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The truth about climate change

Updated Wednesday 2nd December 2009

When it comes to the subject of climate change, do you trust the journalists or the scientists?

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What to say about ‘truth’ and climate science in the context of what appears to be the theft of ten years worth of private e-mails between climate researchers by mischief-making hackers? I’m not going to comment further on the incident, but it proves once again that there are some highly motivated people out there who want to tear up the narrative that climate change is human caused and requires urgent action. There are a small number of high profile media commentators who have savoured the opportunity to insist once again that climate change is a massive science fraud and big-state tax plot.

King penguins standing in bright sunshine Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Jupiterimages

King penguins standing in bright sunshine.
Picture © copyright Jupiterimages Corporation.

How should we investigate the notion that humans are changing the climate? Who is best equipped to advise on how to behave in an experiment that we may only get to run once? If I wanted to know about a very complex scientific problem I’d start looking for answers by running the biggest scientific peer review process in human history. The IPCC is exactly that. It was set up to do the best job possible in making sense of an enormously demanding intellectual question: does human activity influence the climate – in the past, present and future?

The dominant model of science is one of aggressive (individual or lab based) competition to get the most convincing arguments supported by publicly published evidence, and to break new ground with original and supportable arguments. As an outsider looking in, I think that that can be an unproductive form of ‘knowledge generation’, but one thing is for sure – it isn’t designed to produce consensus around such a complex topic as climate change. The IPCC is a review process with only a very small secretariat, and the thousands of scientists who generate the work across many disciplines that make up the raw material of the review are all highly competitive. The IPCC reports should be all the more disturbing for the fact that they point to so much willingness to agree within the science community on the headline themes.

Why then, does a substantial minority of the population feel more confidence in Lords Monckton or Lawson, or the Daily Mail’s Melanie Phillips? It is the intellectual equivalent of backing a Sunday pub team of vain, injured veterans against Real Madrid’s best side. We’ve all got a pretty good feeling for who has the better fitness, skills and experience. So why do these voices continue to enjoy such disproportionate airtime? In large part, it must be that they are saying something many of us desperately want to believe. However, it may also be that the bluntly edited representation of climate change generated in the tight spaces of policy and media work has produced an account of the issue that the public knows deep down to be faulty. Assertions that there is a ‘climate consensus’ or that ‘the science is finished’ fail to represent the truth that this science is a work in progress. There is a good chance that many people know this.

Even allowing climate change to be set up as a two camp contest, as the media love to do with this as much as any story, takes us to the wrong place. It is a misrepresentation that allows us to ignore a separate question: why would climate scientists deceive in order to shore up this imagined ‘climate change lobby’? A friend of mine, Polar scientist Mark Brandon, has spent 15 research seasons in Antarctica. He knows a lot about ice. He is made livid by Lawson/Phillips-esque claims that somehow, climate scientists are in it for the money or the glory. Not much glory being locked up with a lot of (mostly) bearded (mostly) men in a hut for 3 months at minus twenty. Scientists could almost all be earning multiples of their salary in other fields. The regular reference to ‘big research grants’ by people like Melanie Phillips are specious: most of the people publishing now in the climate research community are mid-career or later and posed their life questions at a time when these issues were not on the policy (or funding) radar. They do this work above all because they are curious about how the planet works, and they have given their lives to answering questions.

The IPCC has serious limitations, including a gaping hole when it comes to investigating the social, cultural and philosophical dimensions of climate change, but it remains the most ambitious peer review process modern science has undertaken. The truth about climate science is that it is inevitably messy and unfinishable – its a hugely complex system we’re trying to understand – but that hard intellectual work conducted by a very large number of people (who win little publicity and are modestly rewarded) is doggedly narrowing the boundaries of uncertainty. There is, almost all climate science researchers agree, plenty of justification for very urgent and bold action.

However, deciding on those actions – agreeing what climate change means in terms of consequences – is the point when it all gets really interesting and where we need sharp eyed critics to test the thinking (Nigel, Christopher, Melanie – you can come in again now). Myself, and colleagues from The Open University, will be going to COP15 to try to make sense of where those debates are going (post your questions to us). We also have a team there to help launch the Creative Climate ten-year diary project. One of the things that website will do is to help people get a sense of climate science and policy as an unfolding process rather than a fixed result, but everyone will be welcome to post their diary of their journey with environmental change over the next ten years.

PS. Now that the newspapers are full of ‘pick of the year’ recommendations for Christmas stockings, can I suggest Mike Hulme’s Why We Disagree About Climate Change? It offers both an intellectual autobiography by a leading climate researcher and a biography of the topic itself. He poses a set of questions that everyone in the science, policy and media who talk about this topic should address.

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