German researchers’ dilemma over new attack on climate science

Many scientists believe publicly debating the Alternative for Germany is pointless, but one new study suggests rebutting deniers can be useful

October 8, 2019
Source: Getty
Global warning: German protesters demand more action on climate change

German climate scientists are weighing up how to deal with a new campaign by the far-right to deny that human actions are causing climate change, facing a similar dilemma to colleagues in other countries over whether to ignore or challenge such claims.

Alexander Gauland, the leader of the Alternative for Germany, which came third in the country’s 2017 federal elections, has said that attacking the climate agenda would become the party’s third key message, alongside opposition to the euro and immigration.

The party is preparing documentary-length films to challenge climate targets, while its environment spokesman has claimed climate change is down to fluctuations in the Earth’s orbit and water vapour in the atmosphere, reported the Sunday newspaper Welt am Sonntag.

But a number of German scientists told Times Higher Education that they believe publicly arguing with the AfD was pointless.

“Public debates are in my view counter-productive,” said Stefan Rahmstorf, head of Earth system analysis at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. “It’s like asking Nasa experts to join a public debate on whether Apollo 11 actually landed on the Moon.”

Such confrontations were a “no-win” situation for scientists, Professor Rahmstorf said. “A lay audience cannot judge which scientific-sounding arguments are actually correct; the more eloquent person will come across better no matter whether his science is right; and what most will remember from such a debate after a few months is the false idea that ‘the experts disagree’,” he said. Instead of public debate, Professor Rahmstorf said he preferred tackling scientific errors through blogging.

The Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change, a Berlin-based research centre, also refuses to comment on AfD climate positions in the media or give the party a place on public debates about climate change, said Brigitte Knopf, the organisation’s secretary general.

“We do not want to provide appreciation for a position that is rejecting the overwhelming scientific evidence of man-made climate change,” she said. “The acceptance of basic scientific facts and a minimum of mutual respect and willingness to listen is required – and AfD is missing that.” The Mercator institute does, however, invite party representatives to its events that are not open to the public or media.

Denial of man-made climate change by AfD politicians is not new. But its decision to make the issue a central party message follows an upsurge in environmental concern in German politics. On 20 September, the federal government announced a €54 billion (£47.8 billion) package to help cut emissions – on the same day that a reported 1.4 million protesters took to the streets of German cities to demand more action on climate change. The Green Party is currently polling in second place behind Angela Merkel’s ruling Christian Democratic Union.

Nor is there anything new about scientists grappling with how best to engage with those who question man-made climate change – including US president Donald Trump, who once called the phenomenon a “Chinese hoax” – as well as other anti-science trends like the anti-vaccination movement.

Some research suggests climate beliefs are tied to identity, making them impervious to argument. One 2015 study in Nature Climate Change concluded that, at least for the US, this means that “divisions between sceptics and believers are unlikely to be overcome solely through communication and education strategies”.

But another German study, published last month, suggests that, in certain circumstances, engaging with science “deniers” in front of an audience can be fruitful, and does not “backfire”, reinforcing sceptics’ beliefs, as some academics fear.

When scientists rebutted anti-vaccination campaigners in debate with established facts about vaccine safety, or unmasked how they were misleading the audience – through cherry-picking papers, or demanding 100 per cent certainty from science – this reduced the influence of their opponents on the audience, found the paper, published in Nature Human Behaviour.

Whether groups like the AfD should be debated by scientists depends on whether or not they already had a broad audience, argued Philipp Schmid, co-author of the paper and a researcher at the University of Erfurt. If they already had a following, it made sense to challenge them, he said, because if left unchallenged they will cause the “greatest damage”.

The consensus among academics was that “trying to convince a denier, especially in public, will most likely fail”, he said.

However, this did not mean that academics should not engage in debate. “We can address the so-called fence-sitter and we can also equip advocates with knowledge on how to defend their perspective against denialism,” Mr Schmid said.


Print headline: Dilemma over new attack on climate science in Germany

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Reader's comments (13)

Exactly the same occurs in Italy, where some old scientists (including Nobel Prize and Senator Rubbia) published a strong attack to anthropogenic triggering of climate change. None of them published papers in the area of Earth Sciences, nor Environmental Engineering, let alone Climate.
How dare they...
The use of shaming and ostracism to persuade are political or rhetorical techniques, not scientific ones. It is good that the AfD are asked to the non-public events.
It is important for climate scientists to engage in debate refuting deniers... not so much with the intention of convincing the deniers that they are wrong (something that is unlikely to happen!), but with the purpose of ensuring that whenever deniers speak, the correct facts are also being presented so that the rest of the population are provided with good information on which to base their decisions.
PUBLIC debates among scientists are not usually productive because NON-TECHNICAL language must be used. That usually forbids discussion about the more technical aspects of climate change. But it is important to distinguish scientific arguments from political arguments. Any attempt to have the lay public play a role in climate prediction is a disaster in the making, but the public clearly has a role in deciding what actions to take.
We have anti-science radical leftists now dominating many fields in the arts, humanities, social sciences and education. As far as I know it is those who challenge them who are silenced. This is a big problem. Universities are now so far left they are incapable of objectivity or defending science. They are ideologically dominated institutions that actually care more for that ideology than science. For the record, there are plenty of scientists and non-scientists of all political persuasions (not far right) who have issues with specific points in mainstream climate science. Most remain silent because they know what will happen if they ask questions.
Well said. To be quite honest I cannot be bothered to refute any of the comments in the article, as my extensive scientific training and experience seem to have been worthless if I am to be labelled a denier simply for consuming alternative hypotheses or critiquing the weight of 'accepted' evidence. As they say and as seems to play out well (eventually) in science, "Time will tell."
Once "climate warming" became a political matter, rhetoric became the most effective instrument for persuading the public. Those scientist who took the debate in that direction will probably live to regret it...
As an interested observer, climate study isn't my area, I find the concept of scientific 'consensus of opinion' difficult to accept. If each scientist has independently researched, experimented and confirmed their individual thesis, published it publicly and made it possible for others to examine and question then their input has merit, but all I see is club groupthink controlled by economic interests within and without the University community. Dr. Peter Ridd provides a good example of why so many dare not speak out about the lack of good science, especially when their long term observations and specific non-climate 'science' speciality knowledge runs counter to the 'consensus of opinion'.
If there is one person in the audience that is not a believer in the danger of vaccines or is not a climate change denier, a scientist must engage in the science illumination of facts. The issue is not to convince [those that are emotionally convinced that men are not responsible for CO2 increase or that vaccines cause autism] but to reassure those that have not taken a position yet that the scientific method is still the best way to understand nature.
So 'climate change deniers' are equated with the 'far right'. In this case climate scientists MUST challenge the deniers, or else the 'far right' will capture the agenda and discreditation of science will become yet another lethal bullet in the populist's armoury.
Yes, climate scientists (deniers or not) need to settle the matter among themselves without interference By resorting to politics they have moved the debate to an area that will be resolved by political rhetoric. Nobody should welcome that.
Climate warming is not yet "settled science", so wide agreement among climate scientist should not be expected nor should it be welcome. Climate science is not (and can never be) a "controlled-environment" laboratory science of the sort that enables wide agreement among i.e., LIGO scientists and laser scientists. Existing weather stations (measuring T, P, H, Wind velocity,, etc) do a pretty good job predicting next weeks weather, but it is absurd to be asking for yearly predictions, and even more so for the next decade.