Friday, June 11th, 2010
In researching a book on global warming deniers, we often felt demoralized by the efficacy of doubt-mongering tactics and depressed that the American public had been repeatedly fooled by the same strategy and tactics. On the other hand, we felt cautiously optimistic because disputes over other issues — tobacco smoking, acid rain, second-hand smoke, and the ozone hole — ended with the scientific evidence prevailing, and with regulation that (however delayed or weakened) addressed the problem.
Global warming was the great unfinished story, but with the mainstream media and many politicians acknowledging the reality of global warming in recent years, it seemed that there was real progress. “The debate is over,” California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared in 2005. “We know the science. We see the threat posed by changes in our climate.”
Now it seems that progress has been reversed. In recent months, as the U.S. Senate prepared to consider climate and energy legislation, there has been a stepped-up effort on a broad front to belittle the overwhelming evidence of human-caused global warming. As they did with smoking and acid rain, the so-called global warming skeptics have had one overriding goal: to sow doubt in the public’s mind and head off government regulation.
….If all this sounds familiar, it should. Similar attacks were launched against the scientific evidence of the ozone hole, of second-hand smoke, and of the harms of DDT. As one tobacco executive put it in 1969, “Doubt is our product, since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the minds of the general public.” Casting doubt about climate science is simply part of the effort to prevent regulation of fossil fuels. The point of merchandising doubt was, and remains, the prevention of government regulation.
These opponents of science are free-market fundamentalists, unwilling to accept that global warming and many other pollution-induced ills are market failures, and that government action of some kind will be needed to address it. Market fundamentalists believe that free markets are the solution to social problems and government intervention can only do harm. The reality, however, amply demonstrated by experience, is that pollution is external to the market system — there’s no cost to dumping waste into the air and water. And as Lord Nicholas Stern has recently noted, global warming is the biggest market failure of them all. But this is yet another truth that the free market fundamentalists prefer to ignore.
Meanwhile, the contrarians’ campaigns continue, and with significant success: Many Americans accept the deniers’ allegations as true, or at least are confused by them, and therefore do not know what to think or whom to trust. Science has been effectively undermined, which has eroded public support for the decisive action needed to avoid the worst effects of global warming.
Thursday, April 22nd, 2010
Riley Dunlap has an interesting article, At 40, Environmental Movement Endures, With Less Consensus, with new Gallup poll results that’s worth reading.
April 22 marks the 40th anniversary of the first Earth Day, an event widely considered to be the birth of the modern environmental movement. Few social movements survive 40 years, so in this sense alone, environmentalism might be considered successful. On the other hand, the movement has had limited success in policy arenas in recent years, leading to allegations of the “death of environmentalism.” In addition, this year’s Gallup Environment poll finds historically low levels of public worry about environmental problems (particularly global warming) and support for environmental protection. Are we witnessing the end of environmentalism as a significant social movement and, in the eyes of many, a major progressive force in the United States?
Read more to find out…
Saturday, February 27th, 2010
…in an op-ed piece in today’s NY Times.
Excerpts (links his):
[T]he scientific enterprise will never be completely free of mistakes. What is important is that the overwhelming consensus on global warming remains unchanged. It is also worth noting that the panel’s scientists — acting in good faith on the best information then available to them — probably underestimated the range of sea-level rise in this century, the speed with which the Arctic ice cap is disappearing and the speed with which some of the large glacial flows in Antarctica and Greenland are melting and racing to the sea.
Because these and other effects of global warming are distributed globally, they are difficult to identify and interpret in any particular location. For example, January was seen as unusually cold in much of the United States. Yet from a global perspective, it was the second-hottest January since surface temperatures were first measured 130 years ago.
Similarly, even though climate deniers have speciously argued for several years that there has been no warming in the last decade, scientists confirmed last month that the last 10 years were the hottest decade since modern records have been kept.
The heavy snowfalls this month have been used as fodder for ridicule by those who argue that global warming is a myth, yet scientists have long pointed out that warmer global temperatures have been increasing the rate of evaporation from the oceans, putting significantly more moisture into the atmosphere — thus causing heavier downfalls of both rain and snow in particular regions, including the Northeastern United States. Just as it’s important not to miss the forest for the trees, neither should we miss the climate for the snowstorm.
….The political paralysis that is now so painfully evident in Washington has thus far prevented action by the Senate — not only on climate and energy legislation, but also on health care reform, financial regulatory reform and a host of other pressing issues.
….Some analysts attribute the failure to an inherent flaw in the design of the chosen solution — arguing that a cap-and-trade approach is too unwieldy and difficult to put in place. Moreover, these critics add, the financial crisis that began in 2008 shook the world’s confidence in the use of any market-based solution.
But there are two big problems with this critique: First, there is no readily apparent alternative that would be any easier politically….Second, we should have no illusions about the difficulty and the time needed to convince the rest of the world to adopt a completely new approach.
Updates: There is a wide range of opinion on the IPCC these days:
Sunday, December 6th, 2009
By now, everyone has heard of the hacked emails from the British Climate Research Unit (CRU) at East Anglia University. The play-by-play has been getting a lot of press, especially at Dot Earth and Climate Progress. Rather than focus on the specifics, I want to help us keep focused on larger issues, which I think is useful for getting past the heated rhetoric.
Yesterday, Bryan Walsh ran a story, As Climate Summit Nears, Skeptics Gain Traction in Time Magazine in which the following passage appeared:
Even a small amount of doubt is enough to shatter consensus. That is why a number of researchers have suggested in the wake of the CRU e-mail hack that climate scientists be more open with their data and engage with critics in the future. “Climate McCarthyism” — as Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute have called the knee-jerk attacks by some climate-change advocates on those who deviate from the green mainstream — must stop. That may not seem fair — industry groups have played dirty for years smearing climate scientists — but researchers will need to be above reproach. “Scientists need to consider carefully skeptical arguments and either rebut them or learn from them,” wrote Judith Curry, an atmospheric scientist and climate researcher at Georgia Tech, on the blog Climate Audit.
There are several things to consider:
The scientific process is a powerful tool—in many ways, the most powerful tool we have. All ideas should be allowed at the table and should be investigated thoroughly. Yes, even the ideas of climate skeptics. The notion that scientists might have attempted to short circuit the peer review process is unfortunate. This should never happen.
However—and this is an important point that has not been stated strongly enough—when a fair peer review process rejects ideas for not standing up to intense scrutiny, as determined by several sources of empirical observations and models, it’s time to move beyond the false ideas for the sake of clarity and efficiency. Climate skeptics and warming advocates alike who lose on the battlefield of peer review need to own their loss, suck it up, and move on. Returning to the table is fine, but do it with new ideas that better help us understand the way the world works, rather than trotting out retreads or, worse, advancing an agenda.
I tell my students that the outcome of science isn’t meant to be fair. However, the process of science is fair. At the starting blocks, it accepts all ideas and sifts through them one by one to see which ones stand the test of scrutiny (data and models and other lines of evidence) and which ones don’t. The ones that don’t are discarded to the dustbin of history. The ideas that survive get to live another day until subject to refined analysis and new data, models, and ways of thinking. Over time, if they continue to survive, they become generally accepted ways of describing our world. Much of what we know about climate warming, such as the role of greenhouse gases in causing warming, fits this bill. Of course, something may come along that could revolutionize conventional wisdom—Einstein did that to Newtonian mechanics with his theories of relativity—but until that happens, scientifically based conventional wisdom that has withstood the test of time is simply the best process we have at getting closer to the truth on climate warming science.
Problems arise when people conflate outcomes and process—equating, for instance, a bad outcome (rejected idea) to an unfair process. This can lead to a rejection of science as a a way of knowing, and that’s unfortunate. People don’t have the choice of rejecting the scientific method simply because they lose. That’s the game of a poor loser. The challenge is for them to come back with a winning idea.
It’s all too easy for climate science to become politicized. Everyone knows this. With regards to skeptics—contrarian for the sake of contrarianism. With regards to warming advocates—overly dismissive of alternative viewpoints. At that point, science crosses the threshold to ideology, which has no place in the peer review process. Fortunately, ideology seldom lasts long in a well-oiled peer-review meat grinder.
So why don’t I worry? Because I return, over and over, to a singularly powerful idea: In the end, a fair peer review process will lead us closer to the truth. The furnace we call the climate warming debate is blistering. This is why we must make sure the crucible of a fair review process is strong enough to withstand it. And so far the peer review process most likely has been fair. There are too many independent research groups studying climate change, involving tens of thousands of scientists worldwide, who are reaching the same basic conclusions about warming. It’s simply impossible for a conspiracy to ever grow that big.
What we need now more than ever is for both sides of the climate debate to consider all ideas and for the losers (of a fair process) to own their loss. Sure, it’s a high-stakes game, and nobody likes to lose. But some will. The question is whether the losers will continue by pushing an agenda rather than useful ideas. History will be a harsh critic of those who do.
Sunday, November 8th, 2009
Climate change skepticism and denial are fueled by a perfect storm of all four problems coming together. This is why skeptics and deniers won’t go away, and as long as they’re influential, some people will stay disengaged.
The question is how much resistance will these problems pose to enacting real reform?
Sunday, November 1st, 2009
Last week, Pew published a new poll suggesting a declining number of Americans believe there is solid scientific evidence of climate warming and that warming is a serious problem.
In the next several posts, I’m going to address the question of why it appears that people don’t seem to engage climate change. This work is based on research for a talk I gave a few days ago.
Helping people understand and become active in dealing with climate change is challenging, but it’s also an incredibly fascinating interdisciplinary enterprise. You’ll see that disciplines across the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities are needed for this conversation.
And you’ll see some things that are counterintuitive and may surprise you.
I’m going to consider five major problems contributing to this challenge, shown in order of what I consider to be increasing difficulty to deal with:
Friday, October 30th, 2009
Several folks have asked me about climate change skeptics/deniers/contrarians. Why does the media give them air time, and why are they considered legitimate sources of information?
Many have argued recently that Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner’s new book, SuperFreakonomics, is the most recent version of contrarianism disguised as balanced analysis of climate change:
(1) Eric Pooley, a columnist with Bloomberg, was one of the folks to make the initial call out the day the book hit store shelves.
(2) Next came Paul Krugman’s NY Times blog, further calling out Levitt and Dubner as contrarians with a series of hard-hitting blog posts, including this one.
(3) David Roberts at Grist then added comparisons to the longstanding climate warming skeptic, Freeman Dyson, taking some serious shots at the media (sorry Jon Stewart fans, you may not like what you hear).
(4) In one of his longest posts ever, Joe Romm at ClimateProgress (who was also one of the vocal folks initially calling out Leavitt and Dubner) picked up Roberts’ and Krugman’s analyses yesterday and examined further the two questions above, showing how and why the media often enables these folks (with more bad news for Jon Stewart fans).
(5) In a letter yesterday at RealClimate, scientist Raymond T. Pierrehumbert (one of Levitt’s colleagues at the University of Chicago) shows how easy it would have been to get the science right in SuperFreakonomics.
Related post: SuperFreakonomics ignites a SuperStorm of criticism