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Are Scientists Confusing the Public About Global Warming?

Credit: istock

“Do you believe in global warming?”

I assure you no one in the earth science community is asking that question. But they are desperately seeking an answer to a related question — “Why are we failing to communicate climate science?”

In December, I attended the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU), a gathering of about 16,000 earth scientists. I attended in order to hear about new research and to network with colleagues, but I found myself mostly distracted by the issue of climate science communications. As one of the central themes of the meeting, there were a number of sessions and workshops devoted to this topic.

The relevance of the communications issue was made all too apparent on the second day of the meeting when news reports emerged of a leaked FOX News memo ordering all station journalists to "refrain from asserting that the planet has warmed (or cooled) in any given period without IMMEDIATELY pointing out that such theories are based upon data that critics have called into question."

The release of the memo hints at the disconnect: among the thousands of scientists who study climate change, there is little criticism of the evidence of warming and its human fingerprint, yet among the public, the science is viewed as contentious, confusing, and up for grabs.

In daily interactions with members of the general public, when I tell people I work on climate change, they almost inevitably ask me: “So, is it really happening? My understanding is the science is too uncertain.” Newspaper and TV station reports, recent polling, and these casual conversations all point toward a profound disconnect between public discourse and mainstream science.

The question is: why is there this disconnect? And what is the scientists’ role in creating it, and responsibility for rectifying it?

As I listened to various presentations and spoke with colleagues in the halls of the cavernous Moscone Conference Center in San Francisco, Calif., four competing hypotheses emerged.

Hypothesis #1: Scientists are terrible communicators. Their dry, analytical presentations of data fails to capture the imagination of the public. Scientists bury their findings in complicated graphs and jargon, and as a result the public often has no clue what they are talking about. Climate science would be better understood if scientists communicated more clearly and simply whenever possible. 

This perspective was illustrated best in a workshop on December 14 called “Communicating Climate Change Science.”  An audience of at least 200 squeezed into the overpacked room, lining up along the walls, knee to knee in the aisles, to learn how to be “deadly communications ninjas of climate science,” from writer Chris Mooney and others. The audience listened raptly, waiting to hear about that silver bullet solution, a nugget of profundity that would give them the tools they needed to allow the public to suddenly understand everything just as they do.

The audience nodded their heads in resignation as Susan Joy Hassol, a climate communications consultant, doled out her tidbits of wisdom:

  • Start with the big picture; say why it matters.
  • Focus on the things you know and understand, not the things you don’t understand.
  • Don’t use jargon like “aerosols”. That word will always mean spray cans to the public, not tiny particles that come from soot and other pollution.
  • Don’t use the word “anthropogenic,” just say human-caused.

The list of do’s and don’ts went on and on.

However, all of this advice assumes the public is interested in climate science, and that they are just getting lost in the complexities.

But what if people aren’t really interested in the details of climate science?  

How can scientists expect to communicate climate science if people aren't interested? Credit: istock

Hypothesis #2: Scientists are not speaking enough from their hearts. Their cold, analytical presentations of data fail to capture the imagination of the public. Climate science would be better understood if scientists made more passionate appeals. 

This sentiment was best expressed on Wednesday, December 16, in a session with bestselling book authors. Greg Craven, a high-school science teacher who became famous overnight after the 2007 release of his 10-minute youtube video, “The Most Terrifying Video You’ll Ever See”, which has reportedly been viewed some eight million times, stressed a similar message to Hassol and Mooney.

But his tone and tenor were quite different. Craven suggested that the job of scientists is not just to re-package information with less jargon and more gloss, but also to change their whole approach. Forget offering up more, shinier data, he suggested. Instead, we should put on our daddy and mommy hats and get emotional.

In a passionate and at times maniacal speech — part clairvoyant, part nervous breakdown — he rambled about how the time had come for scientists to reveal themselves and their raw, unabridged hopes and fears to the American people.

As Craven issued his battle cry, the smirks around the audience were all too visible. His remarks were strange and out-of-place in this meeting of professionals, with other sessions focused on technical topics like “Was the Archean mantle thermal regime special?” rather than emotional discussions about hopes and dreams.

Craven was making a difficult proposition. On the one hand, it made sense. Earth scientists understand the implications of their research better than any other portion of the public, so if they are worried about the planet we are leaving our daughters and sons (which I assure you many of them are, including myself), then yes, they should get out there and speak openly and passionately.

On the other hand, would such public exposure of hopes and dreams undermine their role as objective translators of our best scientific understanding? I don’t know the answer to that important question. There must be historical case studies through which to explore this issue. When scientists have gone not just public, but passionately so, what happens to their credibility?

Instead of trying to answer that now, though, let me continue to explore whether this communication crisis is really about science anyway. Because if it isn’t, then perhaps Craven is right that a gear-shift is needed, maybe not an emotional one, but a gear-shift for sure.  

Scientists such as myself are beating their heads against the wall by carefully describing why an apple is an apple for the billionth time. Meanwhile the public may be staring at an orange. 

Hypothesis #3: The public is being manipulated by a massive, and highly effective disinformation campaign. This campaign is motivated by free-market economic ideologues who oppose government regulation of greenhouse gases. The media have been duped, or worse, complicit, (again, think FOX News memo), in giving voice to these unscrupulous attacks on the science. In light of this, climate change would be better understood if scientists collaborated across disciplines to provide more relevant, compelling information that could break through the disinformation. 

Is poor science communication the fault of the media? Credit: istock

The evidence for this disinformation campaign and an analysis of its motivations has been thoroughly researched by science historian Naomi Oreskes, who also spoke at the AGU authors session.

She and her co-author Eric Conway detailed their work in the recent book, Merchants of Doubt. As she told my colleague Andrew Freedman in an interview earlier this year, "This is not about gaps in climate science... it's about a strategy to undermine the science whenever the science logically leads to a need for government regulation. That's the pattern, that's what people need to understand. This really is about regulation."

Her research follows a small group of scientists – mainly physicists – who are motivated more by political convictions than scientific evidence, as they journey from careers in cold-war weapons programs to speaking out about scientific issues ranging from the links between tobacco smoke and cancer, air pollution and acid rain, and of course, climate change.

Oreskes argues that since these individuals by and large are not engaged in sincere informed debate, scientists should not focus on communicating more evidence about the warming trend and how it is influenced by human activities. Rather, scientists need to provide “a clear and vivid portrait of what will occur if we continue with business as usual.” I asked her in an email afterwards what she means by a “clear and vivid portrait.” She responded:

“I think a lot of people still don't really get what the science means. They don't understand the implications, and I think this holds for many educated people. Sure, a bit of warming, but so what? Why does it really matter? And scientists have trouble answering because it gets them out of the realm of established facts and into more subjective domains, like, it matters because there is going to be a good deal of suffering, and that suffering will be unfairly imposed on people who did not necessarily benefit from the prosperity created by burning fossil fuels.”

The public debate on global warming requires greater engagement and scholarly contributions by social scientists, such as anthropologists, political scientists, sociologists and historians, to articulate a cohesive narrative about possible futures. For that narrative to inform public discourse, however, it needs to be faithfully communicated to wider audiences, which raises another set of challenges.

Hypothesis #4: The public DOES understand the threat of global warming. The perception of a large disconnect is a myth produced by poorly crafted polls and media sensationalism.

Following the headlines of the leaked memo, on the fourth day of the AGU meeting, Jon Krosnick of Stanford University — who also sits on the Board of Climate Central — seized the opportunity to remind us of his research that throws a monkey wrench into the starting proposition that there is a communication disconnect between scientists and the public in the first place.

Contrary to recent headlines suggesting plummeting belief in global warming, Krosnick’s long-term polling research concludes the public’s “belief” in climate change is overwhelmingly high. According to Krosnick’s work, while it is partisan, with Democrats and Independents being more convinced and concerned about global warming than Republicans, the overwhelming majority of U.S. citizens think global warming is happening and is human caused (~75 percent) and want to see more action to stop it (~85 percent). 

His polling finds that even the majority of FOX News viewers are convinced about climate change (though they tend to be less convinced than a person who gets their news elsewhere). In June, Krosnick wrote a New York Times op-ed about Republican efforts to overturn the U.S. EPA’s carbon dioxide regulations:

“A vote to eliminate greenhouse gas regulation is likely to be perceived by the nation as a vote for industry, and against the will of the people.”

Credit: istock

Four Hypotheses? Four Truths?

In returning to the question I started with: Are scientists confusing the public about the science of global warming?

I think the most straightforward answer is, no.

Putting the failure on the scientists, as the first two hypotheses do, assumes that there is a failure of understanding. It assumes that if the American people had all the information at their fingertips, they would make a different choice. An equally likely scenario that emerges, particularly from insights found in humanities and social science research, is that people do understand, but the range of their other interests and values prohibits them from “believing” it’s true, or making the sacrifices necessary to adjust behaviorally, or pushing more forcefully for action from political leaders.

Yale Professor Dan Kahan and colleagues' research on “cultural cognition” illustrates how the compatibility of empirical data with a person’s cultural values influences their acceptance of that data. So data that conforms to or reinforces an individual's preexisting values is more likely to be accepted, while data that is opposed to such values may be rejected. For instance, people who hold an individualistic worldview may be more reluctant to accept scientific evidence of manmade climate change because addressing the problem would require restrictions on commerce and industry.

The research shows how the messaging around empirical data claims can significantly alter reception by individuals with different values.

Yet even given these lessons of social science and psychology for science communications, I am uncomfortable with proposals that inch too far down a road towards Hollywood and Madison Avenue. I worry that if scientists drive too far down this road in desperate attempts to be heard, they will give up too much. For in the end, we don’t need scientists to be better salesmen, we need them to provide us with information to live well on this planet. And asking them to just pitch it better, somehow misses the mark.

In response to the communication disconnect, I would venture that it is not the scientists that are failing the public, rather, the political and media environment is failing the scientist. 

All the earth scientists I know work for the sole reason of understanding this complex planet we call home. In exploring basic physics and chemistry, their work has revealed huge risks to human society if we continue on a business-as-usual path. And so, over the decades, they have slowly compiled evidence, contributed to technical assessments, and testified in the halls of government and before the media about what they know and don’t know about how the earth‘s climate system works. Some have crafted their messages employing the best communication tactics, most talk in ways that are familiar and natural for them.  

And yet here we are, in 2011, still debating the basic science and risks of climate change, and whether the risks justify regulations to curb greenhouse gas emissions. So I’d be a fool to argue that we should ignore any of the lessons of these four hypotheses, and scientists should just sit back and pat themselves on the back for a job well done.

But what’s clear, and I think important about looking at these four hypotheses in sum, is that they highlight the complex nature of the problem and the shared responsibility for rectifying the disconnects between the public and the science community. 


By larrydalooza
on January 18th, 2011

Never read so many words that say so little. Your empirical data is only minutia compared to the full set of relevant variables. The extrapolation made with that data is influenced by scientific religion. Your problem is that “someone” declared that the “debate is over”. I don’t believe the debate was ever appropriately outlined. As long as this is a “moral” debate it is over… it is over. Stick to the facts… stop believing you are right… be right.

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By Bryan Raymond (Caledon East)
on January 18th, 2011

just a thought, but I think a main issue is the fact that we are all taught that climate does change, in grade school we talk of the ice age, the fact that lakes used be where deserts now stand so to use the wording “climate change” is ineffective.  We expect climate change, the earth has survived climate change and will continue to. The wording and approach needs to be redefined. It has gone from “global warming” to climate change but that is not going to alarm , it needs to have a human cause component like “accelerated climate change” or “carbon based climate change”- climate change in itself is too vague and acceptable.

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By Puckerclust
on January 19th, 2011

Excellent article.  I was also at AGU and attended many of the same presentations.  I don’t think the four hypotheses are mutually exclusive by any means.  As scientists, we need to redouble our effort to educate the public and politicians in terms they can understand.  We need to recognize that some of us are better than others at doing this.  The work of Kahan and others on cultural cognition means we need to make conservatives realize that their right to continue to live in a natural world depends on society’s ability to accept the reality of human-caused climate change.  If they enjoy hunting or fishing, or like to walk in the woods or ride horses or smell flowers, they should remember that skeptics like Freeman Dyson don’t care if we cause the extinction of every species but our own (see the article by Kenneth Brower in the December 2010 issue of The Atlantic).  It’s important to address values that conservatives hold dear, when discussing global warming with them.

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By Brad Arnold (St Louis Park, MN 55416)
on January 19th, 2011

Scientists aren’t “confusing” the public about global warming, instead they are kidding themselves:

“Few seem to realise that the present IPCC models predict almost unanimously that by 2040 the average summer in Europe will be as hot as the summer of 2003 when over 30,000 died from heat. By then we may cool ourselves with air conditioning and learn to live in a climate no worse than that of Baghdad now. But without extensive irrigation the plants will die and both farming and natural ecosystems will be replaced by scrub and desert. What will there be to eat? The same dire changes will affect the rest of the world and I can envisage Americans migrating into Canada and the Chinese into Siberia but there may be little food for any of them.”—Dr James Lovelock’s lecture to the Royal Society, 29 Oct. ‘07

Because the scientists can’t quite believe their own climate models, they are low balling their distillation to the public.

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By Mike Haseler (Glasgow)
on January 19th, 2011

There’s a simple reason why the scientists are not communicating the “message” of global warming, and that is because a long time ago they stopped behaving like scientists and started behaving like politicians and you don’t have to have an IQ of 130 to know what the public think of politicians.

Scientists are supposed to be dispassionate interrogators of the evidence. Instead the high profile “scientists” (aka politicians) who run climate “science”  have time and time again shown that they are not dispassionate observers but highly partisan manipulators of the truth to fit their own particular point of view. You only have to look at the climategate emails to see how vehemently they needed the results to express their own preconceived views of the climate. Scientists form conservative views based on the evidence. These lot looked for evidence to support their views and were not amiss to “hiding the decline” to improve the support for their view.

The weirdest thing is to hear them talking about their need to “improve their communication” which is the mindset of the politician, marketer ... basically everyone the public distrusts. The more they try to “win the propaganda war”, the more the public realise they are not impartial and cannot be the honestly impartial scientists they proclaim to be.

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By Pascvaks
on January 19th, 2011

Consider this Possibility Too: Each hypothesis above is true AND there are 30 or 40 other, unstated hypotheses that are as true as well.  Given this, is there only one action that will achieve the best results?

I doubt that there is any one hypothesis that will include all that is real about the constantly changing situations and conditions.  I doubt that there is only one (or ten) action(s) that will achieve the best results.  Ergo-

Q: What should Scientists do?, What should Politicians do?, What should the Media do?, What should People do?
A: Whatever they are inclinded to do.  Chaos is best when Chaos rules.

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By DS432
on January 19th, 2011

Hypothesis #5: The public understands climate science and has rejected the alarmism and the most often touted solution (cut CO2 emmissions), since that is the most expensive way to deal with the problem if it ever actually turns into a problem.

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By NRollison (stafford, virginia, 22554)
on January 19th, 2011

Keep it simple, keep it economic. 1. Make economic impacts of climate change relevant in layman’s language.  Ex: a) how much taxpayer dollars required to build new water resevoirs in the southwest? b) what are county governments spending to respond to deluge events in the East and how much taxpayer money needed to build new culvert infrastructure to handle 100-year flood events several times a year? c) what did localized deluge events cost local communities last year in terms of emergency response, property loss, etc.  d) how much taxpayer dollars was used to relocate 7? Alaskan villages in the last couple of years, how much taxpayer money will be needed to relocate water treatment plants in major urban cities along the coast and tidal waterways and e) when do we need to start budgeting for that money—soon. f) does it make sense for local governments to have ordinances that allow for tidal river shoreline development when in 10-20 years, many of those homes will have to be relocated at taxapyer expense?  2. Start talking about that approximately 50% of our oxygen comes from temperature-dependent ocean phytoplankton, and about 50% comes from terrestrial (land-based) rainforests, grasslands,etc.  As our oceans become too hot and too acidic, and our forests are lost to urban development, our oxygen and rainfall production goes down. Also, our wild fish and game decline which many people need for protein, jobs and local community revenue generation. (Processing plants, grocery stores, restaurants, outdoor guides and tourism.) 
3) Demostrate w/ examples how shifting into new ways to produce non-polluting energy, transporation, building and revising land use is creating NEW jobs.
4) What is the cost to continue to subsidize oil and gas development including it’s increasing impacts from warming climate—versus making the change to non-rewables, nuclear, etc.
5) Make change easy for people to adopt without having to think about it - people are busy. They may get the problem,  but don’t have time to rally in the streets. Use the untapped investment wealth of Fortune 500 companies and investors to bring down the cost of an electric car, of mass transit, construction shift to low-energy homes and commercial buildlings, easements for conserving land. Get some first-class Public Relations companies to work on spots and programs that show how average people switched habits and are now saving money. Folks in the Northeast are buying nice geo-thermal homes that cost $50.00 a month average to heat and cool, versus $300-$400 in standard home construction. Where’s the incentive for national home builder chains to shift building methods? In a tough economy, people need to understand that the taxpayer costs are starting to mount now, and that unless we start fixing this climate problem now by shifting to new methods of industrial activities (energy, transportation, building efficiency, land use modification - per Princeton University’s ‘wedge’ approach), we will continue to lose jobs and see taxpayer costs mount as we respond to the increasing costs of climate change without doing anything to slow, stop and reverse it. Show people how life can go on actually improved if we modify our practices versus doing nothing.

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By Keith Rice
on January 19th, 2011

We have been “Chicken Littled” enough times already. But take heart, the young are falling for it (just as we did when we were young). The ozone layer didn’t collapse, the apocalyptic visions of Ehrlich and Toffler turned out to be fiction, and the nuclear holocaust was a dud. Yet the doomsayers continue to amp up their scare tactics.

It’s already been established that immediately implementing all the corrections recommended by Kyoto wouldn’t make a significant difference, so I’m going to reduce my footprint even though it won’t have any impact? You can if you want.

I bought the global warming/ climate change bit for awhile until I started seeing intentional manipulation. The krill in the North Sea aren’t going to all die off and leave the whales without food.  If the sea starts to get warmer, they will migrate to a cooler area and the whales will follow. Yet, I suppose this pitch was intended to capitalize on the established “protect the whales” market. Early reports of coastal flooding implied that millions of lives were at stake ... then you find that the oceans are predicted to rise by an inch a year and it’s only property at stake. Besides, the Dutch have developed technologies for reclaiming land, new industry in the world is a good thing.

So what about solutions? I’ve read that peridotite rock can be treated to absorb millions of times its weight in carbon, we can already sequester as much atmospheric carbon as we like. This solution would put the entire climate change industry out of business ... and that would be a Leftist political disaster, so it’s not going to happen.

So, if you are a thinking man you start to feel like you’re being fed half-truths and downright obfuscation, you look at the skeptics. These guys here say that there’s no data on solar impact on climate, though we do know the sun goes through its own cycles, these other guys say that the carbon/temperature data has been intentionally reversed to imply that temperature increases follow carbon increases while the opposite is true.

No, you don’t have to be a tool of industry to be serious global warming/ climate change skeptic, you only have to be interested in the truth. When you overcome the argument that only capitalistic tools can be biased, you can see the wealth, power, and influence that can bias bad science to support the theories.

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By Stephen Burleson (Camden/ME/04843)
on January 19th, 2011

I don’t think anybody disputes climate change. As other commenters have pointed out, practically everybody is aware there have been warming periods and cooling periods throughout Earth’s history.

What I remain skeptical about is the human fingerprint on climate change. Could the scientific community please simply rank order for me the factors in climate change (solar activity, volcanic activity, deforestation, pollution, and so on)? And if human activity is a significant factor, why aren’t scientists advocating for global population control which is the major driver behind all human impacts?

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By Fred Johnson
on January 19th, 2011

Kieth,  a couple of your points explain why we should be working so hard to change our ways and take action to reduce possible climate change:

You say:  “ozone layer didn’t collapse   -  of course, that is because we now do not use CFS’s.

You say: “immediately implementing all the corrections recommended by Kyoto wouldn’t make a significant difference” - which is also correct, but it has taken a few years to get where we are at now.  Denying what is happening doesn’t make it go away.

You say: “you find that the oceans are predicted to rise by an inch a year and it’s only property at stake ” and “the Dutch have developed technologies for reclaiming land” - which are both true, but you are talking about the developed world, where we have money to mitigate these problems.  We are in a bit of a boiled frog syndrome here, one day the water level is going to flood out Bangladesh, what are we going to do with 100 million people who need to move somewhere.  Are you going to take them in your neighborhood.  I doubt it.  Maybe they will overrun China or India, both Nuclear powers, is that a good thing?

You say, “peridotite rock can be treated to absorb millions of times its weight in carbon” - are you interested in them drilling and fracking in your backyard.  That is what it takes to get the CO2 to the peridotite , which is basically found all over the earth in the crust.  The problem is, we don’t have massive CO2 injection systems in place and the research into doing this is a ways out.

You say “you’re being fed half-truths and downright obfuscation” - which is true, but it is you the denier that is eating the half truths of the oil industry.  All of the points you make about the sun cycles, etc. have been debunked in multiple places, just do some research.

Really, every point you make is what the oil industry wants.  You are eating out of their hands.  They are making record after record profit, but at who’s expense?  They don’t pay taxes, you do.  They don’t support the US economy, they support that of Saudi Arabia.  Is that really who we want to listen to as experts?  I think a balanced approach is necessary, but completely dismissing climate change out of hand is a very bad idea.

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By EcoCat87
on January 19th, 2011

I think you’ve missed the most obvious reason. Denial.

My brother is a PhD physicist… graduated top of his class from UC Berkely… has worked in the defense field for over 20 years. He doesn’t even believe that the earth is warming let alone the anthropogenic part. I show him the data, over and over, but he “doesn’t see” any evidence of warming.

If he, who is a scientist, clearly capable of understanding both scientific methods and communications, can’t (or won’t) see the problem, what hope do we have of convincing the lay public?

It’s sort of like the obesity epidemic. I mean, people know why they’re fat, it’s not a mystery. And people know what they need to do to correct the problem. They also “know” how much they put their lives in danger by not addressing their weight. Yet every year the obesity rates go up because people choose to deny what is obviously right in front of their faces. Seriously, if we can’t ge people to make some relatively simple lifestyle changes in order to save their own lives, do you really expect them to undertake a massive societal overhaul for the sake of future generations?

I think the sad fact is that human civilization is in its twilight, and quite possibly human existence as well.

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By harbinger
on January 20th, 2011

“the disconnect: among the thousands of scientists who study climate change, there is little criticism of the evidence of warming and its human fingerprint, yet among the public, the science is viewed as contentious, confusing, and up for grabs.”

The disconnect is your statement and that Naomi Oreskes is a credible author. The science is not just viewed as contentious, it IS contentious and scientists heavily involved in the process have been shown to have manipulated data and control the peer review process. What you are saying is we need better propaganda.

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By melty (West Orange, NJ)
on January 20th, 2011

Is it just me, or are BLOGS a big part of the problem?  Harry from Enfield has this opinion about climate scientists that he’s just dying to get off his chest (yeah, yeah, that’s right, heard it from some bloke in the pub who read it on a blog).  Everyone’s an expert: Harry has a MSc in bull** and a PhD in whining.  We (and by we I mean the media) have failed to teach our publics how to discern what is valid—even our newspapers have blog columns: why???  There is no authoritative source, just the noise of a billion bloggers shouting at each other.  This is why science is so important and so different: it provides an (almost completely) objective way to understand the world. The failure here is on the communication and the cultural ends.

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By sentient (laguna Niguel/CA/92677)
on January 22nd, 2011

You know, for a sentient person, “packaging” your communications better, going all emotional about predictions, hiring Madison Avenue marketers or doing all manner of psychological analysis to retool your messages can indeed have a profound effect on the weak minded. 

So I think I will try my hand at it.  I will call this retooling “The Whipsaw”.  Want to take this ride?  It’s a mind bender..

Because it is far, far worse than any of you may have heard.  Yet it might actually be better than many of you know. 

This week an Argentinian NGO put forth a study claiming that temps would skyrocket 2.4C by 2020.  Soon therafter Gavin Schmidt of NASA-GISS and RealClimate fame said “(which is 1.4C in the next 10 years ”“ something like six to seven times the projected rate of warming) has no basis in fact.”  The AAAS had posted the NGO’s study but pulled it soon after warmist climate scientists stated that warming at such a rate over the next decade was impossible. 

But was there, in fact, no basis in fact?  Could climate change as much as 1.4C or even 2.4C in a decade?  Between this interglacial, the Holocene, and the last one back, the Eemian, in other words during the Wisconsin ice age, temperatures spiked 24 times.  They are known as Dansgaard-Oeschger (DO) oscillations, and resulted in an average rise of from 8-10C, and can score as much as 16C (DO-19) in from a few years to about a decade.  The nominal difference between earth’s cold and warm states is about 20C.  So, not impossible at all.  In fact, quite natural. 

Feeling “Whipsawed” yet?  No?  OK.

Those 24 D-O events occurred in 3 classes, A, B and C, the A classes spiked fast, but in a century or two (or less) dropped rapidly back to the cold glacial state.  They were not associated with CO2 excursions either way.  But the B and C cycles were!  They too spiked, just as fast as the A’s, CO2 seeming to slow the drop back to the glacial state but never associated with the abrupt warmings..  This “Whipsaw” will haunt us later.

So, “when” in the world are we?  Once again, humankind finds themselves on the precipice of a tipping point, in fact, perhaps a few.  And it is indeed worse than you thought.  The Eemian whipsawed awesomely in its death throes, with two thermal spikes right at the end!  The second one corresponds with a +6 meter sea level rise in well less than a century, some scientists say it might have been more like +20 meters!  And, unless nature has gone all kaflooey, we might be there once again.  The Holocene is ~11,500 years old, 5 of the last 6 interglacials have each lasted about half a precession cycle which varies from 19-23kyrs, and we are at the 23kyr part now, which makes 11,500 years half. 

Ready for the sucker punch?  As far back as we can see CO2 has never once been the agent provocateur of such temperature spikes as occurred at the end Eemian nor a single one of the 24 DO events.  Naturally, it seems to function as more of a “climate security blanket” if you will, ameliorating the drops back to the cold glacial state.  So could it possibly be that here, at the end Holocene, in perhaps a signature event of blind hominid luck, we stumbled on the correct atmospheric recipe to ameliorate the drop into the next eventual ice age?

How’s that for “packaging” Nicole?

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By George Ismael (Rosamond, California 93560)
on January 22nd, 2011

It is possible to be a good scientist while having a deep emotional involvement in the aspect of Nature being studied, but it isn’t easy, and it makes the scientific findings suspect. Those committed to “protecting” the environment and protecting species from the “predations” of mankind should not expect their research to be taken any more seriously than an Oil company Geologist’s

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By Adrian Smits (edmonton alberta t6j4s4)
on January 22nd, 2011

When one scientist says the last decade was the war-mist in 1000 years and another scientist says there has been no discernible warming for twelve years and there both right is there little wonder at why the general public are starting to question the whole AGW mess especially now that the return of colder winters from decades long past are giving people a back ache from shoveling all this global warming out of our driveways?

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By Frederick Michael (Hilton Head, SC 29909)
on January 23rd, 2011

The “problem” is that the case for catastrophic global warming has not been properly made.  Like many skeptics, I believe the earth is warming and I believe that anthropogenic CO2 emissions have contributed significantly to this.  This is what 97% of scientists believe.

But that is an incomplete case for action.  You need the next step—that this is a problem that needs fixing.  This is where the scientific community has done an absolutely dreadful job.  They constantly harp that 97% of scientists agree ...  blah, blah and miss that they haven’t proven that it’s a problem.

And don’t just cite categories of possible problems; do a quantitative analysis. The past quantitative analyses have fallen on their faces.

For example, one of the key early papers on catastrophic global warming is “Greenhouse Effect, Sea Level Rise, and Coastal Zone Management” by James G. Titus (1986, Coastal Zone Management Journal, Volume 14, Number 3—pp 147-171).  This paper cites a 2-5 feet rise in sea level over the next century and presents the impact that will have on coastal zones.  It is an excellent paper.

But it’s now been a quarter of a century since it was published and sea level has risen a couple of inches.  Furthermore, the rise in sea level shows no signs of accelerating. See, for example, the data here:

The same goes for the rise in temperature. It keeps rising—linearly. The catastrophic scenarios require the rise to ACCELERATE.  If 2011 was merely the warmest year in modern times, this only demonstrates that global warming hasn’t CEASED.  That’s a long, long way from supporting the catastrophic scenarios.  Why would anyone think this somehow “settles” the argument.

Quit assuming that everyone who disagrees with you is an idiot and plug the logical holes in your case!

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By richard pauli (Seattle)
on January 23rd, 2011

We are all addicted to delusion. well as cheap carbon energy.

Advertiser-supported mass media feeds and fuels fantasy thinking.  Science has described the situation well.  Things will unfold according to the rules of physics.  Our words mean little.  It does not matter what you believe.

It is now a different time unlike any other time in history.  We can only diagnose, adapt, mitigate and suffer. 

Already we have sustainability problems.  But because of the greenhouse lag time, there is a very big chance that conditions will degenerate to a level unable to support human life.  We know that is possible.  We just do not know when.

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By Richard Hill (moorabbin/Victoria/3193 Australia)
on January 24th, 2011

Perhaps the real issue is that scientists are trying to be engineers. The scientist’s job is to study nature. It is an enngineer’s job to analyse problems and come up with solutions. The engineer uses information provided by the scientist. A proper engineering study analyses the information available, assesses costs, risks and benfits. Has even one engineering study been done of the various climate change problems? Maybe people would like to see something done by a team from Bechtel or the like, rather than recommendations by a passionate, or even a dispassionate, research scientist.

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By Carol (Wellington)
on January 25th, 2011

I don’t normally read these types of articles, but blundered into this one, so thought I should comment as one of those poor members of public who don’t seem to ‘get it’.

I think you forget the fifth reason…  Scaremongering.  Every day the average citizen (people like me) wake up to endless streams of media reports about how we’re going to die from smoking/being too fat/not eating enough vegetables/not eating organic/driving too fast/drinking too much/not drinking enough/ eating too much meat/ not eating enough meat/watching too much TV/holding cellphones too close to our heads…  Well, the list goes on and on and one.  Global warming/cooling/change is just one more alarm bell being held close to my ears and largely I have to tune it all out because my more immediate concerns are paying my mortgage on my now (worthless) home and trying to get to work on time when the bus is always late.

Therefore I care not one jot for climate change as my more immediate future is keeping my job.

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By Nicole Heller (Climate Central)
on February 16th, 2011

I am glad this blog inspired a lot of comments and debate. I wish I could participate more in addressing each and every one. I am sure there are others I should response to - but I just read Richard Hill’s and want to quickly reply. Engineers are massively engaged with climate change. Just one example is the Global Climate and Energy Project at Stanford University. Or look into work at the National Laboratories, the list is endless.  And yes, even Becthel is working on climate change, I know they have funded a lot of university research that relates to climate mitigation and they have been doing so for decades.  I also have to beg to differ that engineers have the exclusive domain of problem solving. Many scientists in diverse fields across both natural and social sciences apply their work to help solve societal problems.  Problem solving is often one of the strongest motivators for being a scientist.

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By Ernie (Atlanta/GA/30303)
on December 8th, 2011

Carol, interesting thought, I’ve never got it this way.  I always thought scientists were some kind of multifunctional superhumans who could do everything:) Seriously it would be great if scientists learned how to work along with engineers in order to increase productivity.

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