Everyone has a friend who thinks global warming is just a big conspiracy to put up taxes and tell you what to do. Maybe you’re one of those friends yourself.
You are in a minority if so, at least nationally (and internationally) speaking. You might well be friends with other people who share that view, so it’d be normal with certain groups. Climate scepticism is complex and variable – and usually an awful lot more than a conspiracy theory – but the majority of people believe climate change is real. To take one recent survey of the UK public, only 13% felt climate change was not happening. That study cites others if you fancy digging around for more. Try Eurobarometer or Pew, for example.
Still, the conspiracy idea is common enough that the old USA Today cartoon “what if it was a big hoax and we create a better world for nothing?” has become a depressing cliché of PowerPoint presentations on environmental issues. Most people may not take the conspiracy theories seriously, but many who work in climate communication and policy still find the view significant enough to bother pointing and laughing (or better, actually worry and think about).
I saw a talk a few months ago from Kevin Anderson which turned the usual climate change conspiracy theory on its head. You can watch a video of an almost identical talk Anderson gave at the University of Bristol last year (there’s also a pdf transcript there). He suggested many scientists and policy-makers routine underplay their public statements on climate change; doing what many sceptics accuse them of, but in reverse. The 2 degree target so often referred to in climate policy discussions is not consistent with science, he argued, and scientists should be standing up and saying so. Anderson isn’t suggesting that scientists sat secretly planning to keep people in the dark, all in the pay of [insert your own bogeyman] (he did apply the Chatham House rule at one point, but I wouldn’t read too much into that, sometimes bits of secrecy is necessary as part of the course of opening up truths). More simply, his point is that forms of understatement have become an unchallenged part of the course for much discourse on climate targets.
Anderson’s no crank. I trust him. But that doesn’t mean I simply believe him. I also trust many of the people he is complaining about too. And so I doubt him and them. I’m confused. I think this a pretty normal state of affairs to be in. But it’s disorientating too.
Doubt is a powerful thing, whoever casts it or why, especially in complex societies like ours which run on large amounts of trust. Sociologists talk about “civil inattention” as a way in which we “do modernity”; simply bracket off and ignore interacting with large parts of our lives just to get on with them. This can quickly unravel at times of crisis though. We trusted, for example, that food labeled beef came from cows, not horses, until that particular scandal broke. Most of us probably didn’t bother to even think that that there were institutions put in place that regularly check that the food we eat is what it says it is, or that such bodies had been struggling with threats of cuts, or that we’ve been doing this kind of gradually more institutionalised checking of the validity of food for hundreds of years. We had other things to worry about. We can see similar patterns of the breaking down of trust with BSE, libor and a host of other topics we’ve relied on technical expertise and found it wanting.
Scepticism can be very positive. Indeed, it powers a lot of scientific work: “Nullius in Verba” and all that (take no one’s word for it, the Royal Society’s motto). People even take up scepticism as a form of hobby, with networks of “sceptics in the pub” meetings. In a recent speech at the Royal Society, Ed Davey, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, used this idea of science’s inherent sceptism as a basis for arguing it’s strength: “Good science is questioning, sceptical, analytical – testing theories and understanding risks. Two hundred years of good science – teasing out uncertainties, considering risk – has laid the foundation of what we now understand. It screams out from decade upon decade of research”.
However, doubt can also make science vulnerable, especially when combined with the everyday inattention most people give the details of scientific expertise. As Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway show in their book Merchants of Doubt, the natural uncertainty at heart of science has been deliberately amplified by the tobacco and petrol industries. As this short video on the topic argues, it was assumed the public can’t understand the complex nature of climate science (or tobacco’s link to cancer) so it would be relatively easy to convince them the scientists don’t know either (and that without “sound” solid science, it would be wrong to take preventative measures).
Back to Professor Anderson’s suggestion of a sort of alternative conspiracy theory. A paper in the journal Global Environmental Change potentially provides some depth to this (write up without paywall at Skeptical Science). Contrary to the oft-made criticism that climate scientists are alarmist, they argue that many seemed to err on the side of least drama. The researchers stress that restraint is a community norm in science, leading many scientists to be cautious, understated and moderate in their public statements. They also recount ways in which there may have been an extra “chill” exerted on climate scientists due to dogged actions from sceptics. As the paper concludes, in attempting to avoid drama, the scientific community may actually be biasing their own work in a way.
Roger Pielke Jr reviewed this paper rather unfavorably, laughing at its faux-science approach of referring to “erring on the side of least drama” as “ESLD”, like it’s a disease, chemical or something similarly intricate. Moreover, Pielke argues their methodology for proving that scientists were under-dramatising was less than robust. I agree with much of Pielke’s critique, but I don’t think this issue is easy to garner evidence on, and I don’t think Pielke has any robust evidence it is not happening either. Considering what scientists such as Anderson (and others mentioned in that paper, notably James Hason) have to say, I think it’s worth studying further.
Anderson and the people behind the “erring on the side of least drama” paper might well be wrong, but I think it’s worth asking more questions here. Scepticism about the workings of science is a good thing, as long as it’s not lazy or driven unreflexively by ideology. As philanthropist Jeremy Grantham wrote in Nature last year, overstatement may well often be very dangerous, especially for scientific careers, but when it comes to climate change understatement is even riskier, even unethical.
This was first published in the March edition of Popular Science UK. Visit their Facebook page to register for 3 free issues.