George Bush used to say, in his generous way, that the science [of climate change] is uncertain. But it’s an almost content free statement because science is about uncertainty.
Lord Oxburgh FRS, Imperial College, 30th January 2012.
That quote comes from a debate on climate science in the mass media we held at Imperial last week, part of the pilot science in context course I’m working on. You can find a podcast of the debate at the college media site.
Oxburgh chaired the event, with a panel comprising of Louise Gray (Environment Correspondent, Telegraph), James Randerson (Environment and Science News Editor, Guardian), James Painter (Reuters Institute, University of Oxford) and Joe Smith (Open University), along with questions from our undergraduates.
A couple of students and tutors later told me they felt the panelists were too similar, that there wasn’t enough ‘debate’ and they’d have liked to see a climate sceptic. I take that point, but also disagree with it. There was, if you listen carefully, a fair bit of diversity within the discussion. It wasn’t one side vs. the other, and just because the panellists tended to be polite and smile and nod at each other didn’t mean they were all coming from the same position.
It’s worth reflecting on how we identify a ‘debate’ here. Debates do not always have to be a battle of two opposing views. Personally, I’d say that’s often the least productive sort of debate you can have. They can also just be a group of people playing with a particular issue; a matter of chatting to gradually identify problems and reflect on possible answers. Indeed, this question of how we structure and spot the debate within climate science was a key topic of this particular event, as it was in our previous class, with Brian Hoskins.
James Painter started things off by stressing there are many types of uncertainty involved in the public discussion of climate change, including many types of scepticism: ‘there are many ways you can question and be uncertain about climate science’. Drawing on his Poles Apart report, he suggested four types: people who are sceptical that global warming is happening, those who a sceptical that it is due to human action, those who are sceptical about aspects of climate change’s impact and people who are sceptical about specific policies.
James Randerson followed with a different track, noting the stretch of the issue with reference to an extraordinary letter to the Guardian from the medical community, calling for more transparently on climate lobbyists. Louise Gray offered another topical case study: the diversity of coverage of a recent UK government report on the impacts of climate change to the UK: the Guardian focused on the burden to poor where as the Telegraph noted possible opportunities for the tourist industry (you can google for yourself to see what the Mail said). As Gray argued, newspapers will have different frames for how they read climate news based on the editors’ ideas of their customers, a point underlined by Joe Smith later when he stressed the way we all bring our own cultural ‘baggage’ to climate change debates, and plugging Mike Hulme’s book, Why We Disagree About Climate Change.
For his presentation, Joe Smith argued that in many ways climate science makes for a rubbish story in the mass media. There is simply too much of a consensus: too many of the experts agree, what really is there to report? He said he used to think the consensus on climate change was a good thing, but it does make it unreportably dull, which is why the contrarian views get pulled in, to liven it up. There isn’t enough of an edge, maybe we need more of an edge? Gray echoed this in discussion, saying we should pay attention to more of the ‘dodgy things’ going on around climate change – subsidies, inefficiencies of NGOs – that the real stories are less about sceptic vs non-sceptic and more about who is doing the right thing, how and when. Randerson and Oxburgh seemed slightly more cautious of Smith’s call for more arguments, laughing ‘careful what you wish for’ and noting the ways a stronger sense of disagreement plays in the US and Australia. I wonder if that misses Smith and Gray’s point though, which to me was more of a call to open up the political edginess of climate change policy. It was about the disagreements at the end of Painter’s typology of sceptics: debate over what to do about climate change, not whether it is happening or why.
For me, this was summed up in a comment from Gray near the end of the evening: ‘there’s a lot of heat and fire around a few sceptical people, but maybe that is the wrong focus’.
Maybe you disagree though.