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Perception, Power and Principles: Human induced climate change and why people have trouble accepting the science


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Perception, Power and Principles: Human induced climate change and why people have trouble accepting the science

Over the last three months in Cambridge, we have been treated to a large number of free public lectures – there is definitely something special about this place and I think that Canada has a lot to learn about engaging the public to be interested in science and its role/impact on society. My next blog entry will focus on public lectures, but for now, I want to tell you about two lectures specifically and how they made me understand why people are so divided on the issue of climate science. (and yes, this is one of the reasons that public lectures outside of one’s field are an excellent thing to attend)

Talk #1 – Nigel Lawson, British Politician, Climate Change Skeptic

Aside from general musings about how many holes there are in the data and how lots of things are ignored or exaggerated, a couple of themes struck home:

Lawson made a very good point: The vast majority of people who are trained in the climate science field are told “climate change is happening and it’s man-made” and are then set onto the task of researching its effects in area/situation X. In some respects this is true, as an entire generation of climate science trainees did not partake in the original global warming discussions. We’ve all heard the line “the scientists have agreed on this for decades now”, but how many of them actually know why?

Of course, this is common in academia (I had to accept the theory of stem cells before I could learn about them, but only part way through my PhD could I argue confidently and cite why stem cells were real and important) – perhaps it is particularly bad in climate change related fields? I don’t know the answer to that, but even I’ve read a large portion of the IPCC report, and I hope that every climate scientist has at least taken down the executive summary.

Misdirected Passion and Politics
In the question/answer session, three junior climate scientists were so offended by Lawson’s diatribe that they not only asked questions like “How can you believe this?” but spent 20 minutes following the session harassing Lawson for his views.

Lawson, the seasoned politician, deflected all questions, raising general points that cast some doubt on elements of climate change and well outside the field of expertise of each individual scientist, giving Lawson’s indoctrination argument some serious merit. In many ways, as sick as it makes me feel, the climate critic came out looking pretty darn good.

But clearly… this is the politics of science, and scientists themselves have a HUGE amount to learn if there is to be any progress in policy. Some quick advice if you are making an argument in public – keep things simple, inside your area of expertise, and be direct. If you’re asking a politician a question, make it a yes or no question – people like Nigel Lawson are experts at saying what they want to say no matter what you ask, try boxing them in with logic and simplicity.

Talk #2 – Bob Watson, Chief Scientific Adviser, British Dept. of Environment
Honestly, this talk was one of the most disappointing of the Darwin College lecture series on “Risk” (which was generally quite good). Bob Watson is one of the most engaged scientists when it comes to Government and I really thought he would have a sense of “who is your audience”. Instead, his first statement was something along the lines of “right, so we know this is happening and man-made” and then proceeded to tell us all about the models from the IPCC.

He was in front of a general audience, at least some of whom are in the Lawson camp of not being sold on the climate change debate, and was four months after the “climate-gate” scandal from Bob Watson’s University (though not his department to be fair)… and instead of clearing the air at all, he just played the doom and gloom cards of what could happen.

What climate scientists really need to do whenever they give a public lecture:

Show simple slides on why the scientific community is convinced
– What are the key pieces of data? What convinced you?
Things like:
– our world is not a ball of ice because of the greenhouse effect.
– greenhouse gases and clouds are part of this process and particular gases (carbon dioxide, water vapour, methane, etc) have more of an effect than others
– increases in these gases means more radiation heats the earth
What have we observed?
1. CO2 and methane are up and rising
2. Global temperature has and continues to rise

Why do you need to do this?
Because, while it might not be new to you… the world is not convinced and until they are, the scientific community has to drill home these messages (especially the experts in the field). Simple messages… we have high confidence in X because of Y. Don’t preach that scientists have it all figured out and you should now obey our demands… that is not appealing to anyone. Be a little more savvy about your message.

Clearing the air
I do not dispute the science that says our planet is warming. I also think that there is a reasonable chance (and lots of correlative data) that humans have played a role in pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere (i.e.: we have chopped down a lot of forests and burning coal and flying airplanes are pretty effective at emitting the stuff) – so if the greenhouse effect is truly what keeps our planet from being a ball of ice (which seems to be the best theory running so far), then I’m pretty sold on the need to reduce our output of greenhouse gases.

Am I sold on all the models? To be honest, I don’t understand them, so it’s tough to say. What I do understand is that that if an entire community of academics – at least some of whom I trust are very critical of the data and models – are screaming to high heaven that we need to worry about this, so I’m keen to make some serious changes. Let’s just work on getting Joe Public on board

PS: Looks like Canada is doing a great job from over here in the UK…

David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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  1. klem / March 23, 2010 at 13:11

    “What have we observed?
    1. CO2 and methane are up and rising
    2. Global temperature has and continues to rise”
    The trouble with this simple, dumbed-down approach is that Joe Public now is fully aware that CO2 and Methane naturally rise and fall over time, and that global temperatures also rise and fall over time. And that there is an average 600 year delay between the temperature change and the corresponding co2 change. In other words, temperature rises first, then co2 follows 600 years later. Joe Public understands that CO2 cannot be defined as a cause of temperature change, it is only an effect. Joe Public also knows that water vapour is the 800 lb gorilla of greenhouse gases, co2 is insignificant. So when you speak slowly and clearly to the stupid Joe Public, try to leave out some of these troubling bits.

  2. […] 2010) in the context of public perception and how slow they can be to change.  Today I noticed a posting by Dave at The Black Hole blog which comes at the issue from a different angle. In the context of […]

  3. Dave K / March 23, 2010 at 18:23

    Hi Klem,
    Thanks for your comment – always appreciated.
    I was hoping that my comment of “Don’t preach that scientists have it all figured out and you should now obey our demands… that is not appealing to anyone” would make exactly the point that you are making. I’m certainly not saying that Joe Public is stupid, exactly the opposite – I’m saying keep the messaging simple for the things you have high confidence in like the data from the IPCC that shows both CO2 and global temperature are on the rise. The greenhouse effect is itself quite complicated – I definitely don’t understand all of the nuts and bolts, but the fact that many bright scientists who’ve spent their lives in chemistry, physics, biology, etc have come to agreement that it is a pretty good theory to explain why our world is warm gives me reason to give some confidence to it.
    I tried very hard while writing this to not make erroneous statements. For example, I did not say that the observable CO2 rise over the last 60 years was the cause of current temperature rises. What I can say with confidence is that we’ve only been able to accurately measure CO2 since the 1950s and comprehesive global data only exists for about 30 or 40 years. The rest is gathered from air pockets in ice cores, which has its own benefits and drawbacks, but is definitely not as accurate as today’s air measurements.
    In the end, statements of the ilk that I described should lead the way:
    “we have high confidence in X because of Y”
    …and low confidence should (and often is) admitted.
    If you have access to good data sets that support humans NOT causing the recent spikes in CO2 or indeed the temperature rises in general, then I would be more than happy to give it publicity. If not, I’d prefer to allow a whole swathe of bright people make their best theories on the data we DO have and for governments to proceed over the coming decades with caution (and indeed action) – the relative risk of the scientists being “right” will not be satisfactorily justified with a glib “we told you so” if the models pan out.
    Thanks again for your comments – love getting feedback!
    PS: I understand from the IPCC report that water vapour plays a massive role in comparison to C02, but that polar regions (due to lower water vapour amounts) are at a higher risk with fluctuations in CO2 – thoughts on this?
    PPS: Climate scientists – the floor is yours if you want to direct people to additional resources or provide some comments.

  4. SubC / April 1, 2010 at 16:55

    The key points missing are not whether climate change is occurring (it has changed quite often in the past) or even if it is indeed human-created (maybe or may not be—– hardly matters). The key issues to discuss are how best to adapt and exploit this situation to our mutual benefit. I find it hard to believe that climate change would be an unmitigated disaster for the whole world (it would be bad for places like Maldives for sure), yet hardly anyone seems to be do a cost-benefit analysis and pick out the Winners (Canada, Russia, Alaska, Argentina) from the Losers (small island nations) of ‘climate change’?
    Maybe we should stop pointing fingers, accept the obvious (we are in a warming period) and try to make the best of a tricky situation).
    SubC (neither a ‘denier’ nor a ‘believer’ but a slightly skeptical optimist)

  5. tommy / May 5, 2010 at 17:39

    Just wanted to say I really liked the post. You have really put a lot of energy into your posts and it is just awesome!