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Climate science

Tell it like it is

by Katja Dombrowski


March for Science in the Indian city of Kolkata in August 2019.

March for Science in the Indian city of Kolkata in August 2019.

Academics who publish research findings concerning climate issues must expect personal attacks. Populists and right-wing extremists openly question scientific evidence and threaten the people who are responsible for them or discuss them in public – especially in the anonymous digital space. However, scholars stand up and fight back.

Harald Lesch is a professor of astrophysics at Munich University. He has become a celebrity by hosting science programs on TV. His own research focuses mostly on plasma physics, black holes and neutron stars, but he has also contributed to climate research and advises policymakers on that issue.

As a physicist, he was always used to being respected and seeing his work taken seriously. That has changed. “Ever since I started discussing climate change, I have been facing personal attacks,” the scholar says. Internet shit storms occur regularly, and even personal threats are not exceptional. Lesch finds this trend hard to understand. “The facts of climate change are neither personal nor political,” he insists. “What I do is science.” It is, however, science with a bearing on people’s lives.

Other scientists share Lesch’s fate. In general, they enjoy people’s trust. Climate scientists, by contrast, often do not. The reason is that populists and right-wing extremists deny that human beings are causing global warming. These forces cast doubt on research findings and do what they can to discredit, attack and threaten the people who produce those results. The denialists’ message resonates beyond the usual filter bubbles because their network is well organised. It is called the “denial machine” in the USA, where this machine originated. It is powered by flimsy think tanks that hardly do any noteworthy research, but excel in spreading propaganda. The supposed experts they employ are shady journalists and politicians or sometimes scientists who are largely isolated in their discipline’s community. The denial machine depends on financial support, especially from corporations that have an interest in business continuing as usual in the energy sector. Of course, funding is largely non-transparent.

At the same time, the consensus among scientists is overwhelming – both in regard to the reality and to climate change and its dangers. Indeed, there have never been any scientific efforts that came close to what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has been coordinating since 1988. No other endeavour involved so many scientists from all over the world or required such extensive resources. The IPCC reports are becoming ever more precise and ever more frightening. There can be no doubt: we are heading towards climate catastrophe.

Nonetheless, leading policymakers keep casting doubt on the science. The most prominent of them, of course, is US President Donald Trump. Science denial has spread to other areas of environmental relevance and even evolution theory. In some parts of the USA, schools now teach divine creation as described in the Bible. An astrophysicist like Lesch can prove creationism wrong in next to no time, but more people fall for this “theory” than one would expect.

Scientists are fighting back. In 2017 and 2018, Marches for Science attracted hundreds of thousands of participants around the world. Masses rallied against science denial and fake news. A large number of scientists support the youth movement Fridays for Future. Declaring themselves to be Scientists for Future, they spell out the facts that motivate the movement for climate protection. Obviously, these facts are so inconvenient that they trigger angry denial.

We are in the midst of a culture war and do not know how it will end. One must hope that reason will prevail. The level of hatred that is being expressed is frightening. All too often, insults, threats and denigration are not fact-based at all, but merely personal. Why is this so? All I can say is that the science deniers probably feel that they themselves and their lifestyles are being put in question. Climate change and its dangers are real, however. Therefore, both scientists and journalists must live up to their duty. It is to tell things like they are.

Katja Dombrowski is member of the editorial team of D+C Development and Cooperation / E+Z Entwicklung und Zusammenarbeit.
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