Climate science: truth you can wear on your hands

by | Oct 17, 2007 | Articles, Battle of Ideas

‘We are armed only with peer reviewed science’, declared the banner at the head of the Climate Camp march along the proposed route of the third runway at Heathrow in August. And in one sense they were – literally. The protesters were wearing gloves made from photocopied research papers and waving them at the police and television cameras as though nothing more needed to be said. For anyone still labouring under the misapprehension that behind the gloves was a careful argument for why the runway should not be built, Climate Camp spokesperson Timothy Lever was on hand to put them straight. ‘It’s not us saying you need to stop flying’, he said, ‘it’s the science that is telling us that we all need to fly less.’

There are, of course, no scientific studies that show that Heathrow should not have a third runway, just as there are no scientific studies proving that we should fly less. These are political and moral questions, which can be informed by the best available science but not dictated by it. Science can no more tell us that air travel is wrong than it can help us navigate the ethics of evicting people from their homes to make a runway, or any other civil infrastructure. But that didn’t bother the protesters. Or anyone else for that matter. Because when it comes to climate change, science is being used in a similar talismanic fashion – and for similar ends – right across the political spectrum, and by the scientific establishment itself.

The Heathrow protesters’ running battles with the police might give the impression that the protest was radical, and its aims at odds with the establishment, but Climate Camp’s ultimate goal of 90 per cent reductions in UK CO2 emissions by 2050 is only 10 per cent more than the Conservative party has pledged. And the Tories, too, tell us that it is the science that dictates the way forward: ‘The politics must fit the science’, says the party’s Quality of Life Challenge report, which prompted the pledge (Hurd and Kerr 2007: 2). (Next to the Liberal Democrats, who promise a zero-carbon Britain by 2050 and petrol cars banished from our roads by 2040, the protesters almost appear like climate change deniers.) Even those to whom we might think to turn for a cool, calm, detached appraisal of the scientific evidence – our very own scientific academies – are bestowing scientific papers with totemic significance. Hence the Royal Society’s press release – headed ‘The Truth About Global Warming’ – that accompanied its publication in July of a paper countering the claims made by the infamous TV programme The Great Global Warming Swindle that recent variations in global temperature are better explained by solar activity than by CO2 emissions. (The reaction of the scientific establishment to the Swindle has been so much more interesting than the film itself.) Since when has a single scientific paper constituted ‘the truth’ about anything?

A further indication that the Royal Society now sees itself as some sort of new-fangled custodian of scientific truth can be seen in its recent efforts to rebrand itself. The Society’s motto ‘Nullius in Verba’ has, since 1663, been translated as ‘on the word of nobody’. It distanced science from the scholasticism of the ancient universities, and stressed that scientific knowledge is based on appeals to experimental evidence rather than to the word of authority figures. But in the twenty-first century, the Society has dropped all mention of that translation. According to Robert May, former president of the Royal Society and ex-chief scientific advisor to the UK government, the motto is now best translated as ‘respect the facts’ (Pile and Blackman 15.5.2007). Like any political body, the Royal Society would prefer that policymakers and the public take the word of nobody but itself.

It is not alone. Amateur climatologist Steve McIntyre, who recently identified a significant error in the calculations behind the very temperature records that tell us the world is warming, reports that NASA and the UK’s Climate Research Unit – institutions charged with compiling those records – are now refusing to make their methods available for scrutiny (McIntyre 11.8.2007). In what other scientific discipline would this be remotely acceptable?

The custodians of the facts will jump on anyone they deem guilty of not respecting those facts. The Royal Society and its most prominent members have recently been taking it upon themselves to make statements – via open letters, the media, and public debate – about the moral character of those who dare to challenge the climate orthodoxy. And in doing so they often display a flagrant disregard for the facts themselves. Speaking at an environment festival in Oxford in June, Robert May told an audience of 250 people that Swindle producer Martin Durkin had previously been responsible for a series of three films denying the link between HIV and AIDS (Pile and Blackman 1.9.2007). Durkin has made no such films. Other so-called ‘deniers’ are, the Royal Society tells us, the work of the Devil, or at least his modern, secular equivalent, ExxonMobil (Ward 4.9.2006; Royal Society 2005).

Such attacks are less about the science on offer from dissenters, and more to do with singling out those who go against the political consensus that the world is doomed unless we reduce our carbon footprint now. Indeed, Bjørn Lomborg, who believes that global warming is real, anthropogenic and a problem, attracts the ‘denier’ label simply because he doesn’t conform to the mainstream view of what we should do about it, not because he questions the science underpinning climate change.

Some go further than that. Dissenters, they say, are not just corrupt, or disrespectful of the facts, or plain old-fashioned wrong – they are deluded or ill. There are even research papers available for anyone wanting to ‘prove’ it by fashioning a pair of gloves out of them. German psychologist Andreas Ernst has developed a theory that people who fail to act to reduce their CO2 emissions are similar psychologically to rats (Deutsche Presse-Agentur 3.5.2007). And in an editorial earlier this year in the journal Medscape General Medicine, Professor of Psychiatry Steven Moffic proposed the use of aversion therapy involving ‘distressing images of the projected ravages of global warming’ to encourage responsible environmental behaviour among sceptics (Moffic 2.9.2007). This is less A Clockwork Orange and more Clockwork Green.

Meanwhile, the Climate Campers can carry on with their own misrepresentations of the science safe in the knowledge that nobody will pick them up on it. And so can anyone else, just so long as it does not bring them into conflict with the political consensus. So, speaking on the BBC’s Question Time recently, Independent MP Clare Short could confidently assert that ‘The UN has a panel of all the best climate scientists in the world, and they’ve issued report after report after report…and they say that if we don’t act now, we’re in desperate trouble’, despite her comments being at complete odds with the scientific reality. As Myles Allen, head of Oxford University’s Climate Dynamics group, told the Battle of Ideas last year, the arguments for immediate action on climate change are economic ones rather than scientific.

You can get away with contradicting the scientific ‘consensus’ only if you don’t challenge the political orthodoxy. So, in July, to expound his theory that the world will witness sea level rises of five metres this century (the IPCC estimates between 18 and 59cm), NASA’s James Hansen gets a 3,000-word feature in New Scientist (Hansen 25.9.2007). In contrast, when the same magazine, in the same month, reported on Harvard scientist Willie Soon’s paper in the journal Ecological Complexity, which challenged received wisdom that climate change is imperilling polar bears, the scientific argument was ignored in favour of speculation about Soon’s alleged links to the oil industry, and that the research was part of an orchestrated campaign to undermine the environmental movement’s use of the polar bear as an icon (New Scientist 1.7.2007). The ‘consensus’ is fair game, it seems, as long as the challenge pushes things in a more apocalyptic direction. The rhetorical power of the consensus flows not from its content, but from the fact of its existence.

A few climate scientists do speak out about exaggerated climate change rhetoric. But even they do so for dubious reasons. One is Professor Mike Hulme of the University of East Anglia, who has criticised the alarmist language of some scientists, the media and politicians. But his objection is not that society needs the best information available to make difficult decisions about its future, or that scientists should not be confusing scientific knowledge with science fiction, or that we need to be able to distinguish science from politics. He is merely worried that it is politically counter-productive: ‘if those dangers are presented in too catastrophic a way, on too large a scale, then people just distance themselves and are less likely to take actions to reduce their own carbon emissions. That’s our concern’ (Hulme 2007).

Martin Rees, current President of the Royal Society, has no such reservations. He tells us in his book Our Final Century? that humankind has a 50/50 chance of surviving the twenty-first century. That judgement has nothing to do with science – scientists are still struggling to model the climate, let alone the future course of human history. And yet it has scientific authority on the basis that its author is president of the Royal Society. And the Royal Society – as they themselves tell us – are the custodians of the facts.

Science: available in any colour, as long as it’s green. It would be easy to see all this as the work of a conspiratorial network. But the reality is far more depressing. In a world that no longer divides so neatly into left and right, East and West, environmentalism has provided a new magnetic north for disorientated politicians, activists, scientists, journalists and society as a whole. Rather than being an organised conspiracy, the sense of crisis created by the consensus that the future is bleak is haphazardly exploited for political legitimacy and authority. In this limited view of the future, the role that is cast for science is as an external force, above politics, and above the petty aspirations, interests and needs of mere humans, which tells us how we ought to live. But it is orthodoxy not understanding that has been generated.

Back at Climate Camp, a final irony is that the ‘peer reviewed science’-cum-gloves worn by the protesters as a symbol of their unassailable righteousness wasn’t peer reviewed science at all. It was the front page of a report by the Tyndall Centre at Manchester University that developed policy recommendations for a low carbon future (Bows et al. 2006). Even more ironic, in the light of the fuss made over the corrupting influence of oil money, is that it was commissioned by Friends of the Earth and the Cooperative Bank. But again, don’t expect anyone to worry about such details. Because this isn’t really about science – it’s about climate science. And as the Heathrow protesters, the Royal Society, NASA, journalists and politicians demonstrate, climate science can be anything you want it to be.

Bows, A. et al. (2006). Living within a carbon budget. Tyndall Centre Manchester.
Deutsche Presse-Agentur (3.5.2007). Thinking like rats: why humans fail to act on climate change. Earth Times.
Hansen, J. (25.9.2007). Huge sea level rises are coming – unless we act now. New Scientist.
Hulme, M. (2007). BBC TV News.
Hurd, N. and C. Kerr (2007). Don’t give up on two degrees. Quality of Life Commission.
McIntyre, S. (11.8.2007). Does Hansen’s Error “Matter”? Climate Audit.
Moffic, S. (2.9.2007). Can Psychiatric Approaches Help to Address Global Warming? Medscape General Medicine 9(3): 2.
New Scientist (1.7.2007). Climate change sceptics criticise polar bear science. New Scientist.
Pile, B. and S. Blackman (15.5.2007). The Royal Society’s “Motto-Morphosis’’. Spiked Online.
Pile, B. and S. Blackman (1.9.2007). May, the “facts” be with you. Climate Resistance.
Royal Society (2005). A Guide to Facts and Fictions about Climate Change. Royal Society.
Ward, B. (4.9.2006). Open letter to Esso. Royal Society.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published.