Science strikes back: the dilemma of urgency vs. uncertainty

The man who has the Prime Minister's ear has quietly but forcefully defended climate scientists and thrown down the guantlet to the skeptics

A few weeks ago an article by the Prime Minister's Chief Science Adviser, Sir Peter Gluckman appeared on his website. No fanfare accompanied its unveiling and it was little noted, but it was another robust public statement as science seeks to recover its poise on climate change after the expose of the IPCC's errors.

Sir Peter's role is new in this country, and so how he interprets and fulfils it will set an important precedent. Thus far he has been reassuringly assertive, transparent and independent. His take on the IPCC questions matters more than just about anyone else's in the country for the simple reason that his advice goes straight into the ear of the Prime Minister, and a prime minister, at that, who has atmospheric approval ratings and firm grip on his cabinet agenda. John Key, by all accounts, trusts Sir Peter and is willing to act on his advice.

So what does our chief scientist make of the recent IPCC errors, such as glaciergate?

Sir Peter acknowledges that there's "no excuse for sloppiness or inexactitude" at the IPCC. But he gives the obvious reasons for the odd mistake: human frailty, the variable quality of retrospective data (as is common in all science), and the complex range of disciplines involved in climate analysis. His conclusion, nonetheless, remains defiant. He talks of the potential for "catastrophe". The weight of evidence, he continues, still clearly points to the actions of humanity as the main cause of climate change:

"The world’s climate is changing faster and in a different manner to what has happened previously. There is an overwhelming view, notwithstanding the difficulties of the science, that this is related to human activity. Based on what we know, this change appears highly likely to impact on our capacity to live in the way we have come to expect."

Given that there are climate skeptics still in and around the government, his is a crucial voice. New Zealand has taken a timid stance on carbon reduction under this government, but at least it is putting a price on carbon, and six weeks ago quietly signed up to the Copenhagen Accord and its commitment (admittedly non-binding) to limit the average global temperature rising by no more than 2ºC. In case you missed it, India and China have signed up in recent days, as well.

Sir Peter, in his position paper, quotes his British equivalent, Professor John Beddington from an article in The Times:

“Uncertainty about some aspects of climate science should not be used as an excuse for inaction. Some people ask why we should act when scientists say they are only ninety per cent certain about the problem. But would you get on a plane that had a ten per cent chance of landing?”

He also challenges the deniers/skeptics, writing that, "those in society who are sceptical of its [the IPCC's] conclusions should accept that their arguments must be subject to the same level of critical examination."

It's a point I made in debate with some skeptics visiting Pundit recently, when IPCC member Dr Ralph Sims contributed a fascinating piece, explaining the IPCC process, its flaws and conclusions. Skepticism is not enough, especially when the fate of the planet is being debated. If the skeptics have a theory they should do the science – test, replicate, get peer reviewed... Prove it. Convince us. Otherwise they're nothing but clanging cymbals.

I was struck by a line in Sir Peter's final paragraph:

"...the scientific community has had and is having difficulty communicating both its uncertainty and the absolute need for action simultaneously."

I think that gets to the nub of the question and the controversy. Science is about a balance of probabilities; by its very nature it cannot predict the future because until a theory can be tested and replicated, well, it's not science. Yet at the same time the evidence gathered, the tests already done, the models developed, while never utterly certain, all point to the same conclusion (funny Hitler parodies notwithstanding). And the conclusion has terrifying implications when as estimated 60 million people live within a metre of the shoreline.

So how do scientists communicate to the rest of us both their urgent fears whilst retaining their commitment to uncertainty, when the first question any of us will ask is, 'but are you sure?'

In this American Idol world people want a winner and a loser, a clear answer, a straight up and down vote; we have little time for qualifications and balances of probabilities. If our planet, the lives of our grandchildren, may be at risk, we damned well want a yes or no. When science can't give us that, many don't hang around to discuss the subtleties. Here and now we have jobs to do, kids to look after, Coro St to watch.The glaciers can look after themselves.

So I give a wholehearted thumbs up to scientists such as Sir Peter and Sims who keep trying to explain it all, piece by piece. Right now, in this wee corner of history, there are few tasks more important.