Honesty, Climate Change and Forgotten Rewards: Meeting a Changing World

As mentioned yesterday, uncertainty should be given more attention. It is generally argued that the general public are rightfully confused on scientific uncertainty and therefore, it is wiser to concentrate on observations in climate change. However this, I fear, is the wrong way to go and not only is a discredit to the general public, but also allows for a kind of God-of-gaps for denial to exploit. Laframboise’s idiotic criticism is an example of this, which I’ve discussed previously, but as anyone who follows comments on various blogs has probably come across, there is this constant noise by a few individuals that argue that climate models are complex and too difficult to be accurate, thus should be disregarded. Of course this is based on half truths, getting to the point of a straw-man argument.

Majda and Gershgorin (2010) derive an excellent mathematical approach to quantify model errors in the imperfect Atmospheric Ocean Science computer models suite. This, they also state, is an empirical way to improve models while actively filtering or assimilating data. From my perspective, I suggest that this should also assist with another favourite of denial arguments – that the continuous “tweaking” of models is an example of dodgy activity by scientists. Treated more empirically, there is greater transparency for a lay audience and also removes much of this assumed manual handling.

I quoted Klaus Hasselmann (2010) yesterday with, “the probability that most of the measured warming during the past 100 years was caused by human activities is so high (well above 90%), that politicians, whose job it is to make decisions in the face of uncertainty, should work on the premise that it is a fact.”

Such a language in communication, coupled with an approach, such as that developed by Majda and Gershgorin (2010) would work wonders against the denial campaign while also giving the public appropriate recognition for the general level of critical analysis demonstrated. Mike, in It’s about climate change stupid: the Australian election is a major blow to the denial movement, makes a compelling case about the awareness of climate change within the Australian public. I believe such an audience can handle uncertainty with an appropriate understanding of risk management.

Explaining the increase risk of various diseases due to smoking, through meaningful education campaigns has led to a decrease in the amount of smokers in Australia. Explaining the increase risk of fatality by not wearing a seatbelt in the event of an accident has also dramatically increased the amount of people who wear seatbelts. The majority of people understand that there is an amount of uncertainty involved – but the risk/reward scenario isn’t great enough to merit the risk. Likewise, as Klaus says, with uncertainty well below 10%, we should feel quite confident in suggesting the gamble is too great to bet against anthropogenic climate change (ACC).

However, there is a weakness here, which I eluded to with the risk/reward statement. Another situation, with should be grouped ACC is obesity. In both situations, you have the science pointing out a detrimental situation, which, if properly addressed, will have a negative effect on a major industry and is typically seen as having little to no rewards to offer if met.

Sure, you’re told that you’ll be healthier and happier for a lean diet and regular exercise, but how often have you started regular exercise only to quickly realise that you’re running on the spot for no real reason, it hurts and it’s a massive consumer of your time? How often have you got home after a long and annoying day in the office, to find a refrigerator full of fresh food, just begging you to spend the next hour, cleaning, peeling, cutting and cooking even before you can think about sitting down or eating – not to mention the amount of dishes it creates… all the while the glowing “M” or bucket or whatever glows on top of a post visibly, not too far down the street and you think, “Nope, I cannot be bothered tonight! We’re ordering take-away!”

How often does this lead to throwing away half rotten food that was continuously put off?

The same goes for climate change. Even if we successfully reported on the observations and risks with predictions, then what? It’s so much easier driving to work (and because you and your partner work on opposite directions or because of the kids, you need two or more vehicles) than to rely on public transport or ride a bicycle (think about the weather). We’re told by various people that converting to alternative energy supplies is too expensive or impractical. One regular denialist to haunt this space likes to inform me that coal can be converted into petrol (as if this is nothing short of do-nothing until desperately required and it also underestimates the value of coal). Another character that is supported – even celebrated – on another pro-ACC science blog even retorted to a simple question with, “If we develop a global nuclear economy with synthesised hydrocarbon fuels, or truly effective electric batteries for motor vehicles, why the hell not buy a bigger SUV next year?”

In both the cases of obesity and ACC, the involved industry also subconsciously (if not intentionally) induces an increased inertia against change; it’s seen as being too easy to change.

“Sure, it’s a bad situation, but the alternative sucks!” – so goes the mentality.

Interestingly, I believe both these situations can be addressed with the same answer – Transit and pedestrian orientated developments (discussed here and here). But enough of that.

I feel confident that the general perception isn’t so suck in the “sceptics” camp, that we have before us a losing battle in meeting a changing climate, power supply and natural resource supply. However it’s, at this point, one that requires far greater communication. This is increased transparency and honesty with the uncertainties. This is real risk management as well as far more discussions over the potential rewards. I believe the public deserve this and are capable of addressing the next steps forward. We may here a lot from the “sceptical” side that may tend to lead us to think that they have the majority, but I suspect that what we’ll find over the fence is a chiwawa with a loud bark – the vast majority of people are instead waiting on the sidelines.

Hasselmann, K. 2010. The Climate Change Game. Nature Geoscience. 3: 511-512, doi:10.1038/ngeo919
Majda, A. J., and, Gershgorin, B. 2010. Quantifying uncertainty in climate change science through empirical information theory. PNAS. 107(34): 14958-14963. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1007009107

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