Alan Roberts Prize Essay: The Limits of Science Communication

Contesting frames for climate action 

Since 2009 the Yale Program on Climate Communication has reported on shifts in American opinion about climate change: its existence, its urgency, and individuals’ commitment to do something about it. Its model, ‘Global Warming’s Six Americas’, groups opinion from the Dismissive, those who are certain that climate change is not happening and actively oppose efforts to stop carbon emissions and mitigate their effects; to the Doubtful, the Disengaged and the Cautious, who evince different degrees of conviction about the problem; to the Concerned, who understand that climate change is a serious problem but have yet to do much about it; and, finally, to the Alarmed, who are ‘fully convinced of the reality and seriousness of climate change and are already taking individual, consumer, and political action to address it’.

The results of the Six Americas studies over the past eleven years seem to suggest that the Yale Program has had some success in its wider mission to ‘advance the science of climate change communication, help leaders communicate more effectively, and increase the public’s understanding of climate risks and opportunities’. According to the latest report, in the five years to 2020 the share of the population in the ‘Alarmed’ bracket has doubled in size. Between them, the ‘Alarmed’ and ‘Concerned’ now have a slight majority. The ranks of the ‘Dismissive’ have diminished to only 7 per cent of the American voting-age population.

Two questions immediately arise. The first is a classic of social science: is this correlation or causation? This is not to doubt the studies’ methods—and I note that the latest study doesn’t make any strong claims about the causes of shifting opinion—but what else, apart from ‘communication’, could have led to the collapse of climate denialism and the increasing agitation of climate believers? The second question is: so what? Even if the figures for greater awareness have increased, never has the world’s leading power been more flagrant in its climate recalcitrance. Joe Biden has promised US leadership on climate, but with a hair’s-breadth majority in the Senate, the Democratic Party will be challenged to legislate its way out of the crisis. In Australia, our political leaders have never been more openly supportive of fossil-industry interests and more dismissive of public concern about climate change. If the gap between science and public opinion is closing, the breach between both and effective policy action is as wide as it has ever been.

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It wasn’t meant to turn out this way. The Yale Program grew out of a moment of renewed focus and optimism for climate science and its American advocates, after the compromises of the Kyoto negotiations in 1997, the US Senate’s refusal to ratify the final protocol, and George W. Bush’s abandonment of meaningful action on climate change in the early 2000s. Chastened by political failure, academics and policymakers sought to re-ground climate action in public opinion. In 2005 the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies—now the Yale School of Environment—held a conference in Aspen, where more than 100 politicians, policymakers, climate scientists, social researchers, journalists and advocates met to discuss the perceived gap between scientific and public understanding of anthropogenic climate change. They saw this, in turn, as the key to making effective climate policy in the future.

Scientists had publicly pleaded for action from citizens and politicians since at least 1988, when James Hansen addressed the US Congress on the likely impacts of escalating carbon emissions. But they had failed. Their error, as the Aspen group saw it, was a belief that climate facts alone could make the public care. The group set about reinventing climate communication, using the social sciences as a bridge from the hard science of climate change to the lay public. ‘Human behaviour is not a simple arrow from attitudes to behaviour’, Australian social researcher Rebecca Huntley writes of the lessons for this new generation of climate communicators: ‘You have to start with an appreciation of human psychology but also with a nuanced understanding of the mindset of your intended audience’.

Persuasive efforts, then, would go hand-in-hand with legislative action. The divisions of the Trump years, culminating in violence on the Capitol in January, have prompted dewy-eyed appeals to a lost era of bipartisanship—indeed, ‘unity’ across political and social divides is what Biden has promised America, and the world, from his presidency. But, reading back over the Aspen conference’s report, I was surprised to find sharp debate about the politics of climate advocacy. Some participants wanted to focus on the elevation of one party (assume the Democrats) and the exercise of majority power and legislative muscle to push through climate-focused legislation. The other, majority position favoured a consensual approach, ‘reaching across the aisle’ towards agreement on legislation. Part of the justification for this strategy lay in the presumed effects of partisanship on opinion: partisanship at the highest levels could have ‘profound spillover effects’ on public opinion, ‘chilling public engagement on climate change’ and polarising opinion to the detriment of climate action.

Amid seeming confidence, the report also hinted at coming problems for advocates of technical solutions to the climate challenge. Fears about the decline of an expert-led society, and public misunderstanding and mistrust of science, haunted Aspen. ‘Is climate change merely one instance of a larger problem, namely, the expanding gulf between the increasingly scientific and technical content of public policy issues on the one hand, and the declining public understanding of science and technology on the other?’, it asked. 

Implicit in this was a short-sighted history, with narrow horizons. The explosion of higher education in the second half of the twentieth century, and the intensification of research and development activities, had created something like an expert-led society in the developed West. But seamless, technocratic governance, much less a golden age of public appreciation of science, this was not. Nor were its connections to democracy clear. As the great historian Eric Hobsbawm put it in Age of Extremes, his history of the twentieth century: ‘In a democratic and populist world, scientists were an elite, concentrated in a relatively few specialized centres… As time went on [their] activities became ever more incomprehensible to non-scientists, though laymen tried desperately to understand’. In the fifteen years since Aspen, advocates of climate-change communication have tried to remedy this failure of understanding. But without addressing the conditions Hobsbawm described, their efforts can only go so far.

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Since 2005, this movement has also made its way to Australia. When Huntley visited the Yale Program in 2018, it was ‘a kind of pilgrimage’. Huntley’s 2020 book, How to Talk about Climate Change in a Way That Makes a Difference, imports the lessons of the Yale Program to Australia with a convert’s zeal. The key to changing minds, according to Huntley, lies in interpersonal relationships and communications. These must be based on trust, and an appeal to shared values and reserves of fellow feeling among friends, family members and sometimes strangers. By contrast, Huntley doubts the usefulness of politics to climate action. She sees the validity of anger as a personal response to climate change but baulks at what it might lead to politically. Unchecked anger, we are told, is the tool of destructive polarisation and even ‘fundamentalism’. 

The Monash Climate Change Communication Research Hub is also wary of climate politics, based in its reading of the news media record and public preferences. It sees ‘politicisation’—defined as political involvement in climate narratives, and the absorption of climate into wider political debates—as detrimental to the public’s understanding of climate science. The apparent fungibility of climate science and politics is one problem, and the other is presenting climate itself as a political issue:

The strong connections made in the 2010s media between mentions of climate science and climate change policy entrenched politicisation of the issue and failed to present peer-reviewed climate science to the Australian public.1

And audiences seem not to like it either. Of television viewers surveyed in 2017, 49.07 per cent liked the idea of having weather presenters present ‘impartial information’ about climate change ‘because information about climate change is too politicized in Australia’.2 If, as a 2015 study cited by the Monash Hub shows, ‘perception of expert consensus can act as a “gateway” to changing beliefs about climate change’, it follows that ‘politics’ is a distraction and a turn-off, and should be marginal to communication about climate change.3

To Huntley, even the attribution of the causes of climate change is almost useless. She accepts that there is a ‘hierarchy of blame’ for the climate crisis, but focusing on this first of all distracts from personal responsibility, and secondly gets in the way of the ultimate goal of finding ‘common ground’ on climate. Meanwhile, the Yale Program, and its publicity arm, Yale Climate Connections, eagerly anticipates the market’s coming—perhaps inevitable—decision on fossil fuel obsolescence. There is no mention of any need to hasten the demise of fossil fuels, of the role governments could play beyond ending subsidies, or of the role of corporate-sponsored misinformation campaigns that have corroded climate discussion for the past forty-plus years.4 Huntley’s book, and the Yale models she borrows from, add up to a picture of a climate challenge that can be resolved on the plane of communication, to the exclusion of activism. 

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The intellectual debts of this grouping are clear enough. Writing in Aeon, Emilie Prattico argues for German philosopher Jürgen Habermas’ use both as a critic of climate disinformation and as a guide to productive conversations conducive to rational policy and climate justice.5 To Prattico, shifting climate discussion from the domain of the ‘scientific-pragmatic’ to that of the ‘moral-political’—analogous to the call for persuasive tactics based on values—wrests discussion away from the merchants of misinformation, who made a false ‘debate’ of climate science, towards discussion of the reality of climate change and what to do about it:

Focusing on the truth or untruth of scientists’ claims about climate change stops us before we can even get to the moral or ethical dimensions of climate change, which would help to reach agreement on collective action to curb it… [I]t is by seeking political resolutions to such problems through discourse that we might reasonably hope to solve them at all.

This is a form of ‘politics’ the new climate communicators can all support. The politics of ‘deliberative democracy’—or Habermas’ ‘discourse theory of democracy’—is premised on equal access and representation in debate, an overarching common purpose, and a good-faith willingness to resolve issues in a way that optimises outcomes for participants.

This presumes another shift: from climate discussion grounded in the political and moral murk of the real world to one conducted in an ideal space, abstracted from self-interest and material struggles—Habermas’ ‘ideal-speech situation’. By implication, the new climate communicators take this as a universal social possibility and prescription: something approximating an ideal situation may be established from which reasoned debate might then proceed. They seem to miss, however, that Habermas wrote with a specific historical situation in mind, and that he wrote largely out of fear that any such ideal situation would ever be realised in his own time. The public sphere assumed in Habermas’ ideal was grounded in the (contested) relations of nineteenth-century European bourgeois thought and society, and by the time of his writing in the second half of the twentieth century, modernity had in any case developed along a different, more dangerous track. As Habermas well knew, the possibilities of discourse, and a world liberated from material interests and institutional constraints, was haunted by consumerism on one side and technocractic government on the other. 

While Habermas mourns the failure of the public sphere, others see possibilities. Nancy Fraser has argued against the unity and coherence of the bourgeois public sphere, proposing instead for a ‘multiplicity of publics’ and, following historian Geoff Eley, a sharper contest within and among them. This means recognising that ‘in stratified societies, the discursive relations among differentially empowered publics are as likely to take the form of contestation as that of deliberation’ and that contestation is desirable, and constitutive, of democracy. It is not to be feared.6 What is more, shying away from contestation also incapacitates action on the major challenges of our time. Philosopher Raymond Geuss, in an essay occasioned by Habermas’ ninetieth birthday in 2019, points to the categorical error of liberals’ giving precedence to communication over institutional and political action. For Geuss, putting a premium on ‘discussion’ is always suspect. It is particularly so in times of crisis:

One frequently noted problem is that liberals seem to presuppose—although they don’t usually admit it, and certainly do not draw attention to it—that discussion is always possible, and always a good thing, assuming, of course—a huge idealizing assumption, but one liberals are in general willing to make—that the situation is not an emergency with imminent danger to life and limb in which action must be taken immediately.7

The heavy weight placed on public opinion by the new climate communicators is one that, in an age demanding action on a planetary scale, liberal democracies simply cannot bear. Why not? For an answer, we can look again to the scientific confidence and political vanity on display in Aspen, and its insouciance about the economic ruptures, and the ruptures in public trust in expert authority, that were occurring under its feet. 

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‘A joke I like to tell about myself during speeches is that I’m an expert in the opinions of people who don’t know what they’re talking about’, Huntley writes in what is intended, I think, as both self-effacement and statement of bona fides. It certainly is revealing. Climate communicators position the move from the scientific-practical to the moral-political, understood as persuasion within a balanced public sphere, as a climb down from the ivory tower and an attempt to understand the lay public on their own terms. But Huntley’s joke hints at what this reframing actually is: an act of solidarity among scientific researchers, whose differences are merely those of genre—and a closing of the gates against the non-expert public. For readers of a ‘how-to’ guide seeking to be inducted into the science of communication, she holds out the prospect of initiation into their ranks.

Huntley describes a duality between the ‘reason’ of climate science and the ‘emotion’ of the social sciences. But her method does not so much oppose the two as group them together, and in so doing elevates the social sciences to a superior level of epistemic authority. Psychology and sociology thus become infallible guides to the interpretation of human behaviour, and wise activist counsel. As climate scientist and advocate Sarah Myhre implores in a video produced by Yale Climate Connections, ‘you have to use emotion in the way you talk about things’.8 The key word here is ‘use’: in the hands of an expert communicator, emotion becomes a tool of rational discourse—separated, again, from the rightful anger of the ‘politicised’ and oppositional protester.

Appeals like this are shot through with trust in communicative action. They also carry with them the certainty of the ‘first modernity’ described by German sociologist Ulrich Beck. Science under industrial modernity, Beck writes, promised total explanation and social mastery: 

This constellation of unbroken faith in science and progress is a characteristic of modernisation in industrial society into the first half of the twentieth century…science faces a practice and a public sphere whose resistance it can sweep aside, supported by its success, with promises of liberation from constraints not yet understood.

Beck wrote this at the dawn of what he calls ‘second modernity’. While Habermas projected his fears for West Germany in the late Cold War onto an ideal of rational communication, Beck was focused on new features in the social compact that emphasised risk. Beck’s ‘risk society’ is defined by a new form of reflexivity, the consciousness of danger, and a prevailing mood of suspicion and mistrust. For science, now open to unprecedented criticism, this is a profoundly ambivalent development. As Beck notes, ‘A momentous demonopolization of scientific knowledge claims comes about: science becomes more and more necessary, but at the same time, less and less sufficient for the socially binding definition of truth’.9

Historian Adam Tooze argues that Beck, not Habermas, is the German thinker we need in the age of coronavirus.10 The liberal West missed its first opportunity to learn from Beck, whose work was only translated into English in 1992. That public exposure of the scientific method was accompanied by increasing dependence on science and technology could have been cause for optimism. Knowledge and scientific understanding could have been a democratic inheritance, with science and scientific communication proceeding within a context of democratic participation and democratic control of the solutions. Instead the West—that is, a powerful, liberal consensus in the West—doubled down on an elitist, technocratic politics, inattentive to social need or the growing crisis of democratic representation, nodding to the power of science when it suited its purposes. The misappropriated knowledge in the case of the War on Terror (Saddam Hussain’s supposed WMDs; Obama’s drone warfare and domestic surveillance) is one example, and symptom, of this crisis in liberal democracy. Another is the response to the 2008 financial crash, steered by an austerity economics that entrenched inequality, let corporate malfeasance off the hook and helped derail the ambition of the 2009 Copenhagen Summit.

Today, we live with the consequences of the failures of second modernity in the political derangement we now witness everywhere. In the case of the coronavirus (climate change has its obvious analogues), the public symptom is hyperactive amateur epidemiology on one side and denialism on the other. However bitterly opposed, the two are related. They share a totemic appeal to a mystified authority, whose epistemic status—even under the name of ‘science’—lies not in evidence and argument but in the certainty and superiority it offers. A lay public, on both sides, is given to understanding natural science in terms of absolutes. So either climate change is real or it is not; its effects (or not) are invariant; and probability is no substitute for ‘scientific’ certainty. 

Opportunity missed, Western responses to the current crisis of second modernity could go two ways. As Tooze observes: ‘It is tempting to rally the liberal troops and to announce that in the United States today it is not the struggles of reflexive modernity—the self-generation of uncertainty and risk—that need to be fought so much as the battles of the first modernity, against superstition, atavism, and obscurantism’. Yet this would be only another form of revanchism, especially when contrasted with the democratic and more open possibilities of reflexive modernity realised elsewhere. Tooze looks to East Asian nations for clues to a more inclusive scientific rationality. South Korea, where Beck was warmly received, has been widely praised for its response to the pandemic. As Tooze writes, it put into practice an optimistic, open-ended response to the crisis of certainty that marks second modernity, devolving science, its application, and indeed the politics of the COVID-19 response from government, the academy and the medical fraternity, to a wider cohort of actors, including businesses, citizens and municipal authorities.

In South Korea, this reflexive rationality might yet prevail in the other great scientific challenge of our time. As part of its economic response to the pandemic, the South Korean government announced the ‘Korean New Deal’, including a ‘Green New Deal’. Its centrepiece is public investment in advanced technologies, to create jobs and accelerate decarbonisation of the South Korean economy. Yet this is not the product of enlightened technocracy. Nor is it a Confucian cliché or a triumph of ‘listening to science’. The Korean Green Deal is an institutional development, and politics provided the circuit-breaker in a country that is, only now, trading in its reputation as a ‘climate villain’ on par with the United States and, well, us. A young MP, Lee So-young—elected in 2020 on a climate platform and her advocacy of the Green Deal—and backed by Korea’s youth-led climate movement, got it onto the table. 

That it is an incomplete triumph is not to be unexpected. Critics of the Korean Green Deal point to creative accounting and a smokescreen of climate justice obscuring how it works to protect corporate interests and how it rests on an uninspired, transitional emphasis on unsustainable gas and unproven hydrogen technology. But climate politics doesn’t end in a rational, technical solution. It is a constant endeavour. Beck gives us a better accounting and a superior diagnosis of Western democracies’ failures in meeting the planetary challenge. We can look elsewhere for clues on how to meet it on democratic and just terms. Critics of the Habermasian influence in climate discourse have called for more contestation in democratic politics—and that’s where we are seeing real gains being made, the world over.

Criticisms of the Korean Green Deal resemble those levelled at the European Green Deal, announced with huge fanfare in December 2019 by new European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen. The European Green Deal has since been affirmed as the centrepiece of the EU’s economic response to the COVID-19 crisis, against great opposition. Yet many of its provisions are arguably unjust and activists, NGOs and EU parliamentarians are pushing for increases to Europe’s 2030 emissions-reduction target, beyond the commission’s original, planned increase from 40 per cent to 50 per cent. At the time of writing, the European Parliament has adopted a negotiating mandate for discussions with the Commission and the European Council, insisting on a 60-per-cent emissions reduction by 2030—the minimum necessary to give Europe any chance of meeting its Paris targets.

This crucial debate has only come about thanks to sharp, bitter, political contestation. In 2019 Greta Thunberg and her colleagues in the youth climate movement Luisa Neubauer, Anuna de Wever van der Heyden and Adélaïde Charlier wrote an open letter to the EU imploring it to take stronger action on climate. The letter calls for the criminalisation of ecocide, demands an immediate end to all financial investments and concessions for fossil-fuel companies, and includes a strikingly sceptical insistence that political elites ‘safeguard and protect democracy’.11 Their analysis locates the source of these demands not in science but in social justice:

There is one other thing that has become clearer than ever: Climate and environmental justice can not be achieved as long as we continue to ignore and look away from the social and racial injustices and oppression that have laid the foundations of our modern world… If we don’t have equality, we have nothing.

Argument like this runs away from the new climate communicators. Huntley, for example, strains to fit Thunberg into her model of the reasoned and consensual climate communicator who is supposed to be a tribune of moral clarity and a mouthpiece for the scientific consensus on climate:

[Thunberg’s]… content and tone resembles the righteous anger of a teenager who has just discovered her parents are hypocritical and full of it and has decided not to be their good little girl anymore. And it’s hard to dismiss her because she has 99 per cent of scientists backing up her argument.

Yet they do dismiss her. Thunberg does not choose between appeals to science and appeals to social justice. Indeed the latter has only become a more prominent theme in her activism. She knows what the new climate-change communicators will not admit: moral disappointment and the appeal to better natures is not enough. Against their stunningly sanguine picture of the way power works in contemporary liberal democracy, Thunberg has isolated the culprits and identified the targets of her activism.

The youth-led climate politics that broke like a wave over 2019 is not consensual, or kind, and its focused, angry and partisan approach may be our only hope. Journalist Elizabeth Kolbert, who was also at the Aspen conference, wrote of the 2020 US presidential election that ‘it is no exaggeration to say that what the next President does—or doesn’t do—on climate change will affect the world for millennia to come’. This is absolutely true. So is another of Kolbert’s observations: that Biden’s increasingly serious, aggressive climate platform was not the result of Democratic Party consensus. ‘Credit for this goes to the young activists who pushed him to be bolder.’12

Activists will need to keeping pushing Biden, as Thunberg and her colleagues have his counterparts in Europe. Amid a rush of promising declarations on the climate emergency, an administration committed to fracking is not the administration of a Green New Deal—but a movement holding it to account may help it to become so. It has to do this, because the alternative has failed. Knowledge and communication are part of this effort, but until they are re-grounded in social realities and understand the nature of the power structures that inhibit change, they will remain largely ineffective. Of all the social sciences, the one the new climate-change communicators actually need is politics.

1 G. Wang and L. M. Richardson, Media Coverage of Climate Science in Australian Newspapers: A Case Study of the State of the Climate Reports, Monash Climate Change Communication Research Hub, Monash University, Melbourne, 2020.

2 D. Holmes, N. Solano and H. Hill, A Survey of Australian TV Audience’s Views of Climate Change, Monash Climate Change Communication Research Hub, Monash University, Melbourne, 2017, p. 44.

3 T. Burgess, J. R. Burgmann, S. Hall, D. Holmes and E. Turner, Black Summer: Australian Newspaper Reporting on the Nation’s Worst Bushfire Season, Monash Climate Change Communication Research Hub, Monash University, Clayton, 2020, p. 30.

4 ‘During Pandemic, Fossil Fuels Face a Body Blow’, Yale Climate Connections, 19 August 2020, 

5 Emilie Prattico, ‘Habermas and Climate Action’, Aeon, 18 December 2019,

6 Nancy Fraser, ‘Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy’, Social Text, no. 25/26, 1990, p. 68.

7 Raymond Geuss, ‘A Republic of Discussion: Habermas at Ninety’, The Point, 18 June 2019,

8 ‘How, and How Not, to Communicate on Climate Change’, Yale Climate Connections, 16 October 2019, .

9 Ulrich Beck, Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, trans. Mark Ritter, London: SAGE, 1992, pp 155–6.

10 Adam Tooze, ‘The Sociologist Who Could Save Us From Coronavirus’, Foreign Policy, 1 August 2020, .

11 ‘Open Letter and Demands to the EU and Global Leaders’, Climate Emergency EU, 

12 Elizabeth Kolbert, ‘Biden Can Rise to the Climate Emergency’, New Yorker, 28 September 2020, .

About the author

Chloe Ward

Chloe Ward holds a PhD in history from Melbourne University. She is a research officer in the EU Centre of Excellence at RMIT University, where her current research focuses on social and ecological transitions in Europe and Australia. She also writes a regular newsletter for Australian Unions.

More articles by Chloe Ward

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“Knowledge and communication are part of this effort, but until they are re-grounded in social realities and understand the nature of the power structures that inhibit change, they will remain largely ineffective. Of all the social sciences, the one the new climate-change communicators actually need is politics.”
A good point and article, and my congratulations to Chloe Ward.

Not so long ago there was a scare about the possibility that chlorofluorocarbons, used as the propellant gas in spray cans, were going to bring serious harm to the ozone layer of the atmosphere. The ozone protects the planet from dangerous ultraviolet radiation streaming in from the Sun, so its deterioration was an arguable threat not just human civilisation, but to the entire biosphere. The world got its act together very smartly, and came up with the Montreal Protocol, banning their use. Vested interests did not get a word in sideways. Moreover, it is increasingly the practice these days for those planning to release a new chemical, drug or whatever onto the market to have it appropriately tested, for consumer protection.

Unfortunately, nothing like this was around in the mid-Eighteenth Century, when the Industrial Revolution started venting large masses of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Cut to today’s Australia, where mass consumption of fossil carbon as an energy source has resulted in fossil carbon and resource interests coming to pretty well own the ‘COALiton’, and having the power to bring the ALP to heel as well by appealing directly to the constituencies of such as Joel Fitzgibbon; whose political behaviour is akin to that of a puppet on a string.

The denialists and coal shills can always take refuge in the fact that the atmosphere-hydrosphere-biosphere-cryosphere-lithosphere assemblage is the most complex system we know about in the entire Universe, with plenty of ideological hidey-holes in it and points on which to stand and take issue with this or that. But the simple fact remains that ever since the time of the prominent Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius (c 1900) and his warnings that carbon dioxide is a heat-trapping gas, the fossil-carbon industry has been on the ideological back foot; and will continue to be so as the cryosphere steadily melts, and sea levels rise.

The simple fact is that the CO2 molecule absorbs radiant energy, and then passes it on to other molecules in its immediate vicinity; just as happens in a microwave oven, where water molecules get energised and pass their absorbed energy on to the molecular species in vegetables, meat, crockery and whatever, so that absolutely nothing remains cool.

As the English chemist-turned-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher famously said, the planet should be given the benefit of any doubt. The results of climate politics to date, however, give one little to cheer about. We are in uncharted waters here, and may be crossing tipping points we are yet to learn even exist.
Suffice it to say that 198 scientific organisations world-wide, including the Royal Society, the AAAS and the CSIRO endorse AGW, leaving a few denialist scientists, many with coal and oil connections, carrying the can for it.


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