Thursday, July 23, 2009

Scientists blame Hollywood for increased fears over global warming

Leading climate change experts have thrown their weight behind two scientists who hit out at the "Hollywoodisation" of global warming.

Professors Paul Hardaker and Chris Collier, both Royal Meteorological Society figures, criticised fellow scientists they accuse of "overplaying" the message.

The pair spoke at a conference in Oxford today entitled Making Sense of Weather and Climate and organised by Sense about Science, a scientific trust set up to help dispel the myths surrounding polemic issues such as climate change.

They sparked controversy after saying statements made by the highly respected American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) were not justified.

The AAAS said last month: "As expected, intensification of droughts, heatwaves, floods, wildfires, and severe storms is occurring, with a mounting toll on vulnerable ecosystems and societies.

"These events are early warning signs of even more devastating damage to come, some of which will be irreversible."

Professor Collier said that while he is not sceptical that such events could happen, it is important to be "honest" about the scientific evidence behind projected future impacts.

He said that while there is "no doubt" that climate change is happening and is to an extent man-made, it is not yet proven by isolated climatic events such as the Boscastle floods.

He said: "I think the AAAS are including everything in one pot and I think there is a time to do it.

"There is always a danger of crying wolf. We have to be careful as scientists that we present the facts and don't exaggerate things because it can undermine credibility in the long term."

Professor Hardaker warned against the "Hollywoodisation" of weather and climate seen in films such as the 2004 smash hit film The Day After Tomorrow, which depicts terrifying consequences after the melting of the Arctic ice shelf.

Such films, he said, only work to create confusion in the public mind.

"I don't think the way to make people pay attention is to make them afraid about it," he said.

"We have to help them understand it and allow them to make choices - because the impact of climate change is going to mean we have got some quite difficult choices to make both in policy and as members of the public.

"Unless we can understand the science behind it, we can't be expected to get our heads around making these difficult choices."

Presenting events such as the shutting off of the Gulf Stream, creating a cooling effect, and the rise of temperatures together could be "confusing", he said, unless it is made clear that the former is far less likely than the latter.

He said the scientists should avoid being forced to make wild predictions about the future in response to climate change sceptics such as those seen in Channel 4's recent programme, Global Climate Swindle.

He said: "We must be careful not to sensationalise our side of the argument or Hollywoodise the argument otherwise you end up in an ever increasing cycle of claim and counter-claim.

"We have to be clear about what our level of understanding is and to be clear about where we are making judgements based on understanding."

Their comments were backed today by other leading figures in the debate.

Dr Peter Stott, manager of understanding and attributing climate change at the Hadley Centre for Climate Change, said he believes scientists have to make it clear there is a long way to go until we know how bad climate change will be.

He said: "There is a lot more research to do to understand about exactly what effects its going to have on you and me in the future."

He said that while he welcomed a growing public awareness about the dangers brought about by films and headlines, informed debate was vital.

"I think it is important that having said there is a problem, it would be unfortunate if people got the impression that there's nothing we can do about it because there is a lot we can do to change the future of climate change," he said.

Professor Tim Palmer, of the European Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasts, called for better technology and computers to be developed to help climatologists to predict the future more precisely.

He said: "There are still big scientific uncertainties such as how is the weather going to change with global warming.

"My personal view is that we do need to start thinking in an international way."

Tracey Brown is the director of Sense About Science, which has also produced a booklet bringing together key scientists to help explain in layman's terms the main issues in the debate.

She said she "sympathised" with the professors' comments, saying uncertainty can often be "manipulated" to generate outlandish ideas about the issue.

"It's very important for scientists to be clear with the public - we have learned that lesson with many scientific issues," she said.

But she added that it was important not to downplay the potentially "catastrophic" results of climate change.

She said: "The kind of figures were are talking about here today show that weather is already a bigger killer than global terrorism. What seems a small change on a graphic can have catastrophic effects on people's lives.

"It's not shock tactics to talk about it as a killer."

Original article.

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