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Can Big Oil buy a watered-down climate exhibit at the London Science Museum?

New wishy-washy statement by museum defends the science, sort of

The media stories have been sensational:

  1. Public scepticism prompts Science Museum to rename climate exhibition: The Science Museum is revising the contents of its new climate science gallery to reflect the wave of scepticism that has engulfed the issue in recent months.”
  2. London Science Museum goes climate science neutral: “A new climate gallery at London’s Science Museum, sponsored byRoyal Dutch Shell will step back from pushing evidence of man-made climate change to adopt a more neutral position.”

The anti-science crowd has been trumpeting the news, and Anthony Watts even claims credit for duping the Museum into thinking most of the viewers voting on its website were skeptics.

Sadly, the story turns out to be mostly true — and the fact that the exhibit is being funded by one of the biggest oil companies — Royal Dutch Shell — puts the credibility of the entire museum and its science staff on the line.

This cautionary tale story deserves to be told in full because scientists aren’t great at communicating to the public, and the media is doing an increasingly bad job, so science museums are — or were — one of the last vestiges where unadulterated science could be delivered to an interested public.

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Let’s start with the “good news.” In a statement emailed to Climate Progress in response to a series of questions, the London Science Museum director, Dr. Chris Rapley, pushes back (somewhat) against recent media stories:

Dear Joe,

Please see original press release (attached) and statement below which I hope will clarify.

Best regards,

Chris

After laying out our intentions for the new climate science gallery, the term ‘neutral’ has been adopted in some articles in the press, which is not an accurate description of our approach. The role of the Science Museum is to provide an enjoyable, informative experience which is representative of the state of the science. Our aim is to increase interest and deepen understanding. This will include the fact that majority of the climate science community has concluded that current climate change is real and mainly human-induced. There are always areas of uncertainty in any scientific topic, and climate science is no exception. We respect people’s right to disagree, and we will address the issues raised, but we always return to the fact that the weight of evidence supports the anthropogenic conclusion. The climate debate has become very polarised in recent months, and this has made even more important the need for a public space where people who agree, who are unsure, and who disagree that humans are affecting the climate system are able to explore the science and make up their own minds.

Okay, that doesn’t seem uber-lame. As we’ll see, however, there are three key scientific issues — climate change is real, it is mainly human-induced, and if we don’t take strong action, we risk serious consequences — and the museum appears to have punted on the third one, which, of course, is really the whole point of the scientific effort to understand human-caused global warming.

Now let’s run this story chronologically. As the Times Online’s Ben Webster reported Wednesday (story #1 above):

Last October the museum launched a temporary exhibition called “Prove It! All the evidence you need to believe in climate change”. The museum said at the time that the exhibition had been designed to demonstrate “through scientific evidence that climate change is real and requires an urgent solution”.

Indeed, thanks to Anthony Watts (who freeped the poll), we actually have a screen capture of what the museum posted online:

Note the the museum said unequivocally:

The Science Museum has examined the evidence. We’re convinced climate change is caused by humans and requires urgent action.

In the new statement, the “urgent action” part of the sign of a message has vanished.

The current ruckus broke out because of a paragraph in the original March 22 press release announcing the new gallery (part of what Rapley sent to “clarify” where the museum stood):

Prof. Chris Rapley CBE, Director of the Science Museum, said:

“The Science Museum aims to provide the answers to people’s questions about the science of climate change, becoming a trusted destination for public engagement with climate science. The scientific community has, with some exceptions, concluded that climate change is real, largely driven by humans and requires a response. Our exhibition will deliver an immersive, enjoyable and memorable experience that explains their work and results and shows how science and technology can contribute to a low-carbon future. Our objective is to minimise the shrill tone and emotion that bedevils discussion of this subject, satisfying the interests and needs of those who accept that human-induced climate change is real, those who are unsure, and those who do not.

As CP readers know, the only way to satisfy the interests and needs of those who do not accept that human-induced climate change is real is to stop explaining the science to them, stop advancing any serious policies to reduce emissions, and pretend their disinformed worldviews is accurate.

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This press release seem to be walking back what the Science Museum has said in its temporary exhibit, so is no surprise that a reporter like Webster would ask Rapley what the heck he meant. And Rapley said stuff like:

Chris Rapley, the museum’s director, told The Times that it was taking a different approach after observing how the climate debate had been affected by leaked e-mails and overstatements of the dangers of global warming. He said: “We have come to realise, given the way this subject has become so polarised over the past three to four months, that we need to be respectful and welcoming of all views on it.”

Professor Rapley, a climate scientist and former director of the British Antarctic Survey [BAS} research centre, said that the museum needed to remain neutral in order to be trusted: “The Science Museum will not state a position on whether or not climate change is real, driven by humans or threatening.”

“The climate science community, by and large, has concluded that humans have intervened in the system in a way that will lead to climate change. But that is their story. It’s not our story, so that can’t be our conclusion. If we take sides we will alienate some of the people who want to be part of the discussion.

“Although there is an extreme faction who very much disagree, there is a much bigger contingent who are not convinced. We want to welcome them into the debate by being as neutral and fairhanded as we can be.”

Inane stuff. In the statement he sent me, Rapley walked back some of it, but he has so far not answered my questions as to whether these quotes were accurate in the first place and if so, he is repudiating them all. The story continues:

Professor Rapley said that the gallery, which is to open in November before the climate summit in Cancun, Mexico, would refrain from scaring visitors with apocalyptic predictions of rising sea levels and would be honest about the conflicting views on the scale of possible changes to the climate.

“You can argue about how much effect the carbon in the atmosphere will have on the system and what we should do about it,” he said. “The role of the museum should be to lay out honestly and fairly what the climate science community has found out about the science.

“There are areas of uncertainty which are perfectly reasonable to raise and we will present those. For example, the extent to which the climate is as sensitive to the CO2-loading that humans have put in or not.

Yeah, well, as I have discussed many times, most of the uncertainty on the climate’s sensitivity to CO2 is on the high side. That is, the uncertainty is over whether doubling CO2 concentrations would be bad or catastrophic, which may in any case be moot since we are headed towards tripling or quadrupling CO2, whose likely impact is somewhere between catastrophic and unimaginable.

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What is especially disappointing to me is that Rapley is a leading authority on the Antarctic, not just through the BAS but as President of the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (until 2010). Indeed, in a 2006 paper that I cited in my book, “The Antarctic ice sheets and Sea Level Rise,” Rapley explains that scientists had come to the view that “the possibility of a substantial sea level rise due to instability of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) was consider to be very unlikely during the 21st century.” But then he explains that “a variety of evidence suggest that the issue of the stability of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet” should be revisited. He said back then

Only five years ago, Antarctica was characterised as a slumbering giant in terms of climate change. I would argue that this is now an awakened giant and we should take notice.

Shrill alarmist!

And that was 2006. I think it’s safe to say that Antarctica is a giant on the move today:

Indeed, back in 2009 when Rapley was President, SCAR “” a perfect acronymn if ever there was one “” explained in their news release here:

Loss of ice from the West Antarctic ice sheet is likely to contribute some tens of centimetres to global sea level by 2100. This will contribute to a projected total sea level rise of up to 1.4 metres (and possibly higher) by 2100.

Shrill alarmists!

I wonder what all those people who don’t believe in human-induced climate change would say if the London Science Museum actually presented all of the latest science on Antarctica and sea level rise (see “Sea levels may rise 3 times faster than IPCC estimated, could hit 6 feet by 2100”). They’d probably want their money back.

Perhaps Royal Dutch Shell would want its money back, too. And that’s the other big problem with the new wishy-washy statements by Rapley and the museum.

Talking about the reality of climate change and the fact that it is mainly human caused, well, that’s not going to upset anybody too much — if you dumb down the part about how the scientific “evidence” makes clear that climate change “requires urgent action” or you dumb down the part about the scientific evidence that we are risking catastrophic sea-level rise, science that Rapley himself contributed to.

For the London Science Museum to backtrack on the “requires urgent action” message while taking money from a Big Oil company that stands to lose revenue if we actually did take urgent action — well, that creates an appearance of the museum and its scientists having compromised their integrity for money. As Left Foot Forward notes, Shell is “one of the biggest oil companies in the world and one of the most controversial multinationals in large part due to its climate wrecking practises and disinformation campaigns about climate science”:

In the United States, Shell is part of the American Petroleum Institute, the organisation leading the campaign to peddle anti-science propaganda, and to orchestrate “astroturfing” “fake grassroots” campaigns against Obama’s clean energy reforms and the regulation of greenhouse gases.

In Canada, Shell is producing tar sands — the dirtiest oil there is, whilst here it is pulling out of renewable schemes. You have to ask: Is the Science Museum really representing the real scientific community, or pandering to the wishes of their corporate sponsors?

Dr. Rapley and the Museum should give Shell back its money so as not to taint this exhibit at all. And they need to issue a much stronger statement, one that reaffirms what they had initially put on their website:

The Science Museum has examined the evidence. We’re convinced climate change is caused by humans and requires urgent action.

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