Consensus And Controversy: The Debate On Man-Made Global Warming

  • Date: 23/04/13
  • Emil Røyrvik, SINTEF

This report outlines the main positions and debates surrounding the literally hot topic of man-made global warming. Inspired by social studies of science and technology, the goal of the report is to document, describe and take stock of this potent scientific and public “battlefield” that plays out arguably some of the more pressing issues of our time.

Presenting two broad “ideal type” of positions involved in the science of anthropogenic global warming (AGW), the “consensus” and the “contrarian” perspectives, the report analyses both their cultural premises and places them in relation to the philosophy of science. The report positively concludes that an alleged near unanimous scientific consensus on AGW, that “the science is settled”, is overstated. The report finds a robust, critical scientific discourse in climate related research, yet it highlights that a “consensus-building” approach to science might represent a politicised and unscientific belief in science – a belief in tension with the ethos of “normal science”.

The report calls for a continuing questioning, critical, and undogmatic public debate over man-made global warming, and a clearer separation between science and policy.

SINTEF is the largest independent research organisation in Scandinavia


The debate about man-made global warming is literally a hot topic. In fact it’s a discourse, and an empirical prospect, as some would argue, with quite a deadly intensity. This is a report about that debate. The title of the latest book by one of the central scientists in this field is telling: ”The hockey stick and the climate wars” (Mann 2012). This alleged ”climate war” is a scientific, political, economic, social and moral public field that is co-constructed and intersects in numerous ways, and which, to some extent at least, is characterized by the rhetoric of apocalypse, war and the communicative logic of the military trenches. Several other popular titles illustrate this: “The Suicidal Planet: How to prevent global climate catastrophe (Hillman 2007); “Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity” (Hansen 2009); ”Climate Cover-Up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming” (Hoggan and Littlemore 2009); “The Climate Crisis” (Archer and Rahmstorf 2010); “Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence” (Parenti 2011).

The language of fear and constructions of “catastrophe” regarding global warming has been firmly established during the last two decades, and professor of climate change Mike Hulme argues that this language has been embellished in the post 9/11 era (2009: 66). A report by the Institute of Public Policy Research in London commented on a comprehensive study of climate change discourses in the British media from 2006/2007 the following way: “The alarmist repertoire uses an inflated language, with terms such as “catastrophe”, “chaos” and “havoc”, and its tone is often urgent. It employs a quasi-religious register of doom, death, judgement, heaven and hell” (2007: 55). Likewise, the widely popular “tipping point” metaphor signifies the possible coming of sudden apocalypse.

The goal of this report is to enter this more or less inhospitable battlefield and take stock of the debate about anthropogenic (man-made) global warming. This will be done by both describing and counting the particular actors, activities and technologies (of both enchantment and production) performing on the scenes of this “theatre of war”, and also by bringing to the table a more distanced and analytical perspective of the field as such, using as a guiding metaphor the (hopefully) neutral UN-observers’ approach to zones of conflict and tension. The zone we are entering here and its particular mix of morality, science, politics, and polemics can certainly be explosive, confusing, and condescending.

There are several reasons for writing such a report. Needless to say, the debate on anthropogenic global warming is of high significance and consequence to people and society. More specifically, because of all that is publicly written and said about the dangers of global warming, one could easily get the impression that the major scientific issues on the subject is settled, and that the debate is, or is being, closed and “black boxed” (Latour 1987). On the other hand, there seems to be vocal and persistent scientists and advocates that on various grounds resist the alleged consensus. These voices sometimes claim that their legitimate dissent is silenced and marginalised in both scientific and public discourse. Thus, an explicit goal of this report has been to give the dissenting or “contrarian” perspectives a serious treatment. Has the science of anthropogenic global warming reached such a level of consensus saturation and cohesion that the debate is, legitimately or not, closed and “black boxed”? To be able to answer this question the contrarian perspectives receives relatively more space in this report. This choice is also justified by the wide attention and institutional support and promotion the consensus perspective(s) have received, not least through the IPCC.

In a 2007 speech before the UN Commission on Sustainable Development, Gro Harlem Brundtland, the UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy on Climate Change (and also former Prime Minister of Norway, and former Director-General of the World Health Organization) conveyed the mixture of politics, polemics, science and morality when she, in relation to global warming, famously stated that: “So what is it that is new today? What is new is that doubt has been eliminated. The report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is clear. And so is the Stern report. It is irresponsible, reckless and deeply immoral to question the seriousness of the situation. The time for diagnosis is over. Now it is time to act.”

This statement has several significant and problematic aspects that will be discussed in this report. Has doubt been eliminated in the case of anthropogenic (man-made) global warming? Is it possible to eliminate doubt, and are efforts to do so pursuits pertinent to science and democracy in open societies? Is it immoral and reckless to question and doubt? The Brundtland statement displays both explicitly and implicitly key premises upon which the debate on global warming is being played out, and this report seeks to unfold some of the most important of these premises.

As noted above, in the American vernacular the particular geo-political arenas of war is often labelled a “theatre of war”. Even though the subject matter of this report is both deserving of, and demands to be taken highly seriously, the theatre metaphor is in itself also quite appropriate. The debate on global warming has a theatrical ambience to it on several levels. It abounds with stories of tragedy, untergang and apocalypse, of crisis, saviours and salvation, and in several of these also (unintended) genres of melodrama and comedy is not difficult to detect. It borrows several of its communicative scripts from classical narratives, often including plots of good and evil, of culprits and heroes, and of nature’s ultimate revenge upon the unlimited folly of a humanity of myopic fools and malfeasants.

The theatrical tropes of the debate is also squarely pinpointed by the fact that the play’s definitive number one villain and enfant terrible is the agent and actor (or rather “actant” in the vocabulary of actor-network-theory) that goes by the name of CO2. Carbon dioxide. This gas is quite literally the “smoking gun” (Archer and Rahmstorf 2010: 11) of the play, metaphorically represented as something like the (Lord of The Rings’) Sauron in the saga of global warming, and believed to play the major role in causing anthropogenic global warming – with all its possible detrimental consequences. Yet CO2 is also a major actant in photosynthesis and the life-giving production of oxygen. With CO2 at the centrepiece of the play, inhabiting this radically doubleedged position of being both the gas of life and death, global warming as eschatological tales of humanity’s end-times, and its embedded counter narrative of secular (or rather quasi-religious) earthly resurrection and salvation through heroic deeds and technological measures, the drama of global warming attains the level of meaning that myths are made of.

1.1 The’four’myths’of’climate’change

To further explicate the cultural premises for understanding the debate about global warming, this section outlines the four core narratives, or myths, that arguably frame the discourse on climate change. [...]

Full report