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Mike Hulme: Has Climategate Been A Good Thing?

Judith Curry, Climate Etc.

Mike Hulme has posted an insightful essay entitled ‘After Climategate . . . Never the Same’, which is a chapter from his forthcoming book ‘Exploring climate change through science and society: an anthology of Mike Hulme’s essays, interviews and speeches.’  Excerpts:

One of the consequences of a public science controversy is to unsettle previously held convictions and certainties, beliefs which had been assumed but perhaps unexamined for some time.  Assumed truths and certainties were being questioned. The UK environmentalist columnist George Monbiot was an example of a high profile public commentator whose beliefs were clearly challenged by the emails and subsequent allegations. “No one has been as badly let down by the revelations in these emails as those of us who have championed the science”, Monbiot wrote the week following: “I have seldom felt so alone.”

To claim, “I am a scientist, trust me” is no longer sufficient, even if it ever once was. For scientific knowledge to earn credibility as public knowledge scientists have to work as hard outside the laboratory as they do inside, through repeated demonstrations of their integrity, accessibility and trustworthiness. Only then will they be judged as reliable witnesses and their knowledge deemed credible. This is not easy to do, as the events surrounding Climategate showed.

One of the interesting responses from the academic community since Climategate has been a new interest in studying and understanding the various manifestations of climate change scepticism. The populist notion that all climate sceptics are either in the pay of oil barons or are right-wing ideologues, as is suggested for example by studies such as Oreskes and Conway (2011), cannot be sustained.

There are many different reasons why citizens may be sceptical of aspects of climate science, certainly why they may be sceptical of knowledge claims which get exaggerated by media and lobbyists. This may be because of innate suspicion of ‘big science’ (which climate science has become, with powerful patrons in government and UN and international institutions) or because of a commitment to forms of data and knowledge libertarianism, as in the Wikileaks movement. Some of the individuals who pursued CRU scientists for access to data in the months leading up to Climategate may be seen in this light; they had no connections with the oil industry or conservative think-tanks. Other expressions of scepticism may result from issue fatigue, cynicism about a media who seek to sensationalise  or the experience of cognitive dissonance.

But beyond these reasons for climate change scepticism, in the years following Climategate it has become more important to distinguish between at least four different aspects of the conventional climate change narrative where scepticism may emerge. Trend scepticism would be disbelieving of evidence that suggested a change in climate was occurring, whereas attribution scepticism would be doubtful that such trends were predominantly caused by human agency. Impact scepticism would question whether the melodrama of the discourse of future climate catastrophe is credible and policy scepticism would query dominant climate change policy frameworks and instruments. When this more nuanced analysis of climate change scepticism is combined with a valorisation of the scientific norm of scepticism and the democratic virtue of scrutinising and interrogating vested interests, there becomes room for more respectful arguments about what climate change signifies and what responses may be appropriate. My contention is that the events surrounding Climategate in late 2009 have opened up new spaces for such agonistic democratic virtues to be exercised. 

Scientific controversies not only reveal intellectual arguments, struggles for power and human limitations within the practices and institutions of science, they also reflect the dynamics of these exact same phenomena in the wider culture within which science takes place. And they also nearly always lead to changes in the way in which science is done as it seeks to retain its cultural authority. And science controversies often become the necessary disturbances to provoke adjustment and innovation; the genetic mutations upon which processes of natural selection can operate.

 Climate scientists, their institutions and their sponsors – i.e., climate science as an enterprise – were forced to stop and reflect on how they organised their interactions with the outside world, from data policies to language, modes of communication and forms of public engagement. The unthinking assumption that having gained broad public trust (after all the IPCC had been awarded a Nobel Prize!) this would automatically be retained, was sharply challenged. And more widely, outside science, there have been adjustments in media reporting of climate change and in the entrainment of climate science in policy deliberations, and a greater boldness from critics to challenge scientific claims and practices.

 JC comments:  Mike Hulme describes the lessons that we should have learned from Climategate, and it seems that many in the UK  have learned these lessons.  I am not at all sure that the IPCC has learned many (or even any) of these lessons, and in the U.S. I don’t see much evidence of scientists having learned anything at all.

Hulme correctly describes a range of reasons for being skeptical about climate change, and identifies four different aspects around which skepticism can emerge.  In the U.S. anyway, the Oreskes’ merchant of doubt meme seems to remain predominant. Intolerance for skepticism and overconfidence remains the order of the as evidenced by the recent AGU Statement on Climate Change.  The U.S. media seems to be rather ignoring the climate change issue, with the most significant articles coming from the UK.

Finally, is it possible for a Tamsin Edwards to emerge in the U.S.?  I suspect not; even senior scientists are intimidated by the ‘consensus police’ and don’t want to be subjected to what I have had to put up with (a number of scientists have told me this).

Here’s hoping that progress can continue to be made, and eventually that things will never be the same.

Climate Etc, 8 August 2013