What causes scepticism about ‘climate change’?

I’ve mentioned before the work of Professor Mike Hulme, a social scientist who has worked in the climate field for a long time, and has begun to dissociate himself from the excesses of the orthodoxy. Well, he is working on the publication of a book of essays, and has offered one of them as a teaser. It is about ‘Climategate’, and the growing scepticism about ‘climate change’ produced by it. (For newcomers, ‘Climategate’ is shorthand for the unauthorised release of thousands of emails from the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit in November 2009 and since, which did not show some scientists behaving in at all an admirable fashion.)

As I sometimes do, I am editing it for a quick read, but the whole essay is not long, and is well worth reading. ‘Has Climategate been a Good Thing? he asks, in the title of the essay. I’ve taken out the references used in the essay to save space, and added some commas and emphasis.

‘Scientific knowledge is not created solely in the laboratory and therefore neither can it enter into public circulation simply stamped with the label ‘truth’. To claim, “I am a scientist, trust me” is no longer sufficient, even if it ever once was. For scientific knowledge to earn credibility as public knowledge, scientists have to work as hard outside the laboratory as they do inside, through repeated demonstrations of their integrity, accessibility and trustworthiness. Only then will they be judged as reliable witnesses and their knowledge deemed credible…. This is not easy to do, as the events surrounding Climategate showed…

‘One of the interesting responses from the academic community since Climategate has been a new interest in studying and understanding the various manifestations of climate change scepticism. The populist notion that all climate sceptics are either in the pay of oil barons or are right-wing ideologues … cannot be sustained.

‘There are many different reasons why citizens may be sceptical of aspects of climate science, certainly why they may be sceptical of knowledge claims which get exaggerated by media and lobbyists. This may be because of innate suspicion of ‘big science’ (which climate science has become, with powerful patrons in government and UN and international institutions) or because of a commitment to forms of data and knowledge libertarianism, as in the Wikileaks movement. Some of the individuals who pursued CRU scientists for access to data in the months leading up to Climategate may be seen in this light; they had no connections with the oil industry or conservative think-tanks. Other expressions of scepticism may result from issue fatigue, cynicism about a media who seek to sensationalise …  or the experience of cognitive dissonance…

‘But beyond these reasons for climate change scepticism, in the years following Climategate it has become more important to distinguish between at least four different aspects of the conventional climate change narrative where scepticism may emerge.

‘Trend scepticism would be disbelieving of evidence that suggested a change in climate was occurring, whereas attribution scepticism would be doubtful that such trends were predominantly caused by human agency. Impact scepticism would question whether the melodrama of the discourse of future climate catastrophe is credible, and policy scepticism would query dominant climate change policy frameworks and instruments. When this more nuanced analysis of climate change scepticism is combined with a valorisation of the scientific norm of scepticism and the democratic virtue of scrutinising and interrogating vested interests, there becomes room for more respectful arguments about what climate change signifies and what responses may be appropriate…

‘Scientific controversies not only reveal intellectual arguments, struggles for power and human limitations within the practices and institutions of science, they also reflect the dynamics of these exact same phenomena in the wider culture within which science takes place. And they also nearly always lead to changes in the way in which science is done as it seeks to retain its cultural authority. The nature and practice of science – how it makes authoritative knowledge about the physical world – is not defined in textbooks, least of all textbooks which are treated as timeless and universal. People have tried to define science in this way and failed. Science is like other human cultural institutions: it evolves to survive. And science controversies often become the necessary disturbances to provoke adjustment and innovation; the genetic mutations upon which processes of natural selection can operate.

‘This is certainly true of Climategate. Climate scientists, their institutions and their sponsors – i.e., climate science as an enterprise — were forced to stop and reflect on how they organised their interactions with the outside world, from data policies to language, modes of communication and forms of public engagement. The unthinking assumption that having gained broad public trust (after all the IPCC had been awarded a Nobel Prize!) this would automatically be retained, was sharply challenged. And more widely, outside science, there have been adjustments in media reporting of climate change and in the entrainment of climate science in policy deliberations, and a greater boldness from critics to challenge scientific claims and practices.’

This is good stuff, and I like the four categories into which Hulme places sceptics. I appear to be mostly an impact and policy sceptic. I accept that there has been a long-term warming trend, which has currently paused, and I accept that some of the warming was probably caused by human activity. For the rest, I am deeply sceptical.

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