Mike Hulme has added his ambiguous contribution to the climate change series on The Conversation. As per usual he’s in effect protesting that those who take the science at its face value are alienating the public. He offers an alternative to the first statement in the open letter from the scientific community which kicked off the series.
Here’s what the scientists said:
“The overwhelming scientific evidence tells us that human greenhouse gas emissions are resulting in climate changes that cannot be explained by natural causes. Climate change is real, we are causing it, and it is happening right now.”
Here’s what Hulme offers in its place:
“The overwhelming scientific evidence tells us that human greenhouse gas emissions, land use changes and aerosol pollution are all contributing to regional and global climate changes, which exacerbate the changes and variability in climates brought about by natural causes. Because humans are contributing to climate change, it is happening now and in the future for a much more complex set of reasons than in previous human history.”
The first one is more partial and provocative, he suggests. It may work well if the writers’ intention is to reinforce the polarisation of opinion that exists around climate change science or if they are using scientific claims to justify a particular set of policy interventions.
Then he makes this opaque statement:
“Yet there are important aspects of scientific knowledge about the climate system that are accommodating to more nuanced interpretations of uncertainty and which open up more diverse sets of policy strategies.”
His alternative statement apparently captures these aspects, and opens up different ways for audiences to receive and engage with the communication.
I won’t detail the various ways he thinks his approach can enable people to engage with climate change. I have no quarrel with anything which may help people take climate change seriously, if that is his intention. But the message from the science must not be diluted in the process, and the more I look at his alternative statement the more it looks like an evasion of the stark reality the science presents.
His suggestion that scientists who make such statements as those contained in the open letter are intending to polarise opinion or to push one set of policy responses is simply wrong. It looks like a thinly disguised version of the accusation of scientific alarmism. I have been endeavouring as a lay person to follow climate science for the past five years since I became aware that global warming was more than just another environmental problem which would need attention at some point. I would have been delighted to find that the issue was being over-hyped by the scientists. But in fact the science has struck me as cautious and restrained, almost reluctant in its conclusions.
Yes, it has had a polarising effect. But that is the decision of those who wrap themselves in denial. It is not the fault of the science which has delivered the unwelcome message. Hulme talks about how the issue is framed, as if some sort of choice has been made by scientists to frame it in extreme terms. They have done no such thing. They have delivered sober reports, with due recognition of uncertainties. Indeed it is beginning to appear that, if anything, they have erred on the side of caution, as impacts which were thought likely to be further ahead are turning up ahead of expectation.
I don’t know what Hulme’s motivation is. I read and reviewed his book Why We Disagree About Climate Change and was left none the wiser on that point. But whatever he intends, he is wrong to imply some sort of framing intention in the communication of the science. If it comes across as alarming, that’s because it is alarming, not because the scientists have chosen to present it as such.
Just how alarming is bluntly stated by Joe Romm in a post on Climate Progress written for Independence Day. I read it on the same day as Hulme’s dismaying piece, and I had no doubt which better represented the scientific reality. Here’s what Romm said (the reference to “happiness” echoes the “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence):
“But if we keep listening to the deniers and delayers, if we fail to sharply reverse our current emissions path nationally and globally, then we are headed toward 5°C (9°F) planetary warming by century’s end and 850+ ppm — with sea level rise of 4 to 6 feet or higher, rising perhaps a foot a decade or more for centuries, the U.S. Southwest and one third of the Earth’s habited land a permanent Dust Bowl, half or more species extinct, and much of the ocean a hot, acidic dead zone…
“Not bloody many people will be pursuing ‘happiness’ under those conditions. They will be desperately trying to avoid misery, when they aren’t cursing our names for betraying our moral values.”