The meticulous work of thousands of climate scientists is being challenged by a well-resourced misinformation campaign, says the Government’s scientific adviser on climate change. Should we believe him, or put our trust in the carbon lobby? [19 October 2010 | Peter Boyer]
Here are a couple of questions that anyone with an opinion about whether humans affect the climate should ask themselves: What do I know about the science around climate? Where did I get this information?
If you asked me those questions I’d have to say I don’t know a lot. My formal science education ended at school. I know a bit about the big-picture but little about the detail — the analysis of data and the testing of theory. I lack the intellectual tools to determine by myself how good they are. I venture to say that nearly all of my readers are the same.
My life took me along other paths, but my continuing interest in what science says about our world was a teacher of sorts. For years I earned a crust writing about polar science, which educated me about Antarctica and the Southern Ocean, and the people who studied them.
But our planet’s climate is a vast complex of multiple interacting systems that have tested all our best scientific minds to their limits, and beyond. There’s no single hero, no one-stop shop when it comes to climate science. This is a global team effort involving thousands of people.
There’s no way I can independently judge the veracity of any of the enormous mass of climate research papers in the scientific literature. But I can evaluate scientists as human beings.
In years of working alongside them I’ve found them a cautious lot. They can be annoyingly inconclusive, always hedging their bets. Getting a straightforward answer can be like squeezing blood from a stone, because they rely on evidence, and if that’s not clear they say so.
I learned to appreciate this. We need to trust these people to be competent, diligent and honest in observing our physical world and making sense of it. We may not like their message, but we have to wear it. Like skilled tradesmen, it’s their job to find the problems and tell us what they are. Then we have to choose. We can heed their advice, or we can ignore them.
After decades of arguing over the physical evidence, scientists are all but unanimous in declaring that an increasing amount of carbon dioxide in the air, produced by humans, is a threat to our future, and that we need both to reduce our carbon emissions and to adapt in a world that’s changing surprisingly quickly.
Professor Will Steffen, director of the ANU Climate Change Institute in Canberra and a climate scientist of many years’ standing, knows a fair bit about the pleasures and pitfalls of explaining the significance of his and others’ work to the public.
Three weeks after he was named by Julia Gillard as the scientific advisor to her top-level Multi-Party Climate Change Committee, Steffen was in Hobart last week to talk to the Australia-New Zealand Climate Forum about “communicating science in a political minefield”.
The forum, organised by the Bureau of Meteorology and the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems CRC, was the 18th since the Forum’s inception in 1986. It brought together hundreds of climate specialists from throughout our region and across the Pacific.
Evidence for a warming world is clear, Steffen told his audience: “From 1980 to 2009 the global temperature has been warming at 0.2C per decade. The decade to 2009 was the warmest on record, significantly warmer than the 1990s, which in turn were significantly warmer than the 1980s.”
The evidence went beyond increasing global average air and ocean temperatures. Melting snow and ice, rising sea level, and changes to ocean salinity, wind, rainfall and extreme weather patterns were some of the many indicators of a changing world.
In determining that humans were almost certainly the principal driver of this change, the peak global climate science body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, had applied the highest scientific standards to its exhaustive analysis of published science, said Steffen.
“Attempts to discredit the IPCC have been built around two peripheral errors in about 3000 pages, plus an enormous amount of distortion, misrepresentation, spin and outright lies.”
The thousands of contributing scientists — global leaders in climate-related fields — constituted a “who’s who” in climate change research, from the world’s best research institutions, applying an exhaustive multi-stage review process and the highest quality control system.
The scientific basis for the whole report was contained in the first of three sub-reports. Exhaustive scrutiny of this document had failed to find a single error, said Steffen: “Within the credible climate science community, the IPCC remains the gold standard of climate science assessment.”
Steffen referred to a study of the politics of climate change which found that fossil-fuel interests had funded a few scientists and think tanks to channel misinformation, creating a false sense that science was in broad disagreement about global warming. In turn, the issue had been falsely represented in the media as a battle of unproven science between two equal, competing sides.
Opening the conference, the Governor of Tasmania, Peter Underwood, said that nothing would come of the science unless its significance was communicated to the public. He listened to Steffen’s address and exchanged some friendly banter about the contribution (or otherwise) of his own legal profession.
Like Darwin’s theory of natural selection, the climate debate has evoked deep public emotion which is affecting our capacity to meet the challenge of sustaining the global life support system. We’re at a crossroads. What happens from here depends on the values we choose to guide us.