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Climate Hustle

Skeptical Science moving into solutions

Posted on 8 November 2010 by John Cook

Now me, my background is in physical science so I'd be happy to concentrate on that aspect of climate change ad infinitum. But I'm also conscious of the fact that climate change is not just a topic of academic interest. Human activity is having an impact on climate change and, somewhat poetically, climate change is having an impact on humanity. Until now, Skeptical Science has concentrated on matters of pure climate science. But now, we're going to start exploring the question of what we should do about it.

Currently, all the skeptic arguments are sorted taxanomically with three parent categories: "It's not happening", "It's not us" and "It's not bad". We'll begin this new "era" with Dana1981 shortly addressing a 4th parent argument, "It's too hard". I'm still keen to keep the rebuttals firmly based in peer-reviewed science wherever possible and this post is no exception. Then we'll dig into some of the sub-arguments such as "Mitigating CO2 will ruin the economy", "Better to adapt than mitigate" and the dreaded topic of geoengineering.

Policy is not my strong suit and I must confess, my views on various solution strategies are not as well formed as my views on the attribution of climate change. So I expect to learn a lot from these discussions and hopefully everyone else will too. The Comments Policy still applies, of course. But when we get into areas of policy, the line between science and politics will get a little blurred. Nevertheless, the goal will always be to foster constructive dialogue so inflammatory and off-topic comments will be moderated as before. So play nice.

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Comments 1 to 25:

  1. Funny you should raise this now. I've been thinking that we should have a lot more input from the biological science side.

    And when you're talking about "It's too hard" there must be some biological science backing up the argument I once heard from a gardening magazine about gardening saving the world by carbon sequestration. It's be nice to get away from power generation and public transport solutions every now and again.

    No till, mulching, and other techniques accumulating rather than releasing carbon from growing food (or forests for that matter) must have had some serious research. Clearly retaining soil and deepening it is a good thing in its own right. There must be some reasonalby good quality stuff on this from agriculture and horticulture, maybe even permaculture - do they have a respectable scientific journal?
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  2. Great move. It's about time to talk about what to do.

    Yes, it will be more difficult to stay within peer reviewed literature. Much of it is political, ideological or just new technology that does not reach a level of a published paper.

    Yes, this will demand new moderating skills... Starting point must always be politeness.
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  3. I like this idea but part of me is thinking you almost need a whole different sister-site for it (Sceptical Solutions?)

    The problem is, as Alexandre says, the peer-reviewed literature is much more sparse. But more than that - and this is something the 'sceptics' use to their advantage - relying too much on peer-reviewed science in this area skews debate towards the easily measurable. For example how can we measure the response of ecosystems, or even of civilisations, to changes in climate that have never been observed in the past? We end up relying on a few studies that take an empirical approach even if these studies aren't representative of the reality we face.
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  4. It depends how it is done.
    There is of course the danger that you alienate the people that support what you are doing.

    Solutions are a more political and policy issue, which means it is fraught with potential problems.
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  5. Would it be better to have a sister site?
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  6. Not peer-reviewed science, but as usual Acres USA has several good articles on ecological crop production (I started subscribing a few months ago). On page 26-32 the author talks about the flaws with large scale monoculture and he describes an alternative. One of his main arguments is that native, perennial crops require a lot less energy than annual crops (energy needed for planting, herbicides/pesticides, etc) An old article by the same author: My main nitpick is that these articles are not very quantitative and rely on other qualitative benefits like quality of life (a legitimate argument, but not quantitative).
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  7. You may want to consider modifications in the posting policy. A recent thread on skeptical science came to be dominated by a very few individuals with strong feelings about the topic. It seemed to me that people with other valid views left the thread rather than argue with the dominant people. If you limited the number of posts per day (or per thread) that would allow more people to get in a voice without sanctioning anyone. There were also issues on that thread about what sources were reliable.
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  8. While I agree with you in spirit, I worry about the effect of this change. As it stands now, this site is an amazing resource and helps in convincing skeptics that climate change is real. But as soon as you delve into solutions, it becomes political, and conservatives will then dismiss the site as having a liberal bias.

    While we certainly need to talk about solutions, I fear doing so here will greatly weaken the ability to use this site to convince political ideologues.
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  9. I might suggest starting off by limiting solutions discussions to proven technologies. Space based solar, thorium breeder reactors, and clean coal technology are all billed as 'wonderful things which can solve all of our problems'... but none of them has demonstrated that capability yet. There are technical hurdles which we are assured can be easily overcome, but there is no real world data history to examine. Of course, such an approach would knock geo-engineering out of discussion before we even begin... but we could always try to tackle the 'speculative future solutions' later.

    Anyone who has spend much time here has seen that it is difficult to get people to accept basic laws of physics when they've got a political agenda to the contrary. Moving on to competing technologies with variable results in different parts of the world is going to magnify that problem at least an order of magnitude. Adding in 'emerging technologies' basically reduces it to a pure public relations scrimmage. The best bet there may be to examine each future concept in detail with consideration of the benefits, drawbacks, and obstacles to be overcome.
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  10. The idea is not that Skeptical Science will advocate any particular policy solution. Rather the site will examine the scientific validity of various solutions and skeptic arguments against them.
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  11. I'm inclined to agree with BillWalker - SS as it is now is a very valuable reference site, in part because it is apolitical. Solutions get complicated - even the question of their " scientific validity". Maybe a related site would be a good idea.
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  12. I think the division of the Skeptical Science site lends itself to this type of discusion. People read the threads that they are interested in. The moderators will have to learn how to keep the discusion on track and not let one person overwhelm everyone else. There will be a learning curve but it sounds good to me.
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  13. Will Skeptical Science still post articles about global warming itself even though the blog is shifting to the solutions of global warming? Because I think this is a brilliant blog about the science of climate change.
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  14. Karamanski - yes, most Skeptical Science articles will probably still center around climate science, as opposed to climate solutions. We'll just have some solutions articles and rebuttals interspersed in there.
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  15. Mike

    thanks for that link.

    I agree with the general sentiment to keep the discussion about the problem space separate in some way from the solution space.

    Also there are several dimensions to the solution space. The first is simply the technology, itself, from caulking to fusion. The second is the economic discussion, what we can afford to do and what we cannot afford not to do. The third is the social problem - how to convince society to implement the technology and that they cannot afford not to do it.

    The third may be the most difficult.
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  16. Mike #8

    Economic modelling is a great and difficult subject. It would be really nice if they manage to get some guest posts here.
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  17. The most fundamental policy response is a price on carbon (and other gases). This is the best way to drive the economic change needed. We also need to agressively construct renewable energy (and not build any new coal power stations).
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  18. John,
    Please accept my congratulations on your new venture. If you stick with your current style it should work well. From our private correspondence you know that camels often support solutions that you favor but for reasons that differ from yours.

    Good luck!
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  19. Let me try and frame the problem humanity faces and that needs to be addressed.

    1. Is the Science of AGW solid? Obviously it is, although our understanding of what the magnitude of the change will be relative to the forcing is still somewhat unclear.

    2. Is the Science well accepted? Among the scientific world yes. Among small parts of the community such as our corner of the Blogosphere, yes. Among much of the broader community? Significantly yes although this varies hugely from country to country. But this acceptance is substantially based on trust rather than knowledge. And among significant percentages in some countries no, based on lack of understanding, mendaciousness, or simple classical psychological denial.

    3. Is the Severity well understood; how big an impact will a temp rise of X have? How many people will die as a result? Among the scientific world substantially yes although not totally. Among small parts of the community such as our corner of the Blogosphere, ditto. Among much of the broader community? significantly NOT. That change is happening may be accepted. But a visceral grasp of how serious this is doesn't seem to be common. Something to be worried about rather than utterly terrified by. And among the the deniers of the change, claims of its severity are 'Alarmist' twaddle.

    4. Is the Urgency of the required action well understood? Among the scientific world substantially yes although not totally. Among small parts of the community such as our corner of the Blogosphere, ditto. Among much of the broader community? significantly NOT. That change is happening may be accepted. But why we need to act now when the change is so far away doesn't seem to be commonly understood. We can deal with it in good time. So: 'we need policies to deal with Climate Change' rather than 'For God sake, Somebody hit the Big Red Button' And among the the deniers of the change, claims of its urgency are 'Alarmist' twaddle heaped on twaddle.

    5. Do we have the answers to solve the problem now? Yes, just barely. But the impacts would be huge. I know Dana's post is about the multiple wedges and a more conventional analysis of economic impacts. But I am not convinced that we are yet grappling with how the multiple technical, economic, environmental and follow on social challenges we face intersect and compound each other: How does ocean acidification intersect with seafood stock depletion due to over-fishing? How do raw materials limitations impact on the viability of renewable technologies - lithium, indium for example? If we phase out Coal use rapidly and replace it with renewables, not only do we need to shut down coal power plants before the end of their economic life - a huge capital loss to the world, but we also need to write off the capital value of the 3/4 of the worlds coal reserves that we can't afford to mine - an even bigger hit to the World's Balance Sheet. How do rising population, the Hydrological Crisis and the precipitation impacts of AGW intersect to impact on food security? What wars and social collapses could be triggered by this? If the rise of affluence continues in China, India etc (and if we have the right to it, so do they), how do we handle the ever growing demands on the Earths resources.

    6. Do we know how to change the worlds economic systems to handle the changes required if the impact of these changes would otherwise be unrealistic? Not solving this threat isn't a viable strategy, so how do the worlds systems need to change to make the solution possible. Currently the line is that we can decarbonise, become 'sort of' sustainable and then it can still be business as usual. Is that valid? Or do we need to ask whether far more profound changes will be needed. How do we bring them about. What has to change in how our world works to make this possible? Are countries still the appropriate entities for encapsulating our actions? Can Capitalism survive in a world of zero growth, and if not, what replaces it. Countries like America appeared during the first Age of Revolutions. The 20th Century was the Second Age of Revolutions - all sorts of ism's. And pretty much all of them failed. So what is the next option if Capitalism has reached it's Use By Date because we can't afford growth anymore.

    7. And if we need to make society wide changes, how do we get there from here? How do we bring everyone with us without triggering peoples self-preservation instincts to fight against it?

    8. And what are the Psychological, Sociological and Anthropological dimensions of all this? Items 1 to 4 above cover the sort of Denialist psychological landscape we are already familiar with. But 5 & 6 take us into areas that are almost Taboo. For each one of us, what is the threshold over which we cannot cross, where it becomes too hard to contemplate. AGW is a danger, but surely not 'The End Of Civilisation'. Effectively are we all not Denialists? Each of us can only go so far before it becomes to overwhelming; just some of us can go further than others. The psychological dimension of why individuals, communities, nations, an entire species are not adequately able to respond to such a vast and terrible threat needs to be looked at very, very hard.

    Obviously, the scope of what I have outlined above is vast. I don't think John has enough hours in the day, even with his growing army of helpers to encompass this. So what subject areas will give us the most 'bang for our buck', will contribute the most to driving 'the change' relative the effort we can put in.

    Personally I would plum for pushing 3 & 4 because we are already pushing on 2 - that is the whole point of John's site. Then 7 & 8. Because that addresses the question of how to achieve 5 & 6. Do we need to be opening discussions about Fear, Denial, Existential questions. Why we might retreat into our private worlds and lives rather than confront things that are too big or too disturbing. The Technology of 'The Change' might be interesting. The psychology of 'The Change' is Life & Death. Because everything else flows from it.
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  20. There are pros and cons which need to be carefully considered. My own web site,, presents both the science and solutions in a way that is generally well received. However, my site is not a forum, and I agree that needs to keep focused on a job it currently does very well. Of course, with the follow-up to Copenhagen in Mexico in just two weeks time, and most nations accepting the science, we all need to start thinking about solutions. Contrary to the perceptions expressed by some above, the amount of solid academic material on solutions to climate change is huge.

    It also occurred to me that venturing into solutions might best be done through a sister site, but that may not be practical given the current site is already stretching John. Provided the structure of the site around skeptics’ arguments and rebuttals remains unchanged, articles on solutions might be accommodated as periodic guest posts without adversely affecting the site’s reputation. On my own site I divide solutions into technological, economic and political pages. That is probably the logical order of progression, so if this site moves into solutions, the technological area is probably the best place to start. Proposals would need to be first shown to be scientifically feasible, and subsequently shown to be economically feasible.
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  21. Trying to educate the upper echelon is not working, so the only recourse may be to start at the bottom. Bring in Climate Change Denial Psychologists to learn how to sway the masses.
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  22. #23 Roger A. Wehage at 06:40 AM on 13 November, 2010
    Trying to educate the upper echelon is not working, so the only recourse may be to start at the bottom. Bring in Climate Change Denial Psychologists to learn how to sway the masses.

    There is a name for this political agenda, but I am not going to stress it here due to comments policy.
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  23. #24 Berényi Péter at 07:54 AM on 13 November, 2010
    There is a name for this political agenda...

    This has nothing to do with politics; it's about spelling out detailed plans that the average Joe and communities can follow to start the climate change mitigation ball rolling. People and communities don't need more science lectures; they get it. What community leaders and activists need are realistic plans of action that can be adopted or tailored as needed to meet their specific requirements.

    Working directly with local community leaders and activists is what I mean by starting at the bottom. As "green" communities evolve, other communities will take notice and hopefully follow in their footsteps. Green can happen, as witnessed in Greensburg, KS. There are many websites devoted to Green Communities.

    I'm not saying that the current state of green community development will fully mitigate climate change, but it certainly may represent a first step. Without that first step, scientists may soon be studying the Odds of Cooking the Grandkids.
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  24. #25 Roger A. Wehage at 08:46 AM on 13 November, 2010
    Green can happen, as witnessed in Greensburg, KS.

    Here is a link to the Greensburg, Kansas Recovery Planning website. This might be a good place to start for a few ideas.
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  25. Berényi Péter @24

    No BP, It's not a political agenda. Politics is the great irrelevency in the world. It is about recognising that human affairs and how we choose to run this planet have to fit within the constraints imposed by Mother Nature (to anthropomorphise a bit). And that the biggest problem in our attempt to do this is us. Human psychology thinks that we are the centre of existance and the world has to fit around us. This is what most people think of as the 'real world'. In reality the 'real world' is physics, physics, physics & physics. We are just an add-on.

    The disjunction between reality, and what people 'think' reality is, is at the very heart of the problem. And Old Ma Nature is a very unforgiving sort. 'You didn't realise I was serious dearie? Sorry, Your extinct?'. Her rules, her bat and ball.

    So to say we need to find strategies to connect people with reality (I won't say reconnect because we may never have been in the past) is not a political agenda. It is simply stating that we need to show people what a grown-up perspective on reality looks like. And politics isn't grown-up. Its just the sand-pit in the kindergarten.
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