Climate Change vs. Human Inertia – Part 1

With the release of the IPCC’s fourth report on climate change, and in anticipation of the meeting of the world’s energy ministers in Bali in two weeks, I’d like to offer some posts centered around a simple question: why is it so difficult for the world to mobilize towards collective action? This post will focus on inertia with respect to scientific acceptance; subsequent posts will consider some of the economic and policy pressures against action.

It’s common to hear from climate change advocates that the scientific debate is over, that now we need to get on with action. I agree with them intellectually, but not empirically: I know plenty of people who still harbour significant doubts when it comes to the scientific story on climate change. One friend told me recently he was “agnostic.” Perhaps I just travel in skeptical circles. Then again, these people I know are not uneducated people: they have university degrees, and they work as professionals with extensive access to information. In other areas of their lives, they readily accept scientific methods. If they lived near a dormant volcano, I’ll bet they would pay close heed to scientific equipment that monitored volcanic rumblings, just as they would likely pay attention to any models that purported to predict seismic activity. So what gives – what is it about climate change in particular that invites doubt and denial, even among educated people? Many of the factors have nothing to do with science:

1) Media balance as bias. Although scientific peer-reviewed papers are in agreement that anthropogenic climate change is real (see Oreskes, for example), journalists are trained to give attention to ‘both sides’ of a story. Most people read newspapers, not scientific journals – and thus they are led to believe from inordinate media controversy that there is an equivalent debate in scientific journals where there is none.

2) Climate change is threatening to market purists. As Sir Nicholas Stern has argued, climate change may well be the greatest market failure in history. For free market dogmatists who want to believe the market will solve everything if left to its own devices, this is a very inconvenient truth indeed – so much so that they are tempted to attack the science itself so as to undermine the rationale for regulation or taxation. It is no accident, therefore, that climate change especially invites the ire of editorial writers at the Wall Street Journal and, in Canada, the National Post (a kind of Mini-Me to the WSJ’s Dr. Evil on this file). In the market purists’ narrative of history, Hayek is a saint and the tragedy of the commons is to be solved entirely through property rights and technological innovation. But the atmosphere is indifferent to debates over Austrian economics, and the evidence is what it is independent of whether editorial writers have a fetish for markets.

3) A handful of credible scientific skeptics are still out there. Many of the initiatives to encourage climate skepticism (the 1998 global warming petition project, the Energy and Environment journal) have been discredited. A number of the most prominent climate skeptics whose names are associated time and again with petitions, speeches and media interviews are long retired from active scientific research. But the fact remains that Richard Lindzen of MIT is a credible skeptic (I am not sure who else can be so described). Ultimately people have to balance the likes of Lindzen, who wishes to stand up against what he calls an “alarmist gale,” against the evidence of harm and risk that builds every week. Incidentally: does anyone know whether Lindzen has revised his positon of late?

4) The IPCC is seen as a political organization. But how could it not be? How could any international organization driving towards common principles on a central question of the planet, with profound implications for political economy, do its business in a pure interpretive vacuum? Does science ever work the way positivists want it to work in any event? And how could hundreds of scientists from around the world attempt to draft language together on a matter as complex as climate science without encountering moments of interpretation, dissent and disagreement? What is remarkable therefore is not that there have been stories of dissent and interpretive bias, but rather the strength of the consensus that has formed all the same. Given the redistributive implications of climate change, one would expect scientists to face a lot more political pressure from their governments to run interference on the science than appears to be the case.

And let’s not forget the numerous other scientific organizations that have supported the IPCC findings, including: NASA, the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, the International Ad Hoc Detection and Attribution Group, the national science academies of the G8 nations and Brazil, China and India, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the American Meteorological Society, the American Geophysical Union, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

5) If climate change is real, we have our work cut out for us. This is Al Gore’s point when he sees people shifting from denial to despair. So long as people doubt the science, they don’t have to ask the hard questions about how we are living our lives. Most people and institutions start, therefore, with a profound bias towards inaction, because their lives and institutions are part of the problem. It’s easier to keep questioning, and climate change is such a vast subject that doubt retains an air of plausibility. But intellectually, the burden of proof shifted some time ago. As John Holdren says,

“To be credible, the handful of ‘skeptics’ about human causation of current global climate change would need both to explain what alternative mechanism could account for the pattern of changes observed and to explain how it could be that the known human-caused buildup in GHG is not having the effects predicted for it by the sum of current climate-science knowledge (since, by assumption, something else is having these effects). No skeptic has met either test.”

19 thoughts on “Climate Change vs. Human Inertia – Part 1

  1. Great post, John. It seems human inertia is a universal tendency; for an interesting analytical perspective on the behavioural problems surrounding the likelihood of “peak oil”, for example, see Lyle Grant’s very interesting paper on the subject.

  2. Hi John,

    Maybe it’s because we are so used to people telling us things, in such persuasive manners, that they couldn’t possible know the truth about, that many people are sceptical about this too. First one thing is good to eat, then it causes cancer. Let’s be honest and admit that what we know of as science is just more or less justified belief, true belief and often false belief. That isn’t to say that scientists who think climate change is a reality are wrong, it’s just to say that I am not in a position to judge whether or not they are wrong, and lots of other people like Al Gore, and you, telling me that they are right doesn’t change the fact of the matter with how the world actually is. Just last week I was speaking with a scientist who studies ocean temperatures for the past x thousands of years, and claims that the climate change model cannot explain ocean temperatures before the year 1900. Who am I to believe? He’s a scientist too. All I am saying is that, while it would be foolish not to think that some kind of consensus of world scientists has a lot of weight, it is also the case that neither I nor you really knows the actual shape of such a consensus: have you spoken with every scientist about this? Have you spoken even with the ones who are not activists about it, and who aren’t speaking loudly mainly because they don’t think anything is wrong? Have you considered the incredible specialisation of scientists, so that many of those who pronounce on this probably don’t know what they are talking about? Have you taken into account the tendencey of scientists, and even more of media reports of what scientists say, to exagerrate the strength of their truth claims? This is completely aside from the historical fact that lots of previous instances of scientific consensus have turned out to be wrong. You asked why it is so difficult for “the world to mobilize towards collective action” (a terribly trendy choice of words, by the way my friend). Well, with something so incredibly theoretical, it is simply not realistic for the vast majority of people to accept that the climate change emergency is as decided once and for all as the IPCC claims it is. And if they DO ever accept that, John, it won’t be because of knowledge, but because of a vast mobilisation of media demagoguery. They have to be made to ‘feel good’ about ‘saving the planet’. But don’t fool yourself into thinking that they will actually know anything, or that the same techniques of mass persuasion couldn’t as likely make everyone buy products with the word ‘green’ on it through some vague association of the colour green with ‘earth friendly’. By the way, ‘earth friendly’ doesn’t actually mean anything. I am not saying you shouldn’t use less energy. At the very least your gas bill will go down. Just don’t expect too much in the way of reason in politics. And this is politics.

    And when are you going to make it to Ottawa to visit?


  3. PS

    I forgot to mention that people do in fact buy things which are labelled ‘green’ just because of the label, rather than any understanding of how or why that label is there. Some things don’t even have ‘green’ written on them, they are just in green packages.

  4. John
    You had me till goodbye. Or at least your closing quote from that less illustrious John. It is not for sceptics to prove humans are not behind climate change. In fact,most of the scepticism is based on the idea that our climate models are not at all sophisticated enough to understand what are the main forcing factors. Climate has changed throughout the billyuns and billlyuns of years this place has been around (or at least as long as I’ve been here). So I revert to a little thing called Occam’s Razor. I don’t need a new reason for climate change any more than I need a better reason today for apples falling than Newton did.
    It is human nature to look for our own influence in events beyond our control. Yeah, because that chick was promiscuous the gods have taken vengeance, etc. The greenies constanst search for excuses for self-flagellation is a throwback to that primitivism. A lot of people hate the world of industrial progress and will look for any excuse to go back to the trees. Neither would this be the first time that an ‘expert doomsday consensus’ was so much malarkey. Y2K anyone?
    I remember interviewing Suzuki some years ago about this, and he admitted that our computer models are mainly sophisticated bullshit. I also worked in atmospheric physics for a time. I didn’t know shit about shit, but to put it simply, my boss corroborated my opinions.
    Now, technology has improved quite a bit since then, but we’re just better at being ignorant. It certainly doesn’t do the Alarmist cause any good (in my books at least) when main proponents such as Gore, Suzuki and others are proud exagerattors (When the problems this serious after all, whats a little white lie to get people’s attention?)
    I am not afraid to admit that mitigating our behavious is probably a good idea. I understand that there is a clear majority of scientists who are on the bandwagon, so what the hell, maybe they have a point (but I doubt it). So if the results can be even close to as bad news as some believe, then even without definitive answers it makes sense to me to TRY. But don’t tell me the science is settled. Science is rarely settled. It would put a lot of dangerous PhDs on the streets.
    BTW, I believe global warming is caused by your dirty thoughts. It was warmer today than yesterday. Now its up to you to prove me wrong.

  5. I would like to add a request that you broaden your argument to more generally answer why humans can’t agree to go in any direction even if we all agree on where we want to end up. For example, AI scientists (including Kurzweil) are actively/consciously working to bring about the Singularity, when robots will take over and humans will either become embedded or endeaded. Do we have a say in this?

    More generally, this should be a request blog. If I have a topic I want someone to think hard about, I can just drop you a line. You collect your top requests and tell us all what we would think about it if we had the time. For example, why am I here?

  6. I rest my case: I know plenty of skeptics!

    Thanks for writing, Greg and Dave. I’d like to respond in some detail to some of your comments later this week. For efficiency’s sake in the meantime, I’d invite you to have a look at Coby Beck’s helpful taxonomy.

    Have you got an objection to climate change science that in your mind is either: a) not addressed there at all, or b) not convincing in how it is addressed there?

  7. I’m not a scientist, or anything, so please correct me if I’m wrong, but in regards to your last quote (if I read your scientific lingo correctly), I think both criteria were well met in the BBC documentary “The Great Global Warming Swindle” and in Michael Coffman’s DVD “Global Warming or Global Governance”.

    As a regular guy trying to research both aspects of the issue, I can’t agree with anyone fudging his facts to get his point across (i.e. Al Gore). If there was such hardcore science behind the theory, he shouldn’t have to lie. The scientists in those documentaries mentioned above brought valid statistics and evidence, not exaggerated opinions and refuted “hockey stick” graphs.

    I do believe that the skeptics you speak of don’t think that global warming isn’t happening. We believe that, while humans are contributing to the effect, we are in no way the primary cause. And, I too am not against curbing the abundance of pollution we are spewing into the air. I also think that our efforts should be directed toward issues that need immediate handling. For example, water pollution, GMOs, and deforestation to mention a few. There are undebatable problems affecting us now that need to be rectified with the zeal that the global warming hypothesis is fomenting.

    I agree with Mr. MacIsaac and Mr. Sachs in regards to their skepticism of the scientific community. To add to this quote from Mr. Sachs,
    “Neither would this be the first time that an ‘expert doomsday consensus’ was so much malarkey. Y2K anyone?”
    I would add, “What about the global cooling craze of the ’70s? What happened to the coming ice age?”

    The reality is that the Earth’s climate is always changing. It may not be a comfortable ride for we humans, but the Earth’s gotta do what the Earth’s gotta do.

  8. David Sachs,
    Now hold on just a wee minute! Ever hear of the 1st Law of Thermodynamics–aka Conservation of Energy? All that melting ice and rising temperature represent a huge increase in energy of the climate. Just where might that energy be coming from. Anthropogenic greenhouse gasses are the only credible hypothesis.
    It certainly is not the Sun–Solar indices over the past 30 years are negative. And Solanki has shown that even if you assume that ALL the warming prior to 1900 were due to solar forcing, you can’t account for the warming since. The next most important forcer is the greenhouse effect. The most important ghg is water vapor. But water vapor varies significantly in concentration over time and has a residence time in the atmosphere of days–not characteristics you look for in terms of a long-term trend. The next most important ghg is CO2. Hmm, it’s increasing rapidly over the era of temperature rise. It’s a known ghg. It correlates well with past epochs of temperature rise. Only here do we consult the models: Is the increased CO2 sufficient to explain the change? The models say it is. In actuality, models are the friend of the “sceptic”. They are the only thing telling you that you only need to worry about 3 K per doubling rather than 10 K.

    Greg MacIsaac,
    The problem you are facing is common. You are looking at the uncertainties surrounding medical science and projecting them onto physical science. Medical science is in its infancy. It faces severe restrictions on how it can investigate the incredibly complicated workings of the human body–and most of its practitioners don’t understand s**t about statistics. Climate science is over a century and a half old. Its basics are well established. At this point even if you were to find some driver that was not considered, it would not change the model in terms of the strength of forcing by CO2, which is firmly established by many independent lines of evidence. Greg, scientific judgements cannot be based on vague general impressions. They require looking at the evidence specific to the issue you are considering.

    John, it would appear that laziness in terms of assessing the science is the ally of complacency. It is unfortunate that those who are skeptical of big-government or even world-government are, by their “skepticism” of solid science abdicating their position at the bargaining table to the forces that favor just such draconian and anti-market solutions. I wonder if they appreciate the irony that Al Gore owes both his Oscar and his Nobel Peace Prize to the fact that denial of science has become a fad on the political right.

  9. Re David Sachs @ 4: “BTW, I believe global warming is caused by your dirty thoughts. It was warmer today than yesterday. Now its up to you to prove me wrong.”

    No, it’s up to us to simply ignore you and get on with the hard work.

    Re Rob Harris @ 7: “I’m not a scientist, or anything, so please correct me if I’m wrong, but in regards to your last quote (if I read your scientific lingo correctly), I think both criteria were well met in the BBC documentary “The Great Global Warming Swindle” and in Michael Coffman’s DVD “Global Warming or Global Governance”.
    As a regular guy trying to research both aspects of the issue, I can’t agree with anyone fudging his facts to get his point across”

    Fudging facts? I suggest you do some homework and get back to us about how many so-called “facts” were not only fudged, but twisted, tortured, and invented out of thin air in the “The Great Global Warming Swindle.” You can start here:

    And do tell us what “lies” Gore told us in “An Inconvenient Truth.” Of the ten “errors” (note the quotes around the word; they’re the British High Court judge’s and mean alleged), the only one that is an actual factual error is the one about Pacific island nations needing to evacuate. It simply has not happened, yet. For more see here:


  10. Ray:
    Couple things:
    First, there has been an increase in solar activity:
    ‘Dr Sami Solanki, the director of the renowned Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Gottingen, Germany, who led the research, said: “The Sun has been at its strongest over the past 60 years and may now be affecting global temperatures.” ‘
    (Solanki does not believe it is enough to explain our global warming though)
    Mars and Pluto are also increasing in temperature. Solar intensity is only one part of it: solar flares and magnetic storms, and their effect on cosmic rays, are also a part of it- how much they contribute is controversial.

    Second, water vapor is, as you say correctly, the major ghg. However, the effect of water vapor, and cloud cover in particular is very poorly understood. The area of atmospheric physics research I worked in was cloud dynamics. If water vapour is a critical element of the system, and we are guessing at how it works, then our models are pretty lame.

    Which I can get to from another direction: our models are all a posteori. We look at changes that have happened, match them to changes in CO2, and change variables until the models match the data. That’s not science. That’s lame.

  11. Ray, I consider you a valued resource of information. So, I was surprised to read your comment:

    [All that melting ice and rising temperature represent a huge increase in energy of the climate. Just where might that energy be coming from. Anthropogenic greenhouse gasses are the only credible hypothesis.]

    IMHO, the gases are not providing the energy. They are the blanket reradiating heat back to the surface.

    Just thought that comment should be clarified in case new arrivals to the climate change issue might get misinformation.

    Please excuse my nit-pic. You might want to refine your comment.

  12. Thanks, Mr. Steig, for that link. I welcome any information I can get. I probably should have mentioned in my first post that I take all information I get from BOTH sides of any issue with a grain of salt. Everyone has an agenda, so there’s always going to be bias.

    That being said, it seems to me that even though Carl Wunsch may have been taken out of context, he does say in his own letter that,

    “The science of climate change REMAINS INCOMPLETE. Some elements are so firmly based on well-understood principles, or for which the observational record is so clear, that most scientists would agree that they are ALMOST surely true (adding CO2 to the atmosphere is dangerous; sea level will continue to rise,…). Other elements REMAIN more UNCERTAIN…” (emphasis mine)

    It sounds to me, that he agrees that the science is NOT as “in” as Al Gore would have us believe.

    An example for “exusian”: If the IPCC says, “The IPCC estimates that the global average sea level will rise between 0.3 and 2.9 feet (0.09 to 0.88 meters) in the next century” (from, where does Al Gore get 20 ft. from?

    In regards to the fudging of facts, you don’t dispute that Al Gore did, so I’ll take that as you agreeing with me, so I’ll agree with you that The Great Global Warming Swindle did as well. Not hard for me to do because I don’t believe everything the media tells me. Nevertheless, FOR NOW, I’ll still lean to the side that man is NOT a major cause of global warming.

    When climatologists can give me an accurate forecast 5 days into the future, maybe I’ll start believe their forecasts for the next 50 years.

    I don’t know who said this, but I like it: “The mind is like a parachute. It works best when it’s open.”

  13. Ray Ladbury,

    Thank you for your comment on my comment. My point, however, is not that there is no valid scientific evidence on climate change. It is that I am not in a position to know if there is, and neither is the majority of world’s population. And if that is the case, what we are dealing with here is an argument from authority. John’s initial question asked why more people are not acting, and my response is that many people have good reason to doubt the authority of scientists. And even stronger, even if most people don’t have a good reason to doubt the authority of scientists, even if they have bad reasons, they will still doubt that authority simply because it is impossible for them to know for themselves. Hence, ‘mobilisation’ will necessarily have a heavy rhetorical element to it. Plato’s Phaedrus is nicely persuasive on this point.

    However, on the particular question of biological science vs. climate science, I think you are mistaken. I am not a scientist, but I am a professional philosopher. And my understanding of the epistemology of science is such that I have good reason to doubt strong truth-claims for any empirical research. John knows I am not a sceptic. I am, in fact, a Platonist. But I am sceptical about the absolute persuasiveness of any argument about things which are as changeable as natural phenomena. There are many studies of the sociology of science, Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions being the best known, which give good reasons to take the ‘prounouncements’ of scientists with a healthy grain of salt.

    And on the particular case of climate science vs. medical science, you are mistaken. Medical science has a 2500 year pedigree. More importantly, it seems the climate is at least as complicated an animal as a body is, so I cannot imagine that we can have more certainty more easily in its investigation. A good place to look on this is on attempts to model the weather as a complex system. I don’t know who to read on it, but perhaps google would turn something up.

  14. I keep hearing mention of the panic over Y2K as having been a fiasco. People laugh about it like it was the bogey-man. I don’t know about where you live, but here in the Edmonton area much over-time and money was spent in attempts to ensure that little happened. That was what our panic was about. Was all that for nothing . . . or did those attempts not work?

  15. I think reason nr 1 is the most valid one for the public. To a large extent this media bias also causes the difficulty in who/what to believe, which is described by eg Greg MacIsaac. But isn’t the most rational position for a non-scientist to believe what the vast majority of scientists are saying, combined with a critical analysis of the logic in the arguments and the potential reasons for wanting you “on their side”? Where are the more powerful vested interests, in making the problem appear smaller or larger?

    Of course, scientific consensus doesn’t mean it’s correct, but it likely is. Modern science doesn’t often experience a small group of individuals overturning a thoroughly researched scientific consensus. For every “real” Newton there are many “fossil fuels”. I think the feeling of being the new Newton, the mis-understood underdog fighting “the scientific establishment”, is an important psychological drive for so-called “skeptical” scientists, a feeling which is amplified by the relatively large amount of media attention they get. (Btw, what is “the scientific establishment”? In some cases conspiracy theories may apply, but in the case of scientists it definitely does not.)

    And in the end, this is mostly about risk. If you’re sick, you usually trust the opinion of a large group of doctors more so than a lone, retired geographer. Society and individuals are used to making decisions based on risk, without knowing for sure that something will happen. Proper risk assessment is what you need, and thus a proper assessment of the information.

    An example of a faulty logic I often hear goes along these lines: “Climate has always changed, and it was usually due to the sun. Therefore, now it is also due to the sun”. Or “Since we can’t even predict the weather for next week, we certainly can’t predict the climate over 50 years.” You don’t need to know anything about climate science to see that these often heard statements are nonsense.

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