Weekend reading: dealing with noise

There’s no doubt that in the last few months the PR war against action on climate change has been fierce — and effective. Three articles I’ve read in the last couple of days throw some light on what’s been going on, and are well worth a few moments of anyone’s time. The first, and by far the most eloquent, is Bill McKibben’s The attack on climate science is the O.J. moment of the 21st century. McKibben likens the tactics of OJ Simpson’s lawyers, confronted with a huge pile of evidence that their client was guilty to the campaign against climate science:


If anything, [OJ’s lawyers] were actually helped by the mountain of evidence. If a haystack gets big enough, the odds only increase that there will be a few needles hidden inside. Whatever they managed to find, they made the most of: In closing arguments, for instance, Cochran compared [LA detective Mark] Fuhrman to Adolf Hitler and called him “a genocidal racist, a perjurer, America’s worst nightmare, and the personification of evil.” His only real audience was the jury, many of whom had good reason to dislike the Los Angeles Police Department, but the team managed to instil considerable doubt in lots of Americans tuning in on TV as well. That’s what happens when you spend week after week dwelling on the cracks in a case, no matter how small they may be.

McKibben suggests that CRU head Phil Jones has been cast in the Fuhrman role, taking the full force of the attack. This personalisation of the process is exemplified by the McCarthy-like tactics of US senator James Inhofe, who has just released a report calling for investigations and prosecutions of leading climate scientists. Because they can’t change the evidence, however hard they try, they are reduced to shooting the messenger…

The robustness of the case for action is underlined in the new statement on climate science from NZ PM John Key’s science adviser Sir Peter Gluckman, Climate change and the scientific process, but Gluckman is also realistic about the difficulty of making policy in this area.

Although the risk to our future of not acting now is real, the scientific community has had and is having difficulty communicating both its uncertainty and the absolute need for action simultaneously. […] The ensuing political and economic debate on how best to respond to climate change should not be used as an excuse to gamble the planet’s future against the overwhelming evidence that humans are contributing to the world warming at an unsafe rate. The basic principle is no different to risk management in any other sphere of life.

The “debate”, such as it is, is not about the science. McKibben again:

…it’s a mistake to concentrate solely on the science for another reason. Science may be what we know about the world, but politics is how we feel about the world. And feelings count at least as much as knowledge. Especially when those feelings are valid. People are getting ripped off. They are powerless against large forces that are, at the moment, beyond their control. Anger is justified.

Feelings can do more: they condition the way the think about things. This recent National Public Radio story, headlined Belief in climate change hinges on worldview explains the work of The Cultural Cognition Project:

To social scientist and lawyer Don Braman, it’s not surprising that two people can disagree so strongly over science. Braman is on the faculty at George Washington University and part of The Cultural Cognition Project, a group of scholars who study how cultural values shape public perceptions and policy beliefs. “People tend to conform their factual beliefs to ones that are consistent with their cultural outlook, their world view,” Braman says.

“Basically the reason that people react in a close-minded way to information is that the implications of it threaten their values,” says Dan Kahan, a law professor at Yale University and a member of The Cultural Cognition Project.

Kahan says people test new information against their preexisting view of how the world should work.

“If the implication, the outcome, can affirm your values, you think about it in a much more open-minded way,” he says.

And if the information doesn’t, you tend to reject it.

This is what is happening with climate change. The polarisation is all too obvious in the blogosphere and the wider media. The CCP has also identified what it calls the “messenger effect” — where people tend to believe information if it comes from people like themselves. In the climate “debate” this becomes a vicious, inward-looking circle, with sceptic and crank arguments endlessly recirculating around blogs, boards and mailing lists.

All of these articles illuminate one central truth: all the noise about emails, IPCC “errors” and crooked scientists has absolutely nothing to do with the underlying science. Those who want to delay action on climate change have no hope of dismantling what McKibben calls the haystack of evidence, they can only pretend that finding a needle means the thing is not made of hay. But they can change the politics — the willingness of politicians the world over to take firm action now.

The answer, if it can be found, will not come from climate scientists. They need to do what they do best — study the planet in all its complexity, define and delineate the implications of what we’re doing to it. But we should not expect them to win hearts and minds, to build a global public consensus on the need for urgent action. That’s a matter for politics, not science. The lead has to come from elsewhere. My own suspicion is that nothing much will get done until the damage from change becomes too great to ignore — and I found an eery echo of that fear in my morning paper, in a story lifted from the Times about a new British report on likely land use changes in the UK over the coming century. One scenario considered is described thus:

Mass migration northwards to new towns in Scotland, Wales and northeast England may be needed to cope with climate change and water shortages in the South East, according to an apocalyptic vision set out by the Government Office for Science. […] In the most extreme scenario, world leaders hold an emergency summit in 2014 when it becomes clear that the impacts of climate change are going to be far worse and happen much sooner than previously envisaged.

The sad fact is that if we wait until the damage is too obvious to ignore, it will be too late to stop much worse impacts in future decades. McKibben says we need courage and hope. But we also need leaders who are prepared to take the evidence and act on it — and who will not be swayed by the denialist noise campaign. They need to recognise empty vessels when they see them.

Back at the ranch


Back at my desk, after four days on a boat in the Abel Tasman/Golden Bay area. I’m tempted to post a selection of my photographs, but I’ll settle for this one (for fellow Sciblogger Chthoniid) of a petrel, taken in Golden Bay a few kilometres off Farewell Spit on Monday morning. Oily seas, hot, lots of birds and kingfish. Click on the picture for a bigger version. Anyone know the exact species? I’d say it was a black petrel, but I’m no ornithologist. I’ll be back on the climate beat over the next few days, but meanwhile my thanks to Bryan for a series of very good posts over the last week.

Denialism’s allies: nasty work in Australia

 Climate change denialism has plugged into some very sick strains in society according to  the behaviour described by Clive Hamilton in the first of a series of articles in the debate forum on the ABC website.  He describes how Australia’s most distinguished climate scientists have been subjected to a torrent of  aggressive, abusive and at times threatening emails each time they enter the public debate through a newspaper article or radio interview.  “Apart from the volume and viciousness of the emails, the campaign has two features – it is mostly anonymous and it appears to be orchestrated.”  I recommend reading his article to get a full picture of the attacks, though prepare yourself to be shocked by the blind hatred and anger expressed in the crudest of language. It’s cyber-bullying of a very nasty kind, apparently intended to intimidate  the targets, who also include some journalists, and to make them reluctant to participate further in the climate change debate. Last month I reported James Hansen writing in a recent essayof vicious personal messages being sent to principal scientists almost daily – he didn’t elaborate, but it’s apparently not a peculiarly Australian phenomenon.


In a second article Hamilton looks at who is doing the orchestrating.  “Without access to ISP logs, it is difficult to trace the emails to a source. However, it is clear that hard-line denialists congregate electronically at a number of internet nodes where they engage in mutual reinforcement of their opinions and stoke the rage that lies behind them.”  On such websites a frenzy of outlandish conspiracy theories and vilification of individuals often follows posts which make highly personal attacks on individuals who speak in favour of mainstream science and measures to combat global warming.  Hamilton doesn’t suggest that the sites he goes on to mention are responsible for organising the cyber-bullying attacks on scientists and others, but they provide the material which is tailor-made for the kind of psyche which is all too ready to pour out hatred and anger. He posits: “Climate denialism has been absorbed by an older and wider political movement, sometimes called right-wing populism.” The movement is driven by feelings of angry grievance. “Those who identify with it see themselves as anti-liberal, anti-elitist and anti-intellectual.” He considers that the energy of this wider populist movement has fed into climate change denialism, because it recognises familiar enemies in mainstream scientists and in people socially concerned by the prospect of global warming.

In his third article in the series, published today, Hamilton discusses the role of think tanks funded by oil money in the effort to discredit climate science and stop action on climate change. He refers to the carefully planned strategy developed in the mid-1990s,  commissioning “independent” experts to “make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate”, citing Jim Hoggan’s  book Climate Cover-Up (reviewed here on Hot Topic). Various Australian think tanks are surveyed which have served as “conduits for the stream of anti-science pouring out of their kindred organisations in the United States. They have also been instrumental in publicising and promoting the work of Australian sceptics such as Ian Plimer and Bob Carter.”  They need funding, but in the end their motives are political rather than commercial.

A hatred of environmentalism is what Hamilton sees as uniting the various arms of the denialist war on climate science. “Environmentalism is variously seen to be the enemy of individual freedom, an ideology of smug elites, an attack on capitalism and consumerism, and the vanguard of world government.”

In conclusion he appeals to conservative leaders who accept the science to speak out loudly and clearly about the need to take action. It is in their hands to break down the belief that global warming is somehow a left-wing cause.

There are two more articles to come from Hamilton in what will be a five-part series, but I’ll leave it to readers to follow him further if they wish.  The burden of his concern is pretty clear from what he has already written and I thought it worth communicating now.  Incidentally Hamilton’s latest book Requiem for a Species is due for publication in a couple of months and I expect to review it here.

Methane rise continues

More cautionary news on rising methane levels is reported in yesterday’s Independent. Two leading experts on CH4in the atmosphere, Euan Nisbet and Ed Dlugokencky, were due to reveal at a conference that, after a decade of near-zero growth, “globally averaged atmospheric methane increased by [approximately] 7ppb (parts per billion) per year during 2007 and 2008.” They consider it likely that 2009 will have shown the same rising trend, since the figures for the first half of the year showed a 7 ppb rise on the 2008 level.

They are properly cautious about the rises and comment that they may just be a couple of years of high growth which may drop back to what it was.  But they stress the importance of understanding the causes of the rises, because of the potential for increased CH4 emissions from strong positive climate feedbacks in the Arctic where there are unstable stores of carbon in permafrost. Permafrost melt carries the potential for methane release.

If there is a feedback mechanism at work it’s bad news as the Independent makes clear in terms that its readers can understand:

“Many climate scientists think that frozen Arctic tundra… is a ticking time bomb in terms of global warming, because it holds vast amounts of methane, an immensely potent greenhouse gas. Over thousands of years the methane has accumulated under the ground at northern latitudes all around the world, and has effectively been taken out of circulation by the permafrost acting as an impermeable lid. But as the permafrost begins to melt in rising temperatures, the lid may open – with potentially catastrophic results”.

This is not alarmism on the part of the Independent. The scientists involved in reporting the rises are careful and restrained in their statements.  We may hope that the increases turn out not to be significant in terms of feedbacks under way.  But it is a sober reminder of how quickly things may change if natural feedbacks kick in and amplify the warming already caused by our human activity.  See Gareth’s earlier post on methane hydrates in the Arctic.

Incidentally, it was good to see a newspaper competently and thoroughly reporting climate change science news.  It can happen, and when it does it’s a different world from the ignorant and careless journalism that has been so apparent recently in relation to the UEA emails and the IPCC report.  Rationality and proportion marked an excellent piece of science reporting.

The Listener joins the attack

“…serious and growing questions over the standards and credibility of the international body whose job it is to determine the scientific truths about climate change.” 

The Listener is not going to be left out.  Ruth Laugesen writes in the current issue that “probes by a variety of international media have uncovered a smattering of poorly based and even shonky assertions” in the IPCC reports.  By the time she comes to list them later in her article they have become “potential inaccuracies”. The list is familiar enough.  First is the Himalayan glacier melt rate, which has been acknowledged by the IPCC as a regrettable error.  Of the other four, two track back to Jonathan Leake at the Sunday Times – dubbed Amazongate and Africagate – and both have been shown up as lacking any substance by Tim Lambert here and here. Another refers to the mistaken statement that 55% of the Netherlands is below sea level when the correct figure is 26%, yet Laugesen acknowledges that this relied on a figure supplied by the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency. The remaining item concerns the reliability of data from weather stations in East China used in a research paper by Phil Jones and others published in Nature in 1990. Jones has reasonably responded to the accusation of fraud here.


Against the massive and impressive IPCC reports these are all matters of negligible substance, as anyone who has cast an eye over the reports would immediately recognise.  Only one of them reveals a clear failure to observe the processes and standards expected of the IPCC authors.  It is absurd to suggest that they add up to serious and growing questions.  All they add up to is a demonstration of how savagely determined climate change deniers are to cast doubts on climate science by whatever means they can find.  Is it too much to ask that a staff writer for the Listener treat her “international media” with more caution?  Journalists around the world seem to be engaged in an operation where you simply pass on something you have read about climate science in another publication without feeling the need to check on its initial reliability.  The more this happpens the more the story becomes entrenched. And the longer the public is left thinking there may be some deep uncertainty about human-caused climate change. The abdication of intellectual responsibility is alarming.

And it’s not only journalists who are letting the public down. Depressingly, and I wish I could add surprisingly, Climate Change Minister Nick Smith when questioned by Laugesen has chosen not to deny the notion that the IPCC report is untrustworthy.  “It does raise questions – if those parts of the report have mistakes in them, what about the rest of the report?…The reality is that governments respond to the mood of the public. And the fact that there are errors in the IPCC report is of concern.”

He says that the errors will be one reason for the government being “a bit more cautious” on climate change policy.  How much more cautious can the government get without giving up on the issue altogether?  If Smith is taking his lead from the mood of the public he should not be occupying the post of Climate Change Minister.  He has access to expert scientific advice.  He should be telling the public how serious the situation is, not letting their mood be determined by superficial journalism.

He even has the nerve to advise the 16 NZ scientists involved in the IPCC process that “it is better to pursue quality than quantity.”

Thankfully Laugesen includes comments from NIWA’s chief climate scientist, David Wratt, NZ’s representative on the 31-member IPCC governing bureau.  He introduces a note of sanity into the article. One hopes the Listener readership is sophisticated enough to see with whom the truth lies, but journalists certainly aren’t making it easy.