Weekend reading: dealing with noise

By Gareth Renowden 27/02/2010

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.