“I Can change your Mind”

Just watched the interesting Australian TV show I Can Change Your Mind About…Climate.

The show takes a novel format of taking two protagonists from either side of the climate debate and flying them around the world as they introduce to each other spokespeople for their respective causes.

The climate activist is Anna Rose, founder and chair of the Australian Youth Climate Coalition, and her travel companion is Nick Minchin, recently retired Australian senator.

Rose starts off by taking us to her uncle’s farm who tells of his personal experience of climate change that he has seen on his farm; this is not that useful as no-one is disputing if the climate is changing- the question is, how much, is it human-induced, what, if anything, can we do?

The first stop for Minchin is the home of two of Australia’s most influential skeptics, Jo Nova and David Evans. Nova nearly chokes when Rose asserts that the survival of the planet is at stake- she is a true believer. Evans shows her a graph showing that sea temperatures have not warmed in recent years, according to the data from ARGO. As Evans makes clear however, ARGO has only been recording since 2003- which means that this data is simply too early to draw any conclusions from. This is his point- how can we be sure the oceans are warming if the data is not there?

This obviously would require more discussion- what other data is there and what significance does this have?
Evans and Nova then go on to discuss the Urban Heat Island effect, suggesting that land surface temperatures have been influenced by their location, often close to urban areas, or have been placed in locations that have seen urban development since their placement, thus measuring local, not global warming.

“How stupid do you think climate scientists are?” asks Rose not unreasonably, “of course they have allowed for things like this.”

While there is evidence that temperature stations have been skewed for these reasons, Rose’s next specialist, Dr. Richard Muller shows his data which does indeed correct for such things- and still finds that the world has been warming during the industrial era.

What is more significant is Muller’s comment that “none of the programmes being proposed can do anything about this.” Minchin picks up on this afterwards- the futility of Kyoto-style carbon emissions reductions in a world where a third of the population- between India and China- are developing by burning coal just as fast as they can get it out of the ground and into the power stations.

Minchin introduces Rose to his chosen specialist Dr. Richard Lindzen who claims that the real issue is feedbacks- CO2 creates little warming on its own, and the scary forecasts are a result of positive feedback effects from clouds and water vapor- an effect that Lindzen claims is still highly uncertain, partly because, if the models are correct in their high-sensitivity assumptions, we should have already experienced 3degrees warming, and not the 0.8degrees actually experienced.

Rose makes a cardinal error here, dismissing Lindzen on the grounds that he is also a skeptic on the evidence that passive smoking causes cancer- a logical fallacy: Minchin angrily demands that she stick with the actual debate on climate.

They take a trip to Hawaii to visit Mauna Loa, “ground zero” in climate science, where atmospheric CO2 levels were first noticed to be climbing inexorably with rising fossil fuel combustion. Observatory station chief John Barnes shows them the famous graphs and presents our two protagonists with a really cool souvenir- a small vial of air from the tests that day, labelled with the date and current CO2 concentrations. He tells them “You can show that to people and say, ‘Hey, I was there when the levels were below 400ppm'”

Rose goes badly wrong again when confronted with arch Republican attack-dog Marc Morano of ClimateDepot.com. She refuses to engage him in debate on the grounds that he has been proved to just make things up- “just do a Google search, you’ll find hundreds of examples”.

Which is very lame, considering she is flying the flag for climate activism, and flying round the world on a televised junket to promote her cause- surely she could have been well-enough prepared and sure of her evidence come up with one example? Instead she meets Morano’s barrage with silence. Well maybe that was jsut as well, one had the impression Morano was just about to eat her for lunch.

Rose chooses Zac Golsmith, author of eco-theological treatise The Way; Minchin chooses Lomborg, who Rose seems to take a shine to: he at least accepts the science of man-made global warming, but differs radically on the solutions.

Anna partially accepts the logic of putting resources into R&D but is clearly skeptical that some “magic” new technology can be relied on to save us, and feels this should not be done in place of strong reductions targets- “we have to have hope”.

Perhaps the most interesting scene is towards the end when they meet with Ben Goldacre in a London pub. Goldacre delivers a memorable quote stating that he would “rather shut his cock in a door than discuss climate science with deniers”.

Goldacre: what's that pained expression on your face?

But Goldacre is a medical doctor, not a climate scientist- what’s he doing on this show at all?

I think the problem here is that Goldacre, like most “traditional skeptics” is so used to debunking homeopaths and other snake-oil salesmen that he cannot do otherwise than assume climate skeptics are the same. As anyone who has debated a homeopath would know, they are inclined to cherry-pick data and then make some vague mystical argument about “science not knowing everything” or “science has been wrong before”- ie they tend to deny the concept of scientific process in the first place and rely on anecdote and intuition.

But climate science is not like clinical trials which can be readily verified, as I have previously blogged about here.

Climate science is actually about trying to predict the future based on large numbers of variables, using computer models which have not yet been tested against reality- a process often referred to as “post-normal science.” So while most scientists agree that CO2 is contributing to warming, the real question is whether the confidence in catastrophe is sufficient to warrant the effective dismantling of industrial society. So it would have been interesting to have asked Goldacre a) what exactly does he think the consensus view on climate change actually is? and b) what, if anything, does he suggest we do about it?

Unfortunately the format failed us here, as is so often with TV shows- the most important questions were not really asked. Instead Goldacre opines that Rose is “buggered” for engaging in the format of the show in the first place- it gives the false impression that there is a “debate” to be had at all- which rather misses the point.

Closer to the mark is Dr. Anthony Leiserowitz of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication who shows how the two participants are type-cast for their respective positions: Minchin, the older male conservative expressing doubts; Rose the younger female left-leaning activist. This debate is not about the science at all, but about politics and values- a view also expressed by Mike Hulme of UEA- until those different value systems are unpacked, they are essentially talking past each other.

At the end of their journey, there is some attempt at finding common ground: they both agree that if there was a suitable low-carbon technology available they would jump at it tomorrow. Unfortunately, Anna Rose seems to think that such technology can be achieved by wishful thinking rather than a pragmatic strategy.

Despite misgivings perhaps from both sides that the show was a waste of time- Rose because the debate is over” and Minchin because Rose avoided the key issue of the debate in terms of policy, I found the format refreshing and revealing in many ways. Personally I would have loved to have had such an expenses-paid travel opportunity, and the show has whetted my appetite for potential summer holiday destinations.

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One thought on ““I Can change your Mind”

  1. “So while most scientists agree that CO2 is contributing to warming, the real question is whether the confidence in catastrophe is sufficient to warrant the effective dismantling of industrial society.” We are trying to stem a nosebleed with a tourniquet around our neck, it seems.

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