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Let’s improve not just the climate, but the debating climate

Roger Pielke is a moderate global warming sceptic who has been badly treated by the mainstream media. He claims he is right about the science. So why can't we move beyond all this name-calling?

I do think the new populism (UKIP, etc) is a breath of fresh air. I’m sure they enjoy twitting the confident statements and shibboleths of the elite establishment, this strange alliance between the left liberal cultural sector and corporate interests. Between the Emperor in his new clothes and the little boy, I’m on the side of the little boy even – perhaps especially  when he has bad manners.

But one thing that dismays me is this blanket support among the populists for the idea that global warming is some kind of hoax imposed by the European Union. It’s the fact that it seems such a common view. Which suggests that the anti-elitists have some shibboleths of their own; that the idea isn’t examined on its scientific merits; rather they believe it is a hoax because everyone in their crowd also believes it. Group-think is always bad.

Not that the other side, the “warmists” (horrible phrase), get everything right.  Not at all.  In fact they are often bullies.

Let’s look at the example of Roger Pielke. He is a professor at the University of Colorado and has been very active in the global warming debate. He doesn’t deny it. Let us be absolutely clear about that. He thinks global warming takes place, that it’s worrying and that we need a carbon tax to fight it. What he does think is that some of the arguments surrounding global warming claims have been exaggerated and don’t actually correspond to the truth. For that he has ended up in endless trouble, from politically correct journalists and politicians alike  even when he demonstrates that he is right. It seems that complex arguments are just too much for some people.

His crime seems to be that he takes a nuanced view of global warming and has a past of embarrassing powerful people. He disbelieves the oft stated claim that climate change leads to worse and more dramatic weather: more violent hurricanes, bigger storms. In the 2007 IPCC (International Panel on Climate Change) report he questioned a graph that was later revealed to have been based on invented information from a scientist working for the insurance industry. Obviously there was a conflict of interest here! He called out the error and was told that the misleading graph was included because the scientist working for the insurance industry expected future research to show that the relationship he had already claimed was true would pan out. So that was all right then…

But even though the IPCC later aligned itself with Pielke’s position, the damage had been done. The media have picked up the claim and I’m sure if you ask the educated man on the street he is likely to say that global warming increases the severity of storms. Every journalist knows that retractions mostly fail to reverse the original damage. Once an idea is lodged in the public’s mind it is hard to dislodge.

In a recent blog post Pielke detailed his poor relationship with the mainstream media. He is wont to  point out that economic growth in the past decade has been faster than the damage caused by global warming. His work has also concluded – in line with the latest work of the IPCC – that there is no overall increasing trend, globally, in hurricanes, droughts, tornadoes or floods. That ought to be an issue that can be done debated on its merits. It’s actually good news!

Instead mainstream journalists mischaracterise his research and paint him in a cartoonish way as the big bad global warming sceptic. When, in his scientific manner, he politely asks them to justify their sweeping statements they do things like block him on Twitter or complain to his employers, which has resulted in him being fired from the major news website he was contracted to and which gave him a wide audience. It’s a nasty whiff of the Stalinism of which the biens pensant media elite are capable. And charitably it’s that sort of behaviour that the new right-wing, global warming sceptic populists assisted by the internet – which subvert the power of big organisations and the mainstream media – want to fight back against.

But even the populists have to learn to be nuanced in their understanding of global warming. How about this as a kind of approach that will bring the two sides together?

Yes, global warming is happening, it is potentially very worrying but it is also true that the issue attracts a variety of interests which seek to impose their own narrative on the issue in order to benefit. Bureaucrats yes – but also, on the other side, the fossil fuel industry.

Good policy-making which can attract the support of the maximum number of people needs above all a reliable basis of information. So, how can a society create the conditions under which such an intelligent debate flourishes? Is our mainstream media, hit by cuts, the right platform to debate the important scientific and technological issues that will determine the planet’s future? Especially as some of them seem so jumped up about their status and role as gatekeepers? But how can the blogs that are informed ever be interesting and generalist enough to attract the general reader, exhausted after a day’s work?

It is a bind. Here is another thought. If complexity is inherently undemocratic – because people have busy lives – do you give up democracy for the technocratic construction that is the European Union for instance, which in my view is not always the bogeyman so many think it is?

Or do you try to tell a story in a simple way that avoids distortion in order to get the attention of the public? But not all complexity is reducible to very simple narratives that the lowest common denominator of the general public can take the time to understand. Technocratic rule with its taint of illegitimacy or the distortions that come with democracy, which is it to be?

What is unsatisfactory, anyhow, is the current situation: the public rely on the media, especially the broadcast media that reaches the large masses, whose implicit editorialising – with sceptics the designated villains – has created a backlash, which we see now that UKIP and all those voters who think global warming is a total hoax. Global warming is not a hoax, but many of the consequences may have been exaggerated – at least, the question of whether they are or not ought to be up for rational discussion. So let us have some more appreciation for shades of grey.

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