Scientists face assymetries in public debates on climate change

Chris Rapley has lamented the "political ineptitude of scientists". But he says they face asymmetries in public debates on climate change.

The Director of the Science Museum, Chris Rapley, says that scientists engaging in public debate on climate change face a series of asymmetries including seeing the rules of scientific discourse rubbing up against political “mud wrestling”. Speaking in a detailed discussion on ‘climate change science and its sceptics’ in central London, Professor Rapley went on to describe the “political ineptitude of scientists”.

The debate, hosted by Policy Network, examined growing public scepticism over whether climate change is manmade and what should be done by the scientific community in response. Mr Rapley questioned the title of the debate and outlined his disquiet with “the appropriation of scepticism by those who oppose the science.”

Professor Chris Rapley, a former Director of the British Antarctic Survey, said he was concerned by the dwindling number of experts who can talk “authoritatively about the big picture” suggesting that the number of ‘T-shaped people‘ with both broad and deep knowledge on climate change was overwhelmed by “people willing to prognosticate”. He quipped that he would not mention Melanie Phillips, who has been criticised for her outbursts on climate change.

In response, Benny Peiser, a social anthropologist who heads up the sceptical Global Warming Policy Foundation, said:

“You painted a picture that is slightly one side of the honest scientist on the one side and the polemic campaigner on the other. The other part of the debate is that there are honest and eminent scientists on the other side who have been silenced for 10 to 15 years. That is part of the perception that part of the scientific community has been excommunicated. Unless there is a new dialogue, there will be this problem.”

Rapley replied:

“It’s always healthy to have that open debate but it can be bedevilled by passions outrunning logic … I have not been convinced by your eminent scientists … some of whom are very flaky.

“There is a tyranny at work here. My impression is that where scientists know there are big uncertainties, they are afraid to emphasise them because people will misunderstand them. The evidence is that when they confess to them, they are exploited.”

Anthony Giddens, Professor Emeritus at the LSE and author of ‘The Politics of Climate Change‘ said:

“Scientists don’t know anything about politics and are bruised and amazed by the discussion in the wider world. Most people who write about politics don’t know anything about the scientific community – a new dialogue is needed.”

Peter Luff, CEO of Action for a Global Climate Community, asked:

“How do we regain that word scepticism? There is an overlap between climate sceptics and Eurosceptics who tend to see a conspiracy.”

Joss Garman, a regular contributor to Left Foot Forward, told me afterwards:

“The thing that struck me most was that there was a real consensus in the room (amongst those who accepted the scientific consensus view that fossil fuel polluting is driving global warming) that it would be helpful to reframe the argument to one about risk and probability and away from the view that the science is all settled.

“Since we know that the vast majority of scientists – literally thousands of humanity’s greatest minds – are of the view that there is a staggering chance, of 90 per cent, that climate change is caused by fossil fuel burning, and since we know that would increase the sum total of human suffering and drive millions of plant and animal species to extinction, its not an unreasonable expectation that, put like that, most reasonable people will want to take out an insurance plan – in other words for there to be a reduction in the amount of carbon dioxide we emit.”

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61 Responses to “Scientists face assymetries in public debates on climate change”

  1. harry

    “Since we know that the vast majority of scientists – literally thousands of humanity’s greatest minds – are of the view that there is a staggering chance, of 90 per cent, that climate change is caused by fossil fuel burning…”

    There are really only a few score scientists working on climate change and its cause or not by human intervention – many others take their results and apply them to other areas.

    90% isn’t ‘staggering’

    “that climate change is caused by fossil fuel burning.” – a nonsensical statement. Climate has always been changing – some of the present change may be attributed to anthropogenic CO2 forcing, indeed anthropogenic forcing may be mitigated by a natural downward trend in temperatures (all else being equal) which would make it even worse. But present warming is neither ’caused by’ or ‘not caused by’ elevated CO2 – it is the extent to which it is that is important. This is an area of continual study – the science is far from ‘finished’

  2. Oxford Kevin

    A few score, really Harry. How many work at CSIRO Marine and Atmospheric Research Division, hmmm quite a few there, or how about those who work for the Climate Change Research Centre at the University of New South Wales in Australia, hmm quite a few there as well and this is just Australia, or how about the BoM in the UK quite a few staff on climate change there, and of course CRU at the UEA, the Goddard Institute at NASA and also NOAA. This is so far excluding University Research Departments. So I think you need to get your facts straight next time.

    As to the science being finished. Science is never finished that is what science is about. Doesn’t stop the scientists working in the field coming to the conclusion that the evidence is enough to make a strong statement like we are 90% sure that AGW is happening.

    Why exactly does the fact that climate changed in the past preclude the possibility that we are changing it now?


  3. harry

    just to add an interesting quote

    Roger Harabin (BBC) – When scientists say “the debate on climate change is over”, what exactly do they mean – and what don’t they mean?

    Prof Phil Jones (of UEA emails fame) – It would be supposition on my behalf to know whether all scientists who say the debate is over are saying that for the same reason. I don’t believe the vast majority of climate scientists think this. This is not my view. There is still much that needs to be undertaken to reduce uncertainties, not just for the future, but for the instrumental (and especially the palaeoclimatic) past as well.

    Even Prof Jones doesn’t think the science is ‘finished’, a position I believe is reserved for such non-scientists as Al Gore, Ed Miliband and “100 weeks to save the planet” Brown/Blair – I don’t know which is which.

  4. Oxford Kevin

    Thanks Harry for reinforcing my point. Science is never finished there is always something new to learn, but that doesn’t mean that we should ignore what our current understanding is saying when we have enough confidence in it. If those working in the field feel they have a 90% confidence in the science on what basis should we ignore there advice?

    Why exactly does the fact that climate changed in the past preclude the possibility that we are changing it now?

  5. harry


    How many at CSIRO work on the causes of present warming? Hardly any. Don’t confuse environmental scientists (of which I am proud to be one) with the narrow field of paleoclimatology and climate modelling/change attribution.

    Take CCRC at New South Wales that you mention – look at the publications A lot of stuff there. A lot about weather, climate, El- Nino, bush fires etc. Not much on global climate change and it’s causes.

    Apart from that, I agree about the science not being finished. The 90% likelihood was the estimate, given the literature, of a few scientists on the IPCC panel. That 10% uncertainty is big when you consider the effect on the world of a drastic emissions reduction of the order 80% that is talked about.

    I believe the world is warming and that humans have been exerting an influence, I am not convinced and the literature does not convince me of the level that’s all. I believe it is work in progress and we will find out progressively over the next 20-30 years as we gain better temperature data (satellites) and our theoretical models of clouds, aerosols, volcanoes, black carbon, sun and their climatic effects improves.

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