Trust and Mistrust of Climate Science

You can watch this special Sustain What episode hosted on behalf of the Mellon-Sawyer Seminar on Trust and Mistrust of Science and Experts. (Andrew Revkin, normally the moderator of these sessions, is one of three guests this time, along with Mike Hulme and Noami Oreskes).

The transcript of my opening remarks is pasted below …


“In my remarks today I want to put forward the argument that whatever ‘crisis in science’ or ‘mistrust of experts’ that might be perceived to exist around climate change, it is not primarily a problem that publics have either with ‘science’ in general … or with the idea of ‘expertise’. 

“Rather, the problem is much more broadly situated.  It is a problem of democracy.  Or, more precisely, it is a problem of how to make decisions about far-reaching climate policies which carry legitimacy … and which therefore gain the assent of the people.

“SLIDE 2.  To use an example.  British politician Michael Gove’s oft quoted comment from 2016 in the context of the Brexit vote that the British people seem to have had enough of experts, was a clumsy way of saying something important.  People were suspicious of experts inappropriately foreclosing questions that are, to use Alvin Weinberg’s formulation, “trans-scientific”.

“And, of course, the world has many such trans-scientific questions which exceed the competence and legitimacy of scientists or experts solely to answer.  Climate change is perhaps the mother of them all.

“So, it is not science per se that publics distrust – surveys show persistently that well over 75% of Americans believe in the public benefits of science.  Nor is it even climate science that is disbelieved – there has always been roughly at least two thirds of Americans who accept that humans are influencing the climate. 

“With climate change the problem arises when people perceive that arguments are being made – and decisions then being taken — that there is only one right way to respond, a way that is determined by science, by scientists, or by advocates who claim that this is what science demands.

“SLIDE 3.  Contra Gove, what people have had enough of within public debates and advocacy campaigns around climate change are slogans such as ‘listen to the scientists’ or ‘the science tells us we must do this’. 

“Let me illustrate this with something I know a little about – the Climategate controversy of 2009.

“SLIDE 4.  Climategate was a controversy because it appeared that climate scientists were undermining the idea of a ‘well-ordered science’, or what Naomi has written about as ‘the conditions necessary to reach a fair and open consensus’.

“We can discuss the extent to which this ‘appearance’ was real or manufactured, but my point is this. 

“Climategate become a crisis because so much was being staked – by both ends of the political spectrum – on science providing the direction and justification for political action (or inaction).  It was a crisis because of the undermining of the probity of the science upon which, it was believed or at least claimed, all sensible climate policy depended.  Most notably, this included the prominent environmental commentator George Monbiot.

“From this standpoint, science and scientists have to be “pure” (to use Steven Shapin’s word) or “unimpeachable” (as in Monbiot’s claim at the time, as he called upon climate scientists to resign: “I have never felt so alone”, he lamented.  Science had let him down).  Similarly, the subsequent Glaciergate crisis in the IPCC prompted Jacqueline Cramer, the Dutch Environment Minister, to state that “I will not tolerate one further error” in the IPCC.  But politics is in a dangerous place if it cannot tolerate errors in science.

“So my argument is that at the heart of climate scepticism is not a nefarious FF industry sowing doubt about science or expertise.  They undoubtedly have done so, but this is quite distinctive to American (or perhaps Anglophone) culture.  Climate scepticism in Russia, France, India or China, for example, is not synonymous with FF interests.

“Climate scepticism has broader roots than this.  Mistrust in science is always bound up with other things – politics, culture, ethics, the law.  Scepticism often arises from observing how science and expert judgement is being mobilised in debates that are essential political – in other words, climate sceptics are suspicious about how the different interests and values of public actors concerning climate change are being resolved. 

“Scepticism therefore points to the problem of legitimation; it is the problem of how science – how experts – relate, or are perceived to relate, to democracy.  The problem is one of when and how to “open up” public debate and when and how to “close it down”, to use Andy Stirling’s metaphor.  And this requires us to recognise that how one ‘closes down’ depends on political culture: Russia, China, USA and Germany all do it very differently.

“So, in conclusion let me offer three “don’ts” and three “do’s” for climate scientists, academics or advocates concerned about the place of climate science and expertise in society … concerned about the relationship between science, expertise and public discourse in the challenging circumstances of a changing climate.

Three don’ts

SLIDE 5  Don’t put experts in control

“It is surprising to me how many leading climate scientists seem to favour a Platonic form of governance; that is, favouring a technocracy over a democracy.

“Take this example from Chris Rapley, Professor of Climate Science at UCL.  Speaking recently in response to the WMO State of Climate 2020 report … and citing the novel The March of Folly by the US historian Barbara Tuchman … Rapley says “The issue is not of science but of politics.  What precautions and safeguards are available to root out the individuals in power who perpetrate Folly?  Plato suggested that the ruling class in a just society should be ‘drawn from the rational and wise’… It’s time for an uprising of concerted Action to fix politics – managing the climate crisis will follow.”

“In contrast, rather than leading a revolution to put experts in control, Juliette Kayyem – at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government — calls for scientists to “stay in your lane” and warns them against the lure of “rockstar status [that] can make you think that everyone wants your opinion on everything” (Science, 16 April 2021, p.217).

SLIDE 6 Don’t demonise one’s opponents

“To stand in here, I use the case of climate scientist Michael Mann and his militarist vocabulary.  The German theorist Carl von Clausewitz characterized war as “an act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfil our will.”  This is not a good way to think about climate politics in a democracy.  In wars there are winners and losers.  Sides are taken and the solution is conquering and defeating the enemy. 

“As John Besley at Michigan State University asks, “Do we want people to see scientists as angry, embattled, frustrated people … or rather people who are doing [their] best to solve problems to make the world better?”  The danger with the combative climate militancy espoused by Mann is that it ends up being a destructive form of advocacy.

SLIDE 7  Don’t create an emergency out of a condition

“Declarations of emergencies create ‘states of exception,’ often justified by governments under conditions of war, pandemics, insurrection, or terrorist threat.  Emergencies promise the mass mobilization of a jurisdiction’s full economic, social and technical capacities to ward off an existential threat. 

“Yet at the same time emergencies threaten constitutional rights, justify the suspension of normal politics and legitimate rule by experts and technocrats.  Following political declarations of emergency, the goals of public policy become worryingly focused on a reductive set of indicators — in the case of climate change, securing net-zero carbon emissions by a given date.  But meeting the challenge of climate change for future human well-being demands a proliferation of diverse policy goals, the very opposite of what ‘states of exception’ bring into being.

Three do’s

SLIDE 8  Recognise the limits of science

“As John Dewey and Hannah Arendt among many others have shown, scientific facts do not carry their political or ethical meanings with them.  Facts cannot speak for themselves.  Indeed, on most complex public policy questions – such as climate change – there is a “surfeit of facts”.  Dan Sarewitz explains the error to which scientific experts are drawn: “ … our expectations for Enlightenment ideals of applied rationality are themselves irrational.  We are asking science to do the impossible: to arrive at scientifically coherent and politically unifying understandings of problems that are inherently open, indeterminate and contested.’’

“Juli Staiano, Chief Philanthropy Officer at the AAAS, was correct when he said recently in Science (22 April 2021) “But, as we’ve also seen, evidence cannot speak for itself — we must have the right message, and the right messengers”.   

“But what is “the right message”? 

SLIDE 9  Expose underlying values

“You certainly won’t find the message of climate “facts” by finding out more facts.  No — political consensus does not follow from scientific consensus … and certainly not for climate change where the scientific consensus is actually over a rather minimalist set of claims about human influence on climate.

“To find “the message” we have to turn to underlying values and here scientists have no special privilege.  Expose the values of scientists, yes — but also those of different political actors who will hold contrasting values. 

“Politics can only work when we realise there is no “right message” hidden in the facts.  Expose the different interests at stake in climate change and do not let these interests hide behind the façade of value-neutral science. Only then can legitimate agonisms unfold, without someone playing the fake trump-card of “the science demands”. 

“It is toward this goal that a lot of my own work and writing on climate change over the past 15 years has been directed, starting with Why We Disagree About Climate Change in 2009.

SLIDE 10  Invest in political institutions/process

“Good politics needs much more than good science.  For issues like climate change, investing in new participatory and agonistic forms of democracy—where value conflicts and political disagreements are acknowledged, voiced, and worked with—is as important (perhaps more important) than investing in new scientific or technical knowledge.

“There is a balance here between the twin dangers of, on the one hand, the crisis politics of emergency and, on the other, perpetually ‘kicking the can down the road’.

“But good politics requires agonistic listening (Mouffe) or the pursuit of what Nicholas Rescher calls ‘acquiescence’ in a decision, rather than consensual agreement.  Have all interested parties been heard?  Has their case been understood?  Have their concerns been recognised?

“I would argue that over-emphasising narrow science-based indicators – like global temperature, net-zero emissions — or the emotional rhetoric of 10 more years – are poor substitutes or short-cuts for political forms of closure. 

“And they may feed suspicion or mis-trust in science.”

Mike Hulme, 17 May 2021


Collins,H. (2014) Are We All Scientific Experts Now? Cambridge: Polity. 144pp.

Eyal,G. (2019) The Crisis of Expertise. Cambridge: Polity Press. 190p.

Nicholls,T. (2017)  The Death of Expertise: The Campaign against established knowledge and why it Matters. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 252pp.

Oreskes,N. et al. (2019) Why Trust Science? Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 360pp.

Sarewitz,D. (2011) Does climate change knowledge really matter? WIREs Climate Change. 2(4): 475-481.

Stirling,A. (2008) “Opening up” and “Closing down”: power, participation and pluralism in the social appraisal of technology. Science, Technology & Human Values. 33(2): 262-294.

Stirling,A. (2010) Keep it complex. Nature. 468: 1029-1031