Going over the top in the 'climate war': A recent BBC series showed how dubious scientific conclusions are weapons in the politicised debate over global warming
Anyone who thinks global warming has stopped has their head in the sand. The evidence is clear the long-term trend in global temperatures is rising, and humans are largely responsible for this rise.' (1) This emphatic statement from the UK Met Office yesterday is just the latest shot in the 'climate war'. But in truth, the polarised and highly politicised nature of the current discussion on global warming features plenty of people on both sides with their heads firmly buried, using 'science' to disguise the real debate about the future political and economic direction of society.
This was neatly illustrated by a recent BBC TV series, Earth: The Climate Wars, which ended on Sunday. Last week's episode, entitled 'Fightback' was a particularly one-sided attempt to undermine the critics of the orthodox position on global warming.
Iain Stewart, professor of geosciences communication at Plymouth University, introduced last week's instalment with the words: 'Global warming - the defining challenge of the twenty-first century.' The programme examined the arguments made by the two putative 'sides' in the global warming debate, to show 'how (the sceptic's) positions have changed over time'. But Stewart misconstrued scepticism of the idea that 'global warming is the defining issue of our time' with scepticism of climate research. In this story, 'the scientists' occupied one camp (situated conveniently on the moral high ground) and the bad-minded, politically and financially motivated sceptics the other. But there was no nuance, no depth and no justice done to the debate in this unsophisticated tale, and it did nothing to help the audience understand the science.
'At the start of the 1990s it seemed the world was united', Stewart told us. World leaders were gathered at the Rio Summit to sign up to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the instrument that would pave the way for the Kyoto Protocol. He recalled the excitement felt by researchers at the prospect of the world being united by concern for the environment. 'Even George Bush (Senior) was there. But the consensus didn't last.' Sceptics, it seems, are responsible, not just for the imminent end of the world, but also for corroding global unity.
Stewart's intention was to show that 'the scientific consensus' existed prior to international agreements to prevent climate change. But the basis of the UNFCCC was not a consensus about scientific facts. It could not have been, because scientific facts about human influence on the climate did not exist in 1992, as is revealed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) First Assessment Report in 1990, which concluded that 'The unequivocal detection of the enhanced greenhouse effect from observations is not likely for a decade or more.' Even the second IPCC assessment report in 1995 did not provide the world with the certainty that Stewart claims: 'Our ability to quantify the human influence on global climate is currently limited because the expected signal is still emerging from the noise of natural variability, and because there are uncertainties in key factors.' (2)
Instead of consensus and certainty, the UNFCCC was driven by the precautionary principle. Principle 15 of the Rio declaration states: 'In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.'
Omitting the role of the precautionary principle creates the idea that scientists have always known that industrial activity caused global warming. So, with the benefit of hindsight, Stewart could lump various objections to the interpretation of controversial evidence which existed at the time into one 'sceptic' category. Not according to the scientific substance of the argument, but according to whether the argument was later vindicated; not by the consistency of the argument with reality, but whether or not it 'supported' the theory of anthropogenic global warming (AGW).
In 1992, the data simply wasn't available to conclude with any great confidence that global warming was happening. But by the logic of Stewart's argument, as long as you were right about global warming being a 'fact' at that time - even if that meant in reality you were wrongly interpreting the evidence available - you were a 'scientist'. But, if you were right about the unreliability of data in 1992, then you were wrong in 2001, because you were a 'sceptic'. If this were just a debate within an academic discipline, such challenges would not have any major significance outside of it. But Stewart, like many others, takes routine and isolated differences of scientific opinion, and groups them to imbue them with political significance.
What could have been an interesting film was instead a fiction. It attached fictional arguments to fictional interests to legitimise the politicisation of the debate - exactly what it accused the sceptics of. Rather than concentrating on the arguments that have actually been made, Stewart invented the sceptic's argument to turn climate science into an arena for an exhausted political argument for 'change' that has failed to engage the public.
The real 'climate war' is between those who do not believe that our future is determined by the weather and those who think that 'climate change is the defining challenge of our time' and define themselves and everybody else accordingly. Don't expect a documentary film about it any time soon.
by Ben Pile -- Ben Pile is an editor of the Climate-Resistance blog, and a philosophy and politics student at York University.
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