Climate denialism: ‘It’s about ideology, not facts’

The big news last week on climate change wasn’t news at all, just more of the same. A lot more of exactly the same.

The Guardian reports: “Global warming study finds no grounds for climate skeptics’ concerns: Independent investigation of the key issues skeptics claim can skew global warming figures reports that they have no real effect”

The world is getting warmer, countering the doubts of climate change sceptics about the validity of some of the scientific evidence, according to the most comprehensive independent review of historical temperature records to date.

Scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, found several key issues that sceptics claim can skew global warming figures had no meaningful effect.

The Berkeley Earth project compiled more than a billion temperature records dating back to the 1800s from 15 sources around the world and found that the average global land temperature has risen by around 1C since the mid-1950s.

This figure agrees with the estimate arrived at by major groups that maintain official records on the world’s climate, including Nasa’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the Met Office’s Hadley Centre, with the University of East Anglia, in the UK.

“My hope is that this will win over those people who are properly skeptical,” Richard Muller, a physicist and head of the project, said.

Several previous attempts and approaches to measuring the average temperature had produced the same results. Seeing those same results confirmed over and over and over seemed, for most scientists and other interested Earthlings, more than enough to satisfy “proper skepticism.”

Muller, however, remained open to the possibility that all of those different approaches might have shared some bias or flaw that resulted in all of them being identically wrong. So his approach accounted for everything the denialists said hadn’t been accounted for and addressed all of their criticisms of those previous measurements.

And the end result was the same. Precisely the same. Those criticisms or oversights or supposed biases had no measurable influence on the earlier measurements. Using the methodologies purportedly preferred by the “skeptics” Muller wound up duplicating the earlier results, further confirming their accuracy. The world is getting warmer. That has been confirmed again and again, and now once again.

TalkingPointsMemo’s Brian Beutler notes that this hasn’t gone over too well among climate denialists: “Climate Change Deniers Abandon ‘Befuddled Warmist’ Physicist Who Came Around on Global Warming“:

Climate change deniers thought they had an ally in Richard Muller, a popular physics professor at UC Berkeley.

Muller didn’t reject climate science per se, but he was a skeptic, and a convenient one for big polluters and conservative anti-environmentalists — until Muller put their money where his mouth was, and launched the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project, in part with a grant from the Charles G. Koch foundation.

After extensive study, he’s concluded that the existing science was right all along — that the earth’s surface is warming, at an accelerating rate. But instead of second-guessing themselves, his erstwhile allies of convenience are now abandoning him.

“When we began our study, we felt that skeptics had raised legitimate issues, and we didn’t know what we’d find,” Muller wrote in a Friday Wall Street Journal op-ed. “Our results turned out to be close to those published by prior groups. We think that means that those groups had truly been very careful in their work, despite their inability to convince some skeptics of that. They managed to avoid bias in their data selection, homogenization and other corrections. Global warming is real. Perhaps our results will help cool this portion of the climate debate.”

The reference there to “this portion of the climate debate” acknowledges that over the last few years, denialists have been strategically retreating from their earlier claim that global warming is not happening at all. There are still plenty of vehement deniers making that claim — boldly asserting that temperatures are not rising, ice is not melting, glaciers are not disappearing. Muller’s study leaves them with no place left to stand, although that is unlikely to change their minds, change their tune or change their shtick. We’ll likely continue to hear this form of denialism from Fox News’ back-benchers and from lazy editorial cartoonists every time it snows.

But the cagier denialists have stepped back from that claim, following the lead of former half-term Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. As governor of Alaska, denying the reality of rising temperatures, melting ice and thawing permafrost wasn’t really an option for Palin. So she conceded the reality of global warming, but shifted to denying that this warming had anything to do with human activity. This is the more sophisticated version of climate denialism — allowing that global warming is real, but denying that “anthropogenic” global warming is real. (When I say “more sophisticated,” I mean in the way that, say, Moe was more sophisticated than Curly, or in the way that “Intelligent Design” is more sophisticated than Answers in Genesis.)

TPM’s Beutler reports on the reaction to Muller’s study from these “AGW” denialists:

Marc Morano — a former aide to Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) and author of the website Climate Depot has a different, subtler line of attack: “[T]he climate debate has not centered on whether the Earth has warmed since the end of the Little Ice Age about 1850 or since the 1950s. The climate debate is about how much humans may or may not be contributing to the warming trend,” Morano wrote Friday, calling Muller a “befuddled warmist.”

If Muller’s findings have no bearing on Morano’s belief that global warming is real, but unrelated to human activity, then it’s not clear why he responds so aggressively to them. He reacts like he’s being attacked, even though he purportedly agrees with, and shouldn’t be threatened by, the temperature measurements Muller reports. Morano is getting testy because the basis for his position is slipping away like an ice floe melting beneath a polar bear. He finds himself with even more reasons not to believe what he believes, and still no good reasons to believe it, so he has little recourse other than to get angry (we’ve seen this same reaction before).

As Phil Plait notes, Muller’s study isn’t likely to change the minds of deniers, because more facts don’t matter to people whose position never had anything to do with the facts in the first place:

I know this new study won’t sway climate change deniers. It can’t, because nothing can. The reason for that is simple: This isn’t about the science. If it were, the conversation would have been over years ago. Instead, it goes on, because it’s about ideology, not facts.

It’s nice to see the previous scientific studies bolstered by this independent one, and there’s more good news in that the American public now seems to understand that global warming is indeed real. And it was nice to see BEP lead scientist Richard Muller saying … that these results support the idea that it’s humans causing the rise in temperatures.

But, as I have been saying all along, there will never be a “crossing the finish line” moment. Whether it’s the Moon Hoax, or vaccines causing autism, or psychics talking to the dead, or climate change denial, this will be a continuing fight.

The bottom line, of course, is that Muller’s findings aren’t good news for anybody. The world is getting warmer. That’s true. It’s a fact. But it’s also Very Bad News.

And the news seems to be getting worse: “Evidence builds that scientists underplay climate impacts

A decade ago scientists predicted the Arctic wouldn’t be ice-free in summer until 2100. But the extent of summer ice in the North has rapidly shrunk and today covers 70 percent of the area it did in 1979. Now some scientists think the Arctic could be naught but open water within 25 years.

In August, a team lead by University of York researcher Chris Thomas published a study showing that plants and animals are moving to higher elevations twice as fast as predicted in response to rising temperatures. They’re migrating north three times faster than expected, they found.

As for extinctions, earlier this year two scientists at the University of Exeter paired predicted versus observed annihilation rates. The real-world rates are more than double what the best computer modeling showed: While the studies, on average, warned of a 7 percent extinction rate, field observations suggested the rate was closer to 15 percent.

 

  • Matri

    While the studies, on average, warned of a 7 percent extinction rate,
    field observations suggested the rate was closer to 15 percent.

    This is very worrying. The computer models aren’t just wrong, the rates suggest they were catastrophically wrong.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Huh!

    Well, one thing I like is that the independent re-analysis by Dr. Muller should put to rest a lot of the niggling issues with climate change research. I admit to being somewhat bothered by the admission in one case that a climate change researcher had lost his raw data; even though I will probably never use my raw data again outside of my thesis work, for example, I still have a copy of it. Since it was generated by a computer in the course of data acquisition, I have it stored on DVD and a hard drive.

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1250872/Climategate-U-turn-Astonishment-scientist-centre-global-warming-email-row-admits-data-organised.html

    Raw data is important since in some cases, journal editors may ask to see it to verify that a researcher’s work has been original and has been conducted appropriately. This turned out to be important, for example, in the case of Ninov, who, in the course of research into superheavy elements, had been in a position to manipulate the raw data streams to insert alpha decays to make it appear that the sought-after elements had been found (Google the element 118 controversy).

    Making available that raw data would have allowed all scientists to independently re-analyze the data sets, should they have wanted to do so.

    So the fact that Dr. Muller has been able to use other data sets to reproduce the results demonstrated by other climate-change researchers is a welcome one.

    The bothersome thing, now, is that if you look at Earth mean temperature data,

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:EPICA_temperature_plot.svg

    there are temperature rises just as dramatic as there are without major sources of anthropogenic carbon dioxide. Given that this seems to indicate solar heating is a major driver of mean temperatures, exactly how is anthro-CO2 amplifying or offsetting this effect would be useful to know.

    Unfortunately solar heating can only be arrived at indirectly since there’s no record of sunspot activity prior to about the 1600s or 1700s; in general more sunspots per 11 year maximum seems to be correlated with greater solar heating.

    It would have been even more useful if we’d had a neutrino detector somewhere for the Earth’s history, since variations in the neutrino flux indicate what’s happening in the solar core, while the electromagnetic radiation we see indicates what happens at the solar surface, and the two are not in sync because photons emitted from the solar core are absorbed and then re-emitted for many years as they slowly progress outward from the core.

    I could go on for a while about this but the bottom line is – my anecdata lines up with what the reasearchers say. We’re seeing more violent weather extremes and more variability in seasonal behavior.

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    I was just reading this NPR transcript, and unfortunately, the facts actually do not matter.  More than that, facts that contradict someone’s already held position actually make people tend to double-down on that position rather than revising it.  The more the facts show a person to be wrong, the more they will assert that they are right.  The more intelligent the person is, the more sophisticated their evasions of the facts get.  In the climate change example, it goes from denying that climate change is happening, to denying that humans are responsible for it.  Heck, from there I bet it will go to a “Oh, well, too late now, nothing we can do about it,” stage. 

    Nothing has done more damage to our politics than cognitive dissonance. 

  • Anonymous

    God made us masters of the earth to maintain and protect it, can’t say we are doing such a great job.

  • Anonymous

    I’m such a non-scientist, it’s pathetic.  My eyes glaze over during most scientific discussions.

    But to me, the concept of anthropogenic global warming always made sense. Of course, I’m not a conservative, so perhaps I was already predisposed to agree.  But it still seemed logical to my non-scientific brain, for these reasons:

    1) There are six seven billion of us on the planet, how can we not have an impact on it?

    2) Many types of human pollution are visible–garbage, soot, toxic waste–and their negative impacts are apparent. It doesn’t make sense to assume that just because you can’t see carbon with the naked eye, it therefore can’t have an impact. (And hey, we know germs, also invisible to the naked eye, can have a huge negative impact on life).

    3) If the globe is warming and ice chunks from the Poles are melting and breaking off into the oceans, then it stands to reason that wherever those chunks and freezing water flow, they’re going to make the water and air colder.  So colder temperatures can co-exist with a warming trend.

    4) From what little I do remember about weather formation from school, the worst weather conditions occur when cold and warm fronts collide. And given #3 above, more cold fronts are likely colliding with warm fronts, creating more extreme storms.

    OK, scientists, how accurate is the above, from a layperson’s perspective?

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Monala: Pretty much. :)

  • http://twitter.com/shutsumon Becka Sutton

    I have this friend who isn’t a climate change denier per se, though she’s certainly a skeptic. Her position seems to be: Is the Earth warming up? Yes. Is it caused by human action? Not proven but likely. Her conclusion is that by the time anyone proved to her satisfaction that it was anthropogenic it’d be too late so we should act like it is now and work to reduce it. It’s hard to call her skepticism ideological when she’s pro reducing emmissions etc. It still baffles me, though, because I wonder what exactly is needed to prove it to her.

    Having said that the BBC report on it is interesting http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-15373071

    Especially since the Guardian article glosses over the reason they’ve released the data publically before it’s finalised. They’re physicists (well most of them) and physicists tend to do that.

  • ako

    It’s always informative to see denialist ‘skeptics’ encounter an actual skeptic.  The actual skeptic does the skeptical thing of continually re-evaluating the information and being open to persuasion, and the denialist ‘skeptics’ immediately accuse him of being taken in.  Because for a denialist, only suckers go where the data points.

  • Matthew Funke

    I’m sure you guys have heard of Anthony Watts, a rather outspoken global warming denier who’s appeared on Sean Hannity’s and Glenn Beck’s shows to spout statistical BS.  Here’s what he had to say about the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature Project before they published their results:

    “I’m prepared to accept whatever result they produce, even if it proves my premise wrong.”
    http://wattsupwiththat.com/2011/03/06/briggs-on-berkeleys-best-plus-my-thoughts-from-my-visit-there/

    … and after they published their results:
    “I consider the paper fatally flawed as it now stands, and thus I recommend it be removed from publication consideration by JGR until such time that it can be reworked.”
    http://wattsupwiththat.com/2011/10/20/the-berkeley-earth-surface-temperature-project-puts-pr-before-peer-review/

    Unfortunately, I don’t think the people who watch Hannity and/or Beck faithfully will notice.

  • Anonymous

    Muller is a genuine skeptic and not just a denier.  He was genuinely skeptical (and not just doubtful), so he looked at it for himself and then followed where the data led.  I really admire him.

  • Anonymous

    The deniers are going to really despise this guy.  He took their money and actually used in for honest inquiry.  From the deniers’ perspective he had been bought and was supposed to stay bought. They will regard him as a dishonest politician.

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    Unfortunately, I don’t think the people who watch Hannity and/or Beck faithfully will notice.

    Fortunately, The Daily Show tends to specialize in this kind of thing. 

  • guest

    Naomi Klein on climate change denialism:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QHs64Hz3ZJY

    Starting about 10:20.  (She mentions the rapture at about 7:00 or so.)

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Matthew Funke: So he’s prepared to accept the results, except when they come to a conclusion he doesn’t like?

    O-kay.

  • Hawker40

    I have seen at least one article claiming Muller* was dishonest, because he came to a conclusion that didn’t match what his sponser wanted…

    *Muller was the researchers name, right?

  • Matthew Funke

    Invisible Neutrino: So he’s prepared to accept the results, except when they come to a conclusion he doesn’t like?

    It would seem that way.  But science deniers often see those who point to scientific understanding in the same light.  Consider this relates back to another science denial topic that Fred’s referred to from time to time: evolution.

    A common debate tactic for a global warming denialist or a creationist (or, really, a conspiracy theorist of almost any stripe) is to have memorized talking points — things that might present difficulties for the person who’s basically familiar with the science but not an expert in that particular area.  In evolution, for example, the creationist may assert that there have been no witnessed changes outside a particular “kind” (which, depending on the creationist, is usually equivalent to species or genus).  If the person advocating evolution cannot come up with an example, right there and then, of such a change, the creationist feels he has won by default; he can easily walk away feeling that the “evolutionist” is continuing to cling to his theory only because he doesn’t like the alternative.

    It doesn’t occur to the creationist to go check for himself whether or not such a thing has been witnessed(*).  The conviction that that approach is okay unless and until someone presents evidence to the contrary — in other words, rationalizing refusal to do one’s homework as a virtue — is something that seems oddly prevalent on the side of science deniers.  (That, and the conviction that one’s opponent admitting to a lack of knowledge or failing to prove a negative amounts to support for their ideas.)

    In the global warming denialist camp, this often means insisting that it must be the “island heat effect”, or appealing to a history of Greenland (that turns out to be bogus), or asking the climate change advocate to prove that it’s *not* the Sun, or whatever.

    I’d appreciate people’s insight into helping people who think this way understand that their opponent’s inability to answer every question doesn’t automatically mean either (a) that their side has merit or (b) that this inability is a willful attempt to disregard inconvenient facts on the part of their opponent.

    ———-

    (*) In case you’re wondering: It has.  Many times.  We’ve even seen changes that arguably stretch across the broadest taxonomic categories you can imagine, depending on what you think HeLa cells are.

  • The Lodger

    So… Muller is dishonest because he didn’t stay bought?

  • Hawker40

    That seemed to be the conclusion, yes.  “Biting the hand that feeds you” sort of thing.

  • nanananana

    That’s the thing though isn’t it?
    I’ve found that a lot of people who ingnore climate change are doing it more because it’s an inconvienence (i rely to much on spell check so I apologise if it isn’t spelled right x( ).if climate change was real then,my god they might have to change things.And that’s too much work!Working to stop cliamte change is something those lazy socialist hand-out stealing liberals do!

    I was in a four person enviromental class in school last year.With the top 3 of the graduating class.One of the girls,while outrageously smart,was admant about climate change being a lie.Even after our teacher,a very intellegent woman who was not only friends with the girl but I beleive went to the same church as her,showered her every bit of info on the subject she could.She just refused to believe it.

    This is why I worry for the world :(

  • Mackrimin

    I’ve found that a lot of people who ingnore climate change are doing it
    more because it’s an inconvienence (i rely to much on spell check so I
    apologise if it isn’t spelled right x( ).if climate change was real
    then,my god they might have to change things.And that’s too much
    work!Working to stop cliamte change is something those lazy socialist
    hand-out stealing liberals do!

    Not “hard work”, impossible. The only energy source with the potential to replace fossil fuels is nuclear power, and people are too afraid of it in most of the world. So, in order to stop climate change, we’d need to drastically reduce our energy use, which in turn means the quality of life takes a nosedive and never recovers. So basically, climate change denialism works with the same mechanism than death denialism: admitting that the good times are over for good is just too much to bear for some.

    Anyway, we should start shifting focus from climate studies to how to de-industrialize with minimum possible suffering. Even without climate change that’s inevitable, since we’re running out of oil.

  • Tonio

    Instead of de-industrializing, I would prefer that human society post-industrialize. One idea that Alexander Key used in many of his books was that technology in future or alien societies would evolve to the point where the societies might superficially resemble pre-industrial ones. My chief concern is over technologies that enhance overall well-being instead of mere convenience – storage of food and information come to mind. If travel became far simpler than even the old fantasies of flying cars, perhaps large cities would become a thing of the past.

  • Mackrimin

    It’s unlikely that large cities disappear: many people _like_ living in the middle of activity. Also, transport is already pretty convenient and will only become more so as AI advances – completely self-driving cars are already at early experimental phase.

    However, transport requires energy. In a world where energy is scarce, we need to prioritize: every joule used for transport is a joule that can’t be used to build a house, produce stuff, keep lights on, etc. We are used to having lots of stuff available, and that simply isn’t sustainable with the scraps of energy that can be extracted from renewables.

    The problem with post-industrialism is that producing most advanced stuff is only efficient at scale: you need a long chain of intermediary products, which in turn means that you need to push out massive amount of units to make it worthwile. Ergo, no industrialism -> no advanced machines, medicines, etc. -> a new dark age. There are ways to counter this, such as generic production machines (3D printers, nanoassembly, etc.) but our current industrial structure can’t do it.

    However, as technology stands right now, doing something to climate change means that life gets far worse for most people, and developing countries must be stopped from developing to keep their CO2 output from increasing. The first proposal is extremely unpleasant, and the second outright monstrous, so is it any wonder many people would rather bury their heads in the sand and pretend none of this is real?

    I wonder if this has a connection to the popularity of end-times memes of late? We _are_ living in end times: an era is coming to an end, and a new one is beginning. Things can’t continue as they are, everyone knows that, and our civilization could very well collapse, as many have before in such crucibles. On the other hand, if we can adapt, we will come out far stronger. “May you live in interesting times”, quoth an old curse…

  • Anonymous

    Anyway, we should start shifting focus from climate studies to how to de-industrialize with minimum possible suffering. Even without climate change that’s inevitable, since we’re running out of oil.

    Or you could… I dunno, switch to nuclear power, instead of damning civilization and more likely than not killing a few billion people.  But, of course, since some idiot a million years from now might decide to dig a mile down in the middle of nowehere…

    Instead of de-industrializing, I would prefer that human society post-industrialize. One idea that Alexander Key used in many of his books was that technology in future or alien societies would evolve to the point where the societies might superficially resemble pre-industrial ones. My chief concern is over technologies that enhance overall well-being instead of mere convenience – storage of food and information come to mind. If travel became far simpler than even the old fantasies of flying cars, perhaps large cities would become a thing of the past.

    If you had a teleporter relay, maybe.  But the concept of energy efficient teleporter is… somewhat nebulous.  To say nothing of far off. 
    I suppose futuristic societies could superficially resemble pre-industrial ones in some small ways, although it depends on the precise kind of society and how futuristic we’re talking about.  They’ll also superficially resemble industrial societies.

    However, transport requires energy. In a world where energy is scarce, we need to prioritize: every joule used for transport is a joule that can’t be used to build a house, produce stuff, keep lights on, etc. We are used to having lots of stuff available, and that simply isn’t sustainable with the scraps of energy that can be extracted from renewables.

    Well, that depends on how you define ‘renewables’.  If you include, say, Dyson arrays under ‘solar power’, for instance…

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

    Also, aren’t cities the most efficient form of living that doesn’t require killing most of the people currently living? Most of the “We’ve got to do something about the environment” tirades I’ve read from actual scientists tend to lean heavily on “Get rid of suburbs and small towns, and make everyone except farmers live in super-giant high-rises in self-contained city-arcologies with the maximum possible population density.” (Admittedly, most of the ones I’ve read were written by people who already live in supergiant ultradense cities and like them a lot)

  • Anonymous

    Never mind that Fukushima established that we’re apparently some way from achieving genuinely safe nuclear power…

    There must be SOME way around this debacle, that doesn’t involve allowing the weak to perish. Never mind that sealing ourselves at at-most-18th-century-level-technology doesn’t strike me as much of a way to prevent a seventh mass extinction from ever taking place (and no, letting #6 utterly extirpate life is NOT a valid option); seems that except for the Cretaceous extinction, mass extinctions were caused by a combination of global warming on the one hand, and mass hydrogen sulfide generation by abyssal anaerobic bacteria on the other. And then there’s solar expansion…


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