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Angry badgers: trolls, sceptics and distracting voices in the climate discussion


A lot of energy has been spent by myself and others on comments made by sceptics – both here and across the internet.

There are four things we should remember, established scientific facts beyond dispute: 

  • CO2 is a heat trapping molecule
  • We are emitting CO2 and other Greenhouse gases into the atmosphere through our activities
  • This is influencing the planet’s climate system
  • The scientific consensus on this is near universal – 97%

Understanding the science of climate change is about being an informed citizen. The deniers want to deprive you of the right to be informed about an issue of fundamental importance to our civilisation.

Merchants of FUD and their motivations

Skeptics employ a tactic called FUD.

Fear. Uncertainty. Doubt.

Create enough doubt about the science (so it is hoped) and action on climate change will be stalled long enough. Some want to do this for ideological reasons; others because they have a vested interest. Some trolls enjoy being contrary and love the attention.

Here is the thing. You will never know their motivations. But that does not matter.

What matters is your response, to engage or not.

What is happening here mimics the broader climate debate: a tiny minority disturbs the majority

I like to think I’ve gained some experience in the debate having run this blog for three years now.

Form what I see, perhaps 1-5% of the readers of this blog are sceptics. And yet those threads go on for hundreds of posts, consume the energy of many people and confuse, enrage and disrupt the tone of discussion.

This is symptomatic of the broader climate debate, where a tiny minority is distracting the majority.

When you find yourself dealing with troll behavior remember the cardinal rule of the internet “DO NOT FEED THE TROLL.”

Provide counter information, but remember you’ll never convince them. I’ve been a great deal of thought to this issue, especially as it pertains to WtD.

While I don’t believe in silencing dissenting voices (no matter how unpopular) I will be applying the WtD community guidelines with greater rigorAll posters, regardless of their views should take note.

Angry badgers and the Nasty Effect: how online discussions are derailed

Recent research has shown how the comments section of an article can influence the average readers perception:

“In a recent study, a team of researchers from the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication and several other institutions employed a survey of 1,183 Americans to get at the negative consequences of vituperative online comments for the public understanding of science. Participants were asked to read a blog post containing a balanced discussion of the risks and benefits of nanotechnology (which is already all around us and supports a $91 billion US industry). The text of the post was the same for all participants, but the tone of the comments varied. Sometimes, they were “civil”—e.g., no name calling or flaming. But sometimes they were more like this: “If you don’t see the benefits of using nanotechnology in these products, you’re an idiot.”

The researchers were trying to find out what effect exposure to such rudeness had on public perceptions of nanotech risks. They found that it wasn’t a good one. Rather, it polarized the audience: Those who already thought nanorisks were low tended to become more sure of themselves when exposed to name-calling, while those who thought nanorisks are high were more likely to move in their own favored direction. In other words, it appeared that pushing people’s emotional buttons, through derogatory comments, made them double down on their preexisting beliefs.”

See the study here, The “Nasty Effect:” Online Incivility and Risk Perceptions of Emerging Technologies:

“Uncivil discourse is a growing concern in American rhetoric, and this trend has expanded beyond traditional media to online sources, such as audience comments. Using an experiment given to a sample representative of the U.S. population, we examine the effects online incivility on perceptions toward a particular issue—namely, an emerging technology, nanotechnology. We found that exposure to uncivil blog comments can polarize risk perceptions of nanotechnology along the lines of religiosity and issue support.”

Angry Badgers: a denier tactic

While many of you are familiar with the tactics of think tanks, I thought it worth drawing attention to a recently uncovered Heartland Institute propaganda initiative.

Called “Operation Angry Badger” it was designed to derail a debate in the US over collective bargaining in the education sector:

A Chicago-based free-market think tank has prepared a strategy to sway the recall debate in Wisconsin, including detailing “the shortcomings of public schools,” according to leaked documents that appeared this week on the Internet.

“Operation Angry Badger” purportedly describes a Heartland Institute proposal that would cost about $612,000 and focus on promoting Wisconsin Act 10, which curtailed collective bargaining for most public-sector workers.

Heartland is one of the foremost think tanks behind the campaign to deny the science. The above is SOP, or standard-operating-procedure.

The Angry Badger tactic is one that seeks to inject distracting facts into a conversation.

Picture it this…

Imagine you are having an amazing discussion with someone.

Suddenly, a stranger walks up and shouts “Oh my god look over there an angry badger!!!!!!”

You’re distracted, and stop talking. The flow of the conversation is broken. You have to start all over again, missing some points.

This is exactly what trolls and sceptics want to do. Distract the flow of conversation with a dramatic, yet irrelevant fact (the Angry Badger).

What matters is your response.

“Look over there, a badger!” Lomborg’s latest piece of faux myth-busting distraction in The Australian

The self-professed “skeptical environmentalist” Bjorn Lomborg had a piece in yesterday’s The Australian which perfectly encapsulates his penchant for obscurification, distraction and framing arguments.

Titled “Thirst for facts should override myths about water and climate“, Lomborg begins his piece with a curious analogy about the myth of drinking eight glasses of water a day:

“EVERYONE knows” that you should drink eight glasses of water a day. After all, this is the advice of a multitude of health writers, not to mention authorities such as Britain’s National Health Service. Healthy living now means carrying water bottles with us, sipping at all times, trying to drink our daily quota to ensure that we stay hydrated and healthy. 

Indeed, often we drink without being thirsty, but that is how it should be: as beverage maker Gatorade reminds us, “Your brain may know a lot, but it doesn’t know when your body is thirsty.” 

Sure, drinking this much does not feel comfortable, but Powerade offers this sage counsel: “You may be able to train your gut to tolerate more fluid if you build your fluid intake gradually.” 

Now the British Medical Journal reports that these claims are “not only nonsense but thoroughly debunked nonsense”. This has been common knowledge in the medical profession at least since 2002, when Heinz Valtin, a professor of physiology and neurobiology at Dartmouth Medical School in the US, published the first critical review of the evidence for drinking lots of water. He concluded that “not only is there no scientific evidence that we need to drink that much but the recommendation could be harmful, both in precipitating potentially dangerous hyponatremia and exposure to pollutants and also in making many people feel guilty for not drinking enough”.

The “eight glasses a day” meme is nothing more than a piece of folklore, discussed in this article from The Guardian and whose history is explored by the dissembler of urban myths However Lomborg is not actually interested in myth busting: his attempt as always to distract and confuse the issue.

He’s only using it because of a recent surge in media stories about this: so, taking cue from what is buzzing around the zeitgeist Lomborg uses it for his own purposes.

Essentially, Lomborg is framing the issue: ” You might have believed this one thing, but let me tell you it’s a myth… and hey this other thing you think might be true, well that *might* also be a myth!”

Watch Lomborg set up the framing device in this paragraph:

The drink-more-water story is curiously similar to how “everyone knows” that global warming makes climate only more extreme. A hot, dry summer (in some places) has triggered another barrage of such claims. And, while many interests are at work, one of the players that benefits the most from this story is the media: the notion of “extreme” climate simply makes for more compelling news.

Ah Lomborg… ever so rational and wielding his incredible mastery of facts!

Lomborg isn’t really myth-busting, he’s claiming the mantle of myth buster but using a variety of framing devices. His “everybody knows’  and use of air quotes around the word “extreme” are classic rhetorical tricks taken straight from the Fox News school of injecting misinformation into a debate by saying “Some people say…”

I hear some people say “Bjorn” Lomborg.

But is “Bjorn” really your first name?

Or is that what “everybody knows”?

Inquiring minds want to know…

He then goes onto to suggest all this concern over the increasing incidents of drought, mega-fires and the like is nothing more than alarmist piddle – just like the “eight glasses of water myth”.

Association fallacy

Lomborg is indulging in the association fallacy: “The association fallacy is an informal version of the fallacious argument known as affirming the consequent. It consists of promoting an opinion or philosophy by recounting the values a specific person or a group that held that opinion or philosophy.”

To give an absurd example:

  • Some people like drinking water
  • ZMOG! Hitler liked drinking water
  • Therefore people who like drinking water are just like Hitler

The most common form of this association fallacy we see in the denier community is “green baiting”, equating environmentalism with terrorism, socialism and the Illuminati.

Lomborg lite:

  • “Every body knows” drinking 8 glasses of water a day is good – no a proven myth
  • “Every body knows” that climate change will increase extreme weather events – Lomborg implied myth
  • Therefore, climate related extremes will be proven to be a myth

Lomborg takes the same approach in disputing the arguments by noted economist Paul Krugman and others attributing the emerging pattern of extreme weather events to climate change:

…Consider Paul Krugman, writing breathlessly in The New York Times about the “rising incidence of extreme events” and how “large-scale damage from climate change is happening now”.

…Remember how, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Al Gore (and many others) claimed that we were in store for ever more devastating hurricanes? 

…Since then, hurricane incidence has dropped off the charts; indeed, by one measure, global accumulated cyclone energy has decreased to its lowest levels since the late 70s. Exaggerated claims merely fuel public distrust and disengagement. 

That is unfortunate because global warming is a real problem, and we do need to address it. Warming will increase some extremes (it is likely that droughts and fires will become worse towards the end of the century). But warming will also decrease other extremes; for example, leading to fewer deaths from cold and less water scarcity.

Look at that parade of alarmist myths!

After all, the last thing the denial machine wants is people to look at their windows see the dramatic weather events and make the connection between these, climate change and halting the rise in CO2 emissions.

Heavens, people might want to actually do something about that.

But that’s what some people say.

The continuing Lomborg deception: “Look over there, a badger!”

Lomborg’s strategy is best summarized as “Look over there, a badger!”

When your arguments are so weak, and you have nothing more than rhetorical tricks to argue your case then throw in some random statistics, claims that distinguished scientists and economists are “alarmist” its time to pull out a distraction.

Sure, maybe climate change is real but really if you just look over here….

A badger!

The Skeptical Environmentalist is on the attack!

The coming political instability: new politics for a new planet

“…global warming is no longer a philosophical threat, no longer a future threat, no longer a threat at all. It’s our reality. We’ve changed the planet, changed it in large and fundamental ways. And these changes are far, far more evident in the toughest parts of the globe, where climate change is already wrecking thousands of lives daily…”  – Bill McKibbin, Eaarth

Extraordinary things are happening in Australian politics today.

Kevin Rudd, who lead the Labour part to a “smashing” victory in 2007 – and was once Australia’s most popular Prime Minister – has been ousted and replaced by Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gaillard.

There are far more qualified people who can comment on this, however thinking about this in the context of climate change I believe this is a harbinger of things to come.

In less than twelve months a Prime Minister and a Leader of the Opposition have been deposed because of the politics surrounding climate change.

Late last year, Malcolm Turnbull was ousted by right-wing elements of the Liberal Party who rejected not only the ETS, but the idea that humanity was causing global warming.

Rudd was elected in large part because many Australians wanted action on climate change. There are many reasons for the collapse in public support for Rudd, however the key moment was his “back flip” on the Emissions Trading Scheme that destroyed people trust in him and the governments willingness to take action:

By November, the Rudd government appeared unassailable, enhanced by the faltering state of then opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull.

Mr Rudd went to Copenhagen with fading hopes of climate glory on either the international or national stage.

This was to mark the beginning of his slide.

As Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, who had been hoisted by the vigorously anti-emissions trading scheme agitators within the Coalition, began to badger Mr Rudd over the ”great big new tax”, his climate ardour cooled.

His backing away from legislation, let alone a double dissolution, on the climate issue became corrosive.

The politics of climate change destroyed two political leaders: what’s next?

The politics of climate change is not the sole driver of these events.

However, I think we can say climate change is no longer an issue politicians can afford to ignore.

The majority of Australians (let’s ignore the highly vocal, but significant minority of “sceptics”) want action on climate change. Rudd disappointed with his ETS back flip.

Conversely, sceptics of climate change backed the new Liberal leader Tony Abbot whose acceptance of the science is at best tenuous.

I think it goes without saying that climate change issues will completely reshape the political landscape over the next few years.

As it’s effects begun to be felt even more, politicians who once chanted the “growth” mantra will struggle to develop policies that will mitigate the effects of global warming and put a price on carbon.

The public will become even more divided on what they believe is an adequate response to climate change. This in turn may drive even wilder swings in opinion polls.

Perhaps politics will become even more partisan. Having delayed action for nearly twenty years, governments and politicians around the world will scramble to develop effective and popular strategies.

But what will this mean for us, the ordinary citizens of democracies such as Australia?

New politics for a new planet: the “Green-Security” political paradigm

As Bill McKibben said in his recent book Eaarth, we live on a new planet.

Thus it makes sense that we will see a new form of politics emerging, one very different from the neo-conservative politics of the last few decades that have placed a primacy on economic growth and management.

It won’t be “It’s the economy stupid” but “It’s the planet, stupid”.

Economic issues, once the predominant concern of politics is going to take a back seat.

The old distinctions between left, right, liberal, green, progressive and conservative will become increasingly meaningless.

Instead, we may see a politics that is focussed on conversation and security.

The politics of green parties will merge into the mainstream, as we see the effects of climate change become even more apparent – protecting the environment will become the central position of most parties. [1].

Twinned to this will be a concerns about security: food security as agriculture suffers under climate change; border security as populations become displaced and waves of refugees shift in response to weather; economic security as we struggle with the costs climate change will wreck on our economics; energy security; and military security, as conflicts escalate.

This hybrid “Green-Security” politics will be a direct product of climate change. [2]

We will lurch between wanting to mitigate the effect of global warming, desperately trying to reduce the volume of CO2 we put into the atmosphere and dealing with the political and economic impacts all this entails.

We’ve left Earth with its familiar climate, cultures and politics.

We’re about to land on Eaarth, a very different planet.

[1] This won’t stop the denial movement, even as the seas rise they’ll claim it’s the sun, faulty weather stations or a conspiracy orchestrated by green-socialist-bankers.

[2] I’m struggling for an adequate definition, happy for other suggestions

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