Consensus vs BS

Social scientist Mike Hulme, who some (not this bunny, but some…) might consider the Roger Pielke Jr. of the British Isles, responded to the Cook, Nuccitelli, Green, Richardson, Winkler, Painting, Way, Jacobs and Skuce paper (whew) Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature. Cook et al is the latest in a well-known (*) sequence of papers attempting to show that the scientific community is near-unanimous in its understanding of the outlines of contemporary climate change.

(*) Originally, Hulme’s article referred to the Cook et al paper as “infamous”, but this kowtow to denialist framing has been quietly elided.

Hulme begins his article, entitled Science can’t settle what should be done about climate change with a statement which, while intended to be provocative, merely comes off as ludicrous:

The sight of speakers known to dispute the scientific evidence supporting climate change being called to speak at a parliamentary select committee on the latest IPCC report last week has raised certain commentators’ blood pressure.

Some have gone so far as to claim that the climate change debate in Britain has become “as depressingly unscientific and polarised as it is in the United States”.

I disagree. The debate about climate change needs to become more political, and less scientific.

Oh come on. Do we really want the debate on what to do steeped in anger and ignorance? That’s an almost perfectly absurd (sorry, mt being over-the-top again) claim.

That awkward start aside, Hulme goes on to make the following pertinent point, one which I would agree with.

Articulating radically different policy options in response to the risks posed by climate change is a good way of reinvigorating democratic politics.

A paper by John Cook and colleagues published in May 2013 claimed that of the 4,000 peer-reviewed papers they surveyed expressing a position on anthropogenic global warming, “97.1% endorsed the consensus position that humans are causing global warming”. But merely enumerating the strength of consensus around the fact that humans cause climate change is largely irrelevant to the more important business of deciding what to do about it. By putting climate science in the dock, politicians are missing the point.

What matters is not whether the climate is changing (it is); nor whether human actions are to blame (they are, at the very least partly and, quite likely, largely); nor whether future climate change brings additional risks to human or non-human interests (it does). As climate scientist Professor Myles Allen said in evidence to the committee, even the projections of the IPCC’s more prominent critics overlap with the bottom end of the range of climate changes predicted in the IPCC’s published reports.

In the end, the only question that matters is, what are we going to do about it? Scientific consensus is not much help here.

After the jaw-droppingly wrongheaded start, Hulme goes on to make a number of reasonable points. Left in the air is the vague intimation that Cook et al doesn’t contribute positively to the actual prospect of making progress.

Stephan Lewandowsky makes short work of that question in his response Establishing consensus is vital for climate action:

So why are tobacco control measures now in place in many countries around the world? Why has the rate of smoking in California declined from 44% to less than 10% over the last few decades? Why can we now debate the policy options for a further reduction in public harm, such as plain packaging or tax increases?

It is because the public demanded action. This happened once the public realised that there was a scientific consensus that tobacco was harmful to health. The public wants action when they perceive that there is a widespread scientific agreement.

Those who wish to maintain a status quo, whether it involves tobacco or fossil fuels, have long understood this principle. In 2002, Republican strategist Frank Luntz advised politicians to undermine the scientific consensus on global warming, in order to influence their views on climate change. And the tobacco industry infamously stated that “doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the minds of the general public.”

A scientific consensus is necessary to understand and address problems that have a scientific origin and require a scientific solution. The public’s perception of that scientific consensus is necessary to stimulate political debate about solutions. When the public comes to understand the overwhelming agreement among climate scientists on human-caused global warming, acceptance of the science and support for climate action increase.

Consequently, one of the principal strategies of people who reject the scientific evidence on climate has been to try to maintain the consensus gap by creating the appearance of a scientific debate where there is none.

That is why among newspaper opinion pieces from 2007 to 2010, the most common myth promoted by syndicated conservative columnists was that “there is no scientific consensus about global warming”.

Of course, we need ways to filter out, er, nonsense, or we’ll never get anywhere.

The Oreskes, Anderegg, and Cook papers stand together as a strange sort of beast, an attempt to survey the literature about scientific questions for their underlying stance toward what is no longer a scientific question. If I publish a paper that invokes, say, Ekman pumping, I no longer have to cite Ekman or defend the proposition. It’s an accepted principle in oceanography, even if most people have never heard of it. I don’t have to spend hours explaining it to oceanographers. They have already had the same lecture. So climate papers do not begin with an oath of fealty to the general sense that carbon dioxide accumulation is already consequential and will become more so. It’s just, known. It’s not typical of science as practiced in the past to publish papers expressing how well-known something known is.

Polling won’t work, because the apolitical mass of scientists will avoid the polls while the gadflies will be attracted to it like gad-honey. In fact, I believe the usual claims of 97% consensus are underestimates. I have not seen actual climatologists debating the question or even slyly hinting at their doubt in the many actual bull sessions at cafes or bars that I’ve been a part of. Ever. (*) Not because of some monstrous Stalinist pressure. Just because there’s no way to put the system together without CO2 changes being important.

I’ve seen other peer-reviewed papers on controversial subjects lately that make points that are controversial among the public but common knowledge among practitioners. This is both good news and bad news. The good news is that the sillier but stickier points being made in the skeptic circles can be weakened by pointing to peer reviewed replies. The bad news is that smart people are having to spend their time making such responses, and that journals have to round up other smart people to review them.

It is obvious to me that Hulme is right that we have to move beyond science and into policy. But his implication that we can do that without knowing what the science actually tells us is flatly ridiculous. What we really need is a social order where speaking irresponsibly on matters of fact is discouraged and disincentivized. Clearly we haven’t got that.

This must be reversed. But until it is, science has to fight its way through the fog of disinformation. Papers like John’s do a necessary and important service under present circumstances.

(*) Okay, I got an earful from Bill Gray once in the early 1990s, but it was more about funding competition than about the facts of the matter.

Comments:

  1. > The debate about climate change needs to become more political, and less scientific.

    Well, that was crying out for misinterpretation, and perhaps everyone has misinterpreted it. I'd argue (consistent with his later para ("they are, at the very least partly and, quite likely, largely") what he means here is that we should accept the science (IPCC version) as a given, and stop arguing about fiddly details, and stop delaying action based on waiting to refine the science yet more, and instead focus on the political problem of how to Get Stuff Done.

    > It is because the public demanded action

    Yup, that's what we need. And its not happening.

  2. It's not happening because the public is confused by bad reporting, excessive spin, and willful misdirection, not because the public would not rise to the occasion if they understood the broad outlines of the situation. They might or might not, but that hypothesis has not been tested.

  3. What you are calling a misinterpretation is pretty much deliberate, isn't it?

    Let's do a one-for-one substitution of your interpretation into the text.

    "Some have gone so far as to claim that the climate change debate in Britain has become “as depressingly unscientific and polarised as it is in the United States”. I disagree. We should accept the science (IPCC version) as a given, and stop arguing about fiddly details."

    How would suggesting trusting the IPCC consensus process constitute disagreement with a claim that the climate change debate is excessively polarized?

  4. We disagree about this. I think we've noted this before, but perhaps its worth being explicit. I think too many people are, like you, asserting that the problem is that the public are confused; and that we'd do better if they weren't, by "powerful groups of deniers" as our Heir put it. I think you're being too optimistic; I think the public is uneasily aware of the problem and in many cases all too happy to have the "confused" excuse available. They certainly vote that way.

  5. Clearly there has been a deliberate misinformation campaign, but I agree with William that a part of the problem is that almost everyone outside the field seems to want to hear that there is a scientific debate going on about the basics. Evidence for this may be seen on the polls that show that even people who accept the consensus appear to think that there is still more of a debate going on than there actually is.

    Why should this be so? I speculate that it is because the implications of fully accepting the reality of man-made climate change are that painful policy changes need to be made. It is much easier to tell yourself that we should wait and see about carbon pricing until the science is more clear, rather than to vote for someone who will actually do something about it. Kari Norgaard calls this "implicatory denial", making up stories to justify doing nothing. Steven Gardiner calls it "moral corruption".

    There are other varieties of this kind of denial as well. The poor blame the rich. The rich countries blame China and India. Scientists and bloggers blame the media. The media blame the attention span of their readers. Activists blame the energy companies. The fossil-fuel companies blame their energy-sucking customers. Communications experts blame people for writing divisive papers quantifying the obvious scientific consensus.

    Most of those claims are correct (except the last one because it points at me), but the only common factor is that all the blame is always pointed outwards. For heaven's sake, why doesn't somebody else do something about climate change?

  6. Too sadly this is a replay of every other science rooted controversy since Eli was a baby bunny, tobacco, asbestoes, cfcs, TEL, acid rain, you name it. Those opposed to action poured their money into the 2% who provided the intellectual capital for the science is not settled, and, of course, the Hulmes and Weasels of the world, while they may think they are not, are simply blowing the dog whistle.

    If you believe the science is clear, you don't start an article casting doubt on a survey that shows that it is. Simple really. That is exactly the tactic of the Lomborg's of the world.

  7. There's a lot in the article that seemed sensible - buuuut then we get: "what matters is not ... whether human actions are to blame (they are, at the very least partly and, quite likely, largely)".

    I'm struggling to believe he meant this. It doesn't matter, policy-wise, whether humans are responsible? WT actual F? If he did mean this - end of conversation. It matters just an eensy bit whether climate change is being caused by all that CO2 or not, doesn't it? The action you have to take is largely determined by that (purely scientific) question.

    This annoys me because I'd like to argue about some of the other stuff he talks about, and would LOVE it if we were able to have robust political arguments between people who genuinely understand what's happening. But that's not where we are.

    The article he quotes from as well ("as depressingly unscientific and polarised as it is in the United States"): he cites that without then wondering what the f**k the select committee is doing having half its panel made up of known deniers. To skip over that and then start banging on about the need for more politics - as if the makeup of those committee panels might actually be the kind of politics he approves of...?

    Nah - wasn't sure before, but he's looking a lot like someone to ignore isn't he?

  8. Maybe. I remain convinced that truth is entertaining in a way that fiction can never be. But I seem to be an outlier on that point these days.

    (As evidence, consider that the best fiction reveals deeper truth.)

  9. "Humans are largely to blame" Baloney, humans are completely to blame plus some. Look at where we are on the natural cycles and the world should be freezing it's A#### off.

  10. "What matters is not whether the climate is changing (it is); nor whether human actions are to blame (they are, at the very least partly and, quite likely, largely); nor whether future climate change brings additional risks to human or non-human interests (it does)."

    What seems missing from this Hulme quotation and the above discussion is any consideration of quantity. Sure humans are causing some climate change, but any real scientific understanding must be quantitative. Of course the IPCC reports discuss this, but their model numbers do not agree well with measurements.

    If you want policies adopted that will have significant negative economic impacts on billions of people, you are going to need to make a much better case for benefits vs. cost than I have seen so far.

  11. "model numbers do not agree well with measurements"

    Regarding short term changes in global mean surface temperature, reality has confounded us by warming faster than the inactivists proposed but slower than the consensus expected, over the past fifteen years. This is surely a good thing, in that it gives us more time to respond, but it is a bad thing if people use it to argue for complacency.

    It does not amount to any sort of refutation of the long term (equilibrium) sensitivity - it has very small impact on that estimate. The idea that climate science itself is not quantitative is tendentious nonsense, but it's certainly true that what gets through to the public and the policy sector is muddled.

    Decisions are made under uncertainty all the time. Because the cost function rises rapidly with increasing measures of climate change, the higher your estimate of the uncertainty, the higher should be your preferred level of mitigation.

    I've been saying this for a long time but never thought to push it past peer review. Thankfully, Stephan has handled the matter more responsibly than I, and has a paper in press on the subject.

  12. "...does not amount to any sort of refutation of the long term (equilibrium) sensitivity..."
    Maybe so, but the transient climate sensitivity seems more relevant to near term mitigation policies.

    "The idea that climate science itself is not quantitative..."
    I never wrote anything like that. I wrote that the arguments given in this thread ignored being quantitative.

    Interesting to read comments from that period.

    "8) The magnitude of the best estimate temperature climate sensitivity to anthropogenic inputs is not likely to change unless new global scale processes become active. The current global temperature sensitivity is well understood barring such changes, despite what you read in the press."

    So have 'new global scale processes become active'?

    "5) There is no plausible argument that any particular climate change will have a beneficial impact comparable to the worst plausible case negative impact."

    Could be rewritten: There is no plausible argument that most climate change _mitigation policies_ will have a beneficial impact comparable to the worst plausible case negative impact. That consideration seems equally important to me.

  13. “8) The magnitude of the best estimate temperature climate sensitivity to anthropogenic inputs is not likely to change unless new global scale processes become active. The current global temperature sensitivity is well understood barring such changes, despite what you read in the press.”

    So have ‘new global scale processes become active’?

    Not really insofar as equilibrium is concerned.

    Insofar as the transient is concerned, as is typical in dynamics, the transient process is more complex than the equilibrium process. There are a number of candidate processes for a slowdown relative to predictions, really an unexpected lack of speeding up. It may be a death by a thousand cuts. I think there is fairly strong evidence though that the deep ocean is saving us by mixing or advecting more heat energy downwards than was anticipated. If this is the dominant model flaw with respect to global mean surface temperature transients, it won't affect the equilibrium. And indeed, the estimates of equilibrium have hardly budged among those who weigh anything other than historical observations.

    “5) There is no plausible argument that any particular climate change will have a beneficial impact comparable to the worst plausible case negative impact.”

    Could be rewritten: There is no plausible argument that most climate change _mitigation policies_ will have a beneficial impact comparable to the worst plausible case negative impact. That consideration seems equally important to me.

    Insofar as I understand what you are saying, I suspect that you do not understand what I am saying.

    What I'm saying is that the costs are unbalanced. There are huge costs for high sensitivities; there are no compensating benefits for low sensitivities.

    Assuming that you meant what you said, I don't know of any comparable argument regarding the uncertainties of the impact of a Pigouvian tax, say. Are you saying that the possible benefits are only very small while the possible impacts are enormous? That would indeed weaken my argument.

    I've never seen anyone making that case, but perhaps I missed something.

  14. "What I’m saying is that the costs are unbalanced. There are huge costs for high sensitivities; there are no compensating benefits for low sensitivities."

    I understood that, and even agree to at least some extent.

    "I don’t know of any comparable argument regarding the uncertainties of the impact of a Pigouvian tax, say. Are you saying that the possible benefits are only very small while the possible impacts are enormous?"

    Yes.
    Although an initially small, revenue neutral Pigouvian tax might be a policy I would except from my 'most policies' statement. Much more typical mitigation policies that have been (or were close to being) implemented are much more effective as opportunities for graft than reducing greenhouse emissions.

    Examples of potential severe negative impacts of mitigation policies (in order of decreasing likelihood):

    Cost of energy is significantly increased, causing fuel poverty, people dying because they can't afford to heat their homes.

    Reliability of electric power is significantly degraded due to intermittent nature of renewable generation. Widespread power outages lead to economic decline and increased poverty.

    Developing countries are denied access to low cost fossil fuel energy preventing further development and keeping billions of people in extreme poverty. Lack of education, poor health, short lifespans continue for these people.

    One of the people in the previous example would have found a cure for cancer or low cost clean energy (or other significant advance), but either died young or was never educated.

    The developed world's denial of cheap energy to India and China results in a global nuclear or biological war.

    The biological war releases a virus that eliminates the human race.

    You may of course argue these are less severe or less likely than effects of climate change, which may or may not turn out to be true. My point is that you should not pretend these are not sincere and real concerns.

  15. Nasty scenarios are not the question. I can pull some out of my rear about unmitigated climate change too. We are trying to think of ways to approach the matter quantitatively.

    Because the damage increases increasingly rapidly with increasing temperature (positive second derivative), the expected risk weighted damage is higher than the expected damage for the expected sensitivity. High sensitivities weigh more upon the risk than low sensitivities.

    An average roll of two dice is 7. If the cost of the roll is the square of the roll, you should not accept $50 to play. Your average payout is $54.83 . If your cost goes as the exponential, the effect is more severe still - The payout from an average roll is $1095.83, while the average payout is $11245.70, over ten times as much.

    You say something "similar" applies to economics. I am expecting some sort of cost as a convex function of something or other, I know not what. Otherwise you haven't come up with a symmetric argument.

    This is not to underestimate the possibilities of corrupt and/or ineffectual carbon mitigation regimes. I was relieved when Waxman/Markey failed in the US, as it would give mitigation a bad name. But the failure of the Republicans to participate in any way other than obstruction meant that to get the Democrats form the coal states on board, absurd givewawys and contrivances were necessary. A better policy would be possible if all concerned understood the necessity for it.

    But economic arguments are not symmetrical with this sort of climate sensitivity arguments. This sort of climate sensitivity argument IS the economic argument, as far as I understand it.

  16. An article on some of politicking taking place over Somerset flooding. Personally, I think it matters a great deal that our environment secretary is a full-on denying Gish Galloper. So Hulme is wrong here as well: there are complex arguments to be had about how to manage flood risk - these are much more difficult to have effectively if every crisis event becomes a theatre for another climate denial proxy war.

    Hum, actually MT put that rather well just above: "a better policy would be possible if all concerned understood the necessity for it."

  17. "But economic arguments are not symmetrical with this sort of climate sensitivity arguments. "

    It is not clear that this statement is correct. Economic costs probably also increase much more than linearly as fossil fuel restrictions are increased. A small tax can cause less carbon intensive and marginally more expensive energy sources to be used (switch from coal to natural gas for example). But going further can be very expensive.

  18. Pingback: Another Week in the Ecological Crisis, February 9, 2014 – A Few Things Ill Considered


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