Another day, another brouhaha over climate change and whether or not the world is getting warmer. Just a few days after global warming sceptic Richard Muller released the results of a study that confirmed the scientific consensus and, according to several sections of the media, proved once and for all that climate change is an undeniable phenomenon, one of the co-authors on his study accused him of trying to hide the decline in warming since 1990. Judith Curry, who worked with Muller on the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature (BEST) project, brought back memories of ‘climategate’ (the 2009 scandal when leaked emails from the University of East Anglia revealed that some climate scientists employed creative strategies to hide inconvenient data) when she accused Muller of similarly manipulating data to make the case for global warming stronger. Given that Curry’s name is on the findings as well, her outburst is all the more astonishing, but she has proven in the past that she is prone to making scientific-sounding statements without reading the literature, which she is equally quick to retract when challenged.
What is of greater concern is the tendency to jump on such interviews as yet more evidence that climate scientists are falsifying data in service of some large, obscure conspiracy. Climategate did hurt public perception of climate scientists and their integrity, or supposed lack thereof, and a later scandal involving an Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) report didn’t help. But part of the reason was the characterization of the whole affair in the media. The issue was misrepresented as a question of whether the planet was warming or not, while what was under debate was the rate of warming. The idea is that acceleration in warming over the last century or so would prove that humanity is responsible for the changes in global climate, while its lack would suggest that all our factories, power plants and cars are not having nearly as much of a pernicious effect on the climate as we have been led to believe. In the latter case, warming is cyclical and can be attributed to nature. However, the BEST study proves that the world is warming, and warming fast.
Clouds hang above the Machu Picchu site, one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, in Peru. Photo: Bloomberg
For the average person, the science behind climate change is even more difficult to comprehend than relativity or the search for the Higgs Boson particle, partly because it is such a heavily contested field, which translates into claims and counter-claims whose merits are often impossible to evaluate, and partly because the stakes are so high. But part of the reason is also the impenetrability of scientific procedure. Climate scientists have, until recently, relied on data from weather stations that were never intended to provide a climatic record, which led to several inconsistencies. One of the reasons that the BEST study is considered to be so authoritative is that it has found innovative ways to acquire and deal with this data.
Still, little of this is considered relevant when it comes to communicating with the public. In normal circumstances that wouldn’t matter, but climate science is an exception in that it demands action not only at the governmental level but also at the personal level. Climate change is framed as an existential threat and if public policy is to be tailored to combat it, the science behind it needs to be explained better so as to build popular support – and to prevent distortion by the sceptics. For instance, it is easy enough for Curry to decry a paper she herself has lent her name to, as it has been released before it has been peer reviewed. We need greater transparency in how such reviews are conducted, and what it means for a paper to be released without that crucial step completed.
Scepticism in science is admirable and necessary. But several climate change sceptics have moved far beyond presenting alternate hypotheses on the basis of new data and started to reject the scientific process itself. For them, thousands of scientists are corrupt and are manipulating data in order to get more funding. Scepticism shouldn’t amount to a dismissal of a scientific consensus that has taken many decades of research and experimentation to formulate. It isn’t a license to make whatever claims best fit one’s political agenda. After all, if a lobby was to question the notion of a heliocentric system and instead support a geocentric system, they shouldn’t be taken seriously, right?
This is not to suggest that all climate science is settled. But at the very least, the sceptics must be prevailed upon to use science to prove their colleagues wrong, rather than relying on smear campaigns that only hurt the public’s view of all scientific endeavor.