Sceptical about climate scepticism
We are now well into 2010, and this looks like being the year of the climate sceptic. This time last year I had thought that scepticism was on the wane, and that the pressure was building up very nicely for governments to bring in some real legislation to tackle climate change. I was wrong on both counts. The Copenhagen climate change meeting came up with a very weak resolution (1), and the climate sceptics have found renewed energy. What has happened to change the picture?
The first problem was the hacking into the University of East Anglia's computer system, and the publication online last autumn of many emails from their Climate Research Unit. It is notable that hardly anyone mentions that hacking into the system was a criminal act, and all the attention has focussed on the hacked emails. What the sceptics did was to search through hundreds of emails with a few keywords looking for anything that they could use to further their cause. They found a few sentences where the scientists involved had used colloquial language, and then took them out of context to "prove" that fiddling the data had been happening. I often think that if somebody hacked into Oxford Brookes University where I work and stole my emails they could fairly easily "prove" anything they liked about my research and publications.
The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee investigated (March 2010), and completely exonerated Prof. Phil Jones, the main scientist involved, of any malpractice. They found that much of the raw data the sceptics wanted to see was already in the public domain, but did feel that the University had not been completely transparent in letting other data be released. But the committee conclusion was: "We have found no reason in this unfortunate episode to challenge the scientific consensus that global warming is happening and is induced by human activity."
The next attack has been on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), its reports, and all those associated with it. The IPCC consists of hundreds of the world's top climate scientists. The last IPCC report in 2007 has come in for particular criticism. In three very long volumes a few mistakes have been picked on. The biggest error concerned the date by which the Himalayan glaciers will totally melt. The 2007 report said this would happen by 2035, basing the date on an inaccurate prediction in "grey literature". This was a serious mistake that should have been picked up, but does not affect the major conclusions of the IPCC. A few mistakes in thousands of pages do not justify throwing the whole report out and disbanding the IPCC.
Incidentally, the Himalayan glaciers may not all go by 2035, but most of them are melting at an alarming rate, with dire predictions for the future.(2)
The IPCC has been attacked for alarmist propaganda, and for exaggerating the dangers from climate change. However, there are many instances where the IPCC has actually been shown to be too cautious in its predictions rather than alarmist. It is, in fact, a very conservative body, and its forecasts on melting of ice caps and sea level rise have been on the low side. Oddly the sceptics rarely attack on low predictions. In an effort to label the IPCC as alarmist the sceptic lobby picked on Sir John Houghton, its former co-chair, repeatedly claiming that he had stated, "Unless we announce disasters, no one will listen." He had, in fact, never made this statement, but in desperation the sceptics found a similar sounding sentence from Sir John in an old newspaper article, took it out of context, and tried to pin this on him.(3)
Then the climate scientists themselves have been attacked for being on a "gravy train", hauling in large grants for their own personal benefit. The grants come in, but most of the money goes on hiring researchers to carry out the work, equipment and overheads to their institutions. Getting a grant for a senior scientist usually means taking on more work, and often the most they get out of it is funding for a trip to a conference. The truth is that hardly any scientists get rich - I should know!
So where are we now on climate scepticism? The science of human-induced global warming has, if anything, become even stronger in the years since the IPCC last reported in 2007. But the sceptical voices have increased in volume, particularly working through the blogosphere, and from certain newspapers. This has led to increased confusion amongst the general public, and several opinion polls have shown that concern over climate change has decreased in both the UK and the USA. We scientists have been doing a lot of soul searching in the last few months. How do we get across very complex science in a simple way to an increasingly sceptical public?
I will end by paraphrasing Al Gore. Of course it is a lot more convenient to be able to think that climate change is not happening, and that we can get on with life unhindered. But convenience does not equal truth.
Dr. Martin J. Hodson is an environmental scientist and is Operations Manager for the John Ray Initiative.
- Copenhagen and the climate change crisis (JRI Briefing Papers– No. 19- 2010) is a detailed analysis of where we stand after the Copenhagen climate change conference by Sir John Houghton. http://www.jri.org.uk/index.php/2010/02/copenhagen-and-the-climate-change-crisis/
- For a recent update on the Himalayan glaciers see: Larmer, B. (2010) The big melt. National Geographic (April 2010, pp. 60-79) http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2010/04/tibetan-plateau/larmer-text
- For a good analysis of this story see: Holmes, J. (2010) Malice, misquotes and Media Watch. Feb 22nd 2010 http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2010/02/22/2826604.htm?site=thedrum