A voice of reason

What a wonderful way to begin the new year, with a responsible call for action on climate change that embraces the uncertainties rather than yet another stubborn refusal to act because of them. The New York Times' ever-reliable Andrew Revkin writes this morning of a new collective voice of scientists who say we should do something more constructive than just scare people. About time.

Among them is Mike Hulme, director of the Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research:

Dr. Hulme insists that it is best not to gloss over uncertainties. In fact, he and other experts say that uncertainty is one reason to act -- as a hedge against the prospect that problems could be much worse than projected.

His goal, Dr. Hulme said, is to raise public appreciation of the unprecedented scale and nature of the challenge. "Climate change is not a problem waiting for a solution (least of all a solution delivered and packaged by science), but a powerful idea that will transform the way we develop," he said in an e-mail message.

Dr. Hulme and others avoid sounding alarmist, but offer scant comfort to anyone who doubts that humans are contributing to warming or believes the matter can be deferred.

Dr. Hulme expands on his thoughts in an essay for the BBC, from which I will extract the concluding paragraphs:

The IPCC scenarios of future climate change - warming somewhere between 1.4 and 5.8 Celsius by 2100 - are significant enough without invoking catastrophe and chaos as unguided weapons with which forlornly to threaten society into behavioural change.

I believe climate change is real, must be faced and action taken. But the discourse of catastrophe is in danger of tipping society onto a negative, depressive and reactionary trajectory.

I agree completely that we need constructive advice from the scientific community. But I have to temper my enthusiasm for Hulme's approach. There's nothing wrong imbuing that advice with urgency and a few dire warnings, if that's what the science suggests is coming down the pipeline.

From what I can gather, the mid-range scenarios, those likely to be part of the next IPCC report, due out later this year, should be scary enough to provoke action without invoking worst-case scenarios. But scientists should be concerned with communicating what they've discovered and the likely consequences for society, regardless of how the public will react. As it stands at the moment, Hulme's call for restraint in using the language of catastrophe is probably warranted. If and when that changes, however, we should not shirk from our responsibility to continue to accurately represent the science.

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