Embracing climate gate


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Thoughts on poll results regarding perceptions of the scientific consensus on climate change across countries. 

As with good jokes, timing is key to good scandals. The recent one engulfing a group of climate scientists within and around the University of East Anglia, who have been accused of tweaking data and distorting scientific debate, is no exception. Surfacing a few days ahead of Copenhagen, it allowed for intense and sustained media coverage and delivered a heavy political blow. At any rate, my intention here is not to discuss whether or not the timing of “climate gate” was accidental or whether there is any real substance to the accusations. Rather, this blog post looks at the impact of climate gate, asking whether it might indeed have some positive consequences and improve our chances of getting our act together.

Our recent multi-country poll questioned respondents on their belief in the scientific consensus on climate change. All participants were asked whether they thought that a) “most scientists think climate change is an urgent problem and enough is known to take action”; or b) “most think the problem is not urgent, and not enough is known to take action”; or c) “views are pretty evenly divided”.  At first glance the results might seem positive (see chart). 

But a deeper look is revealing. In only 8 out of 14 countries do a majority of people believe there is a scientific consensus that climate change is an urgent problem and enough is known to take action.  In the other countries, the majority is formed by those believing that ‘views are pretty evenly divided’ and those thinking that ‘there is a consensus that climate change is not urgent or not enough is known to take action’.

Interestingly, low-income countries like Vietnam (69 percent), Senegal (62 percent) and Kenya (61 percent), had the highest proportion of respondents who believed in consensus. In rich countries such as the U.S. (38 percent) and Japan (43 percent), as well as in middle-income countries such as Indonesia (33 percent) and Russia (23 percent) these are a clear minority. Equally worrisome, there appear to be large numbers (nearly 20 percent and upward)  almost everywhere, except in Kenya, Senegal, Vietnam and India, who believe that the consensus is against urgency and the need for action. Even in a country like France where the government is taking a strong stance on the subject, 37 percent think that there is no scientific basis for climate policies.

The poll was run during October and November 2009. It’d be interesting to establish whether these numbers I’ve just described changed after climate gate, but we simply don’t know. However, here’s what we do know.  First, these percentages show the existence—across countries—of oppositional ‘core issue groups’, which are chunks of public opinion likely to resist any policy focused on the issue at hand (climate change). Second, especially in democratic systems, the size of these groups is big enough to block, slow down, or seriously affect climate legislation. Third, to overcome resistance, climate policy needs to marry climate and non-climate objectives – these will require actions grounded in no-regrets and delivering co-benefits (i.e., we had to improve energy efficiency anyway; it comes at a negative cost and reduces energy dependency).

Last, scientific communication needs to get a lot better, if it has to be conducive to policy – and political – change.  It’s here, on this last point, that climate gate might be said to have served a purpose of sorts. If the scientific consensus has ever suffered from complacency, climate gate has shaken it out of it. Dismissing skeptics and contrarians as outright flat-earthers was not politically savvy before (it only entrenched them in their positions); it is even less so now. The time is ripe for increasing transparency in how science evolves, better communicating the results to public opinions, and doing a better job of engaging those who disagree.


Andrea Liverani

Chapter Author, World Development Report 2010

Join the Conversation

December 11, 2009

It seems a bit of a stretch to find a silver lining here. If anything, "climate-gate" is likely to lead to even more people being confused as to the real scientific consensus.

You argue that treating deniers as flat-earthers has not worked - but what is the alternative?
When skeptics come up with claims that just aren't true, what is the alternative to saying "no, that just isn't true - and here's why"? What else can you do but debunk the myths?

While we could always do better at communicating scientific results to the general public, I think scientists were already working pretty hard at doing this. I don't think they needed a media tempest-in-a-teacup to convince them that this was important.

December 14, 2009

Until recently, the climate debate appeared crystallized between those buying the science and those who didn't. I put myself squarely in the first camp. But I also belong to the camp of those believing that climate denial can be explained according to material, cultural and psychological drivers supporting it (and please take a look at what the WDR2010 says on overcoming behavioral barriers and climate communication http://siteresources.worldbank.org/INTWDR2010/Resources/5287678-1226014…).
Treating deniers and skeptics as fools has not (fully) succeeded yet: let's use climate gate as an opportunity to - as you put it - do better.

December 25, 2009

You and your respondents repeat the mistake made by so many climate alarmists (and too many sceptics) - that it is the job of sceptics to present counter-theories to their own. It is not. What matters is whether AGW theory survives proper scrutiny, not whether those scrutinising it can do any better. It is up to the proponents of AGW to present their theories in the form of falsifiable argument. The Climategate emails and code reveal the excruciating efforts of the high priesthood of AGW to do just that, their continuing failure, and the lengths to which they did or were prepared to go to conceal their work, with all its inadequacies, from proper peer review.

Far from "confusing" us further as to the science, Climategate is showing us, as we plough through the leaked material, how a tiny group of unscrupulous scientists, aided and abetted by a credulous, ignorant and just plain stupid mainstream media, have perverted the course of science, fabricated an "overwhelming consensus", and traduced the reputations and careers of the many scientists who dared to cross their paths.

So my advice, as one of the intellectual underlings you want to persuade, is to:

1 Remember Occam's Razor - that the simplest explanation for all the known facts is preferable to other more complex ones, no matter that all may work.

2 Remember Einstein “No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong.” Consensus in science, far from "settling" it, ought to inspire at least as much suspicion as it does confidence.

3 Remember Popper - produce your theories in a form that can be falsified by experiment repeatable by all. Even if you yourself cannot understand the experiments, be sure that both method and data are freely available to others who can. If someone objects that data they are using is proprietary and cannot be shared, reply politely that in that case it cannot possibly be used to justify expensive public policy, nor public funding - then move on.

4 If within these constraints (all of which, except perhaps for the first, have served genuine science well for a long time) you can persuade us that the climate should worry us a jot more than, say the problem of hip displasia in overbred spaniels, you can go back to being as smug, bombastic and condescending as you like - you will have earned it.

5 Lose the condescending, this-is-for-your-own-good tone of the priestly classes - it might give you a warm feeling inside, but it's no substitute for scientific rigour, and it just makes you sound like latter-day druids.

Best of luck. But I think you've got a long way to go.

January 28, 2010

Brilliant last post!

I would also like to express my admiration to people such as Stephen McKintyre and others who through a barrage of abuse and obstruction, persisted to pursue their innate sceptical instincts and refused to be intimidated by the so called 'consensus'. Even the most hardened alarmist would have to admit that the cause of truth in science has only been enhanced by the vigilance maintained by sceptics as has always been the case through history.

For those that are still busy trying to defend a dying hypothesis at all costs through denial and baseless authoritarian arguments; BEWARE!! because history will judge you harshly.