If the scientific evidence for man-made global warming is so compelling, why do so many people still have their doubts?
Why do politicians and the media often discuss global warming with such certainty, ignoring the scientists’ carefully worded caveats? And how much harder will it be to persuade the sceptics after the uproar over whether scientists exaggerated unreliable evidence or colluded to withhold information to strengthen their case?
Those tricky questions were raised at a sometimes fractious news conference in London to discuss the future of climate science.
Three leading British scientists told reporters the science behind anthropogenic global warming was “overwhelming”, but admitted they are struggling to get their message across to a sometimes doubtful public.
“We have a very confused public out there about climate change and science,” said Julia Slingo, chief scientist at the Met Office. “We’ve got a real issue about communicating science in a very clear way that different levels of the public can understand. ”
The problem, the panel suggested, lies not in the raw data but in how the information becomes garbled between the researchers and the public.
The executive summaries of lengthy scientific reports that are presented to politicians tend to iron out the experts’ nuances and uncertainties. Media reports can then further simplify and exaggerate the evidence, the panel said.
“Uncertainty tends to get lost in the headline,” said Professor Sir Brian Hoskins, Director, Grantham Institute for Climate Change, Imperial College London.
Confusion over the difference between long-term climate patterns and short-term weather has further muddied the waters, they said. If parts of the world had a particularly cold winter or a rainy summer, why should anyone believe the evidence behind manmade global warming, doubters ask.
That sort of confusion can only be addressed by getting basic scientific messages across to the public more clearly, Slingo added.
“(We must) expose the fundamental science behind climate change, which is very robust actually,” she said.
The scientists said they must also regain the public’s trust after damaging headlines about hacked emails from the University of East Anglia’s climate research unit and the reliability of evidence used by the United Nation’s climate change body in its key report on the topic.
Hoskins said the IPCC’s mistaken claim that the Himalayan glaciers could disappear by 2035 should not be allowed to undermine the rest of the U.N. panel’s work or the broader evidence for climate change.
“Just because you have a miscarriage of justice, it doesn’t mean you throw away the whole legal system,” Hoskins told the briefing at the Science Media Centre, part of the historic Royal Institution, the world’s oldest independent research body.
The questions grew tougher when none of the panel members agreed to discuss the leaked email row, dubbed “Climategate”. One reporter from a national newspaper said the scientists had failed to explain why internet forums are full of people who just don’t believe the science behind manmade global warming. “Call me naïve, but I came here today expecting a confident fightback from climate science and I haven’t heard that,” the reporter said. “You are not addressing head on and robustly the issue of perception in the way you need to do.”
The panellists refused to budge, however. They would not talk about the leaked emails until an inquiry reports its findings.
They also refused to say if the IPCC head Rajendra Pachauri should resign over the glacier claim.
They wanted to stick firmly to the science and said they would always be willing to examine any credible evidence from climate change sceptics.
“I’m sorry if you feel it is not adequate, but it is where the scientific community has to be. We just simply have to do the research and bring the scientific evidence to the table,” said Professor Alan Thorpe, a climate scientist who is also chief executive of the Natural Environment Research Council.