Mark Lynas is a British author, journalist and environmentalist whose work focuses on climate change. He writes on the subject for a number of newspapers, magazines and journals and has authored three popular science books. His book ‘Six Degrees’, on the effects of rising temperatures, was turned into a major series for National Geographic narrated by Alec Baldwin.
I think environmental issues are an extreme case of tribalism.
On getting interested in science
I fell in love with science completely by accident. I was trained in humanities, so I left science behind at GCSE level in the UK system and went on to study history and politics at Edinburgh University and whilst I suppose we like to think that higher education teaches you critical thinking I’m not really sure that it did. In fact, I got a first, and I think I got a first by pretty much saying what those post-Marxist, post-structuralist, materialist professors wanted us to say and I was very good at parroting that back. So my epiphany with science came much, much later, well after I’d been involved in environmental campaigning, when I started to write popular science books about climate change, which of course I came to as an environmentalist but I did realise I needed to have proper data, proper scientific evidence to support what I was saying about global warming being real.
On ‘High Tide’
So, my first book, ‘High Tide’, was an almost anecdotal, um, travelogue, going around the world and looking at the first impacts of climate change. I started off by going to Alaska and seeing what the Eskimo elders were seeing in their villages in terms of ice disappearing and the major changes in their own geographical environment, but I also went to drowning islands in the Pacific, I went to Tuvalu and I also went back to Peru where my dad had taken this photo of a glacier back in 1980, and I went back in 2002 and the whole glacier had disappeared. But in each of these cases, of course, I needed to have the backing of data to see what’s happening across the whole of the Arctic rather than just in this one location. And across all of the world’s mountain ranges and across, you know, all of the seas in terms of sea level rise in order to make a case otherwise it’s just, you know, that old adage about data not being the plural of anecdote; I didn’t want to fall into that trap.
On the difficulties of communicating climate change
I think environmental issues are an extreme case of tribalism in that there’s a whole movement, an environmental movement, with its own value system and its own set of moral codes and its own internal loyalty, if you like, which has ownership over environmental issues. Then other tribes, such as the free market political right type tribe, therefore rejects the very existence of these environmental issues even though they can be defined scientifically and so I think if you take a kind of social, psychological view of this you begin to understand why this phenomena of climate change denialism has become so prevalent. Why entire political parties, governing political parties in some countries, in the US for example, the Republican party take climate change denialism as their own set of facts. And I think what I’ve tried to do is be fair minded about this and say that, well, denialism also exists on the left. A lot of the anti-vaccination stuff comes from left wing campaigning. The anti-GMO (Genetically Modified Organisms) movement very much is centred on the left, and the kind of anti-corporate narrative that the left has, and yet it’s just as much a denialist movement in the sense of it rejecting strong scientific consensus on the safety of GMOs. So if you put those two things together, and I’ve actually had, whilst doing presentations, had parallel slides of the statements of the scientific consensus on climate change and on GMOs and of course the left rejects that one and the right rejects that one but they’re both wrong on these particular issues and they’re both right on other issues. So in my book, ‘The God Species’, I tried to call attention to that and I guess I ended up without much of an audience at all! You sort of fall between a demographic gap where you don’t have a particular market really championing your book because you’re not really telling them what they want to hear in every case.
The two totemic left wing denialist issues really are on the safety of nuclear power and the safety and environmental usefulness of genetically modified organisms in agriculture. So those are two very clear examples and for nuclear, of course, it’s been established for three or more decades that the environmental movement is against it and it’s primarily a left wing phenomenon. On the political right there’s other cases, I suppose climate change denialism is the most clear cut but there’s others as well. I mean, in the US denialism of evolution with that particular religious reason for that is obviously very well established and is wrapped up in a whole different kind of value system, a whole different kind of politics, so I guess the challenge is to have an evidence-based, critical approach which can cut across those political boundaries and the confirmation bias that informs them and actually have a scientific viewpoint which can be useful in informing your politics but doesn’t have as a precondition ‘my politics is such-and-such therefore my science is so-and-so’.
On the evidence for climate change
The three sort of legs of the stool are observed temperature change, which is very clear in both the satellite record and land based instrumental data. The paleoclimate record, so seeing how unprecedented modern day temperatures are, in what time scale of many thousands of years. And, of course, how CO2 is associated with much warmer periods in the Earth’s geological history and then models represent the way the Earth’s systems work, represent the energy balance of the planet, and can tell us something about the way CO2 and other greenhouse gases might drive temperature rise over the next century or so. So there’s those three very clear cut lines of evidence which are based on hundreds of papers published over many, many years and, you know, you can pick holes in the specific uncertainties attached to any of them and many scientists do and many other people do and that’s a respectable and useful thing to do, actually. I’m not against critical thinking in climate change of course either, but it would take an enormous, overwhelming body of evidence to then overturn the pretty much established fact of climate change.
On the GMO debate
I think the campaign against GMOs is motivated by different things from different people. You can see that the anti-corporate narrative is very strong there in the way that it’s almost impossible to have a conversation about this without somebody mentioning Monsanto, so we call it the ‘argumenteum monsantium’ in the sense that if you just invoke this name then the argument is closed down. But there’s other things as well and I think the food safety argument, that there’s something poisoning, and in fact I get a lot of tweets, I get a lot of emails from people in the US saying: ‘What about cancer rates? What about autism?’ Every single modern day ailment they try and pin on this thing because it’s new and therefore inspires fears. And suppose there’s also the generic lack of understanding of this issue and when I was a campaigner, and I went out in the field and ripped up GM crops, I don’t think I could’ve probably spelt out what DNA stood for, or told you the differences between genes and chromosomes, let alone understood the basics of molecular biology for how recombinant DNA actually works, so having that and understanding those basics actually is useful because it just makes it less scary because you’ve got the fear of unknown factor slightly removed.
On teaching critical thinking
The enlightenment left us with this scientific method and, for me, the heart of the scientific method is that it forces you to confront confirmation bias. And many scientists fall down on this too; it’s not as if scientists are perfect beings who use critical thinking all the time, as their central thing, because many of them don’t, but you have to, because if you’ve got to present evidence, evidence is therefore amenable or can be challenged by other evidence, better evidence, and can be overturned, and you can actually have a change of mind, and a change of, ah, a change of fact if you like, on an issue because of the way that evidence is presented and that’s unique in science, you don’t get that anywhere, you certainly don’t get that in faith, which is the exact opposite by definition, or in ideology, which is most of what motivates people as environmentalists or anything else. And there’s nothing wrong with ideology, it’s about values, and it’s sort of shorthand heuristic for understanding the world without having to ask for evidence in every single area. And I’m not an expert on homeopathy for example but I think that homeopathy is probably bunk because it doesn’t even have any common sense basis to it, but I don’t have to go into reading hundreds and hundreds of papers, there isn’t time, so we all have shorthand ways of doing that but I think the important thing is not to identify with a tribe, and say ‘Right, I’m a ….’ or to even say ‘I’m an evidence-based tribe and therefore I know more than the rest of the other tribes’. I think it’s more important to be self-critical than that.
On finding inspiration
I suppose, at my heart, I’m an environmentalist and always have been and remain a true environmentalist. What I’m trying to do, in fact, is to challenge the environmental movement to be more scientific because that’s the only way it can succeed. If you’re unscientific about the problems you identify and about the solutions that you propose then you’re going to fail and you’re not going to serve the environment properly. So, for me, we are in an environmental crisis. We are destroying the life support systems of this planet, both through climate change, biodiversity loss and all of these other issues which are very well understood. We’re going into a whole new geological era called the Anthropocene, where humans are the dominant force on the planet, therefore we have to be intelligent about how we run the Earth’s system in this new era and we can’t do that if we don’t use evidence at the absolute heart of the way we identify and deal with these problems.