Gluckman: climate denial undermines all science

NZ PM John Key’s Chief Science Advisor, Professor Sir Peter Gluckman, tackled denialism head on in a lecture at Victoria University of Wellington’s Institute of Policy Studies last night. Titled Integrity in Science: Implications from and for the Climate Change Debate [pdfof full text], it’s an interesting and worthwhile overview of the issue from someone steeped in the science. Gluckman’s thesis is that the tactics of those who deny climate change — for whatever reason (he defines three) — are undermining all science:

…in an electronically connected world the tactics of those who reject the consensus, whatever their motives, can undermine confidence in the entire science system. In a world that is increasingly dependent on science in many domains, I cannot regard it as helpful to actively promote distrust and suspicion of the scientific process for political ends.


Gluckman begins by discussing the nature of science and true scepticism, then moves on to define the climate debate thus:

At the heart of the climate change issue are three questions:

  • What is the rate of change in global temperature and what will be its local effects?
  • What is the level of certainty about these predictions and the assumptions made in reaching these predictions?
  • What is the nature of response that the world community must make?

The bulk of climate science and indeed the IPCC consensus approach has been an effort to deal with the first two questions.

Finding answers to the third question is the hard bit, because that’s where what science tells us feeds into policy decisions, and special interests and ideologies come into play. Gluckman defines three groups opposed to action on climate change:

…a small group of scientists who sustain a contrary view for a variety of reasons, some scientific and some not, those who have a vested interest in promoting denial and those who for a variety of reasons, largely philosophical, will reject the evidence.

One philosophy he considers in some more detail:

In particular, many with a libertarian ideology do not accept that the state should control how they live their lives, particularly when the actions required will not impact for a generation or so. The economic libertarian believes growth is paramount and if there is a problem then technology will eventually solve it. There seems to be some irony in accepting that science may solve a problem but that it cannot correctly identify the problem.

That might ruffle a few feathers. I suspect a pop-gun broadside will be on its way from Barry Brill in the near future. In reality, Gluckman is being rather cautious. I find it a little disappointing (if entirely understandable, given his position) that he doesn’t go on to describe how these groups have become intertwined, to the extent that climate denial is now almost a required position for anyone with strong right wing views. It’s also clear that the melange has been encouraged, planned and funded through a clever campaign by special interests. Gluckman notes the parallel with tobacco denial, but doesn’t draw the obvious conclusion: that the tactics and tools for delaying action were first developed there, and then transferred on to climate and other issues. If he hasn’t already got a copy of Merchants of Doubt or Climate Cover-Up, perhaps we should club together to send him copies…

The media plays an important part in all this, and Gluckman is pretty direct about the responsibility they carry:

The issue here that concerns me is that of how to communicate complex science. The public has a right to understand these issues and in the end they determine how society will respond. However without responsible media it is not clear how this can be achieved. Publishers, editors and journalists all have a role in ensuring quality in the information exchange.

He underlines his point by quoting from a recent essay and book review (pdf) by Philip Kitcher in Science (which is well worth a read in its own right):

“It is an absurd fantasy to believe that citizens who have scant backgrounds in the pertinent field can make responsible decisions about complex technical matters on the basis of a few five minute exchanges amongst more or less articulate speakers…”

He goes on a few sentences later to say:

“Those covering the questions in the media, have the duty to convey the results so that citizens can cast their votes as an enlightened expression of freedom, justifiably aimed at the outcomes for which they hope. Staging a brief disagreement between speakers with supposedly equal credentials, especially when it is not disclosed that one of them is answering to the economic aspirations of a very small segment of society, is a cynical abnegation of that duty“.

Clearly, communicating science in those circumstances is a difficult task, and Gluckman notes how difficult and frustrating that can be for working scientists. Naomi Oreskes (reported in a Revkin tweet) goes further:

Scientists and academic institutions need to expand definition of what their “real work” is: “The work is not done, in my opinion, until it’s communicated in a way that citizens understand.”

It’s just as difficult and frustrating for communicators who aren’t working scientists, forever playing whack-a-mole with arguments and ideas that have been repeatedly debunked, dealing every day with the deluge of denialist propaganda. And I can’t help but have sympathy for the under-resourced and hard-pressed non-specialist journalists who have to deal with the issue in New Zealand’s media. The easy option may sometimes be the only feasible option.

Gluckman’s key point, however, is that the encouragement of confusion and mistrust of climate science has wider implications:

There is a growing concern among those of us who have some role in marrying science and policy that the way the debate is being framed is undermining confidence in the science system.

I would put it more strongly. The tactics being used to delay and undermine action climate change are quite deliberately poisoning the interface between science and policy-making. It has become almost standard corporate practise to deny, delay and defer action. Policy-makers are left in an invidious position — especially when those corporates and their shareholders play a significant role in funding politicians and parties. John Key’s appointment of Gluckman was a step in the direction of a solution. One can only hope that the PM is following his advice.

23 thoughts on “Gluckman: climate denial undermines all science”

  1. I hesitate to make the first comment on an excellent lecture a cavil, but the Herald report gave some prominence to the following extract:

    “Some scientists have become overzealous in their arguments and have taken extreme positions to push for aggressive mitigation. They are now sometimes called alarmists, not a term I like. When scientists go beyond their data and reasonable extrapolation they are effectively also responding to a personal agenda. The origin of that agenda is understandable, that is to induce a policy response, but ultimately their behaviour has analogies to those who deny climate change because of their own agenda. The irony here is obvious – scientists may have overstated their case to persuade the population that something is happening and in doing so may have undermined their own credibility. But the problem here is that what might have been seen as extreme is not totally implausible.”

    My comment is that the statement names no scientist who has taken an extreme position to push for aggressive mitigation. I always wonder who these unnamed scientists are – I have not struck any such. Which leads me to wonder whether statements like this are made because the author feels obliged to concede something. If that is so I think it is a mistaken obligation. The denialist community names plenty of ‘alarmist’ scientists, of course, but I don’t think the defenders of the science need concede any that I have seen deniers name.

    1. What about James Lovelock who argues that it's likely that climate change will reduce Earth's population to 1 billion in the next 100 years; renewable energy is a distraction and a silly waste of time; large scale conversion to nuclear power is the only sensible solution to the energy problem.

      Extreme enough?

      1. Yes, but he's not really a climate scientist. It might be interesting to find out exactly who Gluckman thinks has gone too far, but I suspect that, as Bryan surmises, it's a comment designed to locate himself in the middle, away from the extremes.

      2. Yes, I wondered briefly whether they might mean him, but like Gareth I don't see him as a working climate scientist. It's something of a relief to me that those working in the science resist the conclusions he is so ready to draw.

    2. Surely we can agree that James Hansen has taken an "extreme position" on this? I'm not saying that he's wrong, of course, just that he has been particularly vocal about coal-fueled power plants.

      1. Hansen's position on the science has been expressed in the peer-reviewed literature. It is true that he has made overt policy recommendations, but has always been careful to do so as a private individual. He suggests that we can burn all the oil, as long as we stop burning coal. You'd think he'd be getting Exxon funding…

      2. I don't think Hansen can be accused of having gone beyond his data and reasonable extrapolation in order to induce a policy response. The accusation is that some scientists overstate their case for personal agenda reasons. Hansen has always been accused of this, from his famous 1988 congressional testimony on, but his warnings seem to me to be firmly grounded in his science and there is little in the developing situation to suggest that he has pushed those warnings beyond what is justified. He seems to me a reliable model of scientific integrity. He does strongly advocate for particular policy measures, as do many of us, but I don't see any manipulation of the science to fit his advocacy.

    3. The more interesting thing is that "the Herald report gave some prominence" to this comment of Gluckman's.

      The extract is not the main message of Gluckman's talk, and so giving it prominence is itself an example of that "abnegation of duty," and supports Gluckman's assertion that "the way the debate is being framed is undermining confidence in the science system."

  2. «…climate denial is now almost a required position for anyone with strong right wing views.»

    Please post evidence that people with strong right wing views deny that there is such a thing as climate.

    (with apologies to a certain troll)

      1. To be "serious" again: Waleed Aly's essay in the Australian "Quarterly Essay", issue 37 (2010), in the context of a broader discussion on modern flavours of conservatism and liberalism – analysing neo-conservatism and neo-liberalism in Australian politics in particular – includes a section called "A fight to the political death", on climate change. His argument that the ideology of the latter two groups requires a total defeat of those wishing to do something about manmade climate effects is very persuasive.

  3. Perhaps Gluckman was thinking of the "disaster" quote attributed to John Houghton by the denialist Ackerman. Of course that quote was a complete
    fabrication – but it didn't stop it's widespread circulation.

  4. Professor Gluckman's speech does not specify in the quote included above that climate scientists have made alarmist claims – so James Lovelock fits this category.
    And surely there must be at least one or two climate scientists who have overstated their claims at one time or another? Everyone, even scientists, occasionally make an error of judgement.
    Given that it was a quite general, even philosophical, speech it isn't really the place to mention people by name and give references.
    Personally I think the speech is one of the best summations of where we are at and the cuases and challenges of denialism and science communication.

    1. Mikee I agree entirely about the excellence of the lecture. In that respect my comment is a quibble, not a fundamental criticism. It's just that I don't think there is any call to acknowledge that some climate scientists (and my quote started following a sentence in which it seems that it was climate scientists he was referring to) have been guilty, albeit with good motives, of making things sound worse than the science justified. I'm not a scientist, but in my reading I can't remember coming across any climate scientist who fits that category. Hence I'm puzzled as to whom the accusation fits. But I'm open to correction if anyone has an example.

        1. Vicky Pope v. James Hansen. I thought Hansen's statement was cautious and provisional. And I regard him as a much more dependable guide to the science than Pope who is currently spending effort trying to find common ground with denialism and puzzling many of her fellows, some of whom she appears to be attacking. I'd be surprised if Gluckman wanted to take issue with Hansen. The possibility of tipping points looms large in Hansen's thinking, but I can't see that he is overstating things in order to induce policy response.

          1. I won't waste my breath mentioning Mike Hulme, because he doesn't agree with you either. Instead, here is the "moderate" Dr Hansen from Storms Of My Grandchildren:

            After the ice is gone, would Earth proceed to the Venus syndrome, a runaway greenhouse effect that would destroy all life on the planet, perhaps permanently? While it is difficult to say based on present information, I've come to conclude that if we burn all reserves of gas, coal and oil, there is a substantial chance that we will initiate the runaway greenhouse. If we burn the tar sands and tar shale I believe the Venus syndrome is a dead certainty.

            The surface temperature on Venus reaches 460 deg C. Seems extreme but I have no doubt that James Lovelock would agree James Hansen.

            1. I'm beginning to be sorry I made my cavil, because I don't want to pull the thread away from the thrust of Gluckman's talk. I'll make this my last comment. I don't think Hansen's warnings are idle, nor are they over-confident, and I don't think he's deliberately overstating for effect. His Venus syndrome statement, for example, comes at the end of a lengthy, and for me demanding, discussion of the kind of forcing that could cause a runaway greenhouse effect. He says he didn't worry about such a possibility too much until recently, and explains the factors that mean that he now does. He can be wrong of course, but at least what he says is anchored in science.

  5. Gluckman mentions 'a small group of scientists who sustain a contrary view for a variety of reasons'
    I suspect that the group is not small judging by lists and lists of scientists who disagree with IPCC.
    However the main point is that Dr Roy Spencer former NASA is well worth reading to discover that IPCC scientists misread the data to believe that the atmosphere is highly sensitive to changes in CO2 etc. Dr Roy establishes that is simply incorrect. It is enough science to not just doubt IPCC but switch to believe they got it all wrong.

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