This is a depressing time for climate scientists. They’ve spent over a decade battling oil industry propagandists who said that the world was not warming. By careful and persistent argument they dismissed the misinformation. Now all the old questions about the validity of climate science are being trotted out again. As one researcher put it to me: “Long-dead arguments have been dug up and are wandering around like zombies.“
The source of the problems has been well documented: the leaked emails from the University of East Anglia (UEA) in Norwich, UK, followed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s acknowledgement that it had published an exaggerated claim about the melting of Himalayan glaciers.
Yet this is not the whole story. Yes, the UEA scientists and the IPCC made mistakes, but nothing in either case undermines the science proving that global warming is human-made. So why is the new wave of scepticism so vociferous?
I believe we’re seeing the blowback of the decade-long battle with the sceptics. Climate scientists have been on a war footing for so long that they are no longer as open to criticism as they should be. Take the reactions of the UEA and IPCC to the damaging stories about them: both organisations initially insisted they had no case to answer and backed down only after further media coverage.
Newspapers should not have to force researchers to be transparent, self-critical and self-correcting: these attributes are essential to science. When they are missing, people lose trust.
This loss of trust is reflected in media coverage of the issue. Newspaper editors suddenly seem to want to publish stories about flaws in climate science, however inconsequential. And for good reason: rightly or wrongly, people feel climate researchers are not being honest.
Ironically, the situation is made worse by scientists’ earlier success in countering the sceptics’ misinformation. Politicians, businesses and religious leaders now broadly agree about the dangers of climate change. This consensus can be made to appear conspiratorial, and that makes an easy target for opponents of climate science. Racist political groups have done the same with immigration: here’s what the powers that be don’t want you to hear, they say. It is a powerful message, especially when the powers that be are telling us that lifestyle changes are needed to tackle climate change.
The consensus can appear more suspicious when trivial objections to climate science prompt aggressive responses. Last November, architecture journalist Amanda Baillieu wrote a column in Building Design that questioned whether the building industry should support cuts in carbon dioxide emissions. It was tame stuff, yet it prompted a torrent of criticism, some of it offensive. That was unnecessary, and ultimately harmful to the cause Baillieu’s critics were fighting for. Now Baillieu is presenting herself as a brave soul, fearlessly standing up to climate science orthodoxy – despite having presented no evidence to challenge global warming.
Science needs to fight back, but not just by attacking its critics. Scientists need to reclaim the badge of “scepticism“. They need to show that although the essentials of global warming are settled, the field itself is alive with debate and revision, as all science should be. They need to tell the public that there are things in the science that are open for debate, even if those things do not detract from the case for action.
Without a more open attitude, there is a real risk that the public’s doubts about climate science will deepen. And it can take years for a field to recover its standing once people feel that they have been mislead. It has happened in Britain with genetically modified crops and nuclear power. In this case, we cannot afford any more years of mistrust.
by Jim Giles
© New Scientist- 2010