For the past several years, the United Kingdom has taken the lead in rallying the world to fight global warming-or at least trying to rally it. While he was U.K. science adviser, for example, David King famously said climate change was a greater global threat than terrorism. But there have been hints, in a BBC poll and this story in The New York Times, that the British public has grown weary or skeptical of such warnings, especially since the failure of the Copenhagen climate talks last year.
Now comes news that the Royal Society has set up a panel to review its climate change declarations after 43 of its elected fellows sent a letter protesting that some of the society's statements, including ones in a pamphlet called "Climate Change Controversies" and comments from Robert May, then president of the society, were oversimplified.
The Royal Society has not yet released the letter, and the authors of it have not identified themselves publicly. Two members on the review panel anonymously told the BBC that their task of building a consensus may be difficult.
One told the BBC: "This is a very serious challenge to the way the society operates. ... In the past, we have been able to give advice to governments as a society without having to seek consensus of all the members. ... There is very clear evidence that governments are right to be very worried about climate change. But in any society like this, there will inevitably be people who disagree about anything - and my fear is that the society may become paralysed on this issue." The other added: "The sceptics have been very strident and well-organised. It's not clear to me how we are going to get precise agreement on the wording - we are scientists and we're being asked to do a job of public communication that is more like journalism."
The Royal Society has released a statement acknowledging that its climate guide is being updated and noting: "The new guide has been planned for some time but was given added impetus by concerns raised by a small group of Fellows of the Society that older documents designed to challenge some of the common misrepresentations of the science were too narrow in their focus."
Martin Rees, the Royal Society president, added in the statement: "It has been suggested that the Society holds the view that anyone challenging the consensus on climate change is malicious - this is ridiculous. Science is organised scepticism and the consensus must shift in light of the evidence. The Society has always encouraged debate particularly through our discussion meetings and our journals. ... The debate must be open and it must also be based on sound science rather than dogma."
The review panel, chaired by physicist John Pethica, vice president of the Royal Society and a physicist, is expected to produce a published report by September.