April 22, 2014, by Brigitte Nerlich
Tracking fluctuations in climate change debates
Our ESRC funded project on climate change is coming to an end soon and we are just starting to prepare our end of award conference in Amsterdam. As part of our project we intended to monitor and describe fluctuations in debates about climate change. This aim overlaps with that of a project within the Leverhulme programme where we chart one particular aspect of such debates, namely the issue of climate scepticism.
The Making Science Public blog has, over the last two years, hosted a number of posts I have written in part as a Leverhulme grant holder, in part as an ESRC grant holder. In this post I want to revisit some of my old posts that describe changes in debates around climate change (and also make reference to work/posts by Warren Pearce, Kim Holmberg, Iina Hellsten, Rusi Jaspal and Luke Collins).
I wrote two posts about one event which became crucial in shifting debates about climate change from a fragile political consensus to a fractured political dissensus. On the occasion of the most recent Rio Earth summit in 2012 I reflected on what, if anything, has changed over twenty years since the first summit in 1992. When Hurricane Sandy happened in 2013, I looked at online discussions about this weather event that affected parts of New York. And finally, after the publication of the latest IPCC report we studied the traces it left on the twitter landscape.
IPCC report (Warren, Kim, Iina)
Over the last few years, the notion of scientific consensus has come under attack, while at the same time being promoted as a way to engage people with climate change. While some believe asserting the increasing certainty with which scientists can monitor and asses the effects of rising greenhouse gas emissions, it has also become clear that more honesty about uncertainty is important, alongside a recognition that uncertainty means different things to different people.
Around the publication of the fifth IPCC report (and in the context of the 2014 UK winter floods), the issue of adaptation has risen in prominence in public debates. However, it should be stressed that it has never been absent from IPCC debates and climate summits since around 1988, something we tracked in a post on adaptation, mitigation and geoengineering.
Adaptation, mitigation, geoengineering
While climate science has come under scrutiny from climate scepticism, a number of other –isms have emerged and I tried to trace them in blog posts:
While before climategate a new language of ‘carbon’ had developed which we charted in a previous project, the new landscape of debate since climategate seems to be calling increasingly for a new ‘energy’ language, some new metaphors, as well as a new way of talking about global warming, or rather heating. There seems however still to be no real room for new ways of deliberating in new ways about climate change, something that became evident in a linguistic study of reader comments.
Global heating (Warren and Mike Hulme)
Polarisation or deliberation? (Luke)
While we were carrying out our research into climate change debates, a number of new technologies have emerged, amongst them fracking and geoengineering, the one seen, by some, as a bridge between a high and a low carbon future, the other as a ‘plan B’ that, some argue, might have to be implemented if we have no other options to save humanity’s future.
Climate, weather, extreme weather
Over the last two years or so, many people have begun to speculate about links between particular weather events and climate change. I first reflected on this topic during a particularly dry February in 2012 and then carried on writing about issues about unseasonable weather, extreme weather, as well as some new ways of talking about extreme weather.
Climate change communication and public understanding
Despite all the public debates we have charted over the years, positions on the issue of climate change are as entrenched as ever, and there are still major obstacles to speaking about climate change in ways that bring people together rather than pulling them apart. In two posts I discussed some climate change communication conundrums and some misunderstandings about public understanding of climate change.
Public understanding of climate change
Image: Big wave breaking near Santa Cruz, Wikimedia Commons
As you know, Brigitte, I am only just starting my research into climate change ‘scepticism’. However, I am intrigued to know how you could write a post such as this and not mention ‘denialism’…?
Anderegg et al (2010) were criticised for including the word ‘denier’ in their key search terms but using the term ‘skeptic/contrarian’ throughout their article when the three terms have very distinct meanings (O’Neill and Boykoff, 2010). However, in response, Anderegg, Prall and Harold (2010) pointed out that: (a) ‘denialism’ is an established term in the scientific literature and that attempts to discredit use of the term in a climate context were based on false equivalence with holocaust denial; and (b) the term ‘skeptic/contrarian’ was used solely to contextualise their analysis of peer-reviewed research, within which authors were consistently categorised as either ‘convinced’ or ‘unconvinced’ (by the evidence) of the reasonableness of the scientific consensus.
However, questioning the (a) reasonableness; (b) reliability; and/or (c) reality of the scientific consensus (that ongoing climate change/disruption is now primarily anthropogenic) necessitates belief that the vast majority of genuine experts are being: (a) irrational; (b) unprofessional; and/or (c) wilfully deceitful. What frustrates me is that, when challenged, supposed ‘sceptics’ mostly refuse to say which it is that they actually believe to be the case. Denial is the appropriate term because the phenomenon is symptomatic of the ideologically or theologically motivated rejection of science (i.e. equivalent to belief that the Earth was created in 6 days in 4004 BCE).
However, whereas there is no precedent for scientific stupidity, irrationality, and/or deception on the global scale (required to treat IPCC reports as ‘junk science’), there is a very clear precedent (in the tobacco industry) for vested interests spending huge sums of money perpetuating doubt regarding inconvenient science. What astonishes me is that so many people perfectly intelligent people have been fooled twice by the same strategy (i.e. adopted by the fossil fuel industry in response to the formation of the IPCC).
Being embarrassed to admit that you have been fooled is understandable. However, being a climate ostrich is not the answer. A wide range of organisations – such as the IMF, the OECD, and the Pentagon – all now agree that anthropogenic climate disruption is an existential threat to global socio-economic stability, which will get harder and more costly to address the longer that humanity as a whole fails to tackle it effectively (i.e. by decarbonising our global power generation systems to the maximum extent possible). Are they all wrong? Are they all in on the conspiracy?
As David Aaronovitch (2009) has pointed out, conspiracy theories are bedtime stories we tell ourselves: (a) to make the World seem nicer than it is; and/or (b) to absolve ourselves of any responsibility for it being the way it is or any need to make it better. This is understandable in the aftermath of an atrocity like the 9/11 attacks on the WTC in New York. However, to dismiss the significance of the scientific consensus regarding climate change – and the vast majority of scientific and professional bodies who endorse it – is to invoke a conspiracy even greater than that required to justify belief that 9/11 was an inside job.
Of course, the saddest thing of all is that, once you are convinced of the reality of a conspiracy theory, any evidence that you are mistaken is dismissed as proof of the existence of the conspiracy. As such, conspiracy theorists inhabit a completely unassailable fortress of denial. If he were alive today, Leon Festinger (co-author of ‘When Prophecy Fails’ ) would be amazed how little we have learned in the last 60 years.
Aaronovitch, D. (2009). Voodoo Histories: How conspiracy theory has shaped modern history. London: Vintage.
Anderegg, W., et al. (2010). ‘Expert credibility in climate change’. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 107(27), 12107-12109.
Anderegg, W., Prall, J., & Harold, J. (2010). ‘Objective classification of climate experts’. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 107(39), E152.
O’Neill, S., & Boykoff, M. (2010). ‘Climate denier, skeptic, or contrarian?’ Proceedings of The National Academy of Sciences of The United States of America, 107(39), E151.
In a short piece for The Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media, Riley Dunlap writes today: “So, is it ‘global warming’? Or better to say ‘climate change’? With both terms ‘politically polarized,’ it may come down to a matter of … Pick your poison.” This is similar to ‘climate sceptic’ and ‘climate denier’ – but not quite, because, in this case, one term is communicatively a bit more poisonous than the other. I have tried to avoid the word denier for a few years because using it just leads to communicational mayhem, especially in contexts where comments can be left. This is just not productive, in my view.
Thanks Brigitte. I agree that using the term has a potentially polarising effect. However, I think people who claim to be ‘sceptical’ need to be confronted with the reality that they are not. Given the weight of scientific evidence arrayed against them, and the precedent for industrial disputation of inconvenient science, they need to explain why they dispute the reality, reliability, and/or reasonableness of the scientific consensus – and I think they need to be challenged to do this without invoking scientific or political conspiracy theories.
It should also be neither ‘global warming’ nor ‘climate change’ because neither encompasses what is actually happening. The globe has warmed (and is experiencing warmth unprecedented in at least 11k years – Marcott et al 2013) and the climate has changed (and extreme weather events of all kinds have become more frequent), although neither can be seen as entirely linear (nature does not do ‘linear’ anything). As such, ‘climate disruption’ is more accurate but, of course, no one is familiar with that term. Thus, the main casualty of dumbing-down science for public consumption is accuracy.
Yes indeed, neither of these terms conveys the increased risk of disturbance of weather and climate patterns.
Yup Martin, quite true. In one of my fantasies social scientists engaging in research on science and policy and public understanding of science would have Alfred Korzybski’s statement “The word is not the thing” embroidered on their bed linen.
As well as John Law Austin’s ‘How to do things with words‘ ? 😉
ref – Marcott – you do know the 20th century uptick is NOT robust.. (ie resolution is extremely poor, 1 data point per x hundred years)
and if you plot the raw data, no uptick… so where did it come from…
Brigitte – Paul Matthews submitted a comment to the journal – ref Marcott, he can explain..
Barry, do you you think that Marcott et al is in it for the money or has his work been deliberately been misrepresented by others, I wonder? You have made an a priori assumption that you are being misled. Indeed, you are being misled but, it is not climate scientists who are misleading you.
Unfortunately for all supposed ‘sceptics’, Marcott et al have rebutted all criticism of their work and the only way to justify rejecting their explanations is to invoke conspiracy theory: This includes suggesting that Real Climate and/or Skeptical Science are not reliable sources of information.
Given all of the above, and the track record that business has for disputing inconvenient science, arguing that climate scientists are solely seeking to perpetuate their research funding, whilst ignoring the fact that the oil industry has spend hundreds if not thousands of times more money than that spent on all such research, is an act of willful blindness.
Barry are you just taking Paul’s word for it. My examination of the data shows much higher resolution than what you are indicating. Were you paid to make that misstatement or what is your excuse?
of all kinds become more frequent… IPCC SREX disagrees!
When/if you read the whole report for yourself, Barry, you will find that IPCC SREX does not dispute the consequences of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. However, if you are not relying upon second-hand cherry-picked quotations to invert the overall message then, at very least, you are confusing their remarks about the recent past and the near future: This is exactly what supposed ‘sceptics’ did with IPCC AR5 WG1 – by focussing on Table 12.4 and ignoring Table SPM1. http://lackofenvironment.wordpress.com/2013/11/03/why-table-12-4-of-ipcc-ar5-should-not-be-trusted/
as I said – to Brigitte – mathematician – Paul Mathews can explain… – just
because they say they have rebutted, does not make it so Martin.
from Dr Roger Pilek junior.. (quoting Realclimate)
Marcott have publically stated that the reconstruction is not robust for the 20th century
In a belatedly-posted FAQ to the paper, which appeared on Real Climate earlier today, Marcott et al. make this startling admission:
Q: What do paleotemperature reconstructions show about the temperature of the last 100 years?
A: Our global paleotemperature reconstruction includes a so-called “uptick” in temperatures during the 20th-century. However, in the paper we make the point that this particular feature is of shorter duration than the inherent smoothing in our statistical averaging procedure, and that it is based on only a few available paleo-reconstructions of the type we used. Thus, the 20th century portion of our paleotemperature stack is not statistically robust, cannot be considered representative of global temperature changes, and therefore is not the basis of any of our conclusions.
In case you missed it, I repeat:
. . . the 20th century portion of our paleotemperature stack is not statistically robust, cannot be considered representative of global temperature changes . . .
Barry and Martin,
I am sorry that I have to stay out of this. My grasp of maths is really non-existent. I sometimes wish though that I could just go to the IPCC and say: Ok there are these people who say your report supports x and these other people who say your report supports y. Which group is right? Unfortunately, that’s not possible as far as I can make out. Which is a shame.
Barry is presenting something of a red herring. There’s no question that the so-called 20th century “uptick” is not robust, and Marcott say as such in their paper (the very short 20th century section of the reconstrruction is resolution-limited and suffers from a reduction in proxies at the end of the reconstruction).
But that’s not the point of the paper which is to assess global temperature at lowish temporal resolution throughout the Holocene. We don’t need the reconstruction to tell us what’s happened during the 20th century since we have abundant direct measures of that from thermometers!
The reconstructions in comparison with known measured 20th century warming supports the interpretation that global temperatures have risen from near the coolest part of the Holocene to almost the warmest in a very short time indeed. Global temperature is rising very quickly, forced by massive augmentation of the greenhouse effect from human greenhouse gas emissions, and it’s likely that by 2100 temperatures will be the warmest of the entire Holocene regardless of emission scenario.
I expect that’s what you would discover if you went to the IPCC and sought the interpretations of knowledgeable individuals without axe’s to grind! 🙂
I’ll have to take your word for this 🙂 Which brings us to the question of trust. Basically, people like me who lack core-expertise in a certain field of science have to be able to take pronouncements made by that science/scientists on trust. However, how you select whom to trust or not to trust that depends on a whole lot of things…
Actually, I’ve just had a look at Marcott’s paper again and the discussion of the unlikely statistical robustness of 20th century variability isn’t as clear as it could be. You could read this yourself Brigitte since Nottingham University is sure to have a site licence for Science! Marcott et al. describe at the bottom of the middle column on p 1198 that the 20th century temperature (unlike the previous parts of the reconstruction) is susceptible to the methods of proxy averaging and that the difference in the 20th century average is probably not robust.
Be that as it may we don’t have to pretend that we don’t know what we do know! After all the massive hoo-haw in the blogosphere we can settle down to the conclusion that the Marcott et al paper supports the interpretation that the very rapid temperature increase of the last 100 years has taken global temperatures towards the maximum warmth of the entire Holocence and that maximum Holocene warmth is likely to be surpassed by 2100. This interpretation comes from a consideration of the measured 20th century temperature in the context of the Marcott Holocene reconstruction.
So it’s not just about trust. One can actually read the papers and the IPCC reports directly. I expect (haven’t looked!) that the IPCC report would say something similar in respect of the Marcott work and other analyses.
I agree. One can, and indeed should, of course also put in a bit of effort oneself. After that it comes down to trusting one’s own judgement in conjunction with trusting that of others.
the issue was how the paper was marketed to the media… the not ‘robust’ bit somehow got forgotten in all the media hype. new hockey stick, etc…
goodness Barry, surely the issue is the nature of global temperature through the Holocene, the rate and extent of 20th century and contemporary temperature rise and the temperature rise expected during the 21st century.
One can’t wish away scientific evidence because of the way some study was or wasn’t presented in the media!
Note that as I’ve pointed out a couple of times, it is the end of the reconstruction during the early part of the 20th century that is not robust as Marcott et al. state in their paper. Martin was discussing the very large global temperature rise during the last ~ 100 years and the temperature rise expected in the context of the Marcott Holocene reconstruction. As you have already shown, Marcott states 9and it’s apparent from the paper since Marcott et al discuss this) that the non-robust part of the reconstruction is limited to the small terminal portion. This is not relevant to the overall Holocene reconstruction nor to the point that Martin was making
Barry we don’t need to pretend that things that aren’t the issue really are the issue! 🙂
There is no known precedent in geological history for the Earth simultaneously having an ice-free Arctic and an ice-bound Antarctic. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that our weather is becoming increasingly erratic.
In the last 30 years, 80% of Arctic sea ice has been lost and the rates of retreat of most glaciers have increased to six to ten times what they were (IPCC AR5 WG1 Table SPM1). So, please stop trying to strain out a gnat (from Marcott et al) whilst trying to make people swallow a camel (i.e. the idea that most climate science is unreliable).
The modern-day consensus regarding climate science is not like the medieval consensus that the Earth was at the centre of the Universe. As such, far from being like Galileo (who overcame the ideologically-motivated rejection of science by weight of evidence), those who dispute the validity of climate science today are (inadvertently or otherwise) doing the bidding of – the main obscurantist establishment of our day – the fossil fuel industry.
Dr Paul Matthews (Nottingham University) is a mathematician, and he submitted a comment to the journal..
have a chat with him about Marcott et al
Note by the way that Marcott’s FAQ response on Real Climate (“belatedly-posted” ???) was hardly “a startling admission” since Marcott et al pointed out in their paper that the 20th century “uptick” was unlikely to be statistically-robust!
One of the pleasing things about science is you can just say stuff that is true without the journalese embellishments (“belatedly-posted….startling admission”) that are more suited to propaganda! 🙂
Hi Brigitte – this was science by media..
Roger Pielke junior has a good essay about the ‘press release’ for the paper, and how the media played it.. It really seemed to be just another example of science by soundbite to get a headline
the press release.
Fixing the Marcott Mess in Climate Science
However, here I document the gross misrepresentation of the findings of a recent scientific paper via press release which appears to skirt awfully close to crossing the line into research misconduct, as defined by the NRC. I recommend steps to fix this mess, saving face for all involved, and a chance for this small part of the climate community to take a step back toward unambiguous scientific integrity.
The paper I refer to is by Marcott et al. 2013, published recently in Science. A press release issued by the National Science Foundation, which funded the research, explains the core methodology and key conclusion of the paper as follows (emphasis added):
Peter Clark, an OSU paleoclimatologist and co-author of the Science paper, says that many previous temperature reconstructions were regional and not placed in a global context.
“When you just look at one part of the world, temperature history can be affected by regional climate processes like El Niño or monsoon variations,” says Clark.
“But when you combine data from sites around the world, you can average out those regional anomalies and get a clear sense of the Earth’s global temperature history.”
What that history shows, the researchers say, is that during the last 5,000 years, the Earth on average cooled about 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit–until the last 100 years, when it warmed about 1.3 degrees F.
The press release clearly explains that the paper (a) combines data from many sites around the world to create a “temperature reconstruction” which gives a “sense of the Earth’s temperature history,” and (b) “that history shows” a cooling over the past 5000 years, until the last 100 years when all of that cooling was reversed.
The conclusions of the press release were faithfully reported by a wide range of media outlets, and below I survey several of them to illustrate that the content of the press release was accurately reflected in media coverage and, at times, amplified by scientists both involved and not involved with the study.
Examples of Media Coverage
Here is Justin Gillis at the New York Times, with emphasis added to this excerpt and also those further below:
The modern rise that has recreated the temperatures of 5,000 years ago is occurring at an exceedingly rapid clip on a geological time scale, appearing in graphs in the new paper as a sharp vertical spike.
Similarly, at the NY Times Andy Revkin reported much the same in a post titled, “Scientists Find an Abrupt Warm Jog After a Very Long Cooling.” Revkin included the following graph from the paper along with a caption explaining what the graph shows:
Revkin’s caption: A new Science paper includes this graph of data providing clues to past global temperature. It shows the warming as the last ice age ended (left), a period when temperatures were warmer than today, a cooling starting 5,000 years ago and an abrupt warming in the last 100 years.
Revkin concluded: “the work reveals a fresh, and very long, climate “hockey stick.”” For those unfamiliar, a hockey stick has a shaft and a blade.
Any association with the so-called “hockey stick” is sure to capture interest in the highly politicized context of the climate debate, in which the iconic figure is like catnip to partisans on both sides
In case you missed it, I repeat:
. . . the 20th century portion of our paleotemperature stack is not statistically robust, cannot be considered representative of global temperature changes . . .
What that means is that this paper actually has nothing to do with a “hockey stick” as it does not have the ability to reproduce 20th century temperatures in a manner that is “statistically robust.” The new “hockey stick” is no such thing as Marcott et al. has no blade.
(To be absolutely clear, I am not making a point about temperatures of the 20th century, but what can be concluded from the paper about temperatures of the 20th century.)
Yet, you might recall that the NSF press release said something quite different:
What that [temperature reconstruction] history shows, the researchers say, is that during the last 5,000 years, the Earth on average cooled about 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit–until the last 100 years, when it warmed about 1.3 degrees F.
So what the paper actually shows is the following, after I have removed from the graph the 20th century period that is “not statistically robust” (this is also the figure that appears at the top of this post):
Surely there is great value in such an analysis of pre-20th century temperatures.
I know. But in the end it comes down to trust again and that really depends on lots of things…This means that people will read very selectively and think very selectively about what they read, I suppose, be it scientific studies, media reports, (social science) commentators’ assessments of both and so on…
Barry what’s to be gained by flooding a thread with a massive cut and paste?
There is a very simple issue. It’s what Martin was addressing so why not stick to that?. This is the nature of 20th century and contemporary warming and 21st century warming to come in the context of the entire Holocene temperature progression as determined by proxy analysis (Marcott et al.).
The evidence is straightforward. It’s an issue of science. It doesn’t matter what a political scientist writes on his blog or how the paper was presented in the media. Not so far as the science goes anyway…
the point was, Marcott misrepresenting it in the media, amd the media running with it, ie new hockey stick, etc – does climate science a disservice. ie breaks trust.. and the public may think any old hype for the cause.
the issue is trust,
url for Roger Pielke’s article
yeah – check the small print..
I didn’t see Marcott et al rushing to correct all the hype in the media..
“I didn’t see Marcott et al rushing to correct all the hype in the media..” – Barry Woods.
And why is that, in your opinion, Barry? Have Marcott et al been merely incompetent and/or incoherent, or were they happy to have their work supposedly ‘misrepresented’ by the media (and if so, why)?
Why do you choose to rely upon (and repeatedly cite) an extreme minority of contrarian scientists (such as Pielke, Lindzen, Michaels, Spencer, etc) – much of whose research is funded by the fossil fuel lobby – and reject the validity and reliability of the conclusions of the vast majority of relevant experts (whose research is not funded by special interest groups)?
Whilst I am grateful to Chris for attempting to rebut your red herrings and lengthy cut and paste jobs, I am not going to bother unless or until you can explain how you are not [… removed by moderator] being willfully blind? I am really sorry to have to be so blunt but, your position is simply not credible. This is because fossil fuel industry expenditure on undermining public trust in science and scientists […removed by moderator] has been a matter of public record for at least the last 16 years:
[…] Public blog has hosted a series of posts documenting changing discussion of climate change. In this blog post, Brigitte Nerlich provides a summary of her blogging activities from the past two years, making it […]