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Climate of Doubt Strategy #2: Exaggerate Uncertainty

Posted on 27 November 2012 by dana1981

The PBS Frontline program Climate of Doubt did a masterful job in exposing the tactics climate denialists have used to delay meaningful action in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and addressing climate change in the USA.  The #1 strategy they have pursued involves denying the scientific consensus on human-caused global warming.  As the program discussed, a similar secondary strategy has involved exaggerating the uncertainties in climate science.  For example, a 1998 American Petroleum Institute memo stated

"Victory will be achieved when average citizens "understand" (recognize) uncertainties in climate science"

There are two important points to be made here.  First, while it is important to understand the remaining uncertainties in climate science, it is critical to also realize how much we do understand about the climate.  Second, when it comes to climate change, uncertainty is not our friend.

We Know a lot About the Climate

First of all it's important to note that while there will always be uncertainties associated with any area of scientific research, we have learned a lot about how the Earth's climate functions.  It's important to sometimes take a step back and look at the big picture.  We know that:

Fig 1

Figure 1: Land, atmosphere, and ice heating (red), 0-700 meter OHC increase (light blue), 700-2,000 meter OHC increase (dark blue).  From Nuccitelli et al. (2012)

contributors 50

Figure 2: Percent contributions of various effects to the observed global surface warming over the past 50-65 years according to Tett et al. 2000 (T00, dark blue), Meehl et al. 2004 (M04, red), Stone et al. 2007 (S07, green), Lean and Rind 2008 (LR08, purple), Huber and Knutti 2011 (HK11, light blue), Gillett et al. 2012 (G12, orange), and Wigley and Santer 2012 (WS12, dark green).

Uncertainties Remain

Two remaining climate uncertainties are how fast the planet will continue to warm and exactly how bad the consequences of a given amount of global warming will be.  For example, we don't know whether clouds will dampen or amplify global warming (though the best current evidence suggests they will slightly amplify it).  We don't know at precisely what point various warming feedbacks (like methane clathrate release from the Arctic or methane release from beneath melting permafrost) will be triggered.  We don't know precisely how bad extreme weather will become at any given amount of warming, or how much critical factors like global food production will be impacted.

However, it should also be clear that these uncertainties are not the least bit reassuring.

Inaction Based on Uncertainty is Risk Management Failure

In testimony to U.S. Congress shown in the PBS program, Christopher Monckton and Patrick Michaels argued that the science is not settled and that we should therefore take no action to mitigate climate change.

CHRISTOPHER MONCKTON: The right response to the non-problem of global warming — first slide, please — is to have the courage to do nothing.

PATRICK MICHAELS: This demonstration shows that the oft-reported mantra in Washington, quote, “The science is settled,” is not true at all.

The strategy being implemented here is quite clear - convince policymakers that the uncertainty about the science and consequences of climate change are too large to take any action to address the problem.  This strategy is why climate contrarians are sometimes referred to as "delayers", because they argue that we should delay action until we can be more certain of the human-caused global warming outcome.

The logical flaw in this argument is equally clear.  It is akin to arguing that a cigarette smoker should continue smoking because he cannot be certain if or when he will contract cancer.  It is a foolhardy approach.  Odds are that eventually cancer is contracted, just as the odds are that CO2 levels will soon become too high to avoid catastrophic climate change.  The longer action to mitigate these consequences is delayed, the higher the probability that catastrophic consequences will occur.

Perhaps we will get lucky.  Perhaps the smoker will be one who does not contract cancer, and perhaps some yet unknown negative feedback will delay catastrophic climate change long enough for us to avoid it.  But hoping that we get lucky is foolish, and a failure of fundamental risk management.

Note: readers are encouraged to suggest a better analogy in the comments!

Uncertainty Own-Goal

In fact, larger uncertainty actually makes the case for climate mitigation strongerAs Stephan Lewandowsky wrote,

"Uncertainty should make us worry more than certainty, because uncertainty means that things can be worse than our best the case of climate change, uncertainty is asymmetrical and things are more likely to be worse, rather than better, than expected."

Those who argue that uncertainty justifies inaction are assuming that we will get lucky and the consequences of human-caused climate change will fall on the lower, more benign end of the possible spectrum.  However, uncertainty also means that the consequences could fall on the higher, more catastrophic end of the spectrum, and we certainly must take action to avoid these possible catastrophic scenarios.  For this reason, arguing for high uncertainty is actually an own-goal by the climate denialists.

Action Takes Courage, Inaction is Cowardice

Quite contrary to Monckton's comment above, inaction does not require any courage whatsoever.  A no action approach involves blindly following the easiest path and foolishly hoping we get lucky.  The reason we have not taken serious action to mitigate climate change is that doing so is difficult.  The economies of the world's developed countries were able to grow rapidly based on the consumption of seemingly cheap energy from fossil fuels.  Unfortunately we are only now realizing the true costs of that energy.

But while action is difficult, and reducing our reliance on fossil fuels will require a serious concerted effort, our only other choice is to continue blindly down a path which will most likely lead to catastrophic consequences for future generations.  The longer we wait to be certain about this ultimate result, the higher the odds become that it will occur.

While the climate delayers argue for inaction based on uncertainty, in reality inaction would only be justified if we could be certain that the harmful consequences of climate change will not occur.  A larger uncertainty means we cannot rule out the worst possible scenarios, which means that from a risk management perspective we must take action to prevent those scenarios from coming to fruition.

Anything less is a failure to protect the future of our children and grandchildren.

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Comments 1 to 16:

  1. The arguments for action delay by such people as Michaels & Monckton are not illogical when you consider their associations and possible motivations. it is in their interest to keep FF burning because they are associated with mining/energy industry. We can even "globalise" that point and find analogy at the national level: industrialised nations have no interest in cutting emissions because their economies cannot be easily switched to low energy/alternative energy and their citizens don't want to give up the effluent lifestyle. Of course we know the nonsense misleading talk of "getting 3 world countries out of poverty with cheep energy". Those countries actually don't need "cheap energy": their citizens are used to low energy lifestyle. And sometimes they are proud of it. Take for example Cuba, a county which is way ahead of any other nation in effluence to emissions ratio, I guess some 10 times better than US or GB or Australia (where most SkS commenters including myself, live). Cubans don't need AC, big cars, water bottles shipped from Fiji to comfortably sustain their culture. And I guess, in a warming world, when those "spoiling services" are about to collapse and their consumers doomed, cultures like Cuba have the best chance to adapt and survive. So, action to stop climate change should include not just stopping FF but changing the mindset. Without the appropriate mindset, nothing will happen. Obviously, the deniers like Michaels & Monckton are the lost case, and should be incarcerated for their crimes against the Earth (they confuse the mindsets of others).
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  2. It's more like not hitting the brakes on the freeway when you see a traffic jam ahead because you're not quite sure how good your brakes are, and you're not sure if the jam will clear or get worse by the time you plow into it. Normal people would consider either of those a good argument to hit the brakes early, but apparently deniers feel that you have to be 100% sure of the crash before doing anything.
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  3. Driving a car through a wall (or down a dark steep hill) as a shortcut because of missing certainty what shape the car (and driver and riders) will be in afterwards?
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  4. CHRISTOPHER MONCKTON: The right response to the non-problem of global warming — first slide, please — is to have the courage to do nothing. I guess Viscount Monckton is braver than I am, or a fool. “If you fear nothing, then you are not brave. You are merely too foolish to be afraid.” Like the comments so far I use a travel analogy, in my case a train. Imagine a high speed train hears there is an obstruction further down the line. You have to apply the brakes now to avoid the obstruction, it takes along time to stop a train. Yet it could be a false alarm, the obstruction could be on the other track or cleared by the time you get there. Do you apply the brakes and play safe? Delaying your journey and later trains and losing money. Or do you gamble? By the time you know for certain you would not be able to avoid a crash if the warnings were true.
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  5. chriskoz@1: not sure it was intentional or not, but regardless, the term "effluent lifestyle" nearly made me gag with laughter...and its implicit veracity, vis-a-vis the lifestyle we Westerners so think is our birthright. To do nothing about that which we ourselves have perptrated upon our children, would be to do the *most* foolish thing humanity could conceive of. This is why I *rail* against the Moncktons of the world, for it is their path that is the truly foolish one.
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  6. IMO contrarians/deniers/pseudoskeptics confuse or conflate uncertainties at the margins or fringes or cutting edges of the science with uncertainty at its root. They also confuse or conflate uncertainties regarding timing with existential uncertainty. What is uncertain is how soon the Arctic sea ice will be gone in summer time. What is certain is that it will happen if nothing is done to decarbonise (and given time lags and how quickly Arctic sea ice has melted, it may be that there is nothing that can be done to stop the ice from disappearing, only restore the conditions that allow it to form). What is uncertain is when the Greenland or Antarctic land ice sheets will collapse. What is certain is that, again, if nothing is done to decarbonise, the collapses will happen. And so on, and so forth...
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  7. I think an analogy should be something that the target audience can relate to. As most deniers are conservative, put it in military terms. It's like getting credible information about an impending terrorist attack, but taking no action because we're not sure what time the attack will be, or whether they really have as many bombs as they claim, or we're awaiting confirmation that the 20th terrorist has actually boarded a plane, or some similar detail. Obstructionists can always point to some piece of information that isn't yet complete, but there comes a point where we have to act before it's too late. There is vastly more uncertainty about potential terrorist attacks than there is about global warming, yet with terrorism we feel it is our duty to take action despite the unknowns.
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  8. There is vastly more uncertainty about potential terrorist attacks than there is about global warming, yet with terrorism we feel it is our duty to take action despite the unknowns. During the Bush years, I often made an analogy to Dick Cheney's celebrated "One-Percent Doctrine": "If there's a 1-percent chance that Pakistani scientists are helping al-Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response." It was especially effective with people who claimed to see a 50/50 chance (at best) that current climate predictions were accurate. Unfortunately, I don't think dredging up this ancient history would work nowadays. Most denialists I know would probably say "Dick who?" That said, ideologues who laugh off AGW often demand that we take immediate preventive action on far murkier problems, on the basis of much more questionable statistics. Like fighting same-sex marriage to protect Civilization Itself from...something or other. Or launching expensive, disruptive schemes to "prevent" the statistically irrelevant threat of in-person voter fraud. Meanwhile, a massive international conspiracy is the only coherent alternative explanation for the scientific consensus on AGW. There's no evidence that any such conspiracy does or could exist. And yet, this total lack of evidence -- let alone certainty -- doesn't seem to stop a lot of these folks from making very confident allegations about global scientific corruption. Funny how that works.
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  9. Forrest@7: Speaking of a conservative-oriented analogy for the proper role of uncertainty in determining action, there's the "Cheney Doctrine", better known as "The 1% Doctrine": "If there's a 1% chance that Pakistani scientists are helping al-Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response. It's not about our analysis ... It's about our response." We are far more than 1% certain that Business As Usual (BAU) burning of fossil fuels (i.e., no action, as Monckton advocates), will lead to greater (or much greater) than 2C of global warming. The modest warming of about 0.6C that has occurred so far has led to increased extreme weather events and associated multi-billion dollar losses, not to mention the demise of the Arctic sea ice and the additional warming and weather consequences it will cause. We are already committed to much worse consequences from 2C of warming, and we risk catastrophic consequences with 4-6C of warming under Monckton's BAU. The Cheney Doctrine demands that we take action to avert catastrophe. Even common business practices of prudent risk management demand that we act to avert the possibility of catastrophic consequences. Conservatives, what say you about this reasoning? [Oops...I see that Phila@8 gave this analogy while I was writing.]
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  10. I would suggest an analogy with eating. Healthy food in the correct amount is good for you and necessary. Junk food may be better than no food but a full diet of it leads to obesity and ill health later. Fossil fuels are the junk food of our economy. Excess use will lead to severe planetary ill health eventually. Just like our bodies it will be too late to fix the problem after that first heart attack. We need to change our diet.
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  11. I like the above Judo-like use of analogies that play to conservatives heightened sense of threat-neutralization. I also like the image of a fast moving train being informed of a potential obstruction. Perhaps someone with artistic skills better than mine could render this scene: --- Passenger: "I can't help but notice that we're headed for a cliff at 60 mph." Driver: "Don't worry, the speedometer isn't entirely accurate. It's possible that we're only doing 50." ---
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  12. vrooomie@5 Nice that you catch this piece of humour (sic - humor for you in US). Of course it was intentional: "affluent" implies "effluent" (i.e. discharging sewage) in this context.
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  13. Photon Wrangler @11 ...and even if the speedometer is correct, 3% of the other drivers riding in the bus think it's just a shallow descent on the other side of the ridge, which will be great for saving gas - only 97% think its a sharp, painful drop!
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  14. Analogy #372: A man walks into a crowded Washington hotel lobby. He is wearing what appears to be a jacket covered with sticks of plastic explosives and is carrying in his left hand what appears to be a controller with a big, red button. His thumb is on the button. All the security guards yell "Take cover, this maniac has a bomb!" What do you do? You could:
    • Run for your life
    • Take cover behind a stout concrete pillar
    • Hit the floor and hope the blast goes over your head
    • Do nothing, because you have no evidence that the bomb is real and, anyway, chances are the chap is right-handed, so he has the controller in the wrong hand
    • Shake him by the hand and say "I love your outfit today. Going anywhere special?"
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  15. Its the bus for me too - the springfield school bus: we left the road in 1980 but nobody noticed as we sped along the gently sloping field. As it gets steeper and bumpier a few kids start to call out but are shushed by the teacher who is marking papers and has no time to look up. the driver has his earphones in and is singing 'highway to hell' at the top of his voice. We have just gone through the fence iwith the 'danger steep slope' sign on it, and some of us are screaming. Im at the back under a seat in the brace position. Sorry, not much help!
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  16. I get stuck on that phrase: "Victory will be achieved when average citizens "understand" (recognize) uncertainties in climate science" This is strategic planning for information warfare. And we failed to hear that statement for what it is - a harmful and immoral admission. This deliberate misinformation amounts to sabotage. This is more like cold war maneuvers, is it not? The analogy is like telling a serious drunkard that because of uncertainties about exactly how he had to drink - then he is free to drive. As if the 'uncertainties about measuring blood alcohol levels' make him a safe driver. This is a great article with clear science charts, but the history of deceit around this issue is sad and the strategic ignorance is dispiriting. The follow up question for the American Petroleum Institute: "Is a Pyrrhic Victory what you had planned?"
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