Revisiting the science

At about this time last year thousands of people were standing in the snow in long lines outside the convention centre in Copenhagen where COP 15 was underway. There was great expectation in the air, but equally concern that months of unrelenting public attack on climate science was undermining the UN process, not to mention emissions mitigation policy development at national level in many countries. There had been the University of East Anglia e-mails, the IPCC Himalayan glacier error and of course a torrent of blogs, books and newspaper articles all questioning the validity of climate science. How much all this contributed to the shelving of legislation in Australia and the United States or the mixed messages that did eventually come out of that convention centre will never be known, but it almost certainly played a role. Yet for many people and scores of scientists, there is no doubt that the composition of the atmosphere is changing as a result of anthropogenic emissions and that this change is in turn leading to a rise in global temperatures and a consequent risk to long term climate and ultimately habitability.

One thing is very clear though, this subject in all its complexity and uncertainty needs to be better explained and presented to people. After all, it is “just science” and we are, like it or not, a science based culture. Why should we somehow accept that there is strong scientific evidence for something as remote as a near earth sized planet orbiting a star hundred of light years away (after all, we can’t actually see it), but refuse to acknowledge the scientific evidence that explains the changes taking place in our own atmosphere.

Roll on a year and in similar snowy weather I was able to get a brief preview of “atmosphere: exploring climate science”, a new gallery that will open in London’s Science Museum this week. The gallery has been in the planning for some two years so is not a direct response to the events leading up to COP 16, although as a member of the advisory panel which met many times as the gallery content came together, there is no doubt that we were very mindful of these events in sharing our views on the content that the staff at the museum were proposing to put on display. When we first met in 2009 I don’t think anybody imagined that the centrepiece exhibits would be an ice core from Antarctica or an original Keeling flask (below), but there they are proudly displayed for all to see in South Kensington.

The focus of the gallery is not climate change as such, but a real exploration of the composition of the atmosphere, the global carbon cycle, the greenhouse effect and the paleoclimate record. The backdrop to this is the scientific process of painstaking data collection (e.g. the Keeling flask), analysis and finally presentation of results for all to comment on, deliver opinion and reach a conclusion. It’s a beautiful gallery to visit, with subtle lighting, excellent use of video technology and the open offer to interact with the subject through an array of learning stations and fixed exhibits.

I can highly recommend a visit. If you can’t, then at least visit the website, which will feature much of the content in an on-line format.

As an aside, the Science Museum is not the only UK institution that has taken up the challenge of helping people understand this important subject. Recently the Royal Society has put together an excellent publication which seeks to explain the fundamentals behind the changes underway, rather than immediately postulate a world of floods, storms and droughts. In combination with the “atmosphere” exhibit, it offers the opportunity for people to revisit this subject and hopefully come away with a clearer view on the need for and type of response.