Global warming: rating the debate

A summary of the spiked-science debate on global warming.

Helene Guldberg

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The spiked-science debate kicked off by spiked and the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) in November 2001, discussing the question ‘Should we implement the Kyoto Protocol?’, has now come to a close.

In the three months it ran, the debate was sharp, intelligent and passionate – challenging much of the accepted wisdom on global warming and highlighting some of the disagreements among scientists themselves. As a review in BBC Wildlife magazine put it, this was ‘top-notch stuff – a bit technical in places, but well worth the effort’, and its readers who wanted a ‘more substantial’ discussion on global warming should look no further than the spiked-science debate (1).

The debate began with a head-to-head between Professor Bjørn Lomborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist, and Dr Mike Hulme, executive director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research. Lomborg said ‘No’ to Kyoto, claiming that ‘we risk burdening the global community with a cost much higher than that of global warming’ – while Hulme said ‘Yes’, pointing to ‘our responsibility to future generations’.

Responses came in from experts both for and against Kyoto. There was Charles Secrett, director of Friends of the Earth, who argued that ‘Lomborg’s case against the Kyoto Protocol is based on flawed assumptions and unsubstantiated assertions’. Philip Stott, Emeritus Professor of Biogeography at the University of London, disagreed – pointing out that ‘global warming to date resides firmly with the virtual world of the computer chip, and that questioning the all-too prevailing eco-hype about our overheating planet is not as stupid as some would have us believe’.

Dr David Viner, senior research scientist at the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, claimed that: ‘The few climate sceptics have consistently failed to produce the scientific evidence to counter the weight of science that has been published by the genuine scientific community and reported by the IPCC.’ John Gillot, co-author of Science and the Retreat from Reason, argued that, faced with uncertainty about global warming, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has adopted a low-growth philosophy that will do little for developing nations.

Margaret Mogford, environmental adviser to the BG Group, said ‘it is in corporations’ interests to meet the challenges posed by climate change’ – while Peter Sammonds, professor of geophysics at University College London, took up those who turn a climate change issue into a moral one, claiming that ‘moralising on the basis of hurricanes and storm surges is not going to help anybody’.

Then there were the spiked readers, who made enlightening contributions and asked challenging and awkward questions.

Some of the issues raised included the usefulness, or otherwise, of Lomborg’s economic cost-benefit analysis, which was criticised by his head-to-head opponent Hulme and many of those who wrote in (see Lomborg, 20 November 2001; Hulme, 20 November 2001; Courtney, 22 November 2001; de Wit, 4 January 2002). And, as raised by Philip Stott, Max Beran and others, there was the question of how much we really know about the extent of future global warming – and what part man is likely to play in helping to control it (see Stott, 23 November 2001; Beran, 26 November 2001; Wight, 24 December 2001).

John Brignell, Charles Secrett and David Viner raised the question of computer-generated climate models, questioning their usefulness in the science of understanding global warming (see Brignell, 25 November 2001; Secrett, 4 December 2001; Viner, 4 December 2001). Peter Warlow raised more specific problems with climate models (Warlow, 18 December 2001).

And, getting to the heart of global warming, questions were raised about the extent to which the spiked-science debate was shaped by the science – and what the debate could tell us more broadly about our attitudes to risk, harm and scientific development (Secrett, 4 December 2001; Gillott, 20 November 2001; Dixon, 21 November 2001; Kaplinsky, 9 December 2001; Henrick, 7 January 2002; Beran, 11 January 2002; Boehmer-Christiansen, 30 January 2002).

As is the aim of the ongoing programme of spiked-science debates, the discussion of Kyoto brought out some of the specific disagreements between scientists and environmentalists, and within the scientific community on the facts of global warming. At the same time, it was a start to challenging the broader climate of fear and risk-aversion surrounding science and the future of humanity – asking why we often seem predisposed to highlight potential problems above potential opportunities.

As the next spiked-science debate, we discuss ‘The future of energy’.

Read on:

spiked-debate: Global warming

(1) BBC Wildlife, February 2002

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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