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Climate scientists try new tack to win over sceptics

Date

Jonathan Holmes

A group of British academics are hoping to engage with decision-makers to make their environmental message more palatable.

Findings from the social and behavioural sciences explain how people, given identical evidence, can come to opposing conclusions.

A fascinating report was published early last week by the University College, London. The authors – the Policy Commission on Communicating Climate Science – are a bunch of British academics with specialties ranging from atmospheric physics to psychology. They’ve called the report “Time for Change? Climate Science Reconsidered”. What needs reconsidering, they say, is not climate science itself, but how it is communicated to decision-makers, and the public at large.

It has of course become blindingly obvious that whether or not you accept the findings of what the report calls 'the climate science community' depends crucially on your politics.  

Too many scientists think that if people disbelieve their information, the answer is to give them more information. But the psychologists know better.

Disagreement within climate discourse is more to do with differences in values and world-views … than it is about scientific facts.

Examples are everywhere, but here’s one.

Writing in The Australian last week, Maurice Newman, banker, stockbroker, climate change sceptic, and the Abbott government’s principal business adviser, informed his readers that “there has been no global warming since September 1996”.

Nice, simple, factual statement. But the climate scientists I know tell me it is drivel.

The problem is that you are not going to persuade Mr Newman, or those who agree with him, by showing them more graphs, or talking about heat transfer to the oceans. Because for all of us, the UCL commission report says, beliefs come first, and science second.

We accept information that confirms our prior beliefs, and reject information that does not. It’s called “my side bias”, and it has nothing to do with intelligence or education. On the contrary:

the people at greater risk of becoming polarised over climate change are those who perceive themselves as intelligent and scientifically literate.

That’s because the debate about climate science, though ostensibly about facts and numbers and projections, actually engages some of our most fundamental political values: whether we favour big government or small; unregulated or regulated markets; whether we preference individual liberties or the social good – in other words, the very issues which distinguish “right” from “left”.

And because it engages these fundamental world-views, says the report:

people’s natural inclination [is] to denigrate those who hold opposing convictions.

So the climate change debate brings out the worst in all of us.

It has of course become blindingly obvious that whether or not you accept the findings of what the report calls “the climate science community” depends crucially on your politics. It shouldn’t, but it does. But what can the climate scientists do about it?

Well, the UCL policy commission is clear about some things that they should NOT do.

They shouldn’t wash their hands of the debate, and bury their heads in their computer printouts. 

Our view is that the communication and explanation of results is not an optional role: it should be an obligation.

Still less should scientists (and other advocates) exaggerate the threats posed by global warming, in the hope that they can scare the public and the politicians into action. What the report calls “alarmism” has been counter-productive, it argues.

The failure of specific predictions of climate change to materialise creates the impression that the climate science community as a whole resorts to raising false alarms.

The report doesn’t include even one example of the kind of alarmist predictions its authors have in mind. That’s unfortunate, because the so-called sceptics label “alarmist” anyone who argues that the accumulation of atmospheric greenhouse gases from human activity poses a significant danger. By those standards, the commission itself is very “alarmist” indeed:

Climate science offers a stark message: that to avoid serious future risks, rapid transformative action is required to reconfigure the world’s energy generation system, the economic system and global political practices.

“Time for Change?” outlines the problem facing climate science with great clarity. Sadly, I don’t have much faith that its suggested solutions will work.

It calls for the formation of a global professional body that can accredit climate scientists, and provide “a clear route for engagement between the climate science community and policymakers”.

That’s roughly the job the Gillard government’s Climate Commission was supposed to do. But it achieved no across-the-board acceptance. It was widely reviled by the sceptics, and the Abbott government abolished it within weeks of gaining power.

The UCL policy commission, with supreme optimism, recommends a more “co-productive” approach by climate scientists – a genuine attempt to work with decision-makers to find ways forward that everyone can accept. But it recognises that “progress will require a willingness and openness on the part of government and other policy stakeholders … to commit to such an approach”.

Well, if by “other stakeholders” the commission means the sceptics, inside or outside government, don’t hold your breath. The way the report itself has been treated by much of the media illustrates the problem.

News Corporation’s The Times of London published a story last week that focused almost entirely on the couple of pages (in a 150 page report) that scolded climate change “alarmists”. That story (republished by The Australian under the headline: “Alarmism hurts climate science”) was gleefully taken up by the sceptical blogosphere. The Spectator Australia published an editorial that utterly misrepresented the report, conflated the “alarmism” the commission condemns with the science it supports, and concluded:

“For Australians to pay the slightest heed to the global warming alarmists is like letting Wayne Swan handle your superannuation portfolio.”

Ho ho. How witty.

The UCL commission says climate scientists should reach out to such people in a search for common ground. That will be tough. It might not be “co-productive” to call climate change sceptics rude names; but it’s a temptation that’s hard to resist.

Jonathan Holmes is an Age columnist and a former presenter of the ABC’s Media Watch program.

140 comments so far

  • Thanks for the article Jonathan - it's just a pity that the solution was in the last paragraph:
    ''...a search for common ground...''
    It may be an interesting article on climate change but I think the message is probably better suited to the huge wave of racism over asylum seekers that has been witnessed in posts on these very pages over the last few days.

    The common ground is that they, like ourselves, only want what is best for their children and their families. However, this simple common goal continually gets buried under the easy-to-swallow rhetoric that comes hand-in-hand with the slogan: 'stop the boats'.

    Commenter
    Jump
    Date and time
    July 02, 2014, 1:07AM
    • Confusing Comment. It's not racist to object to open borders. As for our children's future, this country is now Primary Industry Export only. If our children have to face an 80's style mineral glut, followed by a 90's type recession, there will be no secondary industry for Australia to fall back on. Carbon Tax Impact deniers are worse than Climate Change Skeptics.

      Commenter
      Kingstondude
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      July 02, 2014, 8:45AM
    • I'm sceptical - that you can get people to reconsider their positions. The climate sceptics would look at this argument and say, why wouldn't you use this logic to argue that there's no climate change? That's the problem with extremists. They've got their position, and that's it. Unfortunately, they'll never let facts get in the way of promoting their position.

      Commenter
      Tone
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      July 02, 2014, 8:52AM
    • Good article. What I learn most from reading online comments on almost any subject is how each commenter votes. Logic & reality are rarely to be seen.

      Commenter
      lainie18
      Location
      Woolloomooloo
      Date and time
      July 02, 2014, 9:11AM
    • No kingstondude, not racist to object to open borders - it's how the objections are voiced that are racist - depressingly so. But - wait until the Pacific islands are under water, the Gangees delta is flooded - then you will see some economic migrants knocking on the door.

      Commenter
      mattoxic
      Location
      mont Albert
      Date and time
      July 02, 2014, 9:46AM
    • Sometimes I think it would be better to focus on the pollution(chemicals etc) that is being poured into the atmosphere rather than climate change, because the skeptics keep coming back with the statement, that the climates always changing to disprove long term climate change..

      Commenter
      Hashert
      Date and time
      July 02, 2014, 9:56AM
    • Jonathon you are ignoring another whole group of people. You are guilty of dividing the debate into two groups which is exactly what you say is wrong with the debate. Take my position for example. I 100% agree with the scientists theory of increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere leading to global warming. However I think pricing carbon is a colossal waste of time and money.

      Commenter
      mh
      Location
      Brisbane
      Date and time
      July 02, 2014, 11:30AM
    • If we were facing a genuine existential threat from anthropogenic global warming then world governments would commence building modern nuclear power stations to replace dirty coal-fired ones. Public opposition would be overruled on the grounds that avoiding a climate crisis is more important than indulging popular prejudices about nuclear energy. This would buy us a century or more of emission-free base-load power during which we can further develop renewable technology. It’s the lack of will or urgency to replace coal with an immediately viable alternative that makes me sceptical about the actual severity of this ‘crisis’.

      Commenter
      Molotov
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      July 02, 2014, 11:35AM
    • It would seem that there are commonalities of CC with any sort of impending disaster. If we take WWII as an example, first in UK all the warnings of Churchill we rejected, and then even after war broke out in Europe, the US did not commit until Pearl Harbour.

      Hopefully we dont need to waite for a CC disaster before we change our minds here. There are some brighter prospects, as the world community did react quickly and in concert to the GFC, and managed to prevent it becoming another depression (although many countries still suffer).

      Commenter
      john
      Location
      montterosso
      Date and time
      July 02, 2014, 12:41PM
    • @ Jump and Tone and others

      What possible reason could Rupert Murdoch and News Ltd have for opposing action on climate change ?

      Big Business eg Insurance companies, who sometimes invest in media and communication companies, certainly understand climate change is a reality.

      Commenter
      Rod
      Location
      the Coast
      Date and time
      July 02, 2014, 3:23PM

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