Speaking at a conference run by the European Space Agency in Edinburgh last month, David Willetts, the UK science minister, recounted how he had recently sat next to a “climate sceptic, or you could say, denier”, at a dinner. He had been able to rebut this person’s scepticism about the earth’s shrinking polar ice caps by using data from the ESA’s Cryosat satellite mission, which measures the extent and thickness of polar ice from space.
It was a heartening moment for those of us who have noticed that a growing antipathy towards science – evident for some time in the more extreme reaches of the US Republican party – has been spreading to certain members of the British government.
Among the 2,000 or so scientists at the Living Planet Symposium in Edinburgh, I couldn’t find a single one who doubted either that climate change was occurring or that it was significantly influenced by human actions. I did not encounter any “climate sceptics” there, but I did bump into an acquaintance – a maverick free spirit in the world of space – who feels that the communication of the message regarding climate change has been disastrously mishandled.
“It is better to talk about global change,” my interlocutor explained. “I focus on the nexus of food, water and energy; how we’ve been depleting natural capital – the essential support for life provided by a healthy ecosystem. For example, how we’ve been pumping water so fast that aquifers are not being replenished. How you cannot have infinite growth on a finite planet. It’s quite simple really.”
My acquaintance is not a climate sceptic or denier – far from it – but feels that the climate change message has become too complex to be communicated effectively.
I’ve been pondering his arguments. The latest UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, states, as recently reported in these pages, that “it is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century”.
So the publication of the report seems a strange time to be beating a strategic retreat on communicating what we know about climate change. And surely any such retreat would immediately be claimed as a victory by sceptics and deniers of the stamp rebutted by Willetts.
But would it have been better to park the questions about climate change – whether it is happening, what is causing it (though these questions seem to have been fairly convincingly answered) – outside the main public and political conversation, and focus instead on the urgent need for action on environmental degradation, whose reality and dire effects no one can doubt? And does that in turn mean that we cannot trust the public, or the politicians who serve the public, to take in or pass on any messages of great and nuanced complexity?
There is no doubting the complexity of the climate system. It is so complex, with so many variables, that there will always be uncertainty as regards precise local predictions. Beyond that, you could argue that climate modelling, however sophisticated, must always involve probabilities rather than certainties. There was a very hot summer across Europe in 2003, and then another one in 2006, but after that (in Britain at least) there was a sequence of wet summers, before the glorious one we have just enjoyed.
There were some very mild winters in Britain in the 1990s and early 2000s, and then unexpectedly cold winters in 2009-10, 2010-11 and 2012-13. Certain media organisations that should have known better jumped on these variations as proof that global warming was a myth perpetrated by a mass conspiracy of scientists (surely the most remarkable conspiracy in history, and the only one backed by a crushing majority of peer-reviewed scientific papers).
This biased reporting had effects: the UK Energy Research Centre recently reported that the proportion of people who do not believe climate change is occurring has more than quadrupled since 2005 – from 4 per cent to 19 per cent.
It is true that scientists are not agreed on the causes of the recent slowing in the rate of warming (though let it not be forgotten that warming is continuing). But, on the long-term trends, they are overwhelmingly in agreement.
I have an image of an immense, planet-sized cauldron, into which someone, the devil perhaps, wearing an apron and with a slight look of Heston Blumenthal, is dripping small quantities of poison. The poison will not reach all parts of the cauldron at the same time or in the same concentrations, but there is no doubt that as the great broth is stirred, we will all be thoroughly stewed.
My image is both homely and misleading. There is of course no devil. Or rather the devil is none other than ourselves. Ultimately, I believe, excessive complexity is a poor excuse. One definition of being an adult is having to act in the midst of uncertainty, with no final knowledge of the costs of action or inaction.
More columns at www.ft.com/eyres