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Last Updated: Friday, 16 November 2007, 12:21 GMT
Climate: In praise of scepticism
Richard Black
By Richard Black
Environment correspondent, BBC News website

Climate protest. Image: PA

"Now, what I want is, Facts!" declaims Thomas Gradgrind, industrialist of fictional Coketown, in the opening line of Charles Dickens' Utilitarian satire Hard Times.

South African engineer Will Alexander would doubtless sympathise. "I deal in facts not beliefs," he wrote in reply to the questionnaire which I sent to a number of climate sceptics in an attempt to elucidate where the balance of their arguments lay.

He was not the only respondent to berate me for using the word "believe" in my questionnaire.

But after spending some time looking into climate scepticism for this week's series of articles, I am more sure than ever that "believe" is exactly the right word.

That climate change is a battle of beliefs is easily shown by the simple fact that two vastly intelligent people such as James Lovelock and Richard Lindzen can look at the same set of evidence, and one conclude that a global apocalypse is coming while the other maintains it there is little we cannot overcome with a bit of sense and planning.

We need scepticism; but not, perhaps, the sort of scepticism we have today

Science produces data, not facts or truths; it is then up to you to decide what you think has been demonstrated sufficiently to attain the status of a fact, or a truth; we believe what we want to believe.

And where it matters, in UN institutions such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in research agencies and national science academies and increasingly in governments, more people are believing the evidence for climate change than are believing the sceptics.


The IPCC has concluded this year that climate change is "unequivocal" and at least 90% likely to be driven mainly by human activities.

The nature of the organisation means that governments from green Sweden to sceptical Australia to development-oriented India have accepted those findings.

Chairman Mao statue and chimney. Image: AP
Governments such as China's signed up to the IPCC's conclusions
The sceptics are losing the battle of ideas.

Mr Gradgrind, by the way, focussed so hard on a certain set of "facts" that the most important facts of all - the misery in his children's' lives - passed him by, with disastrous consequences.

Perhaps it is time for climate sceptics to ask whether they have been waylaid by side concerns, and whether a change of tack could bring them back to a place where they could play a constructive role.

It could be beneficial to us all, because climate science, like all science, can only get better through informed scepticism. The same goes for climate policy; and sceptical investigation of the current business dash to "go green" would also, I suggest, be well merited.

We need scepticism; but not, perhaps, the sort of scepticism we have today.

Energetic spectrum

Thinking through this week's articles, I came up with a kind of four-point plan for getting climate scepticism back into shape.

The first concerns science, where the spectrum of scepticism encompasses those who distrust climate models, those who doubt the scale of the influence of carbon dioxide above other factors influencing weather and climate, and those who back other theories such as solar cycles and cosmic rays.

Scales. Image: AP

These are all worthwhile fields of investigation. The problem is that many of the proponents, if they are actually doing any research, have left the traditional avenues of science.

There are good reasons why researchers have their studies reviewed by their peers and then published in journals. It is not a flawless process; but it validates that the research has something new about it, that the methods followed are logical, and the conclusions flowing from it tenable.

The assemblage of journals forms a data bank which other scientists can search to inform the next steps in their own research.

Sceptical climate science has largely abandoned these routines, with practitioners typically preferring to publish critiques of studies on blogs and newsgroups.

Some sceptical blogs such as climateaudit contain much that is thoughtful and reasoned, though highly selective; others are little more than quasi-political rants that would not make it past any peer reviewer.

The problem with all of them is that there is no review, no discussion with critical peers to sharpen arguments, no re-shaping, no validation, no formal input to the database of science. Ideas circulated only to like-minded people cannot develop.

If blogging means never having to say you are wrong, the wages of blogging are that you will not be taken seriously where it counts.

IPCC chair Rajendra Pachauri at presentation. Image: AP

So that is point one of my plan; scientifically credible sceptics need to get back inside the institutions of science.

It can be done, as Henrik Svensmark has shown for example by publishing his work on cosmic rays and cloud formation, and as John Christy has shown by keeping his scepticism within the IPCC, the one place where it can influence global climate policy.

There are plenty of people who say that the reason sceptics stand outside formal science is because they have little to offer, or because their aim is to confuse rather than enlighten; if the sceptics dispute this, they must prove their case.

Working through blogs and editorials in the Wall Street Journal may make for pleasantly cathartic outpourings of indignation, but will not make a single dent in the IPCC's scientific case.

Conspiracy theory

The community of climate sceptics is, of course, broad and diverse.

For some, as Australian researcher Bob Carter wrote to tell me, the term "agnostic" may be more appropriate than "sceptic". But "agnostic" cannot describe the sheer hatred and venom evidenced by some in the sceptical community.

Jose Manuel Barroso. Image: Getty
Some say climate change is an excuse for the EU to rip people off
The most vehement language tends to be used by those who believe - sorry, that word again - that the entire UN climate process, IPCC and Kyoto Protocol are just an excuse for left-wing governments, and often the European Union, to raise taxes.

Here, too, I think sceptics are heading down a blind alley that has largely abandoned ways to reason out an argument; and again, I think this does society a disservice.

If you believe the tax conspiracy, you have a duty first to prove it. Show us where these vast green taxes are being levied and how much economic impact they are having.

Once you have done that, stop pretending that your objections are based in science, and fight the battle of ideas in the colours of politics and economics.

Academics such as Yale University's William Nordhaus do a good, rationalist, somewhat sceptical turn on environmental economics, and their analyses are taken seriously.

So here is point two. Make the political and economic arguments cogently, constructively, and with authority.

The vague, repetitive, evidence-free accusations of conspiracy we see today make many sceptical forums sound exactly like the group of grumpy old men in the bar that you will do anything to avoid.

Tall story

The prize goes to the reader who called the BBC a 'crack whore'

You cannot travel far into sceptical lands without encountering accusations that the media's promulgation of a doom-laden myth is the reason why the global citizenry are increasingly accepting of and concerned about man-made climate change.

Here, the sceptics are in interesting company.

Just this week, President Pervez Musharraf blamed the media for the unrest in Pakistan. In the US, you can find expatriate Vietnamese who still blame the BBC for the fall of Saigon.

I would never argue that everything about the news media is perfect - far from it.

But in countries such as the UK, where the pluralistic media landscape runs from the Independent's catastrophist front pages to the Daily Mail's indignant leader articles, it is surely nonsense to claim there is any systematic bias, or that any party is denied access to the mass media.

Claims of media bias work both ways, of course. Responses to this week's series of articles have labelled me as both a "climate denier" and a shameless swallower of the IPCC orthodoxy, a challenge to anyone's flexibility if both were true.

Sunbather (BBC)

The prize for the most creative insult, by the way, goes to the reader who called the BBC a "crack whore"; but I am leaving you to guess which side that reader was on.

The charge of arrogance is often levelled at the media, often with good reason.

But it seems to me there is greater arrogance in the position, implicit in the words of some sceptics and some catastrophists, that: "I am able to see through media bias and spin; anyone who thinks differently from me clearly cannot."

Point three, then; abandon the knee-jerk media conspiracy reaction, and ask first whether people simply do not believe you because they prefer to believe someone else.

On message

And point four? Well, at the risk of quoting from the Book of the Obvious, it is that scepticism itself needs treating with scepticism.

It is far too easy simply to read something that appeals to your instinct and accept it as fact.

We saw evidence of this just a week ago, when a spoof scientific paper citing bacteria as the cause of climate change was picked up and disseminated on several sceptical blogs.

Solar flare pictured by Trace (Nasa)

The hoax was spotted early, and some bloggers removed their articles; if you search online for "Journal of Geoclimatic Studies" you can follow the trail.

The point is that anyone, trained scientist or not, who looked at it with the slightest degree of scepticism would quickly have spotted several things that just did not fit.

Yet because it tallied with the sceptical bloggers' world view, it was immediately accepted as "the proof we have been waiting for" that man-made global warming was a hoax.

Ultimately it is up to everyone to assess the evidence and make their own decisions about what constitutes facts and truths.

Perhaps there should be a point five - in fact I should probably elevate it to point nought; don't take my word or anyone else's word for any of it.

The IPCC publishes everything online, many journals and individual scientists make their studies freely available, and there are sceptics' websites aplenty to interrogate.

The more informed you are, the more sceptical you can be - about everyone's data and everyone's arguments.

And that has to be healthy.

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