Wednesday, 28 November 2012

How the climate “debate” must be handled from now on

 I’m reposting a comment I just made to the top climate blog on ThinkProgress (headed up by Joe Romm) as it contains my current feelings about how the sheer danger and urgency of the position that humanity finds itself in is not effectively getting through to the public, and how the conventional way the scientific position is  being communicated is now failing us badly. I sketched out how we need to take the fight to the deniers, the propagandists and the irresponsibly complacent.

Romm’s post was about a recent New Scientist report – click link for the ThinkProgress post discussing it called 7 reasons climate change is even worse than we thought. Also have a look at the cover of the November 17th edition of New Scientist here which says it all loud and clear.

new scientist cover

My post was in answer to the well rated poster “Prokaryotes” who posted this comment:

prokaryotes says:

November 26, 2012 at 7:25 pm

Precautionary principle DEMANDS that we start cutting Co2 emissions immediately and go aggressively after the deniers”


To which I responded:

Yes, Yes, Yes! We need at least a two pronged attack. There are two major elements of the "sceptical arguments". Those put forward by the "lukewarmers", which have some scientific validity, and the much greater number of deceitful "magic tricks" that can fool those not up to speed with enough science. Both need addressing in different ways because they resonate with two different segments of society.

Firstly, we need a widespread global media friendly "debate" between four types - 1) representatives of the mainstream climate science position. Perfect would be Richard Alley. 2) the top "lukewarmers" - Lindzen is the obvious candidate 3) representatives from the risk assessment and forecasting industry such as actuaries from Munich Re. 4) economists who can assess the relative costs and benefits of doing either nothing or as much as it takes depending on the perceived risks.

At the commencement of this debate, the chairman should state the relative numbers of working, publishing peers that each scientific "side" of the debate has in their area of expertise and what the relative proportions of scientists supporting each side is.

Regardless of whether Lindzen put up a good show or not, the audience would see that his position is very much a tiny minority one. Too many of the public currently thinks there is an evenly balanced case on each side. Once they become aware of this error, they might see that they are in the position of Dirty Harry and the punk, neither of who knew for sure whether there was a bullet left in the Magnum  - except that the relative numbers of scientists and risks puts the public more in the situation of playing Russian Roulette with their family's and descendant's futures with an AK47 with a full magazine except one bullet...

I think the time has passed when just stating the consensus scientific position still works well enough to counter the powerful rhetoric and misleading arguments that the sceptical side has developed and refined over the last few years. The public is confused and uncertain as to who has reality on their side because the arguments of the "denialists" are just so damn convincing in THE MINDS OF THE PUBLIC. I have argued this point with committed educated "alarmists" and have been distressed to find out that too many just cannot understand it - they still think the way to convince the public is just to keep chanting ever louder that "the science is settled", "the consensus says" etc etc - they cannot seem to grasp that the public just doesn't blindly take the words of scientists as gospel any more and cannot see that their strategy is no longer helpful, but is fast becoming a handicap to generating more public pressure for urgent action.

In order to get political backing for the fundamental reforms we need, it is certain that the general public will need much greater confidence that action is necessary now and fast and that will only come when a large majority accept that the risks of doing nothing are huge and the benefits of an all-out assault on emissions will be much greater than they have been led to accept.

Websites such as are brilliant for the already converted, and their phone app debunking common denialist arguments is fantastic, but this is not enough. The general public has clearly not been exposed to those ripostes enough. The existence of resources like this that debunk the propaganda have not swayed the popular tide of doubt and uncertainty.

The second prong of the attack should be very widespread - newpaper ads, TV slots, radio shows, mass mailouts to residences etc - and should attack the denialist arguments that are just simple magic tricks, designed to mislead e.g. CO2 is a trace gas; it was warmer in the past; climate is always changing; warming stopped in 1997; CO2 is plant food; it's the Sun etc etc. answers these by a clear exposition of the science but this is not an optimum strategy for convincing the mass of the public - what is needed is a clear set of analogies from ordinary life that ordinary people are familiar with and can relate to. An example to answer the "warming stopped in 1997" meme, which works because the climate unrealists draw a trend line from a recent cool period back to the height of the El Nino warmth and claim the trend is flat or declining, would be for the public to consider the graph of the weight of someone who overeats over decades but whose weight also varies wildly as they indulge in successive crash diets followed by periods of binge eating. Over thirty years they would only have to overeat, on average, by one ounce a day to eventually get to weigh over 600 pounds. The thirty year graph of their weight would look like the Himalayas as their weight varied by 50 pounds plus or minus as their eating habits changed but if the overeater drew a trend line from a "light" dieting period back to a "heavy" bingeing period, and claimed that they had no eating problems, most people would easily see that they were deluded and yet such a trick in the climate arena fools too many who are not familiar with such as the natural ocean cycles affecting temperatures over a couple of decades, climatologically, and thereby creating the convincing illusion on a cherry picked graph (to those unfamiliar with planetary mechanisms) that global warming has paused or reversed. People who would never get the statistical necessity that temperature trends only become significant over periods longer than 15 years would understand such a simple analogy straight off.

We need such a suite of analogies to "go aggressively after the deniers" because current practices are simply not working well enough. Too many still believe that the scientific debate is evenly balanced - that the climate sensitivity is too uncertain to guarantee a threat - even more would like to believe the hundreds of convincing pieces of deceit that there isn't any threat at all and that the science has been cooked up to get more governmental control of their lives or taxes out of their pockets.



Anonymous said...

"the science has been cooked up to get more governmental control of their lives or taxes out of their pockets."

That is exactly what is going on. Always follow the money.

Nick Palmer said...

Hi Anon.

Your belief flies in the face of reality. You think that how things went was like this - governments decided that they needed to tax people more so they invented the global warming scare and paid corrupt scientists to fake data to back up the danger. Correct?

In reality, that idea is a conspiracy theory put about by those those financial and political interests that would be threatened by the actions we need to take urgently. It is propaganda designed to fool the gullible.

How things really happened was this.

The basic science of how greenhouse gases affect the atmosphere was noticed and investigated 150 years ago but nothing much else happened until the 1950s when further work showed that there might be a danger from the increasing amounts of fossil fuels being used. The threat was only publicly noticed in the mid 80s.

This is the important bit, Anon, which shows up your idea as nonsense. First the threat was identified from long established science THEN it was realised that the consequences of doing nothing would be dangerous THEN the money became available to science to do more research - not research into whether there was a threat because there obviously was, but research into how much of a threat there was. That is when the climate models started to be built - as predictive tools to inform the government of exactly how much needed to be changed..

Please don't carry on repeating the deceitful propaganda, the situation we face is too dangerous to risk fooling any more naive people who might listen to that sort of nonsense.

Nick Palmer said...

In the 80s, 90s and early 00s there was a lot of money from the fossil fuel industry (Google "Global Climate Coalition") to fund research and lobbying against climate science but the GCC was disbanded around 2002 as the evidence began to pile up that they were wrong.

Check out the recent statements that have come from the giant fossil fuel companies these days - they now accept the reality of global warming and the science that describes it. If even they accept the science, it's pretty dumb to think they are all part of the conspiracy too!

Take it from me Anon, you have been conned by deceitful propagandists.

Anonymous said...

Hi Nick. I'm sorry I don't visit your blog very often, but in these days of super-wonderful-ever-upgrading-widgets it's still not possible to hook blogs of different flavours together very well. Go figure.

What you highlight here is obviously a very important issue. The issue. It is swamped by other non-issues on which Those Who (Don't) Lead Us prefer to focus. And there's the rub.

While what you propose is an essential step to gaining the popular support for the action that must be taken, as I see it, there are two prerequisites required to facilitate it:

1. Organisation
2. Funding

WRT (1), might it be worthwhile hooking up with eg

WRT (2), might I suggest that funds might be raised by making use of crowdsourcing through venues such as Indiegogo and/or Kickstarter?

I've long thought that the message needs to be aired on the idiot box; that's still where most of the eyeballs land. And that medium is still stuffed full of 'balance' (sic). Even the programmes that dare suggest that climate change is an issue couch the message within other, usually specialist, formats (such as the BBC's excellent 'Earth: The Power of The Planet'); and these will always have limited audiences.

I envisage what you're suggesting as a series of heated debates, which could easily be turned into televisual fodder. But to be actualised, they would need copious amounts of both (1) and (2).

Happy to help where I can -- as, I hope, will many others...