12 February 2011

Climate sceptics

Nobody listens to scientists. What do people listen to? TV! So what should science do to be heard? Use TV! I did too. My blog had remarkably many hits when I blogged about “Science under attack”. And only a few days later there was more climate science on the BBC: a programme about climate sceptics. I was taking notes on my NetBook while watching the programme... and it took a while to compose an actual blog post, but maybe there’s still some far-field effect of that broadcast lingering in the air.

The programme focussed on one specific sceptic, who probably is most known to the British audience: Lord Christopher Monckton. He was followed by the maker of the programme. This maker did not know who to believe, and decided to make this programme to find out if this sceptic could convince him that anthropogenic climate change is indeed a scam.

But there’s more sceptics around. There is, for instance, Stephen McIntyre. He found a flaw in Michael Mann’s work. And then, as he admits, though in subtler words, he was grabbed by the oil lobby and sent around the world to tell everybody that there was this flaw. And then the idea of that lobby would be that one should conclude that a flaw means Mann is wrong. And all other climate scientists too. I heard McIntyre talk in Amsterdam one day. It made me feel sorry for him. Yes he’s famous now, and maybe rich, but as far as I could see he’s a puppet!

We also have Salomon Kroonenberg in the Netherlands. When I picked up his book in a book shop and started leafing through it I needed only seconds to decide I should buy it; not because I thought it was so good, but because I thought it needed opposition. He needs only a few pages to bluntly claim, supported by two very outdated references, that there’s an ice age on the way, and we’d better exhaust lots of CO2 in order to mitigate the destructive effects of this imminent climate amelioration. And most of the book, which admittedly is written in pleasant style, is founded on that assumption. Had he read some more, and more recent, literature, he would have known that the next ice age is not expected anywhere soon. It seems he has, by now, indeed read enough to know and admit that was bollocks, but some damage must have been done. I heard he now claims that avoiding climate change is too difficult, and we should focus on adapting. That is a fair point, but I am a bit afraid it is too easy for the polluters to let countries that would be hard hit, but are not very economically strong, just rot away.

There’s also Bjørn Lomborg. In the late nineties he railed against climate science, but by now he has turned, though he seems to want to emphasise that there are more problems the world is faced with. Again; a fair point.

These four men give, I think, a fairly representative image of climate sceptics. Lomborg is a political scientist, Monckton a journalist, and McIntyre a statistician. Kroonenberg is an actual earth scientist, but his specialism is not climate science. At least one of them, viz. Monckton, claims to know better than all the thousands of climate scientists the world holds. McIntyre says he just points out a flaw, and that’s proper scientific behaviour, and that’s true, but if that was the whole story he would just have written a comment to Mann’s paper, and let science have its way.

So what’s going on? I think climate sceptics are to science what X-factor wannabees are to music. They don’t necessarily have the talent, but they want the spotlight anyway. And if you take on an entire discipline, say what people most like to hear, and potentially have an immensely rich oil lobby behind you, you will get that spotlight in your face! And as people believe TV, not scientists, your voice is really heard. And turning to the realist side after many years (e.g. Lomborg) will not only get you your conscience back, but may get you an additional 15 minutes of fame if your initial sceptic message has lost its lustre.

So what happened in the BBC programme? Monckton finds one article that is used in the IPCC report, in which he finds one figure that he thinks disproves all of anthropogenic climate change. And with that message he travels the world (mainly the US), and is greeted by masses of enthusiastic pensioners who claim to have finally heard “the truth”; on what they base their belief that this indeed is the truth is not something any of them seems to be willing to elaborate on, but Monckton isn’t complaining.

But science fights back. The author of this article sends him a letter in which she explains he hasn’t understood it. An actual scientist takes apart his lecture and comes up with a whole list of inaccuracies and worse. Step by step Monckton has to retreat. And the programme ends with the maker concluding this man has had all the opportunity in the world to convince him, but has failed. Completely. He’s now firmly wedged on the scientific side.

So who isn’t? The programme showed who it is that welcomes these sceptic viewpoints. It’s largely the likes of the Tea Party. They simply don’t want to see the price of fuel rise. And they don’t want any (more) tax. And we all know that thoroughly cutting down on emissions will cost dearly. So it’s the fame-seekers catering for the tax-haters. A strong force! But still, sometimes science prevails...

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