ClimateSight/CCC Movies!

Here is a re-upload of some public education videos (aimed at students) I created in the summer, in association with Climate Change Connection.

Read the citations, and take the survey if you’re feeling brave.


On Media

I have given up on my local newspaper.

It’s been a long time coming. I’m tired of letters to the editor that talk about how carbon dioxide is good for the environment because it makes plants grow. I’m tired of editorials that conclude with, “So-and-so is a senior fellow at (insert name of suspiciously-funded conservative lobby group here).” I’m tired of the skeptical editor who gets an entire page on Saturdays and one or two columns during the week, often to talk about “Al Gore’s eco-horror film” and “scientists who have exaggerated data and silenced critics”. And I’m tired of the paper’s notion that any story even remotely related to global warming has to include a picture of a polar bear. If there’s one thing that the public needs to know about climate change, it’s that it’s not just a problem for the polar bears.

I’ve been reading my local newspaper every day for years, but now I have decided two things. Firstly, this isn’t a paper that I want to support. But more importantly, when the paper is making such a muddle out of their climate change reporting, it’s not a source that I trust to inform me accurately on other issues.

In terms of alternatives, I’ve subscribed to RSS feeds from the CBC for national and world politics, and the BBC for science and technology. I’ll read the Globe and Mail when I can get my hands on it, as it’s a very good paper that does a good job (at least comparatively) of climate change reporting.

I can always use my local paper, or any paper in the world for that matter (yay Internet) as a case study for how the media reports climate change. However, I’d like to rely on something else for my personal knowledge about the world. And it’s very nice not to feel that sense of doom as I turn to the editorial page.

A World Without Ice

Dr Henry Pollack, the author of A World Without Ice, is a geophysicist and an IPCC author. According to Al Gore, in the foreword, he is also “a scientist with the rare ability to engage ordinary people and to translate scientific ideas into everyday terms that are easy to understand”.

I couldn’t agree more. Pollack didn’t write A World Without Ice like a scientific journal, or like a textbook. Rather, he wrote it with the air of an enthusiastic science teacher introducing his students to new topics.

I was introduced to many new topics throughout the book – basic glaciology, the Earth’s geological thermostat, the Maunder Minimum – and I didn’t have to struggle to understand the terminology, or read anything twice. Pollack wrote with such clarity that learning new scientific topics felt almost effortless.

But absolutely top-notch were his metaphors. For example, this is how Pollack explains how the three factors of the Milankovitch cycles can combine to cause climatic change:

The composite is like listening to sound from an electronic synthesizer, which uses only three tones with different volume settings. The combination is usually some gentle cacophony, but from time to time there is some harmony between two of the tones, and on occasion with even one tone dominating, coming through loud and clear. The right combination of these Milankovitch factors sets the stage for snow accumulation at high latitudes and the beginning of an ice age.

Brilliant, no?

My one complaint about A World Without Ice was that Pollack tended to step too far away from his central topic of ice as a geological and climatic force. He ended up explaining everything that was even remotely related to ice, instead of sticking to what made his book unique.

For example, the North and South Poles are dominated by ice, so the first 30 pages were devoted to a history of polar exploration. Interesting stories, but not really necessary in a book about geology. It’s easy to find entire books about polar exploration if the reader is so inclined.

Later, when global warming came into the discussion, Pollack spent several chapters going through the basic lines of evidence for anthropogenic warming. I would wager that most readers of A World Without Ice are familiar with An Inconvenient Truth, or something similar, which has these explanations as its central purpose. Therefore, I don’t feel that running down this path well travelled is necessary for the audience at hand.

I feel that pieces of A World Without Ice could have been taken out, and the book as a whole would have actually benefited. So the next time I read it (and yes, I’m quite sure there will be a next time), I may not read the whole thing. I may skip the story of Captain Cook’s Antarctic voyage, or the explanation of the Keeling Curve. But I will read, many times over, the explanations of how ice is tied to geology, glaciology, and paleoclimatology. That’s what Pollack, this enthusiastic science teacher, intended the book to be about. And that’s what he does best.

TLC Book Tours is offering one free copy of A World Without Ice to a ClimateSight reader! The first person to correctly answer this question will be the winner:

What chapter of the IPCC AR4 did Dr Henry Pollack contribute to?

Leave your guesses in the comments. This contest is open to Canada and US readers only.

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!

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.


A Few Moments of Brilliance

heatI just finished reading one of the many climate change books on my reading list, “Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning” by George Monbiot. I have to say that the subtitle really annoys me. Fossil fuels are burning, yes, but the planet isn’t burning. It isn’t combining with oxygen and disintegrating.

Most of the book was a fairly dry account of possible ways to create a low-carbon economy – carbon capture and storage, building efficiency standards, reducing reliance on air travel. It was well researched and carefully planned, but not really my cup of tea.

However, there were several quotes, at the beginning and end of the book, which I found absolutely brilliant, for their style and word choice as well as their content.

“We can determine, for example, that the financial costs of Hurricane Katrina…..amount to some $75 billion…..But does it capture the suffering of the people whose homes were destroyed? Does it capture the partial destruction, in New Orleans, of one of the quirkiest and most creative communities on earth? Does it, most importantly, capture the value of the lives of those who drowned?” -page 50

“This must, in other words, be a moral decision, not an economic one. Either we decide that it is right to spend a lot of money seeking to prevent catastrophic climate change or we decide that it isn’t, but we must make that decision on the grounds of how much we value people and places as people and places, rather than as figures in a ledger.” -page 51

“But this baby, this strange little creature, closer to the ecosystem than a fully grown human being, part pixie, part frog, part small furry animal, now sixteen days old and curled up on my lap like a bean waiting to sprout, changes everything. I am no longer writing about what might happen to “people” in this country in thirty years’ time. I am writing about her. As she trembles on the threshold of life, the evidence of her mortality is undeniable. It seems far more real than mine…..Global warming is no longer a generalized phenomenon, its victims no longer abstractions. Among them might be my child. Or yours. Or you. Or even  me. Of all the complex matters encapsulated in this subject, this, until now, has been the hardest to grasp.” -page 206

Among these quotes runs a common thread: the idea that money is imaginary, numbers are imaginary, but people are real. People are the basis of the very real, tangible world of the human species. And now this species seems willing to destroy itself in favour of imaginary topics such as math and the economy.

I’m not sure if I’d recommend this book to others. If you’re interested in the real nitty-gritty of sustainable energy, it’s very thorough. But otherwise, I found the parts of the book that were most worth reading are the quotes listed above.

If you’ve read this book, I’d love to hear your opinion of it. Feel free to leave a comment if you’re so inclined.

Why Al Gore Doesn’t Matter

The first of many reviews planned for ClimateSight!

Climate change skeptics like to imply that Al Gore’s word is all we have going for us. That our faith in the theory is upheld simply because he supports it. That he’s brainwashed us all and we should think for ourselves. If it sounds like I’m exaggerating, go check out some YouTube comments – and even entire videos – dedicated to these concepts.

But the truth is, Al Gore could have never existed and the scientific theory of anthropogenic climate change would be the same as it is today.

Let’s take some time for historical context. The greenhouse effect began to be studied in the late 1800s by Svante Arrhenius. The current theory that anthropogenic CO2 emissions are causing the Earth’s temperature to rise was hypothesized by Guy Callendar in the 1930s. A great historical account of climate science is available to read online here.

The beginnings of the modern-day scientific view were present before Al Gore was even born. The idea that he thought up the whole conspiracy theory quickly falls apart. (But if you’d like a good laugh, check out this April Fool’s article. It made my day.)

Al Gore was educated at Harvard. He was fascinated by courses from Roger Revelle, another climatology pioneer. Before long, though, Gore became interested in politics. He graduated with a BA in government.

Try swaying the minds of every major scientific establishment in the world when the only formal education you have in climatology is a couple of undergraduate courses.

I’m sure Al Gore understands climate change better than most members of the general public. I’m also sure that the folks at national academies of science and organizations such as NASA, all at the top of our credibility spectrum, understand climate change a heck of a lot better than Al Gore. Check out what they’re saying here (thanks to Logical Science, who cited all of the statements so well).

It’s clear that, under our credibility spectrum, Al Gore would fall under the professional. He keeps well up to date with the scientific literature, but is not a scientist himself. He is only slightly more credible than the average person.

And with this context, let’s take a look at An Inconvenient Truth.

An Inconvenient Truth (2006) – Review

inconvenient truth

This is definitely not an example of scientific literature. It was not intended to be, and should not be taken as such. This is not to say that Gore’s statements about climate change are wrong. His overall message is greatly supported by the scientific community. However, it’s not the kind of text you’d want to cite in a research paper.

It’s clear that the purpose of this documentary was to increase public awareness, not to imitate a science textbook. Taken in that context, An Inconvenient Truth fulfills its purpose tremendously – almost too well, I’d say, as the first thing that comes to most people’s minds when they hear about the theory of climate change is not the IPCC, national academies of science, or university professors, but Al Gore. A lot of people think it’s Al Gore’s problem, and not much else.

And, sadly, if you wanted to take down the scientific side of Gore’s argument, it wouldn’t be too hard.

Early in the film, Al Gore says that we are adding to the greenhouse effect by “thickening” the atmosphere. This is more than just oversimplification. Burning fossil fuels not only increases CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere, it decreases O2 concentrations, by attaching one carbon atom to each molecule of oxygen in the combustion process. Read more about this concept here.

We are not “thickening” the atmosphere at all. But someone who watched An Inconvenient Truth could come away with that impression. That person would be very vulnerable to claims such as “Carbon dioxide only makes up 0.04% of the atmosphere.” The relative abundance of a gas in the atmosphere would seem important for its radiative properties, while basic laws of chemistry indicate that it is not.

Luckily, the major misconceptions ended there. However, Al Gore used anecdotal evidence, rather than citing cumulative studies, almost exclusively. For example, he showed pictures of a dozen or so glaciers across the world that were retreating. It couldn’t be too hard to find the same amount of glaciers that were advancing and present them as proof that Gore was wrong. What would be considered appropriate evidence would be a study that examined every major glacier in the world and determined the percentage that were retreating vs advancing.

Al Gore used similar tactics with evidence such as heat waves, hurricanes, and tornadoes. He referred to specific events and/or regional records rather than looking at the processes on a global scale. However, anecdotal evidence is much more compelling to an audience than a bunch of graphs. For the purpose of his documentary, we can probably forgive Gore for that misstep.

There were points in the documentary where it was unclear whether Gore was using a historical event as evidence or as an example of how bad the future could be. For example, when the film examined Hurricane Katrina, it was hard to tell if Gore’s message was, “This was caused by climate change” – which is almost impossible to determine for a specific event; you can’t really prove that it wouldn’t have happened anyway – or “Look at how devastating hurricanes can be – and they could become more frequent.”

The last scientific complaint I have to make against An Inconvenient Truth is the lack of time scale provided. When Al Gore showed how a sea level rise of 20 feet (~7 m) would affect coastlines across the world, he failed to mention that such an event is not expected for another few centuries. In the IPCC 4th report, a rise of 18 to 59 cm is expected by 2100. If we keep going at our current pace, we’ll eventually hit 7 m, but it won’t be in the next few decades, as he seems to imply. I don’t see what the harm would be in telling the audience when the 7 m rise would happen – if anything, it would increas his credibility. The idea of such a catastrophe being 200 years away doesn’t make it any less scary to me. 

That’s the science stuff out of the way. Now let’s look at the real purpose of the film – the implications for policy. Al Gore is probably one of the most experienced people in the world on climate change legislation. He is, after all, a politician, and spent a great deal of his career trying to pass emission targets. Gore provided an especially good argument as to why we don’t have to choose between the environment and the economy; how environmental action could actually foster economic growth. Of course, he took as many stabs at the Republican party as he could in this part of the film.

I also enjoyed the “frog in boiling water” metaphor, regarding how a slow change can go unnoticed by the human brain until it’s too late. The psychology of fear and how it relates to climate change is fascinating to me. I’d recommend that you all read this editorial, written by psychologist Dr Daniel Gilbert. (Don’t be put off by the title – it makes more sense after you read the article!)

And, of course, as major climate change legislation has yet to be passed in the States, Gore ended on the note of individual action. The things we’ve all heard before – ride your bike, insulate your attic, get a low-flow showerhead. As important actions as these are to take, realistically, they will not be enough. We need major policy changes if we hope to make any difference in our total emissions. As Thomas Homer-Dixon said, “We’re not going to get there by changing our lightbulbs.”

Overall, I think An Inconvenient Truth fulfilled its purpose, which was to increase public awareness and encourage action. We just need to remember that it was never intended to be a solid source of scientific data.

After all, we have much more than Al Gore on our side.

The Third Side of the Debate

We know about the majority of scientists  who have stated that 1) the Earth has been warming since post-industrial times, 2) the driving force is human activity, 3) it’s going to have major consequences for human civilization, and 4) action is necessary as soon as possible to fix it.

We also know about the minority group that gets a disproportional amount of air time and, at least in part, appear to be actively trying to disprove every conclusion the scientists come to. This minority group has been able to publish little to no peer-reviewed science supporting their theories. Their ideas have not been accepted in the scientific community, so they spend their time in the media instead.

But there are also some people, with more noble motives, who simply know “climate change is a problem and we need to fix it” and don’t really know much about the science behind it. That much is fine. But then they go around telling people oversimplified or totally wrong pieces of data that they make up on the spot. That CO2 levels are now around 600 ppm. That the warming will lead us into another ice age. That the world will end.

Or then there’s the Al Gore phenomenon, where their scientific explanation, even if largely correct, is so grossly oversimplified that they are shot down by the first critic and the observers go back to disregarding the problem. (Keep your eyes open for a post all about the Al Gore phenomenon – I’m just waiting until I can find a copy of An Inconvenient Truth.)

I admire the cause of these lobbyists. But, as they are calling for action just like the scientific community is, the weakness of their scientific arguements ends up hurting their cause.

We can’t afford any more confusion on this topic. We can’t afford public distrust towards the organizations at the top of the credibility spectrum.

Leave the science to the scientists. As citizens and voters, let’s use our efforts to look at action and risk management instead, which you don’t need a PhD to understand.

Why They Don’t Debate on TV

I read an interesting article not long ago that claimed that scientists were not debating climate change enough. It said that they were refusing to debate skeptics on television and in the media, as they “knew they would lose”. Examples of “believers” who apparently refused such debates were Al Gore, David Suzuki, and well-known climatologists such as Hansen and Weaver.

Could it be that these advocates are refusing debates not because they “know they will lose”, but because they know that such a media-ravaged spectacle will have no scientific value?

If you look at these people, two – Gore and Suzuki – do not specialize in climatology. They are purely lobbyists and media figures (Suzuki is also a geneticist). For the purpose of determining how much debate goes into creating working conclusions on climate change, we should look at  the top of the credibility spectrum. Let’s exclude An Inconvenient Truth, editorials, films, and narrative non-fiction (such as Keeping Our Cool by Dr Weaver). These have not been peer-reviewed. They are (hopefully) based upon scientific conclusions, but would not be acceptable to cite in a research paper about climate change. They were created purely to reach the general public and to relay a certain political or ethical message.

What we will include are the documents which drive government policy, which have been peer-reviewed (or are peer-reviewed compilations of peer-reviewed science, such as the IPCC reports) and which have been created by sources at the top of our credibility spectrum. NASA is a good source. So is the IPCC. So are the 32 national academies of science that have approved the IPCC. Peer-reviewed scientific journals such as Nature, Science, or EOS are also credible.

This is where it all starts. This is where climate change theory began. It wasn’t cooked up by the government, the media, or someone like Al Gore. These are the people that objectively study details of global warming that you or I can’t even understand.

Back to the debate thing

There would be no point in Al Gore facing down a skeptical journalist in a “scientific debate” on prime-time TV. One of two scenarios would occur:

1) The debate would be of a true scientific nature (which would be surprising as neither of the sources are even climatologists). They would be talking about things like Dansgaard-Oeschger events, Milankovitch cycles, and the solubility of carbonic acid in water as a function of temperature. To the average viewer, it would be really boring. They wouldn’t understand a word of it. Nobody would watch. The television station would declare it a failure.

2) The debate would resort to name-calling and ridiculous claims. The journalist would go on about it all being a liberal conspiracy. Al Gore would go on about ethical responsibilities. The journalist would take advantage of the audience’s lack of scientific knowledge and claim that, as CO2 levels often lag behind temperature, climate change wasn’t real at all. Al Gore would take advantage of the audience’s lack of scientific knowledge and claim that Hurricane Katrina could be directly attributed to a warming planet. Scientists all over the world would shake their heads. The public would get even more confused.

You can have a scientific discussion. You can have a debate that becomes a media spectacle. It’s much harder to do both at once.

Scientists aren’t lawyers. They don’t each try to prove opposing arguments. Scientists aren’t politicians. They don’t try to make their ideas interesting for the general public. Scientists are seekers of truth, or the closest to truth humans can get, regarding the physical world.

Getting closer to that truth requires a lot of second-guessing, a lot of checking and revising and admitting that you’re wrong. It requires looking at every possible outcome and deciding which is the most probable. It requires inspecting new evidence whenever it comes up. It is “debating” in a gentler, more objective, more dry sense of the word.

So yes, scientists do debate in their own way. It’s called peer-review. It involves all that second-guessing, checking, and revising we just mentioned. It involves considering every objection. It involves addressing every objection that is deemed relevant. The sources we listed above – NAS, IPCC, Nature – peer-review all of their publications.

If this skeptical journalist had a new idea about climate change, he or she should get a degree, study their idea meticulously, write it up in the form of an article and submit it to a peer-review institution. That’s the normal scientific practice. Spreading their scientific hypotheses around the media without first passing their work through a peer-review process shows that they’re trying to influence the public, not educate them.

Go do some reading about how claims like “climate change is caused by the sun” or “it’s a natural cycle” have stood up to peer-review. Go see what the qualified, credible, objective scientific theories have found. Go see just how much research the scientific community has done about solar activity or natural cycles.

Yes, scientists do debate about climate change.

They just don’t do it on TV.