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Climate Change, Confidence Tricks, and Conflict

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On September 21st, Australia’s only national newspaper, The Australian, published an article by Professor Judith Curry, Chair and Professor in the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Georgia Institute of Technology’  Her topic?  The soon-to-be released 5th Assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.  Her title?  Consensus Distorts the Climate Picture!  Now, why was this article published?  Dr. Curry was not visiting Australia.  If her views were of global importance, would she not have approached a newspaper closer to home, such as The New York Times or Washington Post?  Welcome to the denialist campaign to sow confusion in advance of the release of the IPCC report.

Dr. Curry, one of a small band of climate skeptics who pretend somewhat more far-reaching expertise than they actually possess, views the IPCC process as flawed, and the latest assessment as seriously at odds with earlier reports.  In her view there is sufficient uncertainty in the IPCC’s science that we cannot conclude that the science is settled.  In other words, the jury is still out on the reality of climate change, so we certainly should not be undertaking expensive changes to our energy economy and phase out use of fossil fuels until we know more.  And for those who may not know, The Australian, a generally respected broadsheet, is the flagship of Rupert Murdock’s empire, and a paper that has been documented to carry about 10 times as many articles denying climate change as it does articles supporting the consensus view.

Judith Curry climate-heretic_1

Dr. Judith Curry: peace-maker, or someone who has crossed over to the dark side?  Photo © Scientific American

The IPCC will formally release the first of several documents comprising its 5th assessment of global climate change this Friday, 27th September 2013.  Documents have already leaked (I saw a draft of the report from Working Group I back in December – its final version will be released this Friday).  And the climate denial community has been busy.  Already, the media are being filled with seemingly authoritative evaluations of the 5th assessment, evaluations that point to ‘flaws’ in the science, and ‘problems’ in the way in which IPCC functions.  All designed to sow doubt in the minds of anyone whose mind is still open to persuasion.  With Australia’s recent election and shift of government from climate-positive Labor to the Liberals, and a climate change denying Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, that nation is a prime location for a push to raise skepticism, doubt and confusion, hopefully to eliminate their carbon tax and bring Australia back into line with other denialist countries such as Canada.  But the deluge of denialist articles and blog posts over the last couple of weeks reaches far beyond Australia.  A reader of the print or on-line media in any western nation would find it hard to avoid this massive effort, and without the knowledge of how to judge accuracy of interpretations of complex science, most readers would be left confused and perhaps more skeptical than they were before.

Or maybe not.  Because the existence of the climate denial agenda, even if not a conspiracy, has now been well reported and many people know about the large amounts of money that support a global effort to spread doubt and confusion about this subject.

Dealing in Doubt

Dealing in Doubt: a detailed exposé of the global denialist effort.

Climate denial is a multi-million dollar, global industry fueled by those who least want to see any changes to the status quo.  Greenpeace USA just released an updated and expanded report on this industry; a report which should be read by anyone who still believes there remain significant differences of opinion within the scientific community concerning either the reality of climate change or the evidence that this change is primarily due to human activities.  The Greenpeace report, Dealing in Doubt: The Climate Denial Industry and Climate Science, is mammoth, detailed, and well-referenced.  A Greenpeace product, it is not subtle, nor given to efforts to see alternative explanations for the patterns and relationships it describes, but it pins down the details of who, what, where, when and why very convincingly.  The vast conspiracy it describes may well be merely the friendly interactions of people with shared perspectives and motivations rather than an organized mafia, but it still functions effectively to achieve their common goal – to sow doubt in the minds of the public and of governments regarding climate change.  The Union of Concerned Scientists published a similar description of this campaign in 2012.

Climate denial has borrowed extensively from the very successful campaign over many years by the tobacco industry to disparage the science and delay regulatory changes that reduced the sale and use of tobacco products in western countries.  While reason and science did eventually win the argument over the links between tobacco and health, that victory came many decades after it should have done – decades in which the tobacco industry was able to continue to make substantial profits at the expense of public health.  The battle continues in many other parts of the world.  The tobacco lobby realized early that all they had to do to stay in business, given that smokers generally liked their addiction, was to obfuscate, confuse, and occasionally misrepresent the science.  Sow enough doubt and legislative or regulatory change becomes quite difficult.

As Dealing in Doubt reports, the climate denial campaign has sought to do the same thing – sow doubt about the science that suggests human activities are changing our climate in dangerous ways.  Funding for climate denial traces back to the fossil fuel industry and to major investors in that industry; investors who risk substantial changes to their personal economic well-being if governments act aggressively to move away from fossil fuels to power our economy.  The Greenpeace report lays it all out, identifying the players – Exxon-Mobil, Koch Brothers, Heartland Institute, and so on – showing the amounts of money, and where it all went, discussing the ‘scientists’ who contribute to the denialist cause, their credentials and expertise, and the sums of money they have received from the denialist funders.  The organized attacks on the reputations and research of leading climate scientists, and the clever strategies adopted to get around the fact that there is essentially no science supporting their claims that is published in the peer-reviewed technical press are also discussed in detail.  A lot of the information is old news if one has been following the climate arguments over the past few years, but a read-through of the 66 page report is an excellent refresher, and the report is a quick course in climate denial (sort of a Climate Denial 101) for those who want to learn, but for whatever reason do not already know the story behind “Climategate”, the “Heartland Institute”, the “hockey stick” or any of numerous other battles in this time-consuming battle for hearts and minds.  The links to US politics, to financial support of climate-denying Senators and Congressmen, and to the Tea Party are also well laid out and fascinating to those who follow, and wonder about US ‘democracy’.

Dealing in Doubt is filled with engaging caricatures of the main personalities in the denialist camp, and, in this age when one can re-invent or simply invent oneself on-line, I particularly enjoyed the short table listing for each personality, the claimed and the actual credentials.  If we assume, for one moment, that the majority of people still believe that science is a discipline, a way of study, that permits a rational understanding of the world (I know it may be only a slim majority of people who still believe this), the near total lack of relevant scientific expertise among the spokespeople for climate denial surely carries some weight.  If the overwhelming majority of scientists accept the reality of human-caused climate change, and a tiny group with little in the way of scientific credentials disagree, surely we should be able to move forward leaving them to deny, and deny and deny, silently to themselves?  But no.  Because the money is piled up to support the few politicians who have been convinced to dispute climate change.

I am disappointed that Dealing in Doubt does not mention Professor Curry, however it only lists the 25 ‘scientists’ world-wide which it identifies as the leaders in this global campaign.  In fact, it notes the long-term strategy by denialist bodies such as the American Petroleum Institute or the American Enterprise Institute to recruit scientists that did not already have profiles as climate deniers to be ‘fresh faces’ in the campaigns to cast doubt.  Judith Curry first gained notice in 2005 for an article in Science in which she argued that climate change could lead to more intense hurricanes (winds and weather are the core of her science expertise).  She was criticized by denialists for that article, but in subsequent years has joined them, emphasizing the lack of certainty about future climate (no scientist ever expects certainty when estimating what the future will be like), and moving from lack of certainty to an emphasis on uncertainty, then taking the simple jump to arguments about the science being too complex to really know anything with any certainty at all.  Cast doubt, create confusion, just what the climate deniers want to do.  I anticipate we will see lots of doubt being cast over the next few weeks, in the press, on blogs, and occasionally in the scientific literature in opinion pieces not subjected to peer review.  However, in the peer-reviewed and credible scientific literature, an overwhelming consensus now exists that something very serious is happening to our climate, because of our use of fossil fuels.

And in that scientific literature, the effects of climate change continue to broaden.  That warming leads to other climatic changes was recognized early on.  That these changes would have environmental impacts came soon after.  That these changes in turn will have ramifying effects on society has been even slower to come.  On September 13th, Science published the latest such account.

Solomon Hsiang, Marshall Burke and Edward Miguel of U.C. Berkeley report the results of their study of what they refer to as “the 60 most rigorous studies” in the fields of archaeology, criminology, economics, geography, history, political science, and psychology that deal with effects of climate change on human conflict.  Their assessment: There is “strong causal evidence linking climatic events to human conflict across a range of spatial and temporal scales and across all major regions of the world. The magnitude of climate’s influence is substantial: for each one standard deviation (1s) change in climate toward warmer temperatures or more extreme rainfall, median estimates indicate that the frequency of interpersonal violence rises 4% and the frequency of intergroup conflict rises 14%”.

They adopted a broad definition of ‘conflict’ including inter-individual violence, intra- and inter-group hostility, political instability and civil war, but they used a rigorous screening process to include only studies where it would be possible to demonstrate causality of climate changes on behavior rather than simple correlation.  The 60 studies examined ranged over periods spanning from 10,000 years ago to the present, with a preponderance in the time since 1950, and covering all regions of the world.  Forty-six of the 60 studies included observations after 1950, although some extended back earlier than this; 14 studies were for times up to, or well before 1950.

Their Figure 2 showed results for 12 of the recent studies (I’ve split it in half so the separate graphs can be read, so panels A, B, E, F, I, and J precede panels C, D, G, H, K, and L).  Each is what the authors call a nonparametric watercolor regression showing the relationship between some measure of conflict and a particular climatic measurement.  (The way to read each graph is to recognize that there is greater certainty concerning the relationship when color is more intense and when the breadth of the band of color is most narrow.)  Each is based on a longitudinal study in which a single population was observed several times (at least twice) over a period of time when climate was changing.  Cross-sectional studies, which sample a number of different populations living under different climates were not included.  Among the modern studies examined (including those in Figure 2), the populations considered are usually for single countries or regions, but sometimes global.  The studies of more distant past periods looked at the association of climate change with such major events as the collapse of the Maya civilization or the Ankor kingdom, the collapse of many Chinese dynasties, the cessation of Tiwanaku cultivation at Lake Titicaca, the collapse of the Akkadian culture of Mesopotamia, and many events in the ancient history of Europe.  I find it fascinating that they have found what appear to be causal relationships between change in climate and so many different measures of conflict.

Hsiang Fig 2 a

Hsiang Fig 2b

Figure 2 from Hsiang et al 2013, depicting the analyses of 12 representative studies from recent times of the effects of certain types of climate change on particular measures of inter-individual or inter-group conflict.  (White lines trace the best estimate of the relationship, while intensity of color and narrowness of spread of the color band denote the degree of confidence in the relationship depicted.  In all 12 graphs, there are strong upward trends for which there is considerable statistical certainty.)  Images © Hsiang et al, Science 2013.

Their conclusion is surprisingly explicit: a single standard deviation change in the right direction in a climate measure such as mean temperature leads to a 4% increase in interpersonal conflict and a 14% increase in inter-group conflict.  Of course, when one factors in the impact of population growth on levels of conflict, our future looks even more bleak.  And, just to make sure that we do not become complacent, assuming that a shift of one standard deviation from the pre-existing conditions will be a rare event in the near future, Hsiang and colleagues include a lovely warm reddish map of the world as their Figure 6.  It depicts the extent of the increase in annual mean temperature under a business-as-usual pattern of fossil fuel use in terms of standard deviations from the current means.  There are precious few places on the map with less than two standard deviations of increase, and these are primarily in northern latitudes where climate has substantial seasonal fluctuations, and therefore pronounced inter-annual variation in mean measurements – in other words, places where a standard deviation in mean climate is relatively large.

Hsiang Fig 6

Figure 6 from Hsiang et al, showing the increase from now to 2050 in global mean temperatures plotted as number of standard deviations above today’s climates.  Image © Hsiang et al Science 2013.

Putting this study in context with the issue of climate denial is pretty simple.  While the denialists continue their grim struggle to keep us confused and dithering, the number of effects of climate change keeps increasing.  Not only the climate, but the weather, the environment, the ecosystems, the food supply, and now our own behavior are all likely to be affected.  And we just stand there, confused, dazzled, like a deer in the headlights.


Transfixed, the deer watched its impending doom rush towards it.  Image © Brandextenders

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