The Values of Anthropogenic Climate Change (guest post)

Today’s post is from fellow blogger Mothincarnate at New Anthropocene:

Today, in the latest publication of Nature, I stumbled upon the article, Climate Science: Time to raft up, by Chris Rapley.

We are naturally good at finding patterns – perhaps too much so – and I found it interesting that I stumbled upon this article just after reading Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape and at a point where I was ready to return to my online writing, but not knowing where to start.

I was drained from my previous efforts in science communication and welcomed all the activities that have, over the previous twelve months, kept me away (or, at best, mere status updates).

I have avoided the arena of climate change debate, for it seems in some ways doomed to the course of the evolution “debate”. So what was I to write about?

Both of the mentioned material are worth reading. However, I have to disagree with aspects of Rapley’s article.

On climate science advocacy, Rapley writes;

“There are dangers. To stray into policy-advocacy or activism is to step beyond the domain of science, and risks undermining legitimacy through the perception — or reality — of a loss of impartiality.

“However, as Sarewitz has pointed out, scientists carry authority “in advocating for one particular fact-based interpretation of the world over another”. So acting as a ‘science arbiter’ — explaining the evidence and contesting misinterpretations — is part of the day job.”

However, I feel this has been part of the problem with science communication on climate change and perhaps other topics such as evolution.

Later, Rapley goes on to write;

“The climate-dismissive think tanks and organizations have been effective because they have understood and put into practice the insights of social science. They deliver simple messages that are crafted to agree with specific value sets and world views. Their flow of commentary is persistent, consistent and backed up with material that provides deeper arguments.”

And:

“Regarding the vast body of evidence on which all climate scientists agree, we need to offer a narrative that is persistent, consistent and underpinned by compelling background material.”

But previously, he wrote;

“We need to respond to questions that go beyond facts, such as ‘What does this mean for me?’ and ‘What are our options?’.”

The article is right in many ways in my view, but Rapley is too tentative and maybe, in light of the previous when compared to the others, contradictory.

In chapter three of The Moral Landscape, Harris talks about belief. Rapley does in fact (under the subheading, Why don’t we get it?) talk about very much the same thing.

Belief, that is, the acceptance of certain evidence to be true, is not so strongly based on rational verification as we would like to think it to be. We’re not calculators after all. Belief derives from shared values that in turn derive from different factors, such as social norms, genes etc. We are far more likely to accept evidence presented when it confirms our already held values / the social norms of our community than those that challenge those values.

Sam Harris, in a presentation on Death and present moment, puts it in no uncertain terms (about 13 mins in);

“When we’re arguing about teaching evolution in the schools, I would argue that we’re really arguing about death. It seems to me the only reason why any religious person cares about evolution, is because if their holy books are wrong about our origins, they are very likely wrong about our destiny after death.”

Evolution thus challenges more than one idea (ie. that we were divinely created in recent millennia in our current form), but rather an entire outlook on life and a total way of living, not simply for the individual, but also the social group with which they associate themselves with. The wealth of evidence supporting the theory of evolution is simply not enough to counter such a wide scope of personally held values which are also attached to what we often mistakenly take as one, individual and isolated premise.

Likewise, I suspect the potential reality of anthropogenic climate change, based on very strong evidence, challenges a much wider scope of values that remain unaffected by rational debate over that one point (ie. whether or not our contribution to atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrate affects potential heat storage). We fail to move the “committed sceptics” because the evidence we provide challenged just one point of a wider range of related personal values.

Perhaps, for instance, it challenges the idea that a god is the sole force shaping the world and that we are incapable to such radical modifications (or that an intervening god wouldn’t allow us to harm ourselves in such a way) for certain religious individuals. Perhaps the idea challenges values associated with neo-liberal markets that ought to make us and future generations rich. Perhaps it’s something else.

Rapley was right about the success of climate-dismissive think tanks applying value to their message. He is also correct to argue that we need to go beyond facts and address questions, such as ‘What does it mean for me?’ and ‘What are our options?’ which are at their core really questions regarding a network of wider social and personal values related to the problem of anthropogenic climate change.

Maybe we need to be clearer which hat we’re wearing – that of scientific investigation or of advocacy – or, as Dana Nuccitelli once mentioned in a comment thread (that, if I can locate, I will link to), we should apply a “Gish gallop” approach, the favourite approach, successfully applied by Christopher Monckton in debate, because, unlike with Monckton, when reviewed, the evidence will support the statements we’ve made.

I tend to agree with Dana’s idea as it allows more value based discussion intertwined with the evidence. You can say what the evidence supports and swiftly move into its personal and social ramifications. This latter arena does truly need debate.

We have done all that can be done to explain the science of climate change and there are many excellent reference sites to which people can venture if they so decide. What we need to talk about are the value question as it is the answers to these that will define who we will become and how our society will look and function.

It’s understandable that people would be uncomfortable with such unknowns. We need to be part of a community with shared values to feel content. In the “debate” over climate change, we hear predictions of how the future might look and how foolish “deniers” are for not understanding science proven over a 150 years ago.

This isn’t only counter-productive, it also dehumanises the issue completely. The global climate has changed many times before without human influence or consequence. This time it is personal. We need to make our  debates and communications just as personal if we are to do the best we can for future generations.

6 thoughts on “The Values of Anthropogenic Climate Change (guest post)

  1. john byatt says:

    “we should apply a “Gish gallop” approach,”

    Are the models, in fact, untestable? Are they unable to make valid predictions? Let’s review the record. Global Climate Models have successfully predicted:

    That the globe would warm, and about how fast, and about how much.
    That the troposphere would warm and the stratosphere would cool.
    That nighttime temperatures would increase more than daytime temperatures.
    That winter temperatures would increase more than summer temperatures.

    Polar amplification (greater temperature increase as you move toward the poles).
    That the Arctic would warm faster than the Antarctic.
    The magnitude (0.3 K) and duration (two years) of the cooling from the Mt. Pinatubo eruption.
    They made a retrodiction for Last Glacial Maximum sea surface temperatures which was inconsistent with the paleo evidence, and better paleo evidence showed the models were right.

    They predicted a trend significantly different and differently signed from UAH satellite temperatures, and then a bug was found in the satellite data.
    The amount of water vapor feedback due to ENSO.
    The response of southern ocean winds to the ozone hole.
    The expansion of the Hadley cells.

    The poleward movement of storm tracks.
    The rising of the tropopause and the effective radiating altitude.
    The clear sky super greenhouse effect from increased water vapor in the tropics.
    The near constancy of relative humidity on global average.
    That coastal upwelling of ocean water would increase.

    Seventeen correct predictions? Looks like a pretty good track record to me.

    normally I would just concentrate on just one prediction, the problem with doing the above, It will not going convince the deniers anyway, but you will confuse the people that you are trying to get the message to because they will not understand any of it

    • Moth says:

      By Gish gallop, Dana mention rather than focus on the evidence, do as Monckton does and just fire through the evidence points and get on instead with the value enriched story. Unlike Monckton, if reviewed, no errors would be found in the points made.

      It isn’t an approach favoured in scientific debate, obviously, but it is effective in public debate – science communicators seem to miss this point entirely.

      Cheers John – I think I should have further explained myself in my article. I will include this as a further note.

      • john byatt says:

        Thanks moth I have gone over to trying to tell a story rather than facts or figures in writing letters,
        1 What is the major point that the denier has made in his letter,
        2 What story can i tell about that?
        I can spend hours on just one reply and then run it past a few friends that are not right up with everything to see whether it makes sense, The best letter length is two hundred words with one or two points only, never over that. people take away your last or first sentence, the most important.

        I love the ones that begin “John Byatt is correct when he writes” and then go into radiative forcing and evapotranspiration stuff they have not got a clue about,

        Geoff with his recent Arctic ice less than half 8000 years ago, obviously did not read the paper nor understand any of it if he did. He has also admitted that he will post anything contradictory or not that makes any case against AGW, would love to see a trickcycylist figure him out.

      • Moth says:

        I have a couple more articles on the way about cultural values in relation to scientific evidence. I suspect it will need to be an arena we must pay more attention to.

        One word of warning that I’ve noticed however comes from the evolution “debate”. Those whom have gone down that road are called “New Atheists” – as though a title is enough to discredit someone. By taking Sam Harris’s approach, I am preparing for something along those lines to reach me sooner or later.

        Geoff sounds a little like my old friend Andrew aka “PopTech” aka “Andrew” (a real man of mystery).

        • Watching the Deniers says:

          Indeed, I see many parallels in the “Gnu atheists’ versus “accommodationists” debate. But it is a good question: how “harsh” or “temperate” in our language should we be (or “alarmist” versus “cautious”)? What is a matter of principle, or smart politics? Should we play to the middle, or push the boundaries?

          All these are good questions, and what I’m constantly musing on…

          And then I’m reminded of the words of a abolitionist writing in 1830 on the immediate need and moral imperative for full emancipation: https://watchingthedeniers.wordpress.com/2012/08/20/qod-i-will-be-as-harsh-as-truth-and-as-uncompromising-as-justice/

          William Lloyd Garrison – the author – was dismayed by those that cautioned that the emancipation of slaves should be moderate, and staged over time. I think I would rather follow Garrison as a model on matters of justice.

  2. […] Some interesting insights on Rapley’s piece from Watch the Deniers: […]

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