This is the copy of a text I sent to a well-respected blog on climate change and climate science, RealClimate. When the chance comes, I’ll add them to the right bit of the site to create a link.
They haven’t responded to my email asking if they want to use it (it is unlikely; the text isn’t scientific enough), so here it is:
Give it to me straight: the layman’s ‘take’ on climate change.
So, the war is over, and the ‘pros’ won. The climate is changing and we’re responsible. Job done. Don’t believe it for a minute. Though the scientific battle over what, when and how much the climate is changing has swung steadily to the advantage of the erstwhile AGW camp, and we are getting (slowly) closer to some kind of political response to the problem we may have to face in the coming years, the biggest battle, the one to win the hearts and minds of the layman, is still very much in the balance.
There have been recently published surveys which show a shift in perception amongst the general public (especially in the USA), and worthy graphics which show that 90% of the public, in many countries, accept that GW is an important issue. But in the face of the real world, these (apparent) statistics disguise a problem which both climate science and policy makers will have to face in the next few years; actually, we’re not buying it.
On a (UK-based, but internationally-reaching) website which has as its theme the weather, (how very British!), a poll was conducted recently about AGW and the weather. The (blind) poll asked members to choose an option which indicated whether or not the recent warm months had changed their views about AGW, and how much. The results, for me, were sobering.
Sure, this is no way to get a ‘proper’ poll done, you will say, and be entirely right; it isn’t a rigorous finding, in that sense. But I would argue that this works to its advantage as, in the informal and anonymous surroundings of a familiar environment, what we get in response from individuals is less likely to be moderated by what they think their answer should be. And if the poll and its associated comments are anything to go by, there is still a lot of work to be done to educate the general populace and establish the conditions under which real action on climate change can take place.
There always were going to be sceptics, people for whom the warm spell made no difference, as they ‘don’t believe’ in AGW. Exactly 20% of the respondents chose this option. Another 32% or so responded in varying degrees that the season had made a difference to their attitude (they were reconsidering their opinions) – but, and this was the real surprise, the number of respondents who said that it made no difference, as they ‘already believed’ in AGW, was less than 50%.
Here then, is the crux of the problem: informally, less than half of this particular population has accepted that AGW is a real phenomenon. Which in turn means that more than half haven’t. As one of the laymen myself, albeit one who has studied the subject in depth, I found this shocking. How could so many people not understand one of the most publicised and most important scientific findings of our time? And why were so many still sceptical about the fundamental science (not to mention the political rhetoric)?
The website concerned is not populated by the ignorant; there are 240 separate threads on environment change, with several thousand comments, and one can get a good idea of the range of attitudes by looking at some of these. Time and time again, the discussions go round in circles, inevitably, as debate boils down to entrenchment of established views, but some themes do recur, which is why I thought of writing this.
Being a pragmatic sort, though, as well as working out for myself what some of the core issues appear to be, I have also instigated a thread asking members what they want to ask climate scientists. I’ll come to those questions shortly, but first, this is what comes out of an analysis of the site as a whole:
· Many people, of all shades of opinion, struggle to understand the most basic principles of physics and cannot distinguish between rigorous and unfounded assertions.
· Few people think logically or rationally about this issue when it comes to the crunch, and so are not amenable to rational persuasion.
· A substantial number are cynical about the science because of an underlying cynicism relating to politics and the media; there’s a tendency to view the science as simply ‘towing the party line’, rather than leading the way.
· There is a lot of doubt about the reliability of climate models. (In part, this may well be a function of the fact that these are weather enthusiasts, who follow weather model runs avidly and frequently see how the unfolding ‘reality’ differs from the model output); some see the climate models as weather models ‘writ large’, others point to the many ‘uncertainties’ in model input and the unlikelihood of the models being able to incorporate all the relevant or necessary information required for ‘skill’ to be shown.
· There is a large amount of confusion over the distinction between environmental issues and climate issues; the two are frequently conflated and both often misunderstood.
· There are still plenty of conspiracy theorists out there.
· There is a great deal of confusion over the role of CO2 in warming the atmosphere (and an accompanying belief that emissions regulations are simply an excuse to increase taxes and lay the blame on our problems on the individual).
So, I am writing this article to make an appeal. We need climate scientists to give the layman some clear and unequivocal answers, in the simplest of language. Don’t worry about supporting evidence: I have personally posted several hundred links to articles, abstracts and op-eds in response to the comments of others, and they don’t appear to make much difference; most of the time, I suspect they aren’t even read.
Because people are bizarre, wonderful and unpredictable creatures, some of the questions are somewhat ‘sideways’, but I’m sure that won’t concern some of you.
So, climate scientists (and others) of the world; give it to us straight:
1. The temperature hasn’t gone up very much yet; are we getting this GW thing out of proportion?
2. Is it [absolutely] certain that the recent trend is not natural?
3. What difference will it make to me if we control CO2 emissions, and what difference would me doing my bit make?
3. Are climate models reliable guides to likely future climates, globally and regionally?
4. If you had a much greater amount of computing power available than you have now, what would you add to the climate models that isn’t already there and how else could you improve them?
5. There is no record that the models have predicted anything successfully yet, and no evidence that they are likely to do so soon, so why should we take note of them now?
6. If the models don’t ‘work’, you ‘tweak’ them. Doesn’t this mean that you are just getting the models to tell you what you want to hear, by changing the input?
7. The AR4 SPM tells us it’s going to carry on getting warmer anyway for the next decades, so how are we going to get proof whether or not we are responsible for it?
8. Given the substantial uncertainties relating both to measurements and processes in the Antarctic, how much confidence can we have in recent/current assessments of the probability of a collapse of the WAIS? And, could meltwater ‘surges’ from The Ross Sea area promote displacement of Australasian warm pooling’ leading to ‘El-Nino’ like warm pooling off Equatorial Pacific America?
9. Do you think that catastrophic sea level rises are now unavoidable?
10. Exactly HOW will global warming make tropical cyclones more likely, especially when global trends have shown no rise at all in the last 30 years?
11. How can the media be managed to get the global warming message across?
12. Is much research directed towards exploring alternative explanations for climate change, or is the majority of it directed at refining our understanding of currently “known” processes?
13. How far afield do climatologists go in their research – in other words, do climatologists actually study solar interactions (for example) with the Earth’s climate, or do they just draw conclusions from papers written by scientists from other disciplines?