Credibility in a Bewildered World

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, 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!


Essays CAN be Enjoyable!

I’ve been working on two different essays for school this past week. One is about the Grapes of Wrath. Bleccch. The other, however, was much more enjoyable. Compare three journalism texts on the same topic, see how they differ, and why.

I chose to cover the publication of the Kaufman et al study, with articles from the Winnipeg Free Press, New York Times, and Sydney Morning Herald. As my essay ended up being very relevant to the purpose of this blog, I thought I’d publish it here. Enjoy.

On September 4th, 2009, one of the foremost scientific journals in the world published a significant study regarding global warming. Scientists have known for years that the Arctic has been warming at an unusual rate, but, by putting the recent trend in historical perspective, the Kaufman et al study was able to show just how unusual. Nearly every major newspaper in the world covered the publication of the study, some more accurately than others. In this document, three articles, from Canada, the United States, and Australia, are examined.

This issue is not about the warming of the Arctic but, rather, a specific study regarding the warming of the Arctic. Therefore, it is fairly easy to gain an objective basis of the issue, simply by reading the study. The conclusions of the study can then be compared to the newspaper articles to see how well they summarize its findings.

The study in question, “Recent Warming Reverses Long-Term Arctic Cooling”, was published in Science magazine, which is one of the most reputable scientific journals in circulation. The study was in the field of paleoclimatology, which uses lake sediment, glacier ice, and tree rings to reconstruct past climates. Notably, this study was the first of its kind to reconstruct 2000 years of Arctic climate at a high resolution (temperature measurements which were only years or decades apart). Previous studies of this resolution only measured the Arctic climate of the past 400 years.

The results were striking. As expected from calculations of the Earth’s cyclical changes in orbit, the Arctic was cooling for the first 1900 years. The Holocene thermal maximum (warmest part of the interglacial) was between 6 000 and 10 000 years ago, and the Earth has been slowly moving toward another ice age ever since. However, in the past century, anthropogenic greenhouse gases caused this trend to sharply reverse. The rapid warming, at a rate of 1.4 C/century (compared to the previous cooling of -0.022 C/century), caused the Arctic to become even warmer than it had been at the beginning of the graph. The period of 1999-2008 was, therefore, the warmest decade in the past 2000 years.

It is important to note that the focus of the study was on the previous cooling trend, not the recent warming trend. As observational data is present for the past 100 years of Arctic temperatures, reconstructions were unnecessary. The recent data simply had to be inserted at the end of the process. Therefore, the rapid warming was only mentioned at the very end of the study, occupying less than one page out of four. The recent warming trend, especially in the Arctic, is already common knowledge in the scientific community. It is unsurprising that it took such a minor role in a paper which was, after all, about reconstructing climate from past centuries.

However, “Arctic warmer than in last 2000 years, new study finds”, printed in the Winnipeg Free Press, did not properly articulate this focus. The author, Bob Weber, called the study “groundbreaking”, which is very true, as it provides the first detailed reconstruction of Arctic climate going back farther than 400 years. However, Weber then devoted nearly the entire article to the recent spike in temperatures, implying that it was this recent anthropogenic trend, rather than the detailed reconstruction, which was so groundbreaking. For example, in the introductory paragraph, the study is referred to as providing “real-world evidence to back mathematical climate models that suggest greenhouse gases are behind global warming”. The authors of the study did compare the reconstruction to model simulations, but primarily in the context of the previous cooling, to see how well their data correlated with orbital calculations. They cared much less about how the observational warming data matched up with computer models, as that has been done countless times in other studies. Also, the models do not merely “suggest” that greenhouse gases are behind global warming. “Suggest” is likely too weak a word, especially for members of the general public, who are not well-phrased in the tentative language of science. In fact, there is not a single climate model which has been able to explain the recent warming without taking into account human activities. If there was, you can be very sure that everyone in the climate blogosphere would have heard about it far too many times from angry commenters.

A similar error is made when Weber writes, “The study says the fact that no other major variables changed about that time – there were no large volcanic eruptions, for example – suggests there could be only one culprit for the warming Arctic: carbon dioxide emissions that began increasing rapidly during the Industrial Revolution.” This error is somewhat more grievous than the last, as the study never made such a claim. The lack of an alternative explanation for the recent warming certainly is well known in the scientific community, but it is not covered in this particular study. Saying that it is implies that the study was focused on recent trends in temperature, rather than paleoclimatic reconstructions. Therefore, since the study is “groundbreaking”, the idea of an anthropogenic influence on climate is portrayed as groundbreaking as well – when, in actuality, scientists first began to examine the issue over a century ago. Svante Arrhenius’ claim, in 1896, that industrial emissions of carbon dioxide could one day warm the planet was groundbreaking. This study making such a claim was not.

However, changing the focus of the study was not the only error in the Free Press article. Weber made an incorrect choice of words which would have made anyone well-phrased in climatology cringe. When discussing how the study used lake sediment, glacier ice, and tree rings to reconstruct past climate, Weber stated that “all three methods are well-accepted ways of estimating weather.” It is really quite incredible that a science journalist could have gotten away with such an error, as the difference between weather and climate is covered in the first chapter of nearly every book about climate change. In reality, estimating weather with proxy reconstructions is virtually impossible, unless paleoclimatology were to advance to a point where proxy temperature measurements could be determined on a weekly scale. All that can be done – and all that really matters for our purposes – is to estimate climate, the standard conditions of temperature, precipitation, and variability in an area. Climate refers to a long period of time (classically 30 years). It is not affected by conditions of day-to-day weather. As it is, Weber’s assumption that the two words are interchangeable only serves to reinforce public confusion on their differences.

The article concluded with a statement about climate models, claiming that they “are often used by scientists to predict the effects of global warming and are just as often criticized by skeptics as mere speculation”. It is difficult to understand who Weber is referring to as “skeptics”. Does he mean the mobs of angry laypeople, omnipresent on YouTube, amateur blogging sites, and letters to the editor sections, nearly all of whom have little to no scientific background? If so, should we really trust them on the matter of how reliable climate models are? Do their shouts really count as criticism if they don’t know what they’re talking about? Alternatively, perhaps Weber is referring to actual scientists, who understand the physics, mathematics, and statistics of climate models, yet feel that they are little better than random guesses. We have no solid figure as to how many of these scientists exist worldwide, but minimal research shows that most, if not all, of them also hold the belief that humans are not affecting the climate. Such scientists make up roughly 3% of the climatological community (Doran and Zimmerman, 2009). They perhaps make up roughly a dozen worldwide. Giving them space in an article about a credible peer-reviewed paper reinforces yet another public misconception – that scientists are fairly equally split on whether or not humans are the cause of global warming.

Finally, the article was published on page A2 of the Free Press. Any regular reader of this newspaper will know that such a page is the most trivial in the issue. Page A2 is almost entirely covered by ads and indexes. There is a tiny space for an article, which is usually about someone’s lost parrot, or how a digital image of a squirrel is taking over the Internet. It is surprising that such a “groundbreaking” study was printed on this page, instead of in the “Science” or “World” section. What does it say about our mainstream media when an article of such scientific importance is squeezed into the easiest possible place to overlook? What does it say about our society?

Luckily, “Global Warming Could Forestall Ice Age”, printed in the New York Times, did not contain these errors. It was printed in the “Environment” section. Its focus was on the Earth’s glaciation cycles rather than the recent trends in temperature. It did not mention skeptics. The only similar mistake made was a mischaracterization of what was and was not stated in the study. Andrew Revkin, the author, writes that “summer temperatures in the Arctic region would be expected to cool for at least 4000 more years, given the growing distance between the Sun and the North Pole during the summer in the Northern Hemisphere, the study says.” The study did not say such a thing – it was common knowledge long before the study was written, since Milutin Milankovitch first calculated the Earth’s orbital cycles in 1941. Similarly, Revkin states that “the next [ice age], according to recent research, could be 20 000 or 30 000 years off discounting any influence by humans.” Again, this research is not recent. Portraying it as so implies that it is still somewhat shaky and unproven, which could lead the public to wonder if scientists really understand ice ages. Some individuals would be all too eager to claim that the Earth was simply approaching a new thermal maximum, which was causing the warming, not greenhouse gases.

A much more serious and troubling error appears later in the article. Revkin writes that “the ability to artificially warm the climate, particularly the Arctic, could be seen as a boon as the planet’s shifting orientation to the Sun enters a phase that could initiate the next ice age.” Anthropogenic greenhouse gases certainly could offset the next ice age. However, Revkin phrases this idea in a way which suggests that it is a good thing. Multiple misconceptions are present in this chain of logic. Firstly, Revkin assumes that warming is better than cooling. This is an easy assumption to make when you live at high latitudes, such as in the United States. However, from a broader, but still anthropocentric, worldview, it is the amount of change in climate which matters more than the direction it moves in. For example, warming might have some local benefits in North America and Russia, but it also causes subtropical drying, making agriculture in areas such as North Africa, Mexico, and Australia less and less viable. Cooling, in the other hand, allows the boreal forest to expand southward into richer soils, but it also makes the climates of high latitudes less conducive to human settlement. Both warming and cooling would have impacts on ocean and wind currents. Alternatively, perhaps Revkin believes that warming is more conducive to life on Earth. This assumption is incorrect, even at high latitudes – just look at the giant mastadons and other mammals which were present throughout North America during previous ice ages. Warming also causes desertification in some areas of the world, leading to water stresses that can threaten species. It seems obvious that the best situation for any species, including humans, is for the global climate to remain stable. Therefore, the magnitude of any change matters much more than whether it is warming or cooling.

So, let us look at the magnitude and rate of change in the transition to an ice age compared to the observed and expected warming. As the study states, the Arctic was previously cooling at a rate of     -0.022 C/century. This rate remains relatively steady as the Earth moves into a glacial state. However, the present warming is occurring at a rate of 1.4 C/century – 60 times faster, which is expected to accelerate dramatically as it progresses. Obviously, the current change in climate is much more dramatic than a descent into an ice age, and will cause much more stress for people as well as other life on Earth. Anthropogenic global warming is in no way preferable to an ice age.

Critically examining these two North American articles makes one lose faith in popular science journalism. However, when we look at the opposite corner of the world, Australia, a much more accurate article emerges. “Cooling trend of 1900 years reversed in decades” was published online through the Sydney Morning Herald. It is significantly shorter than the other articles, but contains none of the glaring scientific errors. In fact, the study is perfectly summarized in the first sentence of the article, which reads, “The Arctic was cooling for 1900 years because of a natural change in the Earth’s orbit until greenhouse gas accumulation from the use of fossil fuels reversed the trend in recent decades, scientists say.” In a remarkably concise fashion, Renee Schoof, the author, is able to convey the purpose, focus, and conclusions of the survey. The article goes on to explain how the Arctic would still be cooling if it weren’t for human activities, how global warming is expected to affect the Arctic first and foremost, and how warming in that area has serious implications for sea level rise and the stability of methane hydrates. Although the article was short, it lacked the editorial slant of the previous two pieces. One wonders if the Australian society is more accepting of the idea of anthropogenic climate change than North America is, as its media, at least in this instance, does a remarkably better job reporting it.

What does this analysis tell us about the reporting of science, particularly climate change, in North America? As we can see, it’s much worse here than it is in other parts of the world, as the two North American articles contained glaring errors, misrepresentation, and editorial slants which only served to perpetrate popular myths about climate change. The Australian article, in contrast, perfectly summarized the study. Are the Australians better informed, and therefore demand accurate journalism on climate change? Or are their media simply more responsible? Conversely, are North Americans blind to scientific situations which might have policy implications, and thus welcome journalism that downplays the status of the science? Or are the North American media corporations influenced by individuals and think tanks who wish the public to remain confused about whether or not climate change is a serious threat? Perhaps the two sides of the situation, the public and the media, feed off each other. The media influences what the public thinks, and the public expects the media to confirm their preconceived opinions. Once this feedback loop begins, it is difficult to stop. Hopefully it is not impossible.

What if the IPCC is Wrong?

Looking at this title, what do you imagine my implications to be?

By “wrong” do you think I mean “global warming turns out to be natural/nonexistent/a global conspiracy”?

A very interesting sociological phenomenon……In the popular media, we hear so much from people who think that the dangers of climate change have been overstated by the IPCC, and virtually nothing from those who think the dangers have been understated. In fact, I can’t remember ever reading the latter viewpoint in the popular press, while the former presents itself almost weekly on the editorial page.

See, for example, this gem. I haven’t even looked into the quoted statistics (as they’re all from the Science and Public Policy Institute, truly the epitome of credibility….) and already I can guess what sorts of tricks are being played. Picking two convenient years from the last decade, calculating a linear regression, extrapolating that to rate of change per century, comparing that to the IPCC’s worst-case future predictions, and saying “oh look, the IPCC is wrong!” Works for temperature, CO2 concentration, and sea levels.

When the public reads “the IPCC is wrong” enough times in this context, they start to unconsciously equate it with “the IPCC is overestimating the dangers of global warming”. That’s my knee-jerk reaction, too.

I wasn’t even aware of this phenomenon, however, until I read an as-yet-unpublished poll of scientists’ opinions on the IPCC. The abstract says that “there is not a universal agreement among climate scientists about climate science as represented in the IPCC’s WG1”, “there remains substantial disagreement about the magnitude of [climate change’s] impacts”, and “there are….a significant number of climate scientists who disagree with the IPCC WG1 perspective”.

Reading this abstract, it sure sounds like the report found a lot of scientists who think the IPCC has overstated global warming. However, the report found that the IPCC perspective was the mean opinion of climate scientists, and there was a fairly equal minority on each side. 18% thought the IPCC was overestimating, 17% thought the IPCC was underestimating, and the rest thought it was about right.

I am in no way endorsing the findings of this study – as, not being peer reviewed, it wouldn’t pass our comment policy. I am simply using it as an example of how “significant disagreement with the IPCC” really has to be spelled out. The public has been so indoctrinated with the idea that “the IPCC is wrong” equates to “the IPCC is overestimating”, while in reality, it can mean exactly the opposite too.

(To be honest, I’m quite glad that this report wasn’t published without changes to the abstract, because it would be all-too-easy for WUWT et al to take the abstract quotes out of context and parade around saying “look the IPCC is wrong!” A furious blogging storm would begin. We’d be hearing the quotes out of context for years. Peter Sinclair would have to make a video about it.)

There certainly is a chance that the IPCC is overestimating or underestimating the impacts of global warming. In particular, the lag time between collecting data for a publication and the release of the IPCC report could increase error. Gwynne Dyer, in his book Climate Wars (review coming soon), estimated that “most of the data that formed the basis for the IPCC’s 2007 report actually refer to 2002 and earlier.” As few things become out of date faster than climatology data (for example, my chem notes still say that CO2 is at 350 ppm), what we’ve learned in the past 7 or 8 years would likely alter the findings of the IPCC. If we were somehow able to produce a new report instantly, it would interesting to see how the new data made it differ from the AR4. (Does anyone know of a good resource which compared the TAR to the AR4 in this way?)

Another way that the IPCC may seem to underestimate global warming is really very tricky. A lot of their future projections, understandably, are unable to model all the aspects of climate change. Many feedbacks cannot be modelled, especially the release of methane hydrates, so greenhouse gas levels don’t include such feedback processes. The collapse of ice sheets cannot be modelled, so sea-level predictions only account for thermal expansion.

Most of what they can’t model would make the projections a lot worse, but they have no way of knowing how much worse, so they just include, “not including uncertainty in carbon cycle feedbacks”. If you weren’t looking for this disclaimer, you wouldn’t know it was there. And try finding it in the summary for policymakers, which is the only part of the report most people will read.

Gwynne Dyer says it best:

“Leaving the biggest potential feedbacks – methane and carbon dioxide release from thawing permafrost in the higher latitudes, and carbon dioxide release from warming oceans – out of the climate change scenarios that the IPCC generates is defensible in scientific terms, for the did genuinely lack the ability to model them accurately. But, in a report intended for non-scientists, this omission ought to have been highlighted in warning yellow, not buried in the footnotes.”

Does anyone know of a peer-reviewed source which has attempted to include such feedbacks in future projections? In an interview with Dyer, Dennis Bushnell from NASA mentions a rough estimate which calculated a 6 to 12 C warming by 2100 if feedbacks were included. However, I can’t seem to track this down….

The IPCC may seem extreme in some circles, as it supports the drastic notions that the Earth is warming and carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. This basic support for the mechanisms of anthropogenic climate change has led the IPCC to be boxed in to the “climate change is real” camp in the general media, which faces off with an omnipresent “climate change is fake” camp. However, we must realize that there is also a camp that says “climate change is real and even worse than the IPCC estimates”. The IPCC, really, is the median scientific opinion – the “truth somewhere between the two extremes” that the public so wholeheartedly supports. Newspapers obviously aren’t too good at averaging.

An Analogy

I can’t remember where I first read about this phenomenon. It could have been here, here, or somewhere else entirely.

Whoever it was wrote a brilliant post about the widespread public belief that “the truth lies somewhere between the two extremes”. This belief was a fallacy, the author argued, as one side could easily make themselves as extreme as possible – moving their end of the spectrum so that the centre moves closer to their original position.

“The warming is natural” sounds ridiculous until you compare it to “it hasn’t been warming at all.” Someone says that “CO2 accumulation is caused by volcanoes”, but then someone else claims “CO2 doesn’t even affect the global temperature.” Little by little, the centre – the position between the two extremes, which the public is most inclined to trust – shifts.

This phenomenon reminds me of a math problem from a few years back, which, for whatever reason, stuck in my mind. It had to do with different car companies, and what form of simple averaging – mean, median, or mode – was the most appropriate to honestly convey to customers the price of a typical car.

One company had cars with prices $25 000, $28 000, $23 000, $30 000, and $21 000. (No, I don’t remember the exact numbers. Yes, I am making them up.)

Another company had cars priced $35 000, $31 000, $38 000, $34 000, and $10 000.

See the analogy?

Make one end of the spectrum as extreme as possible, and the mean average – or public opinion – will shift accordingly.

In a public debate such as climate change,  I don’t think we should use the mean. We should use the median. That way, even if the same scientists become progressively more extreme in their views, the public’s interpretation of the credible opinion will stay relatively the same. It’ll only significantly change if that minority of scientists is able to convince the others of their views.

How and Why

Ever since Tamino linked to me, essentially tripling my blog hits, it’s become obvious that a lot of my readers and regular commenters are very knowledgable in this issue – more than a few are actually scientists who study climate change.

This has been absolutely fantastic. Whenever I have an inkling of a scientific question, five or six people immediately provide me with further information and links. I’m considering compiling all the questions I have (the answers to which are obviously common knowledge, but researching them is almost impossible as over half the Google hits are from places like the Heartland Institute or Climate Depot, trying to explain how it’s all a big conspiracy) and putting them in a post one day.

This summer, I’ve been reading and researching an incredible amount about climate change, and have even m0re books, websites, and PDFs waiting for my attention. This is what I want to study one day, and every new discovery I make or mechanism I understand is just so cool.

However, I don’t want to lose sight of what this blog is about. I don’t want to get into debates about proxy reconstructions or climate models when I don’t even know calculus yet. I don’t want to try to disprove Steve McIntyre. I don’t want to try to write like Tamino or RealClimate. One day, maybe, and I’m certainly reading that kind of material. But I don’t want to be writing that kind of material, pretending that I know what I’m talking about when I usually don’t.

I’m not a scientist. I’m not even of voting age, and don’t have the educational qualifications to earn anything more than minimum wage. But if climate change is indeed a problem, we have limited time. I’m not going to wait until I know everything about the science and then write about that. While I’m learning the science, I’m going to write about what I do know.

The ultimate purpose of ClimateSight is and always has been to find, expose, and eliminate the discrepancies between scientific knowledge and public knowledge regarding climate change. As it wasn’t too long ago that I knew only what Al Gore and the newspaper told me, and as I’m surrounded by people in that situation in my day-to-day life, I believe I have a very intimate connection to what average non-scientists think about climate change, and why.

A lot of people believe that there are two, fairly equal, competing sides in the scientific community regarding whether or not humans are causing climate change. I believe this stems overwhelmingly from a sense of artificial balance in the media.

A lot of people will read an editorial written by someone who thinks the world isn’t warming, or that humans aren’t causing it, and believe them totally because it seems logical and the more credible sources don’t usually write editorials.

A lot of people seem to think that the scientific question of whether or not human-caused climate change is a physical reality is a personal opinion.

And almost everyone needs to know how to assess credibility and how to find the more credible sources.

I don’t believe that the public decision of whether or not climate change is a problem will really be influenced by technical arguments, regarding a single method or report, between blogs. I don’t believe that these two blogging sides will ever really convince each other. I’m certainly not interested in convincing anyone who has their mind firmly made up. I don’t think we’ll get anywhere, and it won’t really make a difference in the end result.

I believe the answer lies in an informed public. When people know where to get accurate and credible information about climate change, when they know who is and is not worth listening to, when they stop trying to figure out the science themselves and instead decide which scientific sources they will rely on…..then I believe the public will finally either demand swift and dramatic action against climate change, or set it aside as a non-problem.

As someone very connected to the public opinion, I strongly feel that the first outcome is far more likely. Maybe I’m biased, or maybe I’m just hoping too much. But I believe that people generally care about the future, and that the current policy of waffling around the issue of climate change is in direct contradiction to what people would demand if they were fully informed about what the prevailing scientific opinion actually is.

But either decision will only happen if and when the public becomes fully informed, especially about the nature of science and risk management. Our society lives in a democracy, which is a luxury many people in this world, and especially in history, do not enjoy. However, a democracy can easily be misled, and for it to work properly, a fully informed electorate is essential.

And that’s what I’m trying to do here.

Two Good Books

The Heat is On by Ross Gelbspan was an enjoyable book. It didn’t take much effort to keep reading, and I whipped through it in a couple of days.

Much of the book was devoted to the politics of climate change, most notably the PR attempts by skeptics to delay action. There were some well-placed but infuriating examples, especially the story of Benjamin Santer, and how he was suddenly charged with fraud in the 1995 IPCC report by the folks from SEPP and the Marshall Institute. This was obviously an underhanded attempt to damage the IPCC’s credibility to the public, and it lives on today. I was trying to find a decent link from a respectable source that explained this story in more detail, but I got tired of sifting through results from Climate Depot and the SEPP website.

The book also explored how climate change will affect businesses and the economy. “The laws of supply and demand,” writes Gelbspan, “do not supersede the laws of nature – and when those two sets collide, the physical planet is the court of highest appeal.” The last chapter was devoted to possible solutions. There was nothing that set this book apart from others of its kind, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

However, I felt that The Heat is On was a little dated, as it was written in 1997 – before the record-breaking years of 1998 and 2005, before Katrina, before Exxon stopped funding the skeptics. I felt this last point is quite important, as the skeptics were constantly referred to as “industry representatives” or “fossil fuel funded” in the book, while today the skeptics are more representatives of the extreme right-wing community, such as the Heartland Institute. The skeptical community seems more and more like a resistance to regulation, rather than a resistance to getting rid of fossil fuels. Naomi Oreskes refers to this phenomenon as “free market fundamentalism” in her excellent lecture (but resist the urge to read the comments – they’ll annoy you to no end).

Bottom line – there was nothing much that was new or spectacular in this book, but I enjoyed it anyway, and would recommend it to all.

I enjoyed Hell and High Water by Joseph Romm even more. It seemed more structured, more comprehensive, and more solution-oriented. The first half of the book was devoted to climate change impacts, especially hurricanes and sea-level rise. It was quite terrifying, even though I read this sort of stuff all the time.

The second half of the book discussed politics and solutions. Skeptics were referred to as “Denyers and Delayers”, a title I found quite fitting. There was a lot of Bush-bashing.

I found the solutions to be very well thought out and organized. Romm explained how we can’t rely on “new technology” to save us – we need to start now with what we have, which will buy us the time to develop this new technology. He told the success story of California’s energy efficiency program, which amazed me, and which I will likely devote a post to in the near future. I know there are a fair few Californians who read this blog – anyone want to leave their opinions, info, links, etc in the comments?

He discussed why peak oil won’t happen soon enough to save us from global warming, and why hydrogen power is not a viable solution unless and until we can find a way to get hydrogen from something other than fossil fuels. He explored the touchy subject of how to share emission reductions between developed countries and developing countries.

Romm also discussed media, one of my favourite facets of climate change to study. He noted that climate change, when it is reported in the popular press, is subject to a great deal of artificial balance, as “the media has the misguided belief that the pursuit of balance is superior to the pursuit of truth – even in science journalism.” He measured up the two sides of the scientific debate and claimed that the skeptics “remain a group small enough to fit into a typical home bathroom.” He quoted an anonymous editor at a major televison network, who replied to the question, “Why don’t you make the link between violent weather and global warming?” with, “We did that. Once. But it triggered a barrage of complaints from the Global Climate Coalition.” He mentioned a 2006 poll in Time magazine which found that 64% of Americans think there is a lot of scientific disagreement about climate change.

It’s like the media chapter was designed especially for me. I love reading about new topics – but I also love learning more about the topics I already know and love.

I think everyone should read Hell and High Water. It’s an up-to-date, far-reaching, well-cited account of global warming in the physical world and society.

As always, if you’ve read these books, you’re welcome to leave your own thoughts about them in the comments.

Falling Short

I recently created a multi-genre document which explores discrepancies in the way the media reports on climate change.

Falling Short

Apologies that the visual quality isn’t too great. I conveniently lost my digital copy of this file and all I had was a hard copy, which I scanned, losing some of the quality in the process.


The Average Person

craven I first watched the Manpollo videos about a year and a half ago, when I had the flu, and ended up watching the entire six hours over two days. I don’t remember when it was that I discovered Greg Craven was writing a book based on the videos, but I’ve been excited to read it ever since.

The Manpollo videos have inspired my view on climate change and transformed my way of talking about it more than anything else I’ve read or watched. In a nutshell, Greg Craven’s process of risk management takes the pressure off us to be amateur scientists. It doesn’t require that we assess the statistical methods of people with PhDs when we only have a high school knowledge of science. Instead, it shows us how to use logic, assess credibility, and weigh the benefits and consequences of taking action vs not taking action on an uncertain threat.

I suppose I sort of expected that Greg Craven’s book would be a step up from the videos, would contain even more ideas, anecdotes and talking points that I could really sink my teeth into, would tell me more that I hadn’t already heard in the six hours of Manpollo.

But his book wasn’t like that. Greg Craven disappointed me.

And I’m grateful for that.

See, the book was not aimed at people like me who have an interest in climate change that borders on obsession. It was not aimed at the people who already know which sources are skeptical of anthropogenic climate change and which are worried about it. It was not aimed at those of us who can rattle off the current concentration of atmospheric CO2 without a second thought.

The book was aimed at the average person, who basically knows what climate change is but hears so much shouting in the media that they have no idea of its level of agreement. Who knows there are two sides and doesn’t want to offend anyone. Who has never heard of Milankovitch cycles, methane hydrates or the Goddard Institute of Space Studies.

If the average person stumbled upon most climate change blogs, most of the terms would be foreign to them. I hope they’d be able to understand most of what I write here on ClimateSight (as I try to stay away from analysing hard data) but they’d probably still need a bit of background information.

The average person, with little to no background information on climate science and policy, needs somewhere to start. They need the tools to assess the credibility of a source. They need to know where to go for more information about a topic. They need a basic knowledge of risk management, logic, and bias.

What’s the Worst that Could Happen? provides exactly that. It seems like a more concise version of the Manpollo videos, all the topics outlined in a simple process without the need for much background reading. If I were to recommend a book to start with for this anonymous average person we’re discussing, it would be hard to find one better than this one.

Instead of telling you stuff, Greg Craven tells you how to find stuff out for yourself. He doesn’t tell you how much agreement there is on climate change, he introduces you to a credibility spectrum instead. And even then, he doesn’t just give you his credibility spectrum, he shows you how to make your own.

He doesn’t tell you that oil executives are denialist trolls, he explains possible biases that could lead a person to a hasty conclusion. He gives one of the best basic explanations of the mechanics of anthropogenic climate change that I’ve ever read. Craven is possibly the least offensive, but most helpful, writer I’ve ever encountered.

My only complaint about the book was how he handled the “individual professional” and “individual layperson” sections in the chapters about statements. On the Skeptic’s side, he listed every individual prominent skeptic he could think of, I believe it was about a dozen. On the Warmer’s side, he had Hansen, Oreskes, and Gore. That was it. He explained that this was because he filled his credibility spectrum from the top down, and the statements at the top were almost exclusively weighted to the Warmer’s side. But there is something personal about an individual’s work that makes a person trust them and put faith in their arguments, rather than a report like the IPCC which is dry and anonymous. I wish that Craven had put some kind of indication, perhaps the Doran and Zimmerman report, that the opinion of individual scientists was also weighted towards the Warmer’s side. Otherwise it seems like the masses are not in agreement with the authority, which is supposed to be the source you listen to.

And because I agree with this concept so wholeheartedly, I feel compelled to share with my readers my answer to the question Craven asks at the very beginning – what would make you change your mind?

I would change my mind about dangerous anthropogenic climate change if a new discovery was made, if some new explanation came forward that gained as much agreement as the current theory holds now. If the national scientific bodies of the world, the peer-reviewed journals, and university textbooks had a complete overhaul because scientists discovered that humans were not changing the climate. If some new explanation surfaced that proved Arrhenius and Callendar wrong. It would be a discovery akin to the theory of relativity. As George Monboit said, “If you can prove these statements wrong, you should apply for a Nobel Prize. You will have turned science on its head.”

I listen to the scientists. I’m not surrending my rights and freedoms as an individual to them. I just trust their analysis more than I trust my own.

To conclude

If you already know a fair bit about climate change, and want some really fascinating dicussion points that will keep you going for literally years, watch the Manpollo videos. If you’re a really hardcore skeptic who thinks climate change is a global conspiracy, Manpollo was made especially for you.

But if you’re new to this topic, start with What’s the Worst that Could Happen? I assure you that there is no better place to begin.