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Journalistic whiplash

Filed under: — gavin @ 29 July 2008 - (Español)

Andy Revkin has a good article in the Science Times today on the problem of journalistic whiplash in climate change (also discussed here). This phenomena occurs with the more uncertain parts of a science that are being actively researched and where the full story is only slowly coming together. In such cases, new papers often appear in high profile journals (because they meet the ‘of general interest’ test), and are often parsed rather simplistically to see what side of the fence they fall – are they pro or anti? This leads to wide press interest, but rather shallow coverage, and leaves casual readers with ‘whiplash’ from the ‘yes it is’, ‘no it isn’t’ messages every other week.

This is a familiar pattern in health reporting (is coffee good for you/bad for you etc.), but in more recent times has started happening in climate science too. Examples picked out in the article include the hurricanes/global warming connection and the state of Greenland’s ice sheet. In both cases, many new pieces of evidence, new theories and new models are being thrown into the pot, but full syntheses of the problems remain elusive. Scientists are of course interested in knowing how it all fits together (and it usually does), but the public – unaware of what is agreed on and what is uncertain – see only the ping-pong across the media. Unlike more mature parts of the science (such as the radiative effect of greenhouse gases), there is much less context available to relate to these new pieces of science.

This spectacle of duelling and apparently contradictory science fuels the notion that scientists can’t agree on anything. Ironically, just as climate change has made it on to the front page because the weight of evidence supporting a human role in recent warming, increased coverage may actually be leading people to think that scientists are more divided on the basic questions.

Is this inevitable? Or can scientists, press officers and journal editors and journalists actually do anything about it? Your thoughts are most welcome!

287 Responses to “Journalistic whiplash”

  1. 101
    George Ray says:

    Gavin: I think the best way to answer your very good question is with a question: Do you think the science is settled?

    [Response: If you search through this blog – and the IPCC reports and the NAS reports, you will find no mention of a mythical binary distinction between ‘settled’ and ‘unsettled’ science. This distinction is a purely made-up piece of spin – and one that is far more prevalent on the anti side for various reasons. If I thought “the science” was settled, why would I be a scientist? What would be the point? What would there be left to discover? But if you ask me whether the CO2 rise in anthropogenic, or whether CO2 was a greenhouse gas or whether it’s increase has been the predominant cause of temperature rises in recent decades, then yes – these things are pretty much ‘settled’ (in the popular understanding of the word). Do we know the exact impact of aerosol emissions on climate, or fully understand the dynamics of ice sheets, or the impact of eddies in the ocean heat transport – then no. But we do know quite a lot about these things – it’s just that our knowledge is obviously not complete. Is the science settled enough to justify worrying about emissions? Absolutely. – gavin]

  2. 102
    JohnK says:

    Last Sunday, the topic of the sermon at my church was global warming. Since most members of the congregation are aware that I have a PhD in Atmospheric Sciences, I was given the opportunity to speak briefly on the confusion many have in sorting out the scientific consensus versus popular/political debate they hear in the media. To do this as quickly and simply as possible, I chose to write and deliver the following parable:

    There once was an old sea captain. During his time at sea, the old captain had sailed the Maine coast and surrounding areas and knew them well. Upon retirement, he settled down in Maine near the sea he loved. Each morning he would walk along the shore near his cabin. One foggy morning the captain happened upon a stranger, apparently a tourist, standing next to a row boat. When he asked the stranger what he was up to, the stranger said that he was planning to row to Yarmouth. “A good morning workout, I figure!” Incredulous, the captain responded, “Yarmouth? I wouldn’t try that if I were you. That’s maybe 150 miles.” He then paused and said, “Well, it’s at least 100 miles from here anyway!” The stranger stared at the captain blankly and then turned and looked again out to sea into the fog. Convinced that he had set the stranger straight, the captain strode off, pleased with his good deed. The next morning the captain was astonished to find the stranger lying near his row boat now barely alive. “What happened to you?” asked the captain. Slowly, the stranger described how shortly after the captain had departed the previous morning, he had set out to sea to row to Yarmouth and, after many hours of rowing, had encountered a terrible storm. “Even after I warned you about how far it is?” Sheepishly, the stranger answered, “But you seemed so uncertain.”

    Everyone I spoke to after the service claimed that they “got it” – of course, it was Sunday and everyone there is polite!

  3. 103
    streamtracker says:

    Here’s a paper that is very likely to produce the next round of Journalistic Whiplash and it would be great if RC covered it preemptively.

    On the credibility of climate predictions
    D. Koutsoyiannis et al. Hydrological Sciences–Journal–des Sciences Hydrologiques, 53(4) August 2008

    Abstract: Geographically distributed predictions of future climate, obtained through climate models, are widely used in hydrology and many other disciplines, typically without assessing their reliability. Here we compare the output of various models to temperature and precipitation observations from eight stations with long (over 100 years) records from around the globe. The results show that models perform poorly, even at a climatic (30-year) scale. Thus local model projections cannot be credible, whereas a common argument that models can perform better at larger spatial scales is unsupported.

    The paper looked at eight specific observation stations and found the GCM models could not project trends at those stations. It wasn’t even looking at regional projections. Nobody has claimed that the temperature and precipitation GCM models can predict what is going to happen in Albany (one of their observation stations). The models are not constructed to predict what is going to happen at a particular observation station.

    The authors make the claim that the models don’t work at larger scales. But, their paper did not test at a larger spatial scale, they simply tested several individual stations. So they are making an inference that is beyond the scope of their analysis.

    Gavin please comment on this paper, or better yet devote a post to it. It is sure to become the next talking point by the anti-AGW crowd.

    [Response: My guess is that this will not be covered in the mainstream media at all, so it’s in a slightly different class: relatively obscure papers that get the blogosphere all excited because they over-interpret the results, in this case with a little help from the authors – (and me apparently if you read the acknowledgments!). Maybe I’ll do something at the weekend…. – gavin]

  4. 104
    Hank Roberts says:

    Someone up there asked for a cite for the basis for my opinions about the state of journalism and ownership of the media. You can look this up easily. I’d suggest these references as a start:
    (Use the pulldown menu. Note how short the list is.)

  5. 105

    Re: 37

    On the ones in doubt, go and have a good look. I am sure you will be able to distinguish between them.

  6. 106
    Rod B says:

    Chris MCV, greg smith, wilwindry, Shelama, et al: I agree with and support your ideas. I, too, have offered what I meant as helpful criticism to the believers, in the vein of how best to convince others. You were much more erudite than I was, and I appreciate your posts. As you’ve noticed, you’re likely to get a lot of vitriol back. There are some here who are more satisfied spitting out venom and getting their off-topic licks in (tobacco, right-wing talk show hosts, Bush-II, corporations, big oil, etc.) than converting a skeptic or two. They might comprehend but want no part of one of the basic marketing rules: if you want to convince or sell to someone, don’t start off by calling him/her a dumb stupid Neanderthal who has immoral and ugly friends.

    However, keep a couple of things in mind. 1. this RC forum is not the same venue as winning the public; some of the marketing rules probably don’t apply in toto here even though, unfortunately, do apply in the public. 2. RC is relatively probably the best climate science blog/forum going. 3. If you can get past the venom, most of these guys have some good scientific meat (as do most of the more staid posters). 4. “These guys” refers to only a minority of the posters here and only once in a blue moon to a moderator.

  7. 107
    Jim Eager says:

    Interesting comments. Chris MCV strikes me as not so much a skeptic or denier but as someone quite a bit smarter than he is posing playing devil’s advocate trying to get us to think about how a general public with little science education struggles to understand that which they have no real knowledge of. (Otherwise, why would he bother to try to alert us of the problem?) Of curse, that’s something we are already keenly aware of, but that doesn’t mean that we yet have a solution for.

    Some of the others commenting make the all too common mistake of confusing public confusion and debate over the understanding and meaning of the science with actual debate over the details of the science within the scientific community. The two are not at all the same.

    The latter debate is part of the scientific method itself as it works toward a better, more complete understanding and explanation of observed physical reality. As many have pointed out, most of the key mechanisms of greenhouse gas induced climate change are indeed settled within narrow ranges of certainly and can, or at least should, no longer be considered controversial, while many of the details and their effects remain within much wider ranges of uncertainty, and climate scientists have been very much above board about these uncertainties, much to their detriment in the other debate.

    The former debate is a no-rules-barred mosh pit of –
    – honest scientists–including some skeptical ones–trying to convey the current science and the seriousness and urgency of the threat
    – otherwise competent and credible scientists who have stepped too far outside their field of expertise
    – crackpots who fancy themselves as scientists out to show the eggheads that they don’t know it all
    – evnvironmentalists willing to exaggerate the seriousness and urgency of the threat
    – journalists–some diligent, some ill-equipped–trying to do their job for news outlets trying maximise profits–often by fanning and creating controversy
    – vested interest groups trying to minimise negative effects on their profits or financial freedom–some of them willing to even fund the deliberate creation of confusion and misinformation
    – contrarians-for-hire willing to serve the above purpose (we know they exist, their invoices are matters of public record)
    – ideologues hostile to any government intervention or limits on their personal freedom grasping at any argument that undermines a reality that they don’t like–some willing to simply make stuff up and outright lie
    – sincere members of the public trying to understand the science
    – confused members of the public who don’t have the education or understanding to tell if the above scientists or the above contrarians and ideologues are right
    – wingnuts willing to believe in even the most preposterous conspiracy theories
    (I’m sure I left out a few categories)

    Scientists, and science journalists, can only do so much to alleviate the honest confusion, misunderstanding and misinformation, and frankly, it’s a never ending battle countering the active disinformation and outright lies. Climate change deniers love to troll and play whack-a-mole.

  8. 108
    SecularAnimist says:

    Rod B wrote: “… if you want to convince or sell to someone, don’t start off by calling him/her a dumb stupid Neanderthal …”

    Geico might disagree.

  9. 109
    SecularAnimist says:

    Rod B wrote: “… getting their off-topic licks in (tobacco, right-wing talk show hosts, Bush-II, corporations, big oil, etc.) …”

    In a discussion about journalist coverage of, and public perception of, the reality of anthropogenic global warming and climate change, it is not off-topic to discuss the well-documented role of “big oil” corporations like Exxon-Mobil in funding fake, phony pseudoscientific propaganda as part of a deliberate, elaborate and sustained campaign of deceit, quite similar to the one that the tobacco companies engaged in for years, in order to keep the public uninformed and confused about the dangers of their product — particularly when some of the same fake “scientists” who shilled for the tobacco companies are now doing the same work for the oil companies.

    Nor is it off-topic to point out the well-documented role of the current US administration in suppressing, censoring and obfuscating climate science, even to the point of employing oil industry lobbyists to censor government reports on the effects of global warming.

    The only reason that the public is “confused” about the reality of global warming is that the public has been deliberately, systematically misled by those who stand to profit enormously from the continued use of fossil fuels.

  10. 110
    Ike Solem says:

    “AGW” is an acronym, not an explanation – just say instead that burning fossil fuels and deforesting the planet is leading to a warming and changing climate, because we are making the atmosphere a bit denser to infrared radiation.

    The level of physical understanding required to understand the basics isn’t much beyond grade school – take an iron sphere, set it beside a campfire, and it will heat up. Wrap a little bit of material around it that is non-reflective and that absorbs heat, and it will warm up a little bit. That’s the level of scientific knowledge needed to understand the theory of global warming. If you can understand why thicker clothing keeps you warmer, then you have grasped the basics. No expert consultation is required.

    How a fluid ocean and atmosphere responds to that warming is a different story. This might be called the theory of anthropogenic climate destabilization (ACD), in which fossil fuel combustion and deforestation lead to increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, resulting in a warmer atmosphere, more precipitation, more variable weather conditions, more heat waves, more droughts, etc. Since a good portion of the ocean’s water is locked up as ice on land, global warming will also lead to sea level rise (the ASLR theory, to go along with the ACD theory and the AGW theory – aren’t acronyms fun?). Estimating that requires some detailed physical models. You can argue about how fast and how far the process will go, but you have to use the three scientific lines of evidence: paleoclimate data, modern instrumental & observational data, and the results of climate modeling studies.

    None of the “skeptics” on this thread are going to challenge those basic scientific lines of evidence or the estimates they produce with anything other than recycled and refuted nonsense – so instead, you get blather about “respecting the skeptics” and “the lack of absolute certainty”- content-free emotive PR speak.

    Given that all the current peer-reviewed, open-to-public-inspection measures of global warming are trending slightly towards the higher end of projected model estimates of climate change, and that current effects are already having significant impacts on ecologies and economies, there really is only one “rational policy choice”: halt the combustion of fossil fuels, and halt global deforestation.

    It would be nice if we could just let the fossil fuels run out, but most of them will have to be left in the ground. This leads to opposition from individuals, corporations and governments who are dependent on fossil fuel economics.

    This is why the leaders in renewable energy development are Germany and Japan, who have few fossil fuel reserves of their own, and a vested interest in limiting global warming as well. Some of the fossil fuel dependents are also taking the opportunity to move into renewables, for example the Pickens wind power approach, or Dubai’s solar power approach. ( ).

    Others are still basically committed to the fossil fuel economic model, for example ExxonMobil, Senator Inhofe, and the current United States government. Their response to the problem has included paying large sums to ex-tobacco science public relation firms to press the denialist talking points, halting any political efforts to regulate fossil fuel emissions, and censoring government scientists and defunding climate satellites, all in an attempt to keep us all firmly on the “business-as-usual” projection path.

    Unfortunately, many journalists and editors in the U.S. have played a crucial role in disseminating said talking points to the public and to politicians, mainly via their selective choice of “experts” to quote. Editors tend to provide neophyte science journalists with lists of experts – but where do they get those lists from? Furthermore, some editors will deliberately assign people with zero science background to cover such “experts” verbatim, sans questions. Claiming ignorance of science as the cause of this behavior is not very believable. Pressure on editors from fossil fuel-linked advertisers and shareholders is a more likely explanation.

  11. 111

    JohnK: Beautiful and powerful story!

  12. 112
    Robert says:

    Simple question for all the folks on this forum who are completely convinced regarding AGW and its effects as defined by Hansen, et al.

    What are you personally doing in your life to solve the problem? To clarify, I’m not asking about your political actions or activism, I’m talking about your personal choices.

    How many here are organic vegans?
    Walk or bicycle for all transportation?
    Homes are completely solar and wind powered (or other renewables)?

    Fair question, no?

  13. 113
    Walter Pearce says:

    RE: 104

    Yes, and if you’ve read the Moyers piece you know his views on the deleterious effects of “corporatizing” media, referred to in my earlier posts. But the cite I requested from you was the part where he said “journalism is already a lost cause.” Please send it along when you find it.

    You also suggested we ask how we can help the scientists here present their work. OK, I’m asking.

    My audience is investors. I’m willing to lend a podium to any of the scientists here — if any, indeed, wished to communicate with that audience!

  14. 114
    dhogaza says:

    Simple question for all the folks on this forum who are completely convinced regarding AGW and its effects as defined by Hansen, et al.

    What are you personally doing in your life to solve the problem? …

    Fair question, no?

    In terms of assessing the accuracy of the science, no, it’s not a fair question, in fact it’s a meaningless question.

    If your doctor is overweight, smokes, and drinks like a fish, this fact doesn’t make him wrong if he tells you to lose weight, quit smoking, and curtail your drinking if you care about your long-term health, right?

  15. 115
    SecularAnimist says:

    Robert asked: “How many here are organic vegans? Walk or bicycle for all transportation? Homes are completely solar and wind powered (or other renewables)?”

    FWIW, I have been a vegan for twenty years (and was a vegetarian for 14 years before that). I purchase only organic foods, most of it locally-grown, from a local family-owned market. I am fortunate to have a sunny back yard where I can grow some of my own food. I do drive a car, but I limit my driving to approximately 25 miles per week, and I drive a 17 year old Ford Festiva that gets 38MPG in city driving and 48MPG on the highway. I purchase 100 percent wind-generated electricity through my local electric utility, and my house is heated and cooled by a high-efficiency electric heat pump.

    The main point I would like to make about these practices is not that I deserve any special commendation for them, but that they are all easy to do, they all benefit my personal well-being, and in general save money.

  16. 116
    SecularAnimist says:

    Ike Solem wrote: “This is why the leaders in renewable energy development are Germany and Japan …”

    Spain is also a world leader in the development and deployment of solar energy technology.

    And according to WorldWatch Insitute, China is emerging as a world leader in wind energy:

    A recent boom in Chinese wind power development has surpassed the government’s original target and forced policymakers to set a new goal that might still be too modest.

    In 2007, cumulative wind installations in China exceeded 5 gigawatts (GW), the goal originally set for 2010 by the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), China’s top economic planner. The Commission had set the target in its 2006 mid- and long-term development plan for renewable energy. The plan’s target for 2020 was 30 GW, a level that is now projected to be reached by 2012, eight years ahead of schedule.
    In March, the NDRC revised its mid-term target, doubling it from 5 GW to 10 GW for 2010. Yet this new goal is still too modest, with wind installations likely to reach 20 GW by 2010 and 100 GW by 2020. China is witnessing the start of a golden age of wind power development, and the magnitude of growth has caught even policymakers off guard.

    However, it should also be noted that according to WorldWatch, in 2007 the USA led the world in wind energy development:

    The United States led the world in new installations for the third year in a row with a record-shattering 5,244 megawatts of wind capacity added, increasing cumulative installed capacity by 45 percent. Wind power represented 30 percent of new U.S. capacity additions last year, compared with 1 percent of the total just five years earlier. The nation’s wind capacity now totals 16,818 mega­watts, second only to Germany, and is enough to power 4.5 million U.S. homes.

    The USA has enormous wind and solar energy resources, and private capital is already pouring into the expansion of these new energy industries. What is needed in the US is government policies that will support and encourage this New Industrial Revolution of the 21st century: generous, long-term investment and production tax credits, renewable portfolio standards for utilities, and feed-in tariffs (which have been very successful in Germany) for small-scale renewable electricity producers.

    But such policies are being blocked by the fossil fuel and nuclear industries and their political allies, who for obvious reasons want to delay as long as possible a massive transfer of wealth to the new energy industries that will inevitably come with the transition to an energy economy based on free, endless solar and wind energy rather than on consumption of a costly and limited supply of fuel.

  17. 117
    streamtracker says:

    Today’s Journalistic Whiplash

    New data shows that Bangladesh’s landmass is increasing, contradicting forecasts that the South Asian nation will be under the waves by the end of the century, experts say.

    Scientists from the Dhaka-based Center for Environment and Geographic Information Services (CEGIS) have studied 32 years of satellite images and say Bangladesh’s landmass has increased by 20 square kilometres (eight square miles) annually.


    He told AFP findings by the IPCC and other climate change scientists were too general and did not explore the benefits of land accretion.

    “For almost a decade we have heard experts saying Bangladesh will be under water, but so far our data has shown nothing like this,” he said.

    A google search on this topic, finds several news sources reporting the IPCC was wrong. Only one included an interview with an IPCC scientist:

    Dr Atiq Rahman, a lead author of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, told the BBC that there was little in the new research to make him think that their projection needed revising.

    He said that many people living along the coast had observed that sea levels where higher now than in their grandparents’ day.

    “The rate at which sediment is deposited and new land is created is much slower than the rate at which climate change and sea level rises are taking place,” he said.

    So while some new land may be created in parts of the country, elsewhere a much larger amount of land will disappear, he said.

    In any case, the new land will take decades to become useful, and so compensate for fertile farmland that was flooded.

    Dr Rahman said that what is needed now is a village-by-village survey of coastal Bangladesh.

    Funny thing is. No matter how hard I look I can’t find a copy of the Center for Environment and Geographic Information Services report. Not even at the CEGIS website and not via a search of several academic databases.

    If anyone has a copy, I’d like to see it.

  18. 118
    SecularAnimist says:

    Relevant to “journalistic whiplash”, consider the following from the Associated Press this past Tuesday:

    A chunk of ice spreading across seven square miles has broken off a Canadian ice shelf in the Arctic, scientists said Tuesday.

    Derek Mueller, a researcher at Trent University, was careful not to blame global warming, but said the event was consistent with the theory that the current Arctic climate isn’t rebuilding ice sheets.

    “We’re in a different climate now,” he said. “It’s not conducive to regrowing them. It’s a one-way process.”

    Now, I don’t know how much of this double-talk comes from Derek Mueller and how much is from the AP writer. But why in the world should a scientist feel the need to be “careful not to blame global warming” for an occurrence which he then attributes to “the current Arctic climate“, saying that “We’re in a different climate now” which is “not conducive to regrowing” ice sheets, noting that this climate change (how else to describe it?) is “a one-way process.”

    Does the bit about being “careful not to blame global warming” have any purpose other than to suggest the existence of nonexistent doubt that the shockingly rapid and massive changes in Arctic ice are driven by anthropogenic global warming?

  19. 119
    Hank Roberts says:

    Walter, you’ve misattributed my off the cuff opinion to Moyers. Please don’t do that even to be argumentative.

    Don’t attribute something typed on a blog to a permanent and well thought out decision about the state of the world, either! It’s always fair to ask why someone believes something, what their basis is for believing it, and whether it’s their own conclusion or something they read, if so where they read it and why they trust the source.

    You left out all the middle part of that process and leaped to assuming a citation, then misplaced concreteness by assuming Moyers said it.

    Way, way wrong. Please, read more carefully and ask more carefully why people write what they do.

    I said I thought journalism was a lost cause up there, based on the Florida case and the New Scientist article. My opinion. Worth exactly what it weighs.

    Cheer me up. Show me you understand this.
    reCaptcha: “in repetition”

  20. 120
    Chris MCV says:

    I will bite on this one. So what do I do, being a skeptic and all, realize I do consider myself a bit of a high-tech redneck.

    Not a vegan, sorry, I like steak a bit much. But I do think meat choices should change and I promote the use of goats as they are a much better yield and less environmental impact then beef. I have raised meat goats for market, but have been too busy this year and reduced my herd by a lot.
    I am not driving a big SUV, but a 6 cyl mini truck with no AC (and it is hot here!). We have a big truck but very rarely drive it (only to pull horse and stock trailers and the like).
    I am constantly upgrading the house to be more environmentally friendly, replacing windows to double glazed insulated, not heating the pool (till I get a solar heater) and adding insulation to the house where lacking. My workshop is not air conditioned and although it would be wonderful, its just too wasteful to consider.
    All appliances that can be on a timer are.
    Using power strips to kill phantom loads (computers, stereos, etc)
    CFL’s in every light fixture for over 5 years now, long before it was the “green” thing to do.
    Programable thermostat.
    Trying to go solar or solar assist, but I cannot stand PV as its a messy toxic disaster (solar thermal steam is the way to go!, but totally diy as you cant buy them too easily!)
    I am very pro nuclear power.
    I do want to switch my daily work driver to an EV, but having to go 35+ miles a day makes that more of a challange, but one I am serious about meeting.

    What rubs me is that I am a conservative right winger according to most, but I fully believe that in my day to day life my actions speak a heck of a lot louder then the Love your mother (Earth) bumper stickers on the big SUV’s of my “liberal” friends. Just bugs me to no end!

    Sorry, thats one issue that just makes me crazy in the normal left/right stereotypes.

  21. 121
    Chris MCV says:

    Just a quick comment on #116
    “free, endless solar and wind energy”
    I have a small farm and have equipment that has to run. I don’t live in a place that works well with wind, although solar is an option. Have you priced going solar for someone like me? OUCH!
    I am a big believer in distributed power generation using solar thermal, wind, geothermal combined with a grid using nuclear as a backbone. Wind and solar at this point are not mature enough in my opinion to take up the load, even if you could factor out “corporate resistance”.

  22. 122
    Dan says:

    re: 106. ” There are some here who are more satisfied spitting out venom and getting their off-topic licks in (tobacco, right-wing talk show hosts, Bush-II, corporations, big oil, etc.) than converting a skeptic or two.”

    Wow, that is really a classic “pot, kettle, black”. So I guess “spitting” unsubstantiated “venom” about EPA is okay because you like to and you’ve done it? Goodness what hypocrisy.

  23. 123
    Robert says:

    A second attempt to reply to 114: Dhogaza, That is a cute anecdote, but essentially non responsive. If you believe that something needs to be done, what are you doing yourself? The example of the Dr’s advice is of personal choice affecting a single individual. AGW’s effects purpotedly will reach us all, most especially and heart tuggingly, our grandchildren. If the effects are that dire and urgency to solve the problem so immediate, surely someone with the courage of their convictions would attempt to live the lifestyle of the SecularAnimist, correct?

    [Response: No. If someone posited that the only solution was everyone to become vegan, then you might be correct. However, everyone becoming vegan is not actually an effective, nor practical solution (though it would help somewhat). If people (correctly IMO) suggest that individual action was not going to be sufficient and that changes to how carbon-related externalities were priced into the cost of fossil fuel, thus allowing the ‘market forces’ to align themselves more closely to a low emission future, then you might criticise them for not buying renewable energy from their utility. But blanket suggestions that unless you live in a cave, CO2 is not a greenhouse gas are just silly. The whole point (presumably) is to avoid that kind of outcome. – gavin]

  24. 124
    Walter Pearce says:


    I do understand and, moreover have enjoyed your many pithy comments over the years! Whenever a hot air balloon needs bursting, I know where to find the person with the sharpest pin.

    I wish you had taken my gentle jibe about citations in the same spirit. Please tell me you understand.



  25. 125

    RE #47, and “I can not tell who is right and who is wrong, and niether side has really convinced me.”

    I, like you, am not a scientist, and don’t understand climate science very well.

    But aside from nearly all bonafide, working climate scientists (including even those paid by Exxon), saying that anthropogenic global warming is real, there are other ways to come to a conclusion for oneself. And I do rely pretty heavily on the experts’ knowledge, but not completely (they could be wrong in either direction — AGW is less harmful, or more harmful that they are claiming).

    So, I think like this: What are the dangers of believing their claims that AGW is real and dangerous, when in fact it is not, THE FALSE POSITIVE (which scientists are afraid of, so they don’t make claims unless there is less than a 5% chance they are wrong).

    I can tell you from experience that reducing my greenhouse gases by two-thirds has saved us money, without lowering our living standard. And Rocky Mountain Institute and a book by its head, NATURAL CAPITALISM (see: and ) say that America could reduce its GHG emissions by at least 75% without lowering productivity…from off-the-shelf technology (imagine what might be done if people and inventors actually put their minds to it?)

    Also, think of all the other problems that would be solved by mitigating a non-existing global warming — local pollution, acid rain, conflicts for oil, depleting non-renewable resources, grouchiness from paying high gasoline prices & higher taxes (or deficits, so our kids can pay it off) for military costs to secure supplies …. the list goes on.

    The FALSE POSITIVE would be a terrific economic bonanza, plus solve many other problem, and we wouldn’t have the problems of global warming! Only the climate scientists would be chagrinned.

    On the other hand, THE FALSE NEGATIVE (fiddling while the world burns) would be a REALLY bad thing. Not only would we lose all the great money & economic benefit from all that energy/resource efficiency/conservation, and have to contend with all the other environmental and military problems, but global warming could kill off a huge chunk of humanity and other living things for 100,000 years even (see: ). And then, according to some people’s belief, one could end up in a much hotter place than a globally warmed world for a lot longer than 100,000 years.

    I hope that helps.

  26. 126
    streamtracker says:

    Re #118 SecularAnimist,

    Another paper covered the same subject and included this quote:

    (Globe & Mail)Dr. Mueller, whom Dr. Vincent calls the pre-eminent expert on Ward Hunt Ice Shelf, says he’s concerned that the ice shelves will disappear completely.

    “The take-home message for me is that these ice shelves are not regenerating,” he said. “If we’re looking at an indicator of whether climate is to blame, it’s really the lack of regeneration that convinces me. They’re breaking away so rapidly that there’s no hope of regeneration,” he said, adding that is “pretty strong evidence that suggests this is related to global warming.”

    Seems Mueller was careful to blame AGW. Really makes you wonder what the AP reporter’s biases are.

  27. 127
    Chris MCV says:

    I think you will see from my post above that I do share your view this way. My personal political beliefs make be believe that when it comes down to it we should all work to the same end, even if for different reasons.
    Our dependence on outside sources of fossil fuels is a national security risk and potential world climate risk. Who is better set up to deal with the massive infrastructure changes (and to profit from them) then the big energy companies. Once we get it going and profitable we can in turn sell the ability to get off fossil fuels (or at least drastically reduce their need) to the rest of the world. This will also reduce the funding sources of many questionable groups that are funded indirectly by the sale of oil to us by sympathetic governments. It would require cultural and infrastructure change, but the benefits would far outweigh the negatives in the long run. A huge problem is the “I want it NOW” mindset of our culture, both at the corporate (must make a profit this quarter!), governmental (“I am out to save the world”, or “I will protect you from those that want to undermine our way of life”), and individual (“I want my cell phone, ipod, new car every 2 years and 2500 square foot home for me and my wife with cultivated lawn”). Even it one totally denies global warming, the same course of action should hold true. I think that is one of the most frustrating things of all.

  28. 128
    Martin Vermeer says:

    JohnK #102: this is so true… this story goes up on the outside of my office door!

  29. 129
    Robert says:


    I appreciate your response, but do not agree.

    The desire, presumably, of the AGW crowd is to create a dynamic change in how we consume the world’s resources in order to prevent an imminent disaster. Would Gandhi’s leadership as a non-violent revolutionary have been as effective if he took up arms?

    [Response: This is irrelevant. Gandhi was quite successful as a non-violent revolutionary, but then Lenin was quite successful as a violent one. I admire the former far more than the latter. But neither were hypocrites. – gavin]

    It is obvious, even to a simple minded fellow such as myself, that “individual” action won’t be sufficient to create the systemic changes necessary to achieve your goals, but to hedge your argument against personally responsible behaviour on “one person won’t make a difference” is rather feeble, don’t you think? With that line of reasoning, I presume you don’t vote either?

    [Response: I never said that individual action won’t make a difference, I said it was not sufficient. I generally find myself in agreement with Edmund Burke “No man ever made a greater mistake by doing nothing when he could not do anything”. I am cautiously optimistic that enough will eventually be done to reduce emissions (but it depends on the day), and that many different actions will be part of that solution – but they have to be practical – everyone becoming vegan is a non-starter (sorry SA). – gavin]

    It seems to me that my question is fair. Furthermore, it also seems to me that (like SecularAnimist) those who have the courage of their convictions would want to set a positive example of how it can be done.

    Leadership, IMO, is more than giving speeches and presenting the facts to others.

    [Response: Of course. But a) I make no claim to be a leader, and b) I already buy only renewables from the utility, have swapped almost all our bulbs for CFL in any case, do not own a car, live in high density housing etc. But if I am not also a vegan who lives in cave, my actions are, by your logic, insufficient and my scientific expertise ignorable. Your ideal leader in this case will never be found, and you can rest happy that you never need to pay the science any mind because we all have feet of clay. Good luck getting that past the ethicist. – gavin]

  30. 130
    CL says:

    Robert, No.112 asked

    “What are you personally doing in your life to solve the problem? To clarify, I’m not asking about your political actions or activism, I’m talking about your personal choices.”

    I write as many emails on as many forums as I can manage. Some 20 years ago, I got the first forest on the planet certified by Forestry Stewardship Council/WWF/Soil Association. Give any money I can spare to conservationist groups.

    “How many here are organic vegans?”

    Not vegan, but eat organic whenever possible.

    “Walk or bicycle for all transportation?”

    Haven’t owned a car for 10 years. Haven’t been in a car for about 5.

    “Homes are completely solar and wind powered (or other renewables)?”

    Heating is from log stove. The trees grow faster than I can burn them. I use a chainsaw. Major portion of carbon footprint is from mains electricity. I cannot afford the cost of solar or wind.

    “Fair question, no?”


  31. 131
    Paul Melanson says:

    RE: #112 (Robert)

    I agree with the others here that this doesn’t affect reality one bit, but if the question a request to “show you’re serious” about beliefs, I’ll bite.

    There are two reasons I’ve had to change my lifestyle in my adult life: 1) my health and 2) the environment, especially as it affects climate change. The health issues were serious and required many things that were hard for me (no salt, diet, low fat, daily medication). But the “dirt nap” alternative was worse. Objectively, I’ve made even more changes to my lifestyle to mediate my impact on the planet (recycle, compost, reuse, more vegetable protein, 55 mpg hybrid car, walking, bicycle). These things weren’t easy, but I felt compelled by what I know and my concern for the future.

    At work I manage a group of chemists who all believe in “AGW” and all have made lifestyle changes because of it. A coworker is going into politics after retirement next year because she feels so strongly about the issue. My company has also responded to employee input (many are scientists) and recently gone to “zero waste.” Just look around you, our world is filled with people who take this seriously and are putting deeds to words.

    P.S. My doctor has many of the same medical problems I do and has been less successful in addressing them than I have. I try and encourage him every time I see him, but some changes are hard to make. That doesn’t mean he’s a hypocrite.

  32. 132
    SecularAnimist says:

    gavin wrote: “However, everyone becoming vegan is not actually an effective, nor practical solution (though it would help somewhat).”

    I suppose that “everyone” will never do anything.

    A recent study (which I can’t locate at the moment but have cited here before) found that switching from the “standard American diet” to a vegan diet reduced one’s “carbon footprint” as much as switching from an SUV to a compact car, so I would say that becoming vegan is an “effective” way for individuals to reduce their contribution to global warming, particularly given that according to the UN, animal agriculture generates more greenhouse gas emissions worldwide than does the transport sector. And I have no idea why you think it is not “practical”. Millions of people over thousands of years in many different cultures have lived on near-vegan, plant-based diets, and a vegan diet is entirely practical for Americans with access to supermarkets.

  33. 133
    Hank Roberts says:

    Walter, sorry, ASCII loses the tone of voice and gleam in the eye, and I worry about later readers getting the facts right so I do belabor the horsemeat. Tenderizes it though (wry grin). I’ll try to “hear” you better next time around! Keep poking, I do need that often.

  34. 134
    spilgard says:

    Re 112 & 123:
    Let’s suppose that I comply. If I announce that I live naked in a hole and susbsist on dirt and twigs, would you be satisfied? Or would you simply move the goalposts and take issue with the fact that I exhale CO2?

  35. 135
    Rod B says:

    SecularAnimist says in response to my 106 post, “Geico might disagree.”
    Hadn’t thought of that. Good point!

    All of those diversions you describe in 109 might still be “on topic”. But they are nothing short of character assassination by association and seldom helps the cause.

  36. 136
    Marcus says:

    Robert (#123): I drive about 3000 miles a year (most of it with multiple people in the vehicle) (and am selling my car and shifting to zipcar in the future). I limit meat eating to one or two times a week. I almost always go through revolving doors rather than swinging doors, given the option. I keep the heat at 65 in winter, 85 in summer. I try to limit conspicuous consumption in general. However: there is a limit to individual action. Indeed, given the nature of the marketplace, reducing a gallon of personal gasoline consumption leads to less than a gallon of gasoline reduced globally, as the drop in demand leads to a decrease in price and therefore an increase in demand by others. Also, a drop in congestion similarly increases the utility of driving for others. Even worse, CAFE is designed so that when I buy my efficient car for my limited driving uses, it means someone else can buy an inefficient car and probably drive it much more.

    There are some things where there are positive feedbacks: buying renewable power, for example, encourages more companies to get into the renewable business. Donating money to green organizations and political candidates is of course a good thing. Buying organic encourages more organic companies.

    But the idea that you can’t argue for appropriate legislation to reduce carbon emissions if you aren’t reducing your own emissions is just silly.

  37. 137
    Robert says:

    Re 134 (spilgard)

    Humorous post, thanks for the giggle.

    More seriously, though, it is interesting how my question is seemingly separating the wheat from the chaff.

    Some of you seem interesting in making a difference, while others seem content to make excuses.

  38. 138
    Hank Roberts says:

    > … exhale CO2?

    Only assuming it’s fossil carbon you’re putting into the atmosphere for the first time. You knew that.
    What mythological beings eat coal? I forget.

    It’s actually a serious question you ask then distract from. I recall a recent study looking at the amount of CO2 commitment for individuals that is possible nation by nation, taking into account each individual’s share of the energy used for libraries, infrastructure and so on. They said a monk or hermit in the USA is still using more fossil fuel for the per capita share of libraries and sidewalks and public health than the average citizen in the poorest countries that spend no money or energy on such.

    Anyone recall that? Too busy to hunt for it right now.

  39. 139

    Re #112 Robert

    No. It’s not a fair question. In fact the question is designed to elicit an answer that has nothing to do with AGW science, but rather to accuse people that understand that this global warming event is human caused of not doing as much as they should to prevent something that is largely caused by the ignorance of governments, corporations and even individuals.

    Since we know the isotopic signature of atmospheric Co2 and we know how much methane, nitrous oxide and high GWP’s we’ve added to the atmosphere and we know reasonably well the among of climate forcing that imposes, then the question should be two fold, why don’t people understand the facts of what we do know, and what are individuals, corporations and governments going to do about it.

    Placing the burden on those that are ‘convinced’ its human caused is actually kind of pathetic, especially since they are probably already considering what they can do to reduce their individual impact.

    Maybe the better question would be: Are you, and/or others that are saying it’s not human caused, even though the evidence is incontrovertible about the basic science (and the details are still being examined), willing to pay extra for your lack of understanding to have to make up for the difference economically because you chose to believe false arguments rather than scientific facts and relevant understanding in context of pragmatic reality, which in turn delayed needed political action pertaining to policy development?

    That might be a more fair question based on the context you are attempting.

  40. 140
    SecularAnimist says:

    Chris MCV wrote: “I cannot stand PV as its a messy toxic disaster … I am very pro nuclear power.”

    That makes no sense at all and I fear that you are misinformed. The manufacture of photovoltaics is most certainly not “a messy toxic disaster”, and of course in operation they emit no substances of any kind into the environment, toxic or otherwise. According to the US Department of Energy:

    Because manufacturers use a wide variety of processes to make PV cells, a wide range of chemicals—some of them toxic or hazardous—are employed in PV cell production. In terms of worker safety and health, simple protective and administrative measures can be used effectively to protect those who produce PV systems. In terms of the environment, the PV production process produces small amounts of waste materials, but this is minimal relative to the emissions from conventional energy sources.

    In contrast, the mining and refining of uranium produces mountains of toxic waste and the operation of nuclear power plants also produces mountains of toxic and highly radioactive waste.

  41. 141
    Martin Vermeer says:

    #121 Chris MCV: looks to me you did everything you could do in your personal situation. From there on up, it’s politics. That includes solar/wind/etc. Distributed is nice for some uses, but… I don’t see you load a personal nuclear reactor on your pickup from the local hardware store either :-)

  42. 142
    SecularAnimist says:

    Hank Roberts asked: “What mythological beings eat coal? I forget.”


  43. 143
    Rod B says:

    Ike (110), I know it’s a minor point, but your examples, Dubai solar and Pickens wind farm, are being done for pure economics, not to alleviate GW.

  44. 144
    Chris MCV says:

    To consider solar without considering energy storage methods (most typically batteries) into the mess tells me you are misinformed. The bugbear in the works for most renewables is the storage of energy. The most prevelant answer has been chemical energy storage, which does indeed result in massive amounts of toxic wastes. Now if some of the other methods were used I would possibly agree with you, but if you go look at 20 websites that sell PV products how many of them have an option aside from batteries for a non grid tie system?

    As for the operation of Nuclear plants creating mountains of highly radioactive waste…. do a bit more research. This is an area where I do have a bit of experience. Most of the “issues” around nuclear power are based on politics and fear, not the reality of harnessing fission to boil water.

  45. 145
    Chris MCV says:

    As far as a nuke in my truck. I would if I could. I am no ninmby, put that sucker right next door to my house!

  46. 146
    Hank Roberts says:

    “… Vulcan can be used to pinpoint CO2 emissions down to the levels previously unseen, Gurney says the tool should not be used to affix blame.

    “Ten years ago there might have been resistance to the notion of examining who is responsible for the CO2 emissions in such a visually detailed way,” Gurney says. “However, what Vulcan makes utterly clear is that CO2 emissions cannot be exclusively affixed to SUV drivers, manufacturers or large power producers; everybody is responsible. We need to look for real solutions, and have a deeper discussion about energy use. It’s not about politics. It’s about doing good science and solving the problem, and we can all be a part of that.”

    Note to Journalists: Broadcast-quality and high-definition animations of the Vulcan maps are available, as are jpeg images of carbon dioxide emissions for the continental United States. Contact Steve Tally at

    Researchers now have a better view of where carbon dioxide is being emitted thanks to Vulcan, a research project led by Kevin Gurney, an assistant professor at Purdue. This map shows where CO2 is being emitted in the continental United States in 10-kilometer grids and combines data from sources including factories, automobiles on highways and power plants. The map offers more than 100 times the detail of previous inventories of carbon dioxide. The image displays metric tons of carbon per year per grid in a logarithmic base-10 scale. (Purdue University image/Kevin Gurney)

    A publication-quality image is available at

    New analysis by Purdue researchers of greenhouse gases shows that the emissions are greater in the southeastern United States than was previously thought. In this image, the amount of red represents the increased amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from previous estimates, and the blue represents a reduction in atmospheric CO2. Purdue assistant professor Kevin Gurney says the difference appears greatest in winter months when there are more emissions and less vertical air movement. (Purdue University image/Kevin Gurney)

    A publication-quality image is available at

  47. 147
    CL says:

    spilgard wrote

    “Let’s suppose that I comply. If I announce that I live naked in a hole and susbsist on dirt and twigs, would you be satisfied? Or would you simply move the goalposts and take issue with the fact that I exhale CO2?”

    Well, pressing any point to absurdity leads into nonsense…but can also be illuminating. As biological creatures we are not suitably constructed for a diet of dirt and twigs. But people on this board often seem to assume that we have choices and options. Seems to me, it’s not a question of satisfying someone’s austere agenda of living naked in caves. If the biosphere collapses, any remaining humans are going to have to struggle to eke out any sort of existence in a fairly desperate circumstances. If we’re talking pure theory, the best answer would be for most or all humans to disappear. I’m sure almost every other living organism on the planet would applaud. I live as frugally and harmlessly as I can, as a matter of moral principle and self-respect, but even if millions were inspired to follow my example, it’s not going to make much difference. There are additional millions being born (an extra city every week, is it ?) and the majority aspire to a lavish reckless lifestyle of conspicuous consumption and they will more than compensate for the fringe who strive for voluntary simplicity and are completely satisfied with little.

    How much of our (mis)behaviour is innate and how much culturally conditioned is a muddy area, but seems almost everyone aspires to higher status, more leisure, greater wealth, more technological toys…the technosphere disrupts, destroys, devours, displaces the biosphere. The beautiful planet we inherited gets wrecked, even if we do somehow manage to avoid the worst results of AGW. I have never been able to understand how anyone can think that’s ‘alright’ in any sense, however seems I’m a crank on the fringe, well away from the mainstream majority view…

  48. 148

    To Shelama & Chris MCV:

    It is also worth looking at the quality of the “debater’s points” and the style of each. This has helped me to decide that the denialists are very unlikely to be correct, because their arguments are not consistent with themselves over time, and persistently fail to address the whole picture. Some recent examples:

    1) “The solar system is warming, not just Earth, so it must be the Sun at work, not CO2.” A quick check of denialist sources, such as World Climate Report, discloses that their source on Jupiter’s warming was a 2006 prediction based on circulation modelling of the Jovian atmosphere. So the alleged warming for Jupiter is predicted, not measured; is not solar sourced, but the result of changes to the Jovian atmosphere; and (since the prediction looks good so far) a probable example of a successful prediction made by circulation modelling–the very modelling that denialists often claim can’t be trusted in the matter of AGW! (Then, of course, there is the fact that actual measurement of TSI doesn’t show a warming trend–in fact, some data shows a slight cooling. One denialist site I saw solved this by using a fake TSI graph.)

    2) Last month the denialist ‘flavor of the moment’ was insistence that a cooling trend was occurring, based on data from too-short periods of time. One argument I saw presented June 2008 satellite data, comparing it with two or three *days* data from June 1988 (I think that was the year.) I hope the stupidity of this is obvious; if not, let me suggest that it is roughly equivalent to taking a hour or so of NYSE stock data, comparing it to three random points from last month, and then investing your retirement savings on the comparison. Not a good idea! Either incompetent, or dishonest argumentation.

    3) Denialists persistently fail to address crucial points. The biggest one, I think, is the stratospheric *cooling* that we have observed. This is ONLY compatible with the AGW scenario; it really is a “smoking gun.” Solar warming obviously can’t cool the outer atmosphere, though this is what slower outward radiation from earth would result in. Yet this fact is never mentioned by the denialists, even when they are pushing the validity of the measurements made by those same satellites at lower altitudes.

    These sorts of failures in logic betray the fact that for many of these folks, the real objective is not scientific but rather political–or perhaps, “public relations.” These sorts of arguments are just not internally coherent, and can’t win the scientific debate. But they can sow confusion and create delay, which I conclude must be the objective.

  49. 149
    spilgard says:

    Re 142: I believe the early Lignites and Anthracites served coal on festive occasions.

    I guess I should atone for the flippancy by providing my own statistics.

    With a small plot of agricultural land, my wife and I raise about 75% of our own produce and about half of our meat via bio-devices called “chickens” which convert weeds, bugs, rodents and garbage into eggs, fryers and fertilizer. Firewood from tree maintenance provides about half of the winter heating. Work commute is an issue, but with a bit of planning the gas tank gets refilled only once per month.

    Granted, the above are motivated more by efficiency gains than by environmental concerns. At work I’m a geophysicist with the USGS geohazards team, so my energy is directed towards helping people evade the earth’s day-to-day wrath. As a result, I’m often not on speaking terms with the planet. My wife probably contributes the most towards the future as she’s an R-D chemist for a company which is phasing from development of mercury-capture technology for coal-fired power plants to CO2-capture technology.

  50. 150