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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Communicating the Truth about Climate Change

There's an ongoing dispute about how to present science to the general public. People like Matt Nisbet and Chris Mooney advocate framing—another word for spin—in order to appeal to the public's perceived biases. They seem to be comfortable with a little "lying for science" as long as it serves the greater good.

Matt Nisbet and Chris Mooney are experts at recognizing that greater good even when others can't see it.

Many scientists—I am one— believe that scientists have to tell the truth no matter how much it might confuse the general public. We believe that evidence-based conclusions are the one thing that separates science from pseudoscience and scientists should never compromise the truth.

Here's an example of how climate change should be presented. It's from an editorial in the Dec. 6 issue of New Scientist [It's the Carbon Stupid].
It's time for heretical thinking on climate change. After two decades in which science has told us more and more about global warming, climate modellers may have to recognise that we have learned most of what we can from their number-crunching.

Some of the detailed forecasts about exactly what the climate will be like in Albuquerque or Basingstoke in 2050 or 2080 are little more than statistical noise, as physicist Lenny Smith underlines this week (see "Bad climate science"). Even the global picture may depend more than we like to admit on feedbacks and tipping points produced by a system that is inherently chaotic. We need to beware of the known unknowns and - whisper it - the unknown unknowns.

Some politicians still demand certainty from climate scientists and are sitting on their hands until they get it. But certainty may be no more available here than in that other troublesome discipline, economics. This is not a counsel for inaction, but for grown-up government: for doing what we know is needed in the face of uncertainty, and for taking actions like those called for this week by the British government's Committee on Climate Change, from decarbonising electricity generation to culling carbon-spewing vehicles and aircraft.

Here's another heresy. Perhaps the endless negotiations to frame a successor to the Kyoto protocol - currently in mid-grind in Poznan, Poland - are becoming an impediment to action. The protocol's various market devices, like cap-and-trade and the clean development mechanism, could now be holding up the technologies we know will do the job. Invented by the Clinton/Gore administration, should they now be jettisoned by Barack Obama? Michael Le Page believes so (see "Time for change on climate: an open letter to Barack Obama") and argues that taxing carbon would be a better plan. It would be a bold move. But just as past economic certainties are failing, maybe it is time to think the unthinkable here too.
The point of this editorial is that there's no reason to be overly alarmist and there's no reason why we can't admit that our climate models are flawed. The bottom line is that we know the climate is warming and we know that we are contributing to the cause. It's time to do something.

The contrasting approach to communicating science is wonderfully described by Matt Nisbet on his blog. Today's posting talks about America's Top Climate Communicator. Matt is not happy with the choices being offered. He proposes his own choice for top climate communicator: the Reverend Richard Cizik, VP for Governmental Affairs of the National Association of Evangelicals.

To back up his nomination Matt quotes from a recent interview ...
GROSS: I imagine you didn't agree with Sarah Palin on environmental issues. For example, her emphasis on drill, baby, drill, and also the fact that she said she wasn't sure if human behavior contributed to climate change. Now, climate change and the environment are issues you're trying to put much more toward the top of the evangelical agenda.

REV. CIZIK: Yeah, I couldn't - you're right. I couldn't have disagreed with her more. Just a year ago, we found out from climate scientists that the melt in the Arctic had turned into a rout. It was happening so fast it was as if your hair turned gray overnight. Now, I have a receding hairline, but I don't have my hair turning gray overnight. Well, that's what happened with the environment. An area the size of Colorado was disappearing every week, and the Northwest Passage was staying wide open all September for the first time in history. And so, to look at this and not see what's happening, I think is, well, it was sort of the ignorance is strength idea. Well, not. It's not strength. Look, strength is knowing what's happening to the world around us, and moreover, as a Christian, we can't claim to love the Creator and abuse the world in which we live. To do so is like claiming to be a fan of Shakespeare and then burn his plays....

...I'm always looking for ways to reframe issues, give the biblical point of view a different slant, if you will, and look it - we have to. The whole world, literally, the planet, is changing around us. And if you don't change the way you think and adapt, especially to things like climate change, scientists like Bob Doppelt, he says, well, if you don't adapt and change your thinking, you may ultimately be a loser because climate change, in his mind, he is a systems analyst, has the capacity to determine the winners and losers, and your life will never be the same, growing up during, I say, the great warming. Our grandparents grew up during the Great Depression. Our parents, well, they lived in the aftermath of that and became probably, the most, well, the greediest generation and our generation, this younger one, needs to be the greenest....
If I have to choose between the New Scientist editorial and Rev. Cizik then New Scientist wins hands down.

What do you think? Is Rev. Cizik going to convince you that he understands the science behind climate change?1

1. The area of Colorado is 269,837 km2 and the area of the entire Arctic ocean is 14,056,000 km2, which 52× the area of Colorado.


  1. Eichler et al.: Half of recent warming was solar

    The authors looked at 750 years worth of the local ice core, especially the oxygen isotope. They claim to have found a very strong correlation between the concentration of this isotope (i.e. temperature) on one side and the known solar activity in the epoch 1250-1850. Their data seem to be precise enough to determine the lag, about 10-30 years. It takes some time for the climate to respond to the solar changes.

    It seems that they also have data to claim that the correlation gets less precise after 1850. They attribute the deviation to CO2 and by comparing the magnitude of the forcings, they conclude that "Our results are in agreement with studies based on NH temperature reconstructions [Scafetta et al., 2007] revealing that only up to approximately 50% of the observed global warming in the last 100 years can be explained by the Sun."

    Well, the word "only" is somewhat cute in comparison with the "mainstream" fashionable ideology. The IPCC said that they saw a 90% probability that "most" of the recent warming was man-made. The present paper would reduce this figure, 90%, to less than 50% because the Sun itself is responsible for 1/2 of the warming and not the whole 50% of the warming could have been caused by CO2 because there are other effects, too.

    Note that if 0.3 °C or 0.4 °C of warming in the 20th century was due to the increasing CO2 levels, the climate sensitivity is decisively smaller than 1 °C. At any rate, the expected 21st century warming due to CO2 would be another 0.3-0.4 °C, and this time, if the solar activity contributes with the opposite sign, these two effects could cancel. Even if you try to stretch these numbers a little bit - but not unrealistically - you have to become sure that the participants of the Poznań conference are lunatics. By the way, the participants just heard that air-conditioners cause global warming: another trace gas that is 15,000 times more potent than CO2. Well, be sure, once you start to study trace gases, you will have to deal with millions of similar things.

    Finally, I didn't go there: the transportation would be too difficult for the infinitesimal effect that my presence would probably have.

  2. When I read Matt's post earlier today, the only conclusion that I could come to was that he thinks that we need religious leaders like Rev. Czik to be the science communicators because they take away the perceived religious fear of science. Matt's point has always seemed to be that in order for the public to accept the science, they will have to hear it from their pastors. They need "soothing" to know that it is theologically okay to be concerned about the environment, and that Creation Care should be the front and center filter that all scientists should funnel their information through.

    Again, he is making the a priori assumption that the people to convince on issues such as global warming are the sort of religious people that think the world is coming to an end any day now. It seems as though the only point to publicizing science is to reassure these people that science is not a function of atheism so that they can approach.

    But they need their pastor's permission, first.

  3. I think there's a certain logic to Matt's ideas about selecting (as Mike puts it) "soothing" figures to explain scientific issues. People with a friendly image who are likely to be appealing. I also see the need to engage with religious audiences on the issue of climate change.

    However, this can only go so far. You've still got to come from a solid scientific basis as ultimately you will undermine your own case. Skeptics can pick holes in your argument.

    I'd also be interested to learn from Matt whether he thinks that building up hysteria (which is effectively what the Rev is doing) is a good communications strategy. How do people actually respond to this? There is evidence of "green fatigue" amongst the general public. Is adopting the "climate chaos" approach really going to work?

    Mike Hulme has been doing work in this regard. His work suggests that the Czik is unlikely to be an effective communicator (based on the quoted passage)

    Alarmist messages about global warming are counter-productive, the head of a leading climate research centre says.

    Professor Mike Hulme, of the UK's Tyndall Centre, has been conducting research on people's attitudes to media portrayals of a catastrophic future.

    He says strong messages designed to prompt people to change behaviour only seem to generate apathy.

  4. Hmmm, just doing a quick bit of searching reveals the following comment by Matt in response to the Hulme article I just mentioned:

    Hulme's study supports what we argue at Science: on climate change, the Pandora's Box or catastrophe frame doesn't work. It opens environmental groups up to counter-claims of alarmism and only appeals to the already concerned.</i

    Why then does he promote someone like Cizik who seems to be fairly alarmist? I think I'll pop over and ask.

  5. Ooops, fucked up the last post. It should say:

    Hmmm, just doing a quick bit of searching reveals the following comment by Matt in response to the Hulme article I just mentioned:

    Hulme's study supports what we argue at Science: on climate change, the Pandora's Box or catastrophe frame doesn't work. It opens environmental groups up to counter-claims of alarmism and only appeals to the already concerned.

    Why then does he promote someone like Cizik who seems to be fairly alarmist? I think I'll pop over and ask.

    Nisbett quote from here:

  6. Hmmmm, Matt didn't approve my inocuous little question.

  7. There has to be a balance. Plus, there need not be an absolute choice between "the truth" and "public confusion". We have to work as hard as possible to present the truth to the public in a palatable form.