Scientists are ‘losing climate change debate’

Describing the struggle of scientists to counteract climate change scepticism as a “science communication war”, Professor John Sweeney, director of the Irish Climate Analysis and Research Unit (ICARUS) at NUI Maynooth and lecturer in the college’s geography department, spoke of the battle between scientists and sceptics last week at a conference held by DCU’s research group Celsius. These sceptics, says Sweeney, include journalists and lobbyists whose communication skills give them an advantage in voicing their doubts about the rapidity of climate change.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) retraction of its claim on the melting of the Himalayan glaciers by 2035 has been seen as fundamental in fueling this scepticism. This incident has raised a serious call – even among environmentalists – for the reorganisation of the IPCC and an apology from its head, Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, which so far has gone unanswered.
Given the IPCC’s role as the UN’s advisor on climate change, the exaggeration of the claim roused substantial suspicion on the reality of climate change as a whole. Such suspicions have been furthered, commentators believe, by the failure of world leaders at December’s Copenhagen summit to reach any resolution. Deniers of climate change have also created their own arguments, stating that the world is actually cooling down and citing the fact that recorded temperatures of the past decade have not been as high as in 1998.
Professor Sweeney criticised the sceptics, claiming that while climate change researchers have committed mistakes, these were being “blown out of proportion” and their counter-arguments were limited, pseudo-scientific and “very well-rehearsed”.
Believing such journalists and sceptics to possess superior communication skills, Prof Sweeney lamented scientists’ “lousy” abilities to communicate to a wide audience. “Not having being brought up in the literary and debating societies, scientists are not very good at winning arguments” Prof Sweeney commented.
As a result, the sceptics’ claim that climate change is a myth appears to be winning. Professor Sweeney cited the existence of institutes such as the Heartland Institute in the United States, which attempts to counteract the arguments concerning tobacco and health damage, as an example of the potentially damaging effect of scepticisim on scientific research. Numerous blogs and internet websites suspicious of climate change claims, such as the Sceptics Notebook, have also emerged, providing a guide for sceptics on dealing with climate change believers.
Climate change research scientists have been called upon to accept this scepticism as a vital part of the scientific process. China now recommends the IPCC to include sceptical points of view in their reports.
Researchers have also been encouraged to be more open about their own doubts and uncertainties in order to gain public confidence as the urge for the inclusion of ‘grey’ material in future IPCC reports starts to mount. While Prof Sweeney continues to see scepticism and science as antagonistic, others are wishing for a more complementary relationship between the two – for now, only time can tell who will win this battle.

Climate Facts:

19 demonstrators were arrested at a march during the Copenhagen Summit on December 12th for carrying pocket knives and wearing masks.

Marches protesting the inadequacies of the Summit occurred around the world with 20,000 marching in London and 50,000 in Australia.

Four Greenpeace activists were arrested during the Summit for gate-crashing a dinner attended by the heads of states.

A national survey carried out by Pew Research Center has discovered that Americans are steadily losing belief in the credibility of climate change hypotheses.

Global temperatures in 2009 were the 5th warmest since 1890

One bus emits greenhouse gases equal to that emitted by 50 cars.

The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen from 290 (ppm – parts per million) in 1900 to nearly 400 ppm.

Ireland’s mean annual temperature increased by 0.7 degrees celcius (°C) between 1890 and 2004.