Gluckman gets it wrong: being alarmed is not alarmist

By Bryan Walker 13/08/2013


On Sunday morning, Radio NZ National’s Chris Laidlaw interviewed the PM’s science adviser Sir Peter Gluckman regarding his recent report on the likely future impacts of climate change on New Zealand. In an intelligent interview it was good to hear the report being given more prolonged and thoughtful attention than the initial news items about it afforded. It’s not my purpose to comment on the report other than to welcome it and hope it carries weight with the government. But in the course of the interview Gluckman made a couple of comments which I want to challenge. I’ve transcribed, I hope accurately enough, the section of the interview in which they occurred.

Laidlaw: The report is remarkably restrained …you say in the introduction that the most probable future scenarios are cause for concern. But unless there’s some sort of political miracle we’re going to be looking at an average temperature increase of somewhere between 3.6 and 5.3 degrees centigrade over this century. This is rather more than cause for concern I would have thought. It’s going to be a catastrophe.

Gluckman: I would agree personally.

Laidlaw: Yet your language is very restrained in this

Gluckman: I don’t think the scientific community has done its case well by becoming emotive on this issue. I think that my role as science adviser is to collate the scientific information from experts and put it out there for the political and public processes to reach the conclusion you’ve just reached.

Laidlaw: Do you think that we have and that scientists themselves also have sort of overdosed on alarmism?

Gluckman: I think so and I think …scientists need to distinguish whether they’re being a knowledge broker and putting the knowledge forward to everybody or whether they’re advocates for a cause. And I think in the climate change area, for understandable reasons, a large number of scientists have acted more as advocates where I think what is needed is knowledge brokerage and that’s what I’m trying to  demonstrate and do  here.

I’m not a scientist but I’ve been following climate science as well as I’m able for several years now and have seen no sign of any climate scientists swapping science for advocacy. Indeed I’ve been struck by the caution and careful delineation with which their findings are typically presented. I’m not sure what Gluckman means by advocacy, or whom he is thinking of when he makes the accusation. Let us imagine he has James Hansen in mind.  Hansen certainly advocates action to lessen the impact of climate change. But he does so from the solid base of a distinguished scientific record which he has continued to build along with the advocacy role he has increasingly assumed in the later years of his career. Nor did he rush into an activist role. It was only after he became a grandparent and realised that the issue was mired in denial in the political world that he took up a public role of advocacy.

I have come to value such scientists as Hansen highly. I became deeply alarmed by the climate change issue six or seven years ago, all the more because the media, the world of government and the public at large seemed in denial that there was much to be concerned about. I wrote columns for my region’s newspaper for some time, trying to communicate some of the scientific findings I was reading about, but the arrangement was discontinued because of editorial anxieties about “balance”. In the apathy and ignorance which has long seemed the dominant public mood it has been important that at least some clearly well-qualified scientists have been prepared to voice publicly the alarm they feel at society’s failure to move away from fossil fuels to the abundant sources of clean energy. Who is better placed to communicate the message of innumerable peer-reviewed studies or the massive summaries of the IPCC? Certainly not retired English teachers like me.

I acknowledge the claims that the political world where policy is formulated has more to take into account than the scientific facts of the matter alone. But the voice of alarmed science needs to be heard as part of the mix with which policy makers are concerned. Otherwise it’s all too easy for governments like our own to settle for the gradual emergence of new energy sources while remaining determined to extract wealth from what remains of fossil fuels. Someone has to say that slow gradualism will not work, that the remaining fossil fuel reserves cannot all be burned without causing profound damage to the climate and the ecology on which human society relies.

Too emotive?  Overdosed on alarmism? Not at all. It’s the blunt reality of the science and it would be odd if scientists held back from saying so out of some anxiety that they might be thought to be compromising their science by their advocacy. One can be both knowledge broker and advocate. The two are not necessarily at variance. I can understand the PM’s science adviser avoiding advocacy in his report, but cannot agree with his judgment that that’s what climate scientists should generally be doing.