The Science and Politics of Global Warming

Global warming is the poster boy for failed science communication. What went wrong?

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Environment, Logic & Persuasion

Skeptoid #309
May 8, 2012
Podcast transcript | Listen | Subscribe
 

Today we're going to open Pandora's box. We're going to point the skeptical eye at AGW, anthropogenic global warming, that part of of climate change due to human actions. There's little dispute that climate change is real and natural; over the millennia, global climate patterns have gradually shifted. There's little dispute about natural global warming; we've been warming up for 150 years since the last lows of the Little Ice Age. But what there's plenty of dispute about — at least within the public if not within the scientific community — is AGW. How much are we humans causing or increasing the warming? What will the effects be of that increase if it exists? What, if anything, should we do about it?

Public understanding of AGW is all messed up, way more so than any other science, even more messed up than creation vs. evolution. The reason is obvious to everyone: It's never really been a science issue in the public's mind; it's a political issue. It's a political hot potato that has everyone on both sides of the aisle fired up and raging with conspiracy theories, fraud charges, end of the world scenarios, scandals and corruption. The result is that almost nobody in the public has a detailed understanding of the real science, yet almost everyone who follows the issue takes a side with great passion, either embracing AGW or dismissing it. What went wrong? How and why did this important science fly off the tracks and fall into the pit of politics?

This happened because AGW was never presented to the public the way science is; it was first presented as a political issue. The 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which made headlines when it went into effect in 2005, was the first time most people in the general public had any idea that global warming was a thing. Kyoto was a United Nations plan to reduce industrial emissions, but only in the wealthiest countries, and not at all in the biggest, poorest, dirtiest countries (China and India). It was deeply flawed scientifically, and effective really only as a slap in the face to the United States. Industrial powers, large on the political right, opposed it; environmental powers, largely on the left, supported it.

The second time the general public heard about global warming was also unscientific. Al Gore's 2006 movie An Inconvenient Truth was the first time that almost everyone had ever heard of global warming, and it was perceived as either gospel or as lies purely because of Al Gore's highly polarized position in the political world. Gore was a great champion of the Kyoto Protocol, and so was already perceived by conservatives more as an enemy of capitalism than as a defender of the environment. Whether anything he said was true or not, enough people went into the theaters predisposed to either embrace whatever he said or to reject whatever he said, that the actual content (even the whole subject itself) made little difference.

And that's exactly what got us where we are. By far the strongest predictor of a person's stance on global warming is his or her political affiliation. AGW is the poster boy of failed science communication. It is the perfect example of people embracing bad science because it agrees or disagrees with an ideology, either political or philosophical or ecological.

Think for a minute what would have happened if global warming had first been publicized by Stephen Hawking. I use Hawking as an example because he's really the only scientist who's known all around the world, and is universally respected and trusted. When Stephen Hawking tells you a science fact, you say "That's good enough for me." I would. And, like you, I haven't the slightest idea what Stephen Hawking's politics are. It's never occured to me and I couldn't care less. Even though he's not at all a climate scientist, he's trusted by John Q. Public on matters of science, unlike Al Gore. If Stephen Hawking had been the one to make a movie about AGW instead of Al Gore, we might have no AGW denial at all in the world.

In this episode, I am not going to try to convince anyone of anything by reading off lists of temperature measurements or CO2 levels, or in fact give any facts and figures at all. Why not? Because that technique is a proven failure. Very few people have come to a conclusion on AGW that's fully independent of their ideology due to careful, impartial study of data. And for those who have, who knows whose interpretation of data they were studying? It's very easy to spin any data to show just about anything you want. A layperson Skeptoid listener has no way to know whether the facts and figures I'd give (or that anyone else might give) are in line with the AGW supporters, or with the AGW opponents. My goal here is to give a layperson the tools to come to an unbiased conclusion that truly is based on the best state of our current knowledge. For those of you on the right, this means setting aside distrust of the left; and for those of you on the left, it means setting aside distrust of the right.

Let me throw a couple of statements at you, one that you're likely to agree with, and one that you're likely to disagree with:

Statement A: Conservatives tend to reject AGW because it conflicts with their political agenda.

Statement B: Liberals tend to embrace AGW because it fits nicely with their political agenda.

Most of you (not all of you) strongly disagree with what I just said about your ideology, and you strongly agree with what what I just said about the opposing ideology. Now about half of you are conservatives and about half of you are liberals, so at least half of you have to be wrong. If you have a truly open mind, you are open to the possibility that your own feelings on AGW are tempered with your ideology. It's probably fair to say that most people's are to some degree; it's perfectly fine to be satisfied when science facts fit nicely into your ideology. It's very difficult, and very rare, for any person's understanding of science to be completely divorced from their emotions or philosophies.

Name an expert you agree with on climate change. Almost nobody will name a real climate scientist; they'll name a communicator or pundit. In fact, name any climate scientist at all. None of them are famous; few of us have ever even heard one speak. Everything you know about climate science has been filtered through somebody else — probably someone you're predisposed to agree with.

So how can a layperson know what's probably right? As I always say on Skeptoid, go to our best scientific consensus and roll with that; you'll be right far more often than you'll be wrong. So this raises the obvious question: What is our best, real, apolitical, unbiased climate science consensus? Well, like it or not, the closest thing we have to that is the IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, established by the United Nations in 1988, a decade before the Kyoto Protocol was conceived and long before Al Gore ever heard of global warming. Now before you react, let's acknowledge some things. The IPCC is imperfect, and always has been. So is the prison system, so is the education system; every institution is a compromise of trying to please everyone. They're imperfect, but they're the best we're able to assemble. The criticisms are perfectly valid. It's not necessary to regard the IPCC as a perfect institution to accept the scientific consensus that it provides.

One facet that characterizes good science is that it evolves as our knowledge improves. In this way, the IPCC has produced four major versions of its assessment reports, and of as this writing is working on its fifth scheduled to be published in 2014. No responsible scientist has ever claimed that our current theories are absolutely correct and no further study is needed. The more work is done, the better our theories explain the observations. The tighter our predictions get. If you put any trust at all in the scientific method or in any branch of science, you know that our latest and best theories are just that. They're never final, they're never complete. It is not a weakness of the IPCC that they release revised assessment reports every few years; it's a strength. The constant publication of climate science articles in the best journals is not consistent with an old hoax, it's consistent with good science being done the way it's supposed to be done.

Is it possible that a synthesis of all the world's climate scientists is wrong about the science they spend their lives studying, and your favorite political commentators are right? Certainly it is. It's probably not very likely, but if it does turn out to be the case, then the synthesis will evolve in the direction that pans out through experimentation and observation, and future IPCC reports will be even closer to the facts.

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Perhaps among the most flagrant mischaracterizations about AGW is that it's a long-debunked hoax or fraud, and that nobody takes it seriously anymore. This perspective reflects a total disconnect from current research. Fortunately, it's very easy to fix. Simply go to IPCC.ch (.ch is the top-level domain for Switzerland), click on the latest Assessment Report, and spend 10 minutes — or even 5 minutes — skimming the Summary for Policymakers. If you want to know the latest of the latest, go to the websites of the world's two leading scientific journals, Science and Nature. Search ScienceMag.org for the term "climate change" or look at Nature's sub-publication, Nature Climate Change. Take these minimal steps to inform yourself before telling anyone that AGW is a long-debunked hoax, or a fraud or a conspiracy. Such a perspective requires a deliberate disdain for current research.

One of George Carlin's most famous bits was titled The Planet Is Fine, in which he notes that no matter what kind of pollution humans produce, it really only affects those beings living there and not the planet itself. "The Earth isn't going anywhere," he says, "we are." Just where are we headed? Well, our best answers (so far) are there for you in black and white, if you're truly interested in knowing what they are.

Brian Dunning

© 2012 Skeptoid Media, Inc. Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Angliss, B. "Serious Errors and Shortcomings Void Climate Letter by 49 Former NASA Employees." Scholars & Rogues. Scholars & Rogues, 25 Apr. 2012. Web. 6 May. 2012. <http://www.scholarsandrogues.com/2012/04/25/errors-shortcomings-void-nasa-climate-letter/>

Borenstein, S. "Skeptic Finds He Now Agrees Global Warming Is Real." Yahoo! News. Associated Press, 31 Oct. 2011. Web. 6 May. 2012. <http://news.yahoo.com/skeptic-finds-now-agrees-global-warming-real-142616605.html>

Brin, D. "The Navy, Russians, Shipping & Insurance Companies... and Climate Change." Contrary Brin: Speculations on Science, Technology & the Future. David Brin, 29 Mar. 2012. Web. 6 May. 2012. <http://davidbrin.blogspot.com/2012/03/navy-russians-shipping-insurance.html>

Douglas, P. "A Message from a Republican Meteorologist on Climate Change: Acknowledging Climate Science Doesn’t Make You A Liberal." Neorenaissance. ShawnOtto.com, 28 Mar. 2012. Web. 6 May. 2012. <http://www.shawnotto.com/neorenaissance/blog20120329.html>

Laden, G. "HeartlandGate: Anti-Science Institute's Insider Reveals Secrets." Greg Laden's Blog. ScienceBlogs LLC, 14 Feb. 2012. Web. 6 May. 2012. <http://scienceblogs.com/gregladen/2012/02/heartlandgate_anti-science_ins.php>

Rosenau, J. "The Drama or the Soap Opera: the Future of Deniergate." Thoughts from Kansas. ScienceBlogs LLC, 21 Feb. 2012. Web. 6 May. 2012. <http://scienceblogs.com/tfk/2012/02/the_drama_or_the_soap_opera_th.php>

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "The Science and Politics of Global Warming." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 8 May 2012. Web. 1 Nov 2014. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4309>

Discuss!

10 most recent comments | Show all 271 comments

Agnostic2013, you keep referring to "appeal to authority" as if that was a bad thing - are you aware that this is a legitimate tool of investigation, not a "logical fallacy"? If you have a question about microbiology, then one would be wise to give weight to the research and conclusions of the world most "authoratative" microbiologists. Unless one is personally extremely well versed in the science (say, having written a dozen peer-reviewd papers on the subject or at least thoroughly read hundreds), for the most part one is going to need to focus on judging which side has the preponderance of authority as the best pragmatic heuristic for making decisions.

Brian says it well - is it possible that the large bulk of the world's climate scientists (as well as nearly all multidisiplinary national acadameies of science, and most of the scientific societies) have if fundamentally wrong and the politicos and relatively few contrarian scientists have it right? Yes. But it's very unlikely.

There is a tendency among many climate contrarians to believe that the mainstream science has already been completely demolished, or is falling apart rapidly. And if it's all hogwash, that's exactly what we'd expect, as the evidence against it accumulated to become undeniable. However, the scientific literature keeps making a stronger and more comprehensive case for human influence climate change instead; they are very demonstrably out of sync with the science on that score. Caveat emptor.

Zeph, Sonoma County, CA
November 9, 2013 3:05am

I find this "skeptical" website to be rather disingenuous. You claim to be providing facts and research, but you only do it for ONE side of any argument. Instead of offering an alternate explanations you come to conclusions that YOU have made.

When anyone can simply do the research themselves and simply search "global warming" and come up with other sites that offer valid scientific research that shows the opposite of what you claim is "true".

The IPCC is a UN funded organization, meaning it is funded by the very people who want to find that global warming is TRUE.

Try the first site that comes up to offer real skepticism about "global warming".

http://www.breitbart.com/Big-Government/2013/09/16/PLS-HOLD-FOR-TUESDAY-9-17-AFTER-11AM-ET-Climate-Study-Evidence-Leans-Against-Human-Caused-Global-Warming

But I guess the IPCC scientists are just better at their craft. Right?

Joe Joey Joe Joe, MERICA!!
November 16, 2013 2:34pm

while i agree with the crux of the argument that is being put forth, that we often have a tendency to curate our news to suit our predetermined narratives, i do take issue with what appears to be a gap in the authors logic. he admits that the Kyoto Protocol was largely a political instrument and not founded in science, but then suggests that the IPCC represents the scientific consensus, or at least the closest thing to it, and thus it should be taken more or less as truth. this of course ignores the fact that the IPCC is just another arm of the UN and in fact predates Kyoto by about a decade. if Kyoto was so politicized, why then would anyone accept that the work of another arm of the same body produced anything less political?

while where the consensus truly lies is an important issue, i think the larger problem surrounding AGW is that it no longer resembles science. dunning suggests that it has become political, i would argue it more closely resembles religion. if i told a scientist that the world was flat, they would be able to produce some extremely compelling evidence to the contrary with relative ease. why then, are AGW proponents unable to do this with climate change? why is it that if you question climate science, you are pejoratively dismissed as a denier or a skeptic? isnt asking questions and challenging the consensus the basis of science? shouldnt AGW proponents welcome the opportunity to defend their results and convince the skeptics?

dyl, cowtown
January 14, 2014 4:22pm

Actually I can name a climate scientist, Joseph J. Romm, a climate scientist, blogger and physicist, who went to MIT and later Scripps Institution of Oceanography.he wrote several books including Hell and High Water, and The Hype about Hydrogen. He was also elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Bryan, could you take a look at him and his books, and then state your opinion on what he says.

David, Arlington
March 25, 2014 1:41pm

Climate deniers, flat earthers, leaked emails, outrageous claims, computer models that don't pan out, Gore claiming prematurely the debate is over. This will always be political. Climate denier sounds like Holocaust denier. Comparing people to Hitler poisons the well.

Mike, Portland OR
April 2, 2014 9:56am

I am a believer in GW, but can addressing AGW help? The USA is less than 5% of world population, and if we are real efficient we may cut our carbon footprint about 5%. So, we can affect GW about 0.2% of human generated carbon. The human generated portion may be less than 1% of the naturally occurring Greenhouse Gas Emissions. Then we can affect about .002% of the emissions. Will this have any affect on GW? I don't know if that is the tipping point, or just more hype. If we don't agree that this is the tipping point, then we must assume that there is nothing we can do about it. If there is nothing we can do about it, then what is the fuss. Just move to higher ground.

Wingrider, Virginia
April 8, 2014 10:53am

This is a great article with an almost unique twist, but it's written from a very american perspective (not a criticism, just an observation). Early in the article there are references to how nobody knew about global warming before key events in 1997, 2005 and 2006. But here in the UK, I remember being taught in school about these same issues in the 80s. Admittedly the science wasn't as developed back then, but there was very little in the way of reactionary rejection against an issue we all accepted. It's remarkable how the whole thing got hijacked in to a political hot potato later on. I never even thought it was anything but an obvious consequence of a relatively sudden change to the "natural" cycles of the biosphere.
I will definitely be educating myself more about this now as the hysteria is obviously spreading globally faster than the science can counteract it.
Thanks for an interesting article with a good spin on the subject. You're a good guy Brian, always pointing out the reasonable middle path through a battlefield full of uninformed extremists.

Benjamin Joseph, London, UK
April 8, 2014 3:15pm

I went to the IPCC website and started reading the 2013 climate change report. http://www.climatechange2013.org/images/report/WG1AR5_Chapter02_FINAL.pdf

Being a skeptic I found myself with questions that I've asked friends in the past and still have no answers for. I have no doubt that GHGs and temperatures can be measured with the greatest accuracy possible today. This report cites carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide levels going back to 1750. Temperature reading going back to 1880. I've driven across town and seen temperature changes as much as 10 degrees in a matter of a few miles. I question first how accurate these early readings were in light of using less accurate measuring devices and secondly where were these early readings taken and at how many different sites. I can't help thinking better equipment and a larger data pool should produce a more accurate and different result than the earliest records provide.

Morgan, Erie PA, USA
April 16, 2014 2:11pm

You make a balanced assessment of how AGW began life as a political issue. Then at the end, you refer us to look at the IPCC 'Summary for Policymakers'. This was written in closed session with only one climatologist present. The rest were public servants and amazingly, observers from groups such as Friends of the Earth. The SPM headlines do not match the conclusions of the actual scientific work. So how can it ever be 'normal science', if we cannot discuss the science once the SPM is written?

Christian, Dublin, Ireland
May 2, 2014 4:30am

GW is a political maneuver to have American sovereignty handed over to the rothchilds.

Mike, USA
May 24, 2014 8:10pm

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