Climate-change sceptics should be given a fair hearing


THE GREAT majority of climate scientists say that the world is warming, human activities are contributing strongly to this warming and catastrophic environmental consequences will ensue unless we bring this warming under control. But, public opinion polls reveal that the number of people who are sceptical about climate change is rising significantly. Obviously, the mechanism for persuading the public has failed, but, to judge from the recent RTÉ film The Burning Question, screened on June 29th, this lesson has not been learned.

Recent public opinion polls are clear. For example, a BBC poll conducted in February found that 25 per cent of those polled don’t believe global warming is happening (up from 15 per cent in November 2009). Thirty-eight per cent of people believe climate change is real but is not proven to be largely man-made (up from 31 per cent in November 2009). Only 25 per cent believe that climate change is happening and is largely man-made (down from 41 per cent in November, 2009).

Serious public doubts about climate change have mushroomed since the “climategate” affair in November 2009. E-mails leaked from the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia seemed to show climate scientists fudging data to boost the evidence for global warming and climate change. However, it soon became clear that most of the suspicious e-mail content was just insider jargon and “macho” posturing and did not weaken the overall scientific case for climate change. A subsequent official investigation confirmed this.

I believe that many people were relieved to have the “climategate” excuse to escape from the “climate hell” message coming from many public advocates of climate change – and hence the change in the public opinion polls. It has been reported online by Janis Dickinson in Ecology and Society,Vol 14, 2009, that widespread fear of death, such as would be engendered by some predicted climate change scenarios, can trigger dangerous counter reactions in people.

Many people interpret the message aggressively, promulgated by environmental activist groups as: “We are wilfully ruining the climate. We may have gone too far already but, nevertheless, we must try to control matters and this will mean drastic curtailment of our creature comforts and a dramatic simplification of lifestyle. If we undertake massive and grossly uncomfortable exertions, we have some hope – if not we are doomed.” This message is too severe to take a deep root in people and, given half a chance, they will ignore it.

Some spokespersons for the majority scientific position, plus many self-appointed green activists, constantly preach at the public from freely available media platforms. The activists react furiously against any questioning of their message. I suggested in a recent column that the objections made by some respected scientists against various aspects of the majority arguments should be scientifically addressed. I was denounced as a “climate dunce” and lectured on the nature of science by non-scientists who seem to ignore the fact that scepticism is a primary characteristic of the scientific method.

The recent TV programme The Burning Questionaddressed climate change and the gap between public perception and the scientific consensus. The consensus scientific position was competently and calmly outlined but there wasn’t even the briefest interview with a respected climate sceptic scientist (such as Freeman Dyson). I make this point out of respect for the integrity of the debate, even though I support the majority climate science position. There are worthy dissenters to every scientific hypothesis and to debate with them inspires confidence in the public and not the reverse.

The TV programme said little about “climategate”, which seemed less than candid. And, in explanation of the wide gap between public perception and the official scientific position, the programme blamed the media for devoting too much time to climate sceptic stooges from the fossil-fuel industry. No mention was made of the media giving too much time to activists preaching fire and brimstone and scaring people so badly that they jumped on the “climategate revelations” for relief. By the way, I don’t doubt that the activists mean well; I simply disagree with the way they sell the message.

How should we persuade people about the reality/ implications of climate change? First, the preaching must stop. People should be educated about the problem, but not blamed for it. They should be told we are lucky that we understand the problem and how to tackle it. They should be reassured that tackling the problem will not require us to revert to 18th-century levels of comfort and parochiality. They should be told that tackling the problem will be an exciting adventure that will probably require some sacrifice, but we must do this for our children’s future. Giving people a sense of pride and control rather than engendering a sense of helplessness and guilt is the way forward. Most people will respond, even if slowly.

William Reville is UCC’s professor of biochemistry and public awareness of science officer –