Geologists, especially those, like me, of a certain age, often have problems with climate science and the idea that humans may be triggering a massive and abrupt change in the climate. Global change, we were taught, occurred slowly and by commonplace mechanisms: sediment carried by water, deposited a grain at a time: erosion effected by water and wind, the hardest rocks slowly ground down crystal by crystal. The great features of the Earth—the canyons, mountains and basins—were built this way and owe their grandeur to Deep Time, geology’s greatest intellectual gift to human culture. In the face of the history of the natural world, geologists feel a certain humility at the insignificance of humans and our tiny lifespans. But we also feel some pride in the role of our subject in piecing together this history from fossils and outcrops of rock. It’s an amazing detective story: diligent scientists patiently working away and uncovering the Earth’s great secrets.
Then climate science comes along and grabs all the headlines. Suddenly, we hear, change is coming fast and the outcome could be ugly. The familiar music of natural geological change is about to be disrupted by a noisy interruption in the form of human intervention. To add insult to injury, many of the people delivering this disruptive message do not seem—at least to some geologists—to be sufficiently deferential to the extensive knowledge about the slow and cyclic changes in the geological past.
This is quite false, as I found out for myself. My initial reaction many years ago to hearing about climate change was one of disbelief, mixed with a strong suspicion that the climate forecasters had neglected to take the lessons of Earth history into account. I soon found out that I was completely wrong about this. I confess also, as I read the scientific literature, that I learned more about modern geology than I had in many years working as an industrial geoscientist. Unknown to me, immersed in my own areas of specialty, geology had moved on, especially in palaeoclimatology.
George Marshall has written a book that is essential reading for everyone interested in communicating the science of climate change and its urgent policy implications. Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change comprises 43 short and well-written chapters that explain why strenuous efforts to spread the word and spur action on climate change have failed.
There is no question that the problem is far from licked: the Keeling Curve continues its upward rise; American conservatives remain stuck in an intellectual dead end on climate; other countries pay lip service to the threat while making only token gestures to solve it; every year there is a big international get-together at COP meetings where thousands of delegates gather to push the policy boulder up Sisyphus’ hill, only to watch it roll down again. Opinion polls, it is true, show that there is broad public acceptance of the scientific basis of climate change, but the understanding of the problem is shallow. People say they care about climate change, but when it comes time to vote, other issues loom larger.
Marshall has worked for 25 years as a campaigner in environmental movements, including Greenpeace US and the Rainforest Foundation. He is a co-founder of the Climate Outreach Information Network, a UK based charity committed to ensuring that climate change and its impacts are understood and acted upon. Continue reading
Originally published at Skeptical Science on August 26, 2014
The Athabasca Glacier in the Canadian Rocky Mountains is probably the easiest glacier in the world to access by car. It’s just a few hundred metres’ stroll from the nearest parking lot on the magnificent Icefields Parkway in Alberta. The problem is, the stroll keeps getting longer by about 10 metres every year. Since 1992, the snout of the glacier has retreated about 200 metres, requiring tourists anxious to set foot on it to walk a little further. The glacier has lost about 2 km of its length since 1844 (Geovista PDF).
The Athabasca Glacier seen from the access trail. This point is about halfway from the parking lot and the current snout of the glacier, which is about 200 metres away. In the centre background is the ice-fall from the Columbia Icefield. The marker shows where the glacier snout was in 1992, coincidentally the year of the Rio Earth Summit. It is just possible to make out some people walking on the glacier on the left-hand side.Click for big.
Thanks in good part to our critics, our paper Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature keeps getting more attention. It almost seems that you can’t open up a browser without seeing the “97%” meme somewhere. The extra interest prompted by Richard Tol’s recent critical article has maintained the rate of downloads of the paper at 500 per day and has pushed the total to nearly 200,000. The recent buzz has also spurred discussions on And Then There’s Physics, Variable Variability, Twitter, in The Guardian and a renewed line of criticism in a series of articles by Yale University Professor Dan Kahan.
I was surprised—a little shocked even—at some reactions to the release of our consensus paper. I was prepared, of course, for an angry response from those people who maintain that the expert consensus on the basics of anthropogenic climate change is either non-existent or crumbling. But my colleagues and I were never expecting to change their minds.
However, strong and sharply-worded opposition was unexpected from people like Dan Kahan (sarcasm), Mike Hulme (“infamous”), some journalists (“unwarranted attention”) and some climate scientists (satire), none of whom actually dispute the existence of an expert consensus on the basics of anthropogenic climate change. That the criticism often seemed tinged with peevishness (at least before they did some back-tracking) was especially surprising. I never saw our work as in any way undermining their approaches and analyses, but rather complementing them. And the complaints continue.
To give you a flavour of the nature of the recent discourse, here are some Tweets. (Keywords: Haha, doesn’t work, distraction, diversion, Sad, don’t inform, They insult, psychological control):
The apparent anger and the throw-everything-at-the-wall criticism suggest that this is something other than a measured scholarly critique. Let’s first look at the main strands of argument in a bit more detail. Continue reading
The publication of the paper that I co-authored, Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature, in May 2013 caused quite a splash. The paper received a lot of positive coverage, including Tweets from Barack Obama, Al Gore and Elon Musk. (They didn’t always get the details quite right: our survey was of the literature, not of scientists’ opinions and we had nothing to say about how dangerous climate change would be.) The paper has been downloaded, as of June 2nd 2014, 183,335 times, which is a record for any Institute of Physics paper. The editorial board of the journal, Environmental Research Letters, awarded the paper the “Best article of 2013” prize. The research for the paper was done by a team of unpaid non-specialist volunteers of students and industrial and academic scientists, along with other enthusiasts and the funding for its publication was raised by donations from Skeptical Science readers. No taxpayers were harmed during the making of this article.
Not everybody was pleased to see our work in print. In particular, many people who are unconvinced of the urgency to act on mitigating climate change have been claiming that our study is flawed and biased. Even somebody like economist Richard Tol—who accepts that global warming is real and caused by humans and who acknowledges that there is an overwhelming scientific consensus—has made extraordinary efforts over the past year to get a critique published. He finally succeeded, with the paper Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the literature: A re-analysis published in the journal Energy Policy,. The journal editors somehow came to believe that this article fell within its scope of being “an international peer-reviewed journal addressing the policy implications of energy supply and use from their economic, social, planning and environmental aspects“.
Energy Policy was good enough to give us a chance to respond, which we did with this short paper, which has now (June 21, 2014) been published. We were only allowed 1000 words, however, so we wrote a much longer article, published on the Skeptical Science website, detailing the 24 errors that Professor Tol made. Continue reading
On his new HBO show Last Week Tonight John Oliver skewered the whole idea that there is a genuine debate on the scientific basics of man-made climate change. He also mocked the conventional media format of pitting one “skeptic” against one “scientist” that so badly misrepresents the real world of informed opinion.
I admit that I was particularly delighted to see the paper I co-authored with John Cook and other Skeptical Science colleagues get a mention.
Paul Krugman had a recent article in the New York Times where he looked at how some conservatives not only deny that humans are causing climate change, but also that they need to deny that expert opinion overwhelmingly believes that to be true, invoking an international conspiracy of scientists. And, in a blogpost he reminded us that conservative journalist Charles Krauthammer in “no Einstein”.
It’s tragic that there is no coherent conservative response to the problem of climate change. Any solution is going to require a policy consensus among people of all political persuasions. The longer we put off a solution, the less likely it becomes that we will be able to deal with the problem with free-market measures. The more that conservatives rail against climate science on the bogus grounds that scientists want to usher in an authoritarian world, the more that dismal political future becomes likely.
Yet, as John Oliver shows us, tragedy and comedy are never far apart.