Monday, September 09, 2013

Flying flags of convenience in climate change debates

This is an updated post from two years ago:

One of the perverse thrills of paddling in Vancouver is cozying up to the massive container ships parked out in English Bay. A little while back, I paddled past one rusting behemoth with the word "Monrovia" painted in white on the red hull. Each letter was about the size of my little kayak.

Monrovia is the capital of Liberia, the country where that vessel is registered. There is no thriving trade between Liberia and western Canada. Merchant ships merely register in Liberia in order to avoid regulations and to reduce costs. Liberia is the flag of convenience.

As a scientist, I sometimes find the challenge of communicating about climate change similar to that of operating a ship according to the rules of your native country while the "competitors" take advantage of the lawless wilds of other nations.

People opposing the basic science of climate change in the public sphere need not adhere to the slow, rigorous method of hypothesis testing or building coherent arguments over time based on the balance of published evidence. That provides contrarians or "deniers" the rhetorical advantage of adopting whatever "flag" or argument is convenient that week, whether about sunspots, a one sentence error in a 900+ page IPCC report, or year-to-year variability in the area of Arctic sea ice. If the argument is proven false in the court of public opinion, you adopt another flag. The sequence of arguments does not have to be logically consistent. The goal of the organized sceptic movement* is simply to keep the ship sailing.

The temptation for scientists to adopt the practices of the opponents in the debate is what the late Steve Schneider described as "double ethical bind" in a famously mis-used quote:

On the one hand, as scientists we are ethically bound to the scientific method, in effect promising to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but – which means that we must include all doubts, the caveats, the ifs, ands and buts. On the other hand, we are not just scientists but human beings as well. And like most people we’d like to see the world a better place, which in this context translates into our working to reduce the risk of potentially disastrous climate change. To do that we need to get some broad based support, to capture the public’s imagination. That, of course, means getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have. This “double ethical bind” we frequently find ourselves in cannot be solved by any formula. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest. I hope that means being both

The response to that honest, clear assessment of the communications challenge says enough. For years, that one line about offering up "scary scenarios" was itself a Liberia to many of Schneider's opponents.

It can be challenging to stay level-headed about communication in the face of often unscrupulous opposition. That's why I find that the keys to communication about climate change are not the usual suspects of understanding the audience, technical expertise, passion, ability to drop jargon, etc. etc. In my experience, successfully communicating about climate change takes, more than anything else, patience and humility.

* Note: It's important to separate the funded movement from individual people's doubts about the science of climate change, which can be grounded in science, culture, religion, politics, moral values, you name it. And there are vocal sceptics who rely on a consistent line of argumentation; perhaps Richard Lindzen's earlier arguments about the water vapour feedback could fall in this category, though it's fair to say that ship has since migrated to other shores.


Otter said...

The 'late schneider' spent the 70s shrieking about the Next Ice Age.
Hyposcrisy at its' finest.

Brian said...

What a pleasant otter. Schneider thought it possible in the early 70s that anthropogenic aerosols would be a stronger influence than CO2, but expressed no certainty.

Show me a scientific body in the 70s other than Newsweek (/sarc) that expressed certainty about cooling.

Anonymous said...

Schneider changed his mind when the evidence changed. What else could a scientist do?

I suppose if he clung on to "global cooling" in spite of all the evidence, that is the type of denial otter admires.

Anonymous said...

Otter said...

The 'late schneider' spent the 70s shrieking about the Next Ice Age.
Hyposcrisy at its' finest.


How kind of you to pop in and prove simondonner's point! Now, let's take a few minutes to take down that flag of convenience that you just hoisted here:

1) When the infamous Schneider "global cooling" paper was published, Schneider was a young postdoc fresh out of grad-school. He was not an experienced climate-scientist at the time.

2) Schneider wasn't the primary author of the paper. Funny how "skeptics" who trot that old paper out as "Schneider's paper" never mention the fact that the primary author was SI Rasool and not Schneider.

3) A quick look at the original paper's abstract will reveal that it *didn't* predict a "Next Ice Age" -- not even close.

Here's the abstract in its entirety (emphasis added):

Effects on the global temperature of large increases in carbon dioxide and aerosol densities in the atmosphere of Earth have been computed. It is found that, although the addition of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere does increase the surface temperature, the rate of temperature increase diminishes with increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. For aerosols, however, the net effect of increase in density is to reduce the surface temperature of Earth. Because of the exponential dependence of the backscattering, the rate of temperature decrease is augmented with increasing aerosol content. An increase by only a factor of 4 in global aerosol background concentration may be sufficient to reduce the surface temperature by as much as 3.5°K. If sustained over a period of several years, such a temperature decrease over the whole globe is believed to be sufficient to trigger an ice age.

Note the part that said you'd need an increase of at least a factor of 4 in aerosol pollution to trigger the cooling? Did that ever happen? No. Air pollution regs enacted in the 70's in Europe and the USA prevented that from happening.

So the scenario that Rasool/Schneider said was required to trigger the cooling never came to pass in the first place. An incredible increase in aerosol pollution (over and above the very high levels at that time) would have been necessary to trigger the cooling in the Rasool/Schneider scenario.

4) And finally, Schneider realized that there was an error in the paper (Rasool/Schneider did not include the stratosphere in their climate-model runs, mistakenly thinking that the stratosphere wasn't important for calculating global climate sensitivity -- an error that can be attributed to the embryonic nature of climate modeling back then). Schneider published a retraction shortly thereafter.

So, "otter", you were completely wrong on multiple counts. Care to issue your own retraction (like Schneider did when he realized he was wrong)?