Sunday, July 17, 2005

Scientists, responsibility, open societies

All credit to Mark Lynas for confidence, resourcefulness, determination and good intentions; but not always for careful thought.

For example, Mark's 25 June opinion piece telling scientists to "Get off the fence over global warming" is misconstrued.

I wrote a rather too quick response on the day of publication. New Scientist did not print it, but did publish a sensible response from Mike Hume.

Dr Hume's response is attached as comment 1. Mine as comment 2.


Caspar Henderson said...

From Mike Hulme, Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, Norwich, UK

16 July

Mark Lynas has an interesting view of climate scientists and their role in public policy debate on climate change (25 June, p 25). He claims that we are not fulfilling our "moral responsibility" to help solve climate change, and that we are being intimidated into silence.

Far from it. It was climate scientists who first brought the issue into the public arena. It is scientists who continue to make progress in defining exactly what risks society is facing through our reliance on a carbon energy economy. It is scientists who have opened up a range of new low-carbon energy technologies. It is scientists (environmental economists in fact) who have drawn attention to the value of stabilising climate.

But you are living in the wrong century if you think it is scientists who can tell society or politicians what the appropriate solutions and policies must be. And the "philosopher king" model of governance went out of fashion more than two millennia ago.

It is as though Lynas, and some other frantic environmentalists, having in turn blamed George Bush, the UK government, the multinational corporations and the recalcitrant public for lack of appropriate response to climate change, have now turned on climate scientists and made them the scapegoat for behavioural, social and political inertia.

Caspar Henderson said...

Caspar Henderson, Oxford, 25 June

Dear Sir

Mary Lynas misdiagnoses the problem and the solution when he writes that scientists have been intimidated into polite silence about climate change.

First, the problem: scientists have not been silent on this issue. As Mark Lynas concedes, distinguished scientists including Robert May and John Houghton have spoken out. And there are many more - both in Britain and elsewhere - among them the UK government's chief scientific advisor Prof Sir David King who has emphatically and repeatedly stated that climate change presents one of the greatest dangers the world faces. A long list of examples would show a scientific community very far from intimidated.

Second, the solution: Mark Lynas seems to suggest that uncertainty needs to be purged from political discourse around the topic. This shows little faith in the ability of citizens and politicians in an open society to learn and develop. Scientists can and do show leadership when they communicate both the complexity and gravity of the climate change issue. But they alone should not tell others what to do.

The solution - if there is to be one - requires input from many actors including elected politicians, economists, first rate communicators and others.

Caspar Henderson edited's debate on the politics of climate change