Monday, 3 October 2011

The perils of turning Greenland green

Guest post by Tom Sheldon, Senior Press Officer at the Science Media Centre

On 16 September we were alerted to a flurry of activity on the CRYOLIST discussion group. Glaciologists around the world, it seemed, were getting steamed up about the Times Atlas "turning Greenland green" because of the dramatic effects of climate change. At the SMC we are familiar with bloggers and commentators bleating about 'the climate hoax'. But CRYOLIST is no den of deniers; it is a used by an international group of snow and ice experts to freely and openly exchange ideas about global ice cover. When these people start to complain, you listen.

In one way, this was straightforward. With great fanfare, a book was published and an accompanying press release trumpeted its arrival - along with some scientific errors. At the SMC we see this stuff all the time, and it is usually an easy decision to try to correct those errors before they reach the mass media. So why did this feel different – and why did we get some criticism for helping to publicise the error?

Most people who reject the theory of global warming do so on ideological grounds, not scientific ones. They cherry pick the pieces of evidence that support their political cause, twisting the evidence base to suit the conclusion they cling to. Science, however, is neutral. It must never be partisan, and it must never be used selectively. This is its great strength of course: facts speak for themselves. But in this case the facts showed that climate change had not caused the melting indicated by the new maps.

It's not surprising, therefore, that some scientists were nervous about conspicuously issuing a correction. There was every chance that some of the noisier climate sceptics would seize on the opportunity to say "Aha! Another climate lie – even the scientists say so this time!" After Himalayagate and Amazongate, the prospect of 'Greenlandgate' was not appetising.

But consider the alternative: scientists living in fear of climate sceptics, and keeping quiet in the face of certain errors for fear of 'doing damage to the message'. First, this would be completely wrong in principle; an error is an error, regardless of who might make political capital from its correction. Second, it would also be a bad move for climate science. Keeping quiet would be asking for headlines proclaiming "more dodgy data found in new climate shame". This would have been grossly unfair, as one press release would have been used to drag down a whole branch of science. But as is often the case with the media, there is no 'no risk' option. And such headlines would have been the risk of keeping quiet.

Instead, because of the courage of some principled and honest scientists, the press coverage was much closer to the truth:

"The publishers of the world's most prestigious atlas have been caught out by Cambridge scientists exaggerating the effects of climate change," said the Mail. Quotes issued by the SMC appeared across the spectrum of media. The Telegraph quoted Graham Cogley as saying "Climate change is real, and Greenland ice cover is shrinking. But the claims here are simply not backed up by science." And Jeff Kargel on the BBC: "a number like 15% ice loss used for advertising the book is a killer mistake that cannot be winked away."

The Sceptic movement has damaged climate science by spinning evidence to its own ends. It is ironic that the deep green NGOs have done similar damage to climate science by overclaiming for the effects of climate change with pictures of polar bears clinging to apparently dwindling chunks of ice and other messages that prioritise emotion and ideology over fact. And so it didn't surprise me when one senior climate scientist told me recently that he hates being called part of the climate movement. "I'm not part of any movement," he complained. "I'm a scientist. I just report what I find. And what I find is that the world is warming, and only CO2 can explain it."

Science is self-correcting, and we should be proud of that. It is also above politically-motivated bickering, or worse, 'messaging'. If we want science to have the respect of the public, scientists must be seen to be honest and neutral. This stance can be difficult to maintain when caught between sustained, vitriolic barracking on one side, and a politicised green lobby on the other. But by acting quickly and decisively scientists have done climate science a great service, and the SMC is proud to have played a part in the process.