16 February 2010: Science, scepticism and denial

Robert Watson, the Chief Scientist at the UK Department of Environment, has been prominent in the media defending climate science. He accepts that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was wrong to include, in its Fourth Assessment Report, the prediction that Himalayan glaciers will be gone by 2035. However, he points out that, in other respects, the report was also cautious – some say over-cautious. For example, the IPCC’s predicted rate of sea-level rise does not include partial melting of the Greenland ice sheet. He accepts that errors are regrettable, but says that some mistakes are almost inevitable in a very long document. He also points out that all IPCC reports are reviewed and agreed by governments before publication – it is, after all, the Intergovernmental Panel. It was set up in 1988 to bring scientists and policy makers together. In 1988, Ronald Reagan was US President and Margaret Thatcher UK Prime Minister, so the claims by opponents of action on climate change that the IPCC is part of some crypto-socialist plot to overthrow capitalism should be taken for what they are – utter nonsense. And those who attack the IPCC for some alleged political agenda should explain why any government would want to publish a report that makes using cheap fossil fuels harder to justify.

Those who oppose action on climate usually call themselves ‘climate sceptics’. This is good branding. Scepticism – the questioning of everything and refusal to accept any inherited wisdom without further investigation – is the very essence of science. However, these people are not sceptics. They do not question climate science; they reject it. A more accurate description is ‘climate deniers’, but this term has the disadvantage of taking the debate down to the level of insult – which is where these people want it to be. And the inevitable link with Holocaust Denial is not useful. I have used the term ‘climate deniers’ in the past, but have decided to stop doing so. The term ‘opponents of action on climate change’ is not good rhetorically, but that’s a price worth paying.

These opponents now call people like me ‘climate alarmists’. Again that’s a good sounding term for them to use – decrying alarmism implies that there isn’t really anything to worry about. I suppose we have to concede that these people are good at rhetoric. No doubt they have expensive PR consultants, though often will not say where their money comes from. One example, the recently founded Global Warming Policy Foundation says that it does not accept money from energy companies. Fair enough, but it does not say where its donations and grants actually come from. (For comparison, Climate Answers has so far been funded out of money I earn as a consultant and my current portfolio of consultancies is listed in About Stephen Tindale and the team.)

Last year, I had the ‘pleasure’ of meeting one of the most vocal opponents of climate action, Roger Helmer MEP. I was giving a talk about the necessity of nuclear power as a low-carbon bridge technology and he attacked me for saying that climate change was an issue. His line was that nuclear power is best because it is cheap. Reality and historical accuracy are clearly not important to him.

Returning to Watson – he has been a leading climate scientist for many years, so it is good news that he is speaking out. It is also particularly welcome that he is defending the IPCC and its current chairman, Dr Pachauri. Watson was Pachauri’s predecessor, and wanted to remain in post, but was defeated by Pachauri. Therefore, he should be praised for placing the need for climate protection above any personal vendetta.


1 Comment

  1. Christian Schaffalitzky

    Hi Stephen,
    I am a scientist, specifically a geologist and Chartered Engineer. I woke up one day to read that the ‘debate was over’ on AGW or man-made global warming. This for me was a surprise, because I had not followed the debate.

    As a geologist familiar with complex systems over time, I wondered how such a statement could be true. So I have spent the last 18 months reading my way into the topic. This includes the IPCC reports, and not just the SPM.

    So far,I have failed to identify the source of the evidence or research which clearly links the rise in CO2 in this century with an increase in temperatures. Furthermore, many aspects of modern civilization contribute to changes in ait temperature but CO2 has been singled out as the only one to be mitigated. This implies that CO2 is the only factor we need to look at, a concept I find difficult knowing the complexity of the planet over geological time.

    From my reading, it is not clear if CO2 derived from man-made sources is significant, based on the IPCC date itself. In view of the certainty expressed by those who espouse the view that AGW is ‘90% certain’ I would appreciate guidance in where I can find this information. Unfortunately, with most experts arguing for AGW, asking this question seems to be treated as heresy, rather than a sound scientific request.

    I hope you can help me in this matter.

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