Plausible Deniability

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I decided well before starting a climate change blog that global warming denialists were not gonna be in my target demo. Because they’re crazy. And with that comment I’ve quite decidedly nailed that particular flag to the mast.

But – I pretend you ask – surely you, sir (you’re very polite), were once a denialist yourself? Is this blog not an attempt to convert other denialists? Not at all. As a point of clarification, a frog in a pot isn’t a climate change denialist. You put a frog on the pot to boil, and it knows it’s getting warmer. It even knows that it doesn’t have to stay in the pot. But the water is pleasant and warm (at first), and the frog is too lazy. But it doesn’t deny anything.

It’s a pretty dumb way to live, but climate change campaigners can work with that, and find some way to convince the frog to save itself. Denialism is different. A denialist is more like a potato in a pot. It doesn’t know the water is getting warmer, it cannot be convinced of this plight, it certainly doesn’t think it should do anything about it, and ultimately we all end up in the same terrible casserole.

Perhaps “potato” implies that they’re stupid. But of course, it really isn’t as simple as all that. Some of them are stupid, obviously (and that from someone who was once very active on climate change, or was it just what his mother made him do?); but equally there are many, many intelligent and reasonable people who believe in a lot of mad shit that I don’t buy. And while my carefully cultivated self-importance would gladly have me believe that anyone who ever disagrees with me must be wrong, my rational mind forces me to concede that I can’t possibly be right about everything. Because nobody is.

(I’m right about climate change, though. Seriously. Casserole.)

So what makes these weirdos reckon, against all the evidence, that climate change doesn’t exist? How can they possibly justify – even to themselves – that it’s some kind of hoax or liberal conspiracy?

My curiosity about this led to me descending – very carefully – into the welcoming bosom of the beast. With a unique terror that the project would backfire and get me brainwashed and assimilated, I read a couple of their articles, listened to one of their charismatic figureheads (Marc Morano on the Guardian’s climate change podcast), chewed over some of their arguments… And I was converted! Yay for carbon dioxide! See-oh-two! See-oh-two!

Joke.

Obviously I wasn’t converted. I did learn a few interesting things about climate denial, for example that lately they seem to have adopted the underdog role (like the tagline over at Climate Change Dispatch – “Because the debate is NOT over”), and generally admit to some global warming which is partially due to CO2 emissions. But the key take-home message I got from my little foray is this: that the enemy is just like us. Despite the fundamental disagreement that climate change proponents and deniers are at loggerheads over, the two tribes have an awful lot in common. Both sides worry about their families’ future, both believe that the opposing movement is infested with corruption and conspiracy, and both are adamantly convinced that they have science on their side.

Ah, science. That most misunderstood of mistresses. I’m an engineer, so I’m no stranger to the scientific method. But from an engineer’s perspective, science is a discipline that delivers tools and materials we make stuff with, making the relationship akin to the one you might have with your postman when he arrives with your mail-order from B&Q. Nonetheless I’d recognise science well enough to pick it out of a lineup, if you stood it against a height-marked white wall alongside homeopathy, astrology and crystal skulls.

Within science there is good science, bad science, and valid opposing views that are always competing to be recognised. Science is never certain, that’s not how it works. There are contradictory theories everywhere: what matters is the consensus, which even then could be wide of the mark.

Unfortunately – considering how enormous and desperate the problem is – climate change has an overwhelming scope and complexity. There are more factors at play than you can count. Hard to convince people the world is getting warmer when, due to an extraordinarily complex interaction of different factors, some places are experiencing longer, colder winters. For the vast majority of people, the belief we hold depends totally on the trust we place in individuals who tell us what they say is the truth. It’s pure faith, nothing more.

The people who deny climate change, and think that science is on their side, are sort of right. If you want to find the scientific paper or study that “proves” you right, you will likely find it. If that’s what you think science is, then science is on everybody’s side – and therefore nobody’s.

So the truth is that there’s very little actual science involved in the global climate change debate, just tribes and opinions based on faith in ideas that may just be masquerading as science. That makes the row between deniers and proponents actually more akin to a religious debate than a scientific one: loud, tribal, and highly unlikely to change anybody’s mind. Actually maybe that is like science.

Surely the secret, then, is to work out what is and isn’t real science in this debate. Can I do that? No chance. I’m not a climate scientist myself or an expert connected with the field, so I have no concept whatsoever. No way can I tell what conclusions I should draw from the raw data in any given experiment. And though I’m told that a staggering 97% of climate scientists agree global warming is real and human caused…  Well, that’s just it – I’m told that, I can’t prove it. Nor can I disprove the various other sources which say otherwise.

This is unsettling enough to give me pause. You may know from my Revelation that I went from basically not giving a rat’s backside about climate change to actively trying to combat it in some small way, and the thing about going from blindly accepting that something exists to blindly doing something about it is that what you believe suddenly becomes important. Climate change is just something I took as a given, because of information I’ve idly absorbed over the years. And now I want to act on it, but am I really going to throw my valuable time into such a casually formed belief? How do I actually know it’s real, when there are others who are so sure it isn’t?

It looks an awful lot like non-scientists like me have no chance in being able to conclusively discern the likely truth from the conflicting offerings. Certainly not without becoming experts ourselves, and who has time for that? So with different sources saying that science says different things, it’s time to stop investigating the science, and to start investigating the sources.

But unfortunately my private investigator’s license lapsed, and they made me turn in my hat and gun 😦 And since I have no budget to hire one either, rather than investigating per se I’m gonna roll up my sleeves, make a cup of tea, and have a right good sit and try to figure out something that makes sense. Not the route to a definitive answer, that’s for sure, but maybe good enough for one I can stand by in an argument.

There’s an old maxim from somewhere which simply says “follow the money”. Or to put it another way, who profits from the crime? Who benefits from public belief or otherwise in climate change, and who bankrolls the scientific research which supports each viewpoint?

That climate-denying scientists have often been funded by the fossil fuel industry is widely assumed and occasionally proven, demonstrating a clear conflict of interest. But I’d be remiss not to mention the point made by renowned climatologist Judith Curry, who argued that government funding is also at serious risk of causing bias in climate research – and there’s much more of it. Curry, it seems, is very much resistant to the well circulated (and admittedly politicised) projection of a 4C temperature rise by the end of the century, as well as the 2C target accepted internationally as the maximum we can stand. She makes a good case for robust, honest science on both sides, not leaving genuine skeptics in the cold. A denialist? Perhaps, but it’s hard to argue with that point.

It’s worth mentioning too that there’s a lot of chicken-and-eggery going on here which further muddies the waters. Do funding bodies essentially pay researchers to support or reject climate change as they desire? Do the scientists decide what they believe before requesting funding? Or is it more common that scientists just do honest work, and it so happens that the particular area they’re working in tends to produce results that lean towards one camp or the other, and both federal and industrial funds seek those out? Maybe both sides are as bad – and good – as each other. I don’t think there’s an easy way to tell conclusively.

But I’m gonna put my private investigator hat on again, because there’s… Hang on, where did I put…? Oh that’s right, I had to give it back. Right. No hat. Sorry. Where was I? Right. Try again.

There’s a missing piece of the puzzle here. If we imagine both sides of the scientific argument on climate change are prone to bias, that’s fine. But what about the motive? The governments and organisations all over the world who fund research which ultimately supports the common climate change model get nothing out of that except a terrifying headache. I’ve seen it argued that the politicisation of the issue means that liberal lefties and the like are using it as a way to undermine and ultimately bring down big industrial institutions – especially in the fossil fuel industry – which are typically the domain of right-leaning conservatives. This smells like bollocks to me. In fact, it’s like a guy getting fired for knifing coworkers in the office narrowing his eyes and saying “You guys have always been jealous of me…”

No, I don’t believe that. See, the thing about climate change is: nobody wants it to be real. In fact the forecast can be so grim sometimes that I’m sure most people would gleefully latch onto even the most lacklustre argument against so that they don’t have to worry about it anymore, but of course our children’s lives depend on us being stronger than that. It’s a big deal and we have to do something about it – expensive, extensive, complicated and challenging things. Things our world governments don’t want to do. It’s hard work, and the outcomes may make them unpopular unless they really pull off something special. Nobody profits by convincing the world climate change is real if it isn’t.

So how about the other side of the coin, sources trying to disprove climate change or sway our collective belief away from it? Well, that’s a different kettle of fish altogether. There are people who fund, support or control media organisations, lobby groups and politicians that will promote denialism, because it favours their own ends. Denialism, for them, is part of a wider (and unforgivably short-sighted) strategy to make sure the world never changes. The world belongs to them, and keeping it locked down tight is the safest and easiest way to make sure it never escapes.

So the fossil fuel industry stays profitable, and nobody is forced to diversify, adapt, or go out of business. Keep the spin going, and you can just relax comfortably atop your stack of filthy cash, and let the world burn all around you until at last the flames start to lick at your toes and the edges of your banknotes. Because it will come for you, too; but at least it’ll spare you until last.

That’s the reward you get for siding with the Devil when he comes to unmake the world. These people aren’t potatoes: these people are sharks.

So. I guess that’s what I think. And even if I’m wrong:

climate-change-comic

… Enough said.

At a young age we get a feel for what team we’re on, in everything from sport to science to religion to politics, and forever after keep the windfarm of faith turning with the bluster of confirmation bias. It’s the oft neglected duty of any active campaigner on any issue to give your belief a good shakedown and understand why you have it – and whether you should have it. Do it right off the bat and you could find yourself saving a lot of time and embarrassment. And with your beliefs galvanised you’ll be more determined than ever – and more resilient to challenges.

We can’t afford to so passionately support causes we only passively learned to believe, because we’re just as likely to be wrong as we are right. If that’s not a recipe for chaos, I don’t know what is.

And to any climate change deniers reading this – oh, they’ve gone.

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