A Few Things Ill Considered

A layman's take on the science of Global Warming featuring a guide on How to Talk to a Climate Sceptic.

Monday, October 16, 2006

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The New Denialism

Eli Rabett has done a very good summary of the recent blogosphere kafuffle surrounding the phrase "climate change denial" and whether it is an allusion to Holocaust denial. I have decided I reject that notion much more strongly than I did in the comments at Prometheus. But this post is only tangential to that debate. What I really want to post about is that Michael Tobis wrote an excellent piece in the Global Change goggle group that he has kindly agreed to let me reproduce here in its entirety (Eli scooped me on that too, but did not reproduce it all). Comments here are not refused, but I encourage anyone with something to say to add it where it appeared originally. Without further ado:

The New Denialism

In "An Inconvenient Truth" Mr Gore alluded to the contemptible incipient switch among the denial industry to jump from you haven't proven that anything needs to be done" to "you haven't proven that it isn't already too late" without passing through any position that something must be done.

Denialism does not have as its purpose a denial of warming. It is the denial of necessity for a policy.

Its weapon is diversion. It diverts the conversation to minutia of the science. Its objective is to divert the scientist from summarizing the situation effectively, to divert the casual reader from making the effort to understand, and to leave the casual reader with the impression of a subtle controversy even where the facts are entirely clear and rather straightforward.

Among its tactics is a reliance on the good nature of the scientist, who loves to make every effort to explain and explore scientific knowledge, and in many cases believes himself or herself obligated to do so.

These tactics can smoothly be shifted from the "no proven need" to "no proof that it isn't too late". What is being denied isn't the science. It's the need for a policy. Poking scientists is just a tactic.

The fossil interests have little choice in this matter; they will act this way to defend their interests. It will be very hard to prove in court that their intent was malicious. Seen this way, they are protecting shareholder value. It would be good if we lived in a world where power centers limited their tactics by making moral judgements, but we are so far from that point that it seems a forlorn hope.

In the real world, unless we can come up with a policy that protects the interests of the fossil fuel entities, they will continue to actively confuse the public discussion. I think the "clean coal" alternative is something that needs to be actively pursued and even subsidized. It is a failure of policy when a significant constituency is motivated to lie to the public.

Meanwhile, anyone with any sense of decency should eschew this sort of propaganda work. A soup kitchen line has more dignity.

Of course it's always hard to prove whether any individual is dishonest or merely misguided. A scientist always wants to give the benefit of the doubt to the misguided. It's important, though, to notice that this kindness of disposition toward the misguided is consistently abused by the malicious.

mt


Important, accurate and well written thoughts, IMO.

Labels:

21 Comments:

  • At October 17, 2006 9:47 AM, Blogger Dano said…

    I'm a MT fan, and wish he'd comment more.

    Then again, his infrequent comments seem to result in a buildup, tension, then a boiling over of good thoughts that hit hard and are compelling.

    This is key to the entire denialism thing, and MT nails it:

    It is the denial of necessity for a policy.

    My 2¢.

    Best,

    D

     
  • At October 17, 2006 12:00 PM, Blogger Glen said…

    The person proposing policy changes to address a problem needs to demonstrate both parts - that (a) the problem really exists, and (b) the proposed policy reasonably addresses the problem. It's natural to handle them in that order because until you can demonstrate part (a), part (b) is irrelevant. There's nothing nefarious or "contemptible" in demanding that both parts be proven prior to adopting a proposed policy.

    Calling your opponents "fossil interests" is no substitute for explaining why your proposed policy is highly likely to produce a net positive outcome.

     
  • At October 17, 2006 12:54 PM, Blogger coby said…

    Hi Glenn,

    Let's put aside for a moment the fact that both of these parts have in fact been convincingly demonstrated. IMO, you are quite incorrect that proactive behaviours that alter the environment (eg CO2 emissions) must be "proven" to be a problem before some action is warranted. It is quite sufficient that such action is merely shown to be a possible cause of harm. The onus is in fact on the emiters to "prove" that there is no harm. In a situation like global climate change where the consequences potentially are so severe, I believe that even a small possibility of these consequences should be avoided.

    Think of societies attitudes to drug testing. It is necessary to convincingly demonstrate that a drug is not dangerous before it is allowed for public use, no one demands that we should allow its widespread use until such time as someone can show it is in fact harmful.

    You are correct that "Calling your opponents "fossil interests" is no substitute for explaining". But after all the explaining has been done over and over and there still remain non-disinterested parties denying the plain facts in front of them, it becomes quite reasonable to move on to questions of their motives.

     
  • At October 17, 2006 2:56 PM, Blogger Glen said…

    The alarmists and the skeptics operate from fundamentally different underlying assumptions and your drug example illustrates the point nicely: I do believe we'd be better off if we legally allowed widespread use of drugs that haven't yet been proven harmful. It might be theoretically possible to create an FDA that did more net good than harm, but the one we've got, in practice, doesn't fit the bill. (many economists agree.)

    You appear to be operating on the basis of the precautionary principle. I reject that principle; if you want to convince people like me you cannot appeal to it. The consequences of imposing large new constraints on the market strike me as a significant enough possible cause of harm that I demand a high standard of proof before supporting that sort of change.

    You may ask, well, why don't I object to the FDA? Answer: I do object to the FDA, but the FDA has been around so long that bureaucratic inertia is enough to protect it. It's only on the margins where new policy is being considered that there is room to argue this sort of point. Indeed, what accounts for some of the vehemence in this debate is fear on the part of the skeptics that once we pass a bad policy to address climate change it will prove as hard to reverse or revise as every other bad government program. (If you don't like the FDA as an example, consider agricultural price supports. Or the Strategic Helium Reserve.)

    In summary: You are proposing a large, potentially irreversable change in the economic and political climate. Your own precautionary principle should counsel great reluctance to make such changes.

     
  • At October 17, 2006 3:37 PM, Blogger coby said…

    Hi Glen,

    I do believe we'd be better off if we legally allowed widespread use of drugs that haven't yet been proven harmful.

    Well, if you have actually thought about it and really do believe that, as opposed to just being a rhetorical opportunist, then there is probably no chance that you and I will agree on very much in regards to the issue at hand.

    You appear to be operating on the basis of the precautionary principle. I reject that principle; if you want to convince people like me you cannot appeal to it. The consequences of imposing large new constraints on the market strike me as a significant enough possible cause of harm that I demand a high standard of proof before supporting that sort of change.

    Sorry, but you are in one breathe rejecting the precautionary principal and in the next appealing to it. You can not have it both ways.

    In summary: You are proposing a large, potentially irreversable change in the economic and political climate. Your own precautionary principle should counsel great reluctance to make such changes.

    Two things: politics and economics are human creations and therefore human controlable. They are also very transient in their natures without intentional manipulations. The global environment is not subject to our whims and provides the most fundamental services required by all life forms, including our own and has been the way it is for the entire history of human civilization. So the standards of caution we should exercise in manipulating one are in no way comparable to those of the other.

    Second: I consider virtually all of the things one might want to change to address climate change to be things that will have to change regardless due to the fact that cheap oil is a finite resource. There is no downside to reducing our fossil fuel consumption or to developing truly sustainable energy consumption practices.

     
  • At October 17, 2006 4:53 PM, Blogger Glen said…

    On the drug issue: yes, I really do believe that. It is a view I have considered and researched and have held for most of my life. (I consider myself a libertarian in large part because I am so thoroughly convinced of that particular position, one which no other political party supports.)

    I personally favor the Proactionary Principle. The potential inherent in economic and technological progress is so valuable that we just can't afford to mess with it.

    If it's true that ultimately we need to reduce fossil fuel use, the price system will encourage us to do so smoothly at the appropriate time. Government efforts to force such changes prematurely hold the potential to create the very sort of crisis the "peak oil" people are afraid will happen without such action.

    I'm not afraid of "running out of oil". I'm not afraid of AGW. I am afraid of the harm those who fear these things could do by shackling our economy.

    To reduce the harm from a single perceived threat, you would have us reduce our ability to react to every other threat. That's not a good trade-off unless the threat is compelling and imminent and the effectiveness of the cure certain.

     
  • At October 17, 2006 7:51 PM, Blogger J. S. - (Wacki) said…

    I'm not afraid of "running out of oil". I'm not afraid of AGW. I am afraid of the harm those who fear these things could do by shackling our economy.

    Watch the video on this page:

    http://smalley.rice.edu/

    You might have an argument against *reasonable* carbon restrictions but you have ZERO argument against the development of alternative energies.

     
  • At October 17, 2006 9:12 PM, Blogger Glen said…

    The video on that page isn't working for me at the moment.

    Dvelopment of alternative energy sources will happen regardless of what government does. This will happen in response to rising oil prices if and when oil starts to be scarce.

    I have nothing against no-cost efficiency improvements or shifts to use other energy sources as they become viable. (I'm a big fan of nuclear in particular.)

    I wholeheartedly support removing any restrictions that limit the investigation or use of alternative technology and removing any subsidies that support the status quo. What I understand you arguing for that I don't support is Kyoto-style carbon restrictions. Whether "reasonable" or not, I want that sort of thing to pass an extremely strict cost-benefit analysis. Which, so far as I know, it has not yet done.

     
  • At October 18, 2006 7:35 AM, Anonymous Mark UK said…

    I still think that the alarmists are on the side of the skeptics/deniers. They keep telling us the economy will collapse if we do something. They have to deny the scientific evidence on AGW because if they accept the science they would have to accept that action is required. So, rather than accepting the science and being part of a constructive debate on what policies are required and would provide most benefit to society they try to keep the discussion stuck in first gear.

    This has been tried many times before (cigarettes, lead, ozone depletion) and always fails in the end.

    From the proactionary principle:

    "Assess risks and opportunities using an objective, open, and comprehensive, yet simple decision process based on science rather than collective emotional reactions"

    Well, we've done that. The science is clear. Now lets make some decisions that are not based on a collective emotional reaction such as a fear of liberals, taxes or "marxist" organizations such as the Royal Society...

     
  • At October 18, 2006 11:19 AM, Blogger Glen said…

    I'm not worried "the economy will collapse". I am worried that we will slightly reduce the rate of economic and technological growth. The difference between growing by an average of 4% and growing by an average of 3% has a staggering effect on human welfare when you compound it over 20, 50, 100 years or more. Losing even a fractional percent of potential GDP gain is, in human terms, a calamity. Economic growth makes life better over time, improving the welfare of everyone on the planet. It means fewer starving people in the world. Less suffering, less need for war, more harmony and abundance.

    Consider saving for your own retirement: The nature of compound growth dictates that the sooner you start saving and the higher rate of return you can get, the better off you'll be a few decades later. Spending substantial resources now and adopting policies that restrict the rate of growth in US or world GDP can have much the same effect on humanity's collective future welfare as blowing your savings and investing badly when you're young has on your individual future welfare.

    Those who get in the habit of thinking like an economist and considering what is not seen can become a bit oversensitive to regulatory risks in much the same way that those who get in the habit of thinking like an ecologist can become oversensitive to environmental risks. But if you want to talk to a global warming skeptic that's the main thing you'll have to do - make the case that whatever restrictions you're proposing will on net increase human welfare more than would the economic growth we forgo in order to adopt them.

     
  • At October 18, 2006 2:50 PM, Blogger J. S. - (Wacki) said…

    Dvelopment of alternative energy sources will happen regardless of what government does. This will happen in response to rising oil prices if and when oil starts to be scarce.

    heh. You are in for a rude awakening buddy. Pick up a college textbook. Material science isn't exactly something that happens outside of government labs.

     
  • At October 18, 2006 10:45 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Since we haven't yet done anything (meaningful) to address AGW in Canada and probably won't for several more years at least, we might as well discuss what are the best options for dealing with it.

    "Denialism" is a catch-all term in an attempt to discredit anyone who veers in the slightest from the rigid, Kyoto-led, orthodoxy.

    Yet the public, who in the end will decide what action is taken on AGW, and not scientists (sorry, but that's the way democracy works :)), have a right to understand beforehand the likely consequences of reducing our CO2 output by 30% or 60% (or more!).

    People intrinsically know that this level of C02 reduction would have a profound, and likely devastating effect on our economy.
    That's not denialism, that's realism.

    - Paul

     
  • At October 19, 2006 12:22 AM, Anonymous Mark UK said…

    Paul,

    People intrinsically know about the devastating consequences? How does that work? Science is required to provide 100% evidence of all future happenings but when it comes to technology development and economics people just intrinsically know? That is very funny. Thank you.

    When it comes to denialism or deniers I would like to point out that there is plenty of debate within climate science on a range of issues. Pretty fierce debate. Denialism is when people start "denying" basic scientific facts. If you tell me the earth is flat, you are denying a basic fact.

    But your post is very helpful because it points out the whole reason behind the deniers' strategy.

    I quote:
    "Denialism" is a catch-all term in an attempt to discredit anyone who veers in the slightest from the rigid, Kyoto-led, orthodoxy."

    You are confusing science with policy. If you disagree with Kyoto (and there is plenty to disagree with) that is totally OK. let's try and come up with a better solution. Denialism has to do with the basic scientific facts of global warming.

    There is plenty of work out there showing that in order to combat CO2 emissons we would have to give up one year of GDP growth over the next 40 or so years. Hardly a devastating scenario.

    It is funny how at first the deniers tried to paint the climate scientists as alarmist and say nothing is wrong, trying to question the basic science and now the deniers are moving on to being the alarmist. It appears that people are more than willing to trust the science. Now the only option left is trying to scare people into believing their life will be hell if we take action.

     
  • At October 21, 2006 12:38 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    ==== mark uk said: ====
    But your post is very helpful because it points out the whole reason behind the deniers' strategy.
    =======================

    Stating that reducing our C02 emissions would have a devestating impact on our economy is not denialism. It is a fact; and sugar-glossed over by environmentalists with little grasp of economics.

    =======================

    ==== mark uk said: ====
    I quote:
    "Denialism" is a catch-all term in an attempt to discredit anyone who veers in the slightest from the rigid, Kyoto-led, orthodoxy."

    You are confusing science with policy. If you disagree with Kyoto (and there is plenty to disagree with) that is totally OK. let's try and come up with a better solution. Denialism has to do with the basic scientific facts of global warming.

    =======================

    Science AND policy are inevitably linked in this debate; and at present, the general public is not prepared to make the possibly necessary, and undeniably huge sacrifices required to address this problem.

    =======================

    ==== mark uk said: ====
    There is plenty of work out there showing that in order to combat CO2 emissons we would have to give up one year of GDP growth over the next 40 or so years. Hardly a devastating scenario.

    =======================

    The enviros constantly serve up this absurdly rosy scenario. One year of GDP? Let's see how countries already enacting the Kyoto Protocol get to Stage 2 of CO2 emissions reductions. They won't be able to do it. Why? Because the economic damage will be too high.

    =======================

    ==== mark uk said: ====
    It is funny how at first the deniers tried to paint the climate scientists as alarmist and say nothing is wrong, trying to question the basic science and now the deniers are moving on to being the alarmist. It appears that people are more than willing to trust the science. Now the only option left is trying to scare people into believing their life will be hell if we take action.

    ========================

    Too many climate scientists were, and are alarmist. And constantly scaring the bejeezus out of the general public is a specialty of most environmental groups. And it is one reason why much of the general public is so ambivalent and sceptical about global warming.

    If we are going to do something about global warming, let's at least be honest that it will require real sacrifice from everyone.

    - Paul G.

     
  • At October 21, 2006 1:40 AM, Blogger Wag the Dog said…

    When I first read the "denialist" term being applied to those who reject anthropogenic climate change in the face of overwhelming evidence, the Holocaust was the last thing on my mind. Bringing up such a tenuous link is similar to the strategy of the pro-Israel PR lobby, where anyone rationally criticising the policies of the Israeli government are instantly accused of anti-Semitism. It evokes a powerful emotional reaction designed to cloud rational judgement. It is a smear by which the target is accused of trivialising the Holocaust, and by implication is accused of being an anti-Semite. Playing the anti-Semite card, just like playing the race card, especially when it is completely unwarranted, should be avoided in scientific discussions.

     
  • At October 21, 2006 11:18 AM, Blogger Acteon said…

    The holocaust has nothing to do with this. Nice try though. Just like the people who denied cigarettes were harmful (same lobbying companies are now doing the whole AGW denying), the whole ozone hole denying or the "lead is no problem" crowd. They were and are deniers of science. There is no phrase better suited. You find these people in all fields of science, history, etc.

    A few environmentalists with no grasp of economy:

    "A recent report by economists at PricewaterhouseCoopers suggested carbon emissions could be cut to 60 per cent below expected levels in 2050, at a cost of just a year's economic output; but only if the rich world takes the initiative, and gets started now."

    http://freeinternetpress.com/story.php?sid=8875

    And that eco nutcase Wolfowitz who resides at those economic nitwits of the World Bank:

    "As rich and poor countries invest in energy infrastructure, they will need to apply energy-efficient technology to cut future greenhouse gas emissions. Yet power plants in developing countries and even in the OECD countries—who are about to embark on a major power plant renewal program—have yet to adopt clean technologies that are readily available. This is a serious concern but it also provides a great opportunity to do better, to make climate-friendly investments."

    http://web.worldbank.org/WBSITE/EXTERNAL/TOPICS/ENVIRONMENT/EXTCC/0,,contentMDK:20764291~menuPK:407870~pagePK:64020865~piPK:149114~theSitePK:407864,00.html


    I'm totally up for a good debate on what the best actions are but to first say we need more science before we are sure of AGW and then claim with a straight face that it is an absolute certainty any action will result in economic disaster? That's just rubbish.

    By the way, even those pesky ignorant guys at the Economist have now come out saying it makes perfect sense to spend 1 - 5% of global GDP as an insurance policy...

    First we had to put with these so called skeptics who hardly ever managed to make a valid point or bring something constructive to the discussion and now they have moved on to the debate on what actions to take. With the same unfounded information from the same lobbying groups.


    Mark UK

     
  • At October 21, 2006 1:11 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    ==== Mark UK said: ====
    A few environmentalists with no grasp of economy:

    "A recent report by economists at PricewaterhouseCoopers suggested carbon emissions could be cut to 60 per cent below expected levels in 2050, at a cost of just a year's economic output; but only if the rich world takes the initiative, and gets started now."

    http://freeinternetpress.com/story.php?sid=8875
    ==============================

    Eh? Where's the actual report? And the consensus amongst economists is that battling AGW will be very expensive.
    ==============================

    ====Mark UK said: ====
    I'm totally up for a good debate on what the best actions are but to first say we need more science before we are sure of AGW and then claim with a straight face that it is an absolute certainty any action will result in economic disaster? That's just rubbish.
    ===============================

    Rubbish just because you say so?
    Regardless, there is a high probability reducing CO2 emissions by the levels advocated would result in economic upheaval.
    ===============================

    ==== Mark UK said: ====
    First we had to put with these so called skeptics who hardly ever managed to make a valid point or bring something constructive to the discussion and now they have moved on to the debate on what actions to take. With the same unfounded information from the same lobbying groups.
    =======================

    What lobbying groups? The general public intuitively knows combatting CO2 will be very, very expensive. We have not been duped by anyone, not lobby groups of industry or enviro advocates. Attempting to browbeat people who do not subscribe to your agenda is not working at present. I suggest a change in tactics.

    - Paul G.

     
  • At October 21, 2006 2:45 PM, Blogger Acteon said…

    Paul,

    At least provide something else besides your "intuition"... And the fact that you "just know". For all I know you could be an economic Nobel winner but with those arguments not many people will be convinced.

    I will try to find where the whole report is published. I'll be sure to let you know when I find it.

    Yes, many agree that tackling the causes of global warming will be expensive. There is also widespread agreement that doing nothing will be more expensive. If you could be so kind to post the large collection of links evidencing that there is a "consensus" amongst economists that would be great.

    Anyway, at least it is good you instinctively know all this stuff and haven fallen for any of the lobby group propaganda. The rest of us in the mean time are quite unfortunate in that we have to conduct research, analysis, etc. before we can come to any conclusions...

     
  • At October 21, 2006 2:48 PM, Blogger Acteon said…

    Here is the link to the PriceWaterHouseCoopers report:

    http://www.pwcglobal.com/extweb/pwcpublications.nsf/docid/DFB54C8AAD6742DB852571F5006DD532

    "Our analysis suggests that there are technologically feasible and relatively low-cost options for controlling carbon emissions to the atmosphere. Estimates suggest that the level of GDP might be reduced by no more than around 2-3% in 2050 if this strategy was followed, equivalent to sacrificing only around a year of economic growth for the sake of reducing carbon emissions in 2050 by around 60% compared to our baseline scenario".

     
  • At October 22, 2006 12:23 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Thanks for the link acteon.

    Possibly we can reduce our C02 without excessively damaging our economy. So far though, few economists and/or environmentalists
    have made the case compellingly enough to persuade the general public.

    If there is to be any meaningful action in this area, I would suggest that much work still remains wooing the public onside.
    Alarmist rhetoric isn't getting very far; non-alarmist persuasion may be more effective.

    - Paul G.

     
  • At October 22, 2006 2:44 AM, Blogger Acteon said…

    That we can agree on.

     

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