Harrabin's Notes: Getting the message
- 29 May 2010
- From the section Science & Environment
In his regular column, BBC environment analyst Roger Harrabin looks at the fall-out from complaints that some of the Royal Society had oversimplified its messages in public statements on climate change.
After years of accusing the fossil fuel lobby of using anti-scientific arguments to undermine climate policy, scientists are now themselves accused of being un-scientific.
There are signs in the Royal Society's current review of its climate communications that they are beginning to understand the seriousness of their predicament and have included some "climate agnostics" on the panels.
But it seems that message has not seeped through to all quarters. And one Fellow of the Royal Society said there's the whiff of "end of empire" in the air as establishments strive to protect their authority as it ebbs away into the blogosphere.
The danger to the credibility of science institutions from the way they communicate uncertainty in climate change is immense.
Surveys show that many people don't believe the truths of scientific orthodoxy anymore and prefer to seek their "facts" in the blogosphere where it's easier to get insouciant endorsement of high-consumption western lifestyles.
The Royal Society is paying a price for the era in which lobbyists were doing their utmost to unpick climate policies. Some members of the establishment may have briefly forgotten that the public expects its authorities to be whiter than white.
I remember Lord May leaning over and assuring me: "I am the President of the Royal Society, and I am telling you the debate on climate change is over."
Lord May's formidable intellect and the power of his personality may have made it hard for others to find a corner from which to dissent. "The debate is over" was a phrase used in order to persuade Tony Blair that policies were needed to tackle the rise in CO2.
It was widely acknowledged that climate sceptics wanted to continue the debate in order to delay action to curb emissions.
But what did the phrase mean? Did it mean the IPCC is unquestionably right? Or that cutting emissions 80% is the only way to save the planet? Or simply that it is basic physics that CO2 is a warming gas?
Even at the Heartland Institute climate sceptics' conference in Chicago last week most scientists seemed to agree that CO2 had probably warmed the planet at the end of the 20th century, over and above natural fluctuations.
But they did not agree that the warming will be dangerous - and they object to being branded fools or hirelings for saying so.
The attitude of the establishment to the sceptics shines through the succession of inquiries into controversial science at the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit (CRU).
When at the launch of the Sir Muir Russell inquiry I asked about the credibility of the review panel in the blogosphere, Sir Muir dismissed the enquiry with the flick of a wrist - he had been a senior civil servant and he had run a university, his bona fides were beyond question.
But the blogosphere does not respect past reputations, only current performance. And some of the top performers in the blogosphere are critics of the establishment.
Steve McIntyre, for instance, is a mining engineer who started examining climate statistics as a hobby. He has taken on the scientific establishment on some key issues and won.
He arguably knows more about CRU science than anyone outside the unit - but none of the CRU inquiries has contacted him for input.
I have been told by the review teams that they can read McIntyre's blog if they want to learn about his views. But they can't have read all his blog entries surely? And they would have saved a lot of time and effort if they had asked him to summarise his scientific scrutiny on a couple of sheets of A4.
Professor Sir Brian Hoskins, the Royal Society's lead on climate change, told me he wouldn't look outside the realms of the Royal Society for input into the framing of a society review into the UEA affair.
This again is surely questionable - he admitted that he himself was not very conversant with CRU science. And what's more the society has turned outside its ranks for a couple of panellists on its current climate review.
The deep irony is that critics like Mr McIntyre profess themselves to want to take part in the science, not to destroy it.
And if the great science academies can't find ways of including the best experts from the blogosphere in their deliberations they may find themselves badly left behind.
There will be some who welcome a demolition of the bastions of authority. But for governments and many citizens, the world will be much poorer if they do not know who they can trust.