Monday 19 March 2007

Climate of confusion

When climate scientists wobble on the public stage, their misfired and misjudged statements are quickly seized upon by the flat-earthers who think that global warming can be put down to a combination of natural variation, sunspots and nu-communist gasbaggery.

And so it is with Carl Wuncsh, the MIT professor who was hoodwinked by WAGTV (the clue’s in the name) into taking part in the ‘Great Global Warming Swindle’ on Channel 4.
Plenty of blog-space has been taken up with deconstructions of Martin Durkin’s anti-green polemic, so here it is sufficient to say that Wuncsh now says he was ‘duped’ by the filmmaker into taking part. He’s not a happy camper and his full response can be read alongside a comprehensive analysis of the film on Real Climate’s website.

It doesn’t stop there. This weekend two scientists appeared on stage in Oxford to decry the ‘exaggeration’ by the media of the risks of climate change when it comes to major disasters or ‘sideswipes’ like the turning off of the Gulf Stream. Once you begin to exaggerate the science in either direction the debate gets out of control,' warned Paul Hardaker.

Fair enough, stick to the science: quite right.

The only problem is that the submission of Paul Hardaker and Chris Collier of the Royal Meteorological Society to the switched on and no doubt highly qualified crowd at the Sense About Science conference on Saturday didn’t stay in the seminar room in Oxford. Quite the opposite. It was on the world’s most visited website - BBC News - that afternoon and by yesterday was on blogs and websites all over the world, including those dedicated to undermining international efforts to fight climate change.

Granted, it didn’t hurt that Hardaker and Collier had indulged in a bit of spin themselves and coined the term ‘Hollywoodisation’ to describe the overplaying of climate fears. They clearly intended for their work to have an impact - but did they also intend for their no doubt timely warning to be misused?

So in the Edinburgh Evening News they are recorded as ‘Slamming climate fears’. On ‘’ they are arguing against the predictions of their peers. On ABC news they are warning other scientists not to overplay their hand. If you Google ‘Paul Hardaker’ right now, you’ll see just how quickly and globally word has spread of his Saturday afternoon lecture. It’s the kind of viral messaging that marketeers would give their mouse-button-finger for.

The contributions of Carl Wunsch, Chris Collier and Paul Hardaker were all well-meaning and in a saner world they would be listened to in the kind of balanced, non-partisan way that they no doubt expect from their scientific colleagues or students, but when they get in front of a camera or microphone, they’re playing a different game, and they need to work harder at not being misrepresented. Each of these stories has been read by someone on the cusp of conviction with regard to climate change, and will have helped to have put them off. I’ve already heard of one senior director in a major government agency calling for an explanation in the light of the alarming news that climate change may not be as much of a threat as we thought.

From a small soundbite or moment to camera, so can spread the idea that maybe, just maybe, climate change isn’t such a problem after all. The viewer or reader goes back to their carbon-laden lifestyle; the world moves on, a little warmer and a little less concerned; action on climate change is put off for another day.

Scientists need to know that their words will be used and abused across the world and that they may be responsible for seriously damaging public understanding, no matter how valid their single conjecture or conclusion may be. We are all gagging for a get out on global warming and having leading scientists suggest that it’s all been exaggerated, overplayed or simply made-up is telling us exactly what we want to hear.

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