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Climate scientists, and those of us who have reached the conclusion that climate change is a real and significant issue, often struggle to understand why it is that other people cannot see the obvious, or persistently fail to be persuaded to ditch their scepticism in the face of reason. Likewise, those who question the ‘orthodoxy’ of the scientific assessments of climate change cannot understand why we ‘warmers’ consistently fail to see the inconsistencies and causes of uncertainty which are so self-evident to them.

As a consequence, much of what is written in the blogosphere ends up as either preaching to the converted or banging one’s head against a brick wall. Why is this? Where is the magic formula which will allow actual communication and the possibility of a change of mind?

Stimulated by Barry’s comments yesterday, it occurred to me that his list of objections to an acceptance of ‘the AGW hypothesis’ (in the broadest sense) read as a litany of familiar comments which almost all bloggers on the subject will find tiresomely predictable. So, was Barry ‘doubting by numbers’, or is something else going on?

I don’t believe that this commenter, or any of the others who I have debated the issues with on the weather forum I frequent, are simply reiterating objections for the sake of it. This individual, like a substantial number of other doubters, is a reasonable, normal person who is addressing the issue of climate change and who does think that there is sufficient doubt as to render policy or action at best of dubious worth, at worst, misguided.

At first, my intention was to respond with the normal set of explanations as to why each of the cited objections was faulty, misguided or incorrect; this has been a standard response amongst ‘warmers’ for some time, using reasoned argument to dispel misunderstanding. But then it occurred to me that it would make no difference to my correspondent. I came to this conclusion, because I have adopted this selfsame strategy many times before, and I have yet to see evidence that anyone has changed their mind about AGW as a consequence. So what do I say to the ‘Barry’s’ of the blogosphere?

To make sense of my conclusion, we first have to think a bit about why people have doubts about AGW. George Marshall’s Climate Change Denial has two recent posts analysing the psychology of ‘scepticism’, one on why the ‘Swindle’ TV programme seems to have been persuasive, the other on a new poll/paper by IPSOS MORI, which I particularly recommend. I don’t necessarily accept or agree with all of Marshall’s analysis of the denial process, but there is plenty of interesting reading there. Following from Marshall’s observations, this is my take on what is going on:

We are made aware of the question of AGW; based on our first encounters, we develop an opinion, either of acceptance or doubt about the ‘whole package’. Then we find others who either share our opinion or challenge it. We respond by justifying our opinion. We seek convincing support for our opinion. We find arguments to refute the challenges to our opinion. If all else fails, we return to the baseline of ‘well, that’s what I think anyway, and I have the right to my own opinion’. Why we should do this is a complex matter, but there are one or two things going on which might help explain how people come to be ‘doubters’.

First, there is cynicism about the media. Given our experience of dire warnings of imminent catastrophe which then (surprise, surprise) fail to materialise, we are inclined to disbelieve such material as a default response; we simply do not expect there to be any truth, so we reject the warnings. I have said plenty about how the media response to climate change is unconstructive to real debate, so I won’t repeat that, but the bottom line here is that the way in which stories are generated encourages a natural state of doubt about the subject of the story.

Then, there is our natural desire for autonomy. We resist paternalistic and ‘nanny-state’ intervention from government because we tend to see it as an infringement of our personal right to choose and, generally, reflective of a ‘busy-body’, impositional attitude. Generally, the commonest response to being told we ‘must’ do something is the proverbial middle finger. What happens to many people, when they are ‘told’ in polemical, assertive, instructional tones, how they ‘must’ take responsibility, ‘must’ care, ‘must’ protect the future…, is that they produce the intellectual equivalent of the middle finger, the voice of resistance, which in the case of climate change, is doubt, or scepticism.

Third, there is Marshall’s’ ‘desire to avoid or displace’ what we understand at a deep level is a problem, but which we don’t want to have to deal with, so we rationalise our way out of the potential challenge to our comfort by a process of denial. This is psychology, and I won’t pretend to expertise on the subject. It sounds like a reasonable interpretation.

Finally (for the time being), there is the bloody-minded pig-headedness to which we are all, I am sure, inclined on the odd occasion. Having been foolish enough to express an opinion in the first place, when we are challenged, legitimately or not, our default response is to entrench ourselves in our original position in the face of an assault on our integrity/intelligence. We do this even when we actually do start to wonder whether we were wrong after all. We do this because it’s a kind of dog-growl reaction to invasion or threat; it is an almost pre-rational response. It is simply very rare to read someone stating that they have changed their mind, or admitting that they were wrong; even when this happens, it’s often supplemented by a proviso, which seeks to justify that original misconception. So, instead of considering our opinions, we end up pushing ourselves further down the line, committing ourselves further to the stance we have already taken.

If any of this strikes a chord with you, the reader, then we need to ask how communication about climate change, how a real exchange of understandings, can ever take place. That this is needed is evidenced by the poll Marshall cites; there are still many people for whom action or decision is a distant prospect. I don’t know the answer to this (yet) (If only…it could make me a reputation…), but I do think there is a starting point, at least. From whatever our original position/opinion was, first it might be sensible to ask of ourselves, ‘could I be wrong?’ ‘ Have I made a mistake?’ or ‘How sure am , really, of this opinion?’

When we have addressed, with a kind of Cartesian questioning, our own existential climate change being, ( that’s meant to be tongue in cheek, not really a pretentious verbalisation…), then we are in a position to open up discussion with others about their ‘AGW-identity’. We need to actually be open-minded ourselves before we ask of others that they might be so. And then we ‘pop the question’ to the ‘Barry’s’ of the blogosphere; “Do you think it is possible that your opinion could be wrong?” “Do you think you are able to change your mind about this issue?” and, finally, “If it did turn out that AGW was real, what might the consequences of our indecision be, whereas if it did turn out that AGW was a chimera, what might the consequences of the actions which are being suggested be?” In other words; how do we end up losing by doing something about emissions, pollution, deforestation or waste?

Be loved.


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August 2007