Social scientist Mike Hulme, who some (not this bunny, but some…) might consider the Roger Pielke Jr. of the British Isles, responded to the Cook, Nuccitelli, Green, Richardson, Winkler, Painting, Way, Jacobs and Skuce paper (whew) Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature. Cook et al is the latest in a well-known (*) sequence of papers attempting to show that the scientific community is near-unanimous in its understanding of the outlines of contemporary climate change.
(*) Originally, Hulme’s article referred to the Cook et al paper as “infamous”, but this kowtow to denialist framing has been quietly elided.
Hulme begins his article, entitled Science can’t settle what should be done about climate change with a statement which, while intended to be provocative, merely comes off as ludicrous:
The sight of speakers known to dispute the scientific evidence supporting climate change being called to speak at a parliamentary select committee on the latest IPCC report last week has raised certain commentators’ blood pressure.
Some have gone so far as to claim that the climate change debate in Britain has become “as depressingly unscientific and polarised as it is in the United States”.
I disagree. The debate about climate change needs to become more political, and less scientific.
Oh come on. Do we really want the debate on what to do steeped in anger and ignorance? That’s an almost perfectly absurd (sorry, mt being over-the-top again) claim.
That awkward start aside, Hulme goes on to make the following pertinent point, one which I would agree with.
Articulating radically different policy options in response to the risks posed by climate change is a good way of reinvigorating democratic politics.
A paper by John Cook and colleagues published in May 2013 claimed that of the 4,000 peer-reviewed papers they surveyed expressing a position on anthropogenic global warming, “97.1% endorsed the consensus position that humans are causing global warming”. But merely enumerating the strength of consensus around the fact that humans cause climate change is largely irrelevant to the more important business of deciding what to do about it. By putting climate science in the dock, politicians are missing the point.
What matters is not whether the climate is changing (it is); nor whether human actions are to blame (they are, at the very least partly and, quite likely, largely); nor whether future climate change brings additional risks to human or non-human interests (it does). As climate scientist Professor Myles Allen said in evidence to the committee, even the projections of the IPCC’s more prominent critics overlap with the bottom end of the range of climate changes predicted in the IPCC’s published reports.
In the end, the only question that matters is, what are we going to do about it? Scientific consensus is not much help here.
After the jaw-droppingly wrongheaded start, Hulme goes on to make a number of reasonable points. Left in the air is the vague intimation that Cook et al doesn’t contribute positively to the actual prospect of making progress.
Stephan Lewandowsky makes short work of that question in his response Establishing consensus is vital for climate action:
So why are tobacco control measures now in place in many countries around the world? Why has the rate of smoking in California declined from 44% to less than 10% over the last few decades? Why can we now debate the policy options for a further reduction in public harm, such as plain packaging or tax increases?
It is because the public demanded action. This happened once the public realised that there was a scientific consensus that tobacco was harmful to health. The public wants action when they perceive that there is a widespread scientific agreement.
Those who wish to maintain a status quo, whether it involves tobacco or fossil fuels, have long understood this principle. In 2002, Republican strategist Frank Luntz advised politicians to undermine the scientific consensus on global warming, in order to influence their views on climate change. And the tobacco industry infamously stated that “doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the minds of the general public.”
A scientific consensus is necessary to understand and address problems that have a scientific origin and require a scientific solution. The public’s perception of that scientific consensus is necessary to stimulate political debate about solutions. When the public comes to understand the overwhelming agreement among climate scientists on human-caused global warming, acceptance of the science and support for climate action increase.
Consequently, one of the principal strategies of people who reject the scientific evidence on climate has been to try to maintain the consensus gap by creating the appearance of a scientific debate where there is none.
That is why among newspaper opinion pieces from 2007 to 2010, the most common myth promoted by syndicated conservative columnists was that “there is no scientific consensus about global warming”.
Of course, we need ways to filter out, er, nonsense, or we’ll never get anywhere.
The Oreskes, Anderegg, and Cook papers stand together as a strange sort of beast, an attempt to survey the literature about scientific questions for their underlying stance toward what is no longer a scientific question. If I publish a paper that invokes, say, Ekman pumping, I no longer have to cite Ekman or defend the proposition. It’s an accepted principle in oceanography, even if most people have never heard of it. I don’t have to spend hours explaining it to oceanographers. They have already had the same lecture. So climate papers do not begin with an oath of fealty to the general sense that carbon dioxide accumulation is already consequential and will become more so. It’s just, known. It’s not typical of science as practiced in the past to publish papers expressing how well-known something known is.
Polling won’t work, because the apolitical mass of scientists will avoid the polls while the gadflies will be attracted to it like gad-honey. In fact, I believe the usual claims of 97% consensus are underestimates. I have not seen actual climatologists debating the question or even slyly hinting at their doubt in the many actual bull sessions at cafes or bars that I’ve been a part of. Ever. (*) Not because of some monstrous Stalinist pressure. Just because there’s no way to put the system together without CO2 changes being important.
I’ve seen other peer-reviewed papers on controversial subjects lately that make points that are controversial among the public but common knowledge among practitioners. This is both good news and bad news. The good news is that the sillier but stickier points being made in the skeptic circles can be weakened by pointing to peer reviewed replies. The bad news is that smart people are having to spend their time making such responses, and that journals have to round up other smart people to review them.
It is obvious to me that Hulme is right that we have to move beyond science and into policy. But his implication that we can do that without knowing what the science actually tells us is flatly ridiculous. What we really need is a social order where speaking irresponsibly on matters of fact is discouraged and disincentivized. Clearly we haven’t got that.
This must be reversed. But until it is, science has to fight its way through the fog of disinformation. Papers like John’s do a necessary and important service under present circumstances.
(*) Okay, I got an earful from Bill Gray once in the early 1990s, but it was more about funding competition than about the facts of the matter.