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Jokes about climate change used to be in short supply, but fortunately climate “sceptics”* rectified all that. Here’s Richard Glover of the Sydney Morning Herald:
Do climate-change sceptics have the same attitude to other pieces of expert advice? When their car develops a fault and the local mechanic says the brake pads are shot, do they seek a second opinion? And having been told by the second mechanic that, yes, the brake pads are shot, do they then trawl around town until on the 99th visit, they strike a mechanic who says “no, the brake pads are fine”? And then driving at high speed up the F3, do they entrust their lives to this last opinion?
No. Because it would be mental.
What happens when Maurice Newman, climate agnostic and ABC chairman, goes to the doctor? Does he storm from the office when they diagnose chickenpox and seek second, third and 99th opinions until he finds a doctor who will give him the all clear? And does he then decry the first 98 doctors as victims of “group-think”?
No. Because it would be mental.
* The word “sceptic” can only be used euphemistically when describing those people who think anthropogenic climate change is some sort of massive hoax. They are, in fact, embarrassingly gullible: happily accepting whatever half-truths and distortions that have been put about by libertarian think-tanks and PR firms employed by fossil fuel dependent industry. True scepticism is the lifeforce of scientific enquiry, include climatology. The Royal Society’s motto is Nullius in verba – take nobody’s word for it.
Like a bad disaster film, the naysayers have been in charge over climate change. It’s not too late to rewrite the final scenes.
Every disaster movie has a stock character – the person who tells everyone else that there’s nothing to worry about. Shark? There’s no shark. What could possibly go wrong with that tower block, ship, plane, volcano, dinosaur safari park or paramilitary robot cop with a slightly psychopathic glint in its eye?
Such “don’t worry” confidence is always bullish and reassuring. The motives are mostly financial: to open in time for the holiday season or launch the product ahead of a few safety checks. People fall for it, of course, because they want to believe that things will be OK, that their plans won’t have to change. It always ends badly. In the battered landscapes as the final credits roll, there is little doubt that a false-negative diagnosis costs vastly more than a little healthy caution.
So, how lucky do we feel about the climate threat to civilisation? With a few important exceptions, the media swallowed spin and insinuation from peddlers of doubt about its seriousness, without ever holding them to remotely the same standard of evidence demanded of climate scientists. As a result, he time for meaningful action is shrinking just as fewer appear convinced of the need to act.
There is a fine line between noble self-interrogation (generally a good thing) and liberal self-flagellation (generally pointless, painful and scarring). Why is it that so many avowedly progressive people are drawn anxiously, like moths to the flames of even their most wild-eyed critics? Meanwhile, the latter sail on, blithely unconcerned by doubt or evidence.
And yet what has really changed since the strange convulsion of “sceptics’ hour”? It allowed a peculiar release of tension after the relative failure of much-hyped international negotiations. Then, it slowly dawned on the media that science always was about probabilities, not certainties, and decisions still had to be made on these. A huge, obfuscating dust cloud of doubt was kicked up, but now that it has settled, the landscape is the same, the basic science unaltered. There’s just a lot of grit in people’s eyes. Climate change is still real, happening and without radical action could, in a few short years, move into a phase whereby it becomes very difficult to reverse.
At least, and modestly reassuring, the world is already moving on. For, example, could there be a more symbolic act than GM’s decision to close its factory making the petrol-hungry Hummer, especially after China, rising economic power and its last hope for rescue, pulled out of the deal?
Elsewhere, business as usual no longer goes unquestioned. American web giant Facebook recently announced plans for a massive, energy-intensive new data centre in Prineville, Oregon. When it became clear that coal power plants would help provide its electricity, around 20,000 people formed a group on Facebook, calling on the company to use 100% clean energy with the strapline “We want Facebook to use 100% renewable energy“.
Whatever people may say to pollsters, at a deeper level, the need for change is altering expectations for people, companies and governments. The fact that public attitudes seemed to change quickly in the wrong direction also means that they are volatile and could flip again. Perversely, we maybe in the last hurrah of the sceptics, and closer to a positive tipping point in attitude than it seems. Even with plenty on his plate, President Barack Obama took time out to explain the difference between weather and climate systems after heavy snowfall in North America (but melting ice at the winter Olympics).
Students of the disaster film genre won’t be surprised. Generally they adhere to a reliable story arc. In the first act, all seems well until a prescient few stumble across evidence of impending disaster. In the second act they get ignored. False reassurance (often with dubious motives) wins the day. Then, bad things happen. In the final act, with all hell breaking loose, the siren voices are either silenced or left quivering in the face of their own foolhardiness. Some kind of sense wins out.
Real life, though, is a movie whose script we have to write for ourselves. And here we are, stuck in the second act, with the bad things just beginning to happen. Quick, grab the keyboard, the floor’s beginning to shake, we’ve got 81 months, and counting…
You may not be aware of this but, late last week, Ed Miliband ‘declared war’. This was not the usual, armed conflict type. Instead, the climate secretary entered into an ongoing battle based around knowledge and research. The main opponents were those who continue to deny the existence of human powered climate change. Let’s call them climate deniers (the use of this contested term, I realise, is worthy of a blog in and of itself but that will have to wait for another day).
The Minister for Climate Change and Energy was concerned, rightly so, about the extensive media coverage dedicated to the minority opinions of the climate deniers. The coverage was so extensive that I do not need to repeat the details here. Instead, I am interested in the nature of this debate and want it says about the way in which human knowledge is produced, debated and advanced.
Ed Miliband raised concerns about the media’s role in obstructing public understanding and promoting confusion about climate change. The Minister is not the first to make this observation. There is a growing body of academic literature that points to the powerful role played by the media in the climate change debate. Indeed, the media seems to be one of the main platforms for expressing the climate denial perspective. This is problematic not only because the media influences public opinion but also because this form of debate completely by-passes the standard way in which scholarship and knowledge is debated, revised and advanced.
Within the academic community, peer review is the cornerstone of knowledge production. In order to ensure publication (and so legitimatisation), research findings must respond to critiques and comments as part of the peer review process. Peer review, whilst not a perfect system, is the main mechanism we have for validating knowledge. Climate deniers disregard this system. First, the majority of their claims are not submitted to peer reviewed journals. Second, the peer review process has been critical to furthering our understanding of climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change generates reports based on a thorough and critical assessment of the evidence. This is what makes us confident that the findings are robust and trustworthy. Yet, it is this very process (and the findings) that climate deniers continue to dispute.
I don’t always agree with Ed Miliband but his recent concerns about the climate deniers are worth heeding. We need to continue to contest these views, not only to defend the rigour of academic knowledge advancement but, more urgently, to defend the future of our civilisation.
 See, for example, Boykoff, M., and Roberts, T. (2007) Media Coverage of Climate Change: Current Trends, Strengths and Weaknesses, Human Development Report Office Occasional Paper (UNDP)
 Antilla, L (2005) Climate of scepticism: US newspaper coverage of the science of climate change, Global Environmental Change, vol. 15: 338-352
A recent poll suggests that the majority of people around the world think that governments should be doing more to tackle climate change. The survey, carried out by WorldPublicOpinion.org, asked 18,578 people in 18 countries – representing 60% of the world’s population – about government priorities on climate, as well as the attitudes of their fellow citizens.
Earlier this week, Jeremy Williams pointed out that in the UK, people are far more concerned about the effects of recession that they are about any environmental issue. And while this won’t come as a surprise to any environmentalist, it can be disheartening to see the wide disparity between concern about economy and concern about environment. Especially given that, as Herman Daly once said, “the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment, not the reverse.”
Still, this latest poll might give climate change campaigners some reasons to be cheerful. Asked how much their Government prioritises climate change – on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the highest priority – UK respondents to the poll answered 5.92. Asked how much the Government should prioritise climate change, and they answered 8.2. Which means that most of us want the Government to take considerably more action to fix this problem.
The UK was actually among the countries who recommended that Government make climate change a high priority, trumped only by Turkey at 8.34, China at a revealing and impressive 8.86, and finally Mexico with a whopping 9.09. The fact that Chinese people are this concerned should be cause for hope.
But China’s ascendency to superpower status in no way diminuishes the importance of American attitudes which are, unfortunately, lacklustre in comparison. 4.71 out of 10 is the priority which, according to Americans, their Government should place on climate change. And while this figure does show that people believe that Obama and co. should being doing more on climate – Americans believe that global warming is currently prioritised at 3.84 out of 10 by Government – the number is still the lowest level of concern out of all the nations surveyed, including those who, like Iraq, have arguably more immediate things to worry about.
The United States is schizophrenic in its attitudes to science and science policy. It tends to be very pro-technology in some areas, and then baulks at stem cell research. It produces some of the best scientific research anywhere in the world, and is home to top-class universities and experts, and yet its populace remain so susceptible to the dishonest peddlars of creationism and climate change denial. The existence of such double standards and contrary attitudes can be baffling to external observers, and yet, when given the chance to see how the American media covers these issues, you begin to understand why.
The following story is a case in point. Anthony Watts is a meteorologist weather reporter at a Californian radio station owned by Fox News, and host to the usual line-up of right-wing cronies, including Michael Savage and Sean Hannity. Watts wanted to pick some holes in the climate change argument, which he did by challenging the accuracy of many of the thousands of weather stations dotted across the USA. Many of these stations, Watts argued, were in locations where microclimates created by machinery, by concrete or by other human infrastructure were skewing the data, and creating the false impression of temperature rise. Of course, climate scientists, unlike most of American talk radio, do not devote their attentions to the particularities of one country alone. The dubious accuracy of American weather stations would have little bearing on the overall science of climate change. But, anyway, Watts was actually completely mistaken. The handful of ‘good’ weather stations which he selected out of thousands, still show the same basic pattern of warming over recent decades.
While Watts’ claims got him plenty of coverage in the American media, he wasn’t willing to share the limelight with a man who challenged his conclusions. Peter Sinclair, who produces an online video series called “Climate Denial Crock of the Week”, turned his attentions to Watts, pointing out the problems with the weather station argument. Watts tried to silence his critic, not by making a well-argued response, but by trying to claim that Sinclair infringed his copyright. Fortunately, Watts’ knowledge about copyright law is as poor as his grasp of climate science, and so the video is back online. Watch it triumphantly, but also consider it a reminder of what we’re up against when crooks like Watts can sound so convincing to the American public.
Perhaps Mexico could offer some sort of educational programme?