This morning’s news about a new survey of the global temperature record raises a question that seems sacrilegious to many scientists but needs asking more than ever. Dan Sarewitz has raised this question again and again. And I’ve discussed it in the past. But it bears repeating. Do we need more climate science? And if we do (I think we probably do) what sort of science should it be?
I come from the field of Science and Technology Studies, as does Sarewitz. We are used to taking chunks of science to bits to see how they really work and sometimes, for the more policy-oriented of us, trying to put them back together. The more policy-focussed end of STS has historically strong connections with environmental movements. For this reason, and because of the rather complicated and polarised political debate about climate change, climate science has tended in the past not to have not been given the same amount of scrutiny as other areas. Deconstructing climate science doesn’t seem helpful at a time when so many others, for very different reasons, are trying to do the same.
In the last few years, however, we’ve seen the climate science debate become more nuanced. We have managed to move beyond the Manichean view that anyone who asks questions about global warming is somehow ‘anti-science’. We have had interesting contributions from Sarewitz, Roger Pielke, the Hartwell Group and Mike Hulme, whose book, Why We Disagree About Climate Change, I would recommend to anyone. These analysts and others have argued for the need to talk openly about uncertainty, the need to engage with sceptics and the need to disconnect the scientific consensus from a single policy prescription.
Many climate scientists present their project as purely epistemological. They are interested in identifying and filling gaps in knowledge, increasing the resolution of our climate picture and narrowing our uncertainties. They demand more research, more thermometers, bigger computers, better satellites. When we look at the politics of climate science, however, we can see how doomed these efforts are. The climate debate is a political tussle masquerading as science. A central lesson of STS is that science does not solve political problems. For climate deniers whose minds are already made up, more science is just more evidence of a conspiracy. An early lesson from sociologists of scientific knowledge like Harry Collins was that experiments will convince only those who are bought into the idea of the experiment.
Climate change denial, like creationism, should be seen more as a moral project than an epistemological one. Indeed the great victory of both climate- and evolution-deniers is to tempt scientists into their spurious scientific discussions.
That said, another lesson of STS is that science is itself political, in all sorts of ways. And climate scientists no doubt appreciate this, if not before Climategate then certainly after. The process of discovery matters, the facts do not speak for themselves and the truth will not out without a lot of work.
No doubt this is why the Berkeley group decided to do their work as transparently as possible, bringing in scientists untainted by association. The study also enrolled the deniers: the Koch brothers contributed funding for the study. The explicit recognition was that the way climate models were being built and communicated, as revealed by the Climategate controversy, was no longer sufficient given how high the political stakes had become. Scientists often believe that problems are like empty vessels, to be filled with knowledge. Climate change increasingly looks like the trial of the Danaids, forced to spend eternity in Hades filling a perforated barrel using water carried in sieves.
The Berkeley project looks politically sophisticated. It should help advance the debate. And yet their efforts are being reported in a rather depressing way. Science journalists are calling this ‘the definitive answer’. My guess is that James Delingpole, Nigel Lawson and friends will be unconvinced. Earlier this year, the Guardian reported the launch of the study with the journalistic trope of question-to-which-the-answer-is-very-definitely-no: “Can a group of scientists in California end the war on climate change?”