Last month, Chris Wells and Kelvin Choi, Research Postgraduates on the Science and Solutions for a Changing Planet DTP, appeared on a panel debate opposite climate sceptics Piers Corbyn and Dr Benny Pieser. Here they share their experiences and suggest some approaches scientists can take when engaging with avid climate deniers.
Last month, we were invited last minute to join a panel debate on climate change at UCL. The title of the discussion was broad: “Are Humans Responsible for Climate Change?”. It was hosted by the UCL Life Ethics Society, and the pre-written questions were primarily focused on the ethical side of the issue, portraying the scientific consensus on the physical and scientific aspects as given.
However, when we read the names of the other members of the panel, we realised that the discussion would not take the physics for granted. One of the panelists was Mr Piers Corbyn, who graduated from Imperial College London with a first class BSc degree in Physics in 1968. A notorious climate change denier and brother of the current leader of the Labour Party, he believes, among other things, that a war on termites would be more worthwhile for lowering carbon dioxide levels than curbing anthropogenic emissions. The other was Dr Benny Peiser, a doctor in social anthropology and director of the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF), a think tank founded by the former Chancellor of the Exchequer Lord Lawson whose funding is anonymous, but has been indirectly linked to fossil fuel companies.
We knew we were allotted five minutes at the start of the event to lay out our position, and realised the importance of this opportunity: we could pre-empt some arguments typical of the debate by addressing them upfront, so as to lay the groundwork for a constructive discussion thereafter. We decided on two key concepts we wanted to outline and emphasise: Kelvin would address the basic physics of global warming, from the solar shortwave emission to the Earth’s longwave, and the relevant properties of the atmosphere behind the greenhouse effect. Then Chris would introduce the idea of how to treat uncertainty about outcomes and the approach to risk, especially in climate modelling, and explain how “not knowing everything” is not the same as “knowing nothing“.
Arriving at UCL clutching printed graphs à la Brian Cox, we shook hands with Piers and Benny and, before we knew it, the discussion had begun. Our introductory presentation went as well as we hoped, and the audience seemed receptive to our arguments. The other panellists, however, were a different story.
Piers: The Extremist Position
Piers accepted neither of our presentations; he posited that the concentration of carbon dioxide has no impact on the atmosphere’s temperature, and that the causality is actually reversed. He also repeatedly affirmed that the entire IPCC is part of a grand conspiracy of some kind, and that scientists are continually manipulating the climate record to manufacture a rising temperature trend. In reality, of course, this is part of a rigorous and peer-reviewed process of data calibration and reprocessing.
Piers was hard to hold a discussion with. The conversation veered wildly from topic to topic, becoming openly confrontational at times. This seemed to be his tactic: to make multiple points which would each take some time to unpack, making it impossible to address them all. We dealt with this by focusing on just one or two of the more outlandish statements, always trying to bring them back to the framework we set out at the start.
Benny: The “Middle Ground” Position
Benny was calmer, and more consistent, focusing on the details of the climate model process we were defending. In many ways, this made the dialogue more technical and tougher to deal with – as we expected, a panel discussion is not the optimal format to have such an in-depth analysis. Benny accepted the fundamental physics behind global warming as set out by Kelvin, but was much less receptive to Chris’ explanation of uncertainty, questioning the validity of the models and the extent of human influence.
This position can be posited as the reasonable, compromising stance, but the “middle ground” it occupies is between solid, peer-reviewed science, and anti-science falsehoods. The scientific consensus agrees not only that the Earth is warming, but that the cause is overwhelmingly caused by anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases such as fossil fuel burning. The science behind attribution may be more complex than the physics of warming, but the fact that humans are responsible has huge implications for the solutions to the problem; therefore, it is important that the consensus on both parts be accepted and understood.
The Participation Dilemma
After the debate, we asked ourselves: is there a limit to the worth of a debate with these avid climate change deniers? The right to free speech is universal, but creating a false balance is not a necessity – by taking part this debate, were we legitimising the false binary associated with it? The BBC has been rebuked by Ofcom for doing just that by hosting Lord Lawson of the GWPF to openly deny climate change with hardly any challenge from the interviewer. We knew before the debate took place that it was doubtful the discussion would move on from the basic physics, and a panel discussion is hardly the appropriate context for such a complex, data-driven subject in the first place. However, if the scientific community does not engage with these climate deniers, would it be chalked up as a win for them?
Climate-denying “celebrities”, despite being in the minority, are often given prominence in the public debate – and this can lead to detrimental real-world consequences, especially in terms of influencing climate change and environmental policies. In an ideal world, the ultimate tool against climate deniers would be high-quality, peer-reviewed scientific studies. However, such research is ineffective against them, simply dismissed in favour of manufactured pseudoscience and conspiracy theories, which often work powerfully on an emotional level.
Overall, we were satisfied with how the event panned out. We felt we made our case well, and that most of the audience took something away from our presentation. We agreed that we were right to attend this specific debate as it was pre-arranged, but that engaging in these events, whilst on the surface a seemingly reasonable approach to outreach, ultimately serves the false dichotomy that has characterised the issue all too much. We are keen to engage in productive, informative outreach events, but this was not such an event. In fact, our original concerns about the format were confirmed, and we remain unconvinced of the value of interacting with avid climate change deniers in a debate.
Chris and Kelvin are organising a public engagement activity about exposure to air pollution in London, which is part of the Greener Futures Zone of Imperial Festival on 28-29 April 2018. Register to attend for free at imperial.ac.uk/festival.