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Climategate: the human dimension

January 17, 2010

Earlier, I expressed my dismay and concern over the behaviour of a small number of scientists [at the CRU] and said I felt they had let me down, because like nearly all of us, I have to trust them. I do not understand the science enough to challenge it materially, any more than I understand how medicines are designed or how biologists work with DNA. I read about science, I try to read certain papers of interest to me, but my limits are profound. All I can do is trust in science, in the scientific method, and in the aggregate discoveries that accrue from the work done all over the world.

So when, in a scientific sphere like climate change, so many hard-working people tell me in various ways that we have a big problem, I believe them. It is an act of faith, but on the past performance of science it is not without logic and I am not sure I can distinguish between that I should believe and that which I should not. In for a penny then, and time will tell.

Which is fine unless we don’t have time. Under pressure, the cool intellectual approach may be rather too sanguine. And here we have the crux of my post, for I have thought all day about what motivates scientists to act in the way that Jones and others have done. There are those who will of course attribute this farrago to some horrid conspiracy of power and money and general evil, but I find this too far-fetched. I want to ask everyone to pause for a moment and consider what it means to be a person who believes, rightly or wrongly, that they are burdened with an appalling kind of knowledge that could affect every single person on earth.

When it comes to the facts about climate change, the best informed people in the world right now are the scientists studying it. I believe they are looking at their own work, at models, at physical evidence, at history and all we do know about physics, chemistry, natural sciences and all other relevant disciplines, and they have reached a terrible conclusion, which is this: if mankind does not significantly alter its behaviour, we will suffer great disruption to every system, every bit of infrastructure, every commonplace and taken for granted little thing, like lights coming on when we flick a switch or bread being on the shelf when we go into a shop.

Perhaps they are right in this assessment, and perhaps not. I don’t really know, and I don’t think anyone posting here does either. But their conclusions are scary to all of us for one reason or another. We can ameliorate our fears by denial, by scepticism, by anger and distrust and shouting at each other, but the scientists doing the work do not have such luxuries by which they can reassure themselves or kid themselves or hide from what they know.

And the most terrible thing of all is that, inadvertently, they have become the bearers of tidings that nobody in their right mind wants to hear. Yet they must make themselves heard, because if they do not and they are right, we may later hold them responsible. We would say ‘how did you not come to tell us’, ‘why didn’t you warn us’, ‘why didn’t you shout louder when we took no notice’ and so on. We always want to blame somebody, and if climate change manifests itself to the degree science expects but they didn’t get their message across with sufficient force and volume to energise a world administration comprised of governments who can barely agree what to have for breakfast at the UN, let alone take action to address such a monumental challenge, we will blame them.

So, in the midst of our anger and concern, if we can try to remember that they are not just as scared as we are, they are much more scared. They believe they have seen two futures, and one is bleak indeed. It is up to them to present us with an argument compelling enough to invoke change at the global scale and it is proving nigh on impossible. I feel disappointed, but I cannot be so crass and unfeeling as to ignore how powerfully they must be driven, even if they are wrong. They may have acted in ways that appear most unfortunate, but if we cannot find compassion for the terrible burden I believe they must feel, and understand how it may have caused them to act in ways I suspect they may now regret, we are less than human ourselves, just automata seeking to alleviate our fears by attaching blame without the slightest generosity, charity, compassion or empathy.

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