Dear Aunt Sally: why am I still in denial?

{Update 01-02-13:
I asked the researcher I discuss in this post their thoughts and they pointed out that I had the quote from Mary Robinson incorrect- I had remembered the first sentence, but in fact it came from the previous paragraph in the speech. Here is the quote as presented in the symposium:

In hard times, it can be difficult to attend to the long-term. When
recession and debt pose urgent constraints, 10 year targets and 50
year plans may seem a luxury. Climate Change can appear far away in
both time and space and yet of course it is not far away – it is not
merely a long-term problem. Climate change is what we are doing right
here and now.

I was also asked to clarify that the Phd research is not in climate science communication but in Communications -“Environmental Risk and the Social Script.”

The thrust of my post still remains, these clarifications notwithstanding: I still feel that certain political assumptions about climate change were being made, with the presentation being framed around Robinson’s point that “Climate Change is what we are doing right here and now”.}

I attended a recent symposium on Connecting Science and Policy in Dublin on Thursday and Friday, and learned a lot from some very interesting presentations.

One of the last talks was however by a Phd candidate on communicating climate science.

This presentation worried me for several reasons.

The talk began by saying that NGOs play a major role of science communicators, but that they still use the dominant “behavior-change” model; this was questioned for its effectiveness, although no real alternative was outlined.

Mary Robinson’s 2010 address in Dublin Reshaping the Debate on Climate Change was quoted:

Climate change is what we are doing right here and right now. That this proximity is often forgotten is testament to the many ways in which the headline debates about climate change can lead us astray. For example we tend to think of climate change as something invisible something that is taking place behind the scenes so to speak but it is actually very visible. It’s visible in the disappearing glaciers and the rapidly receding snows of Kilimanjaro. It’s visible in the carbon monoxide plumes of rush hour traffic and the city lights that you see flying on an aeroplane. It’s visible in the 10cm of sea level rise around the Irish coast since 1900 and the one billion sterling a year that the British Government now spends on flood damage.

The emphasis here was that climate change is happening right here, right now, rather than an abstract idea somewhere in the future.

But with this we run into trouble straight away: leaving aside the rather odd suggestion that we can see climate change in carbon monoxide (presumably as an indicator of carbon dioxide that must also be there), I think the melting snows of Kilimanjaro have been shown to be largely due to changes in land-use and deforestation rather than CO2, so this is probably a bad example;

but the “billion sterling a year spent on flood damage” is surely much worse: using costs to indicate rising storm damage or flood damage is never a good idea, though it is often done, because of inflation, increasing value of property with economic growth, population increases and general bad policies such as building on flood-planes; one would have to be very careful to unpack such figures if one wants to use them as evidence of man-made global warming.

More than that, the actual claim that we are already seeing the effects of AGW in extreme weather events at all seems still uncertain and only of low-to-medium probability at best, according to the 2012 IPCC report on extreme climate events:

There is low confidence in any observed long-term (i.e., 40 years or more) increases in tropical cyclone activity (i.e., intensity, frequency, duration), after accounting for past changes in observing capabilities. It is likely that there has been a poleward shift in the main Northern and Southern Hemisphere extratropical storm tracks.

There is low confidence in observed trends in small spatial-scale phenomena such as tornadoes and hail because of data inhomogeneities and inadequacies in monitoring systems. [3.3.2, 3.3.3, 3.4.4, 3.4.5]

There is medium confidence that some regions of the world have experienced more intense and longer droughts, in particular in southern Europe and West Africa, but in some regions droughts have become less frequent, less intense, or shorter, for example, in central North America and northwestern Australia. [3.5.1]

There is limited to medium evidence available to assess climate-driven observed changes in the magnitude and frequency of floods at regional scales because the available instrumental records of floods at gauge stations are limited in space and time, and because of confounding effects of changes in land use and engineering. Furthermore, there is low agreement in this evidence, and thus overall low confidence at the global scale regarding even the sign of these changes.

Another issue raised was that a lot of what is being talked about is not really changing anything- cosmetic actions and greenwash. Who knew?

So the presentation seemed to be based on a whole load of assumptions about climate change science that were dubious, and a whole lot of assumptions about potential responses to climate science that were quite undefined. What sort of “behaviour change” might be suitable? And there seemed to be an unquestioned assumption that people’s tardiness in “taking action” was mainly a result of fossil-fuel-industry-funded “denialism”, rather perhaps that actually we need fossil fuels to keep warm and so on until cheaper alternatives are developed.

But what was really worrying was the mention of Transition Towns as an example of a new kind of stake-holder and significant social actor in communicating climate science.

The Transition Town movement is something I know quite a lot about, since this social and environmental movement was founded in the college where I teach. In fact, the movement’s founder, Rob Hopkins, had previously founded the Practical Sustainability course that I have been teaching on- I took over his job when he moved to Devon to set up the Transition Towns Network in Totnes.

This group- now a global social entrepreneurial movement with over 100 groups worldwide- defines itself as a community response to the “twin challenges of peak oil and climate change”; with peak oil pretty much a dead duck as a hypothesis, they still have climate change.

The problem is, TTN is simply not the place I would go to look for science communication.

In fact, I do not feel it unfair to characterize TTN as more of a Dark Green New Age movement, with policy recommendations as extreme as:

-the replacement of evidence-based medicine with “alternative”medicine;

-a close alignment with extremist cults such as Anthroposophy with its Biodynamic Agriculture and Steiner schools; and Deep Ecology with its quasi-religious practices of Eco-psychology and Joanna Macey’s The Work that Reconnects;

-an implicit opposition and activism against GMOs and nuclear power, and an equally naive embracement of renewables such as wind and solar.

In short, if Phd Science Communicators are looking to Transition Towns to take on this role, there is something very wrong. I would look nearly anywhere else- the Boy Scouts, the local chess club, a Stamp Collectors’ Association- anywhere but Transition Towns.

See here and here and here for previous posts I have written detailing the connections between Transition Towns and various kinds of woo.

Even more worrying- but perhaps in some ways not unconnected- was a question from the floor asking if climate change was such a serious issue- and people often so reluctant to adopt “behavior change”- that maybe we should consider abandoning democracy. Now, there’s an idea that surely everyone would get behind. In fact, this is by no means the first time it has been suggested in connection with climate change- it should become a central issue in the next elections.

Maybe Rob Hopkins would agree with this sentiment, since for example he feels dissent against his own views on wind-farms should not be tolerated:

Personally, I don’t feel that anyone has any right to object to this scheme unless they also feel that they would be able to sit down with a family from, say, Bangladesh, and tell them that their upset about a minor wind scheme in South Devon outweighs that family’s right to a future. I don’t feel that is justifiable in any sense.

The assumptions behind this kind of approach to climate communication could be found also last week on BBC Radio 4’s Thinking Allowed which also looked at the topic of engaging with climate change- or rather a “psycho-analytic interpretation of denial.” (H/T Ben Pile who blogged about this here.)

Sally Weintrobe’s seemed as out of touch with the actual climate science as the speaker in Dublin;
moreover, her comment that

our relationship with Mother Earth is not reducible to our relationship with our mothers but there are parallels up to a point, especially in terms of dependency

could have come straight out of a Transition Town sponsored Deep Ecology workshop.

Joining her on the program was Professor of Social Policy, Paul Hoggett, who gave us pretty much zero insight into the issue of climate change with his observation that people seem to be capable of holding two contradictory views at the same time: he gives the example of flying- every flight across the Atlantic creates 2 tonnes of carbon emissions per person- but we still do it!! “Myself included” Hoggett tells us!

Ye Gods, truly there is nothing so strange as a human being, unless perhaps that human being has taken on the cloak of the climate change communicator or the psychoanalyst.

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  1. Graham, well said. I-yi-yi. It appears to be confirmation bias running amok. One would think that a PhD candidate would know how to research a subject before opening a mouth and inserting a foot.

    “It’s visible in the disappearing glaciers and the rapidly receding snows of Kilimanjaro.”

    Matt Ridley noted in one of his talks, “I see confirmation bias everywhere in the climate debate. Hurricane Katrina [one could now add superstore Sandy], Mount Kilimanjaro, the extinction of golden toads – all cited wrongly as evidence of climate change. A snowy December, the BBC lectures us, is ‘just weather’; a flood in Pakistan or a drought in Texas is ‘the sort of weather we can expect more of’.”

    As I pointed in “Occam’s Razor and the Former Snows of Kilimanjaro” on the Timberati site:

    Maybe global warming is not the cause of the snow loss.  A paleoclimatologist will look at problems from a point of view that may not see other possibilities. (When you’re a hammer every problem looks like a nail.) According to at least two peer reviewed studies, other researchers have put forward a more prosaic reason for Kilimanjaro ice going bye-bye: deforestation.

    “Studies show local climate in mountain regions are impacted by deforestation at upwind locations….While the prior investigations have focused on the effect of low land deforestation on Tropical Montane Cloud Forests, low land deforestation also has the potential to impact alpine glaciers.” — Impact of Upwind Land Cover Change on Mount Kilimanjaro

    “Deforestation of the mountain’s foothills is the most likely culprit because without forests there is too much evaporation of humidity into outer space. The result is that moisture-laden winds blowing across those forests have become drier and drier.” — Nicholas Pepin of Britain’s Portsmouth University

    Ridley again: “A theory so flexible it can rationalize any outcome is a pseudoscientific theory.”

    If it were a science theory, then there would be only one right and infinite wrongs. With man-caused climate change, it seems to be the other way round, except for the one wrong, of course.

  2. Sundance

     /  January 28, 2013

    I’m not sure who is responsible in the climate change movement for the strategy of suggesting that bad weather outside my window is proof of climate change, but the presentation that you describe is the sad “echo chamber” result.

    Sadly a similar example of “communication fail” in trying to push the bad weather is climate meme occurred in a recent twitter exchange between Peter Gleick and Roger Pielke Jr. in which Gleick’s blind acceptance of the meme that hurricanes were getting worse left him open to ridicule by those much more knowledgeable. The exchange involved a tweet by RPJ on an article indicating that hurricane landfalls have been on the decline and that the USA has not seen a major hurricane landfall in 7 years. Gleick clumsily challenged RPJ in a manner which displayed Gleick’s ignorance of how a major hurricane is classified and then proceeded to attack RPJ rather than challenging the scientific findings presented in the article that RPJ had linked.

    It is one thing to hear Debbie Stabenow, a former US Senator, claim that she feels global warming when she is flying on a jet, it is another to see an AGU Fellow exhibiting such willful ignorance. Gleick’s reaction seemed more in line with that of a religious zealot rather than one of a scientist. Thus far based on my observations, progress on better science communication has not happened and motivated reasoning has betrayed any chance of success to this point.

  3. You might be interested in the Freakonomics podcast on this subject (where they cover a bit about people’s confirmation bias). Here’s a link to the transcript: There is a link there to the podcast. It is worth listening to.


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