Debate is an endangered species, says climate critic

One anthropologist thinks doomsday sceptics are being unfairly silenced. Melanie Newman reports

September 4, 2008

True debate on climate change does not exist, according to Benny Peiser. "People are afraid to discuss their private views because the ramifications are so serious," he said.

Dr Peiser, a senior lecturer in social anthropology at Liverpool John Moores University's School of Sport and Exercise Science, is a well-known figure among climate scientists and internet bloggers. In the world of online comment, he has been called a "climate-change sceptic", a "distinguished UK scientist" and someone whose "opinion has no more value than Homer Simpson's".

"People do question my credibility, but I'm not a climate scientist and have never claimed to be one," he said. "My interest is in how climate change is portrayed as a potential disaster and how we respond to that."

Dr Peiser's research interest is in catastrophic events. He is an expert on "near misses", cosmic impacts and other natural disasters, and he even has an asteroid named after him. But he has always been concerned with the environment.

"I was one of the founding fathers of the Green Party in Germany," said the academic, who was born in Haifa, Israel, and previously worked at the University of Frankfurt.

He denies that he is a climate-change sceptic. "My philosophy is that the minority of people who are climate (change) sceptics or have doubts about the prevailing views should be heard."

To this end he set up an online network, CCNet, which he says has 6,000 subscribers. Dr Peiser added: "Most scientists do seem to accept that there is an effect of CO2 on climate; the big question is how large and dangerous it will be in future. Personally, I'm also sceptical about the doomsday scenarios."

He points out that the big global temperature rises recorded in the past century flattened off around 1998. "There has been a tremendous increase in CO2 emissions in the last decade without a corresponding temperature increase. Many people think this flattening is only temporary, but it raises questions and people are afraid of those questions."

Every time a scientist expresses doubts, others in the scientific community argue that politicians will use those doubts as an excuse for inaction, Dr Peiser said.

"The argument is that politicians are not taking hard and painful action because of the sceptics, which is nonsense. Governments are not taking the actions advised by scientists because they are economically and politically difficult. Green taxes hurt voters."

He maintains that scientists are now suppressing themselves for fear of losing funding or having their reputations attacked by the green lobby.

"They have to look over their shoulders. It's a very unhealthy environment. The only people who will speak out are very eminent, or they are retired."

Dr Peiser points to Richard Lindzen, a professor of meteorology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and critic of some rhetoric around global warming.

In an editorial for The Wall Street Journal in 2006, Professor Lindzen listed academics who had been dismissed or had their funding cut for questioning "climate alarmism".

"Professor Lindzen's reputation has been attacked, and he has been labelled a global-warming denier," Dr Peiser said.

"In fact, he is a sceptic of the fact that there is a consensus on the reasons for climate change. He doesn't question that global warming has occurred between the 1970s and 1998, and that is true of most sceptics."

Dr Peiser's own view of the degree of scientific consensus sparked a row over his entry in Wikipedia, the user-generated online encyclopaedia.

Dr Peiser examined an essay by Naomi Oreskes, professor of history and science studies at the University of California, San Diego, which was published in the journal Science in 2004.

The article said that of 928 peer-reviewed articles on climate change, none disagreed with the view that human-generated greenhouse gases were causing global warming.

Dr Peiser tried to repeat the study but initially used different search terms. He later concluded that only 2 per cent of the abstracts in the data set searched by Professor Oreskes explicitly endorsed the "consensus view".

Dr Peiser's supporters complain that the Wikipedia page gives the incorrect impression that he has retracted much of his criticism of the Science paper.

Dr Peiser told Times Higher Education that this was far from the case: "Some of my main criticisms have been ignored or deleted by Wikipedia authors. I maintain that the Oreskes study is basically flawed because the vast majority of the abstracts analysed do not mention anthropogenic climate change at all."

Four years after the paper's publication, he is still trying to have his Wikipedia entry amended.

Despite this, the lecturer maintains that the climate-change debate is "beginning to cool".

"The political wind has gone out of the issue," he said.

"The Government is not going to take action while temperatures remain stable. International talks about climate change are deadlocked. The big concern now is energy - the scramble for fuel has taken over."

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