If We Were Wrong

What if we were wrong about this whole climate change thing? What if global warming was actually nonexistent/natural/a global conspiracy?

I, for one, would be thrilled.

Yes, there would be humiliation, and all the effort we have spent on communication would be a waste, but that would be a small price to pay. For two reasons, being wrong about this would be so worth it.

Firstly, can you imagine having this weight off our shoulders? Can you imagine not having it wiggling its way into every thought you have about the future? I want to have kids one day….but what state will the world economy be in by then? I want to travel to the Amazon….but how many of its species will be lost by the time I get there? And all because we were too lazy, around the turn of the century, to do anything to stop it.

We probably could have saved ourselves, but we were too damned lazy to try very hard, and too damned cheap.

-Kurt Vonnegut

Secondly, what an incredible scientific opportunity it would be for this problem not to exist. I think that we can agree that a great deal of climatological theory and methods would have to be wrong for climate change to be proven natural/nonexistent/a global conspiracy. Anthropogenic global warming fits perfectly with our understanding of the climate system, and if it were proven wrong, a huge hole would be blown in this understanding.

We would have to rebuild that hole. We would have to redo all kinds of science. We would have to rediscover new ways of doing everything. How amazing would that be? What kind of an opportunity would a scientist rather have?

Summer Plans

Apologies for not posting last week. I am right in the middle of high school graduation events so things have been a little crazy.

I start my B.Sc in the fall, and am hoping to continue posting at least once a week. However, I want to write as much as possible this summer, in case university impedes my frequency of posting next year.

I want to continue my series of basic climate science articles – no, I haven’t forgotten about it! I have a list of several dozen topics to cover, becoming more complex once I get over the basic explanation of climate forcings. I feel that radiative balance and the idea of forcings is really at the heart of understanding climate change. Just like people pushing on a box, and net force leading to net acceleration, our activities are pushing on the climate – and this net forcing will lead to net global warming.

I am also working my way through a stack of books about climate change, pretty much everything I could get my hands on. I have renewed some of them 4 times from the library already, which I feel sort of guilty about, so I plan to steam through that reading this summer. As always, I will review my favourites here.

Of course, sociological musings will be posted whenever inspiration strikes. The incredible hullabaloo that resulted from Whatevergate seems to have subsided, although much damage has gone unrepaired. It will be interesting to watch what happens to public sentiment towards climate change in the coming months. Preliminary signs are more optimistic than I expected, but further communication of accurate science is desperately needed.

Infinite thanks for all your support. Here’s to a productive and relaxing summer for everyone.

Deniers?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We Have Slides!

After a marathon PowerPoint-session yesterday I finally got my 63 slides out of the way. Here is the presentation for anyone who is interested. The script is written in the notes beneath the slides.

I like to have things fading in and out of my slides, so sometimes the text boxes and images are stacked on top of each other and it won’t make sense until you view the animation.

Researching the median lethal dose of arsenic during my spare at school was really awkward. I had to do a lot of hasty explaining to my friends about how it was a metaphor for small concentrations having large effects, and no, I wasn’t planning to poison anyone.

Anyway, enjoy.

Mind the Gap (12 MB)

Sea Turtles and Kids

A true story. I found it incredibly inspiring, so I wanted to share it with all of you.

A seven-year-old girl was doing a school project on sea turtles, and found out something interesting – that the sex of a fertilized egg depends largely on the temperature in which it is laid. Climate change, therefore, could lead to too many female sea turtles and not enough males, which could further endanger the species. I did a bit of research on this myself (here’s a review paper on the subject) and am absolutely amazed that a seven-year-old was able to grasp something of this complexity.

She told her parents about it that night, and her dad’s reaction confused her. He said that he didn’t believe this theory – that he didn’t think there was any warming and so sea turtles would be just fine.

So the girl went back to school a little confused, and asked her teacher about it, and possibly did some more research, but the gist of the story is that she kept the part about climate change in her sea turtle project. And she presented it to her parents when she was done.

It gives me hope that, even in this time of rampant miscommunication and misconceptions about climate science, there are still people who know how to assess credibility. And some of them are only seven.

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.

Activists and Scientists

I’m back from PowerShift, and I had a fantastic time. I attended many workshops – including one on paleoclimatology from Dr Michael Pisaric, in which I had the joys of learning about pack rat middens – but also had time to do a lot of touring and walking. Ontario in the autumn is absolutely beautiful; the bright colours of the oaks and maples are a real novelty to someone like me from the aspen parkland. I visited Parliament Hill several times, took a tour of the central block, and visited the parliamentary cats. I played Irish flute on the U of Ottawa campus.

My one complaint about the conference was that there was too much activism and too little science for my liking. The three science-based workshops that I had starred in my program were all at the same time, so I had to choose only one. And far too many workshops were about learning how to lobby, rather than learning about climate change.

Don’t get me wrong – I am adamant that the Canadian government needs to do more about climate change. However, I feel that I can create more intelligent, respectful, and effective arguments through writing letters or talking to politicians (that is, if they answer my requests for meetings…..) rather than marching around with signs. Dressing up like a polar bear and singing the national anthems of low-lying nations in front of Parliament just isn’t my style. I watched from a distance and petted the cats instead.

I understand that a lot of people immediately realize that climate change is a problem, that it needs to be dealt with, and that our government is not dealing with it (as much as they’d like us to believe that they are). They’re immediately content to start lobbying based on what they know. I prefer to continue to analyse the issue as I urge for action in a more logical and intellectual way.

I think I would enjoy science conferences, rather than activism conferences, regarding climate change. How do you get into those if you’re not a scientist?

Luckily, the reason I came to PowerShift – to give a presentation – was just what I’d hoped for. All the people who liked to lobby went to the “how to protest” workshops, while the people who were more interested in credibility, education, and analysis came to mine. (There were a few people there with green face paint and “Shut Down the Tar Sands” hard hats, but they slunk out partway through.)

Infinite thanks to the regular ClimateSight readers who came to my workshop, and to everyone else in the audience of ~15. The audience was fantastic; everybody there was deeply interested in the issues I covered, and we had a great discussion at the end. And deep thanks to the gentleman who came in at the very end to compliment me on my blog and apologize for having to miss the presentation.

Even if it wasn’t perfectly suited to my interests, PowerShift certainly has inspired a lot of future blog posts, and now that my presentation is over, I’ll have a lot more time on my hands to write. Keep your eyes open for these topics in the coming weeks:

-finding an appropriate name for conservative think tanks

-Canadian climate change politics

-choosing the right course of study

Observations

I’ve given my presentation to several different classes at school this week. As I spend so much time corresponding with people who are very knowledgeable about climate change, it’s fascinating to step back and see what average students know, and what they don’t yet understand.

The most interesting was definitely the credibility game – when I call up five volunteers, give them signs (in a random order) saying “some guy named Joe”, “Al Gore”, “Dr Andrew Weaver”, “Science magazine”, and “NASA”, and ask them to put themselves in order of credibility. All three classes immediately put Joe at the bottom and NASA at the top. But the middle was a little mixed up, and it intrigued me to see why.

Al Gore was high on the credibility spectrum in all the classes. He was always placed in the top three out of five, if I recall correctly. I’ve known for a while that most of my peers equate climate change with Al Gore, and don’t know much more about the problem. But I didn’t expect that familiarity would translate to credibility. It was unexpected. Even teenagers don’t trust politicians too much.

The students didn’t know that Science was a peer-reviewed journal, assumed it was a popular science journal like Discover or National Geographic, and put it low on the spectrum. This wasn’t too surprising, although it was disappointing. Strong students who are about to begin university, as was the case with one of the classes, aren’t familiar with one of the most well-respected scientific journals in the world.

Dr Andrew Weaver, for some reason, also attracted suspicion. Somebody called out, “He’s just a doctor,” as in a medical physician, “so how credible can he be?” Another guy decided that he didn’t like the look of Dr Weaver and so wasn’t going to trust what he said. But I think that was just a deliberate attempt to be difficult.

The students were generally unfamiliar with scientific sources, but they were very well-versed in advertising strategies and business. I showed some images portraying think tanks’ claims that secondhand smoke doesn’t cause cancer, CFCs don’t deplete the ozone, and the world isn’t warming. I then asked the classes to identify the common thread running through these claims. All three classes quickly came up with a correct answer – that the think tanks were denying well-established science which, upon public acceptance, could lead to government regulation and short-term financial loss for certain industries. I found it interesting that the students were willing to give such a complex explanation of this phenomenon, whereas they were generally quiet and unsure when I asked them questions about scientific credibility.

When I asked the students to guess what percentage of climatologists thought humans weren’t affecting the climate, the answers were usually random guesses (67%, 84%, etc) or absolutes. I heard a lot of 0% (implying that climate change wasn’t a scientific theory at all, and was just cooked up by the media), 100% (implying that a unanimous opinion in the scientific community was not only possible, but commonplace), and 50% (implying that it was a fairly equal-sided debate). I feel that my presentation was structured to refute the 50% answer. But I think it also addressed why 0% and 100% aren’t reasonable.

Following the presentation, the most common question was, “Why is a warming of only a few degrees such a big deal?” I wish I could have answered this question on paper instead of explaining it on the spot, as I think I would have been able to form a much better response. Oh well….

One guy had something very interesting to say. He noted that climate change, as well as many other global problems, was partly due to the fact that people couldn’t see past their own backyards. They couldn’t comprehend just how huge and diverse the world was. I then got very excited and brought up the July temperature anomalies as an example of how accurate his point was – people in our area noticed it was a cool summer and dismissed the idea of global warming. They took a look at their little corner of the world and assumed that everywhere else was the same.

I present one more time tomorrow to a class. Then I’m off Friday morning to the conference! It will be a different audience – students who are already interested in climate change, rather than those who just happened to be in third-period English – but it was very helpful for me to have a few practice runs, and fascinating to see what my peers think about this issue.

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!

The Last Minority

Over the past century, our society has significantly expanded its definition of “citizen”. It wasn’t too long ago that the only people who were allowed to vote were white males.

In Canada, where I live, women with close relatives away at war could vote in federal elections beginning in 1917. By 1919, the right to vote was extended to all women.

As we were an enormously racist country until Trudeau came into power in 1968, Chinese Canadians were not allowed to vote until 1947. It was even worse for the First Nations peoples – their right to vote was not granted until 1960.

In 2002, prisoners were granted the right to vote. Today, you can even vote if you are a Canadian citizen living overseas, or are homeless and don’t have an address to verify on your Voter Identification card.

It took us a long time to get here, but now, every Canadian citizen has the right to vote, regardless of gender, ethnicity, personal circumstances, or religion.

Or do they?

What about young people?

“They’re not mature enough,” you may object. “Teenagers are rebellious troublemakers who can’t understand their own decisions.”  But I have witnessed a fair few rousing discussions in geo and history classes, and can personally attest to the fact that there are many teenagers out there who are more politically aware than most adults.

Probably the reason that Canadian citizens under 18 aren’t allowed to vote is that a lot of the legislation being voted on only applies to those 18 and older. Prison sentences, insurance, property taxes…..a great deal of it only kicks in once you’re old enough to get a library card without a parent signature.

However, not all legislation is only applicable to legal adults. Some is actually more applicable to youth than any other segment of the population.

Climate change is a long-term problem. Due to the lag time between atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration and temperature, whatever changes we make in our emissions won’t be noticeable for another 50-60 years. You can bet that most of the politicians debating Waxman-Marley and Copenhagen won’t be around to experience the results of their actions, or lack thereof.

Maybe I’m just being cynical, but it seems a lot easier to care about a problem when it’s your future in jeopardy. When it’s your chance to go to university and travel the world, to have a family, to own property. When you might be left in a world where travelling is impossible due to sea level rise and environmental refugees, where the chances of your family being injured in a natural disaster or infected by a vector-borne disease increase, where cashing out your insurance on your new property looks a heck of a lot more likely.

We, the youth, haven’t experienced any of the milestones that our parents have. It’s our future that’s threatened. But we have no say in it. Instead, the decision is being made for us by people who won’t be around to experience most of the consequences. Youth are some of the only people that have a vested interest in the long-term consequences of society’s actions. So why is it that we are the only ones prohibited to vote?

Finally, I was really touched by this commercial from Australia. Most of it is the normal “use clean energy! ratify Kyoto!” propaganda, but then the narrator says, “I’ll do everything in my power to make it happen. The only thing I can’t do is vote.”

A quick housekeeping note: I have purchased a domain name from WordPress and the URL for my blog is now http://climatesight.org! Shorter and catchier. The old URL, https://climatesight.wordpress.com, will still work. No links to this site will be broken. I just thought that a more obvious URL would help the blog reach more people.