Climate change: In the balance

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

While many people believe in climate change, others are unconvinced. An exhibition at the Science Museum reflects this ambivalence, says Nick Duerden

The Science Museum has just unveiled its new gallery, which is to be called, in unexplained lowercase, atmosphere. It is a low-lit neon blue, whisperingly atmospheric space that aims, says the introductory blurb, to deepen visitors' understanding of one of the hottest topics of our age: climate science.

The "science" bit is pertinent. Where once we would talk, quite happily and with unswerving, if second-hand, conviction, about climate change, we now have to walk with more trepidation. Climate change is not quite so fundamentally black and white anymore, if only because so many people have come along to doubt and pour scorn on it. In the summer, the Science Museum, increasingly aware of this mounting mood swing, even felt it necessary to revise the contents of its exhibits in order to fully acknowledge the wave of scepticism that that has engulfed the issue in recent months.

What this means, essentially, is that where once it might have tried gently to persuade us of the dangers of global warming, it now must take a more neutral position, to strive to acknowledge the myriad doubts held by many while continuing to present what it believes, and what is frequently backed up by as many as 120 independent scientific checkers, the facts.

"We are not, and never have been, here to tell people what to think," insists museum director, Professor Chris Rapley, "but simply to offer a way of how to think about the subject."

As a result, Rapley is now forced to choose his words with the exaggerated care of a politician. "We are all, to some or other extent, sceptics," he concedes, "but I think everybody now accepts is that this is a big issue, and that what is needed here is a sensible dialogue about it rather than a shrill shouting match."

The museum is keen to avoid framing this as a debate, he says, because debate assumes that one side is right and the other wrong. "That does us no good at all. What we need instead is intelligent discourse."

Which is what atmosphere, which was unveiled last week by Prince Charles, a man who has never had any problem in discussing climate issues in terms of change, aims to achieve.

It is split into zones, each focusing on a different part of climatic science: its history, throughout the 20th, and even 19th, century; the Earth's precarious energy balance; the evidence that the carbon cycle is being disrupted; and possible ways to generate energy in a low-carbon world, and featuring proposals like domestic energy monitors, carbon collectors, energy-harvesting paving slabs and hydrogen-powered urban cars that look like liquorice allsorts on Lego wheels.

There is an interactive exhibit, The Carbon Cycle, which explains how exchanges of carbon between the Earth, ocean and atmosphere were once relatively equal before human interference, and its centrepiece is a 700-year-old ice core extracted from the Antarctic, which contains information about the composition of the Earth's atmosphere and climate system stretching back hundreds, possibly thousands, of years. There is also a series of specially commissioned art works, including a new David Shrigley piece, a precarious house of playing cards whose unambiguous message needs little decoding.

"Our target audience? Families, children over the age of eight, and schoolchildren studying geography and science." Professor Rapley pauses. "And non-expert adults, of course."

Of which, he hardly needs add, there are a great many.

A few short years ago, news of increased activity in climate change came to us not couched in sensitive language but rather in cold, hard, brutish adjectives. Scientists, and even former presidential candidates, showed us how the world was dying, and how it was us, the human race, that were responsible for what might prove its irrevocable demise. They used diagrams, with footstools to reach their highest points, and spoke with such passion, such a sense of foreboding, that only a fool would doubt them.

But then, just as we were adjusting our own lives accordingly, investing in solar energy panels and no longer purchasing disposable nappies in quite so many numbers, a growing band of doubters began to emerge, learned people, highbrow scientists among them, to question such findings, and denounce them. Climate change, they argued, had been wildly exaggerated, possibly for political gain. The only thing that was conclusive about it, they said, was the level of hyperbole.

This prompted its own mildly catastrophic results: now thoroughly confused, an awful lot of the public simply switched off.

The Science Museum, rightly concerned, conducted a survey recently to ascertain just how much we knew about this clearly knobbly area of science. Its findings were that too many of us remained woefully ignorant about it, embarrassedly so.

"Any reasonably educated person feels that they should know more about it than they actually do," says Professor Rapley. "But what we all do know, at least, is that climate science in itself is important. It is a big subject that continues to be talked about all the time, and to such an extent that we each have a kind of love/hate relationship with it. But still, by and large, we know very, very, very little about it, just the odd nugget of information here and there, or disinformation, or misinformation, and it all gets lost in a hazy cloud of confusion."

He is smiling as he says this, but one imagines him frowning inside. The Science Museum's entire ethos, he points out, is to help people make sense of science, and to show how it affects our daily lives. Hence atmosphere.

He presumably also hopes the exhibition will silence the sceptics?

His smile tightens. "We are not here to tell anybody how to think," he says. "But I would say that what we present here is pretty uncontroversial, and I don't believe anybody could disagree with it. Whether we choose to act on the findings as a result is another matter, but we have been careful not to be misinterpreted here as advocates of policy or solution, but rather purveyors, as best as one can be, of fact."

And he suggests that we should confidently put our trust in the Science Museum because it has no particular axe to grind.

"We might not know how significant the impact [of continued global warming] might be," he says, "but we can see what might happen, and what the impact might be. Even if we don't have an exact prescription on what to do, we can try to make ourselves more resilient against it."

As you leave the exhibition and go back through the main building, you pass Planet Science, a large floating sphere onto which images of the Earth are projected, displaying the changing patterns of the atmosphere, vegetation and ocean levels. As the museum's space curator Doug Millard says: "We live in a world in which many subjects have a very short newsworthy shelf life, including climate, but this doesn't mean that climate change has stopped, because it hasn't. When people pass this display, they won't be able to help themselves but to stop and stare. It's a showstopper."

It is. From a distance, the Earth looks not merely beautiful, but quite perfect. It is only when you take a closer look that you realise it isn't. Not any more.



www.sciencemuseum.org.uk.

Sport
The Pipes and Drums of The Scottish Regiments perform during the Opening Ceremony for the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park on July 23, 2014 in Glasgow, Scotland.
Commonwealth gamesThe actor encouraged the one billion viewers of the event to donate to the children's charity
Sport
Members of the Scotland deleagtion walk past during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park in Glasgow on July 23, 2014.
Voices
voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
Sport
Shinji Kagawa and Reece James celebrate after the latter scores in Manchester United's 7-0 victory over LA Galaxy
football
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
The Tour de France peloton rides over a bridge on the Grinton Moor, Yorkshire, earlier this month
film
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
News
Very tasty: Vladimir Putin dining alone, perhaps sensibly
news
Life and Style
Listen here: Apple EarPods offer an alternative
techAre custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?
Arts and Entertainment
Top guns: Cole advised the makers of Second World War film Fury, starring Brad Pitt
filmLt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a uniform
News
The University of California study monitored the reaction of 36 dogs
sciencePets' range of emotions revealed
News
Snoop Dogg pictured at The Hollywood Reporter Nominees' Night in February, 2013
people... says Snoop Dogg
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
News
Joining forces: young British men feature in an Isis video in which they urge Islamists in the West to join them in Iraq and Syria
newsWill the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?
Arts and Entertainment
The nomination of 'The Wake' by Paul Kingsnorth has caused a stir
books
News
i100
Life and Style
food + drinkZebra meat is exotic and lean - but does it taste good?
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

BI Manager - £50,000

£49000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client is...

BI Project Manager - £48,000 - £54,000 - Midlands

£48000 - £54000 per annum + Benefits package: Progressive Recruitment: My clie...

VB.Net Developer

£35000 - £45000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: If you're pa...

SAP Business Consultant (SD, MM and FICO), £55,000, Wakefield

£45000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP Business...

Day In a Page

Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Farewell, my lovely

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
The 10 best pedicure products

Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

Commonwealth Games 2014

Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game