Hot Air: The Inside Story of the Battle against Climate Denial Peter Stott Atlantic Books, €26.59
It’s well established that a network of wealthy organisations has been working to target climate scientists and undermine their findings for nearly 40 years now. Using the same tactics as the tobacco industry before them, these think tanks, policy institutes and scientists-for-hire have been selling an attractive product: doubt.
Eric Conway and Naomi Oreskes exposed this climate denial network in their 2010 book Merchants of Doubt. US scientist Michael E Mann updated us on their tactics recently – denial has turned into delay and “doomism” – in The New Climate War.
Now British climate scientist Peter Stott provides an inside-the-room perspective with this account of his decades-long battle with the climate denial industry. His book – published just before the crucial, two-week UN climate conference begins in Glasgow – is a painstaking and at times surprisingly dramatic defence of climate science.
And Stott has been "in the room" on many occasions. Sometimes, the rooms are where the precise wording of UN climate reports are thrashed out, sometimes they are shadowy rooms in the Russian Academy of Science, and sometimes they are UK courtrooms. As a player in the many great climate controversies – and many of the key breakthroughs in climate science – Stott is well placed to tell this story.
He is a chapter author for the UN Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (the IPCC), which issues assessment reports on the state of the climate every seven years or so. He is also an expert on so-called “attribution science” – the process of detecting the fingerprint of climate change in extreme weather events.
Much of the book is devoted to climate science, developments in climate modelling, and other discoveries. There is a "scientist-as-hero” narrative at play, as he describes various races against the clock to finish research projects or papers. These will be of interest to those fascinated by the minutiae of climate science, but the general reader will be drawn to Stott’s accounts of climate politics, high-stakes diplomatic wrangling on terminology in UN reports, and science-versus-denier confrontations.
He takes us through the process of compiling the assessment reports, and the backstage wrangling over language. The Saudis, Russians and Kuwaitis do not emerge with credit from these accounts, which sometimes have the tension of a good courtroom drama.
Stott is good at capturing the process that has led successive UN climate reports to use progressively stronger language: Assessment Report 2 (1996) said human influence on the climate was “discernible”; AR3 (2001) said warming was “likely due” to human activities; AR4 (2007) declared it was “very likely”; AR5 (2014) “extremely likely”, and AR6 (2021) concluded it was “unequivocal”.
Another year, and we’re inside another room. In 2004, Stott was part of a delegation of UK scientists invited to share research with their counterparts in Russia. But the new Putin government had other ideas. The Russian scientists were sidelined at the last minute, and a panel of US and UK climate deniers took their place. The meeting took on something of the character of a show trial and left the British delegation furious.
On the final day of that session in Moscow, the politicians and the deniers departed, and the UK and Russian scientists were allowed to share their research. This is where Stott is most at home – scientists talking to each other, scrutinising methods and findings, away from the noise and mess of the outside world.
He was also involved in a 2007 controversy over a decision by the British government to send a copy of Al Gore's documentary An Inconvenient Truth to every school in the country. The government was sued under an obscure Thatcher-era law that forbids the political indoctrination of school children. Again, the science-on-trial drama is well conveyed by Stott. The judge, who did not watch the film in advance of the case, nor read Gore's accompanying book, found against the government.
These accounts of confrontations with well-organised and well-funded denier organisations reach their climax with Stott’s account of the 2009 email hacking scandal known as Climategate. The emails of Phil Jones, who maintained the Hadley Centre’s database of global temperature data, were stolen and leaked. Certain phrases seemed to suggest that scientists were manipulating climate data. Three separate inquiries cleared Jones and his colleagues but another log of doubt had been tossed on the fire.
The book closes on twin notes of disaster and hope. Stott considers the catalogue of extreme weather events that have hit the world in the last few years: wildfires in California, Australia, and Europe; floods in Germany and Belgium; heat records broken all over the globe.
But he also finds solace in increased activism among young people, and in the Citizens’ Assembly process in Ireland (he was an expert witness).
This process, in which ordinary citizens were presented with scientific and policy information in a dispassionate way, is a scientist’s dream: if we can only give them the information they will make the right decisions.
Unfortunately, as we will find out in Glasgow, it’s not that simple.
Dr David Robbins is director of the DCU Centre for Climate & Society