ISBN 978-1-4262-0540-8. “Science as a Contact Sport: Inside the Battle to Save Earth’s Climate” by Stephen H. Schneider was published by National Geographic in 2009. We reviewed the hardback copy which had 295 pages including Foreword, Introduction, nine Chapters, Acknowledgements, Notes and Index. We admit to reading this book in just one sitting. It served as an antidote to the previous read that was the somewhat turgid “Questioning Collapse”. It is all relative as “Science as a Contact Sport” wasn’t THAT entertaining but it was nice just to kick back and read what is, effectively, an autobiography. Schneider probably knows more about man-made climate change than any man alive. Or so says Tim Flannery, Chairman of the Copenhagen Climate Council in the Foreword. This may well be true as he started out in climatology in the early 1970’s when the field barely existed as an area of science. Right from the off he made a name for himself in the media when he part-penned a paper that suggested the world was in for global cooling. Of course this early work on aerosols was wrong and he corrected the model some three years later. Inevitably, to this day, he is still reminded about this. Of course the climate change deniers find this fact hilarious with the obvious refrain about Schneider “not making his mind up – why should we believe him now?” However, as the good man clearly says, good science evolves through mistakes.
Schneider does seem to have known almost everyone who was anyone. He worked alongside both Al Gore and Carl Sagan. It was with Sagan that he had his most regrettable bust-up with when he revealed that Sagan’s theory of “Nuclear Winters” was fundamentally flawed. Schneider believed that Sagan had ignored the evidence in order to promote the theory on ideological grounds. This is precisely the sort of error being made today by climate change deniers. The irony is that, despite his track record of “conservative” science (rather than what might be seen as “hysteria”) the climate change denial community continue to twist his words to suggest that science should lie in order to achieve ideological objectives. This is profoundly untrue. But the truth is never the objective for deniers. The reason why he has fallen victim so many times over the years is that he, like Sagan, is a great performer. He has worked extensively in the media spotlight and realises the importance of science in informing policy. However he has always felt that, science should never prescribe policy – only advise. He has thus drawn hate mail both from environmental campaigners and from climate change deniers precisely because he sits in the middle.
This “middle” is not, however the centre-ground owned by the likes of Bjorn Lomborg (who Schneider writes about at length). Schneider knows that climate change is man-made and something has to be done. He has worked for the IPCC since inception and was instrumental in constructing the language of uncertainty that the organisation uses. For example the term “highly likely” actually means nothing unless you can apply a tangible figure of 95% to it. It is Schneider’s many years testifying at Senate hearings and working in the IPCC that make the most interesting reading. He laments that the Senate hearings in 1979 at the end of the Carter administration covered the same ground as those in 2009. Thirty years had passed yet still nothing had been done. Schneider writes that the problem “can be summed up in five easy pieces: ignorance, greed, denial, tribalism and short-term-thinking.” This comes over loud and clear in his blow-by-blow accounts of numerous IPCC gatherings.
When the climate change deniers tell you that the IPCC are “political” you should probably believe them! If they tell you, though, that the reports are only written by a handful of people, don’t believe them. Recall the Ian Plimer claims that the IPCC are a bunch of environmentalists and not proper scientists! If you want to know the truth about how the IPCC works then read “Science as a Contact Sport”! In fact the truth is scarier than fiction. The reports from thousands of climatologists are gathered up and synthesised before hundreds gather in rooms to argue about every word of the text of the final IPCC report. The actual science bit is fine but powerful interests undermine the process. The usual culprits are China and the U.S.A. who obstruct proceedings over and over again with pointless technical points that have nothing to do with the conclusions of the scientists whose work they are meant to be reviewing. To those of us who didn’t know how the IPCC worked this is quite shocking. No wonder the reports end up being so conservative and smother the ‘end-of-the-world-awful-truth’ in so many caveats. It is difficult to make out whether anything bad is happening at all. Conservative and pro-fossil fuel politics corrupt the IPCC. It corrupts the science. But the corruption is all one way. It hides the problem from the public. It doesn’t exaggerate it. This book is a remarkable insider’s view of 40 years of evolving climate science. A great read. Sometimes shockingly so.