A turbulent year for the public face of climate science

The last year has been a turbulent period for the public face of climate science. It was a year when the credibility of climate science was attacked and the impact of events is still reverberating. Below is an account of the main events and my personal comments on their impact.

At a recent Westminster Energy, Environment and Transport Forum: Engaging the public on climate change (18th November 2010) I heard Dr Benny Peiser ( Director, The Global Warming Policy Foundation) speak. His whole speech was littered with an undercurrent of messages that climate science is exaggerated and uncertain using examples from events over the last year . It was a very clever piece of communication (perhaps something we should learn from!) and shows how the events over the last year will continue to have an effect long into the future. Luckily we had Nigel Arnell speaking some sense about the science at the event.

Some example quotes from Dr Peiser:

Dr Peiser said: “Professor John Beddington, the UK Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor, has rebuked scientists and politicians for exaggerating the impact of global warming and urged an honest disclosure of the uncertainty of predictions about the rate of climate change.”

“I also welcome the Royal Society’s recent decision to revise and tone down its position on climate change. Its new climate guide is an improvement on their more alarmist 2007 pamphlet which caused an internal rebellion by more than 40 fellows of the Society and triggered a review and subsequent revisions. The former publication gave the misleading impression that the ‘science is settled’ ‐ the new guide accepts that important questions remain open and uncertainties unresolved.”

Impact on public opinion

There have been a number of opinion polls over the last year and their results have been compared with previous polls. See summary here.

Some things to pull out from the results:

  • Concern around climate change remains relatively high, although it is lower than in previous years
  • Whilst the majority believe the world’s climate is changing, scepticism is on the rise
  • Less people think that human activities largely responsible for climate change
  • More people now think that scientists don’t agree on climate change
  • Trust in scientists fell as a result of leaked emails
  • Despite controversies, Americans trust scientists and scientific organizations far more than any other source of information about global warming,  from: Americans’ Knowledge of Climate Change, Yale University

Interesting Guardian article by Mike Hulme:The year climate science was redefined: The 12 months since the leaking of emails written by climate change scientists have seen major shifts in environmental debate”.

Leak of UEA emails November 2009

In November, 2009, thousands of e-mails and other documents were obtained through an alleged hacking of a server used by the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) of the University of East Anglia (UEA).  The majority of the emails were correspondence between Phil Jones (Head of the Climate Research Unit at the time) and other climate scientists.

The subsequent dissemination of the material caused a controversy focussed on 3 areas:

  • claims that the emails implied misconduct by climate scientists  – manipulating or hiding data; reluctance to share data openly and perverting the peer review processes
  • the emails also raised concerns about the reliability the 2007 Assessment Report by the IPCC  (primarily the conclusions about observed and “proxy” temperature record).
  • claims that UEA did not comply with the Freedom of Information Act.

The email leak resulted in an enormous amount of media coverage – some balanced, some less balanced. The story ran and ran and grew as it did so.  You can see a small selection of the coverage here (selected to try and show range of angles to the stories).

The view from journalists is that, following the leak there was a vacuum when few scientists were prepared to speak out. This vacuum contributed in part to the media frenzy. I think science journalists genuinely started to doubt some of the science and they found it very hard to find individual scientists to talk to about the details.

There was a statement organised by the Met Office from the scientific community that many people from Reading signed. Unfortunately, this statement was reported by The Times as an attempt by the Met Office to defend itself!!  See article in The Times: “Top scientists rally to the defence of the Met Office.”

3 reviews were carried out into the email leak all of which cleared Phil Jones of any scientific wrong doing, but they did call for greater openness from the scientific community. See more on reviews here.

Errors in the IPCC report

In early January 2010, claims were made of errors in the IPCC 2007 Report.  Again, huge amount of media coverage, some of the worst (in my opinion) from Jonathan Leake of the Sunday Times who’s article on “Amazongate” had to be retracted after complaints and who’s article on global warming and natural disasters heavily criticised for the errors it contained.

In reality there were only 2 errors in the IPCC report and they are:

(1)   The statement that “80% of Himalayan glacier area would very likely be gone by 2035” (see IPCC statement)

(2)   The statement about the area of the Netherlands below sea level

Other claims of errors were not substantiated (errors in African crop yields, Amazon rainforest loss, rising cost of weather related insurance losses). See RealClimate article IPCC errors: facts and spin.

28th Jan – John Beddington (Government Chief Scientist) makes statement on climate change science. Interesting to see how this was reported by different media outlets.

IPCC errors led to calls for a review of the IPCC.  Review carried out by Interacademy Council which reported on 30th August 2010.

Results of the IAC review were quite critical of the IPCC calling for:

  • a new Executive Director post to lead the IPCC secretariat
  • improvements to the review process to ensure controversies dealt with
  • better treatment of uncertainty
  • improved communication process including who can talk on IPCC’s behalf
  • comment that response to revelations of errors in its 2007 report had been “slow and inadequate”.

Think this must have damaged IPCC’s credibility even though the IPCC have always worked to deal with controversies, to express differing views and to communicate uncertainties – anyone can see that clearly in the 2007 report. Again, it seems that it is the communication and PR side that has cost IPCC dear.

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