Between Scientists & Citizens

Stop looking for specks of climate skepticism

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Since it’s Sunday, I feel called to preach. My text:

Why worry about a speck in your friend’s eye when you have a log in your own? (New Living Translation)

Here are some specks and logs that showed up in this week’s #scicomm stream of thought.

Speck #1

Screen Shot 2018-10-14 at 12.19.46 PM

Find the tweet here; it was brought to my attention by a retweet from Andy Revkin. And the article from The Hill is here.

Both the article headline and the tweet itself emphasize Republican skepticism about climate change. Does the article justify that emphasis? No.

First off, I’m hoping that The Hill didn’t go around asking legislators, D or R, whether they had “read” the just-released IPCC SR 1.5 Report. Who among us, dear readers, could make such a claim? Presumably, policymakers should read the summaries for policymakers. But even these have become so long that the IPCC issues summaries of the summaries (“Headlines”). Key point here: Everyone The Hill names indicated that they were aware of the report, felt responsible for reading the summary, and (except for Trump) were generally familiar with its conclusions. Good so far!

The article goes on to discuss the views of four Republicans and one Democrat. Two Republicans (Trump, Inhofe) cast shade more or less explicitly on the IPCC. Notice that that is a pullback from the even more skeptical position Inhofe in particular has taken in the past. He isn’t here challenging the science directly–perhaps he’s conceding that issue? He’s attacking the messenger instead.

Admittedly, that isn’t much of an advance over outright skepticism. What we want to see is the science left unconverted (except by scientists), and the debate shifted to values and policies instead. Leah Ceccarelli, Dan Sarewitz and others have been calling for this for over a decade. So we should be delighted to notice that two of the Republicans quoted by The Hill are interested in legislation supporting carbon capture & storage–which (to the extent I understand it) is the savior the IPCC hopes will descend & rescue us.  (OK, one of them calls it “Clean Coal,” which wouldn’t be exactly the term I would use. )

Does the one Democrat quoted in the article take this as an opening for building momentum towards legislation? No, he emphasizes the science and claims that Republicans are intransigent.

Well, politicizing science is what politicians do (as Sarewitz says). But I expect better from the press and thoughtful commentators.  The Hill’s article did not support The Hill’s headline. The Republicans here are not saying “what we expect”–if we lay down our need to see Republicans as science skeptics, we might find room for debate on the real issues.

Speck #2

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This is Katharine Hayhoe tweeting in response to a tweet by Representative Carlos Curbelo, a Republican representing a district south of Miami.

Hayhoe extends this initial tweet with a compact and informative discussion of the difference between increased hurricane frequency (which hasn’t been endorsed by the US National Climate Assessment) and increased hurricane intensity (which has been). That is as so often with Hayhoe a useful contribution to #scicomm Twitter.

But note that it’s framed by a post that characterizes Curbelo as “feeling the need to reject the science.” Is that charitable? Here’s what Curbelo said:

Those of us who truly care about #climatechange must be sober when discussing its connection to #HurricaneMichael or any other storm. Florida has had hurricanes for centuries. There’s no time to waste, but alarmists hurt the cause & move our fight for #climatesolutions backward.

Note that Curbelo doesn’t explicitly mention frequency or intensity. So he can’t really be chided for wrong views of intensity based on this post.

Curbelo does seem to be making a point about the attribution of Hurricane Michael to climate change. I have a hard time of seeing this as a criticism of science, though. For one thing, although I know attribution studies have gotten faster, do we really have one yet that ties Michael to AGW? If not, then maybe what Curbelo is saying is the scientifically accurate view.

But I think a better reading is that Curbelo isn’t making a scientific point at all–he’s making a point about climate communication. Arguments based on binding AGW to specific extreme weather events are perceived as “alarmist” and easily dismissed by a key segment of his audience–conservatives who like him “truly care about climate change.” In order to “move our fight for climate solutions” forward, a better framing is needed–and needed now–“there’s no time to waste.”

Curbelo may or may not be right in his assessment of the best way to frame climate change to address audiences who feel cautious about climate policies. But he can hardly be said to be “rejecting the science.”

Our log

In this week after the issuing of the grim IPCC SP 1.5 report, #scicomm twitter has been dominated by a discussion of who to blame:

  • Scientists (this made us sad)
  • Science journalists + professional communicators (ibid)
  • Big Oil
  • Republicans
  • Professional controversy-manufacturers
  • A credulous populace
  • A partisan populace
  • Further malign forces

I’ll confess to doubts about the accuracy of this familiar narrative. But even if it once was true, we now are entering a new phase. Big Oil is putting money behind a carbon tax. The most recent Yale Climate Change Communication data shows climate “dismissives” and “disengaged” both below 10%. Matt Nisbett this week reviewed the evidence of widespread public support for some forms of climate action. In other words, conditions are increasingly ripe for a debate about values and policies, leaving science behind.

In these new conditions, the old story about science “rejection” isn’t helpful. Thoughtful climate communicators, among whom I would include all the authors mentioned here, need to be aware of their tendency to be hypersensitive to “science rejection,” and counteract it with a resolve to accept on face value statements that don’t make an issue of climate science.

If we look for specks of climate skepticism, we’ll undoubtedly find them. But this need to look for skepticism is a log in our eye; it’s distorting our vision. Pulling it out, we might see more clearly the opportunities for productive debates on the values and policies of climate action.



Written by jeangoodwin

October 14, 2018 at 1:22 pm

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