Mind the Gap

This is the script of a presentation I will make to several groups of high school students on Earth Day. I was originally going to use the same script from my PowerShift presentation, but in light of recent developments and my ever-expanding thoughts on climate change, I decided to create an entirely new presentation.

I would greatly appreciate any thoughts, input, suggestions, etc. Keep in mind that I don’t have my PowerPoint created yet, so some of the text may seem a little confusing without the visuals I’ll be pointing to.

Enjoy!

Update: Thanks for all the helpful comments and critiques. I’ve made some changes here, but feel free to keep them coming.

Welcome everyone, nice to see you all here. My name is Kate, I’m in my last year of high school, and I am here to talk to you about climate change, or global warming. After I graduate I want to be a climate scientist, so until then, I’m channelling my obsession into a website. For the past year, I’ve been writing the blog ClimateSight.org, which has allowed me to meet a lot of cool people and correspond with a lot of scientists.

I’ve spent several years doing a lot of research on climate change, and something that’s been really interesting to me is the link between climate scientists and the public – the communication between these two groups. And the very first thing I want to talk about is assessing credibility, which is probably the most important tool I can give you. How much weight should you give different statements from different sources about scientific issues?

The scientific community that is actually studying the issue is going to be more credible than the media and the public. And that scientific research starts with scientists. They write peer-reviewed articles, published in journals like Nature or Science. Anything that is a serious scientific idea will be in one of these journals at some time or other. But there are thousands of journal articles published every month, and because they’re generally studying the frontier of their field, it’s inevitable that some of them are going to be proven wrong later. That’s why there are scientific organizations and assessment reports that look back at all these papers and compile what we know about the major issues. So statements from organizations like NASA, or from assessment reports like the IPCC, means that something has stood the test of time.

Among all the people who are not scientists, some know more than others. People who communicate science, like journalists and high school teachers and some politicians, are held a little more accountable for what they say than just any random person on the street.

So let’s see what the different levels of the credibility spectrum say about global warming. Who would disagree – who would say that humans are not causing the Earth to warm? 0% of scientific organizations say no. Pretty much 0% of peer-reviewed articles say no – there is the odd one out there, but they’re so small in number that they round right down to zero. And less than 3% of publishing climatologists say no. But 57% of articles in leading newspapers say no (or probably not, or maybe, maybe not), and 53% of the public says no.

As you can see, there is a big gap right here. The top half of the credibility spectrum is very confident about human-caused global warming, and the bottom half is very confused. Why is this? How can an issue that is so important to public policy have such drastically different levels of support between those who study it and everyone else?

There are all kinds of common objections that you and I hear about global warming. What if it’s a natural cycle and we’re just coming out of an ice age? What if the Sun is heating up? And how could there possibly be global warming when it is so cold outside? There are all kinds of arguments against the idea of climate change that everybody knows. But the scientific community is still saying this. They are still sure that yes, it’s going on and yes, it’s us.

So there are three possible explanations. Scientists could be ignorant and overconfident. Maybe they never considered the idea it could be a natural cycle. Scientists could be frauds, part of some Communist conspiracy to take over the world somehow. Or, maybe scientists know what they’re doing, and have evidence to say what they’re saying. So let’s look at the evidence that they do have.

We’ve been studying this problem for a long time, and it all started in the 1800s, when the greenhouse effect was discovered – the gases in the atmosphere that trap heat and keep the planet warm enough for life. The idea that emissions of carbon dioxide from our burning of fossil fuels – like coal, oil, and natural gas – would eventually cause warming was first proposed in 1896. So this is not a new theory by any means.

We began measuring the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere in the 1950s, and we can see that it’s steadily going up. Over the last 2.1 million years, CO2 never exceeded 300 ppm, but right now it’s at 390. This might not seem like a lot, but 390 ppm of arsenic in your coffee would kill you.

We can confirm that this increase in CO2 is due to human activity because of its isotopes. The carbon in CO2 from fossil fuels has fewer neutrons, on average, than CO2 from natural sources like volcanoes or the ocean. That makes it lighter, so we can tell the difference in samples from the air.

So we know that an increase in greenhouse gases causes warming, and we know that we are increasing greenhouse gases. So it’s not really a surprise that we’re starting to see the warming show up. There are five independent research teams worldwide that measure the average global temperature, some from weather stations and some from satellites, and all five of them are finding a very similar pattern of warming since about 1975.

But what if it’s a coincidence? What if something else was causing the warming, and it just happened to be at the same time that we were dumping fossil fuels into the air? Something that a lot of people don’t know is that there are ways that we can confirm that the warming is caused by us. First of all, there’s nothing else going on that could be causing it. Actually, if you took human activity out of the picture, we would be slowly cooling: the cycles of the Earth’s orbit show that we should be very very slowly going into a new ice age.

There is also a specific pattern of warming we can look at. If warming were caused by the sun, the entire atmosphere would warm in a uniform fashion. But if greenhouse gases were causing global warming, the first layer of the atmosphere (the troposphere) would be warming, but the next layer up, the stratosphere, would be cooling. This is referred to as the “fingerprint” of greenhouse warming, because it’s like DNA evidence or the smoking gun. And that’s exactly what we’re seeing – stratospheric cooling. (Randel et al, 2009).

So we can be very sure that yes, our activities are causing the Earth to warm, at a rate that we haven’t seen for at least the past 55 million years, which was before humans even existed. That’s really the problem – the rate of change. It’s not the actual temperature that poses a threat, it’s all about how much it changes and how fast. The world has been plenty warmer than this at times, like when dinosaurs were around. And dinosaurs were okay with that because it had been like that for a really long time and they had adapted to it. But a change in temperature at the rate we’re seeing now? It might seem slow to you and me, but on a geological timescale, it’s incredibly quick, too quick for species – including humans – to adapt. Yes, the climate has changed many times before, but it never really ended well.

For example, the largest extinction in our Earth’s history, the Permian extinction 250 million years ago, was most likely caused by warming from greenhouse gases that came out of supervolcanoes much larger than anything we have today. It got so warm that the ocean couldn’t hold any oxygen and produced hydrogen sulphide instead. That’s what makes rotten eggs smell bad, and it’s actually poisonous in large enough quantities. It killed 97% of species in the ocean and 70% of species on land. It has been nicknamed “The Great Dying”. So this is the absolute worst-case scenario of what can happen when too many greenhouse gases go into the atmosphere at once. It means a whole lot more than just nicer Winnipeg winters.

So, to the people who really look at this issue, the evidence is undeniable. In academic circles, there really is no argument. All the objections that we have – they thought of them long ago, and covered them all, and ruled all of them out, before you and I even knew what global warming was. 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.

As for the second option, that scientists are part of a conspiracy – if you stop and think about it, like, really? Scientific fraud happens, but on the scale of one paper, or at the most one scientist, not an entire field stretching back for over a century. Scientists are not that organized. And that only leaves one explanation – that the field of climatology does know what it’s doing, and does have evidence to say what it’s saying: that humans are causing the Earth to warm, and it’s not going to be good.

We’ve established that the top half of the credibility spectrum is the one that we can trust on this issue. So what’s going on in the communication between the top and the bottom so that the public has got totally the wrong idea? This is what I spend most of my time working on, and there are a lot of factors involved, but it really comes down to three points.

Firstly, climatology is a complex science, and it’s not a required course in high school, so the public doesn’t understand it the way they understand Newton’s Laws of Motion. Most people do not know all this stuff I just told you, and that’s only scratching the surface; there is so much more science and so many more lines of evidence. And when you only have bits and pieces of this story, it’s easy to fall prey to these kinds of misconceptions.

Second, there are, sadly, a lot of people out there trying to exploit number one. There are a lot of very prominent people in the media, politics, and industry who will use whatever they can get – whether or not it’s legitimate, whether or not it’s honest – as proof that global warming is not real. You’ll hear them say that all scientists said an ice age was coming in the 70s, so we shouldn’t trust them now. In reality, most scientists were predicting warming by the 70s, and the single paper to talk about an ice age was proven wrong almost immediately after its publication. You’ll hear them say that volcanoes emit more CO2 than humans, but volcanoes only emit about 1% of what we do. They’ll say that the Greenland ice sheet is getting thicker, so therefore, it cannot be warming. But the reason that Greenland is getting thicker is that it’s getting more snow, caused by warmer temperatures that are still below zero.

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 (Hoggan and Littlemore, 2009). 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.

The third reason that the public is so confused about climate change is that the media has been very compliant in spreading the message of these guys. You would expect that newspapers and journalists would do their research about scientific issues, and make sure that they were writing science stories that were accurate, but sadly, that’s not what’s happening.

One of the major problems is that 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 one day, because speed and availability of news has become more important than quality.

And, finally, when it comes to climate change, journalists follow the rule of balance, or presenting “two equal sides”, staying neutral, letting the reader form their own opinion. This works really well when the so-called controversy is one of political or social nature, like tax levels, a federal election, how we should develop infrastructure. In those cases, there is no real right answer, and people usually are split into two camps. But when the question at hand is one of science, there is a right answer, and some explanations are better than others. Sometimes the scientists are split into two equal groups, but sometimes they’re split into three or four or even a dozen. And 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 prove what they’re saying and nobody really takes them seriously. So framing these two groups as having equal weight in the scientific community is completely wrong. It exaggerates this extreme minority, and suppresses everyone else.

All these problems are perfectly explained by a man named James Hrynyshyn, a journalist himself. He says, “Science journalism….is too often practiced by journalists who know so little about the subject they’re covering that they can’t properly evaluate the reliability or trustworthiness of potential sources. The result is that sources with no credibility in the field routinely appear alongside genuine experts as part of an effort to provide balance.”

One of the best examples of how this kind of journalism can really go wrong happened quite recently. Someone hacked into the email server of the Climatic Research Unit in the UK, stole thirteen years of emails between scientists, sifted through them all to find the juiciest ones, and put them on the Internet. The police are trying to figure out who did this, because it’s quite illegal, but it wasn’t some teenage kid in their basement.

Some of the emails certainly were embarrassing, the scientists said some things that weren’t very nice and insulted some people. But can you imagine if all of your email was released to the world? Scientists are people too, and they say stupid stuff that they don’t mean over email just the same as you and I do – especially when there are so many people actively spreading lies about their work.

The most important thing, though, is that there was nothing in there that compromised any science, any data sets, anything that we know about climate change. Nothing actually changed…..but the scary part was that a striking amount of the media reported that the entire field of climate science was potentially a political scam.

For example, some scientists are working on reconstructing temperatures from before we had thermometers, using tree rings or ice cores or ocean sediment. In one of the most widely circulated emails, the scientists discussed how to “hide the decline” in a set of tree ring data that’s known to have some serious problems – the tree growth is going down while thermometers show local temperatures going up, which is the opposite of what you’d expect. It probably means there was a drought or something. So they were trying to see if they could still use the first part and cut out the useless part at the end. They’re only hiding it in a mathematical sense, they’re not hiding it from their colleagues or from the media. In fact, they’ve written about this decline in one of the most prestigious scientific journals in the world, so if they’re trying to pull off a conspiracy here, they’re not doing a very good job.

But somehow, in the media, the story changed. Instead of saying that scientists were “removing regional tree ring data known to be erroneous,” the media said they were “covering up the decline in global temperatures”. That’s so fundamentally different, so removed from the facts – these scientists don’t even work with global temperatures! – but you heard it everywhere. The story that reached virtually every newspaper in the world was that the world is cooling and scientists are trying to hide it from us.

That’s only one example of how a single phrase can be taken out of context and have its meaning completely twisted. It doesn’t surprise me, you see it from these guys all the time, but what absolutely amazes me is how the media just sat and lapped it right up without doing any research into the validity of these serious allegations.

Subsequently, two independent investigations into the contents of these emails have been released, and the scientists involved were basically cleared in both cases. The British Parliament found that “the focus on CRU has been largely misplaced”, that the scientists’ “actions were in line with common practice”, that “they were not part of a systematic attempt to mislead”, and that all of the CRU’s “analyses have been repeated and the conclusions have been verified”. (British House of Commons, 2010). The University of East Anglia found “no evidence of any deliberate scientific malpractice in any of the work of the CRU”, “no hint of tailoring results to a particular agenda”, and that “allegations of deliberate misrepresentation and unjustified selection of data are not valid”. (UEA, 2010) So this affirms what the climate science community already knew: the stolen emails do not change the science one bit.

But look at what newspapers told us for weeks on end. Every time the Winnipeg Free Press mentioned the emails, they would say something along the lines of, “The correspondence appears to suggest researchers may have manipulated data to exaggerate global warming.” These are very serious allegations to make, and they were made without evidence in serious, credible and widely read newspapers, and they’re not being retracted or corrected in the media now that the investigations are coming up clear.

Spencer Weart, who is a science historian, had some great words to say on this issue: “The media coverage represents a new low. There are plenty of earlier examples of media making an uproar without understanding the science….but this is the first time the media has reported that an entire community of scientists has been accused of actual dishonesty. Such claims….would normally require serious investigation. But even in leading newspapers like The New York Times, critics with a long public record for animosity and exaggeration are quoted as experts.”

Many of the scientists featured in the emails received death threats. Phil Jones, the director of CRU, says that he’s been suicidal. The story of these stolen emails is not a story of scientists engaged in conspiracy – it is a story of how desperate some people are to make it seem that way, and how gullible and irresponsible the mainstream media can be.

And not long after that, story after story broke that the IPCC, which is a huge UN publication about everything we know about the science of climate change, had all kinds of mistakes in it. So what were these mistakes? In 3 000 pages, two examples of overestimating climate change were found. First, the report said that the Himalayan glaciers would disappear by 2035, and we now know that it’s going to take a lot longer than that. Second, it said that 55% of the Netherlands is below sea level, when in fact 55% of the Netherlands is susceptible to flooding, and only some of that is below sea level. This last one is background information. It really isn’t all that relevant.

So should that have happened? No. But does it actually matter to our understanding of the science? No.

Then several British journalists managed to invent five or six other “IPCC scandals”. When these were investigated more seriously, they were found to be completely false. But they were still reported in virtually every newspaper around the world. Again.

However, the IPCC has made a lot of mistakes, much more serious than these, that none of the newspapers are reporting. The difference is that the mistakes that make the media scream scandal are examples of overestimating climate change, while the ones you don’t hear about are examples of underestimating climate change. There was recently a report published that evaluated the last IPCC report, and this is what it found:

Over the past three years, there was about 40% less Arctic summer sea ice than the IPCC predicted, and melting in the Arctic is far exceeding its worst case scenarios. Recent observed sea level rise is about 80% more than the IPCC predicted.  Global sea level by 2100 is expected to rise at least twice as much as the IPCC predicted. (Copenhagen Diagnosis, 2009)

So which seems more important? The exact date at which a specific glacier is expected to melt? Or the amount of sea level rise we can expect all over the world? I have yet to find a newspaper in the world that covered this, but I have yet to find a newspaper in the world that did not cover this. Yes, the IPCC makes mistakes, but they are almost always mistakes that say, “oops, it’s going to be worse than we thought.”

So, as you can see, the real message about the reality and severity of climate change is not getting through. Communication of science is always important, but it’s especially important for climate change, because it could potentially screw up our civilization pretty bad, and we want to minimize that risk.

Scientists, in general, are not that great at public communication – that’s why they’re scientists and not journalists or salesmen or whatever. They want to sit in the lab and crunch numbers. And there’s always been sort of a stigma in the scientific community against talking to the media or the public. But the one good thing about all these rumours and all this awful journalism is that it’s finally making the scientific community wake up and realize how bad things are and how much their voice and their input is needed.

In the period of just a few months, over 300 American climate scientists signed an open letter to the US government about how two small mistakes in the IPCC do not impact the overall message that humans cause climate change, and should not impact our efforts to stop it.

And the National Academy of Sciences, which is one of the most prestigious organizations in the world – 1 out of 10 members have a Nobel Prize – has all sorts of plans for public lectures and articles in newspapers and a science show on prime time television.

The one good thing about things getting this bad is that it makes the people involved mad enough to step up and finally try to stop it. To finally narrow this gap that has existed for so long. That’s why I’m here today, that’s why I’ve been writing my blog for over a year, because I’m mad, and if I don’t do anything about it my head is going to explode. I cannot just sit and watch while these rumours threaten our ability to preserve a good future for me and for us and for everyone who will come after us. And I sincerely hope that all of you will not just sit and watch it happen either. We need to fix this together.

A Good Discussion Starter

How did you become interested in the issue of climate change? What sparked your interest, and why?

For me, it was purely a coincidence. I wanted to get involved in school groups and so I joined the environmental club. I liked a lot of the people in it, and found the discussions very interesting.

Around the same time, my friends and I enjoyed watching the vlogbrothers’ YouTube channel, mostly because they had the same nerdy sense of humour as us. One of the two brothers, Hank Green, ran an environmental technology website called EcoGeek as his day job.

So I was sifting through the archives of EcoGeek and stumbled upon a post about Greg Craven’s Manpollo Project. I watched the embedded first video and was completely hooked. This was exactly the kind of thing I loved – critical thinking, thoughtful discussion with a purpose, lots of science and graphs.

When I caught the flu a few months later, I watched the entire six-hour series over the course of a day. From that point, there was no turning back – I began to research climate change almost every day. I owe my interest/obsession in this topic largely to Greg Craven, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. It’s amazing the ripples one person can make!

What sparked your interest? I’d love to read about it in the comments.

Now We’re Talking!

Another batch of private emails from climate scientists has been leaked/hacked/stolen/whatever. These ones, though, are very different than the last.

It’s a thread of emails from the NAS, and these guys are mad. They are mad about vested interests skewing the discussion. They are mad that journalists have sat and lapped it right up without checking their facts. They are mad that the public is suddenly more confused than ever about a field of science that is more united than ever.

They want to get hundreds of scientists to sign a declaration that yes, the anthropogenic combustion of fossil fuels is still causing the Earth to warm, and print it in newspapers like the New York Times, using only NAS money. They want to start a prime time science program on PBS. They want to have dozens of public lectures communicating climate science. They want a concise assessment report by the NAS written in layman’s terms. They want a nonprofit group to bridge communication between scientists and the public. They want “nothing short of a massive publicity campaign to educate the citizenry about what our best science is saying and why.”

“We will need funds to make something happen,” says Paul Falkowski, and by February 27th, about 15 NAS scientists had pledged $1000 each, out of their own pockets.

“How can we sit back while many of our colleagues and science as a whole is under attack?” writes Paul Ehrlich.

William Jury describes public presentations he’s given since the CRU hack, and how a common question is, “If the recent charges by anti-warming people aren’t true, why is nobody coming forth to prove it to us?”

And why not? All of us here have done our part, but it’s still not enough. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s felt pretty powerless over the past few months. It’s incredibly obvious, to those who have all the context, that the theory of AGW is as rock-solid as ever. But truth is not enough, not when we’re up against the most effective spin machine in history. I feel like no matter how much work I put into the communication of real science, this machine will always be ten steps ahead.

Reading this string of emails gave me the most hope I’ve felt in months that we might actually be able to steer public opinion in a more accurate direction, so that we can get to work on fixing this problem. It was exhilarating to read that so many scientists are ready and willing to mobilize public communication when we need it the most. I wanted to jump up from the computer and wave my arms around and shout in joy. If I hadn’t been in the school library, I probably would have.

There has long been a stigma against communication in science – for example, Stephen Schneider faced demeaning remarks from his colleagues in the 70s for even speaking to the newspapers about his work. Couple this with the big difference between these two sides fighting for public opinion: one academic, the other political/industrial. When our academic institutions get money, they’ll spend it on research, not on public communication……while the lobby groups and oil companies are hard at work on advertising like this. (Worth a watch, it’s hilarious.)

The amount of public communication and education proposed by the NAS scientists is enormous, but it’s never been more justified than now.

Recommendations?

I’m interested in finding out how and why climate change action became a partisan issue. As Stephen Schneider says in his new book, there’s a reason that “conservation” sounds so much like “conservatism”.

The fiscal conservative school of thought is to save money for a rainy day, and to minimize spending so the economy is more sustainable in the long run – so why does this only apply to money? Money, after all, is only a representation of wealth, which – more often than not – ends up representing resources and ecosystem services, which depend on a stable climate. Conservatism, at least in our society, also tends to be more aggressive to national security threats such as terrorism. Why is climate change exempt yet again? Is it somehow any less threatening?

It seems dubious that climate change action really conflicts with conservative ideologies. How and why did it begin to be framed this way? At some point along the line, conservative media and politicians began to repeat it, to the point where it became accepted as the “party line” of the ideology, and citizens who were conservative on most other issues accepted this addition to the party line automatically.

This is why I would ideally prefer a direct democracy, as it allows citizens to vote directly on each issue, rather than just choose the party that hits the most of their requirements. We can’t just categorize people by ideology and assume that all of their opinions will fit neatly into one box. (Or three boxes at once – several flagged comments accused me of being “a Communist and a socialist and a Marxist” – is it even possible to be all three of those things at once? Don’t they have some inherent contradictions?)

I’ve stated before that my opinions on policy tend to be more social, but I’m beginning to wonder more and more how much this reflects my character and how much reflects my age. In world issues class, everyone took the Political Compass quiz, and plotted their results anonymously on a single graph so we could look at the class as a whole. Virtually everyone was in the bottom left quadrant – social libertarian. I was somewhere in the middle of those dots. Unless my class was a hotbed of radicals, it seems that ideology tends to correspond to age. Maybe it’s not because I’m a social libertarian. Maybe it’s just part of being seventeen, and as I grow older, I’ll remain somewhere near the centre of my society’s political spectrum, wherever it may fall.

Right now, at least, my opinions regarding many matters of policy fall to the left on Canada’s political spectrum. However, I view my work on climate change communication to be very separate to ideology. It began as a bid for a secure future for my generation, which is looking less and less likely. However, as the anti-action campaigns began to attack scientists and the scientific process, rather than (or in addition to) the theories and statistics themselves, I have begun to defend the nature of science, specificially climate science, instead.

I think I have the mind of a scientist, and I really want to be a scientist. Not to be a doctor/dentist/pharmacist, which is often the automatic course for high school students who are good at science and math, but to be a researcher and conduct studies and publish in journals and discover things. I feel more and more sure about this as I get older. I think this deep connection to the scientific process has given me some elements of conservatism. I am quite conservative about the process of peer-review, resist change to its structure, and hold tightly to fundamental discoveries in the field of climate science, rather than blowing off Arrhenius just because of something written in Energy & Environment.

I am not writing this blog, or pushing for climate change action and communication, for any ideology or party or political belief. I am defending both science and the future, two parties that get very little say in the political system. I am defending the mountain of evidence that many seem willing to discount entirely.  I am defending the millions of unborn citizens who have the right to a world just as good, if not better, than the one we have today.

This post has become a ramble I didn’t expect to go on – it’s late, after all, and I’m a teenager who needs her sleep. So I’ll bring it back to the beginning. Are there any recommendations as to which sources I should look at for research into how and why this became a partisan issue? Books, US politics backgrounders, Spencer Weart posts? I’d appreciate your input.

The Antithesis to Nitpicking

Sometimes we have to step back and look at the big picture. We have to remember that not everyone has heard or believed the one about global warming stopping in 1998. Denialists centre around nitpicking and ideas that global warming is a “house of cards”, so we respond the same way: countering all the “mistakes” they claim to have found.

In reality, climate change is an incredibly robust phenomenon that we’ve known about for decades – and the basic physics behind it, for over a century. It’s not some new, shaky discovery. It’s not going to be overturned because scientists at CRU do not always say nice things about their critics.

So I was very pleased when I opened up YouTube today to see that Peter Sinclair’s latest video was all about this big picture. If I had to choose just one of his videos to share with everyone I knew, this would certainly be it. This is the kind of message we need to get out there; this is the kind of angle we need to take.

ClimateSight/CCC Movies!

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

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

Enjoy!

Remind You of Anything?

The BBC reports that the Russian government is working to divert an asteroid that has a 1 in 250 000 chance of hitting the Earth in 2036.

“People’s lives are at stake,” Mr Perminov reportedly told the radio service Golos Rossii (Voice of Russia).

“We should pay several hundred million dollars and build a system that would allow us to prevent a collision, rather than sit and wait for it to happen and kill hundreds of thousands of people.”

Remind you at all of Daniel Gilbert’s analysis of climate change psychology?

“Because we barely notice changes that happen gradually, we accept gradual changes that we would reject if they happened abruptly. The density of Los Angeles traffic has increased dramatically in the last few decades, and citizens have tolerated it with only the obligatory grumbling. Had that change happened on a single day last summer, Angelenos would have shut down the city, called in the National Guard and lynched every politician they could get their hands on.

Environmentalists despair that global warming is happening so fast. In fact, it isn’t happening fast enough. If President Bush could jump in a time machine and experience a single day in 2056, he’d return to the present shocked and awed, prepared to do anything it took to solve the problem.”

Credibility in a Bewildered World

My apologies that I’ve been so quiet the past few weeks. I’ve been hard at work at a presentation I’ll be making at PowerShift Canada, a youth climate change conference in Ottawa from October 23-26. A big thank you to Steve Easterbrook, a regular reader here, who has contacts at PowerShift and basically got me this gig.

I’ve decided to post my script here (there will be a PowerPoint presentation in the background too), and ask for any and all suggestions to make it as good as possible. The workshop is an hour and a quarter, and I’m trying to involve the audience as much as possible. I’ll have citations for all the stats on the slides.

Welcome everyone, I hope you’re having a good time at the conference. You’re here with me because what you read in the newspaper and what your friends tell you about climate change might not be what’s really going on in the scientific literature. Feel free to ask questions anytime, but we will have a more open discussion session at the end.

My name is Kate, and I run the website ClimateSight.org, which deals with climate change in the context of sociology, credibility, and logic. I’ll finally be able to leave high school at the end of this year, and then I hope to go and study climatology. Until then, I’m channeling all my scientific energy into studying other aspects of climate change. For example….

“Humans are not affecting the climate.” What percentage of American adults would you expect to agree with this statement? (take some guesses from the audience) The answer is 39%. It’s still less than half, but it’s quite a significant minority, especially given how publishing climatologists would answer this question. How many of them would you expect to say yes? (take some more guesses) The real answer is 3%. And if you start writing down names of these scientists, you’ll find that it’s the same people over and over.

Now, the idea that “scientists argue a lot about whether or not humans are causing global warming”. I want these rows (roughly 42% of the audience – I’ll do some quick math beforehand) to stand up. This represents the portion of American adults who agree with that statement. Now everyone sit down. This represents the portion of peer-reviewed scientific articles that argue with the idea that humans are causing climate change. It’s virtually zero. It’s not exactly zero, the odd one does get through, but in this study of over a thousand papers, they didn’t find a single one. It’s so statistically insignificant that we can be pretty sure that no, this debate does not exist in the academic literature.

Do these numbers surprise you? Why? (take some feedback from the audience) I’d like to take this opportunity to show you a video I made in the summer, about the level of scientific agreement on this issue. It has some of the stats I already quoted, but also some new ones. (don’t worry – this video, as well as five others, will be on YouTube soon enough and I’ll embed them here!)

So, as we can see, there is quite a discrepancy between what scientists know about climate change and what the public knows. The scientists are about as sure as scientists can get. But the public isn’t sure, and they’re not even sure if the scientists are sure. So obviously there’s some major miscommunication going on here, somewhere.

There are a lot of factors which led to this, but I believe that one of the main ones is that people are not assessing the credibility of the arguments they hear. Now, in an ideal world, everyone would be able to assess everything they heard on coherence alone – how accurate it is, whether it’s right or wrong. But most of us aren’t scientists, and even scientists can’t specialize in every area. So if we tried to do all the math ourselves, we’d probably make some big mistakes, which could even lead us to a totally wrong conclusion. It’s usually more accurate for us to base our knowledge on what the most credible sources say.

(at this point I’ll ask for five volunteers, and give them signs: 1) some guy named Joe, 2) Al Gore, 3) Dr Andrew Weaver, 4) Science magazine, 5) NASA. I’ll ask them to put themselves in order of least credible to most credible, with help from the audience if they need it. We’ll have a little discussion about why they chose the spots they did.)

This is the way I structure my credibility spectrum. At the very bottom is the individual – some guy named Joe, or you, or me. People who don’t have any scientific training.

Above that I have the professional, such as Al Gore. These are people that do have scientific training, but didn’t use it to become a scientist – they decided to be a high school teacher, or a politician, or a journalist instead. Depending on how long ago they got their training, and how specialized it was, they may or may not be a reliable source.

Above that I have the publishing scientist, such as Dr Andrew Weaver, who has scientific training in the specific area we’re considering – in this case, climate change. They used it to become a scientist, and they’re publishing their work.

Then I have peer-reviewed articles, in places like Science magazine. These studies are almost always written by publishing scientists, and then they’re examined by a whole bunch of other publishing scientists before publication. That way, almost all mistakes are fixed, and any studies that are totally bogus are just thrown out.

At the very top are scientific organizations, such as NASA. These organizations base all of their statements off of multiple peer-reviewed articles, which have stood up to criticism after their publication. Places like NASA also have huge reputations, so they don’t want to say anything that’ll make them look stupid afterwards.

This is why I wouldn’t let my biology teacher do neurosurgery on me. Yes, I’m sure that he knows a lot about the brain, but until he’s been certified by a higher authority, until he goes through med school and residency, I’m not going to let him cut open my head.

But this is also why I don’t pay attention to people on YouTube who say that climate change is natural, or nonexistent, or a global conspiracy. For example, this guy says, “Climate change is natural. Think of the ice age…That happened NATURALLY. The earth goes through phases of warming and cooling. If any hippies want to solve the over population problem then they’re more than welcome to throw themselves off a bridge.” Now, this guy has a basic logical fallacy in his argument – that something happened naturally before, so therefore it must be natural this time. There hasn’t even been a chance for it to happen unnaturally until now! That’s akin to saying that forest fires can be caused by lightning, so therefore they can’t be caused by arson. Also, he seems to think that there was only ever one ice age, which just goes to show that he’s not very well-phrased in the topics he’s talking about. So why should we trust him?

This guy is even more articulate. He says, “global warming and cap and trade is a scam the earth has been cooling for the last 9 years record ice levels in Antarctica and the arctic is at the 1979-2000 mean there is no tipping point we will continue to cool until the sun comes out of this very deep minimum carbon dioxide is very good for the planet, plants love carbon dioxide they breathe it in and exhale oxygen how can a trace gas 0.038% cause warming….think about it” What? This guy can’t even form a coherent sentence, why should we even bother looking up any of his scientific statements?

If you really believe that you have the magic bullet which will knock down the opinions of the entire scientific community, then write it up, submit it to a journal, and get it published. Then people will listen. That’s normal scientific practice. That’s how theories are created and abandoned. So why are you wasting your time on YouTube, if you really believe what you’re saying?

Now, we unconsciously assess credibility when the topic at hand is obviously scientific. If your friend says that plants absorb carbon monoxide, but the Environment Canada website says they absorb carbon dioxide, it’s not too hard to decide which one to trust. You won’t even stop to wonder if maybe Environment Canada is run by socialists. You’ll just say to your friend, “You’re wrong. It says right here.”

But the credibility spectrum falls apart if the matter at hand is one of personal opinion. I mean, who cares what scientists think about the relative merits of Ignatieff and Harper, or whether Britney Spears is a good singer? You can debate each other and try to change each other’s mind, but there is no correct answer, so nobody’s credentials really matter. And the really sad thing is that climate change is starting to get lumped into this category of “personal opinion”.

Climate change isn’t a personal opinion. It’s purely based on physics and math. Would you go into physics class and decide that you just weren’t going to accept Newton’s laws of motion, no matter what your teacher told you? Would you go to chemistry class and say that solubility was a personal opinion and everyone had a right to believe whatever they wanted about it?

I correspond a lot with people who run websites similar to mine, and there’s a sentiment that comes up now and again. It says, “You’re entitled to your own opinion, but you’re not entitled to your own facts.”

Now, when you read the newspaper, where would you expect to find articles which have to do with personal opinion? (ask the audience, I’m looking for the answer “editorials”) And where would you expect science stories to be? (science section, world news) But in the newspapers I read, almost all the articles about climate change are in the editorials, implying that they’re personal opinions. If somebody writes about the state of the Arctic sea ice, it goes into the editorials. If somebody writes about projections for future climate change, it goes into the editorials. And framing these stories as personal opinions seem to imply that they’re inherently biased, that there’s another equally valid side to the story, so you shouldn’t take them too seriously.

The other place that climate change stories often end up is in the Environment section, if your newspaper is lucky enough to have such a section. This is only really appropriate if you’re talking about how climate change will affect species and ecosystems. But most of the time, that’s not what we’re talking about! We’re talking about sea level rise and agricultural security and vector-borne diseases and resource wars. Printing these stories in the Environment section lumps them in as “just another environmental problem” like pesticide use or panda bears, which most people aren’t too bothered about. But climate change isn’t just about saving the polar bears. It’s about saving the people. It’s far, far more than an environmental issue.

The media also likes to frame climate change as a controversy. This makes sense when you realize that journalism is a business like any other. Their ultimate goal is not to provide perfectly accurate and objective information absolutely all the time. Their ultimate goal is making money and keeping the business alive!

And a controversy really sells. For example, would you rather pick up a newspaper with the headline “Another Study Confirms What Everyone Already Knew”, or “Scientists Locked in Epic Battle over Question of Global Warming”? We are naturally drawn to controversy. It’s so much more interesting to readers.

But as soon as you frame an issue as a controversy, you’re implying that the two sides are fairly equal, so you have to present them equally – otherwise you’ll be accused of bias. Now, I want everyone expect these people (roughly 3% of audience) to go to this side of the room. These people go to the other side. These are the two sides of the climate change debate that a majority of newspaper articles are giving equal time to. It’s all very well to want to be fair and balanced, but when you’re giving this side as much air time as this side, how fair is that? Being objective does not always mean being neutral.

There’s also something more worrying going on. One of the sides of this “debate” was, to some extent, deliberately constructed. You didn’t see people yelling and screaming about global warming being fake until the late 1980s, when governments first started to sit up and take notice. All the developing countries drafted bills to reduce emissions. Brian Mulroney, Margaret Thatcher, and George Bush Sr were all in on it. We were all set to go.

But the fossil fuel companies weren’t too happy about this. So they decided that, even if they couldn’t refute the science, they could at least confuse the public about the issue so legislation would be delayed. One of the earliest examples of this came in 1991, when three fossil fuel companies formed the Information Council on the Environment. Their objective, in their own words, was “to reposition global warming as a theory (not fact)” and “to supply alternative facts that suggest global warming will be good”. So they went ahead to achieve that, with a $500 000 advertising campaign with slogans such as, “Some say the Earth was warming. Some said the Earth was flat”; “Who told you the Earth was warming…Chicken Little?”; and “How much are you willing to pay to solve a problem that may not exist?”

Some fossil fuel companies launched their own advertising campaigns, but many others, wary that the public wouldn’t trust them, decided to fund conservative think tanks, such as the Heartland Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the Fraser Institute, and the Science & Environmental Policy Project. Since 1998, ExxonMobil alone has spent $20 million funding these think tanks.

Organizations such as these not only make statements like “there’s error in the temperature measurements, therefore we have no idea whether or not the Earth is warming”, among absolutely everything else they can possibly think of to spread doubt on global warming……they have also said that secondhand smoke does not cause cancer and that we shouldn’t ban the chemicals which cause ozone depletion. Do you see a pattern?

I don’t mind that they’re political advocacy groups. They can have any ideology they want, because ideology is a personal opinion. But when they’re willing to deny or twist science to suit their convenience, and the convenience of their stakeholders, my patience ends.

But these organizations also know that they are not seen as too credible or impartial in the eyes of the public. So they employ scientists to work for them. For example, in 2006, the American Enterprise Institute offered $10 000 to anyone who wrote a document challenging the findings of the IPCC.

In fact, among books which are skeptical of climate change or environmental issues, 92% of the authors are affiliated with these conservative think tanks.

These are not the only examples of how the widespread public doubt about climate change has been deliberately constructed. If you’re interested in more, you should read the book Climate Cover-Up by James Hoggan. It doesn’t deal with science, but rather with PR and political tactics, so you don’t need a PhD to assess it.

These stories make credibility even more important, because there are people out there who are trying to deceive you. They’re almost all professionals, but they employ just enough publishing scientists to make themselves look credible, and they influence just enough of the general public to make their statements look grassroots. And it’s worked. We’ve lost 20 years in the fight against climate change. And that’s far too long.

That’s why you should always, always Google the names of anyone who says that climate change is fake, because they have such a lousy track record. You’re more than welcome to also Google the names of people who say climate change is real, but I have yet to find anything incriminating about them.

The climate change “debate” is nearly always posed as being between two sides, whether or not they’re framed as equal. However, is it even structured as sides? Or is it structured as a spectrum?

This is a graphic which was created by another climate change blogger, Michael Tobis, who would fit into the category of “publishing scientist” – he’s an engineer who builds climate models.

“Most informed opinion” means “what’s actually going on in the science”. And it all says that, if we do nothing about climate change, there will be anywhere from a slight cost to a catastrophe.

Over here is the IPCC, which is the compilation document often used as a basis for policy. As we can see, a majority of the informed opinion thinks that things will turn out worse than the IPCC says. This is largely because an IPCC report takes so long to create that, by the time it’s out, it’s already out of date.

Then we have about three scientists over here. And, over here, we have the Heartland Institute and all of those other conservative think tanks, whose motives are pretty questionable.

Here’s the interesting part – the debate in the US Press (which we can probably extrapolate to the Canadian press) focuses on the think tanks as one extreme, and the IPCC as the other extreme. Anything more dramatic than the IPCC is considered unreasonable. So a full two-thirds of scientific opinion is not reported, whereas political advocacy groups – which are funded by fossil fuel companies and have a history of denying science – are reported.

Luckily, over the years, people have learned that the media isn’t always accurate, and can’t always be trusted. But in this case, people often take their skepticism of the media in the wrong direction. What percentage of American adults think that the media exaggerates the problem of global warming? (audience guesses) 41%. So 41% of the public thinks that the media should move more in this direction, at which point they wouldn’t be reporting science at all.

All this talk about a controversy, and all this framing of science as a personal opinion, has led to the public totally forgetting about credibility. So people start taking arguments at face value and assessing them based on coherence – the very thing we warned about at the beginning.

Do you know what percentage of Americans think that they generally understand the issue of climate change? (audience guesses) 80%.

If I was asked that question, I would say that no, I don’t understand the issue of climate change. I haven’t studied statistics, so I can’t analyze temperature trends. I haven’t done any courses in thermodynamics, so I can’t prove to you that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. I’ve only done a few months of calculus, so I can’t assess the reliability of computer models. What I do know is who to trust, and where to look for answers.

That’s why it really worries me that 80% of the public sees themselves as credible sources on this issue. I really doubt that 80% of Americans are scientists specializing in climate change! But the public paradigm has been shifted, to the point where people are encouraged to believe whatever they want.

So how do we change this? I think it’s really quite simple. We need to educate the public on everything I’ve just told you. They don’t need to know anything about climate science. They just need to know what to look out for, and who to trust. And once the public realizes that the media is incredibly inaccurate in their framing of climate change, they will demand better journalism.

If we want to avoid the worst of climate change – if we want to keep our coastal cities, if we want to avoid resource wars, if we want agriculture to remain viable in the subtropics – we need major action right away. Not just you and me riding our bikes and recycling. That’s not enough. We need major international action. But because we live in a democracy, this will only happen when the public realizes that climate change is a threat, that it is not controversial, and that the math and physics involved are not matters of personal opinion. And people will only realize this if we show them how.

Update (14/10/09): Wow, thank you so much for all your helpful suggestions! I addressed most of the issues you raised, including the second YouTube comment. Some issues make more sense with the slide, eg “Humans are not affecting the climate” sounds like a declarative statement until you see that it’s in a speech bubble coming out of the mouth of an angry stick person. The exact phrasing of the speech will probably change too, as I’m hoping to turn this script into point form notes as I get more familiar with it. Thanks again, keep them coming!

How and Why

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Climate Change and Evolution

Many advocates of anthropogenic climate change are also advocates of the theory of evolution. The two are often used in analogy in many different ways. In particular, skeptics of the two theories are often alleged to be either the same people or using the same tactics to spread public confusion.

I am not strongly religious, and I fully accept evolution. I understand that some others do not as it conflicts with their spiritual beliefs. I understand that alternative theories have failed to stand up to scientific scrutiny in the peer-reviewed literature. It is my opinion that these theories of creation or intelligent design should remain religious beliefs, and not attempt to be passed as objective science.

But I really don’t mind if people out there don’t believe in evolution. I couldn’t care less.

My feelings are exactly the opposite on anthropogenic global climate change. Why?

The difference between the evolution debate and the climate change debate is that the latter has consequences for the real world. Endless public debating and alternative theories about climate change could easily spread confusion and delay action to mitigate the threat. Indirectly, public debating on climate change, rather than leaving the debate to the scientists and taking action based on their conclusions, poses a threat to our future and our way of life.

Debating on evolution, in contrast, isn’t like that. At worst, it could slow down scientific progress in the area of biology. It could offend people. But could it wipe out our civilization? Of course not. Could climate change? Even the most skeptical person has to admit that it is a possibility.