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Here Be Dragons

What's the Point of Climate Scientists if No One Listens to Them?

Another week, another apocalyptic report about climate change, another round of thumb-twiddling.

by Martin Robbins
Apr 4 2014, 4:00pm

A cyclist riding through the floods in Somerset, England, earlier this year. Only about a quarter of British people don't think that the floods were linked to climate change. Photo by Jake Lewis.

It’s time to lay off climate scientists. I don’t mean go easy on them or leave them alone, I mean we should fire them, because they’re pointless. This week, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) delivered the latest part of its fifth assessment, which looked at "impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability" with respect to climate change. Here's a summary of their findings: We're going to impacted in horrifically negative ways, it's dubious we'll adapt, and we remain very vulnerable. These conclusions remain essentially unchanged from the those of the four previous reports, released in 1990, 1995, 2001 and 2007, which were basically ignored, ignored, ignored, and ignored by anyone with the power to do anything about climate change.

Each successive report has brought more evidence (and more sophisticated analysis of that evidence) to bear, but the impact of this extra work has been minimal in practical, real terms. At this point, continuing to fund climate scientists with public money is like buying a really expensive Bose stereo system for your car when you don’t actually own a car or understand how to drive.

The following things are already happening, according to the IPCC's assement: Changes in recent decades have “caused impacts on natural and human systems on all continents and across the oceans,” glaciers are shrinking steadily, the permafrost is thawing at high latitudes, a small number of species have already gone extinct, and many other species are moving about as aggressively towards oblivion as a old lady shot from a cannon.

Crop yields have been damaged, and the impact of an increase in extreme events has resulted in “alteration of ecosystems, disruption of food production and water supply, damage to infrastructure and settlements, increases in morbidity and mortality, and consequences for mental health and human well-being.” And the poorer you are, the more fucked you are, which goes some way to explaining the spluttering denial on the right of the political spectrum.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the IPCC report is that for all the political nonsense around climate change, governments are planning for it, or at least trying as best as they can. Australia is already preparing for rising sea levels and increased droughts, the US is quietly protecting its energy infrastructure, nations across Asia are implementing new water-management plans. All this is already going on, yet there seems to be a fundamental disconnect between the reality-based community and the wider public.

Part of the problem, undoubtedly, is the audience. Last night, I watched a crazy man ranting about how Putin had the right idea on foreign policy and there was no proof that Assad used chemical weapons. Except he wasn’t some overserved punter at the pub, he was on my TV with UK Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who looked like he longed for the days when politicians just said “I agree with Nick” all the time because they wanted something from him. Watching Independence Party leader Nigel Farage—a right-winger who processes information the way a washing machine processes a brick—ranting about millions of Romanians coming to live in Orpington, two thoughts struck me. The first was how terrible it was that millions of immigrants' first experience of Britain would be Orpington. The second, that even though we—you, me, my friends on Twitter—get that Farage is a moron who understands foreign policy like my granddad "understood" Facebook, lots of real people actually think he’s a genius.

The problem with debates over topics like immigration and climate change is that it’s easier to argue the wrong position than the right one. People are fundamentally ignorant and paranoid—we know far less than we think we do, and we assume everyone’s out to screw us. Which, to be fair, is largely because many people are out to screw us. That aside, it’s far simpler to make easy points like "the government’s out to get you," "immigrants are taking our jobs," or "experts don’t know what they’re talking about" than it is to process complex arguments about economics or climate science, especially when pundits treat these kinds of debates like fans cheering for two competing soccer teams.

To be fair, people's ignorance is partly the fault of the press. Both the Daily Mail and the Telegraph told Parliament recently that they believe climate change is happening, yet the Telegraph employed James Delingpole to write about it, a man whose previous experience as a fashion writer probably wasn't all that helpful. Meanwhile, the Mail seems more interested in pandering to its readers’ bloody-minded hatred of anyone more intelligent than them, which unfortunately turns out to be most people. To understand how much Mail readers hate clever people, check out this comment in response to to a recent study suggesting—suggesting—people eat seven portions of fruit and veg a day:

"Who cares what so-called experts say? - No one believes what any of them say anymore because they have sprouted so much utter BS. - Has anyone noticed how the media are making expertise female? - This looks to me like a desperate attempt to give females kudos now that the dumbing-down and feminisation of education, which was designed to give females a helping hand but which has rendered it unfit for purpose, is being reversed. Anyhow, never has what the experts say been held in lower esteem than it is now."

The crippling fear for these people is that the government might team up with clever people to try to steal their precious tax dollars or bodily fluids. The irony is that even as they scream so loudly about taxes, our failure to deal with climate change is imposing thousands of taxes on them, eating away at their pay packets penny by penny—as the world heats up and resources get scarcer, the price of everything from bread to hard disks stands to rise.

The great thing, though, is that the individual effects are small enough to ignore. For now. You can live in blissful ignorance for the time being, and then cry like a baby in about two decades when the government gives up trying to keep your house above water. Or you can adopt the mentality of Farage, who doesn’t care how far up shit creek Britain is as long as the French have lost their paddle.

It’s possible that we’ll find better ways to communicate science to the public, but the academic field of science communication has yet to produce anything of any practical value for people actually communicating in the real world, and in fact tends to hold them in a sort of weird contempt. The government and the BBC haven’t done a lot better, with both drawing criticism from the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee for being uncoordinated and prone to treating unscientific, factually inaccurate arguments seriously. The public is only going to be persuaded that climate change is a reality when a dramatic event turns their living rooms into shitty swimming pools. (Only a quarter of Britons denied that the recent floods were linked to climate change.) Global warming is the best tool we have for convincing people that global warming is a threat. Unfortunately, it’s not exactly the timeliest.

Ultimately, it will be the scientists and engineers of this world—the same community that the rest of society tends to either ignore or shit on—who tackle the problems created by climate change. Politicians lack the intelligence, drive, and honesty, and the media hasn't taken its job seriously for about 20 years—there are barely any serious science journalists left, anyway. Public attitudes will continue to shift, and in a few decades, as we watch cities and towns slip beneath the waves, no doubt many will be demanding, “Why didn’t we do something sooner?” And somewhere, a scientist will facepalm.

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