Climate Change Denial: an actual conspiracy

One of the funny things about the climate change debate is that, whichever side you're on, you pretty much have to concede that there's a conspiracy.  Either the entire institution of science is cooperating with the liberals to tell a really scary story so that we can cut back on pollution, or high-status, high-influence people are deliberately stoking the fires of climate change denial without regard to the truth of their claims. I mean, obviously, it's the latter.  This article at the Guardian explores the network of donors and think-tanks that are specifically structured to provide resources to climate change deniers.

"Are there both sides of an environmental issue? Probably not," [Whitney Ball, chief executive of the Donors Trust, said]. "Here is the thing. If you look at libertarians, you tend to have a lot of differences on things like defence, immigration, drugs, the war, things like that compared to conservatives. When it comes to issues like the environment, if there are differences, they are not nearly as pronounced."

By 2010, the dark money amounted to $118m distributed to 102 thinktanks or action groups which have a record of denying the existence of a human factor in climate change, or opposing environmental regulations.

The money flowed to Washington thinktanks embedded in Republican party politics, obscure policy forums in Alaska and Tennessee, contrarian scientists at Harvard and lesser institutions, even to buy up DVDs of a film attacking Al Gore.

The ready stream of cash set off a conservative backlash against Barack Obama's environmental agenda that wrecked any chance of Congress taking action on climate change.

The Guardian shared this graph, using data from Greenpeace:


This shows that the overwhelming majority of the money is coming from Donors Trust -- although that's not to say the Koch Foundations and Exxon Mobil executives aren't involved there:

And it was all done with a guarantee of complete anonymity for the donors who wished to remain hidden.

"The funding of the denial machine is becoming increasingly invisible to public scrutiny. It's also growing. Budgets for all these different groups are growing," said Kert Davies, research director of Greenpeace, which compiled the data on funding of the anti-climate groups using tax records.

"These groups are increasingly getting money from sources that are anonymous or untraceable. There is no transparency, no accountability for the money. There is no way to tell who is funding them," Davies said.

More evidence that climate change is human-caused

(via Reddit)

 This is a picture of the atmospheric temperature in the lower troposphere and in the lower stratosphere.  The stratosphere is higher up than the troposphere.  The red and orange means "More hot."  What this image shows is that greenhouse gasses are trapping heat in the atmosphere.

The image comes from this article, which discusses new modeling systems that allow researchers to create an even clearer picture of the fact that the gasses that humans have pumped into the atmosphere over the last hundred years are the thing that's causing climate change, not -- as they explicitly point out -- from stuff like volcanoes or natural cycles of sun-heat:

“After removing all global mean signals,” the authors write, referring to natural changes like volcanic eruptions and changes in the brightness of the sun, “model fingerprints remain identifiable in 70 percent of the tests involving tropospheric temperature changes.”

In plain English, that simply means that the warming of the troposphere and cooling of the stratosphere can’t be explained in any other way than by the heat-trapping effects of human-generated greenhouse gases. “It was surprising to me how large the signal was,” Santer said.

This is also, they point out, consistent with the whole constellation of evidence that climate change is human-caused:

This is only one of the fingerprints scientists expect to see in a human–influenced climate, moreover. “In the past we’ve looked at ocean surface temperatures changes in hurricane-forming regions, patterns in atmospheric pressure; rainfall patterns, and changes in Arctic sea ice,” Santer said.

All of these and more can be identified more easily and clearly with the new models.

China's future garden cities

I often hear Americans whine about climate change, complaining that even if it is real, there's nothing we can do about it, because no matter how hard we try China will never stop polluting so it's all pointless. As a counterpoint, I present the Garden City:

In 1902, a self-taught urban planner named Ebenezer Howardpublished his utopian vision for "Garden Cities"--self-contained circular towns radiating from a central city, connected only by train. Neither town nor country, they were a dense, compact fusion of the two: suburbia without sprawl.

Although Garden Cities never really caught on in the West, the Chicago-based Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture has resurrected the idea with Chinese characteristics: a “prototype city” twice as populous and 20 times as dense, with a tower taller than the Empire State Building at its core. Working with one of China’s largest real estate developers, the firm aims to build them by the score.

The idea is that the small, dense cities, surrounded by "greenbelts," will be built, people will move to the cities, then, when they reach capacity, instead of sprawling out, with new, haphazard construction spreading across the landscape the way it does in American cities, a satellite city will be built nearby, connected only by high-speed rail, to start taking in the new population growth.

It's genius, and it's been around conceptually for over a hundred years.  China has plenty of problems, but it turns out destroying the world with pollution isn't one of them -- or, at least, they're doing more to make it not one of them than America is.  (Cough cough fetishistic individualism is going to kill us all cough cough)

We could use this kind of design in America.  I say we fence in New York, bulldoze the suburbs, and start building satellite cities until we've replaced the necessary housing.  (Not necessarily in that order.)

A study on beliefs about climate change in Australia revealed some interesting trends: it seems like pretty much everyone underestimates the number of people who believe that climate change is happening, and everyone over-estimates the number of people who believe it isn't. John Timmer at ArsTechnica writes:

The false consensus effect became obvious when the researchers looked at what these people thought that everyone else believed. Here, the false consensus effect was obvious: every single group believed that their opinion represented the plurality view of the population. This was most dramatic among those who don't think that the climate is changing; even though they represent far less than 10 percent of the population, they believed that over 40 percent of Australians shared their views. Those who profess ignorance also believed they had lots of company, estimating that their view was shared by a quarter of the populace.


But there was also evidence of pluralistic ignorance. Every single group grossly overestimated the number of people who were unsure about climate change or convinced it wasn't occurring. Even those who were convinced that humans were changing the climate put 20 percent of Australians into each of these two groups.

The authors of the study suggest that this could be "a result of the media's tendency to always offer two opposing opinions, even on issues where one is a fringe belief."  (AT)  Hopefully, this research will give new tools to consciousness-raising efforts, so we can get closer to a consensus not just that climate change is happening, but that it's not hopeless to do something about it.

Another climate change skeptic changes his mind

BBC News reports on Richard A. Muller's decision to switch sides on the Climate Change political smokescreen, favoring reality over politics.  Muller was a leading critic of the initial hockey stick results, one of the first people to cast widespread doubt on the issue and help stall a global discussion on what needs to be done to avoid killing billions of people.

In a piece authored for the New York Times, Prof Muller, from the University of California, Berkeley, said: "Three years ago I identified problems in previous climate studies that, in my mind, threw doubt on the very existence of global warming.

"Last year, following an intensive research effort involving a dozen scientists, I concluded that global warming was real and that the prior estimates of the rate of warming were correct. I'm now going a step further: Humans are almost entirely the cause."

In the New York Times piece, Muller insists that previous studies were insufficient and untrustworthy, but he makes it clear that his more robust research lines up completely with their claims -- the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature group, the organization Muller organized to do this research, specifically repeated the experiments, accounting for all the popular denial arguments.

Our Berkeley Earth approach used sophisticated statistical methods developed largely by our lead scientist, Robert Rohde, which allowed us to determine earth land temperature much further back in time. We carefully studied issues raised by skeptics: biases from urban heating (we duplicated our results using rural data alone), from data selection (prior groups selected fewer than 20 percent of the available temperature stations; we used virtually 100 percent), from poor station quality (we separately analyzed good stations and poor ones) and from human intervention and data adjustment (our work is completely automated and hands-off). In our papers we demonstrate that none of these potentially troublesome effects unduly biased our conclusions.

(Emphasis mine)

A case study in biased reporting: FOX news and global warming

FOX News ran an article today on their website, called Global warming skeptics as knowledgeable about science as climate change believers, study says.  It's a good example of how an article can be heavily misleading without actually telling any lies -- the way a story is told is a major factor in what people come away believing about it. First, the organization of a story matters.  The things that are in the headline and first few paragraphs pack a much stronger punch than what comes later, and a lot of the readers of a story don't bother reading past that point, feeling they've got the gist of it as long as they read a bit.

This is from the start of the FOX article:

 Are global warming skeptics anti-science? Or just ignorant about science?

Maybe neither. A study published Sunday in the journal Nature Climate Change finds that people who are not that worried about the effects of global warming tend to have a slightly higher level of scientific knowledge than those who are worried, as determined by their answers to questions like:

"Electrons are smaller than atoms -- true or false?”

"How long does it take the Earth to go around the Sun? One day, one month, or one year?"

“Lasers work by focusing sound waves -- true or false?”

Compare with this, the abstract of the study in question:

Seeming public apathy over climate change is often attributed to a deficit in comprehension. The public knows too little science, it is claimed, to understand the evidence or avoid being misled1. Widespread limits on technical reasoning aggravate the problem by forcing citizens to use unreliable cognitive heuristics to assess risk2. We conducted a study to test this account and found no support for it. Members of the public with the highest degrees of science literacy and technical reasoning capacity were not the most concerned about climate change. Rather, they were the ones among whom cultural polarization was greatest. This result suggests that public divisions over climate change stem not from the public’s incomprehension of science but from a distinctive conflict of interest: between the personal interest individuals have in forming beliefs in line with those held by others with whom they share close ties and the collective one they all share in making use of the best available science to promote common welfare.

The abstract is the part of the paper at the start where they summarize the key points in the report.  In this one, they're saying that relatively more scientifically literate people tend to be more polarized -- they have stronger views in both directions -- and they think that's the case because of the social pressures of their peer group, and how that might conflict with the evidence.

Further along in the FOX article, in paragraphs 8 through 10, they acknowledge that this wasn't the point the study focuses on:

Yale Law Professor Dan Kahan, the lead author of the study, cautioned that the survey results are not evidence for or against climate change.

"This study is agnostic on what people ought to believe," he told "It just doesn’t follow to say this finding implies anything about what people should believe on this issue."

Kahan said that he thought another finding of the study was more important: That people’s cultural views – how much they value things like individualism and equality -- affect their views on global warming much more than actual knowledge about science. Regardless of how much they know about science, individualists were relatively unconcerned about global warming, whereas those who value equality were very concerned.

These paragraphs appear next to a large-text quote from the study, which reads:

'As respondents’ science literacy scores increased, their concern with climate change decreased.' - Study

In those paragraphs above, Kahan points out that the cultural views aspect was the most important part.  That was in paragraph 10 of the FOX article, and in the abstract of the study.  The study had an accompanying graph, which illustrates much more clearly that, while they accurately expected people who valued community to accept evidence for climate change, they were surprised by the results of individualists.  People who value individualism and power tend to get more skeptical as their scientific knowledge increases.

This is similar to a cognitive bias I've written about before, Escalation of Commitment, but it's a better example of one I haven't written about yet:  the Backfire Effect, which describes the fact that people tend to hold more strongly to their beliefs when confronted with evidence that they're wrong, rather than letting go of them.

In paragraph 11, FOX offers an equivocation to preemptively counter criticism that they're obviously misrepresenting the study to support their case:

Both sides of the global warming debate say the study's findings support their views. Those who worry about global warming say it shows that cultural biases blind even smart people to the “scientific consensus.”

Note the scare quotes.

Following that, the article offers a juxtaposition in which a scientist pointing out that the study is about how global warming gets politicized, immediately followed by a reference to 16 scientists who disagree.  (I'm finding it difficult not to be sarcastic about how they were able to find a whole 16 scientists who don't agree with the broader consensus.)

"Kahan’s research is so interesting,” Aaron Huertas, a spokesman for the Union of Concerned Scientists, told “Over the last few years, the policy issues surrounding climate change have become increasingly politicized, and that’s bleeding over into people’s perceptions of climate science.”

"What we need to remember is that we have a number of excellent non-partisan scientific resources… [They] all tell us that human activity is altering the climate in ways that are disruptive to our economy and way of life."

But some of the 16 scientists who signed a letter this January titled "No Need to Panic About Global Warming" disagree.

Dr. Richard Lindzen, Professor of Atmospheric Sciences at MIT, was one skeptical scientist who signed the letter. He said that the finding that skeptics know as much or more about science surprised him "not at all."

"MIT alumni are among my most receptive audiences," he added.

Like I said at the start, there isn't anything technically untrue about this article.  But they've managed to take a study that raises a very important and significant issue, that culture and politics are having a huge, undue effect on perception of climate science, and presented it in a way that sounds a lot more like "Smart people everywhere believe global warming is bull████."

To wrap up, here's a link to the SourceFed video about how people who watch FOX tend to know less than people who don't watch any news at all.  (MSNBC also does worse than non-news-viewers.)

Oh crap we're all gonna die

(via SourceFed) It turns out that all the melting up in the arctic due to global warming is releasing pockets of methane into the atmosphere.  So, the more climate change we cause, the more natural greenhouse gasses that used to be underground get released into the atmosphere.  Mother▓▓▓▓er.

According to the BBC, methane levels had plateaued between around 2002 and 2006, but have started rising again.  It is apparently controversial whether this is an issue of immediate concern:

How serious and how immediate a threat this feedback mechanism presents is a controversial area, with some scientists believing that the impacts will not be seen for many decades, and others pointing out the possibility of a rapid release that could swiftly accelerate global warming.

But I don't like the fact that the bright-side view is that things will be fine for at least a number of decades.  I intend to be alive for decades.  If it were centuries, I might feel okay.  Maybe two or three generations from now, all the idiots will have died off, and the people around at the time will be able to handle this kind of thing.

On a semi-related note, the SourceFed video on the topic ended with the question,

So where do you guys stand on this issue?  Do you think global warming is a fabrication, or do you think it's super-real?  Let us know in the comments below.

It does not cheer me up to know that this conversation is still being framed in terms of true and false.  I believe that at this point the discussion question should be, "How do you think the world should be handling the climate change issue?"