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Newsletter 10th August 2007

Climate of Intolerance
 

As it’s August, we have a shorter newsletter than usual this week.

 
Climate of intolerance

Newsweek has used climate change as its cover story this week, under the title “The truth about denial”. The gist of the argument is that there is a well-funded “denial industry” which seeks to undermine the sound scientific basis for the prevailing concerns about human-induced climate change. Parallels are drawn with the tobacco industry lobby and, of course, all this is said to be taking place in the name of private profit.

 
This is the latest example of a deeply disturbing trend towards intolerance of dissenters, which has even led to some commentators suggesting Nuremberg-style trials of “climate criminals”. Such a febrile atmosphere is not conducive to rational thinking or discussion, so let’s take a deep breath, count to ten, and look at some of the facts.

 
First, there are undoubtedly a few extremists around on both sides of the argument, who may choose to overemphasize their arguments and indulge in personal attacks on those who disagree with them. On the sceptical side, there will undoubtedly also be some people who question that climate is changing, but the vast majority of those who do not agree with the IPCC orthodoxy are concerned only with the certainty with which increased carbon dioxide levels are assigned the role of primary culprit. The term “denier”, with its overtones of the Holocaust, is both inappropriate and offensive.

 
And as for Big Oil funding spurious studies, we have surely moved on from there. The great majority of companies have embraced the new reality of climate change policy and, like all good capitalists, looked for ways to benefit from it. With demand for energy and fossil fuels continuing to grow seemingly inexorably, the problem for most oil companies is fulfilling demand rather than trying to create more. On a more fundamental level, although we should of course look at who is funding a particular study, this should not mean it is automatically dismissed. Environmental activists are not known for the objectivity of their studies – they seem to work on the basis of the end justifying the means – but nuggets of truth can be found there as well. Professional scientists should do a professional job whoever is paying them.

 
There is a natural tendency for the scientific establishment to close ranks to defend the consensus view of the particular topical issue of the time. After all, as they say, no-one likes to see a beautiful theory spoilt by ugly facts. But the issue of climate change has brought things to a new pitch. When GM food was making headlines on a daily basis, this was largely on the basis of opposition from activist groups; the vast majority of scientists were happy that this was a safe and well-regulated technology.

 
Now – almost uniquely – environmental activists are aligned with the scientific mainstream. NGOs need no longer attack critics: the Royal Society will do this for them. For good measure, Newsweek and other media are willing to print scurrilous, one-sided views. Fortunately, since much of the media thrives on controversy, some broadcasters and papers are still willing to give dissenting voices an outlet. The problem is that, all too often, they are not looking for nuanced views or constructive criticism, but for more extreme positions which only serve to polarise the argument.

 
The most worrying aspect of this is the apparent desire to close down debate. When Margaret Beckett, in her position as Environment Secretary, called for the media not to allow sceptics to have their views aired, surely this represented a step too far for the politicisation of an issue. Fortunately, the UK press, despite its rather obvious faults, is still free to print what it likes.

 
Let’s go back to the issue of GM foods. Imagine the furore if a government minister, acting on the best scientific advice, had called for environmentalists not to be given airtime or column inches because “the science is settled”. What an outcry that would have caused, and quite rightly, because it inches towards state censorship. But when the issue is climate change, the only people who seem to be concerned about this are the people whose views are in danger of being suppressed.

To repeat our position for the umpteenth time: The Scientific Alliance does not think that the prevailing IPCC view on the role of greenhouse gases is necessarily wrong. However, the evidence for it is circumstantial, there are a number of pieces of conflicting evidence, and alternative hypotheses have not all been properly evaluated. In the meantime, a complex, costly (and, at present, fairly ineffectual) set of policies for reduction of carbon intensity has been introduced. There is a danger that many countries are going further down what may prove to be a major policy cul-de-sac.

 
In these circumstances, people who have legitimate concerns to raise have an obligation to speak out. Constructive questioning of hypotheses serves to strengthen ones which are right and cause wrong ones to fail. How can scientists possibly object to that?