25 May 2010

Incoherent Policy Narratives and Climate Skepticism

One of the enduring myths in the debate about climate change is that action to decarbonize economic activity depends upon a specific view of climate science. The logic holds that if people are concerned enough about climate change -- if they have sufficient alarm -- they will then have the motivation needed to support policies that have high costs and involve sacrifice. From this perspective, public opinion on climate science thus serves as a proxy for public support for policy action.

This logic is flawed, both conceptually and empirically, as I'll illustrate by discussing a well-meaning but ultimately incoherent article on the front page of today's New York Times. The article explains how climate skepticism is on the rise in Great Britain.
Nowhere has this shift in public opinion been more striking than in Britain, where climate change was until this year such a popular priority that in 2008 Parliament enshrined targets for emissions cuts as national law. But since then, the country has evolved into a home base for a thriving group of climate skeptics who have dominated news reports in recent months, apparently convincing many that the threat of warming is vastly exaggerated.
The article explains that the rise of skepticism threatens climate policies:
Politicians and activists say such attitudes will make it harder to pass legislation like a fuel tax increase and to persuade people to make sacrifices to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. . .

The lack of fervor about climate change is also true of the United States, where action on climate and emissions reduction is still very much a work in progress, and concern about global warming was never as strong as in Europe.
The logic is flawed conceptually because "fervor about climate change" is far from the only reason that people support energy policies that advance decarbonization. Other reasons for public support include energy security, diversification, economic growth and jobs, replacing dirty energy with clean energy, energy reliability, costs and so on.

That the logic is flawed can be convincingly shown empirically. Consider that climate skepticism in Great Britain has been deemed to be a problem for years. For instance:
2007: "The public are far more sceptical about global warming than most politicians would have us believe, a new poll has revealed today."

2008: "Surprising politicians, a poll released Sunday indicates a majority of the British public does not believe human activity has caused global warming."

2009: "The British public has become more sceptical about climate change over the last five years, according to a survey."
Yet, right in the middle of this period the UK government passed the 2008 Climate Change Act with essentially no opposition and broad public support. The Act mandates emissions reductions of 34% by 2020 and 80% by 2050, making it the most aggressive piece of national legislation anywhere. Skepticism about climate science presented no obstacle to passing this legislation.

The NYT also reports that more Americans believe that climate science has been exaggerated in public discussions:
A March Gallup poll found that 48 percent of Americans believed that the seriousness of global warming was “generally exaggerated,” up from 41 percent a year ago.
Here is a hypothesis to consider: The public is smarter than they are often given credit for. It is possible that the public can at the same time support policies that lead to decarbonization of the economy while at the same time believing that climate science has been exaggerated.

The message from the public that many experts (including the media) have yet to comprehend is that policies which require "sacrifice" are nonstarters. It does not matter what the public believes about climate science, they are not (in general) going to sacrifice or endure hardship. This reality should be a boundary condition for policy design. With this consideration, the public has consistently supported action on climate change, notably moving to a less carbon-intensive economy. The policy challenge is thus to figure out how to design policies that meet these political realities, a challenge that policy experts have yet to tackle.

The NYT actually further politicizes climate science by implying that the battle over the integrity of climate science is one-and-the-same as the battle over climate policies:
Scientists have meanwhile awakened to the public’s misgivings and are increasingly fighting back. . . It is unclear whether such actions are enough to win back a segment of the public that has eagerly consumed a series of revelations that were published prominently in right-leaning newspapers like The Times of London and The Telegraph and then repeated around the world. . .
By equating issues of science with issues of politics the NYT thus is apparently willing to minimize the issues of scientific integrity that have surfaced regarding the IPCC:

In January, for example, The Times chastised the United Nations climate panel for an errant and unsupported projection that glaciers in the Himalayas could disappear by 2035. The United Nations ultimately apologized for including the estimate, which was mentioned in passing within a 3,000-page report in 2007.

Then came articles contending that the 2007 report was inaccurate on a host of other issues, including African drought, the portion of the Netherlands below sea level, and the economic impact of severe storms. Officials from the climate panel said the articles’ claims either were false or reflected minor errors like faulty citations that in no way diluted the evidence that climate change is real and caused by human activity.

This narrative thus reinforces two sorts of policy failures:

First, it perpetuates a flawed expectation that once people only believe enough or the right things, they will then be willing to make sacrifices leading to successful climate policies. Yet, public opinion on this point has been constant for decades -- support for decarbonization policies is not about belief in science, but rather the short-term costs and benefits of proposed policy action, which has nothing to do with long-term climate change. Similarly, that the public does not want sacrifice has been a constant in public opinion.

Second, it enables the pathological politicization of science not just by equating views on science with views on policy, but also by encouraging the looking past real problems in the IPCC. The logic of this narrative holds that if climate science is in any way diminished, then support for action is necessarily reduced, so it is best to look away from problems in science, or even to minimize them. The public is no so easily fooled. However, looking at actual poll data should be enough to show that views on climate science are not tightly correlated with support for action on energy policies that accelerate decarbonization.

The NYT concludes:
The public is left to struggle with the salvos between the two sides.
The public is in fact doing just fine. It is the media and other elites who continue to carry along an incoherent narrative who are doing most of the struggling. When they start listening to what the public is actually saying, rather than trying to force public opinions into a predefined but ultimately unrealistic mold, might be the time when debate over climate policy truly opens up.

You can read a more in depth treatment of this argument in my forthcoming book, The Climate Fix: What Scientists and Politicians Won't Tell You About Global Warming. Pre-order your copy today ;-)


  1. maybe the NYTimes is simply trying to sell advertising?

  2. Roger

    I do not believe there is much support in Britain for decarbonisation, for any reason. The BBC say that only 26% of the population believe "climate change was happening and "now established as largely man-made".

    You cannot switch the rational just like that. You can't say you want the car to go drinking, then say you want it for shopping two minutes later. Not global warming, but energy security. The Iraq war had a number of equally unbelievable motives.


    "The public is smarter than they are often given credit for"

    They are certainly smarter than the average scientist. There is no question about that.

    Scientist's say amazingly stupid and patronising things. Carbon trading is dead in Britain as far as public opinion goes, precisely because they were told idiotic lies about AGW.

    Here is a very embarrassing little pro climategate example by a distinguished BBC celebrity scientist in the Guardian today. In my view, it is pathetic, as is his TV programme 'Atom' which argued that that Boltzmann was driven to suicide by religion, when he was ridiculed by scientists, and had a history of severe depression.

    This, to promote the same positive view as the article of science/ rationality and (let's be frank, it's the BBC) global warming. There has been a massive upsurge in popular science programming recently which may be related to the fall in support for AGW.


    UK only

    The idea that scientists are fighting back against the forces of irrationality isn't politicisation, it's a lie. The corporate media totally support carbon markets, It has literally nothing to do with science.

  3. Sorry, rational should be rationale.

  4. eric144 said... 2
    "You cannot switch the rational just like that. ...Not global warming, but energy security"

    I had an exchange quite some months ago with a Russian who many would refer to as 'a propagandist for the Russia energy industry'. They don't believe the European Energy policies ever had anything to do with 'Climate Change'.

    If one argues 'climate change' then nuclear becomes a lesser evil.

    For people who only care about their wallets, the price of coal in Europe makes nuclear cost competitive.

  5. The difference between AGW belief and AGW scepticism among the public isn't simply a difference in beliefs and ideologies, it's a difference of indoctrination and enlightenment. The more enlightened about the very existence of the uncertainties inherent in today's climate science, and the possibility that advocacy and ideology might have corrupted a presumed-respectable science, the less willing individuals are to then take on faith anything that those scientists say. The more the public understands the science's dependence on computer models for its prophecies of doom, the more it will assert its secular trend.

    Few take "the latest scientific diet research says Coco-Pops are good for you" type of advocacy science, printed on the side of a cereal box, seriously. It may indeed be scientific, but it doesn't necessarily make it true. It is quite normal for the rational man to value sciences but reject "scientific facts" from suspect, yet definitively scientific, sources.

    An ever-growing number of people are gaining an understanding of the difference between the commonly understood implications of a "scientific fact" and the projections and probabilities associated with the "precautionary principle" which underwrites all of climate science. Once they understand that distinction, fewer still are even willing to accept the precautionary principle as a function of science.

    Wide acceptance of the scientific case for catastrophic climate change is dependent on ignorance of these things - hence the IPCC's "tidy story" that was insisted upon, as intimated by Keith Briffa in the Climategate emails. Until Climategate, ignorance was rife. Now, not so much.

    Britain is rather more secular these days than in the days of the Crusades.Brits today are a cynical and sarcastic bunch, and the transition from indoctrination to enlightenment is very much a one-way street. Few people who lose their religion ever regain it later. Few people who discover that climate science isn't "perfect" will change their mind and decide later that it is.

    Regaining the popular vote on climate alarmism is going to take something completely different from more overinflated stories and hard-selling. It's going to take a more fundamental change in climate science. It's certainly going to have to do better than try to incite yet more fear with its catastrophic projections - that boat's sailed. You can't frighten someone into believing in this stuff any more. That premise was always tentative, and was bound to fail utterly.

    Climate science is going to have to deliver on some certainties. I'm not sure that it can but unless it does, it won't ever get ahead of the sceptical voice again.

  6. The previous UK administration had a penchant for enshrining targets "in law" without ever having to produce anything like a credible plan for achieving those targets. Nobody goes to jail if they're missed, nobody gets fined. There may be a brief flurry of bad headlines but as the targets were set decades in advance nobody will be held to account.
    Such legislation is generally recognised for what it is, political posturing and nothing more.

    Financial realities are coming home to roost in the UK and EU. There is unlikely to be much enthusiasm for ideology driven projects over the next 10 years, especially if they have negative impacts on prices, tax, business or jobs.

    Without popular support the political will to drive through expensive projects will most likely fade away with little further comment - there is just no spare public money.
    As the "scientific" message becomes less clear cut, and the public realise it, politicians will talk about it less. Most will never admit they were wrong, or have changed their views... they will just quietly ignore inconvenient hype of the moment.

    From a cynical, sarcastic Brit :)

  7. Harrywr2

    The Russians received a very generous bribe (including membership of the WTO) to jump on board the Kyoto Express. They support AGW. They are also building a massive sub Baltic pipeline to Germany. So, the Germans can't be that concerned about security.

    Yes, anti Russian and Venezuelan feeling in Israel and elsewhere may be a factor in pushing AGW, but in Britain, the lies have focussed at least 95% on AGW. You cannot change horses like that.

    Simon is absolutely correct. AGW belief is a one way street, and as long as scientists like Jim Al-Khalili (see above) continue to write school level nonsense about the nature of science to adults, nothing is going to change. Professor Al-Khalili is basically lying, and only his hubris leads him to imagine he will be believed.

    One of the constant refrains of the AGW proponents was that deniers were stupid. You mean more stupid than James Hansen and Gavin Schmidt and their ridiculous campaigning hooliganism ? I don't think so.

    The fact that you can do maths, does not necessarily mean you are capable of putting forward a coherent argument. AI research has shown that science post grads are no better at logic than other subject areas in a natural language context.

    Guardian science journalists are embarrassing, not only on the subject of AGW.

  8. The Winston Churchill of 21st century politics, Lord Blair of Baghdad, is leading the world in its eternal war against the weather. He also promotes global warming for JP Morgan Chase (three million dollars a year salary) and Zurich Insurance.

    We are in safe hands.

    Former Prime Minister Tony Blair is joining US venture capital firm Khosla Ventures as an adviser.

    Khosla also backs start-ups in sectors such as mobile phones and the internet. It has not been disclosed how much Mr Blair will be paid.

    According to Khosla, which last year raised $1.3bn (£900m) from private investors, Mr Blair will provide strategic advice regarding investments in environmentally friendly or helpful technologies.


  9. Roger,

    I think your logic is a bit flawed. FTFA: "...such attitudes will make it harder to pass legislation...and to persuade people to make sacrifices to reduce greenhouse gas emissions..."

    And then you say, "The logic is flawed conceptually because "fervor about climate change" is far from the only reason that people support energy policies that advance decarbonization."

    I suppose if the article said that it makes such changes impossible, then I'd agree with you. But if you have several arguments for a proposition, and one is taken out of consideration, doesn't that make it harder to support the proposition? We can argue over the degree, but I don't see the basic logical flaw that you do.

    The succession of polls may not in fact be showing a difference in public opinion, but it certainly seems to be showing a difference in the awareness/perceptions of the political class with respect to the general public.

    Your point about sacrifice is exactly correct. Nevertheless, in light of recent legislation such as the health care bill, governments don't necessarily need public support to do something.

  10. Roger,
    Instead of decarbonization, perhaps more positive results will come from focusing on clean and effective.
    Carbon is an odd goal that makes little sense.
    Decarbonization has occurred by way of seeking clean effective and cheap,imho.
    The damage done by those who demonstrated a steroids version of John Maddox's "The Doomsday Syndrome" in their over the top promotion of catastrophic AGW to science, to energy policy and to the public square is going to take years to mitigate.

  11. re: "the UK government passed the 2008 Climate Change Act with essentially no opposition and broad public support."

    The part about "essentially no opposition" in parliament is correct because there was a three line party whip. Dissent was stamped on.

    The part about "broad public support" is wrong. Although there was a public consultation exercise there was no real public debate, no raised awareness of the issues in the media. The majority of the UK public were unaware of the legislation and blind to its consequences.

  12. Well said Roger and Simon. The climategate email referring to a "tidy story" demonstrates that climate science jumped into the realm of advocacy. Recent comments from NAS confirm this, and scientists in other fields seem to have joined. I suppose they think they are taking a stand against an anti-science attitude. I agreed with them until I actually looked into the matter and found that there are more than enough reasons to rationally conclude that catastrophic global warming cannot be predicted with any reliability from currently available data. If I tried to extrapolate data like this in my research field (toxicology), it would never get past peer reviewers. In any case, don't think the scientific pronouncements of climate scientists or the NAS will be believed any time soon, because they have revealed an obvious advocacy position that extends beyond the science and actually has become anti-scientific (by stating warming is unequivocal and implying that disaster is imminent, when the data do not permit definite conclusions about the future climate).


  13. "Other reasons for public support include energy security, diversification, economic growth and jobs, replacing dirty energy with clean energy, energy reliability, costs and so on."

    Cost is not one of the reasons. Alternative energy costs more. That is why it is alternative rather than dominant.

    The same goes for economic growth and jobs. As we have seen in Spain, switching from low cost carbon energy to high cost alternatives is a net job killer.

    Ditto reliability particularly for wind and solar as they are clearly less reliable power sources than coal or gas..

    The problem for the decarbonization lobby is that the public is becoming more and more aware of very steep costs for very marginal benefits.

  14. eric144 said... 7
    "The Russians received a very generous bribe (including membership of the WTO) to jump on board the Kyoto Express. They support AGW. They are also building a massive sub Baltic pipeline to Germany. So, the Germans can't be that concerned about security."

    5 January 2009
    "Russian PM Vladimir Putin has told gas giant Gazprom to cut supplies sent via Ukraine to Europe over allegations Kiev is siphoning some off."

    That wasn't the first time Mr Putin cut off someones gas supplies to resolve a dispute in his favor.

    April 22st, 2010
    "April 22 (Bloomberg) -- Finland will grant permits to two of three applicants seeking to build new nuclear reactors as the Nordic country tries to wean itself off dependence on Russian power imports and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions."

    May 20th,2010
    "A recent political trigger in Europe, the NEA's Echavarri explained, was the disruption of gas supplies to several European countries during the bitterly cold 2008-09 winter, following a pricing dispute between Ukraine and Russia. The European Union depends on Russia for roughly a quarter of its gas supplies, and the disruption was a wakeup call to EU governments. "

    Given the strength of anti-nuclear sentiment in Germany, Angela Merkel doesn't have a lot of options.

    I believe the position of the UK Government in relation to nuclear power has changed from 'no, not ever', to 'no subsidies'.
    The need for subsidies is entirely dependent on the price of coal.

  15. Harrywr2

    Russia had a pipeline dispute with Ukraine following its Soros sponsored coloured revolution. They cut off supplies. No surprise there. Political tension was high.

    While I would never give my support to any politician at any time, some of us have more sympathy with Mr Putin than with the forces of international finance that oppose him.

    Particularly global warming front men George Soros and Jeffrey Sachs who assisted with the transfer of the Russian economy to seven oligarch front men. Ditto with Chavez who has the same opponents.

    Rothschild is the new power behind Yukos

    A SENIOR MEMBER of the Rothschild banking family has emerged as the key figure in the battle for control of Yukos, the Russian oil giant.

    The Sunday Times can identify Lord (Jacob) Rothschild as the secret holder of the large stake in Yukos that was previously controlled by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the oil company’s chairman.


    The UK is predictably going to build 10 new nuclear power stations to save the planet. The cost of decommissioning must be borne by the builder (actually consumers).


  16. Roger,

    While I don't disagree in principle that certain policies can be justified for a variety of different reasons, unfortunately some of the reasons diverge on some policy issues. For example, in the U.S., while energy independence might discourage the excessive use of imported oil, it has little bad to say...and potentially a lot good to say...about generating power from coal or even tar sands (assuming you consider Canada a country that it's okay to be dependent upon). And, while one could argue that coal is "dirty" for its other emissions, these emissions can be more easily controlled with technology that is better developed than the technology needed to capture the emissions of CO2, the inevitable product of coal burning no matter how "clean".

    So, in the end, I think it is still necessary to use the best science available to help distinguish various energy policy options ...and I think that the best science available shows that there is very good reason to be significantly concerned in regards to the effects of CO2, both in terms of climate change and potentially also ocean acidification.

  17. Roger, I'd intended to address this simply, earlier, but haven't had the opportunity until now:

    "Yet, right in the middle of this period the UK government passed the 2008 Climate Change Act with essentially no opposition and broad public support. The Act mandates emissions reductions of 34% by 2020 and 80% by 2050, making it the most aggressive piece of national legislation anywhere. Skepticism about climate science presented no obstacle to passing this legislation."

    This observation is flawed because it is over-simplistic and lacks recognition of the British political system, the state of the nation. You assume there is a socio-political fulcrum for people to use in leverage, where in fact no such thing exists.

    The public in Britain is wholly disenfranchised from politics, today. More than at any time since WWII. "Broad public support" cannot be inferred from any shortfall in public resistance to climate change policies.

    With or without prevailing public opinion, the British government has in recent years been able (and more than just a little willing) to scribe thousands of tentative ideas into law in the UK, unopposed. There is no mechanism for public resistance today, thanks to the government's exploitation of 9/11 and 7/7, and those individuals that would be willing to participate in public protestations - even peacefully - run the gauntlet of a criminal record, DNA sampling, database profiling and more if identified as a "domestic extremist". It's a very oppressive society, today, and its people are unhappily but wholly repressed.

    It's impossible to derive from either legislation passed by the government or, from the direction they voted in the 2010 election, what people think about climate policy - whether they support or reject it. All we have are opinion polls, and those indicate a slide away from climate policy interest or support and into enlightenment. As I said in my earlier post, that flow is one-way.

  18. Your argument seems to hinge on the premise that people won't sacrifice. However, that's empirically contradicted by lots of things people do, like saving for retirement and paying for public education. There must be some things that people believe that do induce sacrifice.

    Don't most of the other reasons to decarbonize, like local air quality, national security, health, or peak oil, also involve intertemporal tradeoffs or public goods, and therefore individual sacrifice in the short term, to make things better in the long term?

    As Matt points out above, it's illogical to claim that the existence of non-climate reasons to decarbonize renders climate irrelevant to the decision.

    The contention that the public makes accurate assessments of climate science is contradicted by much direct evidence that even highly educated people don't understand the dynamics of accumulation and generally have a hard time making decisions in noisy dynamic systems. (Plus, a third don't recognize CO2 as a GHG and more than half think electrons are bigger than atoms.)

    So, we're supposed to believe that somehow in spite of incomplete information if not utter disregard, the public arrives at the right rate of mitigation or decarbonization, because there just happen to be other reasons to do so? Which narrative is incoherent?

  19. -18-Tom

    Thanks for the comment, however your response transforms my views into something they are not. To be clear:

    1. It is not that people are not willing to sacrifice, it is that such willingness has limits.

    2. I have never said that climate is irrelevant. Consider that I have a book coming out called "The Climate fix";-)

    Hope this clarifies.

  20. Fair enough, but "they are not (in general) going to sacrifice or endure hardship. This reality should be a boundary condition for policy design." sounds pretty absolute. If there are limits to the willingness to sacrifice, what controls whether they are invoked or avoided, if not information about the severity of the need?

    My comment about irrelevance was doubtless too strong an attribution. My intent was to abbreviate Matt's point, "if you have several arguments for a proposition, and one is taken out of consideration, doesn't that make it harder to support the proposition?" In the counterfactual, where non-climate reasons for decarbonization were weak, would people still be demanding the right mitigation decision?