Science exists to unravel the mysteries of the universe. It establishes basic principles and goes on to tackle the areas of uncertainty around them.
John Mason of Skeptical Science writes...
Thus we know that certain substances can cause cancer but we're still busy trying to find out exactly how that happens. In terms of the relationship between greenhouse gases and temperature, the road of discovery began in 1824 with the research of Jean Baptiste Joseph Fourier: whilst the basic tenet of the theory of greenhouse gases and climate change was by the 1970s established science, the uncertainties – such as the overall effect of feedbacks – still remain as areas of important research. The overall question is a simple one: if we carry on burning the fossil fuels at this rate, how bad are things going to become?
Timeline of major events in the history of climate science, 1820 to present. Graphic: JG/Skeptical Science
The recent release of the IPCC's Working Group One Summary for Policymakers brought this question to the forefront in the media. To those of us working in the climate change scene, who have read the research over the years, it brought no surprises at all. This is a dangerous game we're playing with our only home. We are subjecting it to an unprecedented geophysical experiment which, if it goes badly wrong, leaves us looking for a spare Earth where none exists. We have already recreated the atmosphere of the Pliocene, a period of geological time before the glacial-interglacial fluctuations of the Quaternary commenced some 2.55 million years ago. Then, boreal forests grew in what is now frozen tundra in Arctic Russia. An Earth with more than 400ppm carbon dioxide in its atmosphere is clearly rather different to the one we are familiar with today: what will things be like when the system comes to equilibrium?
Having spent a lot of time discussing climate change on forums over the years, the political opposition to climate science no longer comes as a surprise. The anti-science arguments were (and still are) endless and circular in nature: the experience is generally deeply frustrating. You carefully debunk point after nonsensical point only for your adversary to come back with, “but in the 1970s they told us there would be an ice-age”. Deep scientific understanding is not necessary if you wish to pour scorn on the science: all you need, it seems, is the ability to repeat stuff! The folk who daily defend such anti-science attacks in the comment-threads at the Guardian and elsewhere deserve a medal for their dogged tenacity. My path took me from there in 2011 to join the international team that runs the award-winning Skeptical Science website. It felt like a better use of my time.
Fast-forward to early autumn 2013 and the forthcoming IPCC report and we noticed something stirring. Astroturfers started to appear in force. How do you spot that? Well, say at the Guardian, there are regular diehards who are familiar adversaries. But all of a sudden, a host of new usernames appear and literally carpet-bomb climate-related discussions with seemingly random anti-science myths. Astroturfers – the name comes from the observation that they appear to be grassroots campaigners but are really fakes – are essentially lobbyists deployed to bombard discussions with propaganda. The technique is used in many strands of political debate.
Next, a series of wildly inaccurate climate-related stories started to crop up in right-wing newpapers: in the UK, the Daily Mail led the charge. I had the dubious pleasure of dealing with one such Mail article that made all sorts of ridiculous claims, many of which have since been retracted and one of which prompted the IPCC to issue a press-release in rebuttal. But sometimes it really does feel that you're in a David vs Goliath situation. My piece, as of this morning, has seen 10,600 pageviews. The mail's readership is in the millions.
But then again, we are realistic about this. As a voluntary group, we face a determined political opposition not short on resources. This is not a sprint – it is a marathon and if you are going to oppose climate change denial, you need to be in it for the long game. Our task is to support the science and help with its accurate interpretation in a way that can be transparently fact-checked by the discerning reader.
What is it like, dealing on a daily basis with the looming spectre of rapid and disastrous environmental change? I suspect it's like working in medicine – seeing ill people all the time and knowing that one day you will cop it from one of those illnesses. Handling that requires a coping-mechanism – a form of detachment. Avoiding burn-out (you get to know the signs) is another issue. Researching and writing a Skeptical Science post can take many hours of hard work – there are papers to read, scientists to question, facts to double-check and editing to do after comments (we run a strict internal peer-review system).
When burn-out threatens, take time out to appreciate the sheer beauty of what you are fighting to keep. It works! Photo: author.
The important thing is that you do what you can in the time available. I don't have kids myself, and in my darker moments I am sometimes glad of that, but many of my friends do: I guess I am doing it for them. What makes current generations, I ask myself, think that they are entitled, in a hyperconsumerist binge, to squander the planet's natural resources and leave behind, for those who come after, a depleted, polluted mess with a destabilised climate? I know most people are not intrinsically evil and would not consciously want that: it therefore falls on us climate change communicators to explain what the science says and why we need to change for the better.