The changing climate of the climate-change debate #climatechange
Climate-change deniers are rattled. Thank goodness.
They’ve lost their loony cheerleader James Delingpole from the mainstream Daily Mail to Breitbart, a rightwing news feed which, hopefully, doesn’t have quite the same public reach.
In reaction to the IPCC’s report Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, the Mail’s reaction was so hysterical as to be absurd, highlighting how British scientist Professor Richard Tol had refused to put his name to the report. It was only at the very end of the article that it made clear that there was a serious dispute between Professor Tol and others over the way in which the report had been put together, including a suggestion (which he denies) that Tol circumvented the IPCC clearance process to publicise his own work. (So of the four hundred and ten contributors to the report, he was the only person to not append his name. Four hundred and nine were happy to be associated with it. One contributor dissented, not disowning his own work, not disowning the idea of human agency, but quite possibly in an editorial dispute about which parts of the report were included where.)
And on the day that the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee published its report on ‘Communicating climate science’, both The Daily Mail and The Telegraph were strangely reserved on a topic which usually has them shrieking ‘conspiracy’ from the rooftops – or at least the front pages.
Perhaps we now know why. In the evidence that both the Mail and the Telegraph offered to the committee, in complete contrast to the shrill and nasty way in which they usually approach the debate on climate change, both papers have finally acknowledged that human agency is a factor.
Yes, you read that correctly.
In written evidence to the committee, offered voluntarily, not under cross-examination, both papers addressed the question of causality and both accepted that human activity plays a part. The statements were published as part of the written evidence bundle and make for fascinating reading.
The Telegraph said:
We don’t have a working definition of climate change. We report on it rather than define it. In terms of our editorial policy, it is broadly that we believe that the climate is changing, that the reason for that change includes human activity, but that human ingenuity and adaptability should not be ignored in favour of economically damaging prescriptions.
The Daily Mail said:
The climate is always changing and the vast majority of climate scientists believe there is a significant human impact on it although they disagree about the pace and effects.
Perhaps they’ve noticed that, in the wake of devastating floods and some of the most unusual global weather patterns for years, our bullshit detectors are set to max. Perhaps it is simply becoming harder and harder to tilt at windmills (those with planning permission that is) and rail against the increasing weight of evidence – both scientific and anecdotal.
What is clear is that the standard sixth-form debating society tactic, of argument by assertion, isn’t working any more.
This is a debate that needs to be fought on the facts. We are perfectly entitled to stick our heads in the sand and pretend nothing is happening, and that we make no contribution to global climate change, but we can’t do so and pretend that there isn’t an increasingly compelling case that requires us to make changes to the way we do business, the way we make things, the way we grow things and the way we live. To that end, all of those who take part in the debate have a responsibility to communicate honestly.
If four hundred and nine scientists told me that the medicine I was taking was likely to kill me and only one dissented, I think I would place my trust in the the four hundred and nine. Rightly or wrongly, the weight of opinion would be with them, regardless of the fact they worked for Pfizer or GlaxoSmithKline. To be honest, I would probably take comfort from the fact that guys working for Pfizer or GlaxoSmithKline would know their shit on medicines, compared to scientists working for car companies or telescope manufacturers.
Why don’t we apply the same rationale to climate change? Perhaps because it seems less immediate. Or, at least, it did until this last winter.
The House of Commons Select Committee Report is important because it is about the way in which we debate these issues. It is about the quality of debate and the way in which the principal channels of communication – particularly those that are tax-payer funded – present it. It is about separating out scientific conclusion from unscientific opinion and recognising that honesty is not just about presenting both sides of an argument, but also the balance of that argument amongst those who are actively engaged in assessing the science.
The considered nature of the report, and its careful language, makes Ben Webster’s piece in The Times sound all the more ludicrous. Headlined ‘Crackdown ordered on climate-change sceptics’, he wrote:
Ministers who question the majority view among scientists about climate change should “shut up” and instead repeat the Government line on the issue, according to MPs. The BBC should also give less airtime to climate sceptics and its editors should seek special clearance to interview them.
It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that, rather than a clarion call against the so-called climate-change industry, he sounds more like the climate-change deniers’ emperor fishing around in his wardrobe for something – anything – to wear. No doubt Delingpole can lend him a thong or two.
If you do nothing else, read the summary of the Science and Technology Committee’s Eighth Report. It’s not poetic, but it is powerful, and politicians attempting to lead public opinion should pay attention:
Government policy on climate change has been consistent for many years based on a wide scientific consensus about the causes of climate change. The mandate for the Government to address the issue is apparent in polls showing that a significant majority of people in the UK think the climate is changing and that human activity is at least partly responsible for this. Most recent polls however have indicated a clear drop in the public support for climate change and therefore, if Government wishes to retain its mandate for action it needs to improve public understanding of the scientific basis for climate change policy.
The main source of information for the public on science (including climate change) is news media, specifically the BBC. Media reporting thrives on the new or controversial. We heard that it was difficult to justify news time maintaining coverage of climate science where basic facts are established and the central story remains the same. Reporting on climate therefore rarely spends any time reflecting on the large areas of scientific agreement and easily becomes, instead, a political discussion on disputes over minutiae of the science or the policy response to possible impacts of climate.
We found the role of the BBC, as the leading public service broadcaster, to be central to public understanding but were disappointed to find it lacked a clear understanding of the information needs of its audience with regards to climate science. We do not consider the ability of individual editors to determine the level of expertise of contributors to debates to be acceptable. Broadcasters need to develop clear editorial guidelines that ensure programmes present an accurate picture of the current state of the science. Commentators and presenters should be encouraged to challenge statements that stray too far from scientific fact.
We found little evidence of any significant co-ordination amongst Government, government agencies and bodies at national and local levels to communicate the science to the public, despite these bodies working to facilitate communities to mitigate and adapt to climate change. This may be due to the fact that the Government is not regarded as a primary, or even a reliable, source of information on climate science by the general public.
A lack of a clear, consistent messages on the science has a detrimental impact on the public’s trust in climate science. The Government and other bodies, such as the Royal Society and the Met Office, are currently failing to make effective use of internet or social media to engage with the public and to become an authoritative source of accurate scientific information about climate change. The Government must work with the learned societies, national academies and other experts to develop a source of information on climate science that is discrete from policy delivery, comprehensible to the general public and responsive to both current developments and uncertainties in the science.
The Government’s current approach to communicating conflates the scientific basis of climate change and the proposed solutions to its impacts and places a heavy reliance on individual scientists communicating about the science to justify the policy response. Efforts to create a clear narrative that is coherent, constructive and results in proper public engagement have been disappointing. As a matter of urgency, the Government needs to draw up a climate change communication strategy and implement this consistently across all Departments.