This is a critical time on climate. Scientific conclusions that had seemed largely settled and backed by professional consensus are today challenged with increasing confidence. Three months after Copenhagen, the policy pathway is still hard to discern. Opinion polls show growing numbers of people who think the globe is not warming, or not because of human action, or, variously, that not much can, need or should be done about it. Last week a House of Commons committee queried the state of climate science in the wake of the publication of emails to and from the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit; this week a new UN review has been launched to assess the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Scientists and their science are in the dock, policy is in the balance and our common future is on the line. This pushes many environmentally concerned people to want to press the case about global warming, climate change and the need for action ever more firmly, ever more clearly, ever more. But will more of the same be more effective?
The condition of underlying public and political perceptions is certainly worrying but I find myself more bothered by the relatively little attention that is given to the basic issue of cognition in the climate issue. I am referring to the difficulty of the future.
‘Chaff’ is war-time deception, deliberate interference in perception, guided obfuscation. Fred Pearce has performed a major public service with his Guardian review of the UEA emails, their contents, context and controversy (if only the Guardian would combine his several articles into one easily accessed document). In covering the response to the case of politicians, commentators and citizens who do not accept that climate change is under way or a problem, and despite being seen by some climate scientists as overly negative and plain wrong in his critical remarks, Pearce neatly skewers several examples of chaff – things that are said that the speaker or author must know are tendentious at best and downright inaccurate at worst. The problem with this kind of chaff is that, once launched, it gets picked up and reproduced all over the blogosphere. Notable among these are the claim that the “hockey stick” graph of world temperatures has been disproven – it hasn’t, it has been replicated by other researchers – and the assertion that the UEA scientists and colleagues discuss a trick for hiding a decline world temperature, which wasn’t a trick in the sense of deception and isn’t about a decline in world temperature today.
The motivated chaff mingles with a great diversity of misunderstanding, mis-perceptions, particular angles, institutional agendas and hobby-horses to generate a lot of distracting background noise, so often difficult to distinguish from actual chaff.
Any article about climate on a major website picks up a mass of comment; it is worth following one thread just once to know where at least one part of the debate stands. Among the best single media overviews of the basic science and the state of knowledge was by Geoffrey Lean in the Telegraph back in December. The comment thread on the online version has some interesting back and forth about the basic science and then there’s the claim that those who think global warming is occurring are only saying so as part of a plan to bring in world government or, for one participant, “to completely and utterly squash the Human race.” And that’s actually a pretty restrained set of comments. When the Sunday Times profiled the head of the UEA Climate Research Unit, Phil Jones, and reported him saying that he had thought of suicide, the comment thread included a torrent of insults, allegations that Jones has gotten rich from faking his science, and a fair amount of encouragement that he go ahead and do it.
Put the emails, the science and Professor Jones himself through a calmer examination and a different and far more nuanced picture emerges, as you would probably expect once away from the furnace of instant comment on the web.
▪ There’s no clear reason to think that what he did was in some sense bad science though there are grounds for revisiting some of the temperature research involving climate stations in China.
▪ As Jones himself has said, he sent ‘awful emails’ but Fred Pearce’s review (link) and one by Associated Press (link) indicates that only a few out of an enormous number were indeed awful. On the other hand, those ones were awful indeed.
▪ More to the point, the way Jones and colleagues behaved towards scientists who disagreed with them has generated enormous heat and calumny but as far as I can interpret it, they behaved in pretty much the way that academics of all kinds routinely behave towards academics who disagree with them. Dissing each other’s findings in anonymous reviews, protecting peer-reviewed journals they esteem from input they disdain, banding together tribally, getting over-wrought – it’s not good but it is certainly standard practice in the social sciences and I am not in the slightest surprised to see it in the natural sciences too.
▪ And the strictly limited willingness of Jones and colleagues to release data and methodology is neither more nor less restrictive than that of most scientists – within the band of acceptability, albeit not at the very best end of the spectrum.
Overall he comes out of this scrutiny with a pretty average score for a scientist and quite distinctly as a long, long way from malign. Some scientists are good communicators, others not. Like many, I find the most striking thing is how many PR traps he and his colleagues unknowingly laid for themselves. With the benefit of hindsight, how naive they now seem to have been about the fundamentally political nature of their science and the opposition their findings would generate.
And now, I suppose Professor Jones might say if, as we have all been able to see, he is no more than human – now it’s the turn of the other lot to go through the same excruciating process. For example, the Institute of Physics was embarrassed to find out that its submission to the parliamentary committee looking into the emails was shaped by a man who works frequently for major oil and gas companies and thinks that the view that climate change is happening is akin to a religion. Two points about this: first, there is something in the religion charge and, uncomfortable as it is, let’s come back to it. Second, what is notable about almost all the scientific and non-hysterical criticisms of climate change science is that they are extremely weak in postulating alternative explanations.
The critics of climate change science can pick holes, sometimes significant ones, in the hypothesis of human-caused global warming and climate change. They are good and even helpful at identifying uncertainties and any over-statements or dubious inferences. They raise some questions about some pretty fundamental parts of the whole global warming and climate change hypothesis, such as whether sea levels are actually rising. But they don’t offer – or have not so far offered – worthwhile alternative explanations of the observed rise in average global temperatures. They have had nothing significant to say that might offer a different explanation of observed changes in climate. And they have not undone the basic science on the presence and role of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the predominance of carbon among them, and the increase of carbon in the atmosphere thanks to the use of fossil fuels.
The latest major literature review – done at the UK Met Office, looking at more than 100 studies – has once again identified the ‘clear fingerprints’ of man-made climate change; it confirms that, while the science of climate change is not without uncertainties, alternative explanations carry an order of magnitude less conviction. As the Met Office report puts the case, it is an “increasingly remote possibility” that human activity is not the main cause of climate change.
Were there a credible basis for researching a serious hypothesis to make that remote possibility into even a 50:50 chance, we can be sure the research would have been lavishly funded and its findings widely and smoothly disseminated. Big financial interests would be more than happy to help lay the whole climate thing to rest, were it possible to do so. One day, perhaps? On the record so far, I doubt it. In the meantime, the lack of positive theorisation and hypothesis from the critics of climate science makes it fair to say that even the best of them so far manage only to make noise.
But let’s get to religion. The Guardian’s Simon Hoggart refers to himself as a climate agnostic, calling this ‘the only respectable position’ to hold. At a recent off-the-record seminar, I was struck by an American participant ’s vocabulary. Casting around for a term to describe people who do not accept the global warming and climate change hypothesis, he characterised them as non-believers. Peter Preston says we can only find our way out of the present mess on climate knowledge and policy if a prophet leads us.
Critics of what that prophet might say accuse those who accept that global warming and climate change are real of treating that opinion as a religious belief, while many of those critics themselves display a quasi-religious fervour, use a millenarian discourse, and have the lack of respect for the merit, dignity or simple humanity of their adversaries that is characteristically (though not exclusively) mustered by those who believe their own arguments are blessed by the right faith. But the religiosity of some of the critics of climate change science shouldn’t distract us from acknowledging that many advocates of the global warming and climate change hypothesis do themselves use a kind of religious language. Some who do not, nonetheless have that fervent, religiose tone. Some seem positively to welcome the battle with non-believers, veritable Knights Templar of climatic rectitude.
It’s really pretty distasteful. Beyond the chaff and the noise, a thick fog of unknowing is gathering around climate change as a policy issue and a scientific question. Simply banging on about a true faith cannot dispel that fog, simply add to it. George Monbiot suggests the problem lies both in attitudes to science – especially the distrust of experts and of complexity – and in the attitudes of science – especially its extreme specialisation. There’s a lot in that, but I think the problem has deeper roots.
I think climate issues are genuinely hard to absorb and discuss calmly because they demand of us three efforts of cognition that we generally find difficult, that we are not ordinarily good at.
The first challenge is understanding without clarity
We like to know what there is to be known. We like questions to be answered, which means we are mostly interested in answerable questions. The questions we don’t know how to answer generally get put under the heading of mystery, potentially religious. With clear knowledge we can work out where we are going and where it might be better (or worse) to go. But the world of climate change is anything but clear. True, the basic science of greenhouse gases (GHG), global warming and effects on climate is pretty clear. After all, if GHG have an effect on the planet’s warmth, and carbon is the major GHG, and over a century and a half we pump around half a trillion tons of carbon into the atmosphere, you’d sort of expect some sort of effect on planetary warmth, would you not? And the thought that this might have some effect on climates follows easily.
But beyond that it gets pretty murky. Precise climatic effects here or there? Timescale? The cause of this hurricane or that one? Of that drought or this? A great deal cannot be precisely explained let alone accurately predicted. Climate models still have enormous gaps in them and some areas of the world are, inevitably, much less well studied than others for reasons that have nothing to do with the potential seriousness of climate impacts. My personal view is that as science advances, the areas of uncertainty will narrow and the areas of clarity will expand but many relevant questions will continue for a long time to lack definitive and clear-cut answers.
And decisions must be made nonetheless.
The second unwelcome effort is to deal with complexity
We like things to be simple. We like life to be straightforward, choices to be clear, cause and effect to be traceable. That way decisions can be made. But the world of climate change is anything but simple. It is all about unexpected side effects, about the inter-action of different causal factors, about the fine balance of things: greenhouse gases are not bad, they are essential to the possibility of human life on this planet – up to a certain level, beyond that, they start to make things difficult. Climate change will make this region much dryer but that one much wetter; it is not affecting the volume of rainfall in this place but rather its timing, so the monsoon seasons comes earlier or later and is shorter or longer, but over there it is not the timing or the volume but the location of the rainfall that is changing.
Beyond the natural effects, the human and social, and thus the economic and political consequences of climate change are even harder to get straight. The social sciences find it hard enough to explain human behaviour and generally demur from predicting it because there are so many variables inter-acting that tracing causation and consequences is exceedingly complicated. For that reason, various branches in several social science disciplines function by using simplified models (of economic behaviour, voting preference, determinants of educational success etc), unfortunately for understanding the social consequences of climate change, these models only work well when they are derived from strong basic data covering a significant period of time and diverse locations. And contemporary climate change has not been around long enough for that kind of research data to build up. So there is no way out of complexity.
And decisions must be made nonetheless.
And thirdly, there is the overwhelming problem of the future
We are generally bad at thinking about the future. There are numerous cliches about politics that essentially add up to saying that what is urgent will always be more persuasive than what is important. It is the sudden shock that gets our attention, not the long-term risk. But it’s true outside politics too. When disaster strikes, recovery happens because for those who survive the disaster there is no other option. But as to prevention – it doesn’t have to happen because a future possibility does not sit as clearly in our minds as a current reality, and because it isn’t imperative, all too often it doesn’t happen. Some may think that modern culture places an historically unprecedented emphasis on the here and now, deferring thoughts about the future until we get there, and casually jettisoning the past as essentially, well, out of date – and if there’s any truth in that, then the difficulty of dealing with the future might be stronger than ever. At just the wrong time.
Systematic thinking about the future happens in risk management and in the insurance industry. But actuarial tables and most management of risk is on the basis of established trends – i.e., they are worked out on the basis of what has happened, revised and kept up to date to cater for latest developments, of course, but heavily shaped by experience. And the trouble here is that the world of climate change is all about the future being different from the past. So even those who are good at thinking about the future – just think how profitable the insurance industry is – are not necessarily so good at thinking about a future re-shaped by climate change.
Stay calm (because nothing else will work)
Faced with this triple challenge to the ways we prefer to know about things, we react in different ways. Some with denial, some with belief; some with reflection, some by taking a position, some by gauging what others think and taking a view that seems to be respectable (yes, really – it’s why opinion has fashions).
It remains clear that the safe bet is to hedge against climate change by progressively and vigorously shifting to a green economy and by steadily investing in building social resilience of a kind that will make it possible to respond to both the predicted and the un-predicted effects of climate change as it unfolds.
But it is not axiomatic that this is the safe bet, it is simply a reasonable conclusion based on available evidence and the most serious and coherent arguments about that evidence. It is a reasoned conclusion and, to use a familiar parlance, it is a conclusion that is beyond reasonable doubt because it itself permits of doubt.
If further evidence emerges over time on the basis of which it can be argued that this safe bet is no longer necessary, I will not regret the greening of the economy, which reduces dependence on energy sources that are inherently polluting. And the development of a social resilience will help people, communities and governments to respond creatively to different sorts of challenges such as conflicts and economic crashes. So the bet remains safe and the right decision even if different evidence emerges.
This means there is no need for quasi-religious fervour among those who acknowledge the reality of global warming and climate change. A lot of that fervour is driven by impatience, by the difficulty of getting the arguments through because of the chaff and the noise and above all the fog created by the general difficulty people have with uncertainty, complexity and the future. But impatience and frustration like fear and anger offer bad long-term strategies of communication. At its heart, the challenge in the current state of the climate debate is to work out how to refresh the strategy for communicating the need to mitigate and adapt to climate change and the eminent feasibility of doing so. As I wrote in an earlier post, “the path of being responsible about the environment has to be as attractive now as the path of being irresponsible about it” – that is, “Benefit today is what will win the doubters over, not abstract future costs that are avoided.” Doing good for the future, I added, is attractive but does not close the deal alone. A warm and optimistic view of the future will be more persuasive if it has short-term benefits too.
Along with it, a calm and reasoned voice about the issues is essential. It’s enough with all the strident campaigning tones: what we want to hear is a reasoned view of the problem and an optimistic view of the future.
This was first published on Dan’ blog, www.dansmithsblog.com