A New Agenda on Climate Change

December 17, 2013 by
Filed under: Social Brain 

‘To know and not to act, is not to know.’ *

Today we are releasing our report: A New Agenda on Climate Change: Facing up to Stealth Denial and Winding down on Fossil Fuels.

The piece was covered in The Times earlier today and I have a piece distilling the report in the Guardian. We also experimented with conveying the report’s message through Buzzfeed, which will appear soon, and was a lot of fun to create.

The human response to climate change is unfolding as a political tragedy because scientific knowledge and economic power are pointing in different directions. 

The website preamble is copied below, but the main thing I want to convey now is that researching and writing this report really opened my eyes. At the start of the process I  thought of climate change as a problem of emissions, and that the purpose of behaviour change was about using behavioural insights to reducing personal carbon footprints. However, the more I looked into it, the more I felt the issue is unavoidably political, and that ‘behaviour change’, to be worth its salt, had to connect with the core issue of gradually substituting our energy supply. We can still play nicely, but if you care about climate change, you have to talk about the price of fossil fuels, and think hard about what it would take to keep them in the ground.

Facing Up to Stealth Denial and Winding Down on Fossil Fuels

The human response to climate change is unfolding as a political tragedy because scientific knowledge and economic power are pointing in different directions. The knowledge of the reality, causes and implications of anthropogenic climate change creates a moral imperative to act, but this imperative is diluted at every level by collective action problems that appear to be beyond our existing ability to resolve. This challenge is compounded by collectively mischaracterising the climate problem as an exclusively environmental issue, rather than a broader systemic threat to the global financial system, public health and national security.

This report makes a case for how Britain can take a leading role in addressing the global climate problem, based on a new agenda that faces up to pervasive ‘stealth denial’ and the need to focus on keeping fossil fuels in the ground. Our data indicates that about two thirds of the population intellectually accept the reality of anthropogenic climate change, but ‘deny’ some or all of the commensurate feelings, responsibility and agency that are necessary to deal with it. It is argued that this stealth denial may be what perpetuates the doublethink of trying to minimise carbon emissions while maximising fossil fuel production, and also what makes us expect far too much of energy efficiency gains in the face of a range of rebound effects that lead energy to be used elsewhere.

This report argues that we should focus less on those who question the scientific consensus as if they were the principle barrier to meaningful action. Those who deny the reality of anthropogenic climate change are not at all helpful, but at least they are consistent. One corollary of facing up to stealth denial is that we should turn more of our attention instead to mobilising those who, like the author of this report, fully accept the moral imperative to act, but continue to live as though it were not there.

*- Wang Yang-ming (Neo-Confucian philosopher 1472–1529)


Comments

  • klem

    “… we should turn more of our attention instead to mobilising those who, like the author of this report, fully accept the moral imperative to act…”

    I agree. And while you’re in the process of finding and mobilizing all three of them, the deniers will be turning everyone else into climate skeptics and kicking your socialist butt.

    Good luck and keep up the great work. Lol!

    cheers

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  • http://about.me/paul.swann Paul Swann

    “the more I looked into it, the more I felt the issue is unavoidably political, and that ‘behaviour change’, to be worth its salt, had to connect with the core issue of gradually substituting our energy supply.”

    Agreed, but I think the core issue goes deeper than the energy supply. Catastrophic climate breakdown is being driven by the necessity for perpetual economic growth. This structural flaw within the global economic system must also be talked about in our conversations about climate breakdown.

    These conversations need to consider how we move beyond an industrial civilisation built on competition, domination, exploitation and short-termism towards an ecological civilisation built on co-operation, partnership, care and concern for future generations.

    Are we ready for such mature conversations? I don’t think enough of us are, and from where I stand the prognosis does not look good.

    • klem

      “Catastrophic climate breakdown is being driven …..the global economic system must also be talked about in our conversations about climate breakdown.”

      Have we observed some of the climate breakdown to which you refer, can you give some examples?

  • Martin A

    The science of climate change is far from “settled”. Anyone with some background in statistics, physics and computer modelling can read the original papers with no difficulty. (I have a research degree in engineering and a career involving mathematical modelling, so no problem for me.) Anybody who cares to look can see the assumptions that are made by climate scientists, which so far have not been verified. Just one such assumption, as yet unverified, is that atmospheric water vapour strongly amplifies the effect of other greenhouse gases.

    All predictions of global warming are based on the output of computer models. The Met Office has confirmed this: “Computer models are the only reliable way to predict changes in climate. Their reliability is tested by seeing if they are able to reproduce the past climate, which gives scientists confidence that they can also predict the future.”.

    The Met Office’s last sentence involves the fallacy known as “testing on the training data”, since records of past climate were used to “parameterise” the models*. Hindsight does not verify that a model is a correct representation of the physical reality.

    The only real test of a model is whether it can predict future observations. By this measure, the General Climate Models referred to by the IPCC have failed. Fifteen years ago, steady and rapid warming of global temperature was confidently predicted. This has failed to materialise; global temperature has remained essentially constant for that time.

    In any other branch of science, such a failure would have resulted in reapraisal of all results. Note that the failure of General Climate Models to predict the lack of global warming over the past fifteen or so years is not open to dispute – the predictions are on record and the temperature records are readily accessible.

    Anyone who disputes this central failure of climate science is the one in denial. People such as me who ask for concrete evidence do not merit such a title and we find it offensive.

    ———————————————————————-

    *”Parameterise” means replacing aspects of the physical system that are not well understood to model precisely by simple mathematical formulas whose coefficients are chosen to reproduce previous observations.

    • http://about.me/paul.swann Paul Swann

      “Note that the failure of General Climate Models to predict the lack of global warming over the past fifteen or so years is not open to dispute – the predictions are on record and the temperature records are readily accessible.”

      Yeah, about that global warming “pause”…

      http://www.slate.com/blogs/bad_astronomy/2013/12/16/global_warming_new_study_shows_pause_doesn_t_exist.html

      • Martin A

        As I said, “Anyone who disputes this central failure of climate science is the one in denial”.

        Paul’s comment and the link he points to illustrate my point wonderfully.

        The models failed to predict the halt in global temperatures. It’s as simple as that. To claim otherwise is to deny the reality of the difference between what was predicted and what has been measured.

        Paul’s link (in brief) makes three points:

        [1] The Earth is still getting warmer – it’s simply that its temperature is no longer rising. Instead the energy of incoming solar radiation has started to warm the deep ocean instead of the Earth’s surface. [Note that this would involve a mechanism unknown to physics and would result in a temperature change thousands of times too small to measure.]

        [2] The Earth is still getting warmer. The fact that the temperature has not changed over the past fifteen years is irrelevant to the long-term trend.

        [3] The measurements are wrong. If points where the temperature is not measured were included, the result would show that the global temperature has continued to increase.

        Even if any of these were true, none of them would make any difference to the fact that the predictions of the climate models have not matched the measured temperatures.
        ___________________________________________________________

        * “Halt” please, rather than “pause”. The latter implies knowledge of the climate will change in the future. As the Met Office says, climate models are the only means to predict future climate. But they have failed.

        • http://about.me/paul.swann Paul Swann
          • Martin A

            As I said, “Anyone who disputes this central failure of climate science is the one in denial”.

            Paul quotes a news item reporting that November was (possibly) the warmest month recorded since 1880. Presumably he does so in the belief that this somehow this negates climate science’s prediction failure. If it is correct that he believes that, then he is very clearly in denial of the failure of climate science’s models – at one time considered the jewel in its crown.

            If you sit observing a stationary time series*, eventually you will observe a value greater than any previously observed value. That’s just the nature of a stationary random process. Above all, it provides no evidence whatever that the climate predictions documented by the IPCC were correct after all.

            ______________________________________________________________
            * As every first year statistics student knows, a stationary time series is a sequence of values whose statistics, including the mean or expected value, do not change with time.

          • http://about.me/paul.swann Paul Swann

            Actually I agree that current climate models are inadequate. For me there’s sufficient evidence that economic activity is disrupting the climate, but no one knows how sensitive the earth system is and how it will respond to rising GHG emissions. My view is that business as usual is not an option and that we should therefore adopt the precautionary principle. We won’t of course.

            I enjoyed this article on the inadequacies of modelling: http://aeon.co/magazine/world-views/should-we-trust-scientific-models-to-tell-us-what-to-do/

  • Paul Moulton

    I am fine with aggressively responding to CC, but I am only will to do so if I can first register as a skeptic. I want the assurance of non-skeptics that should CC not be as severe as anticipated that I get a full refund of monies lost (I will accept Climate sensitivity of under 2.0 to be the baseline). This of course may mean my children and grandchildren will inherit, but that is part of the deal.

    I appologize if your grandchildren have a huge debt owed to my grandchildren, but it only seems fair if you want me to give up my lifestyle based on your opinions.

  • ClimateLearner

    Quote ‘The human response to climate change is unfolding as a political tragedy because scientific knowledge and economic power are pointing in different directions. ‘

    I agree with this sentence, taken in isolation from the rest of your rather sad essay.

    Scientific knowledge points to a doubling of ambient CO2 having such a small effect that it will be hard to reliably detect it amidst all the variation due to many other more important influences on the climate system. Please note that I do not regard the speculations about the importance of CO2 clung to by the relevant, and very small, subset of IPCC contributors with relevant expertise, as scientific knowledge.

    Economic power is pointing to a reduction in our ability to cope with climate variation. It is doing this by artificially inflating energy prices in the developed world, and needlessly crippling development in the developing world. Mankind has made enormous progress in reducing our vulnerability to weather events and climate variation, and most of it is attributable in no small way to the availability of large amounts of affordable energy with which to do things.

  • Jonathanrowson

    Thanks for the comments and to Paul especially for fighting the good fight.

    I already responded to similar issues in the comment thread under the Guardian article linked to above. I think the most salient point to mention here is that highlighting the prevalence of ‘stealth denial’ is not the same as calling everyone a ‘denier’ at all.

    I am not too concerned about climate sceptics, many of whom are highly intelligent, informed, and engaged with the issue; and consistent in their political views and personal acts. I think there are very good reasons to think they are mostly wrong and dangerously so, but rather than waste more years and decades trying to prove it even more resolutely than is currently the case, I think we should move on, and focus on two much bigger problems: 1)Denialism- those who actively seek to spread misinformation to protect vested interests and prevent political action, and

    2) ‘Stealth denial’ – those who accept the reality of the problem but don’t live as though they do.

    One purpose of the report is that facing up to 2 will gradually help to undermine 1 and therefore help to shape political will, and by the time that battle is won, most of the sceptics will be won round by further developments in science and in the climate.

    I understand that strategy of eschewing debate on the intricacies of the science must be infuriating for climate sceptics, but in light of the overwhelming scientific consensus I think it’s time to play a different game.