loose with the scientific truth.
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  20. Further to #19 here is a link to a position analysis from the Antarctic Climate & Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre with regards to Antarctic sea ice. This analysis gives a clear explantion as to the particular dynamics involved and the impacts of change.
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  21. It’s quite likely that Lord Lawson’s information on global sea ice came from (Lord) Monckton. Monckton quote: “In fact, the global sea-ice record shows virtually no change throughout the past 30 years, because the quite rapid loss of Arctic sea ice since the satellites were watching has been matched by a near-equally rapid gain of Antarctic sea ice.”
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  22. The statement in the post -- "Sadly, the BBC feels that sales in the climate denial-heavy United States will be more successful if it drops the climate change episode in sales of the series abroad" -- is not quite correct, Dana. From what I've read the BBC offers the last episode as an option. The decision to take it is purely for the buying broadcaster. On the subject of David Attenborough's comments. From what he's said about it, it would seem that last episode sticks very much to the facts about how climate change is impacting life in polar regions and, in his words, is uncontroversial. He appears to avoid controversy by not asking the question, "are we causing this?". That's why Lawson's ignorant attack is so inappropriate. More on this at Carbon Brief.
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  23. Cornelius and nigelj I think Lawson is driven by ideology. If there are business links then it is because the leaders of those businesses share that ideology. I think it should be made clear that not all businesses and conservative politicians in the UK share the extreme views of Lawson et al. Zac Goldsmith is Conservative, but his ideas aren't a great deal of different from most people that have concern about AGW and the environment. The core issues are compatible with any political principles, the issue is how you achieve the goals.
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  24. Nicholas Berini request made me think of the correlation between southern and northern hemisphere sea ice. Here is what I get: A few numbers: - the slope of the linear fit is -0.25 SH Km2/NH Km2 and (barely) significant; - though, the determination coefficient R2 is relatively low (0.22); - the Pearson correlation coefficient is -0.34, not much but it's there; - strange enough, ice area (from the same source) shows a smaller and non-significant slope, R2 is just 0.07 and the Pearson correlation coefficient is -0.1 A correlation betweeen NH and SH sea ice apparently exists, though rather weak. If they both reflect the response to a warming world, the simple sum of the two extents makes no sense, let alone the trivial observation that SH sea ice is increasing. Rather, the sum of the absolute values of the anomalies would better represent the common cause. But we know that it's not that simple, we need the physical representation of the processes, i.e. GCMs.
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  25. Side note (but related): I was watching Aqua Kids this morning on a FOX channel in the US. One of the news reports was on ocean acidification. It pointed out that the oceans have taken up at least half of the anthro CO2 released in the industrial age, threatening a number of species sensitive to changes in ocean pH. The clown fish was given as an example. The report finished by saying there was still time to do something. It's a dubious sort of silver lining: the news for kids is more honest than the news for adults.
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  26. Personally I think that all Lawson is doing here is fishing. He is not trying to land a blow on Attenbourgh but is trying to make some waves and get himself a bit of publicity and hoping to get in the papers and maybe the TV news. He is smart enough to know that when it comes to a battle over credibility he will lose this one, but this is about raising awareness of his think tanks and him as its spokesperson. He is likely to be continuing his effort to make himself the "go to" person for a sceptic quote whenever journalists are looking for a 'balance' quote.
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  27. Here is the Discovery Channel's response to my query on this issue several weeks ago: "Frozen Planet will not be airing on Discovery Channel in the United States until early next year and many programming and scheduling decisions have yet to be made. We do know that the stories, messages and essence of all of the BBC’s seven episodes will be represented throughout the truly landmark series."
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  28. @26 Dorlomin, regrettably, I think that Lawson is doing more than fishing. He's playing the "science isn't settled" game. He does not have to win the argument, merely to spread sufficient doubt for the public to accept a policy of doing nothing.
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  29. How much (if any) of the slight increase in Antarctic sea ice is the product of accelerating glacier outflow due to global warming?
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  30. Does anyone have an email address for the Radio Times? We ought to send some letters in response, then maybe some might get through. However they don't give it on their web site and the email us form requires complicated set-up...
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  31. The Radio Times web sites has a contact link which leads to the E-mail address radio.times(at) I wrote to them and asked if it would be possible for them to check the science behind statements like Mr Lawson's before publishing them in future. Asking people to back up their "facts" with science references would quickly stop this kind of misinformation being printed in reputable places such as the Radio Times.
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  32. Excellent work, Sapient Fridge! If everyone who's commented here writes to RT with letters like yours, hopefully it'll knock some sense into them...
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  33. Cornelius Breadbasket #1 You inquire why are conservatives so sceptical about climate change? It may be business links or maybe its related to the fact that conservatism is by its very nature opposed to change. So climate change and society changing to deal with it are both resisted. That may've been the initial issue, but at this point I think it boils down to a simple inability to admit being wrong. Granted, some of 'em undoubtedly have a financial incentive to mislead or be misled, but for most rank-and-file conservatives, the problem is more likely that if AGW is correct, they aren't. I don't think you see the same syndrome on the scientific side of the argument. I don't know anyone who accepts the consensus science who wouldn't be relieved to find out it was incorrect or exaggerated. (I also don't know anyone cocky enough to bet the planet's future on that very small chance, natch.)
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  34. Having seen the Frozen Planet episode in question I'm surprised that there are still people who take issue with the science. Glacier decline is shown by comparing photographs from 30 years ago with recent shots. Naval data relating to where and when submarines can surface through arctic ice demonstrate clearly the thinning trend in sea ice. A compelling is case4 is made in the program and the tone is foreboding but certainly not alarmist. It seems that myths and badly cooked statistics are all that the denial industry have to fall back on.
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  35. Lawson’s attack on Attenborough is deeply unpleasant and wholly unwarranted, but it does look like it is part of a sustained campaign. The last episode of Frozen Planet is due to be broadcast on the BBC tomorrow evening and the following day Lawson's "educational" "charity" the Global Warming Policy Foundation is releasing a report on alleged BBC bias on climate change. The report is penned by Christopher Booker (I'll repeat that case it didn't quite sink in - written by a Christopher Booker). I'm sure the timing of the release of Booker’s report for the day after the final episode of Frozen Planet is deliberate. Hopefully it will backfire on the GWPF. Attenborough is hugely admired in the UK.
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  36. Treehugger blog had a piece on this a few weeks back,and they speculated that the global warming message would stay intact,despite the reediting that always occurs with these excellent programs.I hope they are right.They did however give a disclamer that their parent company is the Discover network,which is airing the program,so we will see.
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  37. I just got an email from that said :"But just hours after Claudia Abbott-Barish's petition hit 75,000 signatures, Discovery backed down, and agreed to air the final episode (all about climate change) in its entirety! " So I guess the public has spoken.High five!
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  38. Open University chip in with a similar rebuttal as Dana's: They don't mention Lawson though.
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  39. Attenborough hits back at claims made by former Chancellor Nigel Lawson that the BBC’s natural history series, Frozen Planet, lacked objectivity. Source: “David Attenborough: Frozen Planet was not alarmist about climate change”, The Guardian (UK), Jan 3, 2012 To access this informative article, click here.
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