Friday, May 24, 2013

Are the sceptics winning the climate debate?

Just as we have the discussion about the UBA's controversial pamphlet, Roger Pielke Jr. addresses the issue from a more general angle. Writing in the Guardian, he points out that many climate campaigners are inclined to believe that lack of political progress is caused by climate sceptics (and their resourceful funders). The myth is created that they are almighty and have already won the political debate. What is needed is a concerted effort from all goodwilling and 'serious' people (mainly scientists) to obviate their influence, thus paving the way for the achievement of GHG reduction strategies.

Roger rightly comments that
a closer look at the logic underlying such arguments reveals a chain of causality which scholars of the public understanding of science have long critiqued as the ineffectual "deficit model" of science. Even more troubling, there is reason to believe that the focus of attention by climate campaigners on sceptics actually works against effective action.
The so-called "deficit model" suggests that the public lacks certain knowledge that if it were known properly (so closing the deficit) would lead them to favor certain policy actions. In other words, if only you understood the "facts" as I understand them, then you would come to share my policy preferences.
The deficit model helps to explain why people argue so passionately about "facts" in public debates over policies with scientific components. If you believe that acceptance of certain scientific views is a precondition for, or a causal factor in determining what policy views people hold, then arguments over facts serve as political debate by proxy.
What is more, the assumption that sceptics would dominate public opinion is flawed. As Pielke points out,

Data on public opinion on climate change has been collected, in some cases for several decades, in countries around the world. What it shows is remarkably strong support for the so-called scientific consensus, as well as strong support for policy action. Even in the notoriously climate sceptical United States, Gallup finds: "trends throughout the past decade - and some stretching back to 1989 – have shown generally consistent majority support for the idea that global warming is real, that human activities cause it, and that news reports on it are correct, if not underestimated."
Another Gallup poll of 128 countries in 2007 and 2008 found strong majorities in most countries - including most large emitters of carbon dioxide – believe that global warming is a result of human activities. Public opinion does vary a great deal, often literally with the weather, but it has overall been remarkably consistent over many years in support of action. Far from being an obstacle to action on climate change, public opinion is in fact a resource to be capitalized upon.
My own research has shown that it is a myth that sceptics dominate public debate, even in the stronghold of scepticism, the USA. The research is based on an analysis of print media (full paper here).

Put in perspective, the UBA controversy lays bare the political motivation for such exercises. However, it rests on flawed assumptions.


Anonymous said...

@ Reiner Grundmann

Whatever you and Roger try to tell us here, it's obviously the sceptics who are winning the debate.

First, all of us are sceptics, you and Roger as well.
As HvS wrote the other day, there is not only black (deniers) and white (alarmists) but a lot of grey, e. g. different opinions, positions and viewpoints on the numerous issues of climate science.
If not the sceptics who else rules the debate?
The orthodox CAGW-proponents?
The (absolute) deniers?
Is there an indisputable quintessence of scientific knowledge instead of uncertainties? the one represented by the UBA? the EPA? the IPCC? the WBGU? etc.
Roger's essay and your intro suggest that there is still sort of scientific consensus on global warming.
Could you describe it?

Second, just forget about polls.
Hard to tell what people are really concerned about without proposals by poll-takers. When it comes to political decisions and higher energy bills ...

Third, forget about climate politics. In a globalized world the Obama administration and the EU clearly show less and less engagement, taking note of the economic, political and social consequences of a strict decarbonisation ...

Finally, what exactly do you understand with "goodwilling and 'serious' people (mainly scientists)" ?!?
Do you really think that there are more "goodwilling and serious people" among scientists than with other groups of the population?

V. Lenzer

Anonymous said...

On consensus see:
However consensus seems to have become a barrier and obstacle rather than an opportunity to move forward in the debate about climate change. Why?

MikeR said...

Richard Tol objecting strenuously to his rankings in the recent Cook census. He's a believer in AGW, who thinks that this survey is garbage - based on how it dealt with his own papers.

Sorry, but this kind of stuff illustrates exactly why it's so hard to take "consensus" seriously. AGW is formed of quite a number of issues, strung together (experts will do a better job of this):
0) Temperature rise in last two centuries [pretty well agreed upon, though they are still arguing about Urban Heat Islands and the like, and can we measure heat in the deep ocean...]
1) How much CO2 is out there [pretty well agreed upon]
2) Climate sensitivity to CO2, transitory and otherwise [very much open to debate, with estimates from experts ranging from the mid-1's to the 6's. There seems to be a lot of recent agreement that the sensitivity estimate ranges ought to be lower now than a decade ago, and that the higher estimates are becoming unlikely.]
3) How will that impact various aspects of the climate, and the ecology? [Not much agreement, I think, though most experts think it will be mostly negative in various ways.]
4) What are the political and economic costs and benefits of mitigation, and what can actually succeed? [no agreement at all.]
5) Are there adaptation strategies that might work instead? [no one knows].

Or something like that. That 97% is wrong, because it attempts to make this complex issue one-dimensional. 97% of scientists certainly do not agree on all these issues - see Cook's survey to see what he is actually claiming they agree on, even if he had done his job properly: something like "CO2 is responsible for (a lot of) the temperature rise". The same is true of the wikipedia article; there is rough consensus only on a small part of the question. And you only have to disagree on any one of the issues to be against Kyoto and the like.

Karl Kuhn said...

MikeR said

"And you only have to disagree on any one of the issues to be against Kyoto and the like."

Which is why it is so easy to become a 'denier'.

Because the orthodoxy is so complex and demanding.

Anonymous said...

The John Cook survey is utterly nonsense as you can read here ...

or here ...

V. Lenzer

Anonymous said...

"Are the sceptics winning the climate debate?"

Obviously they do.

Here's two remarkably stubborn ones, Doug Keenan and Lord Donoughue ...

V. Lenzer

Freddy Schenk said...

@Lenzer #6:

I don't see that sceptics are winning the debate from the case you link to. I would think that using another statistical model to show non-significant trends since 1880 or whatsoever is not enough to falsify the human influence on the climate. It would just mean that the trend has not yet exceeded the range of natural variations so far - given model x assuming y with given risk of p - is different from saying "there is no anthropogenic contribution" etc.

I'm also not sure if you can force MetOffice to discuss your different model. I would rather agree with the given answer:

A week later, the fifth Question (HL6620) was answered as follows.
As indicated in a previous Written Answer given … to the noble Lord on 14 January 2013 (Official Report, col. WA110), it is the role of the scientific community to assess and decide between various methods for studying global temperature time series. It is also for the scientific community to publish the findings of such work, in the peer-reviewed scientific literature.

Anonymous said...

@ Schenk

"It would just mean that the trend has not yet exceeded the range of natural variations so far"

This is what it's all bout, quite remarkable anyhow.

"Discussion with the MO": at least Doug got an invitation.

"Using another statistical model": why choosing a trending autoregressive model?
Please reread the last 3 sections of Doug's post.

By the way: looks like these bloody sceptics are sprouting up everywhere actually ...

; - )

V. Lenzer

@ReinerGrundmann said...

V Lenzer

there are various meanings of the term 'sceptic' with regards to climate change. If you think you know who the real sceptics are good for you. You are of course entitled to your opinion. I would be more careful since this terminology is highly laden with symbolic meanings, and they are ambiguous and perhaps even contradictory.

In the public debate of the last 20 years or so, the term climate change sceptic meant someone who denies the claim that humans have been causing global warming and that it is imperative to do something against it. The doubting of 'official science' went hand in hand with opposition against policy proposals to mitigate against global warming. The climate policy field was split in two: either you were with the mainstream (both science- and policy-wise) or against. Simple as that. The IPCC and Kyoto were there only legitimate games, whose protagonists also set the rules. People with unease about this or that detail would keep quiet in order not to 'give fodder to the sceptics'.

This situation has now changed. Several scientists claim that scepticism is a virtue in science and that we need more of it. Some have learned the lesson that the concern about ‘giving fodder to the sceptics’ can be counterproductive. They are coming out with their real concerns about the science, and about the politics. Others have called for an abandonment of the Kyoto process and aired criticism about carbon trading, or about high subsidies for renewable energies (see for example Myles Allen’s article in the Daily Mail). Many of these people do not belong to the sceptical camp identified above. They are united in their belief that climate change is a serious long-term challenge and that prudent policies should be agreed upon.

This dynamic is to be welcomed as it finally brings a fresh bout of air into a stale debate. Unfortunately there are still those (on both sides) who are eager fighting yesteryear’s war, believing that a new scientific paper will vindicate their preferred policy position once and for all.

@ReinerGrundmann said...

Sorry, there was a missing link. Myles Allen's article in the Daily Mail is here:

Freddy Schenk said...

@Lenzer #8:

You nicely deconstructed my sentences to small pieces which fit better to your view. In this way it makes little sense to continue the discussion.

Anonymous said...

"scepticism is a virtue in science"

Good to hear that after so many years of collective delusion and hysteria.

"believing that a new scientific paper will vindicate (a) preferred policy position"

Not for me. As far as I'm concerned, I neither denie climate change or human contributions to this change, – not a bit. On the other hand I've always been sceptic about CATASTROPHIC anthropogenic global warming, runaway scenarios, prophecies of doom, boiling oceans, tipping points etc.

And I've been more than sceptic about so called green policies. The interests of the EU- and US- farmer lobbyies as well as those of parts of the finance and insurance industry fit almost too good
with green policies.

And yes, I feel kind of vindicated.
You state "People with unease about this or that detail would keep quiet". Indeed they did for years, for what ever reasons - not all of them were noble – while nowadays and with – as you call it – "a fresh bout of air" many of these lost and silent voices show up, playing to the gallery and claiming the middleground for their position. The same time they share a quiet contempt for those who didn't keep silent, accusing them of having "preferred policy positions".

Me, I ain't got none at all. What are yours?
If you're judging other people, check your own position first - and don't forget that you are probably judging yourself the same time.

But back to science: if I have a closer look at the state or the level of knowledge in almost any field of climate science, the usual (and mostly honest) admission reads: (still) poorly understood, partly oder largely unclear – further examination strongly recommended ...
We don't even know the exact global temperature rise since the end of LIA and the human contribution to this increase, we know little about ocean temperatures (which is rather embarrassing, considering the important role of the oceans), there is no single reliable climate model matching observations, by no means one working at a regional scales (which would underpin measures of adaption) - and we don't have a clue how to define climate sensitivity – just to mention a few of the unresolved problems.

And you are calling for action?

V. Lenzer

Freddy Schenk said...

@Lenzer #12:

You gave I nice description of what is often described (i.e. on the blog) as post-normal situation, a need for action under high uncertainties.

If you only want to act under certainty, most people in the hospital would die. I would argue that both, in medicine and in climate research, a high uncertainty might even more demand for action - as you may reduce the uncertainty by (controlled, modest) action and not by a wait and see attitude.

Anonymous said...

@ Schenk

"post-normal situation" ?!

How do you know that the climate situation is "post-normal"? Maybe the situation in (politicized) climate science is but that's another issue ...

You avoid to spell the term "precautionary principle".
A lot of people already die or suffer from its overhasty application as I have mentioned above.

A serious therapist doesn't start with "action" (surgery or medical treatment) but with a correct diagnosis. We are far from having one.

You are a good climatist maybe but a rather imprudent physician ; -)

V. Lenzer

Anonymous said...

Isn't it amazing how alarmists just 'know' that sceptics have lots of funding despite the absence of any evidence. It's almost as if they are "anti-rational" or something. They don't need no stinkin' evidence.

Werner Krauss said...

Reiner #9,

thanks, very thoughtful comment. If it's true that "Several scientists claim that scepticism is a virtue in science and that we need more of it" - that's fine with me. But is Allen Myers really such a great example? He sounds like someone who has a political opinion concerning emission reduction, and like everybody else he uses the boring "I did the science,man" argument:

" I’m afraid you have some basic physics working against you.
Let’s get down to some numbers."

And as every other scientist, once he has done the math, he forgets that the best technological solution is not always the culturally or politically most feasible one. But I am sure he will tell those Germans / xxx who oppose sequestration that the other consequence is: catastrophe, right? I cannot really see something new in this kind of argumentation. Except for him, catastrophe now comes a little bit later.

Anonymous said...

@ Werner Krauss

Myles Allen ...

IPPC lead author (WG I, chapter 10) and co-author of the Otto et al. 2013 paper ...

Prof. Allen is telling us that we are not doomed (yet), that "subsidising wind turbines and cutting down on your own carbon footprint might mean we burn through the vast quantity of carbon contained in the planet’s fossil fuels a little slower. But it won’t make any difference if we burn it in the end" – and that "we're wasting billions on global warming".

Just another scientist? any remarkable news with these stunning statements? Move along, nothing to see here people?!

V. Lenzer

@ReinerGrundmann said...

I partly agree, but only partly. I do not share his view that we need 'mandatory' CCS. He never discusses the problems with that technology as he seems to take it for granted. He seems to rely on the power of the analogy that you have to re-plant a tree that has been felled, so you should have to bury every molecule of CO2 that is emitted (but even with large scale, operating CCS this would not be feasible across the board). Anyhow, at present CCS is not an available option.

I think his number exercise is less problematic. It is on an appropriate level for news readers and gives you some parameters to think about. Or are you in principle suspicious of economic arguments against windfarms? He does not use the numbers to promote a catastrophist discourse.

What I find most productive in his piece is the separation of the IPCC-UN process from the policy agenda. It is true, he has his own opinion regarding policy options, as many other people have, and he comes to it from a scientists' perspective (tapping into the fashionable anti-EU mood). But it is more productive to discuss these policy options than to engage in the 'battle over the science'.

Werner Krauss said...

V. Lenzer,

you are right, maybe I should have pointed out that Myles Allen's general remarks concerning climate are really remarkable.

sure, I agree, too. I just wanted to point out the potential "misuse" of scientific authority to make a political claim. But math here clarifies what he means, I agree, and of course, economic criticism of wind power is legitimate. What I missed is the political and cultural aspect of energy; a neglect which is fairly common among climate scientists. But again, I agree, it is more productive to discuss policy options instead of continuing the battle on science, and also from this perspective, his contribution is really remarkable.

Anonymous said...

If we are supposed to discuss policy options instead of battling over science, does this mean the science 'is settled' (of course it never can be, but it can be settled enough to make discussions of policy options possible)?

@ReinerGrundmann said...


the question is How much do we need to know in order to act (or to consider policy options)? Of course, non-action is also an option.

I don't know if there is any example where policy makers waited for the science to be settled before considering options.

Hans von Storch said...

I have asked Myles wat this would be about - he answered:
"I'm saying that the treatments we are promoting in Europe right now are ineffective. I wouldn't go so far as to say they are worse than climate change itself, but they aren't achieving their stated goal of avoiding dangerous climate change, and I would argue they never will, so they are a waste of money. I propose an alternative (actually, of course, we proposed it 3 years ago -- but newspapers always like to make out everything is new) that would work and would not require lots of new powers to the European Commission.

and pointed to his earlier publication:

The case for mandatory sequestration by Myles R. Allen, David J. Frame and Charles F. Mason in nature geoscience 2, December 2009, 183-184.
(Sorry have no web-link)