I was doing some research on Canada’s climate targets recently, and came across this chart, presented as part of Canada’s Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) under the Paris Agreement:


Looks good right? Certainly it conveys a message that Canada’s well on track, and that the target for 2030 is ambitious (compared to a business as usual pathway). Climate change solved, eh?

But the chart is an epic example of misdirection. Here’s another chart that pulls the same trick, this time from the Government’s Climate Change website, and apparently designed to make the 2030 target look bravely ambitious:


So I downloaded the data and produced my own chart, with a little more perspective added. I wanted to address several ways in which the above charts represent propaganda, rather than evidence:

  • By cutting off the Y axis at 500 Mt, the chart hides the real long-term evidence-based goal for climate policy: zero emissions;
  • Canada has consistently failed to meet any of it’s climate targets in the past, while the chart seems to imply we’re doing rather well;
  • The chart conflates two different measures. The curves showing actual emissions exclude net removal from forestry (officially known as Land Use, Land Use Change, and Forestry LULUCF), while Canada fully intends to include this in its accounting for achieving the 2030 target. So if you plot the target on the same chart with emissions, honesty dictates you should adjust the target accordingly.

Here’s my “full perspective” chart. Note that the first target shown here in grey was once Liberal party policy in the early 1990s; the remainder were official federal government targets. Each is linked to the year they were first proposed. The “fair effort” for Canada comes from ClimateActionTracker’s analysis:


The correct long term target for carbon emissions is, of course zero. Every tonne of CO2 emitted makes the problem worse, and there’s no magic fairy that removes these greenhouse gases from the atmosphere once we’ve emitted them. So until we get to zero emissions, we’re making the problem worse, and the planet keeps warming. Worse still, the only plausible pathways to keep us below the UN’s upper limit of 2°C of warming requires us to do even better than this: we have to go carbon negative before the end of the century.

Misleading charts from the government of Canada won’t help us get on the right track.

I’ve been exploring how Canada’s commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions stack up against reality, especially in the light of the government’s recent decision to stick with the emissions targets set by the previous administration.

Once upon a time, Canada was considered a world leader on climate and environmental issues. The Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, signed in 1987, is widely regarded as the most successful international agreement on environmental protection ever. A year later, Canada hosted a conference on The Changing Atmosphere: Implications for Global Security, which helped put climate change on the international political agenda. This conference was one of the first to identify specific targets to avoid dangerous climate change, recommending a global reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of 20% by 2005. It didn’t happen.

It took another ten years before an international agreement to cut emissions was reached: the Kyoto Protocol in 1997. Hailed as a success at the time, it became clear over the ensuing years that with non-binding targets, the agreement was pretty much a sham. Under Kyoto, Canada agreed to cut emissions to 6% below 1990 levels by the 2008-2012 period. It didn’t happen.

At the Copenhagen talks in 2009, Canada proposed an even weaker goal: 17% below 2005 levels (which corresponds to 1.5% above 1990 levels) by 2020. Given that emissions have risen steadily since then, it probably won’t happen. By 2011, facing an embarrassing gap between its Kyoto targets and reality, the Harper administration formally withdrew from Kyoto – the only country ever to do so.

Last year, in preparation for the Paris talks, the Harper administration submitted a new commitment: 30% below 2005 levels by 2030. At first sight it seems better than previous goals. But it includes a large slice of expected international credits and carbon sequestered in wood products, as Canada incorporates Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry (LULUCF) into its carbon accounting. In terms of actual cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, the target represents approximately 8% above 1990 levels.

The new government, elected in October 2015, trumpeted a renewed approach to climate change, arguing that Canada should be a world leader again. At the Paris talks in 2015, the Trudeau administration proudly supported both the UN’s commitment to keep global temperatures below 2°C of warming (compared to the pre-industrial average), and voiced strong support for an even tougher limit of 1.5°C. However, the government has chosen to stick with the Harper administration’s original Paris targets.

It is clear that that the global commitments under the Paris agreement fall a long way short of what is needed to stay below 2°C, and Canada’s commitment has been rated as one of the weakest. Based on IPCC assessments, to limit warming below 2°C, global greenhouse gas emissions will need to be cut by about 50% by 2030, and eventually reach zero net emissions globally (which will probably mean zero use of fossil fuels, as assumptions about negative emissions seem rather implausible). As Canada has much greater wealth and access to resources than most nations, much greater per capita emissions than all but a few nations, and much greater historical responsibility for emissions than most nations, a “fair” effort would have Canada cutting emissions much faster than the global average, to allow room for poorer nations to grow their emissions, at least initially, to alleviate poverty. Carbon Action Tracker suggests 67% below 1990 emissions by 2030 is a fair target for Canada.

Here’s what all of this looks like – click for bigger version. Note: emissions data from Government of Canada; the Toronto 1988 target was never formally adopted, but was Liberal party policy in the early 90’s. Global 2°C pathway 2030 target from SEI;  Emissions projection, LULUCF adjustment, and “fair” 2030 target from CAT.

Canada's Climate Targets

Several things jump out at me from this chart. First, the complete failure to implement policies that would have allowed us to meet any of these targets. The dip in emissions from 2008-2010, which looked promising for a while, was due to the financial crisis and economic downturn, rather than any actual climate policy. Second, the similar slope of the line to each target, which represents the expected rate of decline from when the target was proposed to when it ought to be attained. At no point has there been any attempt to make up lost ground after each failed target. Finally, in terms of absolute greenhouse gas emissions, each target is worse than the previous ones. Shifting the baseline from 1990 to 2005 masks much of this, and shows that successive governments are more interested in optics than serious action on climate change.

At no point has Canada ever adopted science-based targets capable of delivering on its commitment to keep warming below 2°C.

I’m a bit of an Information Visualization junkie. I love good well presented data (I’m a fan of Tufte) and I dislike visualizations that are badly presented and/or misleading. I posted last week about various graphs showing relationships between urban density and transportation fuel consumption, some of which were hideous, some elegant, and some possibly misleading. I bemoaned the lack of access to the raw data, and a lively discussion followed about the believability of the relationship plotted on the graphs.

Yesterday I came across an interesting case, in the leaflet distributed to Torontonians from the city council, showing revenue and expenditure data. From a data visualization point of view, it looks like a series of poor choices were made, and I’m glad someone cared enough to point them out. But when you interpret these choices in the context of a right-wing Mayor who was elected on a tax-cutting, pro-car, anti-transit platform, it would appear these weren’t just mistakes – they were part of deliberate (if subtle) attempt to mislead:

  • The leaflet shows a pie chart of revenue sources (in $billions) along side a pie chart of capital expenditure (in $millions), setting up a false impression that transit projects gobble up the majority of the city’s budget. The deception is enhanced by the fact that the largest segments in each pie are the same colour, and of a similar size. A quick glance therefore leaves the impression that nearly all our property taxes go to the Toronto Transit Commision.
  • The leaflet fails to distinguish between gross and net expenditure. So a bar chart of budget items shows that the TTC (at $1.5 billion) is by far the most expensive item, followed by employment and social services. But the net cost of the TTC to the city is only about $0.5 billion, because most of its costs come from fares, while employment and social services are largely funded by the province. If you look at net costs (which is what most homeowners expect in answer to the question “how does the city spend our property taxes?”), the Police Service is by far the biggest item.

It’s the steady drip drip drip of this kind of misinformation that allows certain politicians to generate support for cutting budgets for transit and social services. Surely we should be investing in the kinds of community programs that reduce crime, so that we can trim that massive policing budget?

Here’s the chart on (gross) expenditures that they used:


and here’s the chart they should have used:


19. April 2011 · 2 comments · Categories: politics

For those outside Canada, in case you haven’t heard, we’re in the middle of a general election. Canada has a parliamentary system, modelled after the British one, with a first-past-the-post system for electing representatives (members of parliament), where party with the most seats after the election is invited to form a government, and its leader to become Prime Minister. For the last few parliaments we’ve had minority governments, first Liberal, then Conservative.

Somewhere along the way, many people just stopped voting: from turnouts in the high 70s back in the 60’s, we’ve had 64.7% and then 58.8% turnout respectively in the last two elections – the last being the lowest turnout ever. There maybe many different reasons for this lack of enthusiasm, although listening to the main parties whining about each other during this election, it’s not hard to see why so many people just don’t bother. But one thing is clear: young people are far less likely to vote than any other age group.

So it was great to see last week Rick Mercer with a brilliant call for young voters to use their votes to “scare the hell out of the people who run this country”:

And his message seems to have resonated. Students on campuses across the country have been using social networking to organise vote mobs, making videos along the way as they challenge others to do the same. But here’s the interesting thing. The young people of this country have a very different set of preferences to the general population:

Just look at how the projected composition of parliament would look it it were up to the youngsters: the Liberals and the Green Party virtually neck-and-neck for most votes, and instead of the greens being shut out of parliament, they’d hold 43 seats! Of course, the projected seat count also throws into sharp focus what’s wrong with our current voting system: the Bloq, with lowest share of the vote of any of the parties would still hold 60 seats. And the Liberals with just 2% more of the votes than the greens would still get more than twice as many seats. Nevertheless, I like this picture much more than the parliaments we’ve had in the last few elections.

So, if you’re eligible to vote, and you’re anywhere around half my age, make my day – help change our parliament for the better!

01. March 2011 · 1 comment · Categories: politics

At the end of Garvey’s book on Climate Ethics that he concludes that direct action is necessary, and by his ethical standards, non-violent civil disobedience is appropriate. So I was inspired to read the story of Tim DeChristopher, who disrupted the auction of the oil rights for land in Utah around the spectacular Arches National Park. He pretended to be a bona fide bidder, and successfully bid for a $1.8 million of oil and gas leases, and pushed up the prices on others. Of course had no intention of buying them – the idea was to draw attention to the sale of these lands, and, as it turns out, to show that this auction, along with a whole bunch of other similar auctions, was illegal anyway. Despite the finding that the auctions were illegal, Tim is now up for trial, facing a penalty of ten years in jail.

His trial starts today, and there’s a huge campaign underway to protest at the trial, and to support Tim in his fight for justice. Having visited both Arches National Park and Salt Lake City back in December, I kinda wish I was there this week to show him some support.

Here’s an interesting study by Lawrence Hamilton, published in Climatic Change in December: “Education, politics and opinions about climate change evidence for interaction effects“. He finds that whereas in the past, education level strongly correlated with concern for environmental issues, this correlation has now gone away because of a new interaction effect with political beliefs. (Which is consistent with other recent research, e.g. see the work of Kahan and Braman).

From his survey of people in New Hampshire and Rural Michigan, Hamilton identified strong Democrats and Strong Republicans, and discovered that, with respect to climate change, there is a significant interaction effect between education and party support, and another between how well people believe they understand climate change and party support:

Hamilton 2010, Fig 3: Predicted probability that Upper-Peninsula Michigan residents believe that global warming will pose a serious threat vs. respondent education, for “strong Democrats” and “strong Republicans”

Hamilton 2010, Fig 2: Predicted probability that New Hampshire residents believe that global warming will pose a serious threat vs. self-assessed understanding of the issue, for “strong Democrats” and “strong Republicans”

[I can’t help noticing there’s no data points for “Strong Republicans” who say they don’t understand global warming at all!]

Here’s what Hamilton has to say about the findings:

“The inconsistency marks a social shift away from patterns seen in older research. It reflects the efficacy of media campaigns that provide scientific-sounding arguments against taking climate change seriously, which disproportionately reach educated but ideologically receptive audiences […]. Among many educated, conservative citizens, it appears that that such arguments have overshadowed the scientific consensus presented by the IPCC reports and other core science sources.”

Hamilton puts a significant part of the explanation for this shift on internet and cable TV as sources of information, which increasingly allow people to tune into only those sources that they find ideologically compatible, and the ability of these sources to propagate politically inspired but scientific-sounding arguments:

“The effective dissemination of contrarian arguments means that many people who have no contact with climate scientists or the primary research literature can nevertheless learn that a scientist says temperatures have risen on Mars (politically spun as evidence that global warming has solar or cosmic origins), or another scientist says it is cooling in East Antarctica (spun as evidence that our planet is not warming after all). They might consider themselves well informed about climate science even while not understanding its basic ideas.”

And he concludes that having more scientists getting involved in blogs and rapid response initiatives is crucial:

“If non-specialists want to find out what scientists really know about temperature trends of Mars and East Antarctica, or other arguments aired in today’s news or last night’s party, they are best served by a relatively small number of active-response Web sites written by climate scientists, such as Realclimate.org. Unlike journal articles, science meetings or reports, Web sites and blogs have the capability to react quickly (albeit less rigorously), reach broader audiences, and seriously confront arguments that have no scientific merit. Moreover, their online science posts can be passed on from reader to reader, which is difficult to do with journal articles or technical reports.”

[Hat tip to Sol for sending me this]

Update: It appears to also matter whether it’s called “Climate Change” or “Global Warming”, at least to Republicans, who are more likely to believe in the former rather than the latter.

09. April 2010 · 9 comments · Categories: politics

My debate with George Monbiot is still going on in this thread. I’m raising this comment to be a separate blog post (with extra linky goodness), because I think it’s important, independently of any discussion of the CRU emails (and to point out that the other thread is still growing – go see!)

Like many other commentators, George Monbiot suggests that “to retain the moral high ground we have to be sure that we’ve got our own house in order. That means demanding the highest standards of scientific openness, transparency and integrity”.

It’s hard to argue with these abstract ideals. But I’ll try, because I think this assertion is not only unhelpful, but also helps to perpetuate several myths about science.

The argument that scientists should somehow be more virtuous (than regular folks) is a huge fallacy. Openness and transparency are great as virtues to strive for. But they cannot ever become a standard by which we judge individual scientists. For a start, no scientific field has ever achieved the levels of openness that are being demanded here. The data is messy, the meta-data standards are not in place, the resources to curate this data are not in place. Which means the “get our own house in order” argument is straight denialist logic – they would have it that we can’t act on the science until every last bit of data is out in the public domain. In truth, climate science has developed a better culture of data sharing, replication, and results checking than almost any other scientific field. Here’s one datapoint to back this up: in no other field of computational science are there 25+ teams around the world building the same simulation models independently, and systematically comparing their results on thousands of different scenarios in order to understand the quality of those simulations.

We should demand from scientists that they do excellent science. But we should not expect them to also somehow be superhuman. The argument that scientists should never exhibit human weaknesses is not just fallacious, it’s dangerous. It promotes the idea that science depends on perfect people to carry it out, when in fact the opposite is the case. Science is a process that compensates for the human failings of the people who engage in it, by continually questioning evidence, re-testing ideas, replicating results, collecting more data, and so on. Mistakes are made all the time. Individual scientists screw up. If they don’t make mistakes, they’re not doing worthwhile science. It’s vitally important that we get across to the public that this is how science works, and that errors are an important part of the process. Its the process that matters, not any individual scientist’s work. The results of this process are more trustworthy than any other way of producing knowledge, precisely because the process is robust in the face of error.

In the particular case [of the CRU emails], calling for scientists to take the moral high ground, and to be more virtuous, is roughly the equivalent of suggesting that victims of sexual assault should act more virtuous. And if you think this analogy is over the top, you haven’t understood the nature of the attacks on scientists like Mann, Santer, Briffa, and Jones. Look at Jones now: he’s contemplated suicide, he’s on drugs just to help him get through the day, and more drugs to allow him to sleep at night. These bastards have destroyed a brilliant scientist. And somehow the correct response is that scientists should strive to be more virtuous?! Oh yes, blame the victim.

08. April 2010 · 6 comments · Categories: politics

Picked up my copy of the Guardian Weekly today, to see a front page story entitled “Trillion-Dollar question: future of climate talks”. Halfway through the article we get:

“Politicians and negotiators will find the mood of the talks very different from where they were left off in Copenhagen in December. For a start, the climate science that has underpinned them has suffered damaging setbacks. There was the leaking from the University of East Anglia’s climate research unit of email exchanges between some of the world’s top meteorologists as well as the discovery that a UN assessment report on climate change had vastly exaggerated the rate of melting of Himalayan glaciers.

The former revelation suggested some researchers were involved in massaging the truth, sceptics claimed, while the latter exposed deficiencies in the way the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – authors of the report – go about their business. The overall effect has been to damage the credibility of the large number of scientists who fear our planet faces climatic disaster” (The Guardian Weekly, 2-8 April 2010)

This is such utter nonsense, I’m left wondering whether the Guardian has been taken over by Fox news. Lots of good science happened in the last few months, but all the media seems to care about is a minor error in one paragraph of a 3000 page document, and emails that show how much climate scientists are being harassed by denialist bullies. This isn’t a damaging setback, it’s a pack of lies. How did this denialist rhetoric come to dominate the media? Has the entire media now gone into denial? Will we get some kind of ransom note explaining what we have to pay to get our science back?

07. April 2010 · 53 comments · Categories: politics

My exposé of why academics’ private emails sometimes seem cranky has gotten a lot of attention. Joe Romm posted it at ClimateProgress, where it generated many comments, many expressing thanks for saying what needed to be said. George Monbiot posted a comment, pointing out that for a journalist, FoI laws are sacred: a hard won concession that allows them to fight the secrecy that normally surrounds the political establishment. So there’s clearly some mutual incomprehension between the two cultures, academic and journalistic. For journalists, FoI is a vital weapon to root out corruption in a world where few people can be trusted. For scientists, FoI is a blunt instrument, unneeded in a world where honesty and trust are the community norms, and data is freely shared as much as is practically possible.

George expands this theme on his blog, and I appear to have shifted his perspective on the CRU emails, although perhaps not as far as I might have hoped. His thesis is that scientists and journalists have each formed a closed culture, leading each to be suspicious (and worse) of the other. Well, I think this is not strictly accurate. I don’t think either culture is walled in. In fact, I’m beginning to think I overstated the case in my original post: scientists are certainly not “walled in like an anchorite”. Pretty much every scientist I know will happily talk at length to anyone who shows an interest in their work, and will nearly always share data and code with anyone who is engaged in honest scientific work. For our own research into software quality, we have obtained source code, datasets, software bug histories, and extensive access for interviews in every climate modeling centre we have approached.

Unfortunately, scientists tend to be way too focussed (obsessed?) for most people’s taste, so lay people don’t generally want to talk to them in the first place. But scientists will accept into the community anyone who’s willing to work at it (after all most of us spend a lot of time training students), as long as they show the necessary commitment to the scientific process and the pursuit of truth. Traditional investigative journalism used to share these values too, but this tradition now seems to be another endangered species. The experience when scientists talk to journalists is usually more about the journalist seeking a sensationalist angle to sell a story, rather than a quest for understanding. And a reliance on false balance rather than weighing up the evidence.

So there is a bit of a gulf between the two cultures, but its not insurmountable, and there are plenty of examples of good science reporting to show that people regularly do bridge this gulf.

No, the real story is not the relationship between science and the media at all. It’s the story of how the media has been completely taken in by a third group, a third culture, consisting of ideologically-driven, pathological liars, who will say almost anything in order to score political points, and will smear anyone they regard as an opponent. Stern calls climate change the greatest ever failure of the free markets. I think that looking back, we may come to regard the last six months as the greatest ever failure of mass media. Or alternatively, the most successful disinformation campaign ever waged.

At the centre of this story are people like Marc Morano and Jim Inhofe. They haven’t a clue what science is; to them it’s just one more political viewpoint to attack. They live in a world of paranoid fantasies, where some secret cabal is supposedly trying to set up a world government to take away their freedoms. Never mind that every credible scientific body on the planet is warning about the wealth of evidence we now have about the risk of dangerous climate change. Never mind that the IPCC puts together one of the most thorough (and balanced!) state-of-the-art surveys ever undertaken in any scientific field. Never mind that the newest research suggests that these assessments are, if anything, underestimating the risk. No, these people don’t like the message, and so set out to attack the messengers with a smear campaign based on hounding individual scientists for years and years until they snap, and then spreading stories in the media about what happens when the scientists tell them to piss off.

Throughout all this, in underfunded labs, and under a barrage of attacks, scientists have done their job admirably. They chase down the uncertainties, and report honestly and accurately what they know. They doggedly compile assessment reports year after year to present the mass of evidence to anyone who cares to listen. It simply beggars belief that journalists could, in 2010, still be writing opinion pieces arguing that the scientists need to do a better job, that they are poor communicators, that we need more openness and more data sharing. That these themes dominate the reporting is a testament to how effective the disinformation campaign has been. The problem is not in the science, or with scientists at all, nor with a culture gap between science and the media. The problem is with this third group, the disinformers, who have completely dominated the framing of the story, and how honest journalists have been completely taken in by this framing.

How did they do it? Well, one crucial element of their success is their use of FoI laws. By taking the journalists’ most prized weapon, and wielding it against climate scientists, they achieved a whole bunch of successes all at once. They got journalists on their side, because journalists have difficulty believing that FoI laws could be used for anything other than good old-fashioned citizen democracy. They got the public on their side by appearing to be the citizens fighting the establishment. They set up the false impression that scientists have stuff to hide, by ignoring the vast quantities of open data in climate science, and focussing on the few that were tied up with commercial licence agreements. And they effected a denial of service attack by flooding a few target scientists with huge numbers of FoI requests. Add to this the regular hate mail and death threats that climate scientists receive, and you have a recipe for personal meltdowns. And the media lapped up the story about personal meltdowns, picked it up and ran with it, and never once asked whose framing they were buying into.

And the result is that, faced with one of the greatest challenges humanity has ever faced, the media got the story completely backwards. Few journalists and few scientists seem to have any conception of how this misinformation campaign works, how nasty these people are, and how dirty they play. They have completely owned the story for the last few months, with their framing of “scientists making mistakes” and “scientists distorting their data”. They’ve successfully portrayed the scientists as being at fault, when it is the scientists who are the victims of one of the nastiest public bullying campaigns ever conducted. History will have to judge how it compares to other such episodes (McCarthyism would make a fascinating comparator). And the stakes are high: at risk is our ability to make sensible policy choices and international agreements based on good scientific evidence, to ensure that our children and grandchildren can flourish as we do.

We’re fucking this up bigtime, and it’s not the scientists who are at fault.

03. March 2010 · 2 comments · Categories: politics

Someone recently challenged me to debate the existence of climate change. Debates are extremely useful for discussing matters that require value judgements. But pointless for establishing what is true of the physical world – for that you need the scientific process. In a complex field like climate change, the best approach is a systematic assessment of the scientific literature.

Debates are won or lost on the rhetorical skills of the debaters. If we were to debate the science of climate change, the set up is somewhat stacked against scientists. Scientists are obliged to stick to the evidence, deal honestly with the uncertainties, and attempt to show how the many different lines of evidence give us confidence in our understanding of climate systems. Scientists eschew rhetoric. Those who want to attack the science need only throw enough talking points around to sow doubt in the minds of the audience. They have at their disposal rhetorical tricks like the gish gallop. The entire exercise is pointless.

Now, if someone wants to debate, say the ethics of leaving subsequent generations to clean up our polluting ways, I’m all on it. That’s a matter of value judgement. If anyone wants to debate the existence or seriousness of anthropogenic climate change, I’d give the same response as I would if they wanted to debate the existence or strength of gravity.

Update: Joe Romm explains it in much more depth.

I’ve been distracted over the last few months with all these attacks on climate science. It’s like watching a car crash in slow motion. I know enough about climate science to be skeptical of absolutely everything written on the topic in the mainstream media. And yet I still feel compelled to read about each new revelation trumpeted in the press, and I feel compelled to do the necessary digging to find out what’s really going on. Well, I’m done with it. I’ve seen enough. I’m finally looking away. And I’m taking away some lessons about human behaviour, and most of it isn’t pretty. Many of the people attacking the scientists are truly nasty people.

Take climategate, for example (please!). It really was a non-event – a series of trumped up claims with no substance. We already knew the contrarians talk nonsense. At worse, some requests for access to data were mishandled. By scientists who were being hounded by an army of attack drones. What did those FOI requests look like? Well mostly they looked the same, because when Steve McIntyre was told that some of the metereological data was not available to non-academics because of commercial licencing agreements, he threw a hissy fit and told the lunatics that follow his blog to fire off FOI requests at the CRU. Sixty FOI requests in one weekend! Which makes them all vexatious, and probably counts as harrassment. Which is bad enough, but some of McIntyre’s followers did worse, and started firing off death threats. Death threats?!? Sometimes Often I think I’m on the wrong planet.

Or take the hockey stick controversy. Michael Mann was smeared again as a result of the CRU emails, but on investigation his name was cleared. The previous attempts to smear him, through the Wegman Investigation, turns out to be nothing but a political attack, put together by staffers in Senator Inhofe’s office. While any errors in Mann’s initial attempts at dendrochronology reconstructions have been long since been corrected, and and the results confirmed by other studies (that’s how science works, remember?), a group of obsessive denialists just won’t let the issue drop.

David Brin calls it a war on expertise. A bunch untrained armchair climatologists think they know more about the field than geoscientists who have been studying it as a fulltime career for decades. Or, more precisely, they think they can do a little poking and find errors, and that those errors will invalidate the science. Because they really really want the science to be wrong. Actually, I really really want the science to be wrong too, but I’m not so stupid as to think I can poke holes in it without first becoming an expert. If the science is wrong, you’ll read about it first in the peer-reviewed literature.

I’ve spent some time pondering why so many people seem unable or unwilling to understand the seriousness of climate change. Only half of all Americans understand that warming is happening because of our use of fossil fuels. And clearly many people still believe the science is equivocal. Having spent many hours arguing with denialists, I’ve come to the conclusion that they don’t approach climate change in a scientific way (even those who are trained as scientists), even though they often appear to engage in scientific discourse. Rather than assessing all the evidence and trying to understand the big picture, climate denialists start from their preferred conclusion and work backwards, selecting only the evidence that supports the conclusion.

But why? Why do so many people approach global warming in this manner? Previously I speculated that the Dunning-Kruger effect might explain some of this. This effect occurs when people at the lower end of the ability scale vastly overestimate their own competence. Combine this with the observation that few people really understand the basic system dynamics, for example that concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will continue to rise even if emissions are reduced, as long as the level of emissions (burning fossil fuels) exceeds the removal processes (e.g. sequestration by the oceans). The Dunning-Kruger effect suggests that people whose reasoning is based on faulty mental models are unlikely to realise it.

While incorrect mental models and overconfidence might explain some of the problem that people have in accepting the scale and urgency of the problem, it doesn’t really explain the argumentation style of climate denialists, particularly the way in which they latch onto anything that appears to be a weakness or an error in the science, while ignoring the vast majority of the evidence in the published literature.

However, a series of studies by Kahan, Braman and colleagues explain this behaviour very well. In investigating a key question in social epistemology, Kahan and Braman set out to study why strong political disagreements seem to persist in many areas of public policy, even in the face of clear evidence about the efficacy of certain policy choices. These studies reveal a process they term cultural cognition, by which people filter (scientific) evidence according to how well it fits their cultural orientation. The studies explore this phenomenon for contentious issues such as the death penalty, gun control and environmental protection, as well as issues that one might expect would be less contentious, such as immunization and nanotechology. It turns out that not only do people care about how well various public policies cohere with their existing cultural worldviews, but their beliefs about the empirical evidence are also derived from these cultural worldviews.

For example, in a large scale survey, they tested people’s attitudes to the perception of risks from global warming, gun ownership, nanotechnology and immunization. They assessed how well these perceptions correlate with a number of characteristics, including gender, education, income, political affiliation, and so on. While political party affiliation correlates well with attitudes on some of these issues, there was a generally stronger correlation across the board with the two dimensions of cultural values identified by Douglas and Wildavsky: ‘group’ and ‘grid’. The group dimension assesses whether people are more oriented towards individual needs (‘individualist’) or the needs of the group (‘communitarian’); and the grid dimension assesses whether people tend to believe societal roles should be well defined and differentiated (‘hierarchical’) or those who believe in more equality and less rigidity (‘egalitarian’).

The most interesting part of the study, for me, is a an experiment on how perceptions change depending on how the risk of global warming is presented. About 500 subjects were given one of two different newspaper articles to read, both of which summarized the findings of a scientific report about the threat of climate change. In one version, the scientists were described as calling for anti-pollution regulations, while in the other, they were calling for investment in more nuclear power. Both these were compared with a control group who saw neither version of the report. Here are the results (adapted from Kahan et al, with a couple of corrections supplied by the authors):


In all cases, the mean risk assessment of the subjects correlates with their position on these dimensions: individualists and hierarchs are much less worried about global warming than communitarians and egalitarians. But more interestingly, the two different newspaper articles affect these perceptions in different ways. For the article that described scientists as calling for anti-pollution measures, people had quite opposite reactions: for communitarians and egalitarians, it increased their perception of the risk from global warming, but for individualists and hierarchs, it decreased their perception of the risk. When the same facts about the science are presented in an article that calls for more nuclear power, there is almost no effect. In other words, people assessed the facts in the report about climate change according to how well the policy prescription fits with their existing worldview.

There are some interesting consequences of this phenomenon. For example, Kahan and Braman argue that there is really no war over ideology in the US, just lots of people with well-established cultural worldviews, who simply decide what facts (scientific evidence) to believe based on these views. The culture war is therefore really a war over facts, not ideology.

The studies also suggest that certain political strategies are doomed to failure. For example, a common strategy when trying to resolve contentious political policy issues is to attempt to detach the policy question from political ideologies, and focus on the available evidence about the consequences of the policy. Kahan and Braman’s studies show this won’t work, because different cultural worldviews prevent people from agreeing what the consequences of a particular policy will be (no matter what empirical evidence is available). Instead, they argue that policymakers must find ways of framing policy so that affirm the values of diverse cultural worldviews simultaneously.

As an example, for gun control, they suggest offering a bounty (e.g. a tax rebate) for people who register handguns. Both pro- and anti- gun control groups might view this as beneficial to them, even though they disagree on the nature of the problem. For climate change, the equivalent policy prescriptions include tradeable emissions permits (which appeal to individualists and hierarchists), and more nuclear power (which egalitarians and hierarchists tend to view as less risky when presented as a solution to global warming).

Update: There’s a very good opinion piece by Kahan in the January 21, 2010 issue of Nature.

When I was at the EGU meeting in Vienna in April, I attended a session on geoengineering, run by Jason Blackstock. During the session I blogged the main points of Jason’s talk, the key idea of which is that it’s time to start serious research into the feasibility and consequences of geoengineering, because it’s now highly likely we’ll need a plan B, and we’re going to need a much better understanding of what’s involved before we do it. Jason mentioned a brainstorming workshop, and the full report is now available: Climate Engineering Responses to Climate Emergencies. The report is an excellent primer on what we know currently about geoengineering, particularly the risks. It picks out stratospheric aerosols as the most likely intervention (from the point of view of both cost/feasibility, and current knowledge of effectiveness).

I got the sense from the meeting that we have reached an important threshold in the climate science community – previously geoengineering was unmentionable, for fear that it would get in the way of the serious and urgent job of reducing emissions. Alex Steffen explains this fear very well, and goes over the history of how the mere possibility of geoengineering has been used as an excuse by the denialists for inaction. And of course, from a systems point of view, geoengineering can only ever be a distraction if it tackles temperature (the symptom) rather than carbon concentrations (the real problem).

But the point made by Jason, and in the report, is that we cannot rule out the likelihood of climate emergencies – either very rapid warming triggered by feedback effects, or sudden onset of unanticipated consequences of (gradual) warming. In other words, changes that occur too rapidly for even the most aggressive mitigation strategies (i.e. emissions reduction) to have an effect on. Geoengineering then can be seen as “buying us time” to allow the mitigation strategies to work – e.g slowing the warming by a decade or so, while we get on and decarbonize our energy supplies.

Now, maybe it’s because I’m looking out for them, but I’ve started to see a flurry of research interest in geoengineering. Oliver Morton’s article “Great White Hope” in April’s Nature gives a good summary of several meetings earlier this year, along with a very readable overview of some of the technology choices available. In June, the US National Academies announced a call for input on geoengineering which yielded a treasure trove of information – everything you’ve ever wanted to know about geoengineering. And yesterday, New Scientist reported that geoengineering has gone mainstream, with a lovely infographic illustrating some of the proposals.

Finally, along with technical issues of feasibility and risk, the possibility of geoengineering raises major new challenges for world governance. Who gets to decide which geoengineering projects should go ahead, and when, and what will we do about the fact that, by definition, all such projects will have a profound effect on human society, and those effects will be distributed unequally?

Update: Alan Robock has a brilliant summary in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists entitled 20 reasons why geo-engineering might be a bad idea.

The US government has launched a very swanky new inter-agency website, www.globalchange.gov, intended to act as a central point for news and reports on climate change. And the centre-piece of the launch is a major new report on Climate Change Impacts in the US. It draws on the IPCC reports for much of the science, but it adds to that a lot of detail on how the impacts of climate change are already being seen across the US, and how much worse it’s going to get. Definitely worth reading, especially the parts on drought and heat waves. (The brochures and factsheets are good too)

Add to that a recent report from CNA on Risks to (US) National Security from energy dependence and climate change. It includes some fascinating snippets from senior retired US military admirals and generals, including for example, the threat to the US’s military capacity posed by sea level rise (e.g loss of coastal installations), and disruption to energy supplies. And that the biggest cause of conflict in the 21st century is likely to be mass migrations of entire populations, seeking water and food as supplies dwindle (but if you’ve read Climate Wars, you already knew this)

This is depressing.

We were at the bank this morning, setting up some investment plans for retirement and for the kids to go through University (In Canada-speak: RRSPs and RESPs). We started to pick out a portfolio of mutual funds into which we would be putting the investments, and our financial advisor was showing us one of the mutual funds he would recommend when I noticed the fund included a substantial investment in the Canadian Oil Sands. “No way” says I. So we went to his next pick. Same thing. And the next. And the next….

The oil sands have been described as the most destructive project on earth. They are the major reason that Canada will renege on its Kyoto treaty obligations. They will devastate a huge area of Alberta, and threaten clean water supplies and the wildlife of large parts of North America.

So, I was struck by the irony of funding the kids through University by investing in a project that will so thoroughly screw up the world in which they will have to live when they grow up.

But then I thought about it some more. Pretty much the entire middle class in Canada must have money invested in this project, if it shows up in most of the mutual funds commonly recommended for retirement and education savings plans. Most of them probably have no idea (after all, who actually looks closely at the contents of their mutual funds?) and of those that do know, most of them will prefer the high rate of return on this project because they have no real understanding of the extent of the climate crisis.

Those funds are being used to maximize the profit from the oils sands, by paying for lobbyists to fight environmental regulations, to fight caps on greenhouse gas emissions, and to fight against alternative energy initiatives (which would eat into the market for oil from the oil sands).

How on earth can we make any progress on fighting climate change when we all have a financial stake in not doing so?

We’re fucked.