The Good News and The Bad News on Climate Change

On Friday, at my university, we were fortunate enough to have a very well know climate science researcher speak, Michael Mann.  IF the name sounds familiar it’s because he was the one that produced the famous “Hockey Stick” graph that appeared in the peer-reviewed Geophysical Research Letters journal in 1999 (I wonder how many graphs have their own Wikipedia page!).  The graph of course was much maligned by climate change deniers funded by various lobbying groups, but has since that time proven to be quite accurate and verified by other researchers.  His was also among the e-mails leaked in the scandal called “climategate” which, despite the spin of deniers from out of context e-mail excerpts, has been debunked by the scientific community.  It was a great opportunity to hear from someone who has been at the heart of promoting scientific research on climate change, while also dealing with a great deal of political controversy and pseudo-science promoters who try to claim human-induced climate change is a hoax.  Like many climate scientists he has reached a point where he no longer finds it very useful to reach out to the public with facts and figures.  Numerous research articles have concluded that now, views on climate change are governed by political ideology rather than directly arguing with the science behind human-induced climate change.  I found the talk quite illuminating since I too have reached the same conclusion that scientific evidence seems to carry little weight when having discussions with people about the issue.  I also found it illuminating to learn more about the political state of affairs in the U.S. right now, so I wanted to share some good news and bad news takeaways for those of you concerned about our Earth.

The Good News

One thing that I thought was a good take away is that if you are a person debating or discussing this topic with a friend, relative, stranger whatever, that talking about the scientific consensus is probably the most helpful thing you can do.  Obviously there are always going to be contrary people, but for many there is still a misconception that this is a split issue, and research demonstrates that a lot of minds are changed by pointing out how much consensus there really is.  For more conservatively minded people reminding them that there are more economic benefits to doing something to not doing something, and that climate change also represents a national security issue is also important.  Fortunately there is already a faction of the military addressing climate change from this perspective.

The other bit of good news is that there is a great deal of plans in place by scientists and engineers to start dealing with climate change.  Basically the scientific community is prepared, and are simply waiting for the political will to be able to spring into action.

Michael Mann also said there are a lot of Republican members of congress who are closeted climate change supporters.  They accept the scientific evidence and feel that it is important to do something about it.  Why are they in the closet, well they have learned the lesson of Bob Inglis.  He was a SC congressman who served from 2005-2011 and came out for doing something about climate change from an evangelical Christian perspective.  He said the scientists were right and as Christians we should be caring for God’s creation.  If you are a Christian this is a valid position to take and is supported by scripture.  Bob Inglis ended up losing by a landslide in the Republican primary as his opponent was support by the Koch brothers.  Michael Mann and Bob Inglis are good friends and so I believe this political inside information to be plausible and valid.  In some ways by releasing him like that, conservative America has opened up a can of worms and Mr. Inglis now promotes doing something about climate change from both a Republican and Christian viewpoint.

The Bad News

Well the bad news is also related to the good news.  It makes me concerned, not only that the massive money of the Koch Brothers and energy companies lobbying against solid science is preventing us from taking action that will help this planet, but also that we have so many Republican people in congress without the political courage to stand up to the money.  It seems if they all banded together I am not sure what the likes of the Koch Brothers could do, if all of a sudden all of those people in congress lost their next elections suddenly. It would sort of “show their hand”.  I guess it upsets me that the people we elect can be so intellectually dishonest and live with themselves.

I asked Michael Mann what the political tipping point would be to make all these Republican congress people come out the proverbial closet.  He said that it would take the Republican party to crash and burn in this next election.  Only by losing the executive branch and the senate (and possibly the house) would make them turn around and start to support more environmental concerns.  The problem is that this election is looking a lot closer than it should be.  A small margin of victory by Clinton isn’t going to cut it.

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What is clear is that whatever your political stance, climate change is in your best interest and it behooves you to vote for politicians who do have the courage to fight for this planet.  Given Gary Johnson, and Trump’s stance on climate, these are really not viable options.  And most importantly make sure you vote for people in the senate and the house who accept the scientific consensus on climate change as well.

Finally I also want to help promote Michael Mann’s new book.  It gives a much more in depth discussion than my little summary here.  He also teamed up with a satirical cartoonist from the Washington Post who provides some good humor throughout the book.  The book address things like ethics, politics, the money and ideologies behind climate science deniers, logical fallacies, and of course some basics about the science.  I highly recommend it.

 

 

 

The book discusses tipping point in the climate system which are points which there is no quick return from and can lead to rapid disaster.

Climate Change for the Masses (Part II)

Well it would seem that a group blog idea with a weather and climate theme has fallen apart, and so I’ll have to do my blogging about it here instead.  Several months ago I began what I hoped would be a 3 part series, themed around the John Oliver’s  “Last Week Tonight” Episode on the climate change debate.  In my first blog post I wanted to try and investigate what type of people don’t accept the evidence on climate change, based on my own experience in getting into various discussions on the topic with people outside my discipline.  In this blog article I’d like to take a look at the actual media portrayal of the problem which was more the central theme of John Oliver’s segment.

If you haven’t watched the clip, John Oliver critiques the media for having one person who accepts the scientific evidence, with one person who denies it, saying that this gives an unfair representation of the scientific consensus on the issue.  Over 97% of the scientific literature from over 10,000 scientists across earth and biological sciences have concluded that human induced climate change is a fact, making it appear as though it is a split issue is quite simply dishonest.  And this absolutely true, but it is in fact even worse than that.

The 50-50 split looks even more in favor of the deniers when the media is always using the same person to represent the scientific side.  If you watch many interviews on the subject you might actually get the picture that it seems to be only one guy who thinks human-induced climate change is real while many other people don’t think it’s happening.  If you always saw the same guy “for” an issue and many other people on TV saying they are “against” it would be somewhat natural to think that the “against” side had a better argument.  Of course you’d be wrong in thinking that.  This is called the “Appeal to Popularity Fallacy” (or ad populum for you Latin Lovers).  An extremely common one used nowadays.  Of course as it turns out, it is the logic of the arguments and the strength of the evidence that makes for who has taken the correct issue on the stance.  Of course there are many biases and fallacies that we naturally gravitate towards because it is in our evolution.  Being the outcast in a group didn’t get you very far early in our evolution and the same is in a large part true today.  Although generally today, no matter how different you might be, with a large population you are likely to find a group to connect with.  But in terms of genetic history being an outcast in a group of social animals who may be relatively isolated from other populations doesn’t really give you anywhere to go, and since survival on your own is more difficult “following the herd” is part of who we are.  Of course, in this instance, there is no real punishment for accepting scientific evidence but sometimes I think our wiring doesn’t really care.

The 50-50 perception unbalances even further when you consider who Bill Nye.  Now don’t get me wrong.  As a scientist, I know he’s

From http://brandonhillphotos.com

a scientist, and that he has the ability to not only understand the issue, speak intelligently about it, and accept the hard work done by so many scientists to reach the conclusions they have about climate change.  But to the public there are a lot of negatives about Bill Nye that would make his credibility more suspect, especially to people who are on the fence or deniers themselves.   First of all Bill Nye is not a climate scientist.  He is not an expert in the field of climate science and as such this will weaken his credibility as an advocate.  In fact Bill Nye is most famous for his use of science concepts for educating children.  Climate change is a very adult issue that will require adults in government and voting adults to accept the scientific evidence and put forth appropriate policies to address the issue.  Bill Nye is also a celebrity and many people have negative attitudes towards celebrities who get involved in issues that are political.  In Canada, David Suzuki is a very famous scientist and naturalist, but is not very knowledgeable about the issue and so while he has tried to be advocate for climate change, he has not done very well when addressing even the most common fallacious criticisms put forth by deniers in a debate format.  He was hoping his popularity would help change the minds of people, but in fact it has likely hurt those who might be willing to listen to a well reasoned debate on the subject.  So I think Bill Nye may have similar impacts.

Now don’t get me wrong, because I am not convinced that the media is intentionally using Bill Nye for the purposes of misleading others.  For them, he is a celebrity and known and will add a few viewers whether people have grown to hate him or love him.  He is also an excellent public speaker, and he is also eager to break away from his previous persona as a scientist for children (honestly go back to getting children excited about science, I think it’s too late for congress now!).   So what is the solution to making the debate fairer?  John Oliver’s suggestion is not a bad one, but of course they are unlikely to get 100 people on the stage for a debate.   We nerdy introverted scientists simply need to become better communicators.  We need to get involved in educational outreach and scientific discourse at regional, state, and national levels.  Since there are literally 1000’s and 1000’s of people researching this field and concluding that man is impacting the climate just as we hone our research and analytical skills we must also hone our communication skills so that we aren’t just contributing through the publication of an article in a scientific journal.  And media, you could do a better job of finding actual experts to have on your programs.  You could do a better job also by being honest and saying we know this is not even close to a split issue in the scientific community and have more debates about what the best way about addressing the issue is, rather than trying to debate whether it is an issue at all.

If you are interested in learning more about climate science, learn about what the common myths are about climate change and why they are not well reasoned arguments, and be able to investigate climate change science at various levels of complexities I strongly recommend this site called Skeptical Science.

Respect my authoritah!

I was reading a fellow blogger’s post about the vaccination debate (a debate that should not even exist) as the author of the blog had highlighted a particular response to her blog from a physician and posed the question about why are we not willing to

From http://dublinopinion.com

listen to the physicians point of view.  She was also interested about why we would trust doctor’s in one case, but not in the case of vaccinations.  This is a very valid question.  If you are going to say doctors are out to lunch on vaccines and the very same medical science goes into everything else in the profession then you should never go see a doctor, take care of things on your own, and most importantly keep your kid at home so he or she doesn’t infect anybody else.

However it is the “Why don’t we believe the physician?” question that had me thinking as I drove to work this morning and I started thinking about how this is true for things like climate change and other scientific issues now and in the past like GMOs, evolution, the dangers of smoking, etc.  I was reminded of an excellent YouTube video that I have posted many times before called Good without Gods that talks about the basis for morality in a society.  One of the ways in which we can acquire morality is by default to authority, sometimes mistakenly so.  I believe that this is a basic cognitive bias humans have, perhaps because we all, from a very young age, default to the authority of our parents.  Part of growing up is realizing that your parents don’t have all the answers and don’t know everything, but part of our brains never really grows out of this default to authority bias.  This is in part why many people feel comfortable deriving their morality from religious authority without question.  Of course there is too much to know in the world and defaulting to authority saves time, and thus energy of which we all have only a finite amount of.  As a scientist I would say always be skeptical, but that means that we should also be equally skeptical to somebody who says vaccines cause autism.  In the face of controversy it seems the default to authority is what people rely on, so the question is, why isn’t the authority thousands of scientists who by consensus and exhaustive amounts of research say one thing as opposed to a politician who says another?  I have come up with a few possibilities but would be interested to hear what others think.  Here are the thoughts that I have come up with so far:

  1.        False authority figures. Who are the people we value in our society?
    Michele Bachmann – Not an authority figure (From http://www.warrenjasonstreet.com)

    Here in the U.S. it seems like the views of celebrities, politicians, and people with money (who are sometimes all one and the same) carry weight as being an authority on scientific issues.  This is simply not the case.

  2.        The power of money. In a highly consumer based society, money is seen as equivocal to power and thus authority.  If you have a lot of money you must have been smart to get it.  That is false of course.  Many people inherit their wealth, have connections, work very hard (but don’t necessarily have a high intellect), and some just get lucky breaks. Most of the smartest people I know don’t make money their goal.
  3.        Devaluing intellectualism.  In many countries I have visit those who are well educated, teachers, scientists are well respected in the community and in society at large.  Education itself is increasingly devalued here in the U.S. and so if educated people don’t have value in society that how can they be a worthwhile authority on anything?

The American Dream was built on valuing education, change, and progress.  We do not live in a society in which that dream is simply unobtainable for most and yet we believe in the concept like it manifested itself out of nothing.