December 13, 2009 6:51 pm

Trust the public on climate change

Bromley illustration

It is not enough for climate scientists and environment ministers to go to Copenhagen and tell each other how right they are. They also need to convince the public. National politics – the democratic process – is awfully inconvenient sometimes, but cannot be waved away.

The climate-science establishment – scientists subscribing to the global warming consensus and most governments, judging by words not deeds – understands this. This is why the Copenhagen meeting has a theatrical aspect; it is as much about public relations as about serious efforts to confront global warming.

The experts are intent on stirring up – they would say “educating” – public opinion. From their own point of view, however, they are making a hash of it.

The evidence for the climate consensus, they say, is stronger year by year. But in the US, public confidence in their statements is falling: less than half the electorate now regards man-made global warming as a proven fact. Admittedly, the US is an outlier in this, but few electorates anywhere seem sufficiently convinced to support, when push comes to shove, the policies that many climate scientists are calling for.

I recognise the consensus and believe it justifies, on prudential grounds, a big effort to curb emissions. But the climate-science establishment is making itself an obstacle.

Consider the response to Climategate – the scandal over e-mails from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia. The e-mails showed some of the world’s leading climate scientists talking about a statistical “trick” to “hide the decline” in a proxy measure of temperature, musing over how to keep dissenters out of the literature, discussing the deletion of data that might be subject to Freedom of Information Act requests, and more.

Any fair-minded person would regard those exchanges as raising questions. On the face of it, these are not the standards one expects of science. Nor is this just any science. The work of these researchers is being used to press the case for economic policies with colossal adjustment costs. Plainly, the highest standards of intellectual honesty and openness are called for. The e-mails do not attest to such standards.

Yet how did the establishment respond? It said that this is how science is done in the real world. Initially, the head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change defended the scientists and played down the significance of their correspondence. Al Gore said he had not read the e-mails (they were stolen, for heaven’s sake) and that they were reassuring.

When, inexplicably, that did not quell the scandal, the climate-science establishment argued that even if CRU’s work was excluded from consideration, plenty of other evidence supported its findings. Maybe so, thinks the fair-minded voter. But the independence of other big research groups is not entirely clear. In any case, many scientists had just called the e-mailers exemplars of best practice. Why should one expect other researchers’ standards to be any different?

Which leaves smearing the doubters as opponents of science itself. They are either stupid or evil; “flat-earthers” or “deniers” (akin, that is, to Holocaust deniers). Supporters of the consensus no doubt lap this up. The voters who need to be convinced are less likely to. On the whole, people object to being called ignorant or evil. That is not how you bring them round.

Some dedicated climate sceptics are beyond persuasion. Some are batty. One can understand how exasperating it is for climate scientists to deal with them. But given what is at stake, they had better get over it. Expert dissenters, of whom there are many on this issue, have an honoured place in science. Sometimes, they turn out to be right. Strong consensus supports key findings of the climate orthodoxy, but the details matter and the science is far from settled. Aiming to smear the doubters and shut them up is just bad science, and from a public-relations point of view is wholly counter-productive.

The key mistake is this: governments and many climate scientists have decided this subject is too difficult for voters. Complications will only confuse them, poor things.

As one Climategate e-mailer noted, we do not understand why global warming has paused lately: the models cannot account for it. But this is not for public consumption. It is best never mentioned, think governments and their scientific advisers. Just keep saying “flat-earthers” or, as the White House spokesman said the other day, “the notion that there is some kind of debate ... is kind of silly.”

Once scientists are engaged as advocates, science is in trouble. Like intelligence agencies fitting the facts to the policy, they are no longer to be trusted. The IPCC may be serving a righteous cause, but it is not the honest broker this process needs. It has made itself a political agency – at times, a propaganda unit. All this, the public can see.

For the sake of their own credibility, scientists should maintain a cautious distance from politics, and those who take up politics should not expect the deference to disinterested scholars they would otherwise deserve.

Governments should be honest and base their case for action on what they know – that is, on a balance of probabilities, not on exaggerated certainties. The public, they will find, can cope. Voters are not fools.
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