Deniers winning climate change war - expert


CLIMATE CHANGE deniers are “winning the propaganda war” at present, one of the Ireland’s best-known experts on global warming has admitted.

Prof John Sweeney, director of the Irish Climate Analysis and Research Unit (Icarus) at NUI Maynooth, acknowledged that scientists were “lousy” at communicating their ideas to the general public.

They were being faced by sceptics, often drawn from the ranks of journalism and lobbying, who were better communicators but had no background in science, he said.

Prof Sweeney was speaking at a conference on climate change organised by Celsius, DCU’s interdisciplinary research group on science in society, yesterday.

He conceded that controversies involving the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) showed some “things should have been differently”.

Climate change scientists have been on the defensive following the leaking of e-mails from the University of East Anglia, one of the world’s leading research bodies on global warning, suggesting a possible cover-up, and the recent move by the IPCC to retract its claim that the Himalayan glaciers could melt away by 2035.

The relative failure of the Copenhagen summit in December has also emboldened climate sceptics.

Prof Sweeney said that though mistakes were made, it did not change the reality that man-made climate change was an accepted fact among climate scientists and that failings had been “blown out of proportion”.

He said that climate sceptics had become adept at marshalling a small number of arguments that could be construed as being plausible.

Such sceptics, he explained, often set up institutes with grandiose-sounding names, such as the Heartland Institute in the United States, and many of them were involved in previous campaigns to try to sow doubt among the public about the damage done by tobacco products, despite the existence of overwhelming scientific evidence.

“Not having being brought up in the literary and debating societies, scientists are not very good at winning arguments,” Prof Sweeney said.

“We are facing a very articulated, very well-rehearsed and a very well-expanded set of arguments. We have to give credit where it is due.

“They [sceptics] are winning the science communication war at the moment.” He told students that climate sceptics have marshalled a small number of arguments which sound scientifically plausible to back up their beliefs that man-made global warming is not happening.

There is even an internet guide called the Sceptics Notebook, which details how sceptics should deal with those who believe in man-made climate change.

The sceptics’ most commonly rehearsed argument is that the world is actually cooling because no year has been hotter than 1998, the warmest year on record.

However, Prof Sweeney said that argument could be easily refuted by looking at temperature changes since 1980, which would show that temperatures have been on an upward trajectory.

Prof Sweeney said that other arguments marshalled by sceptics could be similarly refuted if the public knew the science.

There was no evidence either, he maintained, that changes in the sun’s activity had a meaningful effect on climate change in the short term.

“Selective information and communicating it in a very selective way can distort many of the arguments concerned,” he said.