I have come across a long and most interesting report published by a Norwegian think-tank/consultancy called SINTEF, about the question of ‘consensus’ with respect to ‘climate change’. It is well worth reading, and its author, Emil Royrvik, is a well published social anthropologist. SINTEF works closely with companies in the alternative energy domain, and Norway is one of the heartlands of environmentalism, so this publication is on the face of it unusual, at least in its provenance.
Moreover, it has a go at one of the grandmothers of the AGW scare, Gro Harlem Brundtland, a former Norwegian Prime Minister, former Director-General of the WHO, and author of the Brundtland Report, which told the world back in 1987 that we had a common future, and that it had to be a sustainable one. If not the creator of the notion of ‘sustainable development’, she was at least one of its great popularisers. I had her book on my shelves for a long time, and consigned to Lateline only a few months ago, on the ground that I would not want to read it again. She has been the UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy on Climate Change, and in a 2007 speech asked rhetorically : ‘So what is it that is new today? What is new is that doubt has been eliminated. The report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is clear. And so is the Stern report. It is irresponsible, reckless and deeply immoral to question the seriousness of the situation. The time for diagnosis is over. Now it is time to act.’
Emil Royrvik spends 70 pages dismissing that claim, and showing that in fact doubt has not been eliminated at all — indeed that it is growing. He doesn’t mention the Stern Report, or our own version, the Garnaut Report, probably because both have been overtaken by events. Both seemed to exaggerate the costs of climate change now and in the future, and to minimise the cost of mitigation. Both reports have passed from contemporary discussion, and the governments that commissioned them have either passed on, in the UK case, or seem about to, in our own.
There is nothing in the SINTEF paper that I had not seen before, save examples of various kinds. But the argument is straightforward, and well supported. It comes to three conclusions. The first is that while there is extensive agreement within the peer-reviewed journal literature that global warming has occurred over the past century, there is also extensive disagreement about its size, nature and cause. The second is that disagreement in science is healthy (Royrvik doesn’t use Karl Popper’s statement that I use in the heading of this website, but he might have done).
The third is that Brundtland’s ‘normative’ statement about global warming is not healthy: ‘ the form of dogmatism expressed by Brundtland, even explicitly asserting that raising further critical questions is immoral, is itself unscientific and contrary to the norms of the scientific institution from which she lends her authority in this case. Such a position then rather seems to represent a form of quasi-religious faith in science’. I agree. I keep arguing that far too much of what I read about AGW seems to be quasi-religious, and I recognise that some find this almost offensive. But the refusal to admit uncertainty, or accept that there could be doubt, cannot but strike one as making AGW akin to dogma, and that is characteristic of religion. It is not science, at least as I understand it.
So much of what passes for debate in this field has me wriggling with distaste. I rarely mention Dr Michael Mann of the fabulous hockey stick that had such a prominent place in the Third Assessment Report of the IPCC, and I haven’t read his apologia. What I didn’t know, until the SINTEF report and its appearance on several other websites, was that in his book Mann doesn’t refer at all to Montford’s well-researched and comprehensive analysis of Mann’s work, the Hockey Stick Illusion. Not one word. To me it’s another example of what I have called, and so has Royrvik, ‘quasi-religious faith in science’. We need vastly less of it.
I’ll finish by quoting in full Royrvik’s last paragraph, which seems to me to sum up where we ought to be, though not where we are:
‘In open societies where both scientists and the general public are equipped with critical skills and the tools of inquiry, not least enabled by the information revolution provided through the Internet, the ethos of science as open, questioning, critical and anti-dogmatic should and can be defended also by the public at large. Efforts to make people bow uncritically to the authority of a dogmatic representation of Science, seems largely to produce ridicule, opposition and inaction, and ultimately undermines the legitimacy and role of both science and politics in open democracies.’
I might be wrong about all this, and I am wrong about things from time to time. I learn through error. But I don’t learn, and nor does anyone else, by being told by others what the truth is, and instructed also not to question what I have just been told. I objected to it when the Christian evangelists were in their high period in the 1950s, and I object to it now.