The Key to (Really) Grasping Climate Change

By Keith Kloor | June 2, 2011 1:40 pm

Your humble host is attending the World Science Festival today (it’s running all week). I’ll be a bystander to some of the events, hoping that all the brilliant minds gathered together will stimulate my feeble brain. Probably not. But it should be fun.

I noticed at their blog that boingboing’s Maggie Koerth-Baker has a real interesting essay, called “A Twist on Climate Change, Risk, and Uncertainty.”

Here’s an excerpt that I think captures her argument (my emphasis):

The trouble with looking at disasters this way is that tornadoes do not fit neatly into little, politically polarized ticky boxes. Science, in general, seldom works like that. In a May 23rd editorial for the Washington Post, environmentalist Bill McKibben took Americans to task for refusing to make a connection between environmental disasters””including the 2011 tornadoes””and climate change. His basic message: All these disasters must be connected and only willful ignorance allows us to ignore that.

I have a slightly different perspective. What we have here is not a failure to communicate and accept the obvious effects of climate change. Instead, it’s a failure to communicate and accept a critical point of how science works, without which scientific literacy is reduced to mere talking points. This is about nuance and uncertainty, and if the American public doesn’t get those things, then we’ll never get climate change.

This is quite relevant to some of the recent discussions (here and here) at this site last week. Is Maggie right? Is intelligent debate on climate change hopeless until more people gain an understanding of “nuance and uncertainty”?

Some regular readers of Collide-a-Scape  are often critical of Judith Curry, but isn’t much of what she’s doing over at Climate Etc geared to making just these elements–nuance and uncertainty–a more integral (and better understood) part of the climate debate?

  • jeffn

    It would be a mistake to say that a lack of understanding “nuance” is a serious problem. Koerth-Baker writes: “NOAA says it would be problematic to claim the recent spate of tornadoes in the Southeast were caused by climate change. But that’s not the same as saying tornadoes can’t be caused by climate change.”

    I think everyone understands the nuance there. But we’re also being asked to take action based on the nuance and uncertainty.  You live in tornado alley- what action would you take based on the above quotation? Would you A. put your money into building a safe room in your home or B. call your Congressman and advocate for a gas tax hike?

  • harrywr2

    @Jeffn,
    You forgot option C – demand an international carbons emissions tax so that the money you would have spent on building a safe room for your house gets sent to someone in Nairobi who will pretend to spend it on building  safe rooms in Nairobi.




     

  • http://skepticalscience.com grypo

    Some regular readers of Collide-a-Scape  are often critical of Judith Curry, but isn’t much of what she’s doing over at Climate Etc geared to making just these elements”“nuance and uncertainty”“a more integral (and better understood) part of the climate debate?

    Well, unfortunately Judith’s message is to use uncertainty to obstruct needed change to deal with risks, and Maggie’s is the exact opposite.  This isn’t anything new to our “team” as you can see hear us say things like Maggie says all the time.  See MT’s thread, Getting Things Backwards.  So, no, this isn’t what Judith is doing.  But thanks for posting this, as it’s great to see right thinking individuals say smart things every once in a while.

    Maggie says:
    The future of human life depends on how we respond to the risks of climate change. How we respond to those risks depends on how well the general public understands the messy world of real science.

    Judith says:

    The substantial interest in attributing extreme weather events to global warming seems rooted in the perceived need for some sort of a disaster to drive public opinion and the political process in the direction of taking action on climate change.



  • http://skepticalscience.com grypo

    That MT link should be Getting uncertainty backwards

  • TimG

    #4 grypo,

    MT is confused.

    More uncertainty does not magically make anti-CO2 measures practical or affordable. More uncertainty does not make it more rational to make sacrifices today that would not do anything about the stated problems.

    Until we have practical alternatives to burning fossil fuels it is rather pointless to discuss emission reduction targets.

  • cagw_skeptic99

    For the true believers, it is always time to cease and desist from using carbon based fuels.  Having practical alternatives in place is not important if your goal is to save the planet from evil CO2.

    Anyone who doesn’t agree with MT and Maggie has something wrong with their thinking.  The certain serious harm done to people by depriving them of the benefit of electricity, transportation, medicine, refrigeration, clean water, etc. is not a meaningful consideration next to saving the planet from rising temperatures, seal level rise, etc.

    The absence of accelerated sea level rise, the absence of rising ocean temperatures and energy content, and even the continued prospering of polar bears is just inconvenient noise.  Their computer models predict disaster will occur someday between now and the end of the century, and the evidence that this is just not happening does not matter to those convinced that CO2 is the thermostat that controls the earth’s temperature.

  • NewYorkJ

    Some regular readers of Collide-a-Scape  are often critical of Judith Curry, but isn’t much of what she’s doing over at Climate Etc geared to making just these elements”“nuance and uncertainty”“a more integral (and better understood) part of the climate debate?

    Are you kidding? What Judith does is grossly exaggerate uncertainty at best, and completely get it wrong at worst.

  • kdk33

    MT is appealing to ignorance.  He, like Trenberth, would like to reverse the null hypothesis – climate change should be assumed anthropogenic until proven otherwise.

    This is nonsense.  For the obvious reaon:  climate has change, and has always been changing, long before we began burning fossil fuels.  There is not need to invoke anthropogenic anything to explain climate change.

  • Jack Hughes

    Definition of nuance:
    A subtle difference in or shade of meaning, expression, or sound

    How does this apply to any branch of science ? What are they talking about ?

  • Alexander Harvey

    “Instead, it’s a failure to communicate and accept a critical point of how science works, without which scientific literacy is reduced to mere talking points.”

    Oh how burdened we, the public, are!
    Now we have to learn how a critical point of science works. Really?
    I think not. What if we can’t or simply won’t? What if it is not our problem.

    “This is about nuance and uncertainty, and if the American public doesn’t get those things, then we’ll never get climate change.”

    This is yet more muddying of pools. What is there to get?

    There should be a prize for the person that can state the major points in the fewest words. Perhaps starting with:

    “Greenhouse gases tend to warm, aerosols tend to cool, and we have put more of both into the atmosphere.”

    Now people can disagree but it is not like it is hard to get.

    “On a warming globe the climate zones tend to move poleward.”

    “When warmed, ice melts and seawater expands which tends to make sealevels rise.”

    “Increasing atmospheric CO2 levels tends to make the oceans more acidic.”

    Now these are all tendencies, things that happen, “all else being equal”. When all else is not equal they are still tendencies. Dredge out the bottoms of the seas making the sealevel fall will not remove the tendency for warming to make it rise.

    These are simple propositions about which we can make up our own minds. They are simple enough to almost guarantee that those that are sure they are false are unlikely to be persuaded otherwise.

    Humans are not the only things that can affect the climate, so what. That we can, allows us to have some say in what climate we opt for. We can make it warmer than it would otherwise be or cooler, or we could just try to let it do its own thing. Our actions have consequences, for better or worse.

    Those, who like I, think these statements be true, and are deliberately attempting to warm the globe, may carry a moral burden for the consequences. Those that don’t, don’t.

    My moral compass points away from deliberate needless warming or cooling. Were there a need, it would not. I have throughout life, acted upon moral imperatives without the possibility of knowing whether it was for the best. Acting under conditions of uncertain and incomplete knowledge is my norm. I seek guidance and prefer cooperation but must act in a timely manner. I know all I need to make decisions regarding warming the plant, so I decide. It all comes down to a few simple concepts and an ability to make moral choices.

    So I forego the needless but I heed the necessities of others. I have no wish to prolong unnecessary poverty, sickness, hunger or misery.

    Tough choices must be made but to pretend that uncertainties in the science, or my lack of understanding thereof, affords me the luxury of procrastination would be unconscionable.

    I think much that passes for scientific commentary is little more than a muddying of pools, feeding a laxity that passes itself off as reason. I say to them:

    Hang yourself, brave Crillon! we fought at Arques, and you were not there.

    Alex

  • Banjoman0

    Or, we could be fighting the Battle of New Orleans, which was a resounding victory (for one side, anyway) and completely unnecessary. Who will hang then? Are climate zones more regional, in which case they may not simply “move poleward” as you assume? What do the models say? Uncertainty!

    Koerth-Baker’s statement is reminiscent of the “scientific” attitude that we need to impose a technocratic dictatorship to deal with these matters. She can say what she wants about uncertainty, but clearly the uncertainty is not hers.

  • Jonathan Gilligan

    The public gets nuance. I always find it useful to compare climate change to other complex policy issues. I’m not up do date on public opinion about education, so I’ll beg indulgence in a few wild-ass guesses about the public’s perception of education.

    Let’s suppose that the public “gets” that teachers aren’t the only variable in educational outcomes—that parenting, home circumstances, social influences (e.g., community attitudes toward studiousness and academic achievement) and other factors out of the schools’ control are important too.

    So if we stipulate that the public gets the complexity of education, why then is education policy focused on simplistic measures that mostly target teachers? Part of the problem may be that when a small group of people are talking at length there’s time to explore complexity and nuance, but when hundreds, thousands, or millions are debating an issue and when it’s only one of dozens or hundreds that they must decide, there’s no longer time for nuance.

    One approach is to delegate the discussion to a smaller, but representative group. But then people argue about what constitutes a truly representative group, and they worry about holding that group accountable to the larger public.

    People simultaneously want nuanced laws, but don’t like bills that stretch to hundreds or thousands of pages, and one person’s nuance can become another person’s loophole or earmark.

    I don’t have any real answer here, but just want to caution against using a lack of nuance in public discourse to lead us to jump to the conclusion that the public as individuals necessarily fails to understand the complexity of the issue.

  • jeffn

    Jonathan Gilligan makes some great points. Basically, the point is that they need to stop pretending that the problem here is the communications’ strategy or competence.

    The public has heard the message (delivered by an almost universally pro-AGW media) and has replied- “you have my attention, I get you, I’m not sure I buy it, but what do you want to do about it?”

    It is that last question, IMO, that the advocates have failed – completely – which is why the public’s already existent doubt is growing and their interest level is declining. Picture this- you’re in New York, someone you trust insists that you must be in LA by noon tomorrow or something dreadful will happen. You’re not sure, but based on the pre-existing trust you may be willing to order up a plane ticket while you probe a bit more about the problem. “No flying” says your trustworthy source. “You have to walk to LA, from New York, by noon tomorrow.”

    Suddenly, you’re no longer willing to head to LA, your faith in your source is at an all-time low, and if you’re even willing to discuss the issue, it will be to grill your source about what’s up in LA. Doesn’t that sound like the status quo?

  • http://collide-a-scape.com Keith Kloor

    Jonathan (12),

    I think scientific illiteracy plays a role, but I also think cultural and political values plays just as important a role, in terms of shaping these debates.

    IMO, greater scientific understanding would help, but I think the really contentious issues also require a bridging/acknowledgment of different cultural values among the most engaged stakeholders.

    I’m not saying that’s necessarily a path to good policy, but it might help in defusing the hotly charged environment that issues like climate change inhabit, and that, in turn, might help create wider political space to maneuver.

  • Howard

    Keith:
    You can play around tweeking communication theories forever, but nothing will change.
    From a technical standpoint, Climate Science is at the end of the beginning stage.  People sense this instinctively and are not buying the hysteria-driven recommended actions.  In this way, I agree with Jonathan’s point about the public understanding of nuance.  Lincoln said it best referring to limits on “fooling the people.”
    The current strategy of an unblinking lock-step defense of the status quo is failing and Judith Curry gets roasted for not being a lemming. Therefore, it should be no surprise that the public isn’t buying a sales and marketing campaign for vapor-ware.
    It seems abundantly obvious that the *answer* is for the scientists to stop all of this silly fighting, ass-covering, political one-upmanship and desperate fear-mongering, get back to work and figure out answers to the really hard issues like ocean cycles, natural variability, feedback mechanisms and other human induced climate forcings besides CO2 and CH4.

     

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Collide-a-Scape

Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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