How to Talk About Climate Change

The aspect of the climate change controversy (and other issues in public discourse) that intrigues me most of all is the ability of people on opposite sides to talk past each other. I say it intrigues me, but it also saddens me in a sense, as I value dialogue, engagement, and listening.

Partisan rhetoric seems designed to paint the other side as extremist and wicked. The rhetor seems willing to present an argument in a one-sided, deceptive manner so as to influence public sentiment and achieve a political agenda.

In the wrangling over climate change, the parties throw around terms like “anti-science,” “hoax,” “deniers,” “pseudo-science,” junk science,” and “anti-business,” trigger words that demonize the other side.

So I enjoyed reading Will J. Grant and Rod Lamberts’ post today over at The Conversation, “Who’s afraid of big, bad coal? Al Gore’s ‘climate reality’ is a pointless fairytale.” Grant and Lamberts’ post is a commentary on Gore’s new Climate Reality Project. They acknowledge that Gore’s project is “the kind of campaign that will do a lot for those who want to do something about climate change,” but feel that it will do “little for anyone else.” Their question is, “Where is the mechanism here that will finally get the unconverted or the hostile to agree with the need to take action on climate change?”

What most interested me was their criticism of Gore’s promotional video, in which he accuses “Big Oil” and “Big Coal” of evil manipulations. This is ridiculous, Grant and Lamberts write:

Those who got into the coal and oil industries did so for the simple goal of making a profit by providing us with the energy we need for the modern economy. They didn’t do it to be evil. They don’t want to destroy the world. They are not the nefarious oligarchs that so many would have you believe.

Yes, we now know that the carbon pollution produced by the coal and oil industries is a big problem for society. We all need to wean ourselves off such carbon intensive energy.

But we’re not going to do it by misrepresenting people’s intentions and calling them names. We’re not going to do it by punishing people who acted in good faith.

We’re only going to convince people to change by lining up their profit motive with everyone’s need for a low-carbon economy.

Seems like the kind of open, refreshing approach that can lead to actual dialogue over critical issues.

AB — 19 July 2011


Infographic Shows Extent of Renewable Energy Use

Here’s an interesting infographic that gives an idea of the extent of renewable energy use in the U.S., future projections of the energy mix, and some other useful information — click on the image to examine it in full size:

Alternative energy infographic

AB — 14 July 2011

Can The Economy Keep Growing Without Destroying the Planet?

Over at ThomasNet Green & Clean earlier this week, I explored the topic of “Decoupling” as it applies to economic growth and its connection to environmental damage and the depletion of resources — see “Decoupling: Can Humanity Prosper Without Plundering and Poisoning the Planet?

The write-up extracts the essence from a report by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP). The authors lay out the basic argument and data for decoupling. The report’s authors believe that innovation is the answer:

Innovation now needs to be harnessed for resource productivity and environmental restoration… innovations that contribute to decoupling through reducing environmental pressure and contributing to sustainability during economic activities.

AB — 10 June 2011

Chart shows how much radiation you would absorb from various sources

This chart from XKCD shows the ionizing radiation you might absorb from various sources according to the standard sievert (Sv) measurement unit.

The interesting thing about this chart is it allows you to compare radiation absorption of a wide range of activities from the smallest risk, sleeping next to another person (tiny risk); to something greater but not really that bad in the end, such as being 50 km away from the Fukushima site in Japan; to something catastrophic, like being next to the Chernobyl reactor core after its explosion and meltdown. The chart helps you to understand where a fatal radiation dose stands within that great range.

XKCD gives a disclaimer that the chart probably contains mistakes and warns that “if you’re basing radiation safety procedures on an internet PNG image and things go wrong, you have no one to blame but yourself.”

The following image is linked from the original — click on it to inspect the original at full size.

XKCD's radiation does chart


AB — 19 March 2011

Omar ibn Said: African ‘Prince’ Who Was Enslaved in North Carolina

Omar ibn SaidAn interesting article appeared today in the Raleigh News & Observer, reminding me of the story of Omar ibn Said (ca. 1770-1863), a Muslim teacher and trader who was sold into slavery in Africa and sent to America in 1806 or 1807 — see “Slave and scholar led exceptional life in N.C.

Although often called a “prince,” it would be more accurate to say that Said was from a prominent family of Futa Toro, which is now part of Senegal. The Wikipedia article on Said says he was captured in a military conflict before being sent to America. A bio from UNC says he was convicted of an unspecified crime.

Said eventually wound up with the wealthy Owen family of Fayetteville, N.C. The family evidently gave him few work assignments, allowing Said to live an easier life and pursue scholarly efforts.

A historian at the N.C. Office of Archives and History told the News & Observer that Said “was likely the most educated slave in North Carolina and one of the best documented practicing Muslim slaves in America.”

Here is an excerpt from an autobiography by Said, which appears to have been written in 1831:

I reside in this our country by reason of great necessity. Wicked men took me by violence and sold me to the Christians. We sailed a month and a half on the great sea to the place called Charleston in the Christian land. I fell into the hands of a small, weak and wicked man, who feared not God at all nor did he read (the gospel) at all nor pray.

I was afraid to remain with a man so depraved and who committed so many crimes and I ran away. After a month our Lord God brought me forward to the hand of a good man, who fears God, and loves to do good, and whose name is Jim Owen and whose brother is called Col. John Owen. These are two excellent men. I am residing in Bladen County.

I continue in the hand of Jim Owen who never beats me, nor scolds me. I neither go hungry nor naked, and I have no hard work to do. I am not able to do hard work for I am a small man and feeble. During the last twenty years I have known no want in the hand of Jim Owen.

The News & Observer article says that on Friday Nov. 5, the state of North Carolina will inaugurate a roadside historical marker in Fayetteville, in front of a mosque name after Omar ibn Said.

AB — 31 Oct. 2010

Why People Don’t Believe Scientists Even When There Is ‘Consensus’

An interesting study, soon to appear in the Journal of Risk Research, by Yale law professor Dan M. Kahan and colleagues, suggests that people tend to disbelieve scientists whose cultural values are different than theirs.

I’m not able to determine when this study will be published, but you can find an abstract at this link, and I was able to download a preliminary version of the whole article in PDF by clicking on the link on that page that says “One-Click Download.”

These conclusions shed light on the debate over anthropogenic climate change, Kahan tells Science Daily (“Why ‘Scientific Consensus’ Fails to Persuade“):

We know from previous research that people with individualistic values, who have a strong attachment to commerce and industry, tend to be skeptical of claimed environmental risks, while people with egalitarian values, who resent economic inequality, tend to believe that commerce and industry harms the environment.

(For more on the climate-change controversy, see my previous entry, “John Abraham’s Point-by-Point Rebuttal of Climate-Skeptic Monckton.”

Kahan and colleagues based their study on the theory of the cultural cognition of risk. In his paper, Kahan says this theory “posits a collection of psychological mechanisms that dispose individuals selectively to credit or dismiss evidence of risk in patterns that fit values they share with others.”

The researchers surveyed a representative sample of 1,500 U.S. adults. They divided this sample into groups with opposite cultural worldviews, some favoring hierarchy and individualism, the others favoring egalitarianism and communitarianism.

They surveyed the respondents to determine their beliefs about what in fact is the scientific consensus on issues of climate change, disposal of nuclear waste, and concealed handguns, with particular focus on the associated levels of risk in each of those areas. Various statements were attributed to fictional personas portrayed as authors of books on these various issues. Respondents were asked to judge whether each author is really an expert or not.

Analysis of the results on the climate-change issue revealed that:

Disagreement was sharp among individuals identified (through median splits along both dimensions of cultural worldview) as “hierarchical individualists,” on the one hand, and “egalitarian communitarians,” on the other. Solid majorities of egalitarian communitarians perceived that most expert scientists agree that global warming is occurring (78%) and that it has an anthropogenic source (68%). In contrast, 56% of hierarchical individualists believe that scientists are divided, and another 25% (as opposed to 2% for egalitarian communitarians) that most expert scientists disagree that global temperatures are increas-ing. Likewise, a majority of hierarchical individualists, 55%, believed that most expert scientists are divided on whether humans are causing global warming, with another 32% perceiving that most expert scientists disagree with this conclusion.

The study revealed similar results around the issues of geologic isolation of nuclear wastes and concealed-carry laws.

So should we conclude that people are going to believe what they want to believe, and that’s all there is to it? The authors make an interesting statement about the implications for public presentation of scientific findings:

It is not enough to assure that scientifically sound information — including evidence of what scientists themselves believe — is widely disseminated: cultural cognition strongly motivates individuals — of all worldviews — to recognize such information as sound in a selective pattern that reinforces their cultural predispositions. To overcome this effect, communicators must attend to the cultural meaning as well as the scientific content of information.

The report suggests some ways that cultural meaning might be considered in communicating with the public. One such strategy is what the authors call narrative framing:

Individuals tend to assimilate information by fitting it to pre-existing narrative templates or schemes that invest the information with meaning. The elements of these narrative templates — the identity of the stock heroes and villains, the nature of their dramatic struggles, and the moral stakes of their engagement with one another — vary in identifiable and recurring ways across cultural groups. By crafting messages to evoke narrative templates that are culturally congenial to target audiences, risk communicators can help to assure that the content of the information they are imparting receives considered attention across diverse cultural groups.

AB — 24 Sept. 2010

John Abraham’s Point-by-Point Rebuttal of Climate-Skeptic Monckton

[Updated 16 July 2010]

Yesterday I reviewed an informative presentation by John P. Abraham, associate professor in the school of engineering of St. Thomas University in Minnesota. In his presentation, “A Scientist Replies to Christopher Monckton,” Abraham offers a point-by-point rebuttal/refutation of claims made in a presentation he attended by Christopher Monckton, in which Monckton presented arguments against anthropogenic (man-made) global warming (AGW), that is, the idea that human activity is causing an increase in global temperatures resulting in dangerous climate change.

Monckton is Chief Policy Adviser at the Science and Public Policy Institute (SPPI) and is well-known as a critic of anthropogenic global warming. (See one of Monckton’s slides referenced by Abraham, to right.)

Though long (it’s a 73-minute Flash presentation with voiceover), Abraham’s critique of Monckton is well worth reviewing, especially if you’ve been wondering about the emerging criticism of AGW and the general scientific consensus on climate change.

[Update added 16 July 2010]: A reader (see his comment below) has kindly pointed me to Monckton’s response to Abraham’s presentation. This is in PDF format and is very long — his answer is in the form of a series of questions (500 of them). See “Response to John Abraham, by Christopher Monckton.”

I have to say that, although I tend to agree with the consensus position in this case, just because most or even all of the experts in a certain field believe the same way, I don’t think others should be obligated to follow the crowd. And those who do accept the consensus point of view should be willing to keep their convictions on the table and to re-examine matters when new information becomes available.

To say that those who question claims of climate-change are “anti-science” or to call them “deniers” (as if their challenges were somehow akin to denials of the Holocaust) is disingenuous and counter-productive. It gets people arguing about all the wrong things, instead of communicating and working on problems.

In the case of the challenges to the climate-change consensus, science itself is not being called into question. The real issues have to do with things like politics, public policy, economic philosophy, and ideology. If people’s livelihoods and the well-being of their descendants are in play, isn’t it reasonable to allow them to call into question the conclusions and policy implications of those who evoke climate science as justification for their policy recommendations?

Also, it’s reasonable to point out that scientists themselves are humans with their own foibles, and while for the most part they might believe they are carrying out their work according to well-established principles and sound procedures, some of them have shown themselves to be influenced by self-interest, greed, and ideological leanings. So if their work is financed with public resources and being used to influence policy, isn’t it reasonable to expect their work – and especially their statements about its implications – to stand up to public scrutiny?

If researchers and institutions are convinced that anthropogenic global warming is a real danger, then it would behoove them to find ways to present the evidence in an accessible way, rather than just sticking their noses in the air and spouting arrogant put-downs of those that raise questions.

That brings me to the value of John P. Abraham’s presentation.

Sample slide from Abraham presentationI found Abraham’s presentation reasonable and level-headed (see one of his slides to right). He refrains from personal attacks. Abraham analyzes Monckton’s scientific references, charts, and assertions in detail. Where available, he examines the data sources for Monckton’s charts and the papers he references. He even wrote to the authors of many of the original papers to ask for clarification when needed and shows their replies in his presentation.

Abraham’s presentation is really produced as a point-by-point refutation of Monckton, but along the way you learn a lot about climate change and the associated data. Pretty easy to follow, for a non-specialist reader with a fair understanding of science.

“My goal,” he says, “is to show people how they can learn about the scientific understanding on their own.”

The questions he addresses include:

  • Has Al Gore really overestimated the future sea-level rise by 100 times, and is it really true that sea levels are not rising?
  • Are polar bears in the Canadian Beaufort Sea really endangered by warming temperatures or not?
  • Was there a medieval warming period comparable to that taking place today, and did the IPCC “erase” that medieval warming period from its historical climate data?
  • Do IPCC’s climate sensitivity estimates really rest on just 4 scientific papers, rather than 2,500?
  • Have average temperatures actually been going down, contradicting IPCC projections?
  • Is there really no evidence for any catastrophic effects of anthropogenic climate change anywhere in the world?
  • Is it really true that increase in CO2 levels is an effect of warming rather than a cause, and is it really true that CO2’s effect on global temperature is negligible?
  • Is the extent of arctic sea ice actually remaining steady rather than declining?
  • Has the Greenland ice sheet really been increasing rather than decreasing?
  • Is it really true that the Himalayan glaciers have not been retreating?
  • Is it really true that oceans are not heating up?
  • Is it really true that global warming is caused by increased solar activity, rather than human activities?

If these kinds of questions concern you, I encourage you to review Abraham’s presentation.

AB — 29 June 2010