With Hurricane Irene focusing some attention on climate change (at the New York Times website anyway), the post below looks at some of the issues surrounding communication of climate science.
A series has just kicked off at The Conversation that promises to “shine an inquisitive light onto specific instances of misrepresentation, distortion, or spin by the Australian media as they relate to climate change”.
In the first article in the series, Professor Stephan Lewandowsky, of the Cognitive Science Laboratories at the University of Western Australia, says the the Australian media have failed the public by creating a phoney debate about climate science that is largely absent from the peer-reviewed literature, where real scientific debates take place.
But perhaps the scientific community and others also need to be choosing their words more carefully, suggests Dr David King, a general practitioner and board member of Doctors for the Environment Australia.
He explains below why he doesn’t “believe” in climate change. (At the bottom of the post, you will find a series of links to some interesting climate change resources).
Climate change is about science – not belief
David King writes:
I don’t believe in climate change. However, I am convinced by the evidence that supports the theory of human induced climate change.
You may think this is pedantic, but the choice of words does matter. Words carry meaning, value and shared understanding, even when we are not aware of the ‘subtext’.
Critics of climate change understand this well. Or at least they use the opportunity that our choice of words provide. When we state that we believe in climate change, they can label this belief as ‘the new religion.
Yet climate change concerns arose from the scientific process, not from politics, economics or even environmentalism. In the scientific process there is little room for belief, the dispassionate scientist should be an objective observer and be willing to discard a theory not supported by the evidence. The reality is that no one can be entirely objective, so here is the role for true scepticism.
Climate change critics have misappropriated the word sceptic, but act like deniers rather than sceptics. They start with a set of beliefs, then selectively choose, distort or fabricate facts to support their starting point. They start with a set of beliefs such as economic growth is unlimited, that humans are outside and above the natural order, and that humans couldn’t possibly affect the climate. These are not testable scientific hypotheses.
The rise of ‘anti-scientism’ is most visible currently in the climate change arena, but is a generally worrying trend for health care as well.
When our media presents science as belief, then we can be as authoritative as any expert in any field. It is therefore easier to believe that vaccinations may be a conspiracy to weaken our immune systems for a corporate profit. It encourages us to take an individualistic approach to scientific information, and makes legislation for public versus individual good more difficult. It encourages conspiracy theories. It even encourages threats against scientists if they discover inconvenient truths.
Starting with belief rather than scientific evidence also encourages the use of pejorative terms.
Are scientists who warn about the dangers of a rapidly changing climate “alarmists”?
It is the evidence that is alarming, not the starting intent of those studying and applying climate science. We don’t hear doctors being labelled as alarmists for warning about the obesity and diabetes ‘epidemic’.
So now when I’m asked whether I believe in climate change, I make a point of saying no, it is not about belief but about consideration of the evidence. The evidence regarding climate change is more certain than in most cases of clinical medicine, where action is decided on the balance of risk and benefit.
The diagnosis is relatively easy – developing a suitable response is the challenging part.
Here the scientific process is less able to assist us. So I have to rely on extrapolating from other experiences in life. Some people don’t stop smoking until they have a heart attack, for some until it is too late.
Now I can talk about belief – I don’t believe that our current political and social structures will provide the necessary leadership to prevent more severe climate change. I hope that I am proved wrong.
Climate change communications
Some of the climate change sites that got a mention at the Banff science communications course that I’ve been attending for the past 15-days in Canada:
Skeptical Science not only counters climate change misinformation, but has an app.
Climate Debate Daily which aims to “provide a new way to understand disputes about global warming”, lists the opposing arguments under “calls to action” and “dissenting voices”, and also links to many other sites.
A somewhat more sophisticated analysis of the challenges in communicating climate science is provided at Understanding and Solving the Climate Change Problem, an initiative that aims to continue the work of the late Stanford University scientist Professor Stephen Schneider.
Meanwhile, one other thing I learnt at Banff is – never under-estimate the power of entertainment and humour as a means of communication.
On that note…
Climate change is not about belief. But any change in behaviour is very much about beliefs. Arguing the facts is important, but it assumes people rationally base their actions on facts. I spend some time trying to think of ways to make people less fat, less likely to smoke and generally less self destructive. The evidence in those areas isn’t even seriously contested by vested interests any more, and yet people still smoke.
When does it get to the point where one can say one does not “believe”, but one actually knows?
Completely agree with this. Here are the facts… you choose how to respond to them. Hopefully you will recognise that this is serious.
Those who label the scientists as alarmists are those who fear the public response to the facts and make every attempt to confuse the public.
Yet another attempt to simplify the climate change debate and reduce it to a “it is real” versus “it is not real” discussion. The debate is far more complex than this.
For a start, there are many types of denialists, ie:
I do not believe the world is warming
I believe the world is warming but it is a natural phenomena
I believe the world is warming, and it is caused by human activity but I do not believe there is anything we can do to halt the process
I believe the world is warming etc but do not agree with the proposals being tabled to address the problem.
and there are many more variations
All people holding any of the views listed above are labelled denialists yet the arguments involved are significantly different for each view.
I personally feel that I do not need to decide on whether the science is right because I do not agree with the proposed actions for change.
I am also uncomfortable with the arrogance of the human race in that we claim to have caused the warming but now believe we are smart enough to fix the problem by agreeing an optimal temperature setting for the planet. If you believe that climate change is a problem then it follows that you wish to stop the change and by implication this means that you have an optimal temperature setting in mind for the planet.
Talk about playing god!!!
So by your reasoning, you would also refuse to act on deforestation, overfishing, industrial air pollution of stratospheric ozone depletion. These are all examples where human actions have had regional or global consequences. And by your reasoning, to take action is “playing God”.
You really need to have a think about your logic.
Mr Crisp – another attempt to simplify what is a complex debate.
The key difference between climate change and the other human negatives that you have listed is the degree of uncertainty.
We can clearly see the affects of deforestation and overfishing, these impacts are easily measured and the action plans for rectification quite clear. If we are overfishing we fish less. If we are clearing too much forest we clear less.
If the proposal for reducing deforestation and overfishing was to cut off the right arm of every fisherman and forest worker then I would resist this change and by the logic of todays climate change debate I would be considered a deforestation / overfishing denialist.
In relative terms these other environmental issues are straight forward debates involving probably two key issues, ie is overfishing occurring and what is the best way to overcome over fishing. The climate change debate is significantly more complex with significantly more questions to be asked and debated.
Is climate change happening? Is it the change simply part of the natural cycle? Is climate change (warming) actually harmful or potentially beneficial? Is climate change caused by man? Can we actually do anything meaningful to arrest climate change? Is it more economically beneficial to adapt to climate change? Has the climate change issue been hijacked by governments to push other taxation agendas?
Of course when we make the decision to actively manage any component of nature we are playing god. I think this can be justified where there is clear evidence that harm is being done to the environment or to the human race and where we are confident that our rectification plan is sound and is the most economically viable when all key factors are taken into consideration.
In the context of climate change the proof for harm is debateable, the rectification plan is a joke and the economic impact is potentially catastrophic.
Our knowledge of climate to be frank is miniscual and to take major action based on the little that we do know is simply irresponsible – it is akin to releasing cane toads into the Australian cane fields.
My last post would be better ended with the statement “Talk about playing uninformed, arrogant, delusional God” but I suppose these attributes are more human than godly which is why we can only “play” at the climate change game.
Thank you very much for posting such a well argued rebuttal of yet another shallow appeal to authority.
I will not bother to answer your questions because the scientific literature is readily available and you could investigate these questions for yourself. I get the feeling that if I gave you answers that did not comply with your belief system you would not believe them anyway.
Overall the logic of your argument is flawed in my opinion as it assumes that there is a risk that we will disrupt the earth`s climate if we take action to reduce our CO2 emissions. We don`t understand everything about the system but the risk to humanity is far greater if we continue to emit C02 at the rate we are now than if we take some action and manage to reduce emissions. If you can`t understand the drastic changes that would happen if the average earth temperature increased by 4 degrees to vegetation and the liveability of cities etc etc you are ignorant of basic biology. To get a picture of how much change seemingly `small` average temperatures can make think of last ice age when large ice sheets covered high latitudes of the northern hemisphere and the temperate forests of the world were mostly replaced by boreal forests.
Your logic suggests that we should do nothing about any complex problem the world faces and is very unhelpful.
As someone with little more than a high school education, I have to appeal to, or at least rely on authority in many matters. (That’s why I usually go to the doctor – as opposed to trying to cure myself). In the case of climate change I read that the great majority of the world’s scientists and scientific organisations are of the opinion that man made climate change is occurring. And on the strength of that I ‘believe’ that they’re very probably right.
As to the question ‘what is going to happen, and what are we going to do about it?’ the authorities seem less certain. Though to be fair I have read that the predictive models for the effects of climate change have been largely correct up until now. But obviously opinions vary widely as to the second half of the question. As yaybucky pointed out it is a very complex issue with a variety of stand points. Consensus on how we should or shouldn’t handle this, even from the seemingly better informed, doesn’t look likely. Its hard, if not impossible (for me at least) to say who might be ‘probably right’ in this situation. I think this is also a problem faced by our trusty leaders. And i suspect that as a result governments will (in general) try to sit on the fence and do as little as they possibly can get away with doing, and that we will be left to deal with whatever remaining effects climate change might have.
The scientific data is solid, the consensus climate models are proving to be conservative.
The side effects of industrialization have already ‘played god’ with the planet, the idea is to reign it in. Here’s some scientific data, please read it.
At least you are willing to engage in some debate and you are also willing to provide some data to back your position. This is a rareish attribute in a changeist.
That the percentage of CO2 in the atmosphere is rising would appear to be the only fact that changeists and denialists broadly agree on.
What I now need to see is your evidence for the following:
1 That the rise in CO2 since the 1850s is attributable to man. Although the link is probable it is not certain and even the CSIRO concede as much on the page you have referenced. CO2 content has varied significantly throughout the earth’s natural history which suggests that natural causes could be at play. Possibly the rapidity of the rise in recent years excludes a natural cause. I would also have thought that the rise in CO2 would be cumulative and accelerating – the level of industrial output now dwarves that of say the 1850s.
2 That a rise in CO2 actually causes a rise in global temperature
3 That global temperature is actually rising
4 That this rise is extraordinary in the context of earth’s natural history
5 If the temperature is rising how fast is this occurring and how long will it take for the average global temperature to exceed levels not seen in say the last ten thousand years of human history (ie if we have survived higher temperatures in the past then it is likely we will survive such temperatures again)
6 That rises in global temperature will actually be harmful
7 That plans to phase out CO2 producing energy sources are realistic when the only proven substitute we have at this juncture is nuclear power.
8 That the cost to adapt to global warming is not cheaper and simply more viable that reducing reliance on fossil fuels.
and there are many more similar questions.
It is my view that in any community, whether it be local or global, we need for independent and qualified scientists to do the research to support a particular policy position. Once that work has been done it is then also the role of science to dumb down and summarise the findings in order to convince the majority that a particular policy course should be pursued.
If the scientific community is not capable of this last step then it has not done its job.
Remember that most scientific study in the climate arena is government funded which means that my taxpayer dollars are making it all happen. I therefore feel it is reasonable to insist that the science and related policy recommendations be explained and justified to me.
I am yet to read a document that effectively addresses the key issues raised in my list above in a succinct, logical and overarching manner. Sure there are plenty of scientific documents supposedly proving or disproving aspects of the science but I am yet to read a book or paper that sells me the “big picture” changeist position.
Maybe such a document exists and if someone can recommend such a document I will be more than happy to absorb it in an open minded manner.
In the meantime, I will remain sceptical, for 50 years of living in human communities has taught me that “if a position cannot be explained it also cannot be sustained”.
yaybucky; The author of the original article gave links to sites that amply answer your questions
1. The increase in Co2 is demonstrably man-maded as Co2 from burnt fossil fuels has a different chemical signature than natural Co2 sources. You can read ll about it on Skeptical Science – do a search for “empirical evidence” and you woill find the relavant article.
2. Again, the same article. It’s a logical sequence of reasoning. we know Co2 traps heat, we know human activites have caused a sharp rise in Co2. Models back this up by being able to replicate accurately the early 20th cntury climatic conditions and when applying only natural forcings then they show that, without the sudden spike in Co2, that temperatures should have fallen, but instead they spiked after 1975. This divergence is clear evidence that the observations fit the theory.
3. If you don’t believe that global temperatures have risen, well, all I can say is that you need to familiarise with the evidence.
4. No, it’s not extraordinary is Earth’s history but it IS extraordinary in human history, which is, after all, all we are really concerned about. Any dramatic climatic shif outside of the Holocene Optimum in which the entirety of human civilisation evolved will undoubtedly make future human civilisation a lo more testing. There SI however, very good evidence that the rapid rise in Co2 (nearly 40% in under 200 years) is unprecedented and the planet has never gone through such a rapid change in atmospheric composition. It too literally hundreds of thousands of years of tectonic activity to take the planets temperatures to the giddy height it experienced during the Jurrassic and that was associated with some pretty significant extinction events.
5. See above. It is already likely as warm if not warmer than at any point during the Holocene.
6. Again, you should familiarise yourself with the evidence of the likely changes a 4 degree shift in temperature is likely to cause to land use and biodiversity. There is no boubt that it will cause serious disruption to human civilization as we curently know it.
7. Thta’s not at all “realistic”, in some areas nuclear is the only viable option but certainly not somewhwere like Australia where things like solar-thermal is quite competetive against expensive nuclear and will become increasingly competeive to cheap coal as cost reduce.
8. Define “adapt”? How do we adapt when, say, rainfall patterns shift away from our food-bowl in the Murray Darling basin and starts dumping ithe water in tropical QLD? By ‘adapt” do you emna n adopt bannanas as our staple crop?
It is remarkable to me that you continue to make such big statements such as `If the scientific community is not capable of this last step then it has not done its job` when it obvious that you know very little about the current state of the science of climate change and the resources available to the public concerning all the issues you have raised. Why don`t you start with some of the major work done by the National Academy of Sciences of the USA. Freely available reports can be accessed here http://search.nap.edu/ by searching for the term climate change.
Your comments on this blog have done nothing more than make the impression that there is great uncertainty in the science to people who do not know better when the real problem is your lack of knowledge!
Some apt quotes for you.
“The highest form of ignorance is when you reject something you don’t know anything about.” Wayne Dyer
“Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.” Confucius
Way to go Maelstrom
I take it you are also one of these devout Christians who argue that “god exists” – just go look in the Bible and and I will find his existence proven there.
My challenge to you changeists remains a simple one – just point me to a book or paper that provides a succinct case for action on climate change addressing all (or most of) the key questions raised above.
The questions raised by me are not complex and are commonly posed by denialists everywhere. I would have thought that if changeists were genuine in their commitment to prove or at least argue their position that a book or paper would exist that addresses these issues.
I can certainly point you to similar publications that set out the denialist position (ie read Ian Plimers Heaven and Earth). It is certainly not a balanced publication but at least it sets out the denialist position pretty succinctly.
Al Gore’s pitiful effort remains the only mainstream attempt to take the climate change science and put a case to ordinary people for action. Surely there is something more compelling out there than Mr Gore
I would claim to know more in respect to this topic than most politicians and lay persons generally. If I do have a deficiency in knowledge re the changesist position this is attributable to a lack of engagement by the scientific changeist community.
There is uncertainty in respect to every topic in my head until my fellow humans set out a succinct and logical position to the contrary. I am not obliged to simply follow the majority view. The vast majority of my fellow humans have an invisible friend called God. The vast majority also believe that tribals peoples from five thousand years ago, who had not even mastered a flushing toilet, had all the answers to the world’s big questions
I again remain in waiting – hit me with your best tome my changeist friends
Such a paper probably does not exist. Unfortunately what you have to do is do some hard yakka research for yourself. Only then will you be able to give an informed opinion. At the present your inability to answer such fundamental questions about the science of climate change is cause for a legitimate indictment of your ignorance. Your comments simply work to exacerbate scientists as you are so far behind the science. Why don`t you do some research, and I mean a real thorough examination of the available literature? You probably won`t though because you are probably not interested. Goodbye.