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Lukewarmers – the third stage of climate denial, gambling on snake eyes

Posted on 13 May 2015 by dana1981

It’s the hottest trend in climate denial. Long gone are the days when people can publicly deny that the planet is warming or that humans are responsible without facing widespread mockery. Those who oppose taking serious action to curb global warming have mostly shifted to Stage 3 in the 5 stages of climate denial.

  • Stage 1: Deny the problem exists
  • Stage 2: Deny we’re the cause
  • Stage 3: Deny it’s a problem
  • Stage 4: Deny we can solve it
  • Stage 5: It’s too late

Each of the 5 stages shares one main characteristic – all can be used to argue against efforts and policies to slow global warming. If the planet isn’t warming, or if we’re not causing it, or if it’s not a problem, or if we can’t solve it, or if it’s too late, in each case there’s no reason to implement climate policies. 

People who favor the status quo will often bounce back and forth between the various stages of climate denial. However, as Stages 1 and 2 have become increasingly untenable, Stage 3 has become more popular.

As a result, so-called “Lukewarmers” have emerged. This group believes that the climate is relatively insensitive to the increasing greenhouse effect, and hence that climate change will proceed slowly enough as to not be a serious concern in the near future. This group has also become known as “Luckwarmers,” because they essentially want to gamble our future on the small chance that the best possible case scenario will come to fruition.

The Luckwarmer Case

It’s akin to rolling dice and betting all of our money that they’ll come up as snake eyes. For the Luckwarmer case to be true, first the climate sensitivity must be close to the lowest end of possible values. This requires rejecting the vast body of evidence suggesting that the climate is in reality quite sensitive to the increasing greenhouse effect.

Second, even if the climate is relatively insensitive to the increasing greenhouse effect, the planet will nevertheless continue to warm if we continue to pump carbon pollution into the atmosphere. Thus the Luckwarmer case also generally depends on the impacts associated with that climate change being relatively benign. Contrarian climate scientist Judith Curry recently made this case in testimony to the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology:

The concern about inaction comes from concern about passing the 2°C ‘danger’ threshold, possibly by mid-century. This concern relies on a very weak assessment that 2°C of warming is actually ‘dangerous’ and that we can believe the climate models (which seem to be running too hot).

Former NASA climate scientist James Hansen recently outlined the scientific evidence behind why even 2°C warming is very dangerous for our long-term future. The most vulnerable developing nations agree. Scientific research seems to keep revealing more and more negative impacts associated with further global warming; most recently the likelihood that wheat yields will decrease in a hotter world as demand rises from a growing population.

The claim about climate models running hot is a popular one among Luckwarmers, but observed temperatures are within the range of model simulations, and all signs point toward the reliability of long-term model projections.

The Luckwarmer argument relies on both the climate sensitivity and climate change impacts being about as low as the scientific evidence suggests they could possibly be. But that requires rejecting all the evidence supporting the possibility of the worst case, or even the most likely case scenarios. Each of the dice could come up showing any number from 1 to 6. Betting that they’ll both come up showing 1 is a risky gamble.

Is Stage 3 Denial a Positive Development?

In The Observer, climate scientist Tamsin Edwards recently wrote,

Call me naive – others have – but I choose to see the positive in this lukewarming of the debate. Widespread acceptance that humans do affect climate means we can focus on the genuine open questions in science and policy.

On the one hand, it would be nice not to have to keep debunking myths about the reality of human-caused global warming. On the other hand, Stage 3 denial isn’t all that different from Stages 1 and 2. Ultimately they’re all based on denying some set of inconvenient scientific evidence, they’re all used to oppose policies to curb global warming, and people will bounce back and forth between the various stages of climate denial anyway.

For example, President George W. Bush’s FEMA director, Michael Brown (of “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job” Hurricane Katrina infamy) recently voiced his Luckwarmer views on Twitter.

This was a combination of Stage 2 and 3 denial, explicitly used to justify opposition to climate policies. The aforementioned Judith Curry has also bounced between Stages 2 and 3, recently voicing doubts about the undeniable physical reality that humans are responsible for the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide, writing,

...the mass balance approach is naive zeroth order.

“The mass balance approach” refers to the principle that when we burn fossil fuels and release carbon pollution, that carbon has to go somewhere (based on the fundamental principle of the conservation of mass). Professor Gavin Cawley explains the science nicely in the Denial101x course.

 Denial101x Lecture 3.2.1 – Upsetting the Natural Balance, by Prof. Gavin Cawley.

Since the rate of buildup in the atmosphere is only about half as fast as the rate at which humans are producing carbon pollution, it’s undeniable that we’re causing the rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide. Or at least it should be.

Luckwarmers Usually Oppose Climate Policies

Other examples of Luckwarmers include Matt RidleyNic Lewis, and Bjorn Lomborg. The University of Western Australia has been caught up in a major Luckwarmer controversy, having taken federal funds to set up a center from which Lomborg was expected to argue that the government’s money would be better spent on issues other than curbing global warming. In a sign that even Stage 3 climate denial is starting to become untenable, the resulting uproar forced the university to cancel plans for the center.

Matt Ridley and Nic Lewis are both contributors to the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF). The GWPF advocates against most policies that would significantly cut carbon pollution and slow global warming. Matt Ridley often explicitly advocates for the continued heavy use of fossil fuels.

Is Stage 3 Denial a Negative Development?

Thus it’s hard to make a convincing case that the shift towards Stage 3 climate denial is a positive development. If anything it just gives arguments against climate policies undeserved credibility. For example, The Observer sub-headline read,

Click here to read the rest

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Comments 1 to 13:

  1. A very informative scale for climate change denial. However, would you describe it as a hierarchical because I notice deniers I converse with will tend to regress or default to lower levels depending upon the topic or even via their desperation. For example, they might admit to warming in relation to evidence of temperature rises but another time will say the planet has parts that are not warming or that these balance out the warming. It would be interesting to do a longitudinal study of deniers over time to see how their denial progresses and with what frequency they might regress.

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  2. @Neo.  I believe that it is hierarchical in the same way that a person can be "situated" in one step of Bloom's Taxonomy for say Maths but in another lower or higher step for another subject, say English.  My experience as a teacher suggests that even within one subject a student can move from one step to another depending on the topic.  

    So, I'd suugest that the people you describe are moving between steps of the denier hierarchy, perhaps depending on their level of understanding of each area of discussion/dispute.

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  3. I have long suspected that the most voluble deniers, such as Morano, Inhofe, Monckton etc continue to use arguments that they surely know have been debunked for one reason. That is that those sound bite factoids and arguments work very well to sway the minds of the general public, in op-eds, lectures, articles or debates.

    Why wouild they want to do that? I think that behind all the out and out antiscience they spout, these people have been secretly convinced by the lukewarmers, such as Lindzen and Spencer, that the ultimate results of us continuing to use fossil fuels won't be very much at all - benefits may balance harm and we'll have enough time to adapt to any harm. 

    The loudest deniers, I am speculating, are doing it, even though they don't believe it, because inwardly they have been convinced that we don't need to do much, if anything. However, as political animals, they know that selling the public that is a weak flawed message. FUD works better to achieve their ends.

    If they told the public that a few scientists claim that the sensitivity is lowe enough that w wouldn't need to bother, they know that the public would then look at Dana's analogy of throwing dice and weigh up  the risks of believing the lukewarmers or everybody else. I think most ordinary people are sensible enough to judge what to do. They look both ways when crossing the road, they don't buy outdated food. They wouldn't risk their climate on a minority scientific view.

    I have come round to the belief that the danger of trusting in the lukewarmer position is the greatest problem we have. I think science and science communicators need to get that message out far bettre than has been the case previously

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  4. The "Making Science Public" blog (The University of Nottingham) has a very interesting article on the 'Lukewarmer' label, well worth the read.

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    Moderator Response:

    [JH] Thanks for bringing this most informative post to our attention. It's authored by Brigitte Nerlich, Professor of Science, Language and Society – Institute for Science and Society, The University of Nottingham. Director of the Leverhulme research programme ‘Making Science Public‘ and PI on ESRC funded project devoted to charting climate change debates.

    Nerlich’s blog post has generated a lively comment thread discussion by a number of “luminaries” from Deniersville. 

    PS - Link activated.

  5. It strikes me that people who used to call themselves "skeptics" now often call themselves "lukewarmers".  Anthony Watts and many others come to mind.  Lundzen in 1989 said that warming would not exceed the noise in the data.  Hansen was correct in predicting warming.  The "skeptic" brand has been shown to be incorrect.  They are trying to continue their stalling by putting on a new hat.  How long will it take the mainstream media to see through the new outfit?

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  6. Attaching derogatory labels to opponents of your argument does not promote better understanding in non scientist. It allows your opponents to to stereotype you and then dismiss the worth of anything you say. This in turn polarises the argument to its extremes and eventually leads to a megaphone debate. In a scientific debate, it is the sober, well argued, revealation of scientific information, without resorting to stereotyping of opponents that will ultimately win through, i.e. the information will always trump the stereotype. Also, to convince genuinely skeptical people, rather than the so called climate denier/skeptic/obstructionists, you need good metaphors easily understood by non-scientists, to convince people. In other words SMILE, simple makes it lots easier, is better.

    While Sks presents the scientific arguments, sometimes, the complexity of the scientific debate does not make the science easily accessible to the non-scientist. This leaves a chasm for opponents to AGW and CC to use dismissive stereotypes to drive through their scientific misinformation and political rhetoric. The CO2 problem for the Earth is similar to a swimming pool whose chlorine pump is broken. Even though the quantities are small, if too much chlorine accumulates, you will get burnt; if there is too little, you will get algae. In both cases you won't be able to swim in the pool. Other metaphors, like intravenous administration of a drug, again, only trace quantities are used, but too much you will die, too little you will get sicker and may die. The same goes for a fertilizer/farming metaphor. To much you can't grow anything, too little you get weeds. The minute increase trace argument, can be likened to interest rates on an investment account, and the climate models are unreliable argument, might be better counteracted by wondering why they rely on economic models to make their investements which is surely as complex, and not always accurate. There are plenty of simple metaphors to describe the CO2 problem before explaining the scientific complexity of the carbon cycle where the recent rise in CO2 is put into its proper geological context.

    To question a scientist as eminent as say Richard Lindzen, there is no need to resort to a label. You can use what he presents scientifically. As I understand it, he predicts that doubling CO2 will only yield a 0.5 degree C increase in temperature, hence of no consequence. However, over the last century we have already seen a 0.8 degree C increase in temperature, while CO2 levels have increased by 40%, hardly a doubling. Without any other scientifically verifiable casuality, I would have thought that this would be enough to negate his key argument, that doubling CO2 is not significant. There is no need to use labels like denier. Leave the labels like warmist, carbonite, leftie, greenie etc. to those whose scientific arguments are so weak that they have to resort to them. Also, I would have thought that the 15 degree difference in the average global temperatures between the Earth, with its 200-300 ppm CO2 (today 400 ppm), and the Moon (zero CO2), and with the paleoclimate evidence, would be enough to address the climate sensitivity issue in the mind of non scientists. Presenting simple scientific inconsistencies in the argument of opponents by using simple metaphors is more likely to promote better understanding than resorting to yet another label.

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  7. What Lindzen says scientifically, (ie in peer-reviewed journals) is not a problem and is addressed there. Addressing what Lindzen says when talking to the naive (eg congress) is the problem. I wonder how many of the statement list here would have been made if addressing an audience of his peers?

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  8. Spot on uncletimrob, it is very similar to how Bloom's Taxonomy works. Perhaps I should have emphasised an 'inclusive hierarchy'. Essentially, it just provides deniers with more avenues of excuses and in a way they use it to try and cloak themselves in some scientific respectability (when it suits them).

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  9. @8Neo  Yes, good description.

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  10. mancan18@6,

    It is indeed clear that the public claims made by a few people with science credentials are contrary to the actual science they are aware of, or have little excuse not to be aware of. The same goes for a few people in positions of leadership or a few people who have become very wealthy.

    The popular support for those types of claims, and the poeple who make them, is what needs to be overcome. And the science and history of marketing indicates that misleading marketing can be very effective at delaying the growth of awareness and the acceptance of the actual facts of the matter. It also indicates that eventually the power of the misleading marketing will fail, but potentially only after a long run of success, even damaging success. And even when the clear majority finally accept the developed better understanding of what is going on, many people will continue to believe the unbelievable.

    This matter is one that cannot wait for the inevitable growth of awareness and better understanding of what is going on. It is like the genocide in Rwanda or the need to end Aparthied in South Africa. It requires coordinated global leadership action based on the understanding of what is going on contrary to the interests of some powerful wealthy people.

    One of the strongest motivators for the popularity and persistence of unbelievable beliefs is the opportunity to obtain personal gratification or benefit. The success of Lottery marketing proves the power of the hope of getting-lucky even in cases where the facts clearly are that the vast majority of the hopeful will be losers.

    In the case of the consequences of the production of excess CO2 the facts of the matter are that the ones getting away with benefiting actually have little reason to personally be concerned about the consequences of their actions. People who will not benefit from the continuation of the unacceptable activity, particularly future generations, have little ability to influence what is going on. And the future generations have absolutely no influence. They have no vote today, no investment influence today, no purchasing power influence today, no lobbying influence today. So the popularity and profitability of activity that cannot be continued to be enjoyed by generations far into the future and which creates potential significant problems for those in the future is very difficult to overcome. Simple statements of the facts of the science will not influence someone who has no personal reason to care and chooses not to care.

    So 'people with science credentials and people in positions of leadership and influence who willingly try to make claims and maintain the popularity of belief that do not stand up to rigorous scrutiny given all of the information such people have no excuse to not be aware of' are like the cheaters in a sporting event or people who drive after drinking. They are aware of the unacceptability of what they are doing, but they think they can get away with it and they want to try to get away with it. There is no kind term of reference for that kind of person, contrary to what that kind of person would try to claim.

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  11. Nick Palmer:

    The loudest deniers, I am speculating, are doing it, even though they don't believe it, because inwardly they have been convinced that we don't need to do much, if anything. However, as political animals, they know that selling the public that is a weak flawed message. FUD works better to achieve their ends.

    I don't think it strains credulity to suggest that Inhofe, Morano, Monckton inter alia understand perfectly well that the costs of AGW will be paid by someone, sometime, but they just don't care.  They'll say whatever they think will maximize the profits of their patrons in the short term. 

    Knowingly making counter-factual assertions for personal aggrandizement is the second-oldest profession, after all.

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  12. Mal Adapted,

    It is worse than those people not caring about the cost someone else will pay.

    Every economic evaluation that compares 'current day benefits that do not truly focus on assisting the least fortunate advance to a sustainable better future' with 'some calculation of future costs' is fundamentally unacceptable on two counts.

    1. Any unsustainable and damaging activity like the burning of fossil fuels really should only be for the temporary effort to transition the least fortunate to a sustainable more fortunate future. Global GDP has grown faster than the population, even African GDP has grown faster than the African population, and the wealthiest have gotten much wealthier yet many people remain stuck in desperate poverty.
    2. It is unjustifiable to compare the benefits obtained by some in a current generation with the resulting costs and damage that will be faced by future generations. And it is almost criminal to overstate the benefits that a current generation would have to give up and compare those with understated future costs and consequences, especially when ignoring the damage done to the environment that is not considered because it has no current legal or economic cost evaluation method (the robust diversity of life is priceless, and that is why it is ignored by the 'cost comparers')
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  13. OPOF, I'm pretty sure that the ostensible rationale offered by some lukewarmers is disingenuous.  They know it's unacceptable to leave the cost of AGW to be paid by poor people in other countries.  When they assert that the costs of AGW won't be high enough to justify mitigation, what they really mean is that they don't expect the costs to themselves or anyone they care about to be high. Their attitude (for which there is ample historical precedent, to be sure) is expressed by the Deacons' grace: "Lord bless me and my wife, son John and his wife, we four and no more."

    Such people will only support mitigation if they can be persuaded that their personal costs will in fact be high.  If they see their or their families' lives, homes or livelihoods threatened by heat waves, droughts, severe storms and rising sea levels, they'll call for action.

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