Clashing views on role of scientists in global warming

29 March 2010

Dr Saliem Fakir, DVC Prof Jo Beal, Prof George Philander and Prof Mary Scoles Debating the future: Attending the global warming seminar were (from left) Dr Saliem Fakir, DVC Prof Jo Beal, Prof George Philander and Prof Mary Scoles.

Different perspectives on climate change were aired in a seminar on 18 March hosted by UCT's African Climate and Development Initiative.

Professor George Philander of UCT's Department of Oceanography took on Professor Mary Scoles from the University of the Witwatersrand and Dr Saliem Fakir of the World Wildlife Fund, who responded to his lecture, titled Why Global Warming is Polarising and Paralysing.

Philander noted that according to recent polls, increasing numbers of people were sceptical about global warming. Furthermore, the discussions are becoming more and more polarised. He attributes this to a failure to distinguish between the scientific and ethical aspects of the problem. Uncertainties in the scientific results are either exaggerated or suppressed, to favour inaction or action.

A solution to this problem, Philander proposes, is to get people involved through education about environmental concerns. Our current response to global warming is flawed in being too top-down. Laymen are expected to take the alarms scientists are sounding on faith.

Philander argued that "the future of the planet is far too serious to be left to the scientists - you must come on board".

"The gap between science and laymen can be bridged by making laymen own the problem," said Philander. "We need to turn global warming from a threat into an opportunity to promote education, to help people cope with current climate fluctuations such as droughts and floods."

Scoles countered that ethical debates are very much a part of the science agenda, and that meetings between scientists often included ethical debate.

Noting that by and large the South African public is largely not engaged in the debate, Scoles argued for intervention at school level, such as teaching children how to calculate their carbon footprint.

Fakir also disagreed with Philander's take on scientists.

"Scientists are people too," he argued. "They bring their humanity to science, and can politicise their work– Politics is embedded in science."

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