Climate Change Denial

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November 6, 2012


George Marshall @ 2:07 pm

In the wake of extreme heat, droughts, and Hurricane Sandy, many people are assuming that, at last, there may be the critical mass of extreme weather events that will tip public opinion towards action on climate change.

This is based on the long held assumption that extreme climate events will increase awareness and concern- and this would seem logical considering that climate change suffers as an issue from distance and a consequent lack of salience.

I have heard many scientists, including the former UK chief scientific advisor Sir David King, go further and argue that real public and political attention requires such events.  Climate change campaigners are already building their public communications around this assumption (for example a viral campaign ‘advert’ contrasts Romney’s ludicrous nomination speech with Sandy).

However this assumption deserves to be challenged. Climate change awareness is complex and strongly mediated by socially constructed attitudes. I suggest that there are some countervailing conditions- especially in the early stages of climate impacts. It is important to recognise that many of the social and cultural obstacles to belief are not removed by major impacts and may, indeed, be reinforced.

A few weeks ago I was in Texas interviewing people in Bastrop where, in 2011, the worst fires in Texas history (by a tenfold margin) destroyed 1,700 homes. The fires were directly related to the extreme drought and record breaking temperatures that struck central Texas in 2011. Causal links are always hard, but even the state climatologist, John Nielsen-Gammon (who surely has one of the hardest jobs in climate science) made a cautious connection between climate change, the drought and the fires. I did six interviews in Bastrop: with the mayor, the head of the Chamber of Commerce, the editor of the local newspaper and with three people who had lost everything they owned in the fires.

It was very interesting that not one of them could recall any conversation about anthropogenic climate change in relation to the fires. The mayor, who said he accepted climate science, found that there was little interest or willingness among people to make this connection and it seems he felt it politic not to push it.

People did note that there was a change in the weather and most anticipated that the drought and fires could happen again. But they weren’t really interested in talking about this- what they really wanted to talk about was their pride in their community, the value of their social relations, their resilience and their personal and collective capacity to overcome challenges. They had recovered remarkably fast and the local economy had grown (boosted by government recovery grants and insurance payments). The county is doing very well and continues to grow- incredibly, after entirely repeatable wildfires incinerated the homes of a third of the residents, it is said to be the fourth fastest growing county in the US.

I would argue that the responses in Bastrop are entirely consistent with what we know about the way that people respond socially and cognitively to disasters and climate change.

Disasters can reinforce social networks (and with them established norms and worldviews)

In disasters, especially in areas with strong communities, people tend to pull together and show a remarkable and inspiring sense of collective purpose. This is nicely reflected in Rebecca Solnit’s excellent book, a Paradise Built in Hell

We know, though, that attitudes to climate change are strongly correlated with political and ideological worldviews (see for example the work of Dan Kahan and the Cultural Cognition Project ).  We can therefore anticipate that a stronger cultural cohesion could make it even harder for ideas that challenge existing worldviews to be voiced or accepted- creating even further obstacles for the acceptance of climate change in societies that are currently skeptical.

And we could anticipate that extreme events might also reinforce existing concern in places that are already disposed to accept climate change.  It will also be very interesting to see how Hurricane Sandy affects attitudes to climate change of both people inside and outside affected areas.  Given than attitudes to climate change are often held as part of a political identity, we cannot be surprised if people in a politically left leaning area (and much of the affected area is strongly Democrat) are prepared to ascribe extreme weather events to climate change. But this will not, of itself, be evidence that extreme events changes attitudes.

Disasters can increase social confidence and certainty.
Accepting anthropogenic climate change requires a high degree of self-criticism and even self-doubt. It requires a preparedness to accept personal responsibility for collective errors and for entire societies to accept the need for major collective change. And, inevitably, this process of acceptance would generate intense debate and conflict.

Disasters may very well do the opposite and provide proof of the worth of the existing social system- including the existing worldview and lifestyle.  The spirit of pulling together and moving on generates a consensus to suppress divisive issues and support the existing society. Areas of contention or disagreement are likely to be suppressed in the interests of social cohesion or out of respect to people who have offered kindness and generosity. After all, if your current society and economic model has served you well in a crisis you are surely less willing to accept change.

We could say, for historical comparison, that the transition of Germany from a dictatorship to a successful social democracy required the self doubt and introspection that came with defeat. Britain and the US won the war and with it a correspondingly inflated view of their own global authority that lasts to this day.

Disasters encourage powerful and compelling survival narratives (that can overwhelm weaker and more complex climate change narratives).
People’s view of the world (and their place in it) is shaped through narratives. Social groups seek to negotiate shared narratives that are simple, appealing and reinforce shared values.  In so doing they will reject or marginalise competing narratives that might challenge their current worldview. (For example just look at the competition of interpretive narratives around Thanksgiving ! ).

So a complex and challenging narrative will have a very hard time being accepted as social truth when it is competing against strong, appealing and highly coherent narrative. In the case of Bastrop the weak narrative is that the fires were caused (in part) by weather conditions which were caused (in part) by climate change which was caused (in part) by the culture and behaviour of Bastrop residents.

It’s a hard one to sell at the best of times, and a disaster is the very worst condition for this narrative because it is overwhelmed by a much more attractive story: “we support each other, we are surrounded by evidence of our love and kindness, we are tough, we faced a huge challenge and we won through…and we can do it again”. This does not just speak to local pride, but the much larger mythology of frontier town Texas.

And there are other powerful narratives waiting in the wings. In other disasters the most powerful narrative can be one of blame- of the people who started a fire (leading at times to the demonization of a supposed arsonist), the government who did not build the flood defences, the construction companies who broke building codes, or the emergency services who failed to do their job.

These may well be valid arguments, but they also generate an enemy and victim frame which is far more compelling that anything offered by climate change. “It’s their fault and I demand action against them and restitution” is a much more compelling story than “it may be my fault or our fault and I demand that we work together to change the way we live”. The fatal flaw of the climate change narrative is that, uniquely among our major problems, it has no clear enemy at all.

Disasters are cyclical and create escalating baselines
Human psychology is strongly prone to creating patterns and comparisons based on the ‘availability’ of comparable events. In terms of environmental issues people tend to be very poor at noticing decadal change (and certainly intergenerational change) because of a shifting baseline.

Disasters create intense but isolated events after which, as the people on Bastrop said, things go back to ‘normal’. The pain and loss of the event generates an intensified desire that there be a ‘normal’ state to which one can return, making it harder to people to accept that there are larger changes underway. The desire for stability makes people more prone to see a disaster as being at the extreme end of natural variations (that is to say part of a normal cycle).

However, any extreme event has also created a new baseline. The next event will be measured against this baseline and, if this is equivalent or lesser will reinforce the idea that it was part of a normal cycle.  There is a good chance too that the collective learning and adaptation to the previous event will ensure that future events will be more manageable and have lower human and economic impacts. This too will reinforce ideas the perception that such events are not escalating.

The critical consideration in how events are perceived is the relationship between an event and the most recent comparable events, and the time that separates them. Events that are far apart are unlikely to be noticed, whereas we could assume a greater perception of change around events that are relatively recent, memorable, and clearly escalating.

Well this is true to a degree, but then there is a risk of another problem for events that come too often…..

Repeated disasters generate hopelessness and powerlessness
The ‘Paradise in Hell’ communitarianism pertains to events that are relatively rare anomalies in an otherwise confident and successful society. If extreme events occur with regularity – especially if they occur too regularly for communities and economies to recover fully- they could generate a sense of despair and helplessness.

I suspect that the most likely response to regular extreme events would be for people to move or to bunker down into inwards looking family and social groups. This in turn would work against the outward looking confidence required to take action on climate change. People may, under these conditions, accept the reality of climate change but if they do so they will have to accept that actions to mitigate emissions, even across the entire world, will not prevent further more extreme and severe events.

Different kinds of extreme climate may have different impacts on public attitudes

It is important to differentiate between different kinds of climate event and suggest that they may have different outcomes in public attitudes. Droughts and heatwaves are extended conditions that encourage the perception that there is a long term change underway (a change in the ‘normal’). What is more, although they generate solidarity in suffering there is far less of the ‘pull together’ cohesion that occurs in major disaster events. We could reasonably infer that they may be more likely to generate an increase in concern about climate change.

This conjecture seems to be borne out in recent research from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication which found an increase between spring and fall of 2012 in the number of  people who reported that had been they had personally harmed by drought and heat waves and a slight decline in those reporting harm from other weather events. Overall the survey found a 5% increase the number of respondents who would agree that “global warming is affecting weather in the United States”.

The relationship between climate disasters and perceptions of climate change is complex as it is mediated by socially constructed narratives.

This means that campaigners and communicators should be very wary of charging into areas affected by extreme weather events and assuming that they have fertile ground for increased activism around change. The very opposite may be true, especially if they are perceived as outsiders who are breaking into the community (which may never have been stronger or more united) and exploiting its suffering. It would be hard to imagine anything more counterproductive than an environmental activist organisation dropping a banner in the midst of a conservative community after a major disaster.

The critical condition for affecting longer term attitudes is the extent to which events are translated into a socially held narrative that speaks to people’s sense of their own identity. And this requires a steady long term approach – waiting until the dust has settled and working with trusted local communicators who can make a case that the single event fits into a narrative pattern of longer term change.

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  1. Graham Game says:

    Excellent blog George – makes perfect sense, especially to those of us who know America/Americans!

  2. Well written and engaging piece; and once again highlighting the intellectual paucity of our efforts to engage with each other on this problem…if we are to cope with the deficit of leadership on this (and cope we will clearly have to) we must understand these dynamics….

  3. Tor Bejnar says:

    <> (quoting can’t hurt though, can it? Conservatives may circle the wagons at first reading, but this is not liberal academics holding the banner, but conservative business leaders. The message may seep in.

  4. Bruce Heagerty says:

    Hmm.. Yup. Interestingly, though, Michael Bloomberg’s intervention in supporting Obama
    in part because he is taking Climate change more seriously than Romney, may well have tipped the balance in the election Obama’s way (or at least, more so) which means that Hurricane Sandy might indirectly be the first climate event that has helped determine a US election.
    Blomberg has cleverly stepped toward a different narrative, ‘Citing the devastation from Hurricane Sandy, Mr Bloomberg said that the risk of extreme weather events caused by climate change should “compel all elected leaders to take immediate action”.’
    This is well outside the norm and will surely make uncomfortable reading for many Americans because it clashes with their usual everyday narratives. That doesn’t mean that they will ignore it, however, and we can only hope that communicators like yourself can capitalise on Bloomberg sticking his head above the parapet to mention climate change in this way and back him up with further explanation of the processes by which such events are likely to become more frequent and intense.

    Good to read your cautionary narrative, anyway, George.


  5. Charles R. Wannall says:

    The piece overall is certainly interesting, and I suppose that one measure of its content is that the remarks could in the main apply to “believers” and “deniers” alike.

    The drought in Texas in 2011 counts as the third worst, according to Texas A & M University’s site ( That’s bad enough, but not, as you characterized it initially at the meeting, the worst in history. For convenience I will point out that the earlier, worse droughts occurred in 1918 and 1956. That is not inconsistent with the possibility of linkage to anthropogenic global warming, but it also adds little to support it.

    I would also point out that you mention record-breaking temperatures, but you fail to add that, as reported in the Sequin Gazette, “Data says Texas isn’t warming”. The article goes on to site and display National Climatic Data Center data for Texas from 1890 to 2010 that indicate, in the reporter’s summary, “As shown in the nearby chart, the average temperature of Texas barely changed between 1895 and 2011. The total warming over those 116 years was an insignificant 0.046 degree Fahrenheit. If the record highs of 2011 are omitted, Texas cooled 0.055 degree from 1895 to 2010.”

    I have yet to download that data and check it for myself, but for the moment I will give Forrest Mims III, the reporter, the benefit of the doubt.

    I bring these points to bear because I notice that you cite the record-breaking temperatures without putting them in any context of a longer timeline, across which the effect is barely noticeable. Again, this certainly does not disprove the hypothesis of anthropogenic global warming, but it adds perhaps even less in favor of the hypothesis than the 2011 drought severity.

    You indicated at the meeting and in our correspondence that you are interested in making balanced presentations on the subject at hand, and the information on drought and temperature histories seems an important of maintaining that balance.

    I would love to see you incorporate it in your discussion of the attitudes you encountered on your visit here. Some of us would say that, as a “Climate Believer”, you might have the hypothesis backwards: Perhaps some persons do not receive a political view first and then accept or dismiss information based on its accordance with that view. Perhaps some persons, who are naturally skeptical of extreme claims of any sort, extend their skepticism even to “climate change”, and as a result of their general skepticism tend to develop views similar enough that they seek out each others’ company and scout around for a political environment that does not insist on belief ahead of compelling proof. It is at least a possible alternative.

    It is unfortunate that you chose the advert you chose, and that you chose to characterize Romney’s remarks as “ludicrous”.

    The advert is the very definition of “yellow journalism”, “a type of journalism that presents little or no legitimate well-researched news and instead uses eye-catching headlines to sell more newspapers” (Wikipedia). The advert is very successful at demonizing those who disagree with you, by overlaying their applause for a candidate against tragic images. It is very successful as propaganda, but that seems an unfortunate approach to champion, when the putative goal is the rational analysis of important information.

    As to Romney’s remarks, they are almost a direct quote of Mr. Obama’s June 2008 remark that with his election we would find that “this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal”. I don’t think he meant it quite as some of his most relentless critics have tried to characterize it, but it was an ideal setup for folks who find him, as I do, a bit full of himself, to encapsulate that fullness in a remark that can fairly be used for the purpose, certainly within the bounds of comedy and political rhetoric. Although I take it with a grain of salt, I freely confess to enjoying the use of it shown in the “advert”. It might rise to hyperbole, but I reject the characterization as ludicrous.

    Ludicrous would be Mr. Obama actually believing that his election would mark that turning point.

    I look forward to seeing what use you may be pleased to find for the information provided above, and would be happy to provide anything else that could be of interest.

    If you come through Texas again, we would be delighted to see you. Some of us don’t agree with you much on the topic at this website, but we enjoyed meeting you and always enjoy a lively discussion.


    Dear Charles

    thank you for your comments. I realise that it is tricky to draw conclusions on weather events, and we all need to be careful how we do so. There are two things to say:

    Your link says that 2011 was the third worst on record. It was dated from June 2011 when many sources were reporting it as the third worst. But this was still early in a drought that persisted until rains in November. Taken as a year, and for the state as a whole, (two important caveats) as I read the evidence, there is not doubt that it was the driest and hottest.

    Already by August the state climatologist had no hesitation in saying that, overall, it was the worst on record, but, especially, drew attention to the combination of heat and drought, which, he argues very cogently, was unprecedented.

    He says:
    “The year 2011 continues the recent trend of being much warmer than the historical precipitation-temperature relationship would indicate, although with no previous points so dry it’s hard to say exactly what history would say about a summer such as this one. Except that this summer is way beyond the previous envelope of summer temperature and precipitation,”

    I am inclined to go with what he says. But there are those additional caveats in this. The first is to say ‘Texas as a whole’—of course Texas is a vast state which in Europe would be several countries. So there is considerable variation across it. There are parts of Texas which had worse droughts in 1925 and 1956- this map shows it well

    In this map the country of Bastrop was split- the area with wildfires was the worst ever, the rest the worst since 1925.

    But I return again to what John Nielson-Gammon says- that the combination of heat and drought was utterly unprecedented.

    Within the context of this article, the important thing for me is not whether the weather was record breaking (it was) or caused by climate change (it clearly was not – like Sandy this is an extreme ‘natural’ event to which climate change has an amplifying effect ) but whether the people affected by it see it as such or even discuss the possibility. Considering that the state climatologist consistently argues that climate change will make heatwaves higher and longer and droughts harsher and longer it is fascinating to me that the topic does not emerge in the public discourse.

  6. Charles R. Wannall says:

    I have elevated my evaluation of Forrest Mims from “gets the benefit of the doubt” to “well qualified to comment”, as an Expert Reviewer of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 2013 report. Below follow his remarks in closing from the article cited in my previous post:

    “Why do some scientists insist that Texas is warming when the data show a negligible increase? I don’t know. But I do know that a National Science Foundation program officer told me that applications for atmospheric science grants that do not include a global warming theme stand little chance of acceptance. I’m also well aware of major problems in past reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), for which I serve as an Expert Reviewer of its 2013 report.

    “Climate scientists are right to be concerned about droughts, especially since no Texas drought since precipitation records were begun around 1870 matches the megadroughts revealed in the rings of baldcypress trees. Those droughts occurred hundreds of years before SUVs and power plants began pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, a process blamed for global warming that has not yet arrived in Texas.”

    Please do not mistake skepticism for more than it is. The temperature records do not disprove the anthropogenic global warming hypothesis. They do, however, suggest that skepticism may not be a conditioned reflex based on a political position. It could just be the skepticism that we were taught was an essential part of all investigation, scientific or otherwise.

  7. Stuart Singleton-White says:

    Excellent piece George. I think you and Chris Rose are making some of the most telling, thoughtful and relevant points with regard to the challenges of communicating climate change. It’s not just campaigners and communicators (like me) who need to listen, but politicians too. They need to develop the narrative that builds no the normal, but through hope and aspiration (both of which they are pretty good at) develops a new normal.

  8. Tor Bejnar says:

    The left out quote in #3 is “Businessweek’s Bold Cover: ‘It’s Global Warming, Stupid'”

  9. Interesting piece, George.

    However, I do believe that people are not totally separate from science and reality. We’ll get there in the end, even if we can have funny ideas on the way.

    I see you linked through to a Huffington Post article, and I liked George Lakoff’s Huffinton Post article about how “Global Warming Systemically Caused Hurricane Sandy”. I think that “systemic causations” could be a powerful idea:

    “Systemic causation is familiar. Smoking is a systemic cause of lung cancer. HIV is a systemic cause of AIDS. Working in coal mines is a systemic cause of black lung disease. Driving while drunk is a systemic cause of auto accidents. Sex without contraception is a systemic cause of unwanted pregnancies.”

  10. Tor Bejnar says:

    IPCC “expert reviewers” are self appointed; by itself it is not a credential of particular merit. (Do search the internet to confirm this.)

    I don’t know about Texas, but I recall looking at an interactive map with graphs that showed USA temperature and precipitation data over the last 30 and 100+ year periods. For a couple of areas (water districts?) where I have lived, it showed a temperature decline from late 1800 to 1980 and a statistically significant increase in temperature since then. For the 100+ year period for some of these areas there was insignificant change.

  11. jan Freed says:

    Google “Texas drought”: How anyone can say things are “cooling”is beyond me. High temp records broken all over Texas, as well as low rainfall records.

    One way to step outside ideology and work to save the planet (if that is indeed necessary) would be to look at National “high temp records broken” vs. “cold temp records broken”. In a stable climate (without an upward tendency) both group of records would be 1:1. Fluctuations will exist, of course, but no upward trend. I don’t know about Texas, but nationally the high temp/low temp records have increased from about 1:1 in the 50’s to currently 10:1 or so.

    What I do not understand is that people would gamble with the planet and its citizens to find a way to be “right”, no matter the delay. Unless of course, one is getting paid to do so and is simply missing a moral sense.

  12. Errm.. cough. I know, as a polite person that I’m not supposed to ask this but err.. you say you were in Texas – did you fly there?

    I’m really not being preachy or trolling or owt, just genuinely curious.

    [George says: I think it is a reasonable question and I am very aware of my emissions- however I have never been opposed to all flying, but personally I need to feel that I can justify the impact to myself. So of course I flew there, but tried to make the very most of it and spent an intensive three weeks in the US on research that also involved four presentations, two conferences, thirty interviews and a string of important meetings for my work. This was the first flight I have made in 8 years. I am satisfied that I did a lot with that one trip. The person on the flight sitting next to me was popping over to New York for the weekend to do some shopping!]

  13. Toby says:

    Charles Wannall, your response to George is disappointing. He quoted the State Climatologist, a first-class scientist who writes an interestng and balanced blog. You respond with a hearsay and irrelevant comment suggesting that ALL climate scientists are dishonest.

    The points here are well made and thanks for a great post.

    PS Martin Parkinson, if George walked, flew, cycled or swam to Texas, it would not make the science any less true.

  14. Trevor says:

    This was very thought provoking. Do you think these psychological tendencies will point in the same direction for NY and NJ after Hurricane Sandy, though? I mean, since climate change is already a prevalent narrative among that population, won’t the reinforcement of social cohesion and certainty have the effect of strengthening the response to climate change?

    I posted to your article here:

  15. Martin Parkinson says:

    PS Martin Parkinson, if George walked, flew, cycled or swam to Texas, it would not make the science any less true.

    You mistake me. I’m really *not* a troll – in fact I’m slightly offended you thought me a pseudo-skeptic.

    I haven’t flown for sixteen years – I’m as much aware of the science as you and I know what George has previously written about carbon footprints. Not everyone on the internet is a snidester.

  16. Adrian Tait says:

    Lots of interesting threads here. I’ll just pick up on a couple of points in the psycho-social domain, where I can substantiate George’s observations, from my own personal experience.

    First, I have a lot of friends and relatives in Australia (whom I don’t fly to see any more!)and I’ve been interested to discuss extreme weather events with them. Regarding the last bad bush fires in Victora, I raised the subject of climate change with one cousin, who studiously ignored my question, preferring to wax lyrical on the courage of the fire-fighters and the wonderful communty response to tragedy. Valid observations of course but as George says, an evasion too.

    My second example is closer to home and concerns fingers of blame. The heavy rain last Summer destroyed crops on the Somerset levels and our village was afflicted by the stench of rotting vegetation when the fields began to dry. Any suggestions that there was a link betwen how we all choose to live and escalation of extreme weather were met with incredulity. Inadequate dredging of the river Tone and negligence on the part of the Environment Agency were the culprits, I was assured!

  17. I am really sorry to have derailed this and to have accidentally given the impression of being a concern troll – but I just have to expand on my previous comment. To allay any uncertaintythis is where I’m coming from. The reason I read this blog is because <a href=""I am interested in communication of environmental issues. I have a great deal of respect for George Marshall, who talks very acutely about the psychology of belief and behaviour. I attempted to make the tone of my question friendly and hesitant – normally, I only comment on blogs where I already know someone or there is a reasonable chance I might meet them – that keeps it grounded and relatively polite. I do have a reasonable chance of meeting George because our green circles do intersect somewhat.

    I have a particular interest in how we cope with up the hugeness of the task before us when what we can individually do is so insignificant – “But what can I do?” is the big question for individuals. Of course *one person* fussing about their carbon emissions makes no difference whatsoever. However, if that person has a public profile, then their behaviour can have a very powerful *rhetorical* effect – it looks like you really believe what you say. For this reason there are a number of people who actually do make a point of “not flying”. They get some grief for it too. There is even a small number of people who make a sort of *theatrical* point by making long distance journey overland (such as the woman from CAT who went to her firends wedding in Australia), yes it’s a gesture, but symbolic actions are an important form of communication. So Charles sneering at me: “of course he flew” is a cheap shot – for all I knew he might have been in US for six months and taken a boat, it was a real question. When I said “I’m not preaching” I really am not preaching.

    George, thanks for replying – you do understand why I wanted to know, and of course you answer is exactly what I expected from someone who has written so well about these matters, and I hope we do get to meet in person some time!

  18. Mark Ritzenhein says:

    1. EG, If Americans really wanted to do something about the multi-trillion dollar national debt, they (we, I) likely would have to adopt something more akin to a subsistence lifestyle–permanently. No one wants to do that, really. So, this example also fits with was is proposed in the essay above, that no one really wants to accept that the latest monster storm is re-validation that climate change is already upon us. However–I did hear such admission from officials and direct victims, and expect to hear more from now on. I expect that minds have been changed this time, and there will be political change from it as well–across the spectrum–in the northeast US, Governor Christie and Mayor Bloomberg being prime examples.
    As for Bastrop, There is no Ogalala or Edwards Aquifers to suck dry this time, so when the place blows to dust again everyone will have no choice but to leave. No amount of community spirit will overcome that fact.

  19. Jane English says:

    about the need for self-doubt — I remember my friend, the Greenlandic elder Angaangaq, saying that when we have come home to ourselves, then we can be at home anywhere, in any circumstances. This is the opposite of self-doubt. When we are at home in ourselves the external changes brought about by climate change, and those needed to adapt to climate change no longer threaten our sense of self. Thus the changes are easier to live with and to make.

  20. Remember that length of time and repetition is of massive importance in these cases. If the events at Bostrop happen several times and/or over a long period of time the reaction would be very different. History tells us to be patient and wait for repeated droughts, floods, etc and in many communites so no one is chosen specially by God.

  21. miker613 says:

    Judith Curry points out that “The scientific support for linking Sandy to AGW is weak to missing, at best”.
    Other climate scientists have pointed this out as well – extreme weather is one of the weakest predictions of AGW, and thus far entirely unconfirmed by real-world data. So this article seems to me to be built upside down: The question should rather be, Why do so many believers in AGW jump to positive conclusions about weather disasters, when the science doesn’t back them up yet? Agnosticism on this subject should be the default.

  22. Arno Arrak says:

    Apparently the only climate science in this article is a quote from Romney: “…President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans (13 second pause)…” That, of course, was a ludicrous and unscientific promise from Obama, and Romney was quite right to mock it. I hope I am not boring you with scientific details, but the oceans have been rising at the rate of 2.46 millimeters per year for the last eighty years. This is according to Chao, Yu and Li who reported this in Science in 2008. Satellites today report approximately a three millimeter rise per year, within the uncertainty limits of the eighty year trend. For a century it works out 24.6 centimeters, just under ten inches, and nowhere near the 20 feet that Al Gore told us about in his Nobel Prize-winning movie. Apparently Obama fell for this pseudo-science when he uttered that remark. Next, your concerns about peoples reactions to extreme events. Your observations of the Bastrop community in Texas are interesting and similar stories of communities coming together after hurricane Sandy can be told. Apparently they have enough common sense not to equate drought with global warming.The resilience of the people of Bastrop and others in the path of Sandy is very likely instinctual behavior, a product of social evolution of Homo sapiens. Evolutionary theory tells us that cooperative behavior, which Hamilton’s theory of inclusive fitness makes unlikely, has been a major reason for our success as a species. From there you jump on to hypothesizing why these people still don’t want to accept anthropogenic climate change: “…Accepting anthropogenic climate change requires a high degree of self-criticism and even self-doubt. It requires a preparedness to accept personal responsibility for collective errors and for entire societies to accept the need for major collective change….” And since these people haven’t got what it takes according to your opinion you go on looking for solutions in Germany: “We could say, for historical comparison, that the transition of Germany from a dictatorship to a successful social democracy required the self doubt and introspection that came with defeat.” Nothing could be further from the truth. You forget that they had a democracy until Hitler took advantage of it, got elected, and suppressed it for the next twelve years. It was the genius of Konrad Adenauer aided by the Marshall Plan and not navel gazing that re-established German democracy. You apparently are just unhappy, and I am glad, that your propaganda is not working. Whether you like it or not, the greenhouse theory of global warming that is supposed to warm up the world is dead. Since you act as though this is news to you, let me give you the full story. First, Ferenc Miskolczi proved this experimentally by using NOAA weather balloon database that goes back to 1948. Specifically, he showed that the IR transparency of the atmosphere remained unchanged for 61 years while the amount of carbon dioxide in the air increased by 21.6 percent. Addition of this substantial amount of CO2 had no effect whatsoever on the absorption of IR by the atmosphere. And no absorption means no greenhouse effect, case closed. This is an empirical observation and it overrules any theoretical calculations that do not agree with it. To you, that means output of climate models that predict dangerous warming ahead. Second, you should also know that IPCC, the mother church of AGW, predicted from greenhouse theory that global warming in the twenty-first century shall proceed at the rate of 0.2 degrees Celsius per decade. We are now in the second decade of the twenty-first century and there is no sign whatsoever of this predicted warming. In science, if a theory makes a wrong prediction that theory itself is considered wrong and must be abandoned. The greenhouse theory has made such a wrong prediction and therefore must be abandoned, the exact same conclusion required by Miskolczi. It follows from this that all previous predictions of the greenhouse theory must also be considered false. Since they have been used to justify emission control laws these laws have been passed under false premises. Now they must all be voided.

  23. RobertInAz says:

    I found this article over at Judith Curry’s site. My up front concern is that the terminology is imprecise. There have been and will be no starkly identifiable climate disasters. There have (always) been weather disasters that may have been exacerbated by climate change. It will only be in retrospect where a climate event such as the little ice age might be characterized as a “climate” disaster.

    IMHO, the lack of concern is because the weather disasters have not exceeded the range of natural variability and people understand this.

  24. Francois T says:

    “you chose to characterize Romney’s remarks as “ludicrous”.”

    How are they supposed to be characterized? You wanna some “fair balanced and objective” “He Said She Said” politically reassuring lock box?

    No such luck!

    Rmoney’s comments were not ludicrous; simply totally irresponsible and proof-positive that someone incapable of grasping the first thing about something so serious as climate change should not run the country.

  25. Francois T says:

    Mr Marshall,

    I’ve read your post with a mixture of increasing fascination and despair. If serial disasters won’t change minds, are we just doomed? Or must we wait for a government to invoke War Powers to force collective action?

    Then I realized that the counter-driver to inertia and social narratives that nourish it must be…another social force of equivalent power.

    There are not many of these that would allow mankind to act speedily enough to avoid anticipated catastrophes. I can think of only two: Economic incentives or religious admonitions.

    [George says: I don’t think we are doomed because of this – disasters do have the potential to mobilise concern- and certainly they can reinforce and greatly strengthen existing concern…but I did want to challenge the assumption that they will do this, and to suggest that human attitudes and beliefs are more complex than this would suggest- that people’s perception of cause and risk are strongly mediated by worldview and the social norms…]

  26. Alexander Harvey says:


    “We could say, for historical comparison, that the transition of Germany from a dictatorship to a successful social democracy required the self doubt and introspection that came with defeat. Britain and the US won the war and with it a correspondingly inflated view of their own global authority that lasts to this day.”

    I cannot be sure as to why you should think that, particularly the first sentence. I would guess that it is a notion that you feel comfortable expressing; I doubt that you have much direct evidence.

    It is a notion that we are permitted, perhaps encouraged to hold on to, it is not part of my personal construction of the reality.

    It is a reality in which the majority were permitted recourse to oblivion. A collective, if not personal forgetting. A symbolic cleansing did take place, certain agents were convicted of crimes and a wide scale removal of such signs of the previous years that had survived were obliterated.

    It might not have happened like that. There were many incompatible personal realities out of which were forged the popular memory of conflict. The aftermath could have been an extended collective punishment characterised by a reduction to an second league agrarian nation with serious character flaws. Instead a fictious past was created; populated by two distinct groups the fundamentally decent and the diabolical. The diabolical were expunged and the rest were permitted, given permission, to reconstruct a new, more hopefully and less culpable reality. More akin to scape-goating than a coming to terms.

    A later generation, 1960s/1970s, were permitted to revisit that culturally forgotten past. There were other motivations but at the extreme, a deliberate attempt to reconstruct a history where people were personally culpable took place which in turn started to unlease some of what it sought to decry; in the response of the nation state, a rekindling of fascist elements, and in the instigators themselves.

    Social democracy as in the Social Democratic Party came to power around that time. The previous Christian Democratic period, had been one in which delving into the past was even less permitted, and belonging to the executive and having a documented Nazi past was.

    A long unwinding process continues, various groups and nations are gaining permission to revisit a past that still haunts Europe. Much that had to be forgotten, that was never admitted and reconciled, has resurfaced. Permission to think and express the previously unthinkable is granted, culturally and personally and once again Germany may have some catching up to do. The victors encouraged a nation to forget and it worked rather well. Simultaneously, the victors indulged in remembrance but of a highly selected reality that fed into the same big picture. Here and there, remenants of a different past leak out, are granted permission by change of circumstances, as is underway in Greece today.

    Well that is my view, my construct. It is hardly a shared reality.

    For any who are prepared to except reality as construct, the role of permission is hugely significant. Editting, self-censorship, choice of reading matter, and freesom of expression are reasonably well constrained by whatever is culturally and personally permitted.

    The temptation to deny certain modes of thinking and expression is always great but commonly a failure. More durable is the granting of permission to think differently even when the ends are dubious, morally questionable, or even barbaric.

    This is one reason why I am amazed by all that seek to use denial when attempting social change. It is prone to elicit a demand for the most extraordinary new set of permissions to act in contrary fashion.

    Evil is best engendered not by the prevention of good behaviour but by granting permission to behave badly.

    I would encourage all who wish to attempt revolution to study the part that cultural permission plays. Whereas cultural denial may for a time prop up a fixed and static status quo it will not liberate either personally, culturally, or nationally.

    I will attempt an illustration with mixed consequences. The 1960s/1970s were a period during which social attitudes towards sexuality started to change quite radically. I would suggest that attitudes towards the gay community were not initiated by a clamping down on homophobia but by a cultural permission to be either anti-homophobic or pro-gay rights. put more simply it became permissible to have gay friends or to be gay. Yet at that time other permissions were granted which led in directions that people might now find incredible, e.g. attitudes towards underaged sex and the rise of PIE (Paedophile Information Exchange); both causes were part of the sexual revolution and the permissive society.

    Some might characterise the period since then as one when social irresponsibility was permissible, increasingly socially acceptable. Others might characterise the same as a liberation to lead free and unhinder lives in pursuit of personal happiness. Demonisation of previous, more socially cohesive views came later and is I think ongoing. Permission preceded denial. That is I think the natural order, that permission proceeds revolution proceeds crackdown.

    The temptation to enforce the opposite sequence is prone to go awry; yet it is a thinking that dogs environmental thinking whenever the road gets sticky.

    It is my personal view that attempts to proscribe behaviour, expression and thinking, have contributed to the granting of permissions to behave in quite extraordinary ways; and that any that persist in the same are participating in the construction of realities in which their views are given little credence.

    I am bewildered why some seem to think that more of the same is likely to be productive. More facts, more horror, more screaming in the media, more denial, more abuse, more, more, more!

    It works for a while, just like any trauma, beit natural, or aerial bombardment, but it engenders new ways of thinking, new realities. That which it does not overwhelm it strengthens.

    I doubt it has gone unnoticed that my usage of denial, once traditional, is now idiosyncratic. Not the popular notion of being in denial but the causitive denial that proceeded it. The attempted process of shutting down, of exclusion of views and those that hold them. Such as can culminate in the type of internal blood-letting that causes built on purity are prone to. I would suggest that few of the generally environmentally concerned could pass through all the hoops of their more ideological cousins even if they were the same hoops. Should I hold true some element that is off message, being rude about it is unlikely to change my thinking.

    I fear I witness good intentions aligned with naive practice and I abhor it.

    I do not have a panacea, but more generally I think when confronting opposition that one would prefer to co-opt than destroy, it is better to allow them to come forwards be making that permissible than to throw down the gauntlet on the middle ground. If a line is to be drawn, try and let it be drawn behind the opposing position, and another behind your own. Most people have a back-stop and can draw it for themselves. When retreat is no longer personally permissible their is a limit to polarity.

    In a brief return to the topic, it is not the events that happen that are significant but the back-stop against yet to happen events will be judged.

    BTW are liked almost everything else you wrote, otherwise I would not have bothered.


  27. Fascinating. In Italy the prevailing narrative is around disaster (un)preparedness, rather than community resilience, but the effect on climate change staying out of the picture is the same. Thanks for your thoughts!

  28. Jim C. says:

    Notice how none of the so-called skeptics have much to say about the bigger picture of melting glaciers and polar ice. More heat is what’s causing that melting, but their strategy is to focus on one locality at a time and try to screen out the mass of extenuating evidence. A fancy way of saying they like to change the subject. I think much of their obfuscation is deliberate and I can’t “agree to disagree” with such devious people.

    If you want to understand climate denial psychology, just ask the 20% of Americans who still smoke cigarettes WHY they’re content to risk their health despite decades of official bad news from medical science. If they aren’t even concerned about their own lungs and heart, why would they be expected to care about the plight of the entire Earth?

    People are a self-absorbed, willfully ignorant species for the most part. I don’t think average intelligence should be coddled as something we just “have to put up with” until TSHTF. People who aren’t afraid of evidence-based reality should find a way to steer this ship of fools to a safe shore.

  29. Jim C. says:

    Notice how none of the so-called skeptics have much to say about the bigger picture of melting glaciers and polar ice. More heat is what’s causing that melting, but their strategy is to focus on one locality at a time and try to screen out the rest of the evidence. A fancy way of saying they like to change the subject. I think much of their obfuscation is deliberate and I can’t “agree to disagree” with such devious people.

    If you want to understand climate denial psychology, just ask the 20% of Americans who still smoke cigarettes WHY they’re content to risk their health despite decades of official bad news from medical science. If they aren’t even concerned about their own lungs and heart, why would they be expected to care about the plight of the entire Earth?

    People are a self-absorbed, willfully ignorant species for the most part. I don’t think average intelligence should be coddled as something we just “have to put up with” until TSHTF. People who aren’t afraid of evidence-based reality should find a way to steer this ship of fools to a safe shore.

  30. Well, have you considered that these “climate excursions” are within the normal frequency bands of the past three centuries for which we have some reliable information?

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