Leading article: Sceptics have their uses

Share
Related Topics

The climate change sceptics have done us all a favour. This may seem a curious view for a newspaper so committed to the cause of environmental sustainability. But, by challenging the consensus view of global warming, the sceptics have tested the flabbier assumptions of that consensus and forced the proponents of the majority view to sharpen their arguments.

The story began on Friday 13 November last year, when files from a back-up server at the University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit were copied on to the internet. No one knows how they got there. It may have been no more than a security flaw exploited by a climate change sceptic web geek, but the timing, a month before the Copenhagen summit at which world leaders were to agree action to mitigate global warming, could not have been better scheduled by the opponents of such action.

The files contained emails that suggested that climate scientists had used "tricks" to manipulate the data on warming, and to "hide the decline" in temperatures.

As it happened, the furore over the leaked emails had no effect on what happened at Copenhagen. The failure to reach a more substantial agreement owed more to the dynamics of Chinese politics and culture than to an ideological frenzy on the English-speaking internet. But the media interest in Copenhagen looped back into the sceptical narrative, and has driven it in the weeks since. In those weeks, the sceptics have won two more propaganda victories. First, it turned out that a claim that the glaciers of the Himalayas might melt by 2035, which had been endorsed by the guardians of scientific orthodoxy, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), was unfounded. Then the doubters seized on another IPCC study, which repeated a claim that 40 per cent of the Amazon rainforest might die off, and sourced it to a non-peer-reviewed paper produced for the green pressure group, WWF.

These may seem to be details. Indeed, the Amazon case is a matter of mere sloppy footnoting, as there are peer-reviewed sources for the prediction that 40 per cent of the rainforest could be turned into savannah by only a small rise in average temperatures. But details matter.

They matter because they provide fuel for the sceptics' propaganda, which has in turn had a marked effect on public opinion. A Populus survey for the BBC in November found that 83 per cent of respondents thought that "the Earth's climate is changing and global warming taking place", with only 15 per cent disagreeing. That had changed last week to 75 per cent agreeing and 25 per cent disagreeing. This was trumpeted by the Daily Mail yesterday under the headline, "How our belief in global warming is draining away." It might be thought that the striking thing about the poll finding is that the public continues to accept the threat of climate change by such an overwhelming margin.

Details also matter because rigour and transparency are important. The sceptics have a point, when they suggest that the very fact of the overwhelming consensus among scientists had induced a form of groupthink, institutionalised by the IPCC. This seems to have meant that the scientists at the University of East Anglia became more concerned with what their data looked like than with its evidential value. For that, as for so much else in public policy, openness is the answer. However, if transparency is to be enjoined on the scientists, it must also apply to the ideologues, business interests and genuine sceptics that are seeking to persuade us that human-made climate change is a myth.

That is why our special report today seeks to hold up to public view the networks and the oil industry funding that sustain the propaganda effort against the consensus that has developed over the past four decades by the cumulative process of testing the theory against the evidence. Thus we should be grateful to sceptics, even if the cult-like belief in conspiracy theory of many of them gives the healthy instinct of scepticism a bad name.

After the past three months, it must be expected that the science will now be presented in a way that it is more robust, and more focused on the need to rebut the populist myths of the so-called sceptics. Openness on both sides will, we believe, only strengthen popular understanding that the climate is affected by human activity, and that the need for a collective policy response is urgent.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Inside Sales - OTE to £45,000

£25000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are a leading supplier of bu...

Recruitment Genius: Installation Engineer - Driveway

£28000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This innovative, fast growing f...

Recruitment Genius: Junior Project Manager - Technical

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client is looking for a Jun...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne  

I'm against Right-to-Buy because no government should force a charity to sell its assets

Bob Kerslake
 

Charles Kennedy: Pragmatic, shrewd, and tactically brilliant

Sean O'Grady
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific
In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

Dame Colette Bowe - interview
When do the creative juices dry up?

When do the creative juices dry up?

David Lodge thinks he knows
The 'Cher moment' happening across fashion just now

Fashion's Cher moment

Ageing beauty will always be more classy than all that booty
Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

Health fears over school cancer jab

Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

Weather warning

Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

High hopes for LSD

Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
German soldier who died fighting for UK in Battle of Waterloo should be removed from museum display and given dignified funeral, say historians

Saving Private Brandt

A Belgian museum's display of the skeleton of a soldier killed at Waterloo prompts calls for him to be given a dignified funeral