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Scientists fear ridicule on climate change

We must be candid, demands Kevin Anderson.


September 2013 saw the publication of the fifth scientific assessment in twenty-three years from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the IPCC). Its blunt message is as evident as in the first report in 1990 – almost a quarter of century ago.

Since the fourth report in 2007, we have pumped an additional 200 thousand million tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere, with annual emissions now 60 per cent higher than in 1990. Atmospheric CO2 levels have touched the symbolic 400ppmv (parts per million by volume) – a level not recorded for at least 800,000 years (three times longer than we have been on the planet).

No other realm of science has undergone the painstaking levels of scrutiny to which climate science has been subject – and rightly so. The consequences for humanity, either in terms of radically reducing emissions or in adapting to unchecked climate change are profound, so getting the science right is essential.

The baton is now firmly in the hands of politicians, business leaders, engineers and wider civil society. Surely, if anything, the IPCC’s latest report must be a call to arms?

Government’s record

Turning to theUKand the climate change aspirations of the current government; what policies are the self-proclaimed ‘greenest government ever’ adopting to reverse the reckless growth in emissions?

They have overseen record levels of investment in North Sea oil, offered tax breaks for shale gas (another high-carbon energy source), and are promoting UK interests in both oil from tar sands and companies preparing to drill beneath the Arctic.

Against this backdrop, the Treasury is pushing for over thirty new gas-fired power stations, whilst the government supports further airport expansion and has dropped its 2030 decarbonisation target – all this alongside beleaguered plans for a few wind farms and weak energy efficiency measures.

Where’s the indignation?

So what happened to the model of peer-reviewed science informing evidence-based policy? Where is the vociferous indignation of those scientists who have committed their working lives to understanding climate change?

As it stands, policy makers are either running scared of the perceived wrath of the electorate or are choosing to listen to the sceptics’ appealing messages of inaction rather than responding to the implications of the science. Similarly, business leaders fear both the ire of their shareholders and the unchecked forces of competition destroying any firm daring to go beyond incremental change.

Scientists’ platitudes

As for the scientists, certainly there are a few brave heads raised above the parapet, candidly translating their analysis into the everyday language of politics and lifestyles. But most of us are remiss in this respect.

Whilst over post-conference dinner drinks the atmosphere is of resigned melancholy, put us anywhere near a minister, CEO or journalist’s microphone and we’ll typically mutter platitudes of technological optimism and green growth.

Fear of ostracism 

More disturbing still, even in our own academic domain, we seldom dare commit such thoughts to paper for fear of ridicule by our peers and ostracism by the increasingly co-opted paymasters of university research.

As the religious doctrine of the Catholic Church impeded the progress of heliocentrism, so the competitive market dogma of contemporary politics constrains the free expression of academics today.

Ultimately no single organisation, group or individual is to blame for our collective lethargy in responding to climate change. A quarter of a century ago, it was the research of diligent scientists that gave us early warning of the scale of the challenge.  Now, it is scientists’ timidity to be candid about the profound political repercussions of their analysis that unwittingly supports the tragedy of the commons that is climate change today.

Kevin Anderson
Professor Kevin Anderson is Deputy Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of Manchester
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