Are climate scientists cowed by sceptics?

Academic says barrage of criticism has seeped into research, leading experts to frame climate facts as uncertain

The Working Group 3 report focused on options for mitigating climate change through limiting or preventing greenhouse gas emissions (Pic: IPCC)

The Working Group 3 report focused on options for mitigating climate change through limiting or preventing greenhouse gas emissions (Pic: IPCC)

By Ed King

To what extent are climate scientists in some of the world’s top academic and research institutions influenced by those who think global warming is a load of baloney?

That’s the question posed by Stephan Lewandowsky, professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Bristol in a paper published this month in the Global Environmental Change journal.

Lewandowsky argues that many climate scientists are affected by sustained attacks against their findings, resulting in an increased discourse of uncertainty in academic circles.

“Being human, scientists’ operate with the same cognitive apparatus and limitations as every other person,” he writes in an executive summary.

“In consequence, it is important to be aware of the factors that may cause scientists to take positions that they would be less likely to take in the absence of outspoken public opposition.”

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Climate scientists have long been the target of campaigns from individuals or groups who reject their findings and regard the whole concept of humans affecting global temperatures as a hoax.

US academics Katherine Hayhoe and Michael Mann have spoken about the various threats they have received in the past decade due to their findings.

Lewandowsky himself was the target of a coordinated and successful campaign to have a paper on climate sceptics withdrawn from the Frontiers Journal in 2013.

In his latest paper, co-authoring the research with four others, he refers to this as “seepage”.

Academics should not talk about a recent pause or hiatus in global warming “given that global warming continues unabated,” he argues.

The paper alleges that this “seepage” may have caused scientists to change the way in which they interpret data, playing into the hands of climate sceptics.

“By accepting the framing of a recent fluctuation as a ‘pause’ or ‘hiatus’, research on the pause has, ironically and  unwittingly,  entrenched the notion of a ‘pause’ (with all the connotations of that term) in the literature as well as in the public’s mind.

“Some of that research may therefore have inadvertently misdirected public attention.”

His findings are significant given nearly 200 countries are working on plans for a global deal to avert dangerous levels of warming, due to be signed off in Paris this December.

The foundations for that pact are a series of major studies from the UN science agency, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), built from thousands of research papers over the past two decades.

Many US politicians have used the “pause” in warming as evidence that a deal isn’t needed. Others argue the levels of uncertainty are such that countries should wait before ditching fossil fuels.

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Some climate scientists appear less than impressed with Lewandowsky’s paper – and the insinuation that political and media pressure has changed their findings.

In a long and detailed rebuttal on a climate science blog, Richard Betts, head of climate impacts at the UK Met Office, says the decision to frame this as an “us versus them” fight is simplistic.

“While talk of the “pause” is commonplace in the UK climate science community, this does not seem to be accompanied by shying away from discussing projections and risks of higher-end climate change,” he says, citing papers and conferences focusing on warming beyond 4C.

Betts also rejects the claim that climate scientists believe a reduced rate of warming challenges their understanding of the greenhouse effect, but defends the community’s willingness to engage with questions on the rate of temperature rises.

“The evidence also suggests that even if ‘seepage’ is real, at the very least this seepage has had no influence in watering-down UK public opinion and political action compared to other countries – and that possibly the opposite has occurred because the public are more convinced by seeing scientists being objective.”

He adds: “If there is any country in the world where climate scientists can feel that their research is valued by both the public and politicians, it is the UK.”

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This debate will run and run.

It’s worth comparing Lewandowsky’s thesis with that put forward by Oliver Geden, a German researcher who was published in Nature last week warning climate scientists and advisors were offering false hope to politicians on averting global warming.

“Scientific advisers must resist pressures that undermine the integrity of climate science,” he wrote.

“Instead of spreading false optimism, they must stand firm and defend their intellectual independence, findings and recommendations – no matter how politically unpalatable.”

He added: “Scientific advisers should resist the temptation to be political entrepreneurs, peddling their advice by exaggerating how easy it is to transform the economy or deploy renewable technologies, for instance.”

A number of UN officials and analysts were quick to hit back, but the message seems pretty clear: if you’re a climate scientist, you’d best develop a thick skin.

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