Climate change: In the balance

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

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.