It is fascinating to observe how information is perceived into public consciousness: how “public opinion” is formed, and what relationship, if any, it has to what might be taken as objective information about the topic at hand. The issue of man-made global warming illustrates beautifully the processes which play out, how public opinion can be swayed or manipulated, and how the media and politicians can play an issue to their own ends.
Man-made global warming, sometimes shortened to the acronym AGW (anthropogenic global warming), is such a vital issue that we cannot afford to get it wrong. There are two main schools of thought here. One is that AGW is real, and poses a huge, and for practical purposes irreversible, threat to humanity: for example, loss of great swathes of highly-populated land mass to rising sea levels, reduction in the ability of our planet to keep us in food and water, through widespread damage to marine life and change in climate affecting the productivity of agriculture, and increased numbers of extreme weather events, such as hurricanes, droughts, and floods; the future of the planet to support our children and grandchildren is threatened. The opposing school of thought is that AGW is not happening at all, or if it is, it is a minor phenomenon that will have little impact in the short to medium term, and might even offer some benefits, so we can afford to wait and see what transpires; if a real problem does arise we will have time to deal with it then. If this view is correct, we are engaging in a hugely expensive worldwide diversion of resources to address a non-problem, when those resources would be much better spent on real and present priorities. In this preamble I am gracing both views as “opposing schools of thought”, though as I proceed it will become clear which side of the argument I stand. Anyone reading this might well have his/her own strongly held views already.
In trying to illustrate my point about how public opinion is formed and influenced, I was seeking a less controversial analogy, but it hard to find one where some people will not be utterly convinced of the rectitude of a demonstrably nonsense point of view. One example lies at the “lunatic fringe” end of topics which people get interested in, and often very vociferous about, namely the chemtrail conspiracy theory, which asserts that long-lasting trails left in the sky by high-flying aircraft are chemical or biological agents deliberately sprayed for sinister purposes undisclosed to the general public.
Equally wacky, yet more mainstream if measured by the number of subscribers in the USA, is Young Earth Creationism, which depends on convincing people that pretty much all of accepted science is wrong. If you are a subscriber to the idea that the earth is less than 10,000 years old, then I’m afraid there is little point in your reading further here: you are not going to be convinced by any arguments that depend on an open-minded assessment of science and evidence; you have already demonstrated that you will reject any argument, however compelling, if it conflicts with a literal interpretation of Genesis. In the USA today we have would-be presidential candidates who feel it would be politically damaging if they expressed their true views (eg Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker when asked in the UK in 2015 if he “believed in evolution”), and others (eg Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, Ben Carson) who nail their colours firmly to a creationist /anti-evolution world view. I don’t disguise my despair that such anti-science nonsense can gain traction, but it is interesting to look at the way cynical money-makers can take in gullible people with even the most absurd ideas, given an audience conditioned to be receptive, in this case by religious indoctrination –see my posts “How old is the earth?” 1 and “Atheism and the Theory of Evolution”. 2
If you are still reading at this point, good; you are still with me, and we have left the nutters behind. The topic which I do want to use as an analogy for public opinion on AGW is vaccination, especially of babies/young children. This is a subject where public opinion has been manipulated away from a realistic perspective towards alarmist nonsense, with seriously bad effect. It hit the headlines over 17 years ago, when Andrew Wakefield, a British former surgeon and medical researcher, published a research paper in support of the now-discredited claim that there was a link between use of the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine, and autism and bowel disease. Wakefield’s claim that the MMR vaccine might cause autism led to a decline in vaccination rates in the UK, Ireland, and the USA, and a rise in measles and mumps, resulting in serious illness and deaths. Although Wakefield was disgraced, and struck off by the BMA, his original paper, the traction it gained, and his continued warnings against MMR vaccination, have contributed to a climate of distrust of all vaccines, and the re-emergence of other previously controlled diseases. There exists even today an “anti-vax” movement, exemplified by organizations such as the Anti-Vaccination League of America, and campaigners (eg the American Sherri Tenpenny) peddling their alarmist views with scant regard for epidemiological evidence. The main premise of their case seems to be that if there is any putative risk, however unsubstantiated, of any child being harmed by vaccination, we must cease all vaccination of children, even though this will lead to the statistical certainty of disease, permanent damage, or death for large numbers of people. Think smallpox, or polio, or even measles- its killing and maiming power underestimated because of familiarity. The rise of the anti-vax lobby is worthy of a whole post on its own, but it’s not my subject here. I raise it merely to illustrate how public opinion can be influenced by media coverage, where superficially plausible pseudo-science gets picked up and propagated by a popular media establishment, short on scientific expertise and responsible reporting, but long on seizing on any story which might be “sensational”, to sell copy. The effect in this case was to drive public opinion quickly away from a logical and evidence-based understanding, with dreadful consequences: the same principle applies to AGW.
Returning to my topic, the issue is man-made rise in global CO2 levels – is it a real effect, and if so, what problems might it create? My premise is that the answer depends on the science – it is not a matter for a democratic vote. Whether the majority of the public accept AGW as real does not impact on whether it is real, but it certainly does affect how we respond to it. As John Oliver said, in his satirical programme “Last Week Tonight” on US/Canadian cable channel HBO, in August 2014, you might as well have a vote on which number is bigger, 15 or 5? Or do owls exist? Or are there hats? In fact, the scientific consensus is so clear, that it is rather superfluous to attempt here to try to argue the case for AGW. This has already been done in tremendous detail by many scientific bodies, as any internet search will show. However, I will merely offer a bit of background on how we have arrived at a consensus that AGW is real.
By the late 19th century, scientists were starting to argue based on climate data that increased emissions of so-called “greenhouse gases” (GHG’s), mostly CO2 and methane (CH4), associated with human activity, could change the climate. By the 1960s, evidence of the warming effect of GHG’s became increasingly convincing, although there was considerable debate in the scientific community about the meaning of the data, and what other mechanisms might be involved. During the 1970s, scientific opinion increasingly favoured the AGW view, but the science was far from settled. However, by the 1990s, there were improvements in quantity and quality of data and access to it, and in the power of computer modelling. There was also observational validation of the Milankovitch theory of global ice-age cycles, which provided a meaningful context against which to interpret the data. A scientific consensus emerged, that GHG’s related to human activity are deeply involved in global climate change, and that the consequences of such change pose great threats to mankind, notably drought in some regions and flooding in others, increased frequency of extreme weather events, reduced agricultural yield, reduced fresh water availability, irreversible damage to coral reefs (affecting about a quarter of marine life), increased seawater temperatures leading to reduced quantity and viability of the marine food chain, and melting of polar ice caps causing sea level rise and loss of low-lying coastal land (much of which is heavily populated), and a runaway effect on global temperature.
Simple direct data, rather than predictions from sophisticated models, can provide an important part of the picture:
The above chart3 shows the recorded monthly mean atmospheric carbon dioxide at Mauna Loa Observatory, Hawaii
It is interesting to look at directly measured data, charted along with earlier data from analysis of ice core samples4:
In order to make predictions about the impact of this rise of CO2 levels into the future, it is of course necessary to use models. These are various models developed by different teams, using a range of data sets and techniques, and, of course, assumptions. Not surprisingly, there is no single settled consensus on the exact quantification of the conclusions. For example, The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change5 (IPCC), which includes more than 1,300 scientists worldwide, forecasts a temperature rise of 1.4 to 5.6 Co over the next century – a wide range of outcomes. One possible response is to say “the scientists can’t even agree, so until they do, we should just park the whole subject”.
It is intensely frustrating for me to witness this type of response. As a scientist and engineer, with an education in maths and physical sciences, I have been taught to challenge methodologies and conclusions, and to assess conflicting data and opinions, and form judgments; I am used to using and understanding statistical data; I am schooled in the pitfalls of spurious correlations. As such, I am comfortable with nuance, and expect scientific modelling to produce different predictions. In fact, if they all lined up exactly, I would immediately suspect that data was being manipulated. A useful analogy is weather forecasting: we are used in the UK to looking at our weather forecasts, living as we do in a climate where we can experience all four seasons in a single day. We have no trouble seeing any forecast as a “best view” of what will probably happen. We know that things might turn out a bit different in practice, but our response isn’t to reject all weather forecasts as rubbish, but to see them as a useful guide. Furthermore, we have observed over recent decades a significant improvement in their accuracy, as the Met Office uses ever more sophisticated and powerful models, and ever better and more accurate real data input. So it is with climate change.
Despite the overwhelming agreement on the science, it is clear that there are many climate change deniers out there, and they do manage to achieve a certain amount of traction: not so much in Continental Europe, China, Brazil, India, or even now Russia; a few mavericks in the UK are quite vocal, but there is no strong media bandwagon propagating their views. Nevertheless, the UK “quality” press still publish articles aimed at challenging AGW, or asserting that AGW is of benefit rather than a source of harm. Even last week, I read in the Sunday Times an item headed “CO2 emissions boost crops” 6 . I quote here the opening paragraphs:
THE CO2 emissions blamed for climate change are good for humanity because they boost crop growth, according to a US official who co-wrote the original United Nations climate treaty.
Indur Goklany, a scientist and former US delegate to the UN’s intergovernmental panel on climate change (IPCC), is to publish controversial claims that increases in the gas have boosted crop production with little impact on temperatures.
His report, Carbon Dioxide: The Good News, comes as the UN prepares for next month’s Climate Change Conference in Paris, where a global agreement on cutting greenhouse gas emissions will be sought.
However, if we read on, we see:
The report is published by the Global Warming Policy Foundation, a think tank that has tried to cast doubt (my bold emphasis) over the peer-reviewed science that suggests greenhouse gas emissions could cause dangerous temperature increases.
Goklany, whose report has not (my bold emphasis) appeared in a peer-reviewed journal………
And at the foot of the article there are quotes from climate experts Professor Myles Allen, head of the climate dynamics group at Oxford University, and Andy Challinor, professor of climate impacts at Leeds University, which cast doubt on Goklany’s claims, and a final paragraph:
The concentration of atmospheric CO2 has risen from a pre-industrial value of 280 parts per million (ppm) to 398ppm now. It is rising at 5% a year because humanity emits 35bn tons of CO2 a year from burning fossil fuels and forests.
So we have the headline and main thrust of an article purporting to undermine accepted science, with the “balance” included towards the end. This sort of thing provides quote-mining climate change-deniers more ammunition to support their views – only by reading the full article do we get the context with which to assess the likely meaningfulness of the headline and opening few paragraphs.
The country with the most high-profile deniers is the USA, where many senior politicians and the populist media seem to work hard to undermine the scientific consensus, and present the issue either as a hoax/conspiracy, or at the very least a debate where the scientific consensus is on the back foot, and being undermined all the time by “exposés” of malpractice and deceit by climate scientists. This raises two questions: what is the motivation for doing this, and are the objections valid.
Let’s start with motivations, and examine each in turn to explore the possible validity of the position they produce. Motivations can probably best be categorized as follows, though in any actual situation there is likely to be some sort of mix of these:
- Rejection on religious principle.
- Genuine science-based conclusions, which happen to differ from the scientific consensus. This is an open and academic approach, and is prepared to offer its work to peer review, and stand or fall on its scientific merits.
- Trying to make a name for oneself by finding flaws in accepted science – a pseudo- academic approach, rather than a scientific one, since it starts from a conclusion (“AGW is false”) and seeks to justify it.
- Business self-interest: vested interest of big business which perceives it would suffer financial harm through eg carbon tax, or through a public perception that its activities are environmentally damaging.
- Wishful thinking: the view that AGW is a real and serious threat to the future wellbeing on mankind on the planet, to our children and grandchildren, is a very uncomfortable one, so we are disposed to clutching at any information which suggests we don’t need to worry about it.
- Journalistic expediency – making a “good story” that people might want to read/ see on TV.
- Political expediency – a “non-expert” biased interpretation of information, to present a view which is felt to be electorally popular – “telling people what they want to hear”.
- Social media reinforcement: posting comments which get “liked” or “retweeted” by others who hold similar views to one’s own provides a feel-good response, so we tend to operate in a “digital information bubble” which exacerbates our bias towards confirming our pre-existing beliefs instead of challenging them.
If you can think of others that don’t fit in to any of these categories, I will be interested to hear your views, but in the meantime I want to take each of these in turn to examine whether they shed any light on the question: “ Global warming is/ isn’t real”.
- Rejection on religious principle, or religious determinism: this can be characterised by a view that God is in control, and will decide what the outcomes are for us and the planet. Also, for the Young Earth Creationists, remarkably prevalent in the USA, there is no such thing as long term data, and science which conflicts with a young earth view (eg plate tectonics, palaeontology, archaeology, geology, cosmology, astronomy, evolutionary biology /DNA, taxonomy, radiometric dating, paleoclimatology: in fact, every branch of science which has anything to say about long term timelines) is dismissed. Since religious determinism is by definition a non-scientific view of how the world works, it is not amenable to rational analysis based on scientific evidence. Those who hold a religious deterministic view might well dispute this, quoting their “creation science” apologists’ work, but to everyone else, myself included, it is irrelevant to the question “Global warming is/ isn’t real”, since any valid conclusion must be based on hard evidence rather than religious superstition.
- Genuine science based conclusions: we should look for peer-reviewed academic papers in respectable journals, ie mainstream science, which provide conclusions suggesting that AGW is not a real effect, or that it is greatly exaggerated. For any branch of science requiring modelling and statistical analysis, one would expect a spectrum of results and conclusions. This is the case with climate science. However, when we examine this spectrum, the results are overwhelmingly skewed towards the position that AGW is real. Various studies have been carried out; my reference here7 relates to an analysis of nearly 12,000 papers in peer-reviewed scientific literature from 1991 to 2011, and concludes as follows: “The number of papers rejecting the consensus on AGW is a vanishingly small proportion of the published research”. Of course it is possible to find many articles, other than in peer-reviewed scientific literature, which contest AGW, eg popular press, magazines, newspapers, and on-line publications. But here I am focussing on science, not on populist opinion, and the conclusion is not in doubt: any challenge to AGW based on substantiated science will not stand up.
- Trying to make a name for oneself by finding flaws in accepted science: this is an almost endless activity in various fields: evolution and climate change are prime targets. Any internet search will throw up a large range of articles disputing AGW, some couched in academic language, and some seizing on alleged distortion of data, or even suggesting deliberate falsification of statistics by climate scientists. Some of this is well written and has a veneer of plausibility. Many people are persuaded by such material. However, if one confines oneself to a reliance on substantiated science, as described in 2. above, it can be safely rejected. It is sometimes argued that that climate scientists gain kudos (or even money) by making their name in the field, and therefore manipulate and distort the science to make it fit their objectives. Any financial argument here is not borne out by the facts8. The kudos argument doesn’t stand scrutiny either: since climate change is accepted science, any personal fame and kudos is much more likely to be associated with standing out by taking an anti-AGW view.
- Business self-interest: examples are legion of business vested interests sponsoring research to head off concerns about their products/activities, or to produce results favourable to their products. Big pharma is renowned for conducting many trials on drugs they have developed, only publishing those which provide the results they seek, and quietly dropping the others; the move to a public register of all drug trials before the event is an attempt to deal with this. The tobacco industry spent huge amounts attempting to discredit research showing health risks of smoking. A parallel today is the carbonated drinks industry, which is active in sponsoring research to head off concerns of obesity and type 2 diabetes caused by their high sugar content. Unfortunately, there are examples of the fossil fuel industry sponsoring climate-change denying research. A prominent climate-change denying scientist Dr Wei-Hock “Willie” Soon, who worked at the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics, accepted $1.25m in funding from companies such as Exxon Mobil and the industry group American Petroleum Institute.9 The threat of crack-down on fossil fuels, via carbon taxation and sponsorship of alternative “green” energy, is a strong motivation for the fossil fuel industry, and energy intensive industries such as steel and heavy chemicals, to attempt to discredit AGW.
- Wishful thinking: If we accept that AGW is a real and serious effect, we are forced to take a view that our lifestyle of conspicuous consumption, particularly in the western developed world, can’t continue indefinitely, and we will have to make some very difficult choices, involving giving up or curtailing some of the benefits of our lifestyle. This is a very hard message to accept, especially when we perceive that what we might do individually – or even as a nation – would be ineffective if others don’t join in and make similar changes. It is much easier to look for information which suggests the problem is not real, or at least much overstated, so that we can put the whole idea out of our minds as a non-issue, or at least tell ourselves “the science isn’t clear yet” and so assuage any guilt we might be feeling about damaging the planet’s ability to sustain our future generations.
- Journalistic expediency – making a “good story” that people might want to read/ see on TV. Sensationalism is a very common feature of popular journalism, as that’s where the money is. This frequently features gossip/scandal about personalities, but often it is seizing on a topic which is of significant public interest: examples are scares about vaccinations (feeding the anti-vax lobby) and reports of “miracle cures” for cancer. A common feature of such stories is a lack of scientific rigour: a journalist’s success rests on what copy he can sell, not on whether his story is scientifically sound – why let the facts spoil a good headline? There is a lot of public interest in stories which “debunk” AGW, especially if they involve a dose of conspiracy theory, for the reasons in 5. above, and articles are hard to miss. I already mentioned above a Sunday Times article 6 reporting on the work of anti-AGW apologist Indur Goklany, and not surprisingly this one source gets quoted elsewhere too. Yesterday Monday 19th October 2015, the London Times opinion column by climate change sceptic Matt Ridley was headed “Now Here’s the Good News on Global Warming” – rehashing selective comments about some possible positive effects and completely ignoring the main issues. Not surprisingly, a search failed to turn up any peer-reviewed papers by Indur Goklany which questioned AGW 10
Peer-reviewed skeptic papers by Indur Goklany This page lists any peer-reviewed papers by Indur Goklany that take a negative or explicitly doubtful position on human-caused global warming. There are no peer-reviewed climate papers by Indur Goklany that meet this definition.
7. Political expediency: telling the electorate what they want to hear is a vote winner: people tend to support and agree with the expressed views of those who accord with their own bias. This creates a self-reinforcing “group think”. Telling uncomfortable truths, for example about the need to make difficult changes in response to an issue, is not necessarily a vote loser, but is much harder, especially if the topic is one where the public are likely to be sceptical. In the USA, public opinion is rather different from Western Europe. The following 2014 chart shows results on climate change scepticism. The data comes from United Kingdom-based Ipsos MORI, as part of the company’s Global Trends study11, which polled 16,000 people in 20 countries. The respondents were asked 200 questions about eight topics, including the environment. Here we have one concerning respondents’ view on whether observed climate change is largely man-made.
A quote from the study says: “Just a week after a non-profit revealed that the U.S. is lagging behind other developed countries in energy efficiency, a research firm’s data shows that the nation is the leader in denying climate change”.
8. Social media reinforcement: social media, as for the internet in general, provide a vast amount of information, much more than any individual can handle. People who are active on social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, have a forum to express any views they like, and can find others expressing similar views to their own, as well as all manner of counter views. The natural tendency is to gravitate to people who hold similar views to one’s own, to seek the “feel-good” from having one’s comments “liked” or retweeted”. One can “unfriend” or “block” anyone who expresses views we dislike, or who challenge us. Here is an extract from an article on the subject “How the web distorts reality and impairs our judgement skills “ by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic12
Given that it is impossible to attend to even a fraction of the information that is available on the web, most individuals prioritise information that is congruent with their current values, simply ignoring any discrepant information. Recent studies show that although most people consume information that matches their opinions, being exposed to conflicting views tends to reduce prejudice and enhance creative thinking. Yet the desire to prove ourselves right and maintain our current beliefs trumps any attempt to be creative or more open-minded. And besides, most people see themselves as open-minded and creative, anyway.
There is no requirement on social media to be scientifically accurate or to have objective justification for one’s views; it is a free-for-all, where one can argue from one’s own predisposition or bias, and obtain positive reinforcement of those views from like-minded people.
I have argued that the science on AGW is settled: that is not to say that all scientific models produce identical predictions, but it is the case that the overwhelming view from peer-reviewed science is that AGW is a real and serious issue, which must be addressed, or the consequences will be severe.
I have shown why there are many voices gainsaying the science, and why many are seduced by those voices, to take a climate-change sceptic/ denier stance. If you fall into that category, I hope that by reading this post, you might be stimulated to question your views and look again at what the evidence actually shows.
- “Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature”: http://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/8/2/024024/meta;jsessionid=6B260CD1595C24CE1810E6EA85B356CB.c1