This post is partly an attempt to answer a comment from Joshua, partly motivated by Mike Hulme’s recent article in The Conversation called Science can’t settle what should be done about climate change, and partly by a sense that the comments on my post about The BBC and its balance are growing to unmanageable proportions and it might be time to move on. Although, having said that, I’m not that keen to manage another lengthy comment stream, so this post may be a bad idea and maybe people could bear that in mind 🙂 .
I wrote a post yesterday about what this site is for. Essentially, it’s just me and my thoughts. It doesn’t have some kind of goal and I’m not trying to do anything other than express my views. However, what I should have mentioned was that what motivated this site was my recognising that much that was written about climate science on some sites was scientifically incorrect. That this was my motivation may not be obvious and it may not have worked as well as I would have hoped, but if I have a goal, it’s to present and discuss the science associated with climate science. I have views about policy and what we should do, but I’m not an expert and I’m certainly not intending here to convince people about any specific policy options. I’m also, I should be clear, not a climate scientist, but am a scientist.
So, as an attempt to answer Joshua question that I mentioned at the beginning of the post : I see no reason why one can’t have a discussion (even on blogs and in the social media) that focuses on science and is not influenced by the various policy options available to us. In my opinion, understanding/knowing the scientific evidence is a crucial first step towards making decisions about what we should or should not do. It seems to me, however, that it’s not really possible to have discussions about the policy options without some understanding of the scientific evidence. Without this, how can you possibly make sensible policy decisions?
That’s why, although I agree with Mike Hulme that science can’t tell us what to do about climate change, I don’t quite understand why he says this
The debate about climate change needs to become more political, and less scientific. Articulating radically different policy options in response to the risks posed by climate change is a good way of reinvigorating democratic politics.
If we still have people suggesting that climate sensitivity is probably low (below 2oC) when the evidence suggests that it’s not, how can policy makers possibly make any sensible decisions? Mike Hulme’s article mentions the recent evidence session to the Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change that included Nicholas Lewis and Richard Lindzen. In my opinion, the evidence presented by these two was not consistent with the best scientific evidence available.
So, as much as I agree that the decisions will be made by policy makers and not by scientists, and as much as I think society and our politicians should be having more discussions about policy options (not that I really want more of them here), I don’t see how it’s possible to do so effectively if the public and policy makers are not being presented with the best evidence available. Or, rather, that they’re regularly being presented with scientific evidence that is either selective or contradicts the best evidence available. For example, I agree with most of what Mike Hulme says here,
Because the questions about climate change that really matter will not be settled by scientific facts. They entail debates about values and about the forms of political organisation and representation that people believe are desirable. This requires a more vigorous politics that cannot be short-circuited by appeals to science,
but I don’t agree with the implication that people are appealing to science. They’re arguing (or at least I am) that we should stop giving credence to science that isn’t credible. This is not to say that mainstream science has a completely robust view of how our climate is likely to change and how much we’re likely to warm. But, as far as I can tell, there is much that is being presented to the public and to policy makers that is completely outside the range of what is likely. So, yes, we shouldn’t be appealing to science to tell us what to do, but we also shouldn’t be ignoring that much of what is being presented is not credible.
Since Mike Hulme mentions it, I’ll also defend the consensus project. Mike Hulme says
The now infamous paper by John Cook and colleagues published in May 2013 claimed that of the 4,000 peer-reviewed papers they surveyed expressing a position on anthropogenic global warming, “97.1% endorsed the consensus position that humans are causing global warming”. But merely enumerating the strength of consensus around the fact that humans cause climate change is largely irrelevant to the more important business of deciding what to do about it. By putting climate science in the dock, politicians are missing the point.
I think it’s unfortunate that Mike Hulme uses the term infamous. Just because various groups have made all sorts of claims about the paper doesn’t make it infamous, in my view at least. I’ll admit that this doesn’t give me confidence that Mike Hulme’s views are balanced. [Comment : Mike Hulme has since edited the article, and removed the description of Cook et al. (2013) as infamous. I’ll leave my post as is but I think that it is good that he has chosen to do so. Credit where credit is due.] Also he doesn’t seem to dispute the basic result of the consensus project. Whether the analysis in Cook et al. (2013) is robust or not, I don’t think many credible climate scientists would dispute that most (virtually all) papers published in the last 20 years accept that most of the warming in the last 60 years or so was anthropogenic (assuming the paper says something explicit about it, that is). I also don’t think that many would dispute that most climate scientists agree about the fundamentals of anthropogenic global warming.
But Mike Hulme seems to be implying that the goal of the paper was to show that science can tell us what to do. I’ve read the paper, I’ve read what some have said about it, and I’ve had discussions with some of the authors. Nowhere is this said or implied. The goal of the paper was to illustrate the level of agreement in the scientific literature so that – as a society – we could start doing precisely what I think Mike Hulme is suggesting. We could start focusing on discussions about policy rather than discussions about science. By undermining this paper, I would argue that Mike Hulme has made it harder to do what he is suggesting we should be doing.
Anyway, there’s probably more that could be said. I’ll also try to make my next post more about science than a fluffy editorial in which I express my views on something I may not really know much about. Anyone with other views or comments is welcome to make them as long as they follow the moderation and comments policy and remind themselves that I’d really like a bit of a break from moderating contentious comment threads.
I’ll finish, however, with an advert for Mike Hulme’s talk at Nottingham tomorrow. I was a little rude about it when Warren Pearce mentioned it on Twitter a few days ago and, for that, I apologise. I’m sure it will be very interesting.