Archive for the ‘Media’ Category

Copenhagen climate change conference

December 9, 2009

The following editorial was published on December 8th by 56 newspapers around the world in 20 languages:

‘Fourteen days to seal history’s judgment on this generation’

Well, that’s perhaps putting on a little too much pressure on this one meeting, but it’s clearly going to be very important what the leaders of the world agree on in Copenhagen. The talking and negotiating, and our shared responsibility to deal with this problem, won’t stop after this meeting however.  

Some excerpts, my emphasis in bold:

Unless we combine to take decisive action, climate change will ravage our planet, and with it our prosperity and security. The dangers have been becoming apparent for a generation. Now the facts have started to speak: 11 of the past 14 years have been the warmest on record, the Arctic ice-cap is melting and last year’s inflamed oil and food prices provide a foretaste of future havoc. In scientific journals the question is no longer whether humans are to blame, but how little time we have got left to limit the damage. Yet so far the world’s response has been feeble and half-hearted.

(…)

The science is complex but the (basic) facts are clear. The world needs to take steps to limit temperature rises to 2C, an aim that will require global emissions to peak and begin falling within the next 5-10 years. A bigger rise of 3-4C — the smallest increase we can prudently expect to follow inaction — would parch continents, turning farmland into desert. Half of all species could become extinct, untold millions of people would be displaced, whole nations drowned by the sea. The controversy over emails by British researchers that suggest they tried to suppress inconvenient data has muddied the waters but failed to dent the mass of evidence on which these predictions are based.

(…)

At the deal’s heart must be a settlement between the rich world and the developing world covering how the burden of fighting climate change will be divided — and how we will share a newly precious resource: the trillion or so tonnes of carbon that we can emit before the mercury rises to dangerous levels.

Rich nations like to point to the arithmetic truth that there can be no solution until developing giants such as China take more radical steps than they have so far. But the rich world is responsible for most of the accumulated carbon in the atmosphere – three-quarters of all carbon dioxide emitted since 1850. It must now take a lead, and every developed country must commit to deep cuts which will reduce their emissions within a decade to very substantially less than their 1990 level.

Developing countries can point out they did not cause the bulk of the problem, and also that the poorest regions of the world will be hardest hit. But they will increasingly contribute to warming, and must thus pledge meaningful and quantifiable action of their own. Though both fell short of what some had hoped for, the recent commitments to emissions targets by the world’s biggest polluters, the United States and China, were important steps in the right direction.

(…)

The transformation will be costly, but many times less than the bill for bailing out global finance — and far less costly than the consequences of doing nothing.

(…)

The politicians in Copenhagen have the power to shape history’s judgment on this generation: one that saw a challenge and rose to it, or one so stupid that we saw calamity coming but did nothing to avert it. We implore them to make the right choice.

‘Climategate’ blogstorm

November 24, 2009

Yet another blogstorm, and probably again a tempest in a teapot. Thirteen years worth of emails have been hacked and released on the web, and it includes some dirty laundry that I’m sure people involved would rather not have  seen public. It is not unlikely that this event may have some real repercussions for the public perception of climate science, however unfair it may seem (unfair both in terms of the actual intended meaning of the emails, as in terms of the way they were obtained). “Skeptics” will certainly try to get as much mileage out of this as possible, in order to undermine the science and the political process (e.g. Copenhagen). However, there are also plenty of sane voices commenting on the issue. A sample:

More interesting is what is not contained in the emails. There is no evidence of any worldwide conspiracy, no mention of George Soros nefariously funding climate research, no grand plan to ‘get rid of the MWP’, no admission that global warming is a hoax, no evidence of the falsifying of data, and no ‘marching orders’ from our socialist/communist/vegetarian overlords. (RealClimate; also second post)

Never before has an entire scientific community been accused of dishonesty (…) The real issue is trust (…) After all, government leaders are planning deep changes in the world economy based, essentially, on trust in the scientific community. (…) Attacks on the integrity of climate scientists contribute to a broader suspicion of scientists in general. This suspicion has enormous potential for harm; consider for example the resistance to vaccination. (Spencer Weart’s comment at RealClimate)

Gavin Schmidt (of RealClimate) exhibits the patience of a saint in responding from a scientist’s perspective to the masses of comments. He is doing a tremendous amount of work to repair the damage being done to the perceived credibility of climate science. Respect.

In summary, there are probably some minor lapses in there, but everyone who has read any of the emails is already guilty of something worse and there’s no firm evidence of major crimes. (James’ empty blog)

I have no idea what exactly those words meant. Neither do you. Every single thing in those messages could be misinterpreted because we are missing the context. (…) This episode is not a window into how climate science works. It’s a window into how electronic communication has altered our standards and the way we work. (Maribo)

One of the issues with how the UEA emails are perceived is whether the reader understands the context of the dubious pseudoscience and constant harassment the field faces. If you understand that, the emails are understandable and mostly excusable. If you don’t, if you think that normal science is being stymied, then you come away with a very different impression. (Only in it for the gold)

The frame:
– pointing out that while some (and only a few) of them sound dubious, there’s no actual evidence of anything;
– pointing out that in every case there are also perfectly innocuous interpretations;
– putting these sorts of discussions in context (Greenfyre)

If one puts on some significant ideological glasses, it may look like there’s a lot of shady business going on. (…) Employing the principle of charity to what I’ve seen so far actually leaves me feeling that the e-mails are not so incriminating. (Cruel Mistress)

More damning, but mostly sensible criticisms (note that I do not agree with all the contents):

It’s no use pretending that this isn’t a major blow. (Monbiot)

Even if the hacked emails from HADCRU end up to be much ado about nothing in the context of any actual misfeasance that impacts the climate data records, the damage to the public credibility of climate research is likely to be significant. (Based on an unfortunate and unsubstantiated generalization of a few privately sent emails pulled out of context, I would add – Bart) (Judith Curry at ClimateAudit)

Humour:

The conspiracy behind the calculus myth has been suddenly, brutally and quite deliciously exposed after volumes of Newton’s private correspondence were compiled and published. (CarbonFixated)

I’ll post my own take on it later.

Update:

It reflects badly on the people who are so desperate to discredit global warming that they will unhesitatingly seize on a figure of speech, take it out of context, blow it all out of proportion and use it for their own predetermined purpose. Now that’s real dishonesty! (Tom Crowley interviewd by Andrew Friedman)

In the same interview, Crowley also gives an insider perspective on how thorough the IPCC report are vetted:

I cannot recall ANY scientific document, of any nature, that has EVER received that kind of vetting.

Update 2:

James Hansen was briefly interviewed about the issues on newsweek. I think his replies are spot on:

Do the hacked e-mails undermine the case for anthropogenic climate change?
No, they have no effect on the science. The evidence for human-made climate change is overwhelming.

Do the e-mails indicate any unethical efforts (…)?
They indicate poor judgment in specific cases. (…)

Catch 22

March 12, 2009

 

What is the best language to use for a scientist to engage in public communication of climate change? I don’t mean English or French (or Dutch), but rather the tone, the style, the color.

 

There is catch 22 there: The typical scientific language is laden with qualifiers that are meant to convey that there is –and always will be- uncertainty. Nothing is ever certain in science, at least not without a lot of if’s and but’s. In the real world, that language is easily misunderstood as ‘the scientists don’t know yet’. To make the message understood by a lay audience, scientists have to adapt their language. But clearly, dropping all qualifiers or overstating the case is not conducive to public understanding either. So what is a scientist supposed to do? We’re damned if we do, and damned if we don’t use scientific lingo, it seems. In the end, each tries to find their own balance between the two extremes, and inevitably, they’ll be attacked by people of one stripe or the other.

 

Unfortunately, most scientists are very bad at talking about their scientific field in plain, understandable language. Call it professional deformation (discussed in a different context in a previous post). Even more unfortunate is that the few who are good at conveying some scientific understanding to a lay audience are frequently punished for doing so: Their scientific peers call upon them for slight inaccuracies, and people who dislike the implications will try to portray them as lunatic extremists.

 

Al Gore may be a case in point. Though he is not a scientist, he clearly has a good understanding of climate science. If his slide show were a presentation for a scientific conference, I would have some quibbles over details and the lack of qualifiers. As it is, a presentation meant to convey the big picture of climate change to the lay public, he does a remarkably good job. Better than most scientists would have done, exactly because he is not hindered by years of using science-lingo. Many criticisms of “an inconvenient truth” suffer heavily from not seeing the forest for the trees: Pointing out a small issue in his slideshow doesn’t invalidate everything we know about climate change.

 

Another good example is Michael Tobis (a climate scientist). He is a great writer and runs an excellent blog. He was grossly mis-characterized after using some pretty harsh words to describe his dislike at Andy Revkin comparing Al Gore’s slight mishaps with a column by George Will that was plain wrong from beginning to end. That was a typical example of journalistic balance as global warming bias, a practice which has done a lot to hamper the public’s understanding of climate science. See the ‘whole’ story, including several links, here.

 

Tobis actually gives some good pointers for successful communication here: Try to avoid the appearance of arrogance and impatience in public forums by writing to the reader, not the correspondent.

 

Nisbet and Mooney suggest using different frames to present science to the public. Frames that resonate, rather than highly technical explanations. Certain interest groups have successfully framed the public discussion in terms of uncertainty, whereas I think framing it in terms of risk is much more apt. A medical diagnosis is hardly ever 100% certain. Does that stop you from taking action to remedy the condition? Of course not! Because it’s a matter of risk.

 

I think many scientists entering the public debate are frustrated about the big discrepancy between the public’s perception of climate change and the scientists’ perception thereof. When faced with deliberate distortions of the facts so often, it’s a challenge to keep your cool. It’s a challenge to not get defensive when science is under attack. But it’s nevertheless needed, because as Tobis remarks, many ‘innocent bystanders’ are listening in on how we respond to these distortions, without being aware of how skewed the public discussion is.

Who to believe?

February 8, 2009

 

Amidst all the different information about climate change, how is a layperson going to know who is right? There are a few clues one could follow, that don’t require any specialized knowledge.

 

-          Seeing the forest for the trees. Nitpicking on small details, and then claiming or insinuating that this challenges the foundation of a whole scientific field. Over-interpreting the significance of a specific finding. This is by far the most prevalent style of argument that one has to watch out for. It usually goes something like “This particular study proves that global warming isn’t due to greenhouse gases”. People tend to forget that observing a bird in the sky doesn’t disprove gravity.

-     Consensus matters. If you get a second opinion on your health condition, and it confirms what your specialist said in the first place, your trust in the diagnosis probably increases. Now imagine that you collect the interpretations of medical professionals all over the world, and by and large they their conclusions converge to the same broad picture. This happens to be how the IPCC comes to its conclusions. If the professionals do their work seriously, than the existence of a consensus amongst them is absolutely relevant (though of course it is not absolute proof). The only way in which you can ignore a consensus as being irrelevant, is if you can somehow show that the professionals are all lying or incompetent. (See the next clue for what that brings you into.) Oreskes has an excellent presentation on this.

-          Beware of conspiracy theories. The consensus wouldn’t matter if somehow all those scientists had bought into the same conspiracy of wanting to take away your SUV. (Don’t laugh, there are many people who seem to think this way.)

-          Timescales. Climate is defined as the average weather over 30 years. (Year-to-year variability usually averages out over 30 years). Weather and climate are very frequently confused in the popular debate.

-          Spatial scales. Combined with the previous one, an example would be: “It was a very cold winter in the US this year (so global warming is a farce)”. This is also used the other way around: “It was a very warm winter in the US this year (so global warming is getting worse)”. Both are equally silly conclusions.

-          Logic. Some of the most heard ‘skeptical’ arguments don’t stand up to basic logic, and no knowledge of climate is needed to see that. Example: “Climate has always changed, so it is not caused by humans.” It wasn’t in the past, but that’s no evidence that it isn’t now. Try that line of argument in a court of law against a pyromaniac, by saying that forest fires have always happened naturally; it won’t fly.

-          Confusion of cause and effect. A consensus emerged as a result of the strength of the accumulated evidence, not the other way around. Activists may try to persuade you to trade in your SUV for a Prius because they’re worried about climate change; not the other way around. A tricky one is temperature and CO2: They influence each other both ways. (see also here

-          Think in terms of likelihood. How likely is the previous proposition of a mass conspiracy amongst stubborn scientists? How likely is it that scientists have for decades overlooked this little finding that supposedly shakes the foundations of a relatively well established science?

-          Think in terms of risk. What if we take measures against global warming and it turns out less bad than expected? What if we don’t take measures against global warming and it turns out worse than expected? (False positive and false negative, respectively. See also this comment at RealClimate) 

-          Check for consistency. If someone sais (rightfully) that one particular event (e.g. Kathrina) is not proof of man-made climate change, but then claims that the current cold winter is proof against, you should raise your eyebrows.

-          Expertise. In gauging the credibility of a source, their expertise is important to consider. When it concerns your health, you usually trust a doctor’s opinion more than that of a software engineer. It is not unreasonable to trust a climate scientist more than a doctor when it concerns climate. Of course this is not proof, but there is a difference in likelihood of them knowing what they’re talking about.

-          Motive. The credibility of a source also depends on their motives, both on economic and ideological grounds, for telling you a certain side of the story. What vested interests, if any, are there to the different sides of the story? In a worldview where government interference is deeply hated, could it be tempting to distort evidence that could possibly lead to calls for government action? In a worldview where societal problems are preferably tackled by government, does it make any sense to make up a phony problem to call for government action? I don’t know anyone who wants government action on a phony problem just for the sake of it. Don’t underestimate the power of ideology, but always include a sanity check. See also here and here.

 

This list is not exhaustive, so if you have other pointers to add to make sense of the public debate on climate change, please share them in a comment. Similar issues of weeding through sources have been discussed in a number of thoughtful posts here, e.g. this one on cherry picking. Other good discussions here, here and here.

 

Ideally, you would critically assess the evidence for each position to form a well founded opinion on anthropogenic global warming (AGW). In the absence of time to do so, you need to take some shortcuts to assess the flood of information about the topic. None of the clues discussed here constitute proof for or against AGW, but applying multiple clues simultaneously to gauge the credibility of a source can be helpful to ‘distinguish the chaff from the grain’ (het kaf van het koren te scheiden, as we say in Dutch).

 

“Delta-dictator”

October 22, 2008

(Nederlandse versie hier)

 

Update to the previous post on the Dutch Deltacommission being accused of exaggeration:

 

Via a Dutch newsreport the term “Delta dictator” has been widely circulated, but the source of the term was unclear to me until now. It appears to come from a report (in Dutch only) written by a consultancy firm, which provides an overview of opinions that arose during workshops held with stakeholders. As such, the contents don’t necessarily reflect the opinions of the Deltacommission, as is indeed mentioned in the foreword. 

 

The much discussed term was apparently brought up during a stakeholder meeting with young professionals, in the context of effective action in case of emergencies. I don’t find the term appropriate at all, but the importance of decisive acting when disaster strikes, and preparing for that with organizational measures, is evident.

 

Elsewhere in the report it is mentioned that charismatic persons can help in creating support for measures.

 

Compare this with the RTL newsflash, which said (my translation): “The communication advice to the commission suggests that a charismatic leader, a so called ‘Delta dictator’, should quickly put the plans in motion.” This is a misrepresentation of what was said at a round table meeting and then calling it “communication advice”. Hmm. 

 

Scientific debate and the media

May 21, 2008

(Voor Nederlandse versie klik hier)

Scientific conferences and journals provide the stage where scientific debate among scientists is generally held (i.e. not the newspaper or the television or the internet). The proportion of so-called “skeptical” arguments in the scientific venues is very tiny compared to the overwhelming majority of arguments broadly in line with the consensus view that human activity is altering the climate. Don’t scientists debate anything in the field of climate science anymore then? Of course they do. But those debates generally cover very specific topics, the outcome of which will not dramatically change the consensus view, if at all (see e.g. this realclimate post). Any new finding still has to obey the laws of physics, and has to be consistent with the massive body of observations and evidence already available. Observing a bird in the air doesn’t disprove gravity. The statement that “the debate is over” refers to the “debate” whether current climate change is predominantly due to human activity and whether it poses a problem that needs addressing. That “debate” is over indeed, at least in the scientific arena. There are plenty of interesting tidbits left to debate, but they will not likely change the big picture.

Role of the media

The popular media often paint a false picture of the scientific debate by giving the tiny minority viewpoints equal footing as the consensus viewpoints. That’s like discussing creationism as being a scientific theory of equal merit as evolution. Or to have someone make the case that smoking is not bad for your health at all, when smoking laws are being discussed. Perhaps it feels fair to provide those minority viewpoints with an equal sized platform to communicate their viewpoints, but it gives a false picture of the current scientific thinking on the subject. In doing so, the media do a disservice to their audience. And in some cases they even endanger their audience, as in the example about smoking, and also in the case of climate change. “Teaching the controversy” only makes sense when there really is a scientific controversy. Creating a controversy outside of the science arena and then presenting it as a scientific controversy is deceptive. See for a nice review of this “false objectivity of balance” Stephen Schneider’s website.

 

Public debate

There are numerous debates and panel discussions organized everywhere about real and apparent controversies. For example, debates between believers in creationism and defenders of the scientific theory of evolution have been common. Debates about climate change also abound. How useful are these debates? They often result in the audience being confused: Many of them have no clue as to who was right or wrong. Many of them will leave the debate with the impression that the science is not settled at all (or they will confuse pseudo-science and real science). This consequence of the debate is often very useful for the defenders of the (scientific) minority view: Uncertainty and doubt about the scientific consensus provides the minority view with more traction.

 

Doubt

If the objective of certain “skeptics” is to delay serious mitigation (emission reduction) measures, sowing doubt about the reality of anthropogenic climate change is a very effective strategy. Public debates and so-called “balanced” reporting in the media serve this purpose very well. They have successfully framed the public debate in concepts such as proof and uncertainty. Whereas for a policy basis, the concept of risk is much more useful. For a long time the tobacco industry successfully delayed actions against smoking with the claim that adverse health effects were not proven. That statement may or may not still be true, dependent on your criteria as to what constitutes proof. But the reasoning lost its effect when people started to realize that the probability of there not being any effect was becoming very small with all the information available, and that the health risks were very substantial indeed. We need a similar realization about climate change. Absolute certainty is not required as a basis for action; rational risk assessment is.


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