Richard Black is director of the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit. He was formerly BBC science and environment correspondent for 12 years.
The late climatologist Stephen Schneider titled his memoirs “Science as a Contact Sport” — and for him and his colleagues, either side of the explosive 2009 U.N. climate summit in Copenhagen, life was exactly that.
Knocks on the door in the dead of night; security threats serious enough to mandate personal bodyguards at science conferences; postings on white supremacist websites pointing out researchers’ Jewish heritage.
All this abuse for merely flagging up what their science showed to be true: that humankind’s greenhouse gas emissions were changing the face of the Earth in ways likely to be overwhelmingly negative and possibly catastrophic, and that a different way forward, free from untrammelled fossil fuel use, was feasible and desirable.
Many scientists enter the profession because they are fascinated by the process of research. And if they go into a field such as astrophysics or string theory, research is usually where their work stays.
Scientists become figures to be shot at if their advice runs counter to your business interests or ideology.
Life for climate scientists is rather different. The conclusions they produce matter outside the confines of academia. Businesses find in them threats or opportunities. Politicians consider the social and environmental implications of cutting emissions or not.
Because scientific conclusions can move stock markets, public opinion and government policies, what might otherwise be a purely academic existence becomes a contact sport where “playing the man” rather than the ball is a fact of life.
As with climate science for decades, so now with coronavirus, because the advice of epidemiologists and vaccine developers and public health specialists directly affects citizens’ opinions, businesses’ prospects and government policy.
Most governments will hesitate, for a mixture of reasons running from good sense to PR sense, to be seen as “going against the science.” So scientists become figures to be shot at if their advice runs counter to your business interests or ideology — or even your desire to go for a drink in your local beer garden.
If anything, scientists advising on COVID-19 face a tougher situation than those researching climate change. Everything is happening so much faster, against an enemy about which much remains unknown. Epidemiology is updated in near-real-time, even as governments attempt to adjust policy based on it and the infection data itself is revised and re-revised based on new facts.
The impacts of both the virus and control measures are felt immediately and viscerally. The consequences of a bad policy decision will be discernible in days rather than years — and a projection that proves to be inaccurate will be obvious equally quickly.
The media spotlight is so intense that scientific figures around the world — Chris Witty and Patrick Vallance in the U.K, Didier Raoult in France, Anthony Fauci in the U.S. — have become household names.
One thing that COVID-19 scientists have in common with their climate-change peers is that neither body of experts is monolithic. Just as interpretations range between climate scientists as to the timescale on which impacts will escalate or the optimum way to decarbonize electricity generation, so coronavirus scientists differ in their forecasts of the likely spread of the pandemic and the best measures to restrain it.
Such is the divergence between scientists that David King, a former chief scientific adviser to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, has set up an alternative group of experts to cast their own judgment on the available evidence and provide a fresh stream of interpretation and advice.
This divergence means politicians, business chiefs and especially media commentators can latch on to whichever piece of science they prefer. Hence the near-deification in some quarters of Sweden’s coronavirus chief Anders Tegnell, whose advocacy of voluntary rather than compulsory social distancing appeals to many in both the wallet and the ideological cortex.
And hence the defenestration of Imperial College London’s Neil Ferguson by newspapers whose comment pages speak to an abhorrence for lockdown policies. Newspapers happy to call a scientist whose advice probably saved many thousands of lives “the bonking boffin” and “Professor Lockdown.”
By his own admission, Ferguson erred by allowing a visitor into his home, breaking the very rules that policymakers had put in place as a result of his advice. His resignation followed that of Catherine Calderwood, formerly Scotland’s chief medical officer, for visiting her second home.
Just as the great and the good are castigated for preaching climate abstinence at Davos after flying there in private jets, the personal behavior of the epidemiologists and virologists helping governments is now — rightly or wrongly — in the frame, with “hypocrisy” the greatest sin.
Climate scientists have been at this a lot longer than their coronavirus peers. So what can the latter usefully glean from the formers’ experience?
A couple of things stand out. One is that it took climate scientists years to realize that if they always highlighted areas in public where they disagreed or where the science was as yet uncertain, they would be eviscerated. Now, the disagreements are just as real and just as discussed, but most climate scientists have learned to emphasise that there is no disagreement on the central points: Climate change poses a serious, present-day and escalating risk, and that there are eminently feasible ways to reduce those risks by cutting carbon emissions.
The second conclusion is that eventually, evidence wins out. The detractors of climate science no longer have currency anywhere it matters (outside the White House) because their claims, whether “climate change is all natural” or “reducing emissions is economic suicide,” have been clearly shown to be wrong.
COVID-19 science, as Ferguson has just found out, may currently be a contact sport. But the experience of climate science suggests it is a sport that good scientists will eventually win.