Friday, 17 February 2017

Creating an Ecosystem of doubt

The more interesting questions are why, and how, people are trying to stop us from believing that climate change is happening and was almost certainly caused by us. As well as the different stages of climate denial, there are different levels of deniers, and different motivations for denial. Some people are just trying to be annoying.

The first thing to say is that it is really easy to persuade people the climate science is fake. In many ways our brains are determined not to believe in it. Millennia of evolution have trained us to respond well to some threats, for example our fight or flight instincts are particularly well honed. We are not so good at coping with non-immediate threats, and our minds are usually bad at calculating low-level risk. If humans were good at working out probabilities we probably wouldn't have any casinos. 

"Don't they look funny out in the snow with their thick coats?"
At the same time we have a strong reaction to change, and a confirmation bias. We desperately want to believe that we can carry on as we are because things are going to stay more or less the same, and we will pounce on any evidence that supports this, and ignore information that suggests otherwise.

Also we suffer from loss aversion. Given the choice of gaining 100 quid or not losing 100 quid, we are much more scared of losing than happy to gain. In our psychology a bird in the hand really is worth two in the bush. Tackling climate change is often perceived as a personal loss, because a reduction in quantity of carbon suggests a reduction in the quality of our carbon-enriched lifestyles. In fact doing nothing about climate change threatens to be a personal loss for many people, but, see above, the losses won't come till later, and it may be someone else who is losing.

So, climate deniers have got a pretty easy job. Human psychology is on their side.

Next, in some parts of the world at least, climate change has become a political issue. This means we also have group mentality to deal with. The reasoning works something like this: Al Gore believes in Global Warming, Al Gore is blue, I am red, therefore Al Gore is wrong. This does not happen exclusively in the US, but the issue has been polarised to a large extent there. I've never been a fan of UK arch-conservative Margaret Thatcher, but unlike 97% of politicians she was a scientist, and she quickly understood the threat posed by climate change, and persuaded world leaders including George Bush senior to get behind the Kyoto Protocol back in the 1990s. Atmospheric carbon levels have been increasing steadily since then, but political action has not. 

So how do people attack climate change? 

Later I will give specific details of what people say, but the first question is which culture they are coming from. The idea of climate change comes from science, and that field has its own ground rules. They are different, for example, to religion or the law. Christianity has absolute truth that cannot be proved but needs faith to be believed. The law seeks truth beyond a shadow of doubt, and often there are two sides who must both try to prove that they are right. Science is not really concerned with truth, or being right, but in setting up hypotheses and trying to prove them wrong. 

Maths has proofs but is not really a science. Once something is mathematically proven it will be true for ever. Two plus two will always be four. If you are an engineer, and the twos are both large values then two plus two can be five, but I don't want to bring engineers into this.

The hard sciences of physics and chemistry have theories that can be experimentally shown to not be wrong. 

The theories in softer sciences, like biology, cannot always be shown to be true by experiment. For example, we cannot make an experiment to prove that evolution is happening in the same way that we can prove Newton's laws of motion. Theories are tested by observation, and if the observed facts obey the theory then it cannot be dismissed. Climate science is similar. We cannot go back to the 18th century, un-invent the steam engine and run the last couple of centuries without any anthropogenic carbon emissions.

And you'd probably believe he's walking on water.
So anyone attacking the theories of climate change from a religious perspective may be missing the point. They may also be attacking the very idea that the universe is controlled by theories that humans can divine, and that humans are capable of influencing any part of the divine universe. They may also be doing this from the pulpit, in positions of power over their communities.

People coming from a legalistic perspective may think that there are two sides in the case, that industrial civilisation is in the dock, and somebody has to find a shadow of doubt in the science. If someone was up on murder charges, and we were deciding whether to send them to the electric chair, then it may be reasonable to expect us to be 100% sure. This is not the case here, and many views of climate change predict that death penalties are already being handed out as people in power refuse to accept it is happening, and use that as an excuse to do nothing about our carbon emissions. The reality with climate science is that nobody is 100% sure that climate change is happening and is manmade, but they are very close to 100% sure, and there are no other theories that match the observed facts. 

Exactly the same applies to smoking causing cancer, or driving without a seat belt causing road death. And this leads nicely to another group of climate deniers who would also argue that we should do nothing about smoking or seat belts either. They don't want governments to legislate. They are not necessarily against the science, and may not like smoking, and may put seat belts on when they drive, but they have an ideological objection to governments telling people what to do. One way to stop the government legislating is to attack the climate science. 

So we have religious motivations for denying climate change, and political motivations from extreme libertarians. The legal profession is well equipped to deny climate science, but as a profession they usually do not act unless they are being paid. 

I wonder where the money is coming from? 

Notes and Further Reading
The US Environment Protection Agency still has some great scientific information on climate change. 

The Pope has called for action on climate change, which has been ignored by many. Protestants may have considered this to be a papist plot, and catholics on the right may have ignored this in favour of the rhetoric of their political allies. Guardian 24th October, 2016

Leaders of Islam, perhaps a much greener religion than Christianity, have produced a statement calling for action on climate change: Islamic Climate Declaration dot org
(By the way, the second photo was a result of lucky timing on the shutter, and photoshopping out the diving board.)