Who you gonna believe – Rush Limbaugh or Al Gore?

By Brent Fewell

I’ve heard from some who have grown weary of my covering climate change here – and I must confess that I too grow weary of the topic.  This blog was never intended to focus on a singular topic, but because of how central climate change has become to so much of the policy and political debate on energy and natural resource management, it simply cannot be ignored.  So I ask for your indulgence for this, and possibly a few more posts in the weeks to come.

Because of all the climate change “noise” from competing views, it is extremely difficult for anyone to decipher fact from fiction.  And what one believes on the issue can probably be distilled into one word “trust.”   Who you gonna believe, Rush Limbaugh or Al Gore?   Who you trust on this matter, what scientific or political figures you believe will steer you right, probably aligns well with your current position and views on the topic. 

As reported, there are many who still don’t believe in manmade climate change, and those so-called deniers are largely politically conservative or libertarian – most of whom make their voting home within the GOP.

I have long argued that scientists who have crossed into the world of climate advocacy have done a great disservice to themselves, their profession, and the public.  And finally, yes finally, we have a mainstream climate scientist, Dr. Tamsin Edwards, who agrees and who is cautioning other climate scientists against the perils of advocacy.  Edwards opines,

As a climate scientist, I’m under pressure to be a political advocate. This comes mainly from environmentalists. Dan Cass, wind-farm director and solar advocate, preferred me not to waste my time debating “denialist morons” but to use political advocacy to “prevent climate catastrophe”.

Jeremy Grantham, environmental philanthropist, urged climate scientists to sound a “more desperate note … Be arrested if necessary.” A concerned member of the public judged my efforts at public engagement successful only if they showed “evidence of persuasion”.

Others ask “what should we do?” At my Cheltenham Science Festival event Can we trust climate models?  One of the audience asked what we thought of carbon taxes. I refused to answer, despite the chair’s repeated requests and joke (patronisingly; his aim was to entertain) that I “shouldn’t be embarrassed at my lack of knowledge”.

Even some of my colleagues think I should be clearer about my political beliefs.  In a Twitter debate last month Gavin Schmidt, climate scientist and blogger, argued we should state our preferences to avoid accusations of having a hidden agenda.

I believe advocacy by climate scientists has damaged trust in the science. We risk our credibility, our reputation for objectivity, if we are not absolutely neutral. At the very least, it leaves us open to criticism. I find much climate scepticism is driven by a belief that environmental activism has influenced how scientists gather and interpret evidence. So I’ve found my hardline approach successful in taking the politics and therefore – pun intended – the heat out of climate science discussions.

They call me an “honest broker“, asking for “more Dr Edwards and fewer zealous advocates“. Crucially, they say this even though my scientific views are absolutely mainstream.

Edwards continues,

I became a climate scientist because I’ve always cared about the environment, since a vivid school talk about the ozone layer (here, page 4) and the influence of my brother, who was green long before it was cool. But I care more about restoring trust in science than about calling people to action; more about improving public understanding of science so society can make better-informed decisions, than about making people’s decisions for them. Science doesn’t tell us the answer to our problems. Neither should scientists.

The significance of this message by one mainstream climate scientist should not be overlooked.   This type of honesty – even if there is still honest disagreement – has the potential to breakthrough and begin melting the icebergs of many so-called “deniers.”  Dan Kahan of Yale Law, whose work I greatly respect, recently participated on a panel with Dr. Edwards, and disagrees with Edwards’ view.  Kahan thinks that the public does, in fact, trust scientists and that opposing cultural groups are simply misconstruing what the scientists are saying.  I could be wrong, but Kahan doesn’t strike me as a political conservative – and so he probably doesn’t hang out with too many of my cultural kind.  So, I’d like to let Kahan in on a little known secret on how we conservatives think and behave.  Most of us don’t trust mainstream climate scientists, because they have so polluted the science and discussion by their advocacy.  So even when AR5 is finalized and released next month and makes the scientific case, more persuasively than ever before, that manmade climate change is occurring, I predict there won’t be much movement in the public polling needle – at least not from my cultural peeps.  What’s needed for a serious dialogue is for more mainstream scientists with the courage and perspective of Dr. Edwards who understand that objective science must do the talking and persuading on its own accord.  And more scientists should refrain from entering the shadowy world of advocating certain policy outcomes.  When that happens, I’m confident more people – yes, deniers are people too – will begin to open their ears to the consensus science.

Thank you, thank you, Dr. Edwards, for breaking the ice.