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Losing the Public Debate On Global Warming 1181

Hugh Pickens writes "Dr. James Hansen, director of the NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, who first made warnings about climate change in the 1980s, says that public skepticism about the threat of man-made climate change has increased despite the growing scientific consensus. He says that without public support, it will be impossible to make the changes he and his colleagues believe need to occur to protect future generations from the effects of climate change. 'The science has become stronger and stronger over the past five years while the public perception is has gone in completely the other direction. That is not an accident,' says Hansen. 'There is a very concerted effort by people who would prefer to see business to continue as usual. They have been winning the public debate with the help of tremendous resources.' Hansen's comments come as recent surveys have revealed that public support for tackling climate change has declined dramatically in recent years. A recent BBC poll found that 25% of British adults did not think global warming is happening and over a third said many claims about environmental threats are 'exaggerated,' compared to 24 per cent in 2000. Dr. Benny Peiser, director of skeptical think tank The Global Warming Policy Foundation, says it's time to stop exaggerating the impact of global warming and accept the uncertainty of predictions about the rate of climate change. 'James Hensen has been making predictions about climate change since the 1980s. When people are comparing what is happening now to those predictions, they can see they fail to match up.'"
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Losing the Public Debate On Global Warming

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  • by laughingcoyote ( 762272 ) <barghesthowl@e x c> on Saturday April 14, 2012 @12:22PM (#39685701) Journal

    When we have a nontrivial portion of the population who does not believe that humanity resulted from evolution by natural selection, and that the universe is less than ten thousand years old, did we really expect people to accept science that something bad is going to happen if they do not change their behavior?

    Our failure to insist on scientific literacy rates as high as written-word literacy rates is going to be something that comes back to bite us, I'm afraid. I'm not sure there is anything to be done for the problem now, except educate as well as we can.

    Maybe we can have some scientists say that a god revealed to them that it dislikes the smell of vehicle exhaust and is angrily heating up the planet as a result. Unfortunately, I'm only half-kidding.

    • by msobkow ( 48369 ) on Saturday April 14, 2012 @12:35PM (#39685789) Homepage Journal

      god revealed to them that it dislikes the smell of vehicle exhaust and is angrily heating up the planet as a result

      Actually, it's more like they all missed out on the events of Revelations and we're now in the phase where the devil rules the world and he's heating it up to comfy hell-like temperatures. :P

    • by trout007 ( 975317 ) on Saturday April 14, 2012 @01:11PM (#39686173)

      You are missing a larger problem. It is that The scientific method is the best we have at discovering why something is happening in the natural world. It is terrible at explaining if something is a problem and what solution should be implemented by force, ie governments. This really falls into the study of economics and human action.

      So while a scientist can report their data and conclusions and even explain possible scenarios and predicted outcomes they cant say what the policy should be. Taking that last step puts them into economics and politics because it involves using force to control other people's lives. And most people have an inherent distrust of people that want to control over them.

    • Wrong message (Score:5, Insightful)

      by nten ( 709128 ) on Saturday April 14, 2012 @01:38PM (#39686459)

      The focus on how global warming is being caused has been detrimental. Its pretty deep stuff for a business major to know. You have to understand band gap orbitals to verify CO2 does indeed absorb various IR bands. Actually computing wavelengths from the orbitals filled is on the upper edge of what might be in highschool chemistry, I was not exposed until college chem. Then there is the statistics necessary to interpret temperature readings. Even engineering stat in college wasn't entirely sufficient, though most college statistics courses would be (engineering stat was dumbed down). There is no accepted water/cloud model yet even among the experts.

      Trying to walk everyone through this so they are willing to act is hopeless. The cause is only of secondary importance in any case. If this was in fact a natural trend and it was harmful, we should still act and/or adapt in precisely the same ways for precisely the same reasons.

      Presenting the consequences, good and bad, in a non-melodramatic way on a region by region basis for the entire world is the first step. It answers "Why should *I* change?" Water levels rising will harm many, but its not sufficient to convince many others. It is hard for a Welsh farmer who anticipates being able to start a vineyard, to be convinced by NYC turning into Venice. Give the farmer the whole picture for their region.

      The second step is to present all the options for climate control and their relative effectiveness both alone and in concert. Reducing CO2/methane emissions is the most natural approach, but there are many others like sequestration, albedo engineering, and counter agents. One that comes up a lot is aerosolized SO2. Thus side effects of these other approaches should also be discussed.

      We as a society will likely make the wrong choice, but right now many are making the choice without any knowledge of the consequences apart from climate horror movies, or any knowledge of the tools we have to counter these consequences apart from some vague idea we should drive less or use a different sort of light bulb.

  • by msobkow ( 48369 ) on Saturday April 14, 2012 @12:28PM (#39685735) Homepage Journal

    If you're going to take on an issue that strikes fear in the blood-pumps (not hearts) of multi-trillion dollar industries, they are going to spend some of those trillions trying to paint you a fool in the eyes of the public.

    Anyone who thought it would be easy wasn't getting into the fight with their eyes open. All you have to do is look at the way medical cannabis is legal in many states, while the DEA continues to claim there is no medical use for cannabis to realize that going up against the status quo is, at best, "frustrating."

  • Public concern (Score:5, Interesting)

    by bhlowe ( 1803290 ) on Saturday April 14, 2012 @12:28PM (#39685737)
    If the proposed solution to climate change is cost-prohibitive and the results of any solution will not create a long term fix... and the promised "hockey stick" increase in temperatures not been seen in the last 15 years... Then it is pretty normal for people to question the wisdom of creating trillions of dollars of economic burden to attempt a fix.

    But shouldn't we be concerned that NASA's interest in Global warming is going to get in the way of their Primary Mission of Muslim Outreach" []...

  • GW (Score:4, Insightful)

    by kipsate ( 314423 ) on Saturday April 14, 2012 @12:30PM (#39685747)
    Without taking a position whether or not global warming is caused by human activities:

    - There is a complete industry now that exists by the grace of the belief that GW is man-made and we can do something about it. This is business having an interest in governments and public believing we should reduce CO2 emissions.
    - Being a GW denier is silly. However try taking the position that GW is not entirely man-made, or that GW will not be as damaging as to justify billions of investments. You will get attacked almost in the way blasphemists were attacked in the middle ages. You are a non-believer, and you should go along with the "common believe" and "consensus", what we all think. How dare you disagree? But science is not consensus based. One experiment is all it takes to create new insights, models, theories.

    I feel frustrated by governments taking GW as an excuse to raise taxes and increase influence on everyones personal life whenever they can. For instance, banning the light bulb - just how stupid is that?
    • Re:GW (Score:5, Insightful)

      by UnknowingFool ( 672806 ) on Saturday April 14, 2012 @12:46PM (#39685923)

      But science is not consensus based. One experiment is all it takes to create new insights, models, theories.

      Consensus means that most of them believe there is enough support. And no one in the community has come up with anything credible that refutes the basic premise of climate change. Sure there is disagreement about how severe it will become, how much time before severe changes will need to happen, and what can be done to mitigate the problem, but there is little disagreement that is man-made. I don't know if you know the scientific community but it is populated by opinionated, arrogant bastards just like any other competitive field. And there are sometimes lengthy, nasty fights about the smallest of details. To get a consensus in this group pretty much says the science is well-supported and sound.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday April 14, 2012 @12:37PM (#39685809)
    It isn't global warming science that many object to, it's that almost every 'solution' proposed seems to be a call for more redistribution and for people to scale back their lifestyles.
  • by jaymzter ( 452402 ) on Saturday April 14, 2012 @12:39PM (#39685843) Homepage

    IMHO the science is a minor part of it with regards to the public. It's the fact that there is a perception that certain ideologies have seized upon GW as a free ticket to further their agendas of limiting economic and public activity and increasing the interference and power of government within our lives. The natural reaction of the competing ideology is to discredit the basis of this power grab.

    Economically, with the general decline the G20 is experiencing, as the most advanced nations they would bear the brunt of this new philosophy of "sustainability", which would be suicide for them.

    Politically, specifically in America, there's a reason progressives embrace GW and conservatives do not. It provides a cover for some of their longest desired goals. Further centralization of government, extreme enviromentalism, and anti-capitalism.

    Science is just a patsy for both sides in this argument.

    • IMHO the science is a minor part of it with regards to the public.

      And that's quite unfortunate because it's the fundamental question of the whole thing. How can anybody come up with a political solution to a problem if they can't objectively look at what the situation is in the first place? Everything else is a secondary concern.

    • by bussdriver ( 620565 ) on Saturday April 14, 2012 @01:08PM (#39686127)

      I largely agree but the "progressives" are not for extreme environmentalism - the conservatives greatly exaggerate their attacks to the point where it is hard to use satire to ridicule it. 1st time I saw Glenn Beck I thought he was over the top satire. The conservatives just went too far lately labeling a woman a slut just for wanting access to birth control. They'll often call Obama a Nazi and a Communist in the same rant.

      Restraining the extremes of capitalism is not anti-capitalism anymore than Firemen are anti-fire. To an extreme capitalist, any criticism of their religion is blasphemy - and they are at the point of religion just like communists in the USSR. (A god is not required for something to be a religion.)

      I agree progressives want to strengthen and expand democratic institutions greatly; not all of them believe centralized power is always the solution.

  • by sandytaru ( 1158959 ) on Saturday April 14, 2012 @12:45PM (#39685903) Journal
    Facts are true whether I choose to believe in them are not. That's the message that needs to be hammered into the public sphere by the scientists - evidence proves it's happening. Whether the global warming, climate change, or what have you is man-made is the only thing really still in dispute among serious scientific circles, and the majority consensus among the researchers actively involved in studying it is that it is anthropogenic in nature.
  • In other news... (Score:4, Informative)

    by MMatessa ( 673870 ) on Saturday April 14, 2012 @12:48PM (#39685945)

    'James Hensen has been making predictions about climate change since the 1980s. When people are comparing what is happening now to those predictions, they can see they fail to match up.'

    In other news, Hansen's 30-year-old global temperature predictions close to spot-on []

    • by Eravnrekaree ( 467752 ) on Saturday April 14, 2012 @02:05PM (#39686725)

      First point is it mentions the british stats on denial, but the American ones are far worse at 50% denial or so.

      Second point i'd like to make, the effects of global warming are especially long reaching and likely will be a gradually worsening trend, over decades. The predictions are very dire, indeed. The predictions being dire does not mean they need to happen overnight, we will likely see the catastrophy gradually set in over decades, things will just keeping getting worse and worse. People have problems seeing something really devastating when it sets in over a period of decades or centuries. That is a problem with human perception. When things dont happen overnight, its harder for people to see. its like with possible malnutrition problems, as these things get worse, having a billion people becoming malnourised becomes the "new normal" and they only see the short term 1% annual change or whatever that their short attention span allows them to see, not the longer term trend. They forget that at some point in the past the number of starving people was vastly less and fail to remember how much it has really gone up, because it happened in centuries, rather than days.

      An earthquake gets a lot of attention because it lies within the short attention span, but the gradual global environmental degradation is a lot harder for people to see, even though its much worse than an earthquake, the damage does not suddenly occur.

      Christians ideologies and all sorts of popular myths such as 2012 tell of the day the earth ended. Many people think that if the earth will end it will be a sudden disaster like that. the fact is if the earth deos not end in a day many people will say its just not in danger at all. But the fact is the things that could ruin this planet can take centuries to occur.

    • by rnturn ( 11092 )

      Dr. Peiser doesn't have the scientific background to judge whether Hansen's predictions are correct, incorrect, or somwhere in between. He says his "interests" are in climate change (among other things) but that doesn't mean he has anything of note to add to the debate. I suspect that most of his interest in climate change is that someone's paying him for the use of the "Dr." title he has. In his previous job, he was, apparently, a "sports historian". (Where does one study to obtain a degree in History of

  • by will_die ( 586523 ) on Saturday April 14, 2012 @01:05PM (#39686089) Homepage
    The reason the average person does not believe them is simple the people pushing that mankind is the sole cause of global warming don't act like it is true.
    We hear all this stuff about not flying and they have these huge parties/conventions all over the world in really nice fancy places, alot of the people coming via private planes.
    You can see all the huge houses owned by the people pushing it.
    Heck even countries are not acting like it is true, look at all the countries dropping low emission power generation in place of coal based plants.
  • What is needed... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by JavaBear ( 9872 ) on Saturday April 14, 2012 @01:05PM (#39686097)

    Is unpopular decisions that are going to be very expensive. We can't just sit back can cry over the expenses and hope the problem goes away, we can no afford to NOT fix the problems.

    Instead we see NIMBY's stopping just about every technology that can help us out, coming up with stupid excuses as to why they are not the ones being idiotic. Sure, some of the tested technologies are not paying themselves back as much as we could have hoped, but they are still better than no action, as even a failed experiment yields useful information.

    Instead of building sustainable energy, the ones wanting to build have to waste their time in courts fighting ignorants over conjecture and details such as "will it spoil my view from my bedroom window in the morning".
    Instead of building CO2 neutral power, we are decommissioning existing power plants, with the only alternative being coal or gas, which is NOT CO2 neutral. True, some of the decommissioned plants were unsafe, but not all are. But the easily scared population want them gone, just because one have a mishap in Japan after being exposed to forces in excess of five times the expected worst case scenario. People forget the fact that most nuclear power plants are NOT in the risk zones of quakes that bad.

    Instead of looking into alternatives. people flatly say no when they hear some buzzwords. That is the damage the "green" movements have done to the efforts to get GREEN energy.

  • Stop exaggerating (Score:5, Insightful)

    by MpVpRb ( 1423381 ) on Saturday April 14, 2012 @01:10PM (#39686159)

    For years, the environmentalists have believed that it was necessary to exaggerate.

    If they said "Here is a problem we should try to solve", they believed they would be ignored.


    After years of hearing this, the public recalibrates their bullshit sensors.

    And yes, I consider myself an environmentalist. I just wish the rest of us were more honest.

  • CItation Needed (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Bob9113 ( 14996 ) on Saturday April 14, 2012 @01:12PM (#39686179) Homepage

    "When people are comparing what is happening now to those predictions, they can see they fail to match up."

    Citation needed. When you are engaging in skeptical analysis, you need to show your work. If the majority of scientists agree, but you have found that they are wrong, you need to show the empirical evidence. Which predictions have you falsified? Using what data?

    How about a spot check of your work? Let's see if we can tell whether your way is to use science or subterfuge.

    Venice Skepticism []: You reference a prediction that observed increases in the rate and severity of floods in Venice will abate over coming years, but do not provide empirical evidence that it has been abating. The paper you reference says on the first page that predicting changes in storm surge levels is inherently uncertain. It provides no significant empirical events that could be a cause for a reversal of the current trend, and relies on a new way of modelling the problem which has not been empirically tested. There is empirical evidence that it has been increasing, as well as empirically tested models that predict the flooding will continue. A claim that the current trend will reverse without empirical evidence -- with nothing more than an untested model that gives the answer you want -- is not science.

    Greenland Sea Level Rise []: You claim to refute the observation that the accelerating breakup of Greenland's ice sheet may lead to increased sea levels by showing evidence that the sea levels have not risen yet. The fact that levels have not risen in the past does not contradict the prediction that they will rise in the future if the Greenland ice continues to break up.

    Those are the first two stories on your "False Alarms" page, not cherry-picked, just the first two. They are completely without rational or scientific merit. They are exactly the sort of thing TFA claims are at the heart of global warming criticism. I love rational skepticism -- but based on the first two examples on your own website, I can reach no other conclusion than that you are a shining example of intentional disinformation with a shoddy veneer of scientific inquiry.

  • by rjh ( 40933 ) <> on Saturday April 14, 2012 @01:34PM (#39686437)

    Whether climate change is occurring is properly the domain of science. Here, I think Hansen is on relatively solid footing. Pretty much all the important policymakers have signed on to the fact climate change is occurring -- as David Brin pointed out a few days ago, when the US Navy is updating its warplans to account for the Northern Passage being open, it's hard to argue that climate change _isn't_ being taken seriously by the establishment.

    However, what we should do about climate change is not a scientific question. How much will CO2 mitigation cost -- not just in terms of direct and indirect monetary damages, but in terms of human life lost? Economic growth (a large part of which is driven by the availability of cheap power) has historically been the most reliable tool for improving the human condition. Without power, life is nasty, brutish and short. If CO2 mitigation mechanisms like the sort Hansen advocates were to be adopted worldwide, what would the butcher's bill be? That's an economics problem, and Hansen is not an economist. If the climatology community is going to scream at people, "well, you're no climatologist, so you're only invited to this discussion if you agree with us!", then the economics community is entirely within its rights to tell climatologists to STFU about economic choices.

    Then there's the geopolitical angle. Let's say Hansen gets his worldwide controls on CO2. Let's also say that China, currently the world's leading CO2 producer, says "no, our poor deserve a better life and we need economic growth in order to provide it, if we stop building power plants we'll have a civil war and millions will die, so fuck you, we're going to continue to build one new coal-fired power plant each week." What does the rest of the world do then -- invade China to shut down their power plants? The rest of the world can't do nothing: if it lets China slide, then the next thing you know India says, "yeah, we're in the same boat, screw you guys" and the entire thing falls apart. How do you build a geopolitical framework for enforcement of such a system? Hansen is a climatologist -- he's not Henry Kissinger.

    Hansen has won the scientific argument. He's losing the economics argument and the geopolitical arguments -- and deservedly so. He's neither an economist nor a diplomat, after all.

    Note to the climate change looneytunes who are about to leap down my throat: I'M AGREEING WITH YOU, DAMN IT. The only thing I'm saying is that this is a big stinking problem with a whole lot of dimensions, most of which the climatology community is completely unqualified to talk intelligently about; and within the realm that it _is_ qualified to talk about it, the climatology community has already substantially won that argument.

    • Pretty much all the important policymakers have signed on to the fact climate change is occurring -- [...],
      it's hard to argue that climate change _isn't_ being taken seriously by the establishment.

      You're making a common mistake in equating "policy makers" with "the establishment"
      As it turns out, we the people are actually important policy makers as well.

      Just because "the establishment" frequently ignores us when they decide what to do, does not meant our opinions are irrelevant.
      If anything, it means that policy is made without all the relevant inputs to ensure a proper balance of outcomes.

      Sometimes the country has to drag the naysayers along, kicking and screaming, but you can't ignore them because (

  • by jc42 ( 318812 ) on Saturday April 14, 2012 @01:40PM (#39686487) Homepage Journal

    A number of historians have written about this topic, and what history says isn't encouraging.

    Quite a lot has been written about the history of the "Fertile Crescent", whose core area was what we now call Syria and Iraq. 3000 years ago, it was a a fertile area, semi-arid but covered with forests and farmland. Now most photos you see from anywhere in the area show a rocky, plant-free landscape. The change is generally attributed to salination that was the result of irrigation projects that started about 8000 years ago, but reached their peak extent maybe 3000 years ago. Historians have said that there is a lot of evidence that the people then (farmers and hydro engineers) understood the problem of soil salinification, and understood that the solution is over-watering to leach out the salts. The problem was that, in the short term (of a human life span ;-), it was more profitable to use the limited water supply on the maximal crop area. So salts slowly accumulated, and eventually the farming died out because nothing would grow there any more. This process has been documented in other areas, but this is one area in which we know that the people continued maximizing their short-term profit even though they knew of the long-term disaster that would result.

    Actually, it seems that the problems there aren't as serious as they look. Back in the 1970s and 80s, an interesting series of experiments were conducted: The researchers leased plots of land of 1 to 2 square-km, built goat-proof fences around them, then sat back and watched. This was done across the southwest-Asian "desert" area, roughly from Syria to Pakistan. The results were that a year later, every such experimental plot of land had turned into "grassland" (or prairie if you prefer). The conclusion was that the entire southwest-Asian desert is artificial. If we would remove the grazing animals from the area for one year, it would all revert to grasslands. Then the grazing animals could be brought back, since the land would support them. As long as the population of grazers was then kept low enough, the area could become several orders of magnitude more productive than it is now. But the result has been to ignore this. There's no way you can get the governments or the farmers in that area to cooperate with such a project, when it requires taking the land out of production for a year.

    In both of these cases, the general population may not have understood the issue. The local technical experts (including the farmers) did and do. But their short-term interests have always been to maximize this year's profit, partly because if they don't do that, they'll be bankrupt and out of business. So the ongoing disaster continues.

    The "global warming" issue is pretty much the same story. We've documented the process for centuries, and have detailed information for the last half-century showing conclusively that the changes are primarily due to human activity. But the people who run our economies have the usual interest in short-term profit, partly because if they don't behave this way, they'll lose to the others who go with the short term.

    Anyway, history says that we probably won't do much about the issue, even though we have enough information to know how to do so. And, since the evidence says that the recent warming is mostly due to human activity, we can say that we now have the ability to control our climate if we wish. But we can only do this on a rather large scale, and we know pretty well that humanity won't organize on the scale that it takes to actually carry out such projects.

    • by PPH ( 736903 ) on Saturday April 14, 2012 @02:04PM (#39686723)

      There's no way you can get the governments or the farmers in that area to cooperate with such a project, when it requires taking the land out of production for a year.

      Yeah, there is. Its called private property.

      Give each rancher/hearder their own plot of land*, fenced off from their neighbors and watch how they'll start to take care of it.

      The current approach leads to tragedy o the commons []. Where no one is motivated to take care of the land because anyone can use it. And when it has become over exploited, just move on.

      * Social and tribal customs need to be accounted for. In some cases, the ownership can be held at the tribe or village level rather than the individual. But that assumes a strong custom of governance within that unit. It will only work if everyone abides by the rules of the group and doesn't cheat.

You can measure a programmer's perspective by noting his attitude on the continuing viability of FORTRAN. -- Alan Perlis