“In the days when belief in God was pretty universal…”: no article that opens thus could ever be unworthy of attention. And so, after five pieces in the “What I learnt from…” series, we finally make it round to the Daily Mail, mother of all tabloids, and to Peter Hitchens’ criticism of those in the grip of a so-called “Green Rapture”.
Leaving aside the nagging thought that this sounds like a third-rate christian rock band, matters move rapidly from the spiritual to the temporal; Hitchens writes as the House of Commons Science and Technology select committee publishes a report on the communication of climate science. Apparently, climate change is a topic that he goes to great length to avoid, but this otherwise unremarkable report is one that he seemingly cannot ignore.
Hitchens agrees that our climate is changing; his quarrel is with those who claim that human activity is the primary cause. Apparently, he would be delighted to accept the say-so of people who know far more about the science of our planet than he does – I assume that he doesn’t have a PhD in atmospheric physics stashed away somewhere in his attic – if they were able to prove that their claims are true.
This is an increasingly fashionable and altogether higher level of climate denial than that of times past. But it nevertheless entirely overlooks the fact that we can demonstrate very well that the observed warming is all but certainly caused by us. The changing isotopic ratio of carbon in the atmosphere; stratospheric cooling; decreasing oxygen levels in the troposphere: there are multiple lines of evidence that point to a decidedly human influence on climate. It is also possible to demonstrate that recent climactic changes are outside the range of natural variability. Granted, such points may be a little involved – for starters, it helps to know what an isotopic ratio actually is – but that they are so often ignored is much to be lamented.
The growing gap between the public’s knowledge of climate change and what is considered scientific fact has received more and more attention of late. Indeed, it is ways of overcoming misunderstandings such as the above that parliamentary reports on the communication of climate science may reasonably be expected to examine. This one is no exception. Responding with the same old dubious claims only serves to widen this already troubling knowledge gap. It also re-enforces the report’s point that editors and media types are often ill-placed to discriminate between scientific fact and unfounded conjecture.
It is an inescapable fact that a certain degree of scientific understanding is required in order to meaningfully evaluate climate science. Admittedly, “Trust me, I know more than you” makes for an uninspiring slogan – yet another reason why science communication is enjoying the attention is now is. Efforts to improve public understanding of science should be applauded, encouraged and received with an open mind. If only somebody would tell the Daily Mail…