Sunday, February 14, 2010

Climate change deniers and our human nature

Anyone who has been following the news on climate change recently already knows about the release of hacked emails of British climate scientists. The emails were used by so-called skeptics--most of whom get their funding from fossil fuel interests--to claim that there was something rotten in climate science. As far as I can tell, there isn't much to the so-called skeptics' claims about the emails. But even if their claims were to involve legitimate questions about some aspects of climate science, this would be nothing new.

That's because there is nothing that is absolutely settled in science. It is a process of ongoing inquiry fostered by disagreements between researchers of good faith who try to resolve their differences by looking for more conclusive evidence. It is important to note that so far fossil fuel companies and their supporters have yet to fund truly independent scientific inquiry into climate change. That's because they do not want truly independent inquiry since they would not be able to control the outcome. So, they are not part of the search for the truth since they offer no original physical observations or measurements to further our understanding of climate. But, then it is far easier to throw darts at others from a safe distance than engage in genuine scientific inquiry.

(The one time the fossil fuel interests did try to have some scientific rigor infused into their thinking, they didn't like the results. A primer on climate science prepared in 1995 by the industry-funded Global Climate Coalition's Science and Technical Advisory Committee confirmed key elements of the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The primer was never released and only surfaced a decade later, several years after the coalition had disbanded. You can read it here.)

The reason such sloppy critiques of climate science have gained so much traction with the public has less to do with their scientific logic--which is almost nonexistent--and more to do with human psychology. Humans tend to be heavily influenced by recent events and by their social milieu. For example, they tend to give more credence to something they heard last week at a party with friends than something published in a scientific journal last year even if it was given broad media play. Hence the effect on the public mind of the not-so-coincidental release of the above mentioned hacked emails right before the Copenhagen climate summit--and the ongoing viral campaign on the Internet, perfect for getting people to transmit disinformation person to person: "I read on the net that..."

Humans also tend to take their cues from their immediate surroundings. That's no surprise. It's really cold and snowy this winter here in the northern United States, ergo some people conclude that global warming must not be that big a deal. Yes, it's absolutely dry as a bone in Australia where it is currently summer and a severe drought has been in progress for years with devastating results. But if you don't live in Australia, you don't think about it much even if you hear something about it on the news.

Finally, humans greatly discount possible future events. This is an understandable evolutionary feature. Humans evolved to concentrate on their current surroundings, not some hypothetical future. They seek their food, status, safety and other satisfactions in the here and now. Is there really any time other than now if you are dealing with your immediate needs?

Climate denial public relations pros know all this about humans, and they count on it to make their strategies successful.

Despite all this it is a testament to humans as planning animals that most people in the world continue to believe that climate change is an important issue that needs to be addressed. But, this may not be enough. It is in the nature of humans to pay attention to the most vocal elements of society, and the so-called skeptics are quite vocal. They are constantly squawking to the media and obtaining coverage (unwarranted, in my view, since they offer mostly misinformation).

But, the fossil fuel interests do not need to defeat climate change regulations. They only need to delay or dilute them in order to achieve their goals. Delay gives those interests one more day, one more week, one more year, maybe even one more decade to sell their in-ground inventories of fossil fuels in an unrestricted manner. Every moment's delay means more money. And, diluting the regulations when they eventually arrive means opportunities for loopholes and even sanctioned delays that will allow them to continue to evade responsibility for their role in climate change.

The members of the climate change denial club are against efforts to control emissions not only because of the threat to profits, but also because they believe that climate change legislation will mean greater government intrusion into their lives. Ironically, when the crises associated with climate change emerge--declines in water and food supplies, mass migrations from areas affected negatively by climate change, threats to coastal areas due to rising seas--we will almost certainly see government intervention in ways that are far more intrusive than those needed to prevent these crises in the first place.


Anonymous said...

What a great objective article. Right.
So only "deniers" use psychology?
What about the "chicken little" effect? Oh, that's different because the author has the same opinion.
The facts are that the "science" of global warming is PURE BUNK.
So everyone agrees?
How about over 40,000 sceintists who disagree? I guess they don't count because everyone must BELIEVE in human caused global warming. Got news bozo, if you have to "believe" it isn't science, it is religion.
How about a look at the "science" rather than the opinion of the "scientists" who all happen to be on the take for grant money.
How about an objective view?
The more you research, the more Global Warming reveals itseld to be a GLOBAL FRAUD.

jagged ben said...

"So only "deniers" use psychology?"

He didn't say that.

"The facts are that the "science" of global warming is PURE BUNK."

Prove it.

"So everyone agrees?"

Nobody said that.

"How about over 40,000 sceintists who disagree?"

Most of them are not scientists. A lot of them are medical doctors, as we can see for ourselves in the link you provided. What do medical doctors need to know about climate science? I don't call an electrician to fix my leaky pipes, I call a plumber.

"Got news bozo..."

You're just a troll.

John Andersen said...

I enjoyed the post.

Happily, many wise people have moved past the stage of listening to the climate change deniers, and are making preparations for the inevitable future.

Let me suggest that those who haven't figured it out yet, aren't going to until it hits.

And that is fine.

You can't force people into being rational about realities they would pretend don't exist.

Steve From Virginia said...

There is another issue that is starting to emerge in Europe as a consequence of the Greek credit problem and the possibility of contagion and general insolvency.

These suggest a breakdown in institutions designed to promote consumption and to bring forward demand from the future.

Europe's establishment - and that of the rest of the industrialized world - is only profitable when purposely under- valued inputs are sold cheaply to be converted into waste for aggregated small money returns. The institutions that enable this process can only work in one direction, they can only do one thing.

Only habit and mental inertia suggest that either this process or the forms it takes are organic, vital or necessary. They are not, obviously. Otherwise, nature would have already been doing these things! Had this been the case, life probably would have ended hundreds of millions of years ago, just like industrialization is now ending only a few hundred years after its beginning.

The world needs new social structures and economic processes to deal with energy in a non- destructive manner. The dilemma is that nobody knows what these institutions or processes will look like or how they will function! The assumption is to assume the worst and circumstances do not allow for reflection. There has been no need to design new social systems and now that the need has arrived, there is no time!

From this standpoint, denial is a public relations or advertising issue. In a different socio- economic context, the decisions about energy use would conform to other goals besides sale- for- consumption. A new system would provide incentives to conserve or husband, instead. The results would be profitably similar to current processes, but would be non- destructive of resources so that profits could continue for extended periods ... unlike under the current system where profits end when resources are extinguished.

Lying behind the money panic which is starting to re- amplify is the institutional panic which tacitly acknowledges that current institutions have outworn their usefulness and will fade away. Ironically. The worst case scenario is also the best case scenario: that being enforced conservation and a return to non- destructive economic activities. The difference is one outcome is imposed with accompanying distress while the other is voluntary.

Panic is a part of human nature, too. We just have to learn how to cope with it.

Patrick Cummins said...

Climate change denial provides the thin intellectual justification that is required to avoid taking action on climate change. It is needed because the difficulties and costs of addressing climate change are overwhelming.

Voltaire once said that "If God didn't exist, it would be necessary to invent him." Likewise, of climate change it may be said that even if true, it's necessary to deny it.

Paul said...

Why is "human nature" always discredited as not part of the natural ecosystem and why is human activity always seen as bad for the ecosystem? All the "tree huggers" seem to accept the kill or be killed natural world but expect people not to behave the same way. We are masters at manipulating our environment but irrational emotional creatures at dealing with problems. Rather than try to stop global warming we had better get ready for it.

Ray said...

I appreciated the suggestion that we are capable of planning for the future (i.e., "humans as planning animals"). So often we are portrayed as ONLY capable of considering our immediate circumstances. While there may be a cognitive bias toward the immediate, and for good evolutionary reasons, that's not to say we are incapable of longer-term planning. Being able to consider both the short- and long-term would seem to convey an adaptive advantage over someone only able to consider one of the other.

So the issue here might be "what are the conditions under which such planning occurs?"

We probably have already worked out some guidelines. Maybe now's the time to start creating these conditions.

Anonymous said...

I'm surprised you use the term denier, it seems a very loaded term to me. I really don't think it is very helpful to furthering discussion and understanding in this complex area. I also wondered how much money the people who are promoting the idea of man made global warming are receiving and from whom?
We are still a long way from understanding all of the variables which may affect the climate, until we have done so I think it is more useful to avoid labels.
In addition isn't it human psychology to put ourselves at the centre of all things? The sun might be more significant than we are.

mattbg said...

I used to take this blog somewhat seriously, but the first paragraph of this post has put a huge dent in that.

The skeptics are all funded by fossil fuel interests? Then why are they so hard up for funding to get their word out? It seems that the dominant word, by far, is the one put forth by the proponents of manmade climate change. They are very well funded.

And with good reason... there is a lot of money to be made from climate change and the massive government subsidies at stake.

This reminds me of the whole Western feminist development -- the moneyed egging on the activists because they know it'll serve their interests in the end.

Kurt Cobb said...

Come now, Matt. I said most, not all, get their funding from fossil fuel interests. There are indeed a few bona fide climate scientists who while they don't doubt the existence of man-made global warming, wonder about the mechanisms and the severity of it. But so far the models used by the IPCC have turned out to be too conservative. The markers of warming: ice sheet melt, polar summer ice melt, spring arriving earlier by one to two weeks as indicated by animal behavior and plants, the death of coral, the fact that countries are now vying for the right to explore for oil and gas in the Arctic Ocean, something that was unthinkable 30 years ago, and the opening of the once fabled Northwest Passage. All of these developments tell us that warming is proceeding faster than anticipated by the models.

As for the so-called skeptics not having money, perhaps you are unacquainted with the Heartland Institute, the George Marshall Institute, the Cato Institute, and the myriad other nonprofit issues organizations throughout the world that are fronts for the fossil fuel industry. Perhaps you've heard of the American Petroleum Institute which has lobbied heavily and successfully to prevent any kind of climate change legislation. The powerful Western Fuels Association has also been active in preventing climate change legislation. I'm not even talking about the direct efforts by lobbyists and PR firms working for the largest oil companies such as ExxonMobil.

Don't be naive Matt. The forces arrayed against doing anything about climate change are ubiquitous and well-funded and so far, successful in the U. S. Congress at preventing any legislation and recently also at the Copenhagen summit. You may regard this as a good thing. But, you're not kidding anyone when you proclaim that the so-called global warming skeptics are underfunded and overmatched. News flash: They're winning!

mattbg said...

Kurt, what are we meant to do about climate change, and what will it accomplish? If you can tell me that we have to do X and it will probably produce positive result Y, I will think about coming onside.

If you instead tell me we just have to cut back on carbon emissions out of virtue or by attaching a price tag to them but can't say whether or not it will help, I'm not going to play along.

That is the big missing piece -- what must we do, and what will the likely result of doing it be? As it stands, it seems like the answer is to assauge guilt by paying more money for things in the same way we send money to Haiti and other areas hit by natural disaster as and when they occur. Except that the money in this case would go to a bureaucracy whose only traditional certainty has been to spend a lot of money to do nothing.

Banks are getting into the swing of carbon trading now. It is a money-making opportunity now, just as commodity trading in natural gas and oil are. Europe, I'm sure, sees it as a way to return to world significance. There are all kinds of subsidies being handed out to study it, and for many it's a good career move to agree with the IPCC line. Copenhagen was not a cheap affair.

I'm sure you well know that global warming is not a new idea (and it has at times been in conflict with concerns about global cooling). It only received popular prominence after Al Gore's presentation, much of which has been shown to be deliberately deceptive or inaccurate. In a sensible world, the popular prominence would have fallen along with that because that is what attracted the attention.

So, it started with Al Gore. What kind of representative is he for global warming? He is a man who shows no personal willingness to be abstemious for the cause. He has become very rich since he started this gig. More than $100,000 per speech? It is hard to believe he even believes in this. He doesn't act as if he does, and he doesn't charge fees consistent with a desire to spread the word.

It is only recently that the popular tide has turned against the IPCC line. I put that down to a few forceful speakers getting purchase on the flipside of the issue and simply creating an environment where others felt comfortable speaking out against the IPCC.

I don't doubt climate change. I do have doubts about man being largely responsible for it. I also think that money is better spent dealing with the outcomes than trying to prevent the outcome. And, in some ways, I'm thankful for climate change: the land my house sits on today would have been ice 20,000 years ago.

Kurt Cobb said...


I, like you, am skeptical that carbon trading will do anything but enrich the already wealthy without addressing the problem. There are too many ways to game the system. I support a gradually increasing carbon tax that becomes very large over time. If you don't want carbon emissions and you don't want to pick winners in alternative energy, then simply tax carbon heavily and let the market sort out how to replace fossil fuels.

As for the tax revenues, they can just be sent as a rebate based on on income. No money going to any bureaucracy, just economic incentives to stop burning carbon.

I would think that as somebody concerned about peak oil, you would embrace schemes to quickly reduce fossil fuel use and encourage alternatives regardless of your views on climate change. It's a happy coincidence that the things we'd do to stop climate change are basically the same things we'd do to address fossil fuel depletion.

As for Al Gore, he's just one man and the obsession that some people have with him is basically irrelevant when it comes to determining what our path to sustainability should be.

Finally, I think you would benefit from thinking in terms of risk management. Peak oil and climate change are problems in risk management. For my take on why we should view them this way and what that implies see my recent post:Characterizing the incalculable.

Essentially, what you are advocating is that we continue to run this giant uncontrolled experiment on the climate, to just see what happens. Ask yourself this, if you were told that the plane flight you are about to get on has only a 5 percent chance of crashing, would you change flights? I have a feeling you would. If you were told that there is only a 5 percent chance that climate change will destroy modern civilization, would you say that we need to do something to lower that risk or not?

I think the risk is much higher, but clearly unquantifiable. Risk management says you must take into account not only the probability of a event occurring, but also the possible severity. You are assuming that you can actually forecast the future of climate change and therefore know that its results are going to be benign. No one can make such a prediction with any certainty, just as no one can predict with certainty that civilization will collapse under the pressures generated by climate change.

The issue is how to handle the risk. Given the possible severity of the outcomes, wouldn't it be prudent to take substantial steps to lessen the risks, especially since those steps would be similar to the ones we need to address peak fossil fuels?

mattbg said...


I guess the way I see it is that following the IPCC route is riskier than following the path we're already on. Would I transfer from a plane that had a 5% chance of crashing to one that had a 10% chance of crashing? Probably not. Carbon taxation may cripple some industries for which there is no cleaner replacement. It may seriously damage the economy. Maybe that is the idea. I don't know. There does seem to be a killjoy sentiment in the movement.

The IPCC vision, without China and India's participation, is pretty meaningless. I don't even know how you would ever get China to participate honestly when so many of their statistics are dubious. And I don't think this is a red herring -- these economies are serious competitors to our own.

And now we have some pretty sinister effects -- i.e. Whole Foods rejecting oil from the Canadian oil sands. But, they will buy it from Saudia Arabia and Iran, I assume -- countries with terrible human rights records -- meaning carbon emissions now trump human rights?

I'm not one of those people that denies it all. I am concerned about peak oil and resource overconsumption. I walk a 5km roundtrip to do my groceries rather than use the car, and for the past few months have been doing 10km roundtrip walks for another regular appointment (and this has raised interesting questions about the cost of the additional food I need to eat to do this vs. paying for gas). I think we should conserve just because we shouldn't use more than we really need. I also recognize that increased efficiencies often just lead to a higher volume of more efficient consumption, increasing overall consumption. I grow my own vegetables, use CSAs, etc.

But something I am opposed to is jumping on one bandwagon whose cause I don't believe in simply because it'll help further my interests in the others. I don't want to pretend to believe in man-made climate change just because I have concerns about peak oil and other related issues?

I have serious doubts that the IPCC is the one to guide us through this. Once they have a steady revenue stream, their purpose in life will be to protect their business and increase their revenue. They will stop paying attention to the new science if it contradicts them and will simply focus on their mission. It is heavily political and heavily bureaucratic.

I only mention Al Gore because he is the one that attracted and still attracts many people to this issue, despite his hypocrisy. If people are willing to ignore that hypocrisy, how can we have an honest discussion about these things?

So, your position, it seems, is to attach a price to carbon and then apply traditional risk management thinking to it as if it was a financial equation? I see logic in that, but the methodology for pricing carbon is where things get too messy for me.

And what about the other greenhouse gases, such as water vapour (far more plentiful than carbon) and methane? And the recent study that found that the more infrared radation produced, the rate at which it escapes into space is higher (i.e. that it is not be a constant)?

You also get into tricky situations like possibly increasing known pollutants (smog-causing particulates) in order to decrease dubious ones (carbon dioxide), such as we do when we favour diesel engines over gasoline because a diesel engine's CO2 output is lower.

Also, under this way of thinking, human respiration becomes a pollution source. That's where we are going. As far as I can tell, there is a lot of truth to the idea that environmentalists are attracted to the cause simply because they don't like people very much (the old "jump on bandwagon X because it furthers Y" idea I said I didn't like above).

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