The long fight against climate change deniers
A string of climate change deniers have sought to downplay the significance of global warming and humanity’s role in driving it.
When climate scientist Peter Stott checked into his flight from London to Moscow in July 2004, his excitement gave way to shock when a colleague explained their agreed schedule had been ripped up.
They had expected to compare findings and strengthen ties with counterparts in Russia – but discovered key promoters of the unscientific view that humans have no key role in driving climate change had been invited, too.
“It was an ambush,” Stott said.
The meeting at the Russian Academy of Sciences had been changed by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s then-adviser Andrei Illarionov, an ardent critic of the Kyoto Protocol, a 1997 United Nations deal to cut emissions, which was awaiting ratification by Russia.
“He was using scientists as tools in his propaganda war,” said Stott, who specialised in identifying man-made and natural causes of climate change at the United Kingdom’s Met Office and the University of Exeter.
Stott and his colleagues were tasked with debating sceptics including Richard Lindzen, a climate contrarian who was at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology at the time, and controversial British weather forecaster Piers Corbyn. Stott described the experience of having to defend climate science in Russia as “very threatening”.
He detailed the events in his book, Hot Air: The Inside Story of the Battle Against Climate Change Denial, which has been shortlisted for the prestigious Royal Society Science Book Prize.
He recounted how he was the first scientist to connect an individual weather event to human-induced climate change, when, in 2004, he published a paper in the journal Nature linking greenhouse gas emissions to deadly European heatwaves that had killed more than 70,000 people a year earlier.
Such “attribution science” has become a staple in determining how much of a role global warming played in disasters – a change that has helped drive a surge in lawsuits against major climate polluters.
Stott has since devoted decades of work to raising awareness about the connection between human burning of fossil fuels and climate change, particularly in his role as an author on several assessment reports for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
A string of climate change deniers – many linked to fossil fuel interests – have challenged the findings of scientists like Stott and sought to downplay the significance of global warming and humanity’s role in driving it.
When Stott was starting in the 1990s, the science connecting climate change with human causes was becoming stronger, with a 1995 IPCC report saying “the balance of evidence … suggests a discernible human influence on global climate”.
Stott said such scientific developments led to a surge of opposing voices who “choose arguments that suit their agendas and … don’t scrutinise their own arguments”.
A good scientist is genuinely sceptical of their own and other people’s work because “that’s how science works”, he said.
Over time, Stott said he has learned to combat arguments from climate deniers more effectively by defending the science without getting drawn into “zombie arguments”.
“As scientists, we try to bat them down and they come back to life again,” he said. But “the risk is that if we’re just forever rebutting arguments, we could never get beyond that.”
The scientific process concentrates on what remains unknown, Stott said, so scientists must state the facts that are clearly established facts about climate change upfront to avoid any public uncertainty.
One of the biggest setbacks in the battle against climate denial came in 2009 with the scandal known as “Climategate”, Stott said.
Hackers broke into the email system of the Climate Research Unit (CRU) at the UK’s University of East Anglia and posted online thousands of messages sent between scientists.
Climate deniers said the messages showed the CRU had conspired to distort or exaggerate the science behind global warming.
Several inquiries cleared the scientists of any wrongdoing, but Stott said the scandal contributed to the failure of the UN climate conference in Copenhagen which took place a few weeks later.
“That should have been the moment when a landmark agreement was reached,” he said.
It was years later, with the 2015 Paris Agreement, that governments agreed to limit global warming to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), with an aim of 1.5C (2.7F).
“We lost at least six years [of progress] in that time,” Stott said – a critical delay with scientists saying still-rising emissions must now plunge by nearly half from current levels by 2030.
Today, he said, scientists increasingly have the ears of political leaders and the public, especially as extreme weather has highlighted swiftly increasing climate threats.
But attention has not translated into sufficient action, he said, and climate denial is still an obstacle, with a range of lobbyists and campaign groups demanding a delay in climate action, which they say puts heavy costs on households and businesses.
“In the current context of our climate crisis, that’s really dangerous because we don’t have time,” Stott said.
A study published in September in the journal Science found that four dangerous planetary tipping points are “likely” above 1.5C of warming above preindustrial temperatures – a level that could be passed within a decade.
One – accelerating melting leading to the eventual collapse of the Greenland ice sheet – may have already been triggered, some believe, setting in motion seven metres (23 feet) of sea level rise over time, enough to swamp key coastal cities.
Despair and hope
At the upcoming COP27 UN climate summit in Egypt, countries need to boost their plans to cut emissions, Stott said – something few have so far done.
Stott said morale in the scientific community is flagging as emissions keep rising and impacts growing. He said he despairs at the destruction of the natural world and the “seeming lack of progress” to make economies more sustainable.
But more people around the world have begun greening their behaviour in recent years, from installing solar panels to buying electric cars and adopting more sustainable diets.
“There’s this big groundswell of things happening,” Stott said. “So, that’s where the hope comes in.”