Climate News of the Week Roundup: Scientific Consensus Confirmed for Umpteenth Time, But Will It Make a Difference?

This week’s roundup features another confirmation of the scientific consensus on climate change but also the question of its relevance, the quality of BBC climate reporting apparently having stalled (thanks to Tomas Wyns for this line), the future of emission trading in Australia, the EU and South Korea, the future of the Clean Development Mechanism, questions on the longevity of the US “shale gas revolution”, a speech by former top UK climate diplomat John Ashton on the politics of climate change, and more.

Cook et al. from the Skeptical Science website did a survey of about 12,000 peer-reviewed climate science papers and found a 97% consensus among papers taking a position on the cause of global warming that humans are responsible. To be precise, they classified 11,944 papers.  Of those, 4,014 expressed a position on global warming.  3,896 of these,  97.1%, attributed the cause to humans. Earlier studies came to basically the same result. News of the study was even tweeted by Barack Obama.

A post on the International Herald Tribune asked: “Scientists Agree Overwhelmingly on Global Warming. Why Doesn’t the Public Know That?” It probably partly has to do with the media reporting, as Cook et al. argue:

One contributor to this misperception is false balance in the media, particularly in the US, where most climate stories are “balanced” with a “skeptic” perspective. However, this results in making the 3% seem much larger, like 50%. In trying to achieve “balance”, the media has actually created a very unbalanced perception of reality. As a result, people believe scientists are still split about what’s causing global warming, and therefore there is not nearly enough public support or motivation to solve the problem.

Right on cue, the BBC had a broadcast this Friday that made me cringe. The aim was apparently to debunk the climate skeptic view, but in doing so it ticked off all the boxes of how not to debunk a myth. It put the skeptics’ myth front and center, putting them into the headline and teaser, repeating them throughout and also giving a fair amount of airtime to one prominent skeptic. That apparently wasn’t the intention, but to me, the piece came across as, he says this, she says that, nobody really knows.

The piece also didn’t get the science right in my view. According to recent studies, global warming has actually accelerated, not “stalled”. The problem is that people equate surface warming with global warming. But 90% of the excess heat is going into the oceans, and they have continued to warm rapidly. Surface warming only appears to have stalled due to a decade of La Niñas, which transfer heat from the atmosphere to the ocean. To top it off, the piece wrongly suggests that scientists are revising their estimate of climate sensitivity, the measure how much warming is caused by a doubling of the atmospheric CO2 concentration.

I suggest to watch a recent lecture by John Schellnhuber on the state of climate science, he lays it all out, the “stall”, the non-revision of climate sensitivity etc., video link and summary notes by me here.

But while better media reporting would be nice, probably no amount of evidence is going to convince the hard-core contrarians. As demonstrated immediately after the study had come out for example by John Watts. Commenting on the Cook et al. study, he added the papers that don’t take any position to the handful of papers that do take a position against climate change being human-caused, and concluded that actually 2/3 of the papers don’t accept the theory of anthropogenic global warming, calling the 97% conclusion a “lie of epic proportions”.

There is a whole science of why we don’t believe in science. Basically, we usually don’t form opinions by rationally weighing the evidence. Instead, we often believe what we want to believe. Reasoning is suffused with emotion, we first have an emotional reaction within milliseconds and only then start thinking about the issue. We do of course have an interest to perceive the world accurately, but we also have other goals, e.g. identity affirmation and protecting one’s sense of self. Opinions are hence strongly determined by core values, e.g. the importance one attaches to individual rights vis-a-vis the public good or whether one prefers an egalitarian or hierarchical society. And as we’re so emotionally invested in our views, any challenge to our views is a challenge to our sense of self, so we tend to amplify evidence that supports our views and discard evidence that contradicts them. Trying to persuade people may even backfire. In an experiment Republican voters were given evidence that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction – and afterwards even more of them believed that it did.

Forming opinions is also a rather tribal issue, we accept evidence and views from those we perceive as sharing our core values much more readily than from those we perceive as having contradictory values. Dan Kahan argues that this normally works out fine, groups with different values routinely converge on the best available evidence. But it becomes a problem when a certain belief becomes a core part of a group’s identity, as is the case with climate change among US Republicans. To overcome the mechanisms of motivated reasoning, messaging must be culturally adjusted, affirming the target group’s core values just to allow the evidence to be considered instead of being rejected outright.

On that basis, Kahan and Keith Kloor have rather scathing comments here and here on the value of reaffirming the scientific consensus over and over. If the messaging doesn’t take into account the cultural side of cognition, it’s a rather pointless exercise in their view. And Kloor argues that the key stumbling block is that even among those who accept climate science, most see it as an issue that is distant in time and space and will not affect them personally. And as long as people don’t see it as a salient issue, they are not going to make it a voting issue, which is the one thing that would make politicians sit up and take notice.

On the other hand, there’s the advice of Republican strategist Frank Luntz, as discussed in Joe Romm’s excellent book “Language Intelligence”. Luntz advised his party that to get a message across, you repeat your message again and again and again, and when you’re absolutely sick of saying it, your target audience has heard it for the first time. Which Romm sums up as: If you don’t repeat, you can’t compete. So I’d say Kahan and Kloor are too quick in their dismissal of the “annual ‘new study'” confirming the scientific consensus. Repetition is in fact key, but so is figuring out how to reach a broader audience and how to endow the issue with greater salience in people’s minds.

As for climate politics, the upcoming Australian election and its aftermath may be even more interesting to watch than I thought. The current opposition leader Tony Abbott swore an “oath in blood” to repeal Labour’s carbon pricing legislation at the first opportunity. Mike Marriot thinks that Abbott would look to axe the price on carbon in name only, introducing a face-saving sleight-of-hand but still maintain a price on carbon. He thinks that, contrary to the US Republicans, Abbott and his team know that they can’t let themselves be taken in by the radical elements of their party. And if there is going to be climate action, as Abbott has pledged, business will want a market-based instrument, not Abbott’s “direct action” plan.

Speaking of emission trading, Bloomberg reports a rather unflattering comment made by China’s chief climate diplomat Su Wei on the EU ETS: “It’s too early to talk of a linkage with the EU market because that is a failed market.”

Maybe the EU should taking some lessons from South Korea. Another report by Bloomberg projects the price in the South Korean ETS to reach the penalty level of US$90/t. They calculated that their emission target for 2020 is equivalent to a 19% reduction from 2010 levels, which compares favourably with only 14% for Australia and a mere 5% reduction for the EU in 2010-20. The South Korean government is of course under pressure to tone down its level of ambition. But even if it is toned down, one may perhaps hope that it will be toned down to something like the California-Québec level, where prices are projected at US$50/t, not the rock-bottom EU level.

Over here, Jochen Flasbarth, head of the Federal German Environment Agency this week joined those calling for the cancellation of 1.7 billion EU allowances, stating that Germany will not reach its 40% by 2020 target without ETS reform. So if an EU-level reform is not possible, Germany should in his view levy a national CO2 fee (article in German here). And Eurelectric warned that the EU is facing a “lost decade” of climate and energy policy inaction, which would later lead to a costly catch-up to still meet the 2050 targets. “We estimate that the full ‘lost decade’ perspective would cost two percentage points of GDP per annum throughout the time period until 2050 above the costs of optimal decarbonisation,” the report’s author, Pantelis Capros, told EurActiv.

The European Wind Energy Association notes that there’s also quite a bit of short-term costs. The EU last year spent 406 billion euros on fossil fuel imports, 3.6% of its GDP. And that bill has actually doubled over the last three years due to increasing fuel prices. I personally am not as concerned about competitiveness as the EWEA piece, but certainly that money could be put to better use within the EU, rather than lining the pockets of paragons of democracy such as Saudi Arabia.

A new Wuppertal paper looks at another segment of the carbon market, the CDM, taking a look at the options that could be taken to stabilise the market. Unfortunately, the only thing that would really help are industrialised countries deepening their targets or putting a lot of money on the table to buy and cancel CDM credits.

On the other side of the pond, Jeff Spross thinks that thanks to the renewal of the production tax credit, 2013/14 will be a new high for deployment and innovation in the US wind industry. And Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed thinks the US “shale gas revolution” is just a bubble about to burst. Shale gas and oil reservoirs are declining much more rapidly than conventional fields, making them “distinctly unprofitable”. The article quotes analysts as saying that “the economics of fracking are horrible”. Ahmed thinks that, “When the bubble bursts under the weight of its own debt obligations, there will be a collapse in supply and a spike in prices, with serious economic consequences.” The German-language Spektrum der Wissenschaft made a similar argument here.

Another interesting piece on “unburnable carbon“. Some dismiss this notion by asserting that we are not going to meet the 2°C target anyway thanks to political inaction, so there actually is no constraint. Adam Whitmore argues that the hypothesis holds no matter where you want to stabilise global warming. Even a stabilisation at 4°C – which according to a recent World Bank report would trigger “a cascade of cataclysmic changes that include extreme heat-waves, declining global food stocks and a sea-level rise affecting hundreds of millions of people” -, will require emissions to be much lower than what is embedded in available fossil fuel reserves.

Joe Powell had a nice piece on the need for the aid debate to grow up, blasting both ill-informed criticism and misguided defence of development aid.

John Mathews asks how Europe and the US can compete with China on renewables. His answer: Do targeted industrial climate policy, as the Chinese are doing. The reason it’s not happening is in his view the dominant economic discourse of “the market knows best” and governments shouldn’t “meddle”.

This is also a central theme of a must-read (or watch) speech by former top UK climate diplomat John Ashton on the politics of climate change. Ashton posits that politics are dominated by a “cult” of “The market knows best. Business will always allocate resources more efficiently than those enemies of enterprise in Whitehall. Government must be shrunk.” The “problem” with solving the problem of climate change is that strong government policy is needed to redirect investments. So, “You can fix the climate problem. Or you can cling to a dogma about small government. But you can’t do both at the same time ‐ which may be why so many small government enthusiasts seem troubled by the idea that we should deal with climate change.”

Which goes right back to the argument of how opinions are determined by core values. As noted in the piece referenced above, Kahan has found that opinions on climate change line up rather neatly on the divide of individualist-communitarian, hierarchical-egalitarian.

Ashton generally passes a harsh verdict on the political system and the politicians that run it. The public has turned its back, in particular youths, and understandably so in his view, as “They are the first modern generation who, as they look at the future, see a prospect that looks worse than the prospect their parents saw. They know something has gone wrong and needs fixing, but they see an elite too busy clinging to the old system, for comfort or profit, to start a conversation with them about how to build a new one.” I did a summary of my other personal highlights in Ashton’s speech here.

But I guess people and especially youths may be forgiven for despairing of the political system, seeing as it’s not only failing to tackle climate change but also imposing enormous human suffering by completely mismanaging the current economic crisis.

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