My apologies that I’ve been so quiet the past few weeks. I’ve been hard at work at a presentation I’ll be making at PowerShift Canada, a youth climate change conference in Ottawa from October 23-26. A big thank you to Steve Easterbrook, a regular reader here, who has contacts at PowerShift and basically got me this gig.
I’ve decided to post my script here (there will be a PowerPoint presentation in the background too), and ask for any and all suggestions to make it as good as possible. The workshop is an hour and a quarter, and I’m trying to involve the audience as much as possible. I’ll have citations for all the stats on the slides.
Welcome everyone, I hope you’re having a good time at the conference. You’re here with me because what you read in the newspaper and what your friends tell you about climate change might not be what’s really going on in the scientific literature. Feel free to ask questions anytime, but we will have a more open discussion session at the end.
My name is Kate, and I run the website ClimateSight.org, which deals with climate change in the context of sociology, credibility, and logic. I’ll finally be able to leave high school at the end of this year, and then I hope to go and study climatology. Until then, I’m channeling all my scientific energy into studying other aspects of climate change. For example….
“Humans are not affecting the climate.” What percentage of American adults would you expect to agree with this statement? (take some guesses from the audience) The answer is 39%. It’s still less than half, but it’s quite a significant minority, especially given how publishing climatologists would answer this question. How many of them would you expect to say yes? (take some more guesses) The real answer is 3%. And if you start writing down names of these scientists, you’ll find that it’s the same people over and over.
Now, the idea that “scientists argue a lot about whether or not humans are causing global warming”. I want these rows (roughly 42% of the audience – I’ll do some quick math beforehand) to stand up. This represents the portion of American adults who agree with that statement. Now everyone sit down. This represents the portion of peer-reviewed scientific articles that argue with the idea that humans are causing climate change. It’s virtually zero. It’s not exactly zero, the odd one does get through, but in this study of over a thousand papers, they didn’t find a single one. It’s so statistically insignificant that we can be pretty sure that no, this debate does not exist in the academic literature.
Do these numbers surprise you? Why? (take some feedback from the audience) I’d like to take this opportunity to show you a video I made in the summer, about the level of scientific agreement on this issue. It has some of the stats I already quoted, but also some new ones. (don’t worry – this video, as well as five others, will be on YouTube soon enough and I’ll embed them here!)
So, as we can see, there is quite a discrepancy between what scientists know about climate change and what the public knows. The scientists are about as sure as scientists can get. But the public isn’t sure, and they’re not even sure if the scientists are sure. So obviously there’s some major miscommunication going on here, somewhere.
There are a lot of factors which led to this, but I believe that one of the main ones is that people are not assessing the credibility of the arguments they hear. Now, in an ideal world, everyone would be able to assess everything they heard on coherence alone – how accurate it is, whether it’s right or wrong. But most of us aren’t scientists, and even scientists can’t specialize in every area. So if we tried to do all the math ourselves, we’d probably make some big mistakes, which could even lead us to a totally wrong conclusion. It’s usually more accurate for us to base our knowledge on what the most credible sources say.
(at this point I’ll ask for five volunteers, and give them signs: 1) some guy named Joe, 2) Al Gore, 3) Dr Andrew Weaver, 4) Science magazine, 5) NASA. I’ll ask them to put themselves in order of least credible to most credible, with help from the audience if they need it. We’ll have a little discussion about why they chose the spots they did.)
This is the way I structure my credibility spectrum. At the very bottom is the individual – some guy named Joe, or you, or me. People who don’t have any scientific training.
Above that I have the professional, such as Al Gore. These are people that do have scientific training, but didn’t use it to become a scientist – they decided to be a high school teacher, or a politician, or a journalist instead. Depending on how long ago they got their training, and how specialized it was, they may or may not be a reliable source.
Above that I have the publishing scientist, such as Dr Andrew Weaver, who has scientific training in the specific area we’re considering – in this case, climate change. They used it to become a scientist, and they’re publishing their work.
Then I have peer-reviewed articles, in places like Science magazine. These studies are almost always written by publishing scientists, and then they’re examined by a whole bunch of other publishing scientists before publication. That way, almost all mistakes are fixed, and any studies that are totally bogus are just thrown out.
At the very top are scientific organizations, such as NASA. These organizations base all of their statements off of multiple peer-reviewed articles, which have stood up to criticism after their publication. Places like NASA also have huge reputations, so they don’t want to say anything that’ll make them look stupid afterwards.
This is why I wouldn’t let my biology teacher do neurosurgery on me. Yes, I’m sure that he knows a lot about the brain, but until he’s been certified by a higher authority, until he goes through med school and residency, I’m not going to let him cut open my head.
But this is also why I don’t pay attention to people on YouTube who say that climate change is natural, or nonexistent, or a global conspiracy. For example, this guy says, “Climate change is natural. Think of the ice age…That happened NATURALLY. The earth goes through phases of warming and cooling. If any hippies want to solve the over population problem then they’re more than welcome to throw themselves off a bridge.” Now, this guy has a basic logical fallacy in his argument – that something happened naturally before, so therefore it must be natural this time. There hasn’t even been a chance for it to happen unnaturally until now! That’s akin to saying that forest fires can be caused by lightning, so therefore they can’t be caused by arson. Also, he seems to think that there was only ever one ice age, which just goes to show that he’s not very well-phrased in the topics he’s talking about. So why should we trust him?
This guy is even more articulate. He says, “global warming and cap and trade is a scam the earth has been cooling for the last 9 years record ice levels in Antarctica and the arctic is at the 1979-2000 mean there is no tipping point we will continue to cool until the sun comes out of this very deep minimum carbon dioxide is very good for the planet, plants love carbon dioxide they breathe it in and exhale oxygen how can a trace gas 0.038% cause warming….think about it” What? This guy can’t even form a coherent sentence, why should we even bother looking up any of his scientific statements?
If you really believe that you have the magic bullet which will knock down the opinions of the entire scientific community, then write it up, submit it to a journal, and get it published. Then people will listen. That’s normal scientific practice. That’s how theories are created and abandoned. So why are you wasting your time on YouTube, if you really believe what you’re saying?
Now, we unconsciously assess credibility when the topic at hand is obviously scientific. If your friend says that plants absorb carbon monoxide, but the Environment Canada website says they absorb carbon dioxide, it’s not too hard to decide which one to trust. You won’t even stop to wonder if maybe Environment Canada is run by socialists. You’ll just say to your friend, “You’re wrong. It says right here.”
But the credibility spectrum falls apart if the matter at hand is one of personal opinion. I mean, who cares what scientists think about the relative merits of Ignatieff and Harper, or whether Britney Spears is a good singer? You can debate each other and try to change each other’s mind, but there is no correct answer, so nobody’s credentials really matter. And the really sad thing is that climate change is starting to get lumped into this category of “personal opinion”.
Climate change isn’t a personal opinion. It’s purely based on physics and math. Would you go into physics class and decide that you just weren’t going to accept Newton’s laws of motion, no matter what your teacher told you? Would you go to chemistry class and say that solubility was a personal opinion and everyone had a right to believe whatever they wanted about it?
I correspond a lot with people who run websites similar to mine, and there’s a sentiment that comes up now and again. It says, “You’re entitled to your own opinion, but you’re not entitled to your own facts.”
Now, when you read the newspaper, where would you expect to find articles which have to do with personal opinion? (ask the audience, I’m looking for the answer “editorials”) And where would you expect science stories to be? (science section, world news) But in the newspapers I read, almost all the articles about climate change are in the editorials, implying that they’re personal opinions. If somebody writes about the state of the Arctic sea ice, it goes into the editorials. If somebody writes about projections for future climate change, it goes into the editorials. And framing these stories as personal opinions seem to imply that they’re inherently biased, that there’s another equally valid side to the story, so you shouldn’t take them too seriously.
The other place that climate change stories often end up is in the Environment section, if your newspaper is lucky enough to have such a section. This is only really appropriate if you’re talking about how climate change will affect species and ecosystems. But most of the time, that’s not what we’re talking about! We’re talking about sea level rise and agricultural security and vector-borne diseases and resource wars. Printing these stories in the Environment section lumps them in as “just another environmental problem” like pesticide use or panda bears, which most people aren’t too bothered about. But climate change isn’t just about saving the polar bears. It’s about saving the people. It’s far, far more than an environmental issue.
The media also likes to frame climate change as a controversy. This makes sense when you realize that journalism is a business like any other. Their ultimate goal is not to provide perfectly accurate and objective information absolutely all the time. Their ultimate goal is making money and keeping the business alive!
And a controversy really sells. For example, would you rather pick up a newspaper with the headline “Another Study Confirms What Everyone Already Knew”, or “Scientists Locked in Epic Battle over Question of Global Warming”? We are naturally drawn to controversy. It’s so much more interesting to readers.
But as soon as you frame an issue as a controversy, you’re implying that the two sides are fairly equal, so you have to present them equally – otherwise you’ll be accused of bias. Now, I want everyone expect these people (roughly 3% of audience) to go to this side of the room. These people go to the other side. These are the two sides of the climate change debate that a majority of newspaper articles are giving equal time to. It’s all very well to want to be fair and balanced, but when you’re giving this side as much air time as this side, how fair is that? Being objective does not always mean being neutral.
There’s also something more worrying going on. One of the sides of this “debate” was, to some extent, deliberately constructed. You didn’t see people yelling and screaming about global warming being fake until the late 1980s, when governments first started to sit up and take notice. All the developing countries drafted bills to reduce emissions. Brian Mulroney, Margaret Thatcher, and George Bush Sr were all in on it. We were all set to go.
But the fossil fuel companies weren’t too happy about this. So they decided that, even if they couldn’t refute the science, they could at least confuse the public about the issue so legislation would be delayed. One of the earliest examples of this came in 1991, when three fossil fuel companies formed the Information Council on the Environment. Their objective, in their own words, was “to reposition global warming as a theory (not fact)” and “to supply alternative facts that suggest global warming will be good”. So they went ahead to achieve that, with a $500 000 advertising campaign with slogans such as, “Some say the Earth was warming. Some said the Earth was flat”; “Who told you the Earth was warming…Chicken Little?”; and “How much are you willing to pay to solve a problem that may not exist?”
Some fossil fuel companies launched their own advertising campaigns, but many others, wary that the public wouldn’t trust them, decided to fund conservative think tanks, such as the Heartland Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the Fraser Institute, and the Science & Environmental Policy Project. Since 1998, ExxonMobil alone has spent $20 million funding these think tanks.
Organizations such as these not only make statements like “there’s error in the temperature measurements, therefore we have no idea whether or not the Earth is warming”, among absolutely everything else they can possibly think of to spread doubt on global warming……they have also said that secondhand smoke does not cause cancer and that we shouldn’t ban the chemicals which cause ozone depletion. Do you see a pattern?
I don’t mind that they’re political advocacy groups. They can have any ideology they want, because ideology is a personal opinion. But when they’re willing to deny or twist science to suit their convenience, and the convenience of their stakeholders, my patience ends.
But these organizations also know that they are not seen as too credible or impartial in the eyes of the public. So they employ scientists to work for them. For example, in 2006, the American Enterprise Institute offered $10 000 to anyone who wrote a document challenging the findings of the IPCC.
In fact, among books which are skeptical of climate change or environmental issues, 92% of the authors are affiliated with these conservative think tanks.
These are not the only examples of how the widespread public doubt about climate change has been deliberately constructed. If you’re interested in more, you should read the book Climate Cover-Up by James Hoggan. It doesn’t deal with science, but rather with PR and political tactics, so you don’t need a PhD to assess it.
These stories make credibility even more important, because there are people out there who are trying to deceive you. They’re almost all professionals, but they employ just enough publishing scientists to make themselves look credible, and they influence just enough of the general public to make their statements look grassroots. And it’s worked. We’ve lost 20 years in the fight against climate change. And that’s far too long.
That’s why you should always, always Google the names of anyone who says that climate change is fake, because they have such a lousy track record. You’re more than welcome to also Google the names of people who say climate change is real, but I have yet to find anything incriminating about them.
The climate change “debate” is nearly always posed as being between two sides, whether or not they’re framed as equal. However, is it even structured as sides? Or is it structured as a spectrum?
This is a graphic which was created by another climate change blogger, Michael Tobis, who would fit into the category of “publishing scientist” – he’s an engineer who builds climate models.
“Most informed opinion” means “what’s actually going on in the science”. And it all says that, if we do nothing about climate change, there will be anywhere from a slight cost to a catastrophe.
Over here is the IPCC, which is the compilation document often used as a basis for policy. As we can see, a majority of the informed opinion thinks that things will turn out worse than the IPCC says. This is largely because an IPCC report takes so long to create that, by the time it’s out, it’s already out of date.
Then we have about three scientists over here. And, over here, we have the Heartland Institute and all of those other conservative think tanks, whose motives are pretty questionable.
Here’s the interesting part – the debate in the US Press (which we can probably extrapolate to the Canadian press) focuses on the think tanks as one extreme, and the IPCC as the other extreme. Anything more dramatic than the IPCC is considered unreasonable. So a full two-thirds of scientific opinion is not reported, whereas political advocacy groups – which are funded by fossil fuel companies and have a history of denying science – are reported.
Luckily, over the years, people have learned that the media isn’t always accurate, and can’t always be trusted. But in this case, people often take their skepticism of the media in the wrong direction. What percentage of American adults think that the media exaggerates the problem of global warming? (audience guesses) 41%. So 41% of the public thinks that the media should move more in this direction, at which point they wouldn’t be reporting science at all.
All this talk about a controversy, and all this framing of science as a personal opinion, has led to the public totally forgetting about credibility. So people start taking arguments at face value and assessing them based on coherence – the very thing we warned about at the beginning.
Do you know what percentage of Americans think that they generally understand the issue of climate change? (audience guesses) 80%.
If I was asked that question, I would say that no, I don’t understand the issue of climate change. I haven’t studied statistics, so I can’t analyze temperature trends. I haven’t done any courses in thermodynamics, so I can’t prove to you that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. I’ve only done a few months of calculus, so I can’t assess the reliability of computer models. What I do know is who to trust, and where to look for answers.
That’s why it really worries me that 80% of the public sees themselves as credible sources on this issue. I really doubt that 80% of Americans are scientists specializing in climate change! But the public paradigm has been shifted, to the point where people are encouraged to believe whatever they want.
So how do we change this? I think it’s really quite simple. We need to educate the public on everything I’ve just told you. They don’t need to know anything about climate science. They just need to know what to look out for, and who to trust. And once the public realizes that the media is incredibly inaccurate in their framing of climate change, they will demand better journalism.
If we want to avoid the worst of climate change – if we want to keep our coastal cities, if we want to avoid resource wars, if we want agriculture to remain viable in the subtropics – we need major action right away. Not just you and me riding our bikes and recycling. That’s not enough. We need major international action. But because we live in a democracy, this will only happen when the public realizes that climate change is a threat, that it is not controversial, and that the math and physics involved are not matters of personal opinion. And people will only realize this if we show them how.
Update (14/10/09): Wow, thank you so much for all your helpful suggestions! I addressed most of the issues you raised, including the second YouTube comment. Some issues make more sense with the slide, eg “Humans are not affecting the climate” sounds like a declarative statement until you see that it’s in a speech bubble coming out of the mouth of an angry stick person. The exact phrasing of the speech will probably change too, as I’m hoping to turn this script into point form notes as I get more familiar with it. Thanks again, keep them coming!