Professor Steve Rayner – “Climate Change: Armageddon or damp squib?”

On the 30th August FOBL was proud and fortunate to be able to present Professor Steve Rayner while he was in Sydney attending a conference on the Social Study of Science.  Not a stranger to these shores, Steve had previously visited Australia on several occasions. In 2010 he delivered the Jack Beale Memorial Lecture at the University of NSW and more recently spent four months as a visiting professor at Flinders University working on a study of how various water managers were or were not using the various weather and climate forecasting services available to them.

The provocative title of Steve’s talk was probably partly responsible for the strong turn out on a Thursday evening and FOBL members were outnumbered by non-members.

A careful exposition of ideas led up to what perhaps the central point of the talk encapsulated in a quote from the American Walter Lippmann:

“Democracy is not about getting people who think differently to think the same thing.  It is about getting people who think differently to do the same thing.”

It was suggested that we should not dwell too much on the certainty surrounding climate science but understand that the scientific findings are based on models which are themselves based on many assumptions.  It is not that they are either wrong or right but rather we should regard them as being as “good enough” just as we do many other assessments in business or politics.

Alarmists use data based on the burning of all the coal on the planet while optimists believe that climate change can be halted based upon impossible to achieve emissions reductions.  As so often the most likely outcome is somewhere in between but the opposing views about climate change have become proxies for the left and right of politics such that the debate is more about defending political positions than addressing the actual issues.

Interestingly the Catholic Herald quotes Pope Francis as saying that:

“Given the complexity of the ecological crisis and its multiple causes, we need to realize that the solutions will not emerge from just one way of interpreting and transforming reality.”

Drawing all the threads together Steve suggested some conclusions that we might draw from the current situation:

  • Climate change has become a surrogate/symbol of wider political preferences
  • A 2C degree limit is implausible
  • Beyond the basic physics the science is much less “settled” than implied by “97% of scientists agree”
  • However it is at least as good as information used for policy & business decisions
  • Climate policy debates are hampered by the perpetuation of inappropriate expertise
  • The origins of climate scepticism lie in claims made by scientists in early Congressional hearings
  • Climate scepticism is not about cognitive states but about assertions of identity
  • Attempts at “expert persuasion” are wrong headed and counter productive
  • The way to effective climate action is to meet people where they are, not “change hearts and minds”

All of this certainly stimulated the audience and there were many afterwards anxious to ask questions which were sensitively handled by the speaker who was also engaged in discussion by numerous people during the informal atmosphere of the light supper.  Not a few of those attending expressed the view that more Australian politicians could benefit from hearing the ideas presented.

Biographical Note:

Steve Rayner is James Martin Professor of Science and Civilization at Oxford University’s School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography and Institute for Science, Innovation and Society, where he also co-directs the Oxford Programme for the Future of Cities and the Oxford Geoengineering Programme, both supported by the Oxford Martin School. He is also a Senior Fellow at The Breakthrough Institute, a non-partisan environmental NGO based in California’s Bay Area. He previously held senior research positions in two US National Laboratories and has taught at leading US universities, including Cornell, Virginia Tech, and Columbia.

Trained as a political anthropologist (PhD University College London 1980), he describes himself as an ‘undisciplined’ scholar, committed to changing the world through social science.

As long ago as 1987, when at the National Laboratory, Oakridge, Tennessee, Steve was interested in the motivations behind the social perception of risk of groups in differing social environments.  Casting around for some form of standardized risk he thought that climate change might be a suitable candidate.  As it turned out it wasn’t in fact something that could be treated as standardized, but this attempt led to a career in climate change studies and the view, quite early on, that top down approaches to climate change policy were doomed to failure and that a more polycentric, bottom-up approach would be more effective.

After nine years at Oakridge Steve moved to Washington and the Pacific North Western lab where he was leading the Global Climate Change Research Group comprised of economists, sociologists and anthropologists like himself all trying to understand public policy and its impacts in this area.

From that position Steve returned to the UK after being head-hunted by the Economic and Social Science Research Council to run their National Research Program on Science in Society and from there he moved to the position that he currently holds as the James Martin Professor of Science and Civilization.

Steve has twice been a lead author on IPCC assessments of climate change and a member of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, not to mention numerous other academic and governmental advisory bodies.

Leave a Reply