What Does the Public Know?

Part 4 in a series of 5 for NextGen Journal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What Can One Person Do?

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

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

Enjoy!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Legislating Scientific Truth

Cross-posted from NextGen Journal

Scientific statements rely on uncertainty and error bars. If our understanding changes, the scientific consensus changes accordingly, in a more or less implicit manner. There’s no official process that needs to be followed to update our knowledge.

Laws passed by governments work in the opposite way. Official technicalities are paramount, and acknowledgements that the government’s understanding could be wrong are rare.

Why, then, are attempts to legislate scientific truth – an archaic practice to any reasonable person – becoming far more common in the United States?

One of the most early, and infamous, incidents of this manner occurred in 1897, when the government of Indiana attempted to legislate the value of pi (∏). The text of the bill, describing a circle, clearly says “the ratio of the diameter and circumference is as five-fourths to four”. If you do a bit of simple fractional algebra, this comes out to ∏ = 3.2, rather than 3.1415952…and so on. The scary part is that this bill passed the House without a single nay vote. Luckily, it was postponed in the Senate indefinitely.

More recently – in fact, just last month – Joe Read, a member of the Montana House of Representatives, penned a bill that is equally disturbing. Let’s take a look at what he is planning to turn into state law:

“The legislature finds:

(a) global warming is beneficial to the welfare and business climate of Montana;

(b) reasonable amounts of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere have no verifiable impacts on the environment; and

(c) global warming is a natural occurrence and human activity has not accelerated it.”

At least ∏ = 3.2 was moderately close to the correct value. This bill, however, proclaims exactly the opposite of what the scientific consensus tells us. I would argue that it is even more dangerous. A fundamental constant that is 0.1 or so inaccurate could cause a couple buildings to fall down in Indiana, but a law that orders the government to believe the opposite of what the scientific community says – a law that outright denies any possibility of a problem which, if not addressed, will likely harm the citizens of Montana for generations to come – could cause political ripples leading to mass destruction.

It looks like a case of government officials burying their heads in the sand, refusing to acknowledge a problem because the solutions are politically problematic. The physical world, though, does not obey the Thomas Theorem, a sociological theory of self-fulfilling prophecies. No matter how passionately people like Joe Read believe that climate change is natural/nonexistent/a global conspiracy, the problem won’t go away. In fact, it’s more of an inverse prophecy: if enough politicians refuse to acknowledge the reality of climate change, no action will be taken to address it, and the problem will get worse. It doesn’t seem like Joe Read et al have thought through this line of logic, though. Peter Sinclair wittily describes their mindset as “[s]o simple. Just pass a law. Command the seas to stop rising.”

Dana Nuccitelli goes one step further, claiming “Republicans have decided that they can repeal the laws of physics with the laws of the USA”. In this instance, he is referring to a second, similar, bill that the Republican Party is attempting to pass, this time at the federal level. Basically, Republicans are desperate to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from regulating  greenhouse gas emissions – which they have the authority to do, under the Clean Air Act, as they can “reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare”.

There are two ways to take away this responsibility of the EPA. First, Congress could create a system of their own to control emissions, such as cap-and-trade or a carbon tax – both more capitalist than standard regulation. Republicans aren’t too chuffed about this option, as they don’t want to have to control emissions at all. So they are invoking desperate measures by choosing the second option: if greenhouse gases were found to no longer pose a danger, regulation by the EPA would be unnecessary.

Legitimately reaching this conclusion would call over a century’s worth of physics and chemistry into question. If they could actually do it, the Republicans would probably win a Nobel Prize. Apparently, though, they aren’t interested in legitimacy. The “Energy Tax Prevention Act of 2011”, by Members of Congress Fred Upton and James Inhofe, claims to overturn the EPA’s endangerment finding and, therefore, takes away their authority to regulate greenhouse gases. The justification for such an unusual scientific finding consisted of a couple of testimonies from climate change deniers, spouting out the usual long-debunked myths that scientists thought of, considered, and ruled out long before you and I even knew what global warming was. They offered no new information.

Ed Markey, the Representative from Massachusetts, took the opportunity to openly wonder what field of science Republicans will “excommunicate” next: will it be gravity, the heliocentric solar system, or special relativity? Watch and listen to his brief remarks. (Aside: I am amazed at how quiet and civil the House of Congress is. In Canada, Members of Parliament from opposing parties like to shout and pound their desks when others make speeches.)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QHVrE1NTgxI&feature=player_embedded

The Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee invoked amendments to this bill that, instead of repealing the scientific consensus, acknowledged it:

Congress accepts the scientific finding … that “warming of the climate system is unequivocal”; that the scientific evidence regarding climate change “is compelling”; and that “human-caused climate change is a threat to public health and welfare.”

Zero Republicans on the committee voted in favour of these amendments. Why am I not surprised?

I wouldn’t place these words of legislation in the same category as the others. Instead of saying “this is how the physical world works”, the amendments state, “we, as politicians, accept what our scientists tell us.” Most importantly, the Members of Congress aren’t trying to outsmart experts in a field in which they have no experience.

However, I agree with Henry Waxman, the Representative from California, who says that such amendments shouldn’t be necessary – not because they’re wrong, but because the “finding is so obviously correct”. To me, governments accepting what their scientists tell them is the null hypothesis. The idea of politicians stamping down ideas that they don’t like, by attempting to legislate scientific truth, seems unspeakably bizarre. How did the most powerful and developed nation in the world reach this point?

Climate Scientists Out in the Cold

Cross-posted from NextGen Journal

In the current economy, it’s not surprising that many countries are reducing funds for scientific research. It’s necessary to cut spending across the board these days. However, North American governments are singling out climate science as a victim – and not just reducing its funding, but, in many cases, eliminating it altogether.

Climate change research is largely supported by government money, as there aren’t many industries that recognize a vested interest in the science. Pharmaceutical companies often fund biomedical researchers, and mining companies fund geologists, but there’s no real analogue for climate scientists. Additionally, many global warming studies are particularly expensive. For example, transporting researchers and equipment to the North Pole via helicopter, and building climate models on supercomputers that stretch the limits of our data storage capacities, cost quite a bit more than injecting rats with chemicals in a lab.

In Canada, where I live, the federal government recognized these unique characteristics of climate science, and, in 2000, set up a special foundation to fund research in the field: the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences (CFCAS). Over the past decade, it has spent $118 million supporting most of Canada’s university-based climate research, and it was assumed that it would be continually renewed as the country established itself as a leader in the field.

However, since the Conservative Party formed a minority government almost five years ago, it has only extended the foundation’s lifespan by a year, and refuses to consider long-term funding commitments. The CFCAS only has a few months left before it will run out of money and close its doors. Many of Canada’s premier climate research projects and laboratories will have to shut down as a result, as they have always relied on CFCAS, and general federal funds such as the National Science and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) simply won’t be able to fill the gap. Some researchers are leaving the country to pursue more fertile academic ground, and as an aspiring climate scientist, I am wondering whether I will have to eventually do so as well.

If it seems cruel to abandon funding for researching the greatest threat to our future, rather than simply reducing its budget until the economy recovers, take a stroll south to what my sociology professor likes to refer to as “that wild society”. The U.S. House of Representatives is becoming dominated by politicians who hate the idea of government, and wish to tear most of it down in anger. Add to that mindset a staunch denial of climate science, and you can see where this is going.

The House of Representatives just passed a bill that not only prevents the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gases that cause climate change, but also repeals a great deal of clean air and water protection. Other cornerstones of the bill include repealing the new American health care system and cutting off funding of Planned Parenthood.

Since not a single Democrat Member of Congress voted for this bill, it is unlikely to pass the Senate, where Democrats hold a majority. However, Republicans have threatened to take away all federal funding, effectively shutting down the entire U.S. government, if the bill is not passed into law.

An amendment to this bill, which also passed the House of Representatives, completely cuts off federal funding to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC, a scientific organization of the United Nations, doesn’t do any original research, but writes extensive summary reports of the academic literature on climate change. It’s hard to overestimate how important these reports, published every few years, are to governments, scientists, and citizens alike. Instead of having to dig through thousands of scientific journals and articles, with no idea where to start, people can simply read these reports to find out what science knows about climate change. They are painstakingly reviewed, are offered in several levels of technicality, and include carefully organized references to the multitude of studies whose conclusions contributed to the text. For a field of research that is quickly expanding, these reports are absolutely vital, and it’s hard to imagine how they could carry on without support from the American government.

Blaine Luetkemeyer, the Republican Member of Congress that proposed the amendment, justified cutting off the IPCC by asserting the oft-debunked, but disturbingly popular, meme that climate science is some kind of worldwide conspiracy. If the IPCC really is “corrupt” and “nefarious”, as Luetkemeyer claims, then why can’t they afford to pay any of the scientists that write the reports – not even the IPCC president? Why do they allow anyone to help review the draft reports? Why do they permit their Summary for Policymakers to be watered down by policymakers? And, most importantly, why is climate change progressing faster than the IPCC expected?

We shouldn’t have to spend time addressing paranoid conspiracy theories like Luetkemeyer’s . Sadly, the government of the most powerful country on Earth is being taken over by people who buy into these conspiracy theories, and who want to punish climate scientists as much as possible for crimes they haven’t committed. Countries like Canada, even if they refrain from public accusations, are following suit in their actions.

“It’s quite clear by their actions [with CFCAS] and its lack of funding that [the Canadian government is] basically saying ‘We don’t want your science any more’,” Andrew Weaver, Canada’s top climatologist, told the Globe and Mail.

“[Cutting off the IPCC] is like putting our heads in the sand, denying the science, and then stopping the scientists from working – because they might come to a different conclusion from the Republican Party’s ideology,” Democrat Member of Congress Henry Waxman argued.

Is this really a wise move?

The Pendulum

Cross-posted from NextGen Journal

A few years ago, climate change mitigation became a major political issue. Before 2005, governments certainly knew that human-caused climate change was a serious problem – but the public knew next to nothing about it, so there was no incentive to act. However, between 2005 and 2007, a perfect storm of events splashed the reality of climate change onto the world stage.

The Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, finally came into force in early 2005, after years of negotiation. The United States refused to sign, and Australia signed on a little late, but every other developed nation in the world agreed to emission targets. Here in Canada, the Liberal government enthusiastically pledged its support for Kyoto. My local newspaper ran editorials exploring the different ways we could meet our targets, through combinations of clean energy, green infrastructure, and efficiency standards.

The summer of 2005 was a wake-up call for the United States, as Hurricane Katrina mercilessly demonstrated the amount of damage that extreme weather can bring. It’s impossible to say, at least with our current technology, whether or not Katrina was caused or even worsened by a warming planet. However, such devastating storms will become the norm as climate change progresses. Scientists aren’t sure whether or not hurricanes will become more frequent in a warming world, but the average hurricane is expected to become stronger and more damaging, and we are already beginning to see this rise in storm intensity. Katrina gave us an example of what we can expect from climate change – even if it wasn’t a direct effect in itself – and the world was shocked by the suffering that ensued.

2006 marked the release of An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore’s Academy Award-winning documentary about climate change. For scientists studying climate, the film was an admirable, up-to-date example of science communication, albeit with a few minor errors and oversimplifications. However, for citizens new to the issue (I particularly remember my classmates in grade 9 social studies discussing the film), An Inconvenient Truth was a disturbing reality check – scarier than any horror movie, because it was real.

The major scientific event of 2007 was a drastic, unexpected drop in Arctic summer sea ice. That season’s melt was exacerbated by coincidental weather conditions, so the next years weren’t quite as bad, but the trend was still worrying, to say the least. The research community had assumed that summer ice would stick around for at least a century, but this timescale was soon halved and quartered as ice melt exceeded even the worst projections.

By 2007, lead-up to the 2008 US presidential election was underway, and political awareness of climate change was obvious. It was no surprise that Democrat Barack Obama had ambitious plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions, but even the Republicans seemed to be on board. During his time in office, George W. Bush had insisted that, since climate change could be natural, any mitigating action was not worth the economic risk. Republican presidential candidates seemed to realize that continuing to adopt this attitude would be political suicide. The most extreme example, John McCain, who would eventually win the Republican presidential nomination, had emissions targets only slightly less extensive than Obama’s. As he said in 2007,

The world is already feeling the powerful effects of global warming, and far more dire consequences are predicted if we let the growing deluge of greenhouse gas emissions continue, and wreak havoc with God’s creation…The problem isn’t a Hollywood invention nor is doing something about it a vanity of Cassandra like hysterics. It is a serious and urgent economic, environmental and national security challenge.

However, McCain, once an author of a bill designed to cut greenhouse gas emissions, would soon completely change his stance. By 2010, he was asserting that cap-and-trade legislation was unnecessary and carbon dioxide posed no harm to the American people. He even went so far as to question the political motivations of science he once wholly accepted:

I think [global warming is] an inexact science, and there has been more and more questioning about some of the conclusions that were reached concerning climate change. And I believe that everybody in the world deserves correct answers whether the scientific conclusions were flawed by outside influences. There’s great questions about it that need to be resolved.

The story of John McCain isn’t too surprising. Politicians frequently base their statements on public sentiment rather than personal opinion. They say what people want to hear, rather than what they truly believe is important. This aspect of our political system is depressing, but persistent. The real question, though, regards what changed public sentiment so quickly. Why did politicians like McCain feel compelled to denounce the importance of action on this problem, or even the existence of the problem itself? What happened since 2007 that made the pendulum swing so far in the other direction?

Strike one was the economy. The global recession that began in 2008 was the largest since the Great Depression, and concern for all other problems promptly went down the drain. It’s understandable for citizens to not worry about the environment when they don’t even have the means to feed and clothe their children properly. However, for governments to not realize the long-term economic implications of allowing climate change to continue, along with the potential job-creating benefits of a new energy economy, was disappointing, even though it wasn’t surprising.

Strike two was the all-out war on climate science, spearheaded by the fossil fuel industry and the far right. This PR campaign has been underway since the early 1990s, but was kicked up a notch just over a year ago. Since public understanding of the causes and effects of global warming was growing, and the science was becoming more solid by the month, the PR tactics changed. Instead of attacking the science, they attacked the integrity of the scientists. The most extreme example occurred in November 2009, when private correspondence between top climate researchers was stolen, spread on the Internet, and spun in an attempt to cast doubt on the scientists’ motives. This event, known as “Climategate”, spurred a great deal of anger among the political right, and everything from bitter editorials to death threats against scientists ensued. Perhaps most distressingly, by the time investigations found that the scientists involved were innocent, and the reality of climate change untouched, Climategate was old news and media outlets failed to adequately follow up on the story. Citizens heard the accusations, but not the exonerations, so political will to cut greenhouse gas emissions slipped even further.

Strike three – well, there has been no strike three, and a good thing too. Strikes one and two were so bad that some are hoping the pendulum has swung as far as it can go. It’s certainly difficult to imagine how the situation could get worse. The Kyoto Protocol is set to expire next year, and the Copenhagen meetings failed to create a replacement. As it was, many developed nations failed to meet their targets, and the Canadian government backed out completely.

The possibility of federal climate legislation for the United States is laughable now that not a single Republican Senator thinks action is necessary, and most doubt the reality of the problem, choosing to believe that the entire scientific community is out to lunch and/or an agent of conspiracy. President Obama’s director of climate policy, Carol Browner, recently left her position, although none of her major goals had been met. Obama’s recent State of the Union address included lots of hopeful statements about clean energy, but absolutely no mention of climate change, as if merely acknowledging the most pressing reason for a new energy economy would be political suicide. The time-honoured tradition of saying what the public wants to hear has even reached Obama, the man who promised change.

In Canada, legislation to simply set targets for emission reduction passed the House of Commons (made of elected representatives), but the Senate (composed of appointed politicians) chose to use their newfound Conservative majority to strike down the bill with no debate whatsoever, in a blatantly undemocratic move that has not happened since the 1930s. The Canadian government is all for a new energy economy, but not one based on environmental and social responsibility. The Alberta tar sands, which are substantially more polluting and carbon-intensive than traditional oil, continue to expand, and both federal and provincial governments are worryingly enthusiastic.

From 2005 to 2007, politics was high on promises of mitigation, but low on delivery. Since then, it has been devoid of both. It’s starting to seem as if it will take a major global disaster that can be unquestionably tied to climate change for governments to get their act together.

This would all be very well if there was no lag time between cause and effect in the climate system, but it doesn’t work that way. It takes several decades for all the warming in the pipeline to show up. If we waited until climate change became unbearable, and then cut off our emissions completely, the situation would still get worse for decades before it stabilized.

The worldwide failure of governments to take action on climate change is baffling. It seems that the best they can do is occasionally promise to fix the problem, but never actually get started. If this continues for much longer, we’re all going to pay the price for their mistakes – and so will people for generations to come.

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!

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.