The state of science when climate disaster looms

Scientists around the world continue to warn of the dangers of a warming Earth, of catastrophic declines of animal and plant species, of threats to the survival of humankind itself. Yet governments continue to either treat the warnings as unimportant or take limited action to tackle the manifold problems that climate change already poses.

The public in many countries has been deliberately misled by critics, including powerful moguls such as Rupert Murdoch and his News Corporation and US Fox News offshoots, who claim the scientists’ warnings are alarmist cries by those whose real motives are attracting more funding for their institutions and research programmes.

Or they quote other ‘authorities’ to disprove the warnings on the basis that the Earth has gone through periods of heating and cooling many times in the past.

Some splendid examples of denialism followed a commentary last week by Stephan Lewandowsky, a professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Bristol, who wrote about the response to news of the Russian icebreaker ship, Akademik Shokalskiy, becoming caught in Antarctic sea ice on Christmas Eve and of its passengers finally being rescued by helicopter.

Writing in The Conversation, Lewandowsky said his research had found that if people were shown a graph with global temperatures during the past few decades, they invariably understood what it meant and realised that further warming would occur – even among the few people (less than 10% in his sample) who denied that climate change was taking place.

“Graphs and pictures are powerful scientific analysis and communication tools. The power of graphs and pictures, and the anecdotes they can evoke, are also powerful means by which people can be misled, inadvertently or otherwise,” he wrote.

“It is well known that the national newspaper, The Australian, [ a Murdoch-owned publication] has a track record of distortion and misrepresentation when it comes to climate reporting, so it is informative to examine what role pictures, or the anecdotes they evoke, often play in their reporting.”

Lewandowsky then went on to describe how the newspaper in an editorial, and under the headline “Stuck on a ship of (cold) fools”, had completely misrepresented what had in fact occurred.

But his commentary also attracted a flood of responses from readers, many of whom were anxious to refute all the scientific evidence that global warming is occurring.

Perhaps worse still, even when people are convinced that scientists’ warnings are not fabrications, that the explanations of the results of their research should be accepted and that “something should be done”, too many remain silent from fear of speaking out.

Margaret Heffernan, an international businesswoman and writer, gave a powerful speech last July on this issue in which she discussed how the legal term ‘wilful blindness’ affects many of us. Her address was broadcast on the network owned by the private non-profit Sapling Foundation – and is available here.

Heffernan has written a book on this topic – Willful Blindness: Why we ignore the obvious at our peril – in which she explores the issue in more depth.

In it she shows how whistleblowers and others who warn of the harm being done to the environment or to people by polluting industries often lose out by not being taken seriously or even facing prosecution.

Last September, in its first report for six years, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – IPCC – said that global warming was “unequivocal” and it was 95% certain that human activity was the dominant cause.

As a result, the Earth was facing more heat waves, floods, droughts and rising sea levels that could swamp coasts and low-lying islands as greenhouse gases built up in the atmosphere.

The report states that each of the past three decades has been progressively warmer than any preceding decade since 1850 and, in the northern hemisphere, that the period from 1983 to 2012 was likely to have been the warmest 30 years in the past 1,400 years.

"If this isn't an alarm bell, then I don't know what one is,” said US Secretary of State John Kerry following release of the IPCC report. “If ever there were an issue that demanded greater cooperation, partnership, and committed diplomacy, this is it."

At the same time, American critics were rejecting the findings, claiming that the computer models used by the IPCC scientists had been shown to be obsolete and founded on bad assumptions.

“In the midst of all this, it appears that the gatekeepers at peer reviewed journals are still doing everything possible to suppress or ignore evidence that the theory is just simply not holding up against observed facts,” wrote Jeff Reynolds on the US right-wing Freedom Works website.

Reynolds then quoted Chip Knappenberger, another conservative commentator for a similarly far right think tank, the Cato Institute, who observed that the computer climate models were “really a house of cards”.

“In a phone interview, Knappenberger stated that the known science was incomplete and that not nearly enough data existed to provide a complete picture of the climate as it exists now,” Reynolds said.

This was just one of many organised attempts to downplay, deny or dismiss what has become a scientific consensus of the effects and extent of global warming, its impact on the planet and its direct connection to human behaviour.

Such denials of widely accepted scientific agreement have been linked to fossil fuel lobby groups, to US free market think tanks such as those mentioned above, and to American far right Christian organisations.

Just when the penny will finally drop or what it will take to change the minds of the denialists is hard to say, but let’s hope it will not be when the critics finally discover the air is too hard to breathe or the waters are rising above their heads.

Meantime, all the scientists can do is to continue reporting their findings as in this account from Nature magazine.