The Nature of Scientific Consensus

Cross-posted from NextGen Journal

It is common for one to fail to grasp the difference between “consensus” and “unanimity”.

A consensus does not require agreement from absolutely every member involved. Rather, it is a more general measure of extremely high agreement, high enough to accept and base decisions on. It’s stronger than a majority-rules style of democracy, but does not necessarily equal unanimity. In fact, in the area of science, where the concept of consensus is particularly important, unanimity is nearly impossible.

With the exception of pure mathematics, scientific theories cannot be proven beyond a doubt. Every physical process that researchers study has some amount of irreducible uncertainty – because there is always, no matter how small, a chance that our understanding could be completely wrong. Additionally, science is never “settled”, because there is always more to learn, whatever the field. Even a law as basic as gravity is still being studied by physicists, and it turns out that it gets more complicated the more you look at it.

Despite this inherent uncertainty, scientists have developed consensuses around all sorts of topics. The Earth is approximately oblate-spherical in shape. Smoking cigarettes increases one’s risk of lung cancer. HIV causes AIDS. There’s a tiny chance that these statements are incorrect, but researchers can still have confidence in their accuracy. Incomplete knowledge is not the same as no knowledge.

However, when there is room for doubt, there will usually be doubters. Physicist Richard Lindzen continues to dispute the health risks of smoking (a conversation is recounted in a recent book by James Hansen). Peter Duesberg, an active molecular and cell biologist, prominently opposes the link between HIV and AIDS. Believe it or not, the Flat Earth Society was alive and well until the death of its leader in 2001 – and signs of the society’s renewal are emerging.

As these examples suggest, for a layperson to wait for scientific unanimity before accepting a topic would be absurd. When consensus reaches a certain point, the null hypothesis shifts: the burden of proof is on the contrarians, rather than the theory’s advocates.

Another case study that may seem surprising to many is that of anthropogenic global warming. A strong scientific consensus exists that human activity, mainly the burning of fossil fuels, is exerting a warming influence on the planet’s temperature, which is already beginning to show up in the instrumental record. This phenomenon is contested by less than 3% of publishing climatologists, a negligible amount of peer-reviewed scientific studies (so few that not one showed up in a 2004 survey’s random sample of almost one thousand papers), and no major scientific societies internationally. Additionally, scientists who dispute the existence or causes of climate change tend to have lower academic credibility than those who do not. It becomes apparent that this scientific question warrants “consensus” standing: never quite settled, never quite unanimous, but certainly good enough to go by. The mainstream media does not always reflect this consensus accurately, but it nonetheless exists.

As world leaders meet in Cancun this week to discuss a global policy to prevent or limit future climate change – a prospect that looks less likely by the day – science can only offer so much advice. Climatologists can approximate what levels of emissions cuts are required to prevent unacceptable consequences, but only when the governments of the world decide which consequences they are willing to accept. Can we deal with worldwide food shortages? Rising sea levels? What about a mass extinction? Even after we define “dangerous consequences”, scientists are unsure of exactly how much temperature change will trigger these consequences, as well as how much greenhouse gas emissions will need to be cut, and how quickly, to prevent the temperature change. All they can offer is a range of probabilities and most likely scenarios.

But remember, incomplete and uncertain knowledge is not the same as no knowledge. Of one thing climate scientists are sure: the more greenhouse gas emissions we emit, the more the world will warm, and the harder it will be to deal with the consequences. There’s no reason for you and I to doubt that simple correlation any longer.

The Real Story of Climategate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Geoengineering the Climate

Cross-posted from NextGen Journal

Climate change would be a whole lot easier to fix if we could immediately see the results of our actions. First of all, we would have recognized the reality of the problem long ago, before very much harm was done. And even if we initially stalled on fixing the problem, we could throw all our weight into reducing greenhouse gases as soon as the floods and droughts and rising sea levels became too much, and stop the warming overnight.

This kind of fantasy scenario is like riding a bike. As soon as you jerk the handlebars to avoid running off the road, the bike responds. The only lag between your recognition of a problem and the subsequent resolution of that problem is your reaction time.

However, the climate system works more like a ship. Remember in the movie Titanic, when the crew first saw the iceberg, and cranked the wheel all the way to the right so they could go around it? The ship didn’t turn immediately. She kept going straight for a while before she responded. Unfortunately, she didn’t respond early enough to miss the iceberg, and you know what happened next.

The climate is very similar. There is a lag time between when we emit carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels and when we see the effects of the subsequent warming. A lot of this has to do with the oceans, which store massive amounts of heat and slowly release it to the atmosphere. The warming we are seeing today is from fossil fuel emissions in decades past, and the actions we take today will not show up until decades in the future. Even if we bring global greenhouse gas emissions down to zero tomorrow, the world will continue to warm.

Because CO2 emissions continue to rise year by year, and because governments have had little to no success addressing this problem, some scientists are beginning to think that we won’t be able to stop climate change in time. Another unfortunate aspect of the climate system is its non-linearity – there are hidden thresholds and “tipping points” which, if crossed, could trigger feedbacks that cause global warming to spin out of our control. The scientific community thinks that, once the world has warmed about 2 C from pre-industrial times, these tipping points and feedbacks will start to kick in. We have already warmed 0.8 C, and at least another 0.5 C is in the pipeline, even if we were to cut off all emissions tomorrow. You do the math. There’s not a lot of wiggle room, especially given the increasingly low chances of climate legislation being passed by the world’s governments.

So what happens if we’ve gone too far? Do we have no choice but to sit back and watch all hell break loose? In fact, there are other choices, but they could easily come with unexpected side effects that make our situation worse. Techniques known as “geoengineering”, in which radical technologies offset our influences on the earth’s climate, fall into two categories:

1) Counteracting the warming. Greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide trap heat and cause the Earth to warm up, so we could introduce technologies that have a cooling effect on the Earth. By increasing the planet’s albedo (reflectivity), more of the Sun’s rays will bounce right off the Earth’s surface without being absorbed.

One way this could be achieved would be to inject massive amounts of sulfate particles into the stratosphere, blocking sunlight just like a volcanic eruption. However, this could have detrimental effects on the ozone layer, especially around the polar regions. We could end up trading the damaging effects of a warming climate for the damaging effects of too much UV radiation, a problem that we’ve already spent considerable time and energy addressing.

A similar proposal is to put objects in the Earth’s orbit that would reflect sunlight – giant mirrors, lenses, or sunshades in space.

2. Counteracting the CO2. If we can’t stop or even slow down our emissions of greenhouse gases, perhaps we could alter the biogeochemical systems of the Earth so they would absorb the gases and keep them safely out of the atmosphere. CO2 “sinks” already exist – forests, oceans, permafrost – but they’re not big enough to contain all of our emissions. How could we expand them, or add more?

The concept of artificial trees, that will perform photosynthesis anywhere, is intriguing – but the scale of implementation needed is not very feasible. Think of the amount of land that would have to be covered with these machines in order to offset our emissions.

A more widely discussed possibility for expanded carbon sinks involves fertilizing the ocean with iron filings, promoting blooms of phytoplankton that would photosynthesize, absorbing our emissions of CO2. However, as anyone living near the Great Lakes knows, overloading a water body with nutrients can have serious consequences for the ecosystem. Algal blooms can deplete the water of oxygen and block sunlight, killing the other plants and animals that share the habitat. For an ecosystem that covers most of our Earth’s surface, that might not be such a good idea.

All of these propositions have another dimension of questions attached: Who will control them? If we’re going to actively counteract our climatic influences, many careful decisions will need to be made. Who will calculate how much geoengineering, and of what type, to implement? Who will decide when enough is enough?

I have heard geoengineering described as a tourniquet: the worst possible option, except for bleeding to death. Scientists understand that it should be considered a “last resort” – only to be used when we have eliminated fossil fuel use and it still isn’t enough. However, there are doubtlessly politicians and industry leaders out there who see geoengineering as an attractive alternative to cap-and-trade systems or carbon taxes.

Recently, at their Convention on Biodiversity, the UN decided to ban geoengineering – it’s just too dangerous, and we don’t know enough. However, this ban will also restrict large-scale research projects on geoengineering, that could give us a clearer picture of what is and is not feasible. Isn’t it more prudent to take small risks now so that we understand our future options, rather than jump blindly into full deployment when the time comes?

Bart Gordon, the outgoing chair of the U.S. Congress Science & Technology Committee, just issued a congressional geoengineering report. He was interviewed by a Chemical & Engineering News article on the subject, and had these words to say:

A research moratorium that stifles science, especially at this stage in our understanding of climate engineering’s risks and benefits, is a step in the wrong direction and undercuts the importance of scientific transparency. If climate change is indeed one of the greatest long-term threats to biological diversity and human welfare, then failing to understand all of our options is also a threat to biodiversity and human welfare.

How many risks should we take in order to secure a safer alternative for possible future use? Will pursuing research into geoengineering distract us from the important task of reducing greenhouse gases, or is the situation already so far gone that preparing for the worst is worthwhile? One thing is clear: If earlier generations had thrown their efforts into fixing climate change as soon as scientists recognized it was underway, we wouldn’t be worrying so much today about the feasibility of giant mirrors in space or oceans full of iron.

What If…?

Cross-posted from NextGen Journal

Let’s start with the obvious – the U.S. midterm elections are upon us, and it’s quite likely that the Republicans will win a majority. (My American friends tell me that this is possible even with Barack Obama remaining president. Please bear with my limited knowledge of the American political system. It works very differently in Canada.)

I’m not going to comment on partisan issues – health care, immigration, economic stimulus. What I am here to talk about is an issue that should not be partisan, but has become partisan regardless: science, specifically climate science.

Climate change is not a theory – it is the logical result of several theories, based in physics and chemistry, that scientists have understood since the 1800s. What’s political about that? Exactly what part of the equation dF = 5.35 ln(C/Co) is an opinion that differs based on ideological factors?

The political part comes when we ask the question, “What do we do to stop climate change?” A carbon tax? Cap-and-trade? Regulation? Some of these solutions are more liberal or conservative than others. The only decision that doesn’t adhere to U.S. politics is to do nothing. Absence of action is a decision in itself, and the overwhelming scientific evidence (based not just on computer models, but also observations of past climate changes) shows us that doing nothing will allow this problem to spiral out of control, causing damages that no amount of money will be able to repair. What U.S. party advocates leaving that kind of world to their grandchildren? As Bill McKibben says, you wouldn’t expect it to be the Republicans:

If there was ever a radical project, monkeying with the climate would surely qualify. Had the Soviet Union built secret factories to pour carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and threatened to raise the sea level and subvert the Grain Belt, the prevailing conservative response would have been: Bomb them. Bomb them back to the Holocene—to the 10,000-year period of climatic stability now unraveling, the period that underwrote the rise of human civilization that conservatism has taken as its duty to protect. Conservatism has always stressed stability and continuity; since Burke, the watchwords have been tradition, authority, heritage. The globally averaged temperature of the planet has been 57 degrees, give or take, for most of human history; we know that works, that it allows the world we have enjoyed. Now, the finest minds, using the finest equipment, tell us that it’s headed toward 61 or 62 or 63 degrees unless we rapidly leave fossil fuel behind, and that, in the words of NASA scientists, this new world won’t be “similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted.” Conservatives should be leading the desperate fight to preserve the earth we were born on.

But they’re not. Instead, many are choosing a psychological easy way out: if every solution seems imperfect, deny that the problem exists. Out of all the Republican contenders for the Senate, none support action on climate change, and most deny the existence of anthropogenic global warming.

It is questionable whether all of these statements are sincere. Politicians, after all, will say whatever they need to say to get elected. If these Republicans feel that their voting base denies climate change, they will adjust their public statements accordingly. Look at John McCain – during the 2008 presidential election, his promises for clean energy were nearly as strong as Obama’s. Now, he rejects cap-and-trade, and views the anthropogenic cause of climate change in the Arctic as an “opinion”.

Admittedly, a new, but growing, segment of the Republican voting base overwhelmingly denies climate change. As the New York Times reports, Tea Party supporters have all kinds of convoluted arguments against a field of science they know virtually nothing about. It contradicts “the preaching of Rush Limbaugh and the teaching of Scripture”, and it could be caused by “the normal cycles of nature” (whatever those are), so thousands of scientists spending their lives studying this problem must be missing something. Or they could be part of a massive conspiracy.

Republican candidates are catering to the extreme segments of their party, and, arguably, to their party as a whole. However, their plans to base action (or lack thereof) on the fervent hope that the scientific community is out to lunch may alienate voters who understand what a risk that would be.

Or so we hope. If Republicans get their way, climate science will not just be disregarded: the men and women who study it will be criminally investigated, for no reason other than that their research supports the existence of anthropogenic climate change. And since James Inhofe can’t find any gaping holes in the math, that means the scientists must be fraudulent, right?

The Republican Party also hopes to conduct yet another investigation into the private correspondence of scientists, stolen and distributed a year ago. Although these emails show that climate scientists are not always very nice, it does not undermine one iota of our understanding of the climate system, as five independent investigations have concluded. But that’s not the answer Republican officials want, so they will waste taxpayers’ money and researchers’ time with their own investigation. Kind of hypocritical for a party that promises fiscal responsibility.

I’m a Canadian. I don’t get a vote in this election. I am also eighteen years old. I, unlike most Republican Senators, will be around to witness the effects of climate change. We have wasted twenty years in the fight against climate change, and if we continue to let petty politics and finger-pointing delay us more, the whole world will suffer.

It’s no secret that American politics disproportionately influence the world. The same is true for American emissions of greenhouse gases, and American agreements to reduce these emissions, and American patterns of energy use and energy sources. So please, when you go to vote this week, think about not just yourself and your country but other young people and other countries too.

And please vote. I’ll leave you with some wise words from Seth Godin:

If you don’t vote because you’re trying to teach politicians a lesson, you’re tragically misguided in your strategy. The very politicians you’re trying to send a message to don’t want you to vote.

Voting is free. It’s fairly fast. It doesn’t make you responsible for the outcome, but it sure has an impact on what we have to live with going forward. The only thing that would make it better is free snacks.

Even if you’re disgusted, vote. Vote for your least unfavorite choice. But go vote.

Odds and Ends

I must thank Michael Tobis for two pieces of reading that his blog recently pointed me to. First, a fantastic article by Bill McKibben, which everyone should print out and stick to their fridge. Here’s a taste:

Read the comments on one of the representative websites: Global warming is a “fraud” or a “plot.” Scientists are liars out to line their pockets with government grants. Environmentalism is nothing but a money-spinning “scam.” These people aren’t reading the science and thinking, I have some questions about this. They’re convinced of a massive conspiracy.

The odd and troubling thing about this stance is not just that it prevents action. It’s also profoundly unconservative. If there was ever a radical project, monkeying with the climate would surely qualify. Had the Soviet Union built secret factories to pour carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and threatened to raise the sea level and subvert the Grain Belt, the prevailing conservative response would have been: Bomb them. Bomb them back to the Holocene—to the 10,000-year period of climatic stability now unraveling, the period that underwrote the rise of human civilization that conservatism has taken as its duty to protect. Conservatism has always stressed stability and continuity; since Burke, the watchwords have been tradition, authority, heritage. The globally averaged temperature of the planet has been 57 degrees, give or take, for most of human history; we know that works, that it allows the world we have enjoyed. Now, the finest minds, using the finest equipment, tell us that it’s headed toward 61 or 62 or 63 degrees unless we rapidly leave fossil fuel behind, and that, in the words of NASA scientists, this new world won’t be “similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted.” Conservatives should be leading the desperate fight to preserve the earth we were born on.

Read the rest of the article here. Highly recommended to all.

The other link I wanted to share was a new publication entitled “Science and the Media”, just released by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (not to be confused with the American Association for the Advancement of Science – why all the acronym duplication?)

With contributions from everyone from Donald Kennedy to Alan Alda, and essays with titles from “The Scientist as Citizen” to “Civic Scientific Literacy: The Role of the Media in the Electronic Era”, I’m virtually certain that I will enjoy this one (sorry, I can’t bring myself to say things like “certain” without caveats any more). The 109-page pdf is available free of charge and can be accessed from this page, which also includes information on ordering hard copies.

In other news, the La Niña conditions in the eastern Pacific (see anomaly map above) have bumped this year’s temperatures down a bit, so January-September 2010 is now tied for the warmest on record, rather than being a clear winner. This analysis is from NCDC, however, and I’m not sure how they deal with sparse data in the Arctic (for background, see this post – a summary of one of the most interesting papers I’ve read this year). Does anyone know if GISS has an up-to-date estimate for 2010 temperatures that we could compare it to? All I can find on their website are lines and lines of raw data, and I’m not really sure how to process it myself.

That’s all for today. Enjoy the week, everyone.

Party Line

Brad Johnson from The Wonk Room recently released a comprehensive list of what Republican contenders for the U.S. Senate understand about climate change, inferred from their public statements. The result? 47 of the 48 deny the existence of anthropogenic climate change and/or oppose mitigating action to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

Take a look – many of the statements are what you would expect from trolling YouTube commenters, not politicians aspiring to run the most powerful country in the world. Through a combination of framing science as personal opinion, promoting artificial balance, and re-iterating the same misconceptions that people like you and I have been fighting to correct for years now, the Republican party has adopted a position that, frankly, terrifies me.

“There are dramatic environmental changes happening the Arctic region – whether one believes they are man-made or natural.” – John McCain, Arizona

“While I think the earth is warming, I don’t think that man-made causes are the primary factor.” – Ken Buck, Colorado

“The climate is always changing. The climate is never static. The question is whether it’s caused by man-made activity and whether it justifies economically destructive government regulation.” -Marco Rubio, Florida

“[Scientists] are making up their facts to fit their conclusions. They’ve already caught them doing this.” – Rand Paul, Kentucky

“There isn’t any real science to say we are altering the climate path of the Earth.” -Roy Blunt, Missouri

“I don’t buy into the whole man-caused global warming, man-caused climate change mantra of the left. I believe that there’s not sound science to back that up.” -Sharron Angle, Nevada

“There is much debate in the scientific community as to the precise sources of global warming.” -Pat Toomey, Pennsylvania

“It’s going to keep snowing in DC until Al Gore cries ‘uncle’.” -Jim DeMint, South Carolina

“If you have one volcano in the world, that one volcano puts out more carbon dioxide than everything man puts out.” -John Raese, West Virginia

“I absolutely do not believe that the science of man-caused climate change is proven. Not by any stretch of the imagination. I think it’s far more likely that it’s just sunspot activity, or something just in the geologic eons of time where we have changes in the climate.” -Ron Johnson, Wisconsin

Who are these people to make statements about what the scientific community knows and does not know about climate change, when organizations like the NAS are quite capable of doing that themselves, and tell a very different story to these prospective Senators when they do?

Who are they to make informal analyses on the attribution of recent temperature change – assessing the likelihood of different causes via gut instinct, rather than looking at fingerprints like stratospheric temperature and tropopause height?

Who are they to spread around blatant mistruths like “a single volcano puts out more CO2 than people do”? Who are they to make damaging accusations about scientific fraud and false data, especially when these accusations have already been investigated multiple times, coming up completely clear?

I had hoped that politicians would be slightly more informed than the general public on scientific matters that have implications for policy. However, I must now change my mind, and hope instead that the American public realizes how off the mark this position is. If they don’t, there could be consequences up to millenia from now.

Priorities

I’m sick of all the politics surrounding climate science.

I wish it could go back to just being science, the way it was in the 1970s, without all these people trying to sabotage it for us. I wish we could concentrate on the joy and fascination we feel when we learn about the climate system, without having to deal with hate mail and quotes taken out of context.

I’m tired of the game of Broken Telephone in science journalism, the game that somehow always allows Fox News to make claims like “melting Arctic sea ice isn’t caused by warming temperatures”. I’m tired of the outright falsehoods that are permitted to circulate around the world, in respected publications, without consequences.

I’m tired of unnecessary investigations into the integrity of climatology researchers and organizations. I’m tired of the accusations of “whitewash” when these investigations invariably come up clear. I’m tired of scientists being portrayed as frauds if they don’t achieve a 100% success rate in their projections.

I’m tired of the politicians that attempt to subject innocent scientists to criminal prosecution. They’re so unwilling to accept the reality of anthropogenic global climate change that they think scientific fraud on an unprecedented scale is more likely than well-established properties of physics playing out as expected. It frightens and astounds me that people with such an upside-down understanding of the scientific process hold immense power in the American government.

I first became interested in climate science because of the science, not because of all the politics surrounding it. The earliest thing I can remember sparking my interest is learning about the different isotopes of oxygen, and how they can be used to reconstruct temperature.

These days, however, it’s nearly impossible to learn about climate science without running into silly arguments and widespread misconceptions and stubborn denialism. I started writing this blog so that I would have an outlet to keep myself sane as I waded through all the muddle. As time went on, an element of public education developed, along with priceless learning opportunities and collaboration. This blog has grown to so much more than I ever anticipated.

I don’t really have the heart to read Naomi Oreskes’ new book quite yet, or to re-read Climate Cover-Up, or to scroll down to the comment section when CBC publishes online articles about climate change. I know what a dire situation we are in, not only ecologically and climatologically, but also socially – in terms of public understanding and science communication. I know what a mess we’re in, and I don’t need reminding. I don’t know how we’re going to get out of the mess, but I try to do my part by continuing to pour my sociological musings into this sanity-inducing and morale-raising outlet.

I just want to work my way through David Archer’s book, Global Warming: Understanding the Forecast, and learn how to use all the atmospheric science equations within it. I want to download papers from Nature and Science and read them on the bus. I want to keep a close eye on the “Advanced” versions of Skeptical Science rebuttals, because isn’t it just amazing that we have a simple logarithmic equation for the relationship between radiative forcing and atmospheric CO2 concentration?

Many people might find it strange that I see straight science as a break, some sort of retreat from that which is more difficult to stomach. But then, we’re in a strange situation here.

Too Much at Every Level

I think that action to mitigate climate change has been so slow (in many cases, nonexistent) partly because the problem is just so massive. At every single level – individual, politician, government, country – people think that they can’t possibly solve it on their own, so there’s no point in trying at all.

It’s not the same kind of problem as something like world poverty, or disease in developing countries. In a way, I wish it was. It’s not really possible for a single person to solve these problems either, but at least they can solve it for someone. They can pay for a child’s education in Africa. They can build a well with clean water for an entire community. These types of problems are measured in increments, rather than gradients – just like the corpuscular theory of light. The problem comes in small packages of one person each, and even if you can’t eliminate the problem for everyone, you can chip away.

Conversely, climate change is a gradient, and one that is very resistant to reversal. Even if a family manages to completely eliminate all sources of carbon emissions in their life, they’re only preventing a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a degree of warming. 2.999997 C warming isn’t very different to 3 C. And that difference of 0.000003 C isn’t changing the life of a child. (These are just arbitrary numbers, don’t quote me on them!) Really, it isn’t having any impact at all. So most people don’t even bother. They feel so powerless – after all, this problem is far too big for them to solve.

I believe that individual action on climate change is definitely worth it, but in a more symbolic manner. No, composting your kitchen waste isn’t going to eliminate enough methane to make a difference in the global radiative forcing of greenhouse gases. But it gets you in the right mindset. It makes you stop and think about the planet and the future. And the chance that you might inspire all your friends and neighbours to compost as well, who would then inspire all of their friends, and eventually start a chain reaction that could, conceivably, start to make a difference, is just too good to pass up. (Besides, composting is fun to watch. We get some very cool slugs hanging out around ours this time of year.)

Regardless, the feeling of powerlessness becomes the norm, to the point where even politicians don’t think they can make any difference. I have a friend who asked his MP, a Liberal, what she was going to do about climate change. Her response was, “What can I do? I’m only one person.” I find it absolutely astounding that a politician who represents tens of thousands of people, and who helps to govern the entire country, could have this attitude. It’s kind of sad when even our Members of Parliament feel powerless.

Of course, Canada’s national position on climate change action is “whatever the States decides, and we won’t do anything at all unless and until they do”. The federal government feels powerless too, because (as they constantly remind us) Canada produces only 2% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. What’s the point of reducing them if the U.S. isn’t going to do the same?

We all know that the U.S. isn’t going to pass cap-and-trade any time soon. It looks like the Republicans are keeping their promise of preventing Obama from passing any more sweeping legislation, after the health care bill. And a big reason (or at least a common excuse) for this lack of initiative is that India and China will soon produce most of the world’s carbon emissions. What’s the point of the U.S. making any mitigating effort if the soon-to-be-major-players won’t?

What federal governments fail to realize is that they have far more power than they give themselves credit for. If the U.S. decides that they want a global economy of clean energy, they have enough influence over the market to make that happen. If Canada decides that tar sands actually aren’t such a good idea after all, all the countries that import from us will have to find alternatives. But this hasn’t happened, because governments are far more concerned about the next election.

At times like these, I just want to look politicians in the eyes and tell them to wake up. Stop playing games, pointing fingers, and sabotaging your enemies. Remember that your job is to look out for us, and start getting serious on a crisis that is unprecedented in all of human history – one that we could all avoid, even now, if you just got your acts together.

I am now a voting member of the public, a legal adult. And I don’t have a clue who to vote for, because nearly every politician has lost my support. If they cared at all about the kind of world I will live in after they are gone, and the kind of world the children I hope to have will live in after I am gone, they would start doing their jobs. I think I will find myself voting against politicians, rather than for politicians. I will vote for those who are the least bad, so that the worst don’t get into office.

I am not optimistic about climate change, but I know that we have a chance to prevent the worst of it. I am not optimistic, but I do not feel powerless. I believe in the power of knowledge and inspiration and culture. I believe in the potential of accomplishing a great deal in a short period of time. At some point in this chain of people who are overwhelmed or apathetic, something needs to give.

All Is Not Lost

I really enjoyed reading two recent polls conducted by George Mason University’s Center for Climate Communication. In particular, the results made me wonder why the US government still hasn’t passed a climate bill.

For example, US presidents have been saying for over a decade that it is unfair to force their industries to reduce emissions if developing countries do not have similar targets. However, only 8% of American adults share this view, and 65% believe that “the United States should reduce its greenhouse gas emissions regardless of what other countries do.” 77% agree that CO2 should be regulated, and 65% would like to see an international treaty signed.

The only solution which had less than 50% support was a tax on gasoline, even if it was revenue-neutral: offset by a decrease in income tax rates. This opposition can’t really be a case of people worrying about money. In this hypothetical situation, taxes aren’t being increased – they’re just being moved around, in a way that actually gives people more control over how much they are charged. Perhaps the public would prefer a more laissez-faire approach, or perhaps they had a knee-jerk reaction to the word “tax”. It’s not like the revenue-neutral aspect of this solution is well-known to most.

When the poll was broken down by political party, there were some surprising results that ran contrary to what one hears in the halls of Congress. 64% of Republicans support regulating CO2. Only 30% think that protecting the environment reduces economic growth and costs jobs.

Overall, the poll showed very strong support among Americans for action that still hasn’t happened, largely because a very vocal minority has had a disproportionate influence on the policy debate. If there was a referendum today, Kyoto targets and the cap-and-trade bill would pass with flying colours.

This support was even more interesting when compared to the questions regarding science. Only 61% of Americans think that the Earth is warming, and only 50% think that it is due to human activities. 45% think “there is a lot of disagreement among scientists about whether or not global warming is happening”, and only 34% were aware of the existing consensus.

The discrepancy between scientific understanding of the issue and support for mitigation shows that Americans, in general, practice risk management when it comes to climate change. Even if they’re not sure whether or not there is a problem, they understand what is at risk, and are willing to take action to prevent major consequences. Greg Craven, you got your wish.

I think that the misconception of a voracious scientific debate, apart from being perpetrated by the media, stems partly from the fact that most of the public lacks the experience to distinguish between scientific and quasi-scientific debates. Competing hypotheses, published in leading journals, seen as the frontier of the field….that’s a scientific debate. Editorials, written by anyone other than a scientist publishing in the field, claiming to refute an overwhelming consensus? Can’t even come close. However, I suspect that many would categorize the second as “scientific debate”, simply because it’s their only encounter with science.

All is not lost, though. 81% of Americans trust scientists as a source of information about global warming. That’s more than they trust any other source that was mentioned in the question. And 20%, 27%, and 29% say that they need a lot more, some more, or a little more information, respectively. Maybe all that needs to happen is for us to speak louder – because people are ready and willing to listen.

Deniers?

I really enjoyed New Scientist’s Special Report: Living in Denial. What a fascinating phenomenon, and a fascinating batch of articles exploring it.

The denial of science is a growing problem. It’s not restricted to a particular ideology – while denying the harmful effects of smoking or the existence of climate change is typically a position of the far right, vaccine denial and H1N1 conspiracy theories are largely restricted to the left.

It occurs even among the well-educated, or among youth who are still immersed in up-to-date curricula. For example, this year at the university, a student group put up signs saying “Don’t get the swine flu shot – it contains mercury!” The chemistry students got mad, and said that labelling thimerosal as toxic mercury was comparable to saying “Don’t eat table salt, it contains chlorine gas!”

As Michael Shermer’s article explains, the defining mark of science denial is a refusal to change one’s mind based on evidence. This is easy to identify for something like Holocaust denial, where evidence is abundant in the public sphere.

It gets a little harder for more technical issues like climate change or vaccines. Scientific opinion is overwhelmingly on one “side”, but the average person does not know or understand the evidence to support this consensus. An article about the thermodynamics of the stratosphere won’t sell a lot of papers. Most people unconsciously follow the credibility spectrum and trust what their doctor or NASA scientists say.

However, some don’t realize that scientific credibility is not the same as an appeal to authority, and so express contrarian opinions. Vaccines cause autism. Global warming is nonexistent/natural/inconsequential. The way that the Twin Towers fell proves that it was orchestrated by the US government.

There are two groups of contrarians: the skeptics, and the deniers. The skeptics are the ones who will change their minds based on evidence – they just haven’t encountered that evidence yet. My favourite example of this is from the Friends episode when Phoebe declares she doesn’t believe in evolution. When Ross starts talking to her about fossils, she says, “Oh. I didn’t know there was actually evidence.”

It’s amazing how many insights you can get out of a supposedly “fluffy” sitcom. I could write an entire essay analyzing that clip…..

I have met dozens of very reasonable people who doubt climate change because they don’t know about the evidence for it. People my age throw around the phrase “it’s a natural cycle” a lot, until I explain that the climate doesn’t act like a pendulum. It doesn’t have to compensate for past periods of warming or cooling – it simply responds to forcings. If the forcing is cyclical, then the climate will be cyclical, but some forcings are a different shape altogether. Similarly, I know a teacher who previously thought that natural causation of the current warming was a legitimate scientific theory, due to a presentation from a teacher’s conference….until I did a bit of probing and discovered that this presentation was given by Tim Ball.

These people are very reasonable. They are willing to change their minds based on evidence. They’ve just been unlucky enough to be misinformed by our flawed system of science journalism.

Then there are the deniers. They call themselves skeptics, but they will not change their minds, no matter what evidence you give them. They either move the goalposts, change the subject, or continue to repeat the same claim even after you have rebutted it patiently multiple times. Go check out some YouTube comments to see what I’m talking about.

Often their ideology or worldview is extreme in some way. For many members of the far right, any problem that would be solved by the government (think cap-and-trade or smoking legislation) will be rejected out of hand. On the far left, anything that would benefit corporations (usually vaccines or traditional medicine) will face a similar reaction. As Michael Specter says, “We hate Big Pharma. We run away from Big Pharma….and leap right into the arms of Big Placebo.”

This phenomenon suggests that science communication is not the answer – for deniers. I learned long ago that trying to change the minds of deniers is a complete waste of time. However, I still feel that science communication and the rebuttal of common misconceptions is absolutely vital. The true skeptics need access to the evidence they are lacking, so that they will be more informed, and our population will move farther towards solving the many science-related problems we face.

These skeptics deserve our time, our efforts, and our respect. They are the target audience of my blog, even if my most active commenters and supporters are a different group altogether. The reason that any of us here do all this work in communication, I believe, is for the true skeptics.

Michael Fitzpatrick argues that we shouldn’t use the label “deniers” at all. I wouldn’t want to alienate the true skeptics by coming across as someone who insults others. However, I think that calling deniers “skeptics” is unfair to the skeptics. They are two completely different groups that we must distinguish between. Skepticism is a worthy quality in science, and giving the complimentary title of “skeptic” to someone who doesn’t deserve it is unfair to those who do. We need to cater to the people who are willing to learn and who don’t want to waste our time. Science communication shouldn’t have to be like No Child Left Behind.

Michael Shermer’s second article, similarly, says that we should participate in debates with deniers and give them a chance to be heard. The truth will prevail, he argues, even if the deniers refuse to give in. I would agree with this position if it were a matter of opinion or policy, which is wholly democratic. Yet science is completely different. Science isn’t about free speech and giving equal time for all views. It is about giving time to those who have the most accurate analyses and robust conclusions. In science, you shut up and listen until your ideas are strongly supported by evidence. Then you publish.

When papers skeptical of climate change get published (all three per year!), such debates are worthy. The authors passed the test of peer-review, and even if their papers are obviously sub-par and are soon to be retracted, they deserve some debate and discussion. Let’s debate contrarian science when it is actually science – when it is actually published.

By paying close attention to and publicly debating with the authors of blog science, however, we are further confusing the public’s already skewed image of science. “It doesn’t matter whether or not you publish,” we seem to be telling them, “it’s all about free speech.” The scientific process has rules, and if deniers can’t pass the necessary, but not sufficient, condition of peer-review, their work doesn’t deserve to be treated as scientific research, and we shouldn’t give them our attention.

Let’s ignore the people who aren’t worth our time, because we have limited time, and there are people out there who deserve every minute of it.