Gluckman gets it wrong: being alarmed is not alarmist

On Sunday morning, Radio NZ National’s Chris Laidlaw interviewed the PM’s science adviser Sir Peter Gluckman regarding his recent report on the likely future impacts of climate change on New Zealand. In an intelligent interview it was good to hear the report being given more prolonged and thoughtful attention than the initial news items about it afforded. It’s not my purpose to comment on the report other than to welcome it and hope it carries weight with the government. But in the course of the interview Gluckman made a couple of comments which I want to challenge. I’ve transcribed, I hope accurately enough, the section of the interview in which they occurred.

Laidlaw: The report is remarkably restrained …you say in the introduction that the most probable future scenarios are cause for concern. But unless there’s some sort of political miracle we’re going to be looking at an average temperature increase of somewhere between 3.6 and 5.3 degrees centigrade over this century. This is rather more than cause for concern I would have thought. It’s going to be a catastrophe.

Gluckman: I would agree personally.

Laidlaw: Yet your language is very restrained in this

Gluckman: I don’t think the scientific community has done its case well by becoming emotive on this issue. I think that my role as science adviser is to collate the scientific information from experts and put it out there for the political and public processes to reach the conclusion you’ve just reached.

Laidlaw: Do you think that we have and that scientists themselves also have sort of overdosed on alarmism?

Gluckman: I think so and I think …scientists need to distinguish whether they’re being a knowledge broker and putting the knowledge forward to everybody or whether they’re advocates for a cause. And I think in the climate change area, for understandable reasons, a large number of scientists have acted more as advocates where I think what is needed is knowledge brokerage and that’s what I’m trying to  demonstrate and do  here.

I’m not a scientist but I’ve been following climate science as well as I’m able for several years now and have seen no sign of any climate scientists swapping science for advocacy. Indeed I’ve been struck by the caution and careful delineation with which their findings are typically presented. I’m not sure what Gluckman means by advocacy, or whom he is thinking of when he makes the accusation. Let us imagine he has James Hansen in mind.  Hansen certainly advocates action to lessen the impact of climate change. But he does so from the solid base of a distinguished scientific record which he has continued to build along with the advocacy role he has increasingly assumed in the later years of his career. Nor did he rush into an activist role. It was only after he became a grandparent and realised that the issue was mired in denial in the political world that he took up a public role of advocacy.

I have come to value such scientists as Hansen highly. I became deeply alarmed by the climate change issue six or seven years ago, all the more because the media, the world of government and the public at large seemed in denial that there was much to be concerned about. I wrote columns for my region’s newspaper for some time, trying to communicate some of the scientific findings I was reading about, but the arrangement was discontinued because of editorial anxieties about “balance”. In the apathy and ignorance which has long seemed the dominant public mood it has been important that at least some clearly well-qualified scientists have been prepared to voice publicly the alarm they feel at society’s failure to move away from fossil fuels to the abundant sources of clean energy. Who is better placed to communicate the message of innumerable peer-reviewed studies or the massive summaries of the IPCC? Certainly not retired English teachers like me.

I acknowledge the claims that the political world where policy is formulated has more to take into account than the scientific facts of the matter alone. But the voice of alarmed science needs to be heard as part of the mix with which policy makers are concerned. Otherwise it’s all too easy for governments like our own to settle for the gradual emergence of new energy sources while remaining determined to extract wealth from what remains of fossil fuels. Someone has to say that slow gradualism will not work, that the remaining fossil fuel reserves cannot all be burned without causing profound damage to the climate and the ecology on which human society relies.

Too emotive?  Overdosed on alarmism? Not at all. It’s the blunt reality of the science and it would be odd if scientists held back from saying so out of some anxiety that they might be thought to be compromising their science by their advocacy. One can be both knowledge broker and advocate. The two are not necessarily at variance. I can understand the PM’s science adviser avoiding advocacy in his report, but cannot agree with his judgment that that’s what climate scientists should generally be doing.

15 thoughts on “Gluckman gets it wrong: being alarmed is not alarmist”

  1. Gareth adds: Gluckman signed up to Roger Pielke Jnr’s “honest broker” framing of science communication a couple of years ago (see here), and appears to equate “value-free” and “evidence-based” as meaning he has to downplay in his advice to the PM the alarm he personally feels, or has communicated to him. That, to me, is to betray the evidence he so assiduously seeks and presents…

    1. Not sure this is quite right. Roger has a handy little flowchart somewhere in The HB which is useful. I don’t have it to hand, but the key determinant as to whether someone is being an Honest Broker or an issue advocate is whether they’re restricting the range of policy options based on things other than science. So if the policy maker has set a goal of 2C, say, then saying “cumulative emissions of CO2 need to be below about 0.5TtC from here on in” is reasonable. But saying “global capitalism needs to stop” or “New Zealand must lead the way” or “the rich world should make deeper cuts than the rest of the world” would not pass muster since they turn on other, non-science beliefs. I think that’s the sort of thing Gluckman is getting at.

      1. I think you mean knowledge broker.

        With regard advocacy, I understood Gluckman as referring to advocacy with respect to mitigation, which is a political issue. However, I don’t see why strongly recommending mitigation should be frowned upon as too hot a political potato.

          1. The honest broker has certainly his place when alternatives are available that are acceptable trajectories towards a future we can live with with none of them suicidal. The honest broker can then mitigate consequences and make a deal that hopefully sorts out the best of the alternatives as a compromise to all interests of stakeholders.
            With AGW we are not quite at that junction: Our situation currently is that we only talk about wishing to limit warming to 2Deg while actually emissions are rising and the hope for any chance to stay below 2C is receding rapidly. To make an analogy: We are not saving the ‘ship from sinking’ at the moment, so ‘honest brokering’ about who gets which cabin is rather pointless. We still need to drive awareness and readiness of the population to effectively engage with the process of ‘saving the ship’ as many still believe its floating all right, that AGW will not be so bad and that consequences will be centuries in the future and thus could be conveniently laid at the doorstep of our descendants while we carry on burning their inheritance…
            Honest brokering with AGW denialists is equivalent with honest brokering with creationists in their attempt to relegate evolution to just one theory with creationism just another…
            Lets put our trajectory on a ‘we are saving the planet’ direction first, then we can broker to share the burden effectively and equitably.

      2. I understand that Dave – and we know that the almost every nation has agreed that staying below 2 Degrees C above pre-industrial levels is the goal. We also have the fact that CO2 is now nudging around 400ppm and there is no sign of it lessening indeed humanity is continuing to emit around 30 giga tonnes per year predominantly for a consumption based economy in the western world. It is but a small step from -” we have at most 17 years before we reach 450 ppm at our present rate of emissions” to “Hey people! We have to slow down our emissions and we have to do it now or we are going to miss our goal of staying below 2 Degrees warming” It is obvious that we need to re-think our economies in the western world and to rethink them fast! For they are not serving us well at present.

      3. Thing is, Gluckman said “cause for concern“. This is giving an opinion, it it not? So it’s not an “alarmed opinion” but it’s an opinion and expressing emotion, nevertheless.

        While “concern” is not “alarm” it’s still an opinion. And, indeed, still an emotion. So why say it at all?

        I listened to this interview shouting at the radio. Particularly this bit. Glad you wrote it Bryan.

  2. The message about climate change is beyond urgent and should be screamed from the rooftops!
    If scientists don’t show urgency, then the general public will continue to treat this as ‘just another theory’.

  3. Even if the PM’s science adviser has to appear neutral he could at least point to the conclusions that other research reaches on farming and fishing for instances. Just to point people in the right direction for when they have to make up their own minds.

  4. I don’t think it’s unethical for a scientist to warn of the danger towards which we’re headed as a consequence of extrapolating from the results of his/her work. The distinction that should be drawn is when the scientists goes further than flagging up the danger and starts to advocate specific solutions.

    In other words it’s fine to warn of, say, such things as flooding, water shortages, higher temperatures or species loss (with appropriate levels of alarm): but it’s best to leave decisions about the ways to tackle these issues to politicians.

    So unless a scientist is also a policy expert it would be best to avoid proposing carbon taxes or specific alternative energy sources, for instance. To do so would be advocacy and might reduce the credibility of his work, in that he/she could be accused of having an agenda.

    Of course we non-scientists are free to say what we damn well like.

  5. This part of the interview is interesting:

    “… unless there’s some sort of political miracle we’re going to be looking at an average temperature increase of somewhere between 3.6 and 5.3 degrees centigrade over this century. This is rather more than cause for concern I would have thought. It’s going to be a catastrophe.”

    Gluckman: “I would agree personally.”

    Reading the document, Gluckman says:

    “A recent International Energy Agency report, highlighted that if current trajectories of emissions continue, the average temperature increase by 2100 is more likely to be between 3.6°C and 5.3°C (compared with pre-industrial levels).”
    “Given the uncertain success of mitigation initiatives (which must be
    considered at the global level), there is therefore now a greater need to understand the consequences of climate change in excess of 2°C.”

    So I think its fair to say that our chief science adviser is saying that the likely outcome is going to be ‘catastrophic’. But why ‘personally’? Isnt that his professional conclusion?

    I suspect he thinks that the word ‘catastrophe’ is alarmist and prefers the more neutral phrase ‘understand the consequences’. In that, I think he is making a political calculation that if he laid out the full consequences, including a blunt statement that worldwide food shortages, floods, famines etc are ‘likely’ on a science / risk analysis basis, this would ‘turn off’ politicians and people from his message.

    In that he is being political and I think quite wrong. His miscalculation has real world consequences. Our Ministries of Business, Innovation and Employment and Foreign Affairs should be working overtime on plans for dealing with a 3.6 to 5.3 degree world, publishing those studies, and inviting comment, including whether greater advocacy for mitigation might be useful. But they are not, because the now ‘likely’ 3.6 to 5.3 degree world dare not speak its name, but only be vaguely referred to. Gluckman’s political calculation enables this.

    He also enables another outcome. Internationally, we know that the 3.6 to 5.3 degree world is actively discussed in one area of government. That is, within the confines of the defence establishment, where emergency plans are developed to save the populace from themselves and foreign enemies. This policy imbalance is very dangerous to the future functioning of civil society.

    1. The ‘political dance’ around the issue must end. We need to take the possibility of an apocalyptic outcome seriously and must debated it openly in order to come to a sensible urgency in developing and moving on a “plan b” that might just avert the worst.

      At the moment too many people simply do not take the matter of AGW (and in fact the whole matter of the sustainability of our consumer society) serious enough to be awoken out of their various states of complicity, denial, complacency or fatalism towards it all.

      I recommend perhaps a book by Robert Jensen: “We are all apocalyptic now: On the responsibilities of teaching, preaching, reporting, writing and speaking out” (Amazon, $5.95 Kindle edition)

      1. To quote Jensen from his book:

        Given the severity of the human assault on the ecosphere, compounded by the suffering and strife within the human family, honest apocalyptic thinking that is firmly grounded in a systematic evaluation of the state of the world is not only sensible but a moral obligation.

        Jensen, Robert (2013-02-03). We Are All Apocalyptic Now (p. 9). . Kindle Edition.

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