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Climate change is too serious to permit dissenters a voice

The question discussed in the comment column was not decarbonisation per se, but whether the urgency of climate change is such that all road-building should cease. That’s an interesting topic to discuss in all its respects – Ed

Alan Wenban-Smith Birmingham B13
01 June 2020

For almost a year now LTT has published a steady stream of lengthy, often aggressive letters from climate change sceptics, most of them with fairly explicit axes to grind (Fair Fuel, Association of British Drivers, Transport Watch, etc). I wrote to you about this trend almost a year ago and again just before Christmas. Your response was that you get a lot of these letters and felt people in the transport planning profession should be aware of the level of anger they represent, though you would try and tone that down.  

There is another example in the most recent issue  from a regular, Paul Biggs of the Association of British Drivers, who thinks that green transport is ‘wishful thinking’. Neither he nor others of their ilk (Paul Withrington of Transport Watch) seem to have toned down noticeably. 

I appreciate that you don’t get to choose who writes to you, and understand your point about relaying the views of some of those on the receiving end of transport planning. However, the editorial comment alongside the Biggs letter in the current issue (‘Climate constraint’) takes sides with its suggestion that climate science is not sufficiently robust to bear the weight placed upon it by decarbonisation. This is supported with a reference to Phil Goodwin’s thoughtful article in the same issue on trade-offs vs imperatives in appraisal. Phil can no doubt speak for himself, but I read it to say that an imperative requires a higher standard of proof than a trade-off. 

The implication is that you agree with the climate change sceptics that this level of proof has not been reached. As your editorial rightly says, LTT is not the right forum for a debate on the science. This being so, it might be wise to accept the overwhelming weight of scientific opinion on the subject. An authoritative overview of the climate change issues from the Royal Society and the US National Academy of Sciences (https://tinyurl.com/yx3y79va) amongst many others. 

 However, you seem willing nonetheless to treat with respect the contrary opinions of a range of lobbyists with obvious axes to grind, who have found ‘stuff on the internet’ from eccentrics and obsessives. 

This is a major issue, because it goes to the other leg of Phil’s argument, that there is an acceptable level of public agreement and trust in the policy, democratically endorsed. Clearly the agreement of all main political parties does not in your opinion meet this test. 

However, editorial support in a serious professional journal to such biased and fringe views risks shifting the frame of discourse (‘the Overton window’), which is no doubt exactly why such people write their articles and letters. It is no good saying (like Trump) that “there are very fine people on both sides” on a matter of such gravity. Nor, unfortunately, can we rely entirely on peer review to strain out scientific fraud: there are too many outlets and peer reviewing is unrewarding work. It is worth remembering that Andrew Wakefield’s unsubstantiated claims linking MMR vaccine to autism was originally published in The Lancet, a very highly regarded, peer-reviewed publication. It spawned a whole anti-vax lobby, and has been responsible for hundreds of deaths.  It would be a pity for LTT to follow this example.

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