What Does the Public Know?

Part 4 in a series of 5 for NextGen Journal

Like it or not, a scientific consensus exists that humans are causing the Earth to warm. However, the small number of scientists that disagree with this conclusion get a disproportionate amount of media time, particularly in the United States: most newspaper articles give the two “sides” equal weight. Does this false sense of balance in the media take a toll on public understanding of climate science? Are people getting the false impression that global warming is a tenuous and controversial theory? Recent survey data from George Mason University can help answer these questions.

65% of Americans say the world is warming, but only 46% attribute this change to human activities. Compare these numbers to 96% and 97% of climate scientists, respectively. Somewhere, the lines of communication are getting muddled.

It’s not as if people hear about scientific results but don’t believe them. Given that 76% of Americans “strongly” or “somewhat” trust scientists as sources of information on climate change, you would expect public knowledge to fall in line with scientific consensus. However, it appears that most people don’t know about this consensus. 41% of Americans say there is “a lot of disagreement among scientists” regarding global warming. Among Republicans, this figure rises to 56%; for the Tea Party, 69%.

If you could ask an expert one question about climate change, what would it be? Among survey respondents, the most popular answer (19%) was, “How do you know that global warming is caused mostly by human activities, not natural changes in the environment?” As a science communicator, this statistic intrigues me – it tells me what to focus on. For those who are interested, scientists can attribute changes in the climate to particular causes based on the way the global temperature changes: patterns of warming in different layers of the atmosphere, the rate of warming at night compared to in the day, in summer compared to in winter, and so on. You can read more about this topic here and here.

In this survey, the differences between Republicans and Democrats weren’t as extreme as I expected. Instead, it was the Tea Party that really stuck out. Self-identified Tea Party members are, based on their responses, the least informed about climate science, but also the most likely to consider themselves well-informed and the least likely to change their minds. A majority of members in every other political group would choose environmental sustainability over economic growth, if it came down to a choice; a majority of every other party thinks that the United States should reduce its greenhouse gas emissions regardless of what other countries do. But the Tea Party seems opposed to everything, including solutions as benign as urban planning.

Luckily, this anti-science movement only made up 12% of the survey respondents. Most Americans are far more willing to learn about climate change and question their knowledge, and there is no source that they trust more than scientists.

Who are the Skeptics?

Part 3 in a series of 5 for NextGen Journal
Adapted from part of an earlier post

As we discussed last time, there is a remarkable level of scientific consensus on the reality and severity of human-caused global warming. However, most members of the public are unaware of this consensus – a topic which we will focus on in the next installment. Anyone with an Internet connection or a newspaper subscription will be able to tell you that many scientists think global warming is natural or nonexistent. As we know, these scientists are in the vast minority, but they have enjoyed widespread media coverage. Let’s look at three of the most prominent skeptics, and examine what they’re saying.

S. Fred Singer is an atmospheric physicist and retired environmental science professor. He has rarely published in scientific journals since the 1960s, but he is very visible in the media. In recent years, he has claimed that the Earth has been cooling since 1998 (in 2006), that the Earth is warming, but it is natural and unstoppable (in 2007), and that the warming is artificial and due to the urban heat island effect (in 2009).

Richard Lindzen, also an atmospheric physicist, is far more active in the scientific community than Singer. However, most of his publications, including the prestigious IPCC report to which he contributed, conclude that climate change is real and caused by humans. He has published two papers stating that climate change is not serious: a 2001 paper hypothesizing that clouds would provide a negative feedback to cancel out global warming, and a 2009 paper claiming that climate sensitivity (the amount of warming caused by a doubling of carbon dioxide) was very low. Both of these ideas were rebutted by the academic community, and Lindzen’s methodology criticized. Lindzen has even publicly retracted his 2001 cloud claim. Therefore, in his academic life, Lindzen appears to be a mainstream climate scientist – contributing to assessment reports, abandoning theories that are disproved, and publishing work that affirms the theory of anthropogenic climate change. However, when Lindzen talks to the media, his statements change. He has implied that the world is not warming by calling attention to the lack of warming in the Antarctic (in 2004) and the thickening of some parts of the Greenland ice sheet (in 2006), without explaining that both of these apparent contradictions are well understood by scientists and in no way disprove warming. He has also claimed that the observed warming is minimal and natural (in 2006).

Finally, Patrick Michaels is an ecological climatologist who occasionally publishes peer-reviewed studies, but none that support his more outlandish claims. In 2009 alone, Michaels said that the observed warming is below what computer models predicted, that natural variations in oceanic cycles such as El Niño explain most of the warming, and that human activity explains most of the warming but it’s nothing to worry about because technology will save us (cached copy, as the original was taken down).

While examining these arguments from skeptical scientists, something quickly becomes apparent: many of the arguments are contradictory. For example, how can the world be cooling if it is also warming naturally? Not only do the skeptics as a group seem unable to agree on a consistent explanation, some of the individuals either change their mind every year or believe two contradictory theories at the same time. Additionally, none of these arguments are supported by the peer-reviewed literature. They are all elementary misconceptions which were proven erroneous long ago. Multiple articles on this site could be devoted to rebutting such claims, but easy-to-read rebuttals for virtually every objection to human-caused climate change are already available on Skeptical Science. Here is a list of rebuttals relevant to the claims of Singer, Lindzen and Michaels:

With a little bit of research, the claims of these skeptics quickly fall apart. It does not seem possible that they are attempting to further our knowledge of science, as their arguments are so weak and inconsistent, and rarely published in scientific venues. However, their pattern of arguments does work as a media strategy, as most people will trust what a scientist says in the newspaper, and not research his reputation or remember his name. Over time, the public will start to remember dozens of so-called problems with the anthropogenic climate change theory.

The Dangers of Being a Scientist

In which occupations would you expect to be threatened with murder?

Soldiers, at the front lines of combat zones, are an obvious example. Police officers would often qualify, too. Even high-ranking government officials put their safety at risk – just look at the number of American presidents that have been assassinated. Gang leaders and drug dealers, if they can be called “occupations”, would be high on the list.

What about scientists?

They don’t spend their days suppressing violent criminals. Although they’ll occasionally speak to the media, they could hardly be called public or political figures. Their job is to learn about the world, whether they sit in a lab and crunch numbers or travel to the Antarctic and drill ice cores. Not exactly the kind of life where threats to personal safety seem likely.

Nevertheless, top climate scientists around the world have been receiving death threats for over a year now. This violent hate campaign recently reached Australia, where, as journalist Rosslyn Beeby writes, “Several universities…have been forced to upgrade security to protect scientists.”

Their names have been deleted from staff directories. One scientist’s office cannot be found by without photo identification and an official escort; another has a “panic button”, installed on advice of police.

Some researchers have installed advanced home security systems, and made their home addresses and phone numbers unlisted. They have deleted their accounts on social media sites. All because some people feel so threatened by the idea of human-caused climate change that they’d rather attack the scientists who study the problem than accept its reality and work to fix it.

In the United States, such threats to climate scientists are commonplace, but the hate speech is protected by the American freedom of speech laws, so there isn’t much police can do. The situation isn’t quite as widespread in the UK, although several scientists have been excessively targeted due to the “Climategate” campaign.

Nobody has been hurt, at least not yet. However, many researchers receive regular emails threatening murder, bodily harm, sexual assault, property damage, or attacks on family members. One anonymous scientist had a dead animal dumped on his doorstep and now travels with bodyguards. A young Australian woman who gave a speech at a library about carbon footprints had the words “Climate Turd” written in feces on her car.

Several American scientists say that the threats pick up whenever right-wing talk show hosts attack their reputations. It’s common for Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh to single out climate scientists as socialist frauds, or some variation of the sort. However, knowing that the more extreme viewers of Fox News will watch these baseless attacks and, subsequently, whip off threats of murder in emails to the scientists involved, is unsettling, to say the least.

We probably shouldn’t be surprised that some people who deny the reality of climate change are also denying the reality of these violent threats. In Australia, the Liberal spokesperson for science, Sophie Mirabella, stated that “the apparently false allegation of death threats have diminished the individuals involved and reflect poorly on the scientific community”. In some ironic twist of logic, the victims of hate crimes are now receiving even more public battering of their reputations, simply because they reported these crimes. There’s no way to win.

We can only hope that these threats will subside with time, and that nobody will get hurt in the process. We can only hope that governments and police agencies will take the threats seriously and pursue investigations. However, once climate change becomes so obvious that even extremists can’t deny it, we will all face a greater danger: the impacts of climate change itself. We can only hope that these hate crimes don’t frighten scientists into staying silent – because their knowledge and their voices might be our only chance.

References:

1) Beeby, Rosslyn. “Climate of fear: scientists face death threats.” The Canberra Times, 4 June 2011.
2) Beeby, Rosslyn. “Change of attitude needed as debate overheats.” The Canberra Times, 14 June 2011.
3) Hickman, Leo. “US climate scientists receive hate mail barrage in wake of UEA scandal.” The Guardian, 5 July 2010.

What Can One Person Do?

Next week, I will be giving a speech on climate change to the green committee of a local United Church. They are particularly interested in science and solutions, so I wrote the following script, drawing heavily from my previous presentations. I would really appreciate feedback and suggestions for this presentation.

Citations will be on the slides (which I haven’t made yet), so they’re not in the text of this script. Let me know if there’s a particular reference you’re wondering about, but they’re probably common knowledge within this community by now.

Enjoy!

Climate change is depressing. I know that really well, because I’ve been studying it for over two years. I’m quite practiced at keeping the scary stuff contained in the analytical part of my brain, and not thinking of the implications – because the implications make you feel powerless. I’m sure that all of us here wish we could stop global warming on our own. So we work hard to reduce our carbon footprints, and then we feel guilty every time we take the car out or buy something that was made in China or turn up the heat a degree.

The truth is, though, the infrastructure of our society doesn’t support a low-carbon lifestyle. Look at the quality of public transit in Winnipeg, or the price of local food. We can work all we want at changing our practices, but it’s an uphill battle. If we change the infrastructure, though – if we put a price on carbon so that sustainable practices are cheaper and easier than using fossil fuels – people everywhere will subsequently change their practices.

Currently, governments – particularly in North America – aren’t too interested in sustainable infrastructure, because they don’t think people care. Politicians only say what they think people want to hear. So, should we go dress up as polar bears and protest in front of Parliament to show them we care? That might work, but they will probably just see us as crazy environmentalists, a fringe group. We need a critical mass of people that care about climate change, understand the problem, and want to fix it. An effective solution requires top-down organization, but that won’t happen until there’s a bottom-up, grassroots movement of people who care.

I believe that the most effective action one person can take in the fight against global warming is to talk to others and educate others. I believe most people are good, and sane, and reasonable. They do the best they can, given their level of awareness. If we increase that awareness, we’ll gain political will for a solution. And so, in an effort to practice what I preach, I’m going to talk to you about the issue.

The science that led us to the modern concern about climate change began all the way back in 1824, when a man named Joseph Fourier discovered the greenhouse effect. Gases such as carbon dioxide make up less than one percent of the Earth’s atmosphere, but they trap enough heat to keep the Earth over 30 degrees Celsius warmer than it would be otherwise.

Without greenhouse gases, there could be no life on Earth, so they’re a very good thing – until their concentration changes. If you double the amount of CO2 in the air, the planet will warm, on average, somewhere around 3 degrees. The first person to realize that humans could cause this kind of a change, through the burning of fossil fuels releasing CO2, was Svante Arrhenius, in 1897. So this is not a new theory by any means.

For a long time, scientists assumed that any CO2 we emitted would just get absorbed by the oceans. In 1957, Roger Revelle showed that wasn’t true. The very next year, Charles Keeling decided to test this out, and started measuring the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere. Now, Arrhenius had assumed that it would take thousands of years to double CO2 from the preindustrial value of 280 ppm (which we know from ice cores), but the way we’re going, we’ll get there in just a few decades. We’ve already reached 390 ppm. That might not seem like a lot, but 390 ppm of arsenic in your coffee would kill you. Small changes can have big effects.

Around the 1970s, scientists realized that people were exerting another influence on the climate. Many forms of air pollution, known as aerosols, have a cooling effect on the planet. In the 70s, the warming from greenhouse gases and the cooling from aerosols were cancelling each other out, and scientists were split as to which way it would go. There was one paper, by Stephen Schneider, which even said it could be possible to cause an ice age, if we put out enough aerosols and greenhouse gases stayed constant. However, as climate models improved, and governments started to regulate air pollution, a scientific consensus emerged that greenhouse gases would win out. Global warming was coming – it was just a question of when.

In 1988, James Hansen, who is arguably the top climate scientist in the world today, claimed it had arrived. In a famous testimony to the U.S. Congress, he said that “the greenhouse effect has been detected, and it is changing our climate now.” Many scientists weren’t so sure, and thought it was too early to make such a bold statement, but Hansen turned out to be right. Since about 1975, the world has been warming, more quickly than it has for at least the last 55 million years.

Over the past decade, scientists have even been able to rule out the possibility that the warming is caused by something else, like a natural cycle. Different causes of climate change have slightly different effects – like the pattern of warming in different layers of the atmosphere, the amount of warming in summer compared to winter, or at night compared to in the day, and so on. Ben Santer pioneered attribution studies: examining these effects in order to pinpoint a specific cause. And so far, nobody has been able to explain how the recent warming could not be caused by us.

Today, there is a remarkable amount of scientific agreement surrounding this issue. Between 97 and 98% of climate scientists, virtually 100% of peer-reviewed studies, and every scientific organization in the world agree that humans are causing the Earth to warm. The evidence for climate change is not a house of cards, where you take one piece out and the whole theory falls apart. It’s more like a mountain. Scrape a handful of pebbles off the top, but the mountain is still there.

However, if you take a step outside of the academic community, this convergence of evidence is more or less invisible. The majority of newspaper articles, from respected outlets like the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, spend at least as much time arguing against this consensus as they do arguing for it. They present ideas such as “maybe it’s a natural cycle” or “CO2 has no effect on climate” that scientists disproved years ago. The media is stuck in the past. Some of them are only stuck in the 1980s, but others are stuck all the way back in 1800. Why is it like this?

Part of it comes from good, but misguided, intentions. When it comes to climate change, most journalists follow the rule of balance: presenting “two equal sides”, staying neutral, letting the reader form their own opinion. This works well when the so-called controversy is one of political or social nature, like tax levels or capital punishment. In these cases, there is no right answer, and people are usually split into two camps. But when the question at hand is one of science, there is a right answer – even if we haven’t found it yet – so some explanations are better than others, and some can be totally wrong. Would you let somebody form their own opinion on Newton’s Laws of Motion or the reality of photosynthesis? Sometimes scientists are split into two equal groups, but sometimes they’re split into three or four or even a dozen. How do you represent that as two equal sides? Sometimes, like we see with climate change, pretty much all the scientists are in agreement, and the two or three percent which aren’t don’t really publish, because they can’t back up their statements and nobody really takes them seriously. So framing these two groups as having equal weight in the scientific community is completely incorrect. It exaggerates the extreme minority, and suppresses everyone else. Being objective is not always the same as being neutral, and it’s particularly important to remember that when our future is at stake.

Another reason to frame climate science as controversial is that it makes for a much better story. Who really wants to read about scientists agreeing on everything? Journalists try to write stories that are exciting. Unfortunately, that goal can begin to overshadow accuracy.

Also, there are fewer journalists than there used to be, and there are almost no science journalists in the mainstream media – general reporters cover science issues instead. Also, a few decades ago, journalists used to get a week or two to write a story. Now they often have less than a day, because speed and availability of news has become more important than quality.

However, perhaps the most important – and disturbing – explanation for this inaccurate framing is that the media has been very compliant in spreading the message of climate change deniers. They call themselves skeptics, but I don’t think that’s accurate. A true skeptic will only accept a claim given sufficient evidence. That’s a good thing, and all scientists should be skeptics. But it’s easy to see that these people will never accept human-caused climate change, no matter what the evidence. At the same time, they blindly accept any shred of information that seems to support their cause, without applying any skepticism at all. That’s denial, so let’s not compliment them by calling them skeptics.

Climate change deniers will use whatever they can get – whether or not it’s legitimate, whether or not it’s honest – as proof that climate change is natural, or nonexistent, or a global conspiracy. They’ll tell you that volcanoes emit more CO2 than humans, but volcanoes actually emit about 1% of what we do. They’ll say that global warming has stopped because 2008 was cooler than 2007. If climatologists organize a public lecture in effort to communicate accurate scientific information, they’ll say that scientists are dogmatic and subscribe to censorship and will not allow any other opinions to be considered.

Some of these questionable sources are organizations, like a dozen or so lobby groups that have been paid a lot of money by oil companies to say that global warming is fake. Some of them are individuals, like US Senator James Inhofe, who was the environment chair under George W. Bush, and says that “global warming is the greatest hoax ever imposed upon the American people.” Some of them have financial motivations, and some of them have ideological motivations, but their motivations don’t really matter – all that matters is that they are saying things that are inaccurate, and misleading, and just plain wrong.

There has been a recent, and very disturbing, new tactic of deniers. Instead of attacking the science, they’ve begun to attack the integrity of individual scientists. In November 2009, they stole thirteen years of emails from a top climate research group in the UK, and spread stories all over the media that said scientists were caught fudging their data and censoring critics. Since then, they’ve been cleared of these charges by eight independent investigations, but you wouldn’t know it by reading the newspaper. For months, nearly every media outlet in the developed world spread what was, essentially, libel, and the only one that has formally apologized for its inaccurate coverage is the BBC.

In the meantime, there has been tremendous personal impact on the scientists involved. Many of them have received death threats, and Phil Jones, the director of the research group, was nearly driven to suicide. Another scientist, who wishes to remain anonymous, had a dead animal dumped on his doorstep and now travels with bodyguards. The Republican Party, which prides itself on fiscal responsibility, is pushing for more and more investigations, because they just can’t accept that the scientists are innocent…and James Inhofe, the “global warming is a hoax” guy, attempted to criminally prosecute seventeen researchers, most of whom had done nothing but occasionally correspond with the scientists who had their emails stolen. It’s McCarthyism all over again.

So this is where we are. Where are we going?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, which collects and summarizes all the scientific literature about climate change, said in 2007 that under a business-as-usual scenario, where we keep going the way we’re going, the world will warm somewhere around 4 degrees Celsius by 2100. Unfortunately, this report was out of date almost as soon as it was published, and has widely been criticized for being too conservative. The British Meteorological Office published an updated figure in 2009 that estimated we will reach 4 degrees by the 2070s.

I will still be alive then (I hope!). I will likely have kids and even grandkids by then. I’ve spent a lot of time researching climate change, and the prospect of a 4 degree rise is terrifying to me. At 4 degrees, we will have lost control of the climate – even if we stop emitting greenhouse gases, positive feedbacks in the climate system will make sure the warming continues. We will have committed somewhere between 40 and 70 percent of the world’s species to extinction. Prehistoric records indicate that we can expect 40 to 80 metres of eventual sea level rise – it will take thousands of years to get there, but many coastal cities will be swamped within the first century. Countries – maybe even developed countries – will be at war over food and water. All this…within my lifetime.

And look at our current response. We seem to be spending more time attacking the scientists who discovered the problem than we are negotiating policy to fix it. We should have started reducing our greenhouse gas emissions twenty years ago, but if we start now, and work really hard, we do have a shot at stopping the warming at a point where we stay in control. Technically, we can do it. It’s going to take an unprecedented amount of political will and international communication

Everybody wants to know, “What can I do?” to fix the problem. Now, magazines everywhere are happy to tell you “10 easy ways to reduce your carbon footprint” – ride your bike, and compost, and buy organic spinach. That’s not really going to help. Say that enough people reduce their demand on fossil fuels: supply and demand dictates that the price will go down, and someone else will say, “Hey, gas is cheap!” and use more of it. Grassroots sentiment isn’t going to be enough. We need a price on carbon, whether it’s a carbon tax or cap-and-trade…but governments won’t do that until a critical mass of people demand it.

So what can you do? You can work on achieving that critical mass. Engage the apathetic. Educate people. Talk to them about climate change – it’s scary stuff, but suck it up. We’re all going to need to face it. Help them to understand and care about the problem. Don’t worry about the crazy people who shout about socialist conspiracies, they’re not worth your time. They’re very loud, but there’s not really very many of them. And in the end, we all get one vote.

Where Activism Fails

Cross-posted from NextGen Journal

This weekend, 10 000 young people converged in Washington, D.C. and protested the American government’s inaction on climate change. Students stood in front of government buildings wearing green hard hats, holding signs saying “Make Polluters Pay, Not the EPA”. Students stormed the House of Representatives and sang a song about climate change, to the tune of the American national anthem. Fifteen minutes with President Obama, who agreed with their concerns but said “I can’t do this alone”, was PowerShift 2011’s biggest accomplishment.

This isn’t working.

The climate change mitigation lobby is currently a fringe group, at least in North America. It’s mostly made up of university students who mimic the campus protests of the 1960s, creating images that scream “socialism” to baby boomers who witnessed the original events. Governments, which are mostly made up of said baby boomers, largely ignore such fringe groups. Elected officials say what they think people want to hear, and most people don’t seem to care about climate change.

So what should we do instead? We don’t have a lot of money or connections to wealthy businesses. Youth don’t even vote in large enough numbers for governments to care what they want. What we do have, however, are facts on our side. We have the weight of the entire scientific community, agreeing that humans are causing a potentially catastrophic climate change which will only be stopped by major international action.

Instead of attempting to communicate with elected officials by marching around in front of their offices with our faces painted, I think we should focus our efforts on the public. If governments think people don’t care about climate change, we have to reverse that trend.

I believe that anyone who truly understands this issue will care about it and want to fix it. Who could honestly examine the overwhelming evidence for anthropogenic climate change and still have reasonable doubts about its existence? Who wouldn’t want to prevent future wars, famines, extinctions, and waves of environmental refugees? Of course, there are the crazies who will scream about “climate scientists in Al Gore’s pocket” and “the world needs more CO2” no matter what we tell them, but we shouldn’t bother engaging with these people. Instead, we should engage with those who are constantly exposed to the crazies, and who are at risk of dismissing climate change because they think people are still debating its existence.

We need public education to create a social movement, but not like the “Green Movement” in 2007 when magazines everywhere advertised “10 easy ways to reduce your carbon footprint”. We need people to understand the severity of climate change, and to see that planting a tree and buying organic lettuce will not solve the problem. We need people to understand that meaningful action, such as putting a price on carbon, is necessary to solve the problem.

Climate change education will spread most easily through the media, whether it is mass media or new media. People need to be aware of the level of scientific support surrounding this issue, and the reality that climate scientists are not ignorant or fraudulent. Researchers know that correlation does not equal causation, and they know that the climate has changed in the past. Many people still take these arguments seriously, though, because they are thrown around and not challenged. We need to challenge the media outlets that have spread dangerous, libelous misinformation regarding climate change for years. We need to challenge them on the level of lawsuits, not on the level of writing letters to the editor.

It is vital to engage with the apathetic and show them why they should care. Apathetic youth are particularly problematic. Why should the government care about the needs of the next generation when most of its members don’t even vote? We have to make the youth vote strong enough that political parties will compete for its support, just like they do with the ethnic vote and the women’s vote. As Canadian comedian and political analyst Rick Mercer said, “If you are between the ages of 18 and 25, and want to scare the hell out of the people who run this country – this time around, do the unexpected: vote.”

When faced with a depressing reality, many will turn away and ignore the problem. However, the only way to prevent the scary stuff from happening is to suck it up and face it. Just because we wasted 20 years of potential action and got ourselves into a bad situation doesn’t mean we should throw up our hands and give up. It’s never too late to act, because this bad situation can always get worse if we let it.

Technology as Communication

The relationship between technology and climate change is complex and multi-faceted. It was technology, in the form of fossil fuel combustion, that got us into this problem. Many uninformed politicians hold out hope that technology will miraculously save us in the future, so we can continue burning fossil fuels at our current rate. However, if we keep going along with such an attitude, risky geoengineering technologies may be required to keep the warming at a tolerable level.

However, we should never throw our hands in the air and give up, because we can always prevent the warming from getting worse. 2 C warming would be bad, but 3 or 4 C would be much worse, and 5 or 6 C would be devastating. We already possess many low-carbon, or even zero-carbon, forms of energy that could begin to replace the fossil fuel economy. The only thing missing is political will, and the only reason it’s missing, in my opinion, is that not enough people understand the magnitude and urgency of the problem.

Here is where technology comes in again – for purposes of communication. We live in an age of information and global interconnection, so ideas can travel at an unprecedented rate. It’s one thing for scientists to write an article about climate change and distribute it online, but there are many other, more engaging, forms of communication that harness today’s software and graphic technologies. Let’s look at a few recent examples.

Data clearly shows that the world is warming, but spreadsheets of temperature measurements are a little dry for public consumption. Graphs are better, but still cater to people with very specific kinds of intelligence. Since not everyone likes math, the climate team at NASA compressed all of their data into a 26-second video that shows changes in surface temperature anomalies (deviations from the average) from 1880 to 2010. The sudden warming over the past few decades even catches me by surprise.

Take a look – red is warm and blue is cool:

A more interactive visual expression of data comes from Penn State University. In this Flash application, you can play around with the amount of warming, latitude range, and type of crop, and see how yields change both with and without adaptation (changing farming practices to suit the warmer climate). Try it out here. A similar approach, where the user has control over the data selection, has been adopted by NOAA’s Climate Services website. Scroll down to “Climate Dashboard”, and you can compare temperature, carbon dioxide levels, energy from the sun, sea level, and Arctic sea ice on any timescale from 1880 to the present.

Even static images can be effective expressions of data. Take a look at this infographic, which examines the social dimensions of climate change. It does a great job of showing the problem we face: public understanding depends on media coverage, which doesn’t accurately reflect the scientific consensus. Click for a larger version:

Global Warming - the debate

Finally, a new computer game called Fate of the World allows you to try your hand at solving climate change. It adopts the same data and projections used by scientists to demonstrate to users what we can expect in the coming century, and how that changes based on our actions. Changing our lightbulbs and riding our bikes isn’t going to be enough, and, as PC Gamer discovered, even pulling out all the stops – nuclear power, a smart grid, cap-and-trade – doesn’t get us home free. You can buy the game for about $10 here (PC only, a Mac version is coming in April). I haven’t tried this game, but it looks pretty interesting – sort of like Civilization. Here is the trailer:

Take a look at these non-traditional forms of communication. Pass them along, and make your own if you’re so inclined. We need all the help we can get.

The Real Story of Climategate

A year ago today, an unidentified hacker published a zipped folder in several locations online. In this folder were approximately one thousand emails and three thousand files which had been stolen from the backup server of the Climatic Research Unit in the UK, a top centre for global temperature analysis and climate change studies. As links to the folder were passed around on blogs and online communities, a small group of people sorted through the emails, picking out a handful of phrases that could be seen as controversial, and developing a narrative which they pushed to the media with all their combined strength. “A lot is happening behind the scenes,” one blog administrator wrote. “It is not being ignored. Much is being coordinated among major players and the media. Thank you very much. You will notice the beginnings of activity on other sites now. Here soon to follow.”

This was not the work of a computer-savvy teenager that liked to hack security systems for fun. Whoever the thief was, they knew what they were looking for. They knew how valuable the emails could be in the hands of the climate change denial movement.

Skepticism is a worthy quality in science, but denial is not. A skeptic will only accept a claim given sufficient evidence, but a denier will cling to their beliefs regardless of evidence. They will relentlessly attack arguments that contradict their cause, using talking points that are full of misconceptions and well-known to be false, while blindly accepting any argument that seems to support their point of view. A skeptic is willing to change their mind. A denier is not.

There are many examples of denial in our society, but perhaps the most powerful and pervasive is climate change denial. We’ve been hearing the movement’s arguments for years, ranging from illogic (“climate changed naturally in the past, so it must be natural now“) to misrepresentation (“global warming stopped in 1998“) to flat-out lies (“volcanoes emit more carbon dioxide than humans“). Of course, climate scientists thought of these objections and ruled them out long before you and I even knew what global warming was, so in recent years, the arguments of deniers were beginning to reach a dead end. The Copenhagen climate summit was approaching, and the public was beginning to understand the basic science of human-caused climate change, even realize that the vast majority of the scientific community was concerned about it. A new strategy for denial and delay was needed – ideally, for the public to lose trust in researchers. Hence, the hack at CRU, and the beginning of a disturbing new campaign to smear the reputations of climate scientists.

The contents of the emails were spun in a brilliant exercise of selective quotation. Out of context, phrases can be twisted to mean any number of things – especially if they were written as private correspondence with colleagues, rather than with public communication in mind. Think about all the emails you have sent in the past decade. Chances are, if someone tried hard enough, they could make a few sentences you had written sound like evidence of malpractice, regardless of your real actions or intentions.

Consequently, a mathematical “trick” (clever calculation) to efficiently analyse data was reframed as a conspiracy to “trick” (deceive) the public into believing the world was warming. Researchers discussed how to statistically isolate and “hide the decline” in problematic tree ring data that was no longer measuring what it used to, but this quote was immediately twisted to claim that the decline was in global temperatures: the world is cooling and scientists are hiding it from us!

Other accusations were based not on selective misquotation but on a misunderstanding of the way science works. When the researchers discussed what they felt were substandard papers that should not be published, many champions of the stolen emails shouted accusations that scientists were censoring their critics, as if all studies, no matter how weak their arguments, had a fundamental right to be published. Another email, in which a researcher privately expressed a desire to punch a notorious climate change denier, was twisted into an accusation that the scientists threatened people who disagreed with them. How was it a threat if the action was never intended to materialize, and if the supposed target was never aware of it?

These serious and potentially damaging allegations, which, upon closer examination, are nothing more than grasping at straws, were not carefully examined and evaluated by journalists – they were repeated. Early media reports bordered on the hysterical. With headlines such as “The final nail in the coffin of anthropogenic global warming” and “The worst scientific scandal of our generation“, libelous claims and wild extrapolations were published mere days after the emails were distributed. How could journalists have possibly had time to carefully examine the contents of one thousand emails? It seems much more likely that they took the short-cut of repeating the narrative of the deniers without assessing its accuracy.

Even if, for the sake of argument, all science conducted by the CRU was fraudulent, our understanding of global warming would not change. The CRU runs a global temperature dataset, but so do at least six other universities and government agencies around the world, and their independent conclusions are virtually identical. The evidence for human-caused climate change is not a house of cards that will collapse as soon as one piece is taken away. It’s more like a mountain: scrape a couple of pebbles off the top, but the mountain is still there. For respected newspapers and media outlets to ignore the many independent lines of evidence for this phenomenon in favour of a more interesting and controversial story was blatantly irresponsible, and almost no retractions or apologies have been published since.

The worldwide media attention to this so-called scandal had a profound personal impact on the scientists involved. Many of them received death threats and hate mail for weeks on end. Dr. Phil Jones, the director of CRU, was nearly driven to suicide. Another scientist, who wishes to remain anonymous, had a dead animal dumped on his doorstep and now travels with bodyguards. Perhaps the most wide-reaching impact of the issue was the realization that private correspondence was no longer a safe environment. This fear only intensified when the top climate modelling centre in Canada was broken into, in an obvious attempt to find more material that could be used to smear the reputations of climate scientists. For an occupation that relies heavily on email for cross-national collaboration on datasets and studies, the pressure to write in a way that cannot be taken out of context – a near-impossible task – amounts to a stifling of science.

Before long, the investigations into the contents of the stolen emails were completed, and one by one, they came back clear. Six independent investigations reached basically the same conclusion: despite some reasonable concerns about data archival and sharing at CRU, the scientists had shown integrity and honesty. No science had been falsified, manipulated, exaggerated, or fudged. Despite all the media hullabaloo, “climategate” hadn’t actually changed anything.

Sadly, by the time the investigations were complete, the media hullabaloo had died down to a trickle. Climategate was old news, and although most newspapers published stories on the exonerations, they were generally brief, buried deep in the paper, and filled with quotes from PR spokespeople that insisted the investigations were “whitewashed”. In fact, Scott Mandia, a meteorology professor, found that media outlets devoted five to eleven times more stories to the accusations against the scientists than they devoted to the resulting exonerations of the scientists.

Six investigations weren’t enough, though, for some stubborn American politicians who couldn’t let go of the article of faith that Climategate was proof of a vast academic conspiracy. Senator James Inhofe planned a McCarthy-like criminal prosecution of seventeen researchers, most of whom had done nothing more than occasionally correspond with the CRU scientists. The Attorney General of Virginia, Ken Cuccinelli, repeatedly filed requests to investigate Dr. Michael Mann, a prominent paleoclimatic researcher, for fraud, simply because a twelve-year-old paper by Mann had some statistical weaknesses. Ironically, the Republican Party, which prides itself on fiscal responsibility and lower government spending, continues to advocate wasting massive sums of money conducting inquiries which have already been completed multiple times.

Where are the politicians condemning the limited resources spent on the as yet inconclusive investigations into who stole these emails, and why? Who outside the scientific community is demanding apologies from the hundreds of media outlets that spread libelous accusations without evidence? Why has the ongoing smear campaign against researchers studying what is arguably the most pressing issue of our time gone largely unnoticed, and been aided by complacent media coverage?

Fraud is a criminal charge, and should be treated as such. Climate scientists, just like anyone else, have the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. They shouldn’t have to endure this endless harassment of being publicly labelled as frauds without evidence. However, the injustice doesn’t end there. This hate campaign is a dangerous distraction from the consequences of global climate change, a problem that becomes more difficult to solve with every year we delay. The potential consequences are much more severe, and the time we have left to successfully address it is much shorter, than the vast majority of the public realizes. Unfortunately, powerful forces are at work to keep it that way. This little tussle about the integrity of a few researchers could have consequences millennia from now – if we let it.

Update: Many other climate bloggers are doing Climategate anniversary pieces. Two great ones I read today were Bart Verheggen’s article and the transcript of John Cook’s radio broadcast. Be sure to check them out!

Be Critical of Critics

Cross-posted from NextGen Journal

Of all the inane arguments made against the phenomenon of anthropogenic global climate change, the strangest – in my opinion – are the conspiracy theories.

Yes, scientific fraud does happen, but on the scale of one author, not an entire multi-disciplinary field stretching back for over a century. Imagine the scale of fabrication that would be necessary for this to be true, and the amount of journal editors, expert reviewers, and students who would have to be in on the conspiracy. Scientists are just not that organized.

And for what reason would they do this? Yes, there’s the old Communist-overthrow-of-the-world argument that Fox News pundits argue would somehow result from using capitalist market strategies to put a price on carbon…but many scientists who fully accept the reality of climate change are self-proclaimed Independents and Republicans.

Even if they don’t claim out-and-out fraud, many politicians, journalists, and citizens believe that scientists’ conclusions on climate change are influenced by the lure of grant money. This position shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the way scientific grants work. As Dr. Andrew Weaver, top Canadian climatologist, argued in his fantastic book Keeping Our Cool: Canada in a Warming World, if scientists were purely interested in grant money, it would be more beneficial for them to claim uncertainty in their work. Research dollars give preference to areas of science that remain fundamentally mysterious, not those that are just ironing out the details of well-understood basic processes. Additionally, as meteorology professor Scott Mandia recently showed, the grants that scientists receive for their research don’t actually influence their salaries.

Incredibly, even the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – a highly credible organization that painstakingly summarizes the scientific literature on climate change – is comprised of volunteer scientists. Even the chair, Rajendra Pachauri, doesn’t receive a cent for his work with the IPCC.

Of course, the prospect of a global warming fraud isn’t impossible. Nothing is. But remember, fraud is a criminal charge, and should not be thrown around lightly. Climate scientists, just like anyone else, have the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. They shouldn’t have to endure this endless harassment of being publicly labelled as frauds without evidence.

Here’s an example, from a retired American physics prof named Harold Lewis. He recently resigned from the American Physical Society because he didn’t think his views on climate change were being taken into account in the society’s statement. His resignation letter reads almost like satire:

It is of course, the global warming scam, with the (literally) trillions of dollars driving it, that has corrupted so many scientists, and has carried APS before it like a rogue wave. It is the greatest and most successful pseudoscientific fraud I have seen in my long life as a physicist. Anyone who has the faintest doubt that this is so should force himself to read the ClimateGate documents, which lay it bare…I don’t believe that any real physicist, nay scientist, can read that stuff without revulsion. I would almost make that revulsion a definition of the word scientist.

The scientists involved in ClimateGate, the scandal that wasn’t, have been cleared by five independent investigations to date. While some reasonable issues about data archival and sharing have been raised, absolutely no science was compromised by the contents of the stolen private correspondence. For Lewis to say otherwise and fail to provide evidence for this potentially libelous accusation is unduly irresponsible.

I disagree that the definition of scientist is “someone who feels revulsion and jumps to the conclusion of fraud from emails that show, at most, that climate scientists are not always very nice”. On the contrary, I would expect that a scientist would assess media coverage of these emails with a critical eye, examine the context in which they were written, and read the published work of the scientists in question – many of the so-called damning phrases (“hide the decline”, “lack of warming at the moment”) had already been discussed at length in the literature (Briffa et al 1997 and Trenberth et al 2009 respectively).

On a side note, where did he get “literally trillions of dollars” from? The world GDP, according to the World Bank, is approximately $61 trillion. It seems staggering to imagine that a minimum of 3% of the world economy is devoted to climate change research alone.

Let’s see what else Harry Lewis has to say:

In the interim the ClimateGate scandal broke into the news, and the machinations of the principal alarmists were revealed to the world. It was a fraud on a scale I have never seen, and I lack the words to describe its enormity. Effect on the APS position: none. None at all.

And rightly so. Even if, for the sake of argument, the CRU emails had discredited all of the research group’s data and publications, their conclusions about the current planetary warming have been independently replicated by multiple land- and satellite- based databases. In the United States alone, there is NASA GISS, NOAA NCDC, RSS, and UAH. All show the same global warming that CRU detected. Some, due to complexities in the measurement of Arctic temperatures, show even more.

The scientific literature fully supports the general premise of the APS statement on climate change: the world is warming, humans are causing it, and unless we reduce carbon emissions quickly and dramatically, it’s going to be bad. No alternative explanation for the situation has been able to withstand the scrutiny of peer-review.

Science is about looking at all sides of an issue, but it’s not a free-for-all. If someone can’t back up a claim, they don’t have an inherent right to get it published regardless. Unfortunately, in the Internet age, that doesn’t matter – if what they’re looking for is media attention, not scientific accountability.

There’s a difference between “lacking the words to describe the enormity” of a so-called fraud, and lacking the evidence to support such an accusation. As scientists (and prospective scientists, such as myself!), we need to be critical in our assessment of all claims – including the claims of critics and contrarians. Being objective isn’t always the same as being neutral.

Ads Past and Present

Check out these unbelievable ads from the Tobacco Institute, which I found from the Tobacco Documents database. Click to enlarge.

And here is the tamest of the Heartland Institute’s full-page ads in the Washington Post (from a year or two ago, exact date unknown):

Don’t Listen to the Newspapers

This article of mine was published in the newsletter of Sisters of Our Lady of the Missions, a Catholic group that is doing a great deal of work in sustainability issues. Enjoy!

The mainstream media portrays the existence of human-caused climate change as a much fiercer scientific debate than it actually is. Scientists are still working out the details of how much warming we can expect, how it will be distributed, and what the consequences will be. However, the “big questions” have very solid answers. The idea that emissions of carbon dioxide from human activities would eventually warm the planet was first proposed in 1896, and since then, agreement on the issue has grown to a staggering level: 97.6% of publishing climatologists, 100% of studies in scientific journals, and every scientific organization in the world now agree that humans are changing the climate.

Compare this to the media coverage of climate change. The majority of articles in respected newspapers like The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal give roughly equal time to the “two sides” of the so-called “scientific debate”. Balance in journalism is all very well when the issue is one of political or social nature, but for matters of science, giving fringe opinions the same weight as a robust consensus is misleading. Being objective is not always the same as being neutral.

Over the past year, climate change reporting has taken a disturbing turn, as attacks on the integrity of individual scientists have been spread by nearly every media outlet in the developed world. Private correspondence taken out of context (in which the scientists involved have subsequently been cleared of any wrongdoing, by five independent investigations) as well as minor referencing errors in a scientific report (the worst of which gave the wrong date for when a specific glacier was expected to melt) led to widespread accusations of fraud and conspiracy by advocacy groups opposed to climate change action. Rather than investigate these potentially libellous claims, the media repeated them. As a result, many scientists have received death threats, and countless others have been subject to hate mail. One scientist in particular has had a dead animal dumped on his doorstep, and now travels with a bodyguard. Although their scientific reputations have not been damaged, the personal lives of these innocent men and women have been forever altered.

As the popular press reinforces myths and misconceptions about climate change, public understanding of the issue has fallen apart. Only 61% of American adults think that the Earth is warming, and only 50% think that it is caused by human activity (up-to-date Canadian statistics are not available). Most worryingly, only 34% are aware that most scientists think climate change is happening. A vast chasm has opened between scientific and public understanding of climate change, and powerful forces are at work to keep it open.

As we live in a democracy, action on climate change will only happen when voters demand it – and they won’t demand a solution if they don’t understand the problem. The best thing that you and I can do to stop climate change is to spread around accurate information. Scientific reports are often too technical for easy understanding, but major journals, such as Nature, often have a news section where they summarize new studies for the public. Many scientists are also stepping up to the challenge of climate change communication, and casting light on common misconceptions. A website called Skeptical Science is one of the best sources. There are many people working to fix this problem, but we need many more. Slowly but surely, the tide will turn.