Climate Change Denial

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August 22, 2006


George Marshall @ 8:02 pm

This is not a facetious question or skeptic propaganda. I would never dispute that the scientific community is in full agreement that climate change is real, human induced, and significant.

However, ‘believe’ is a powerful and specific word. When we talk of the things we ‘believe’ in we give them a value and an emotional context. We know many things, but it is our beliefs that provide a frame for our decisions and direct our behaviour.

So, to come back to the question- do scientists really believe in climate change? My observation is that many do not. In the course of my work (I am a director of a climate change charity) I often attend scientific briefings and have met many professional climate scientists and have noted the following consistent traits of scientific presentations:

It’s serious, but don’t panic. Gavin Schmidt has written a long review for the excellent Real Climate site on the IPPR report I reviewed in the last posting Schmidt argues that the IPPR authors missed a “huge missing category” of denial, the ‘it’s serious (and interesting) but don’t panic’ repertoire which, he says, ‘is the language most often heard at scientific conferences’.

Schmidt cites as an example a letter to the Independent from Dr Thomas Crowley from the Division of Earth and Ocean Sciences at Duke University, North Carolina. Dr Crowley calls on environmentalists to stop ‘castigating others and raising wild alarms’ and ‘sit down at the negotiating table with industry and conservative politicians and do some good old-fashioned “horse trading”.

The role for scientists is informing the debate. Back in 2000 my friend and colleague Mark Lynas asked a simple but highly relevant question at a public meeting addressed by Professor Mike Hulme, the head of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Research. “If, as you have argued, the Amazon may burn down adding a further *degrees (I can’t remember actual figure)to global climate, that’s curtains for all of us, isn’t it?” This is exactly the kind of question one is never supposed to ask, and Hulme responded energetically to deflate it. “I do not think it is appropriate or useful for us to bang our drum about this- we need to use this information to generate a dialogue about our future options”. He didn’t answer the question because, dialogue or no dialogue, Mark was right. It is curtains, and scientists are remarkably unwilling to ever say this even when the conclusion could be solidly supported by their own data.

Reluctance to draw out actual human impacts. I recently attended a public presentation by a leading scientist about sea level rise. He was a good speaker and became extremely exercised about the variables- the differences between models and the uncertainties concerning the collapse of the Greenland ice sheet. But he was not prepared to talk at all about what these sea level rises actually mean- the loss of most of Bangladesh, Egypt, Florida, the Netherlands and most major cities- or any of the social and political schisms that would result from these impacts. His emotional engagement was with the model. I find this abstraction of the issue is extremely common in scientific presentations.

There are many uncertainties. How many times have I heard scientists say this? Scientists are quite right to be very wary of drawing firm conclusions from uncertain models. However, even as those models have become more and more reliable, and the actual evidence of climate change has become ever stronger, scientists continue to undermine their work by their abiding reluctance to speak with confidence. This has been a gift to professional contrarians who denounce the facts on the media with absolute and persuasive certainty.

I am not qualified to comment. A friend of mine- a social scientist by training- was working in the offices of the British Antarctic Survey and noticed that scientists made no attempt to put together their different and very specialised areas of research to form a single picture. She believes that this is a deliberate psychological strategy. By looking at only one small part of the problem, scientists can avoid facing the overall catastrophic conclusions and can hide behind their specialism.

I believe that many scientists adopt elaborate denial strategies to protect themselves from the extreme seriousness of climate change. They intellectualise the issue and deliberately avoid facing its implications. They define emotional engagement as ‘political’ and irresponsible and castigate those, fellow scientists included, who express fear or despair, or seek to communicate the real urgency to the general public.

Finally, scientists are prone to leave climate change at work and live like everyone else the rest of the time. Whenever I have the chance I ask climate scientists if they still fly for their holidays. Most are surprised that I even ask the question. One admitted to me in the pub after a heated public meeting that he flies three times a year to the Alps and even south America for skiing holidays. He said that his job was very hard and stressful and that he needs the break.

In anticipation of the potential response of scientists I want to say this. Climate change is no ordinary problem. Your own work makes it abundantly clear that it threatens our survival. Under the circumstances it is vital that you clearly and honestly communicate the threat- indeed it is ethically irresponsible for you not to do so. It is entirely appropriate for you to express concern, anger and fear to your colleagues and the general public.

And to those scientists who are already doing this- I take off my hat to you. We desperately need your knowledge and guidance.

[Postcript  9th November 2006. There was an amazingly vitriolic correspondance following this posting from people involved in the scientific institutions I mentioned. Sadly, because this was not directed to the site I don’t think that I can share it. What I can share is an article by Mike Hulme published today on the BBC website

In it Professor Hulme refers to this blog when he says ‘I have found myself increasingly chastised by climate change campaigners when my public statements and lectures on climate change have not satisfied their thirst for environmental drama and exaggerated rhetoric’. There is some personal stuff here.

However the article also supports many of the concerns I raised in the posting. Hulme criticises the use of the terms ‘catastrophic’, “chaotic”, “irreversible”, “rapid”, tipping point, and irreversible in connection with climate change. He argues that ‘the language of catastrophe is not the language of science’ and that it ‘hides a cascade of value-laden assumptions which do not emerge from empirical or theoretical science’.

However, even as a non scientist, it is clear to  me that this is not true. Of course we could argue the toss about what exactly constitutes a ‘catastrophe’ but it seems to me that its dictionary meaning (an event of extraordinary magnitude and misfortune) is perfectly applied and is very well supported by the science, and, as the Stern review established, the economics too. Hulme is not tolerant of catastrophism even when coming from his peers who he accuses of ‘ softening -up the G8 Gleneagles summit through a frenzied week of “climate change is worse than we thought” news reporting and group-think.’

As I tried to argue in the article, the separation of the scientific data from the moral and emotional response to the impacts is a form of dissonance. Read his article and see what you think]

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August 3, 2006

Buy Your Own Porn

George Marshall @ 5:21 pm

How could I resist boosting my hits by using the word PORN on the blog?! The excuse is a very interesting report by the Institute of Public Policy Research which argues that “climate change alarmism might even become secretly thrilling – effectively a form of ‘climate porn’”

The papers can’t resist the word either. The Independent happily gives it a headline then sniffs in the editorial that “the word ‘porn’…is a cheap way of securing a headline, masquerading as a serious piece of analysis”.

Not fair. The report, “Warm Words: How are we telling the climate story and can we tell it better” is a very valuable analysis of the semiotics of climate change and how language contributes to climate change denial.

It identifies three distinct repertoires (descriptive systems of language) that are being used in to describe climate change in media and information materials:

– “typified by an inflated or extreme lexicon..[which].employs a quasi-religious register of death and doom [and] excludes the possibility of real action or agency by the viewer of reader.

– “which rejects and mocks the discourse and invokes ‘common sense’ to dismiss climate change as too fantastic to be true”. A sub category, called ‘British Comic nihilism’ by the IPPR, is a ‘sunny refusal to engage in the debate, typified by comic musings on the positive possibilities of a future with climate change’. See my last two postings for examples.

Pragmatic Optimism
–Examples include: “techno-optimism”- which promotes business-as-usual technological solutions like biofuels;  “David and Goliath” which recycles endlessly the tired Margaret Mead quote about a few people changing the world; and “Small Actions” which encourages small personal actions but ‘can be lacking in energy and may not feel compelling”.

The IPPR is quite right. Bombarding people with the bad news makes them feel powerless and defensive. Backing it up with the admonition to change your lightbulbs then undermines the power of the issue. It’s like saying “smoking kills, so why not cut down a little”. And, again like smokers, there are a vast numbers of people who say ‘stop telling me to give up my little  pleasures’, ‘they’ll come up with a cure’, ‘can’t believe what you read in the papers’ and so on.

The IPPR advocates a change in communications: targeting groups in terms of their own values, especially recognizing that many people are esteem driven; using the language of  ‘ordinary heroes’; and using metaphor to enable emotional engagement.

I am less sure that a change in language will solve anything much. Whilst I do not doubt the power of language to frame a debate, I believe that people adopt arguments and language according to their existing world view. Nihilistic or evasive language is therefore a reflection of wider currents of despair, denial, or optimism.

The real issue is the profound disconnection between what we know and what we do. Nihilism and the refutation of the science seek to resolve the disconection by reducing the scale of the problem. The ‘advocacy of small changes’ seeks to resolve it by reducing the scale of the solutions. Alarmist strategies fail because they actually increase the dissonance by increasing our perception of the problem.

What we need is personal and collective action that is in proportion to the scale of the problem. When looking for solutions, the danger with reframing the language we use is that we are still reinforcing the intellectual side of the balance – the “what we know”. As motivational research shows time and again, it is often more effective to get people doing the right thing before giving them the language to describe why they should do it. 

Despite this, we continue to look to language as the best means to energise and motivate change- hoping that it we try hard enough can find a formulation that works. The UK Department for Environment has recently awarded £2 million to community organisations to communicate climate change. It was adamant that funding as only available for “attitudinal change” not “behavioural change”- in other words, awardees could use language to persuade people of the scale of the problem but were forbidden to lead them into any substantive personal action (other than to talk about it some more).

We do not need elaborately crafted rhetoric to get people making the necessary changes- we can start to create change through an effective combination of sticks and carrots. If the vast cost of the Iraq War (£6 billion in the UK to date) had been put into domestic energy efficiency and microgeneration there would building activity on every street, and every household could feel that they are part of huge and sweeping changes. They would then be far better prepared to hear about the problem.

We are depending on language because there is no real political will on this issue and we therefore need to persuade everyone to make their own contribution- and let’s face it, how far would any war get if it had to be funded by public subscription?

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