WHISPER IT: there’s something missing from our national conversation. Over the 24 years since Gay Byrne stepped down from RTÉ’s flagship TV programme,in 1999, climate change as a topic has, by my count, featured precisely twice.
Incredibly, in both cases, the floor was given to deniers to spread disinformation. Sadly, that is symptomatic of how the biggest unfolding story of the 21st century has been handled by our national broadcaster.
The first incident of note occurred in January 2009, when presenter Pat Kenny platformed botanist and former TV personality David Bellamy’s contrarian views on climate change. A red flag for the show should have been that Bellamy had no expertise whatever in climate science.
The real cause of whatever warming was occurring was sun spots, Bellamy stated incorrectly, adding that doubling the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere would be nigh-on-impossible. Even if we succeeded, “that would put the temperature up by at most two degrees centigrade”, he added. This too is manifestly false, but Bellamy’s bluster went entirely unchallenged.
Whatever about the host, it’s not as if Bellamy was unaware that he was spreading misinformation. Some years earlier, when still a working scientist, he had spoken publicly and at length on the “dramatic and devastating climate change” that would arise from CO2 emissions, adding that those trying to block action were “criminals”. That’s quite a spectacular U-turn.
Later in 2009, there was a generational shift as Ryan Tubridy took over the Late Late chair aged just 36. Hopes that this might bring a fresh perspective to climate coverage were dashed when, in January 2011, Tubridy hosted Viscount Christopher Monckton, UKIP deputy leader, and long-standing climate denier.
Monckton duly used this huge public platform to spread disinformation and long-debunked bogus science, with the host once again unable to even fact-check him. The only push-back was a solitary voice from the audience, a Green Party member trying vainly try to get a word in sideways to stem the tide.
In the 12 years and over 350 episodes since then, the global climate crisis has dramatically worsened, yet to the best of my knowledge, not once did the Late Late team consider this vast subject worth examining in depth.
It wasn’t as if nobody was asking. Numerous environmental NGOs would have approached the show over the last decade trying to interest them in covering the climate crisis. It’s not just about science. After all, it touches every aspect of our lives, from the food we eat to how we travel, shop, design our cities, heat our homes, and perhaps most critically, it challenges us to reimagine the kind of world we are bequeathing to our children.
In 2015, I interviewed UK climate scientist Prof Kevin Anderson on his visit to Dublin and I also approached a senior producer on the show to ask if they might consider him as a guest.
I also sent them some video clips of Anderson in action — he’s a forceful, serious science communicator. The reply: sorry, a bit dull, not really what we’re looking for on the show. (Here’s one from 2015, where he was interviewed by Duncan Stewart at COP15 in Paris for EcoEye, and didn’t pull his punches on the Irish media platforming of ‘skeptics’).
Fair enough, you might say, the Late Late is really about light entertainment, not current affairs. Yet oddly, anti-science cranks and contrarians, perhaps by dint of being more ‘colourful’, are to be welcomed on as guests. Controversy sells, as the saying goes.
Now, 61 years after the famous “To whom it concerns” catchphrase was first aired, the show is to get just its fourth permanent host. As the mass street climate protests in Dublin and across Ireland in 2019 showed so clearly, there is a new generation desperate to see real, substantive action on the climate emergency. For its part, RTÉ is equally desperate to make a connection with a younger generation that is turning its back on traditional TV.
In his heyday, Gay Byrne’s genius as a broadcaster was his uncanny knack of sensing the zeitgeist of the age and his ability to push the boundaries of the national conversation into some very uncomfortable terrain.
A new science-literate host prepared to truly connect with the legitimate existential concerns of Generation Z may yet breathe life back into the Late Late’s venerable but jaded formula.