Category Archives: Human nature

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

angry_badger

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.

Stopped clocks, bad debts and climate sceptics: or why the latest paper on climate sensitivity does not vindicate the sceptics (nor suggests complacency)

clock_broke

For those who pay attention to minutiae of the climate debate, you may have noticed the denial-blog-sphere is all-a-flutter with claims of “Sceptics proven right.”

This source of this self-congratulation among the sceptics is a recently published paper in Nature Geoscience titled Energy budget constraints on climate response by Alexander Otto et al [doi:10.1038/ngeo1836].

I was able to source a copy of the paper and took the time to appraise how it could possibly be the source of so much sceptic excitement.

Let me quote from the paper so that you may judge whether-or-not the sceptics have been vindicated:  

“The rate of global mean warming has been lower over the past decade than previously. It has been argued that this observation might require a downwards revision of estimates of equilibrium climate sensitivity, that is, the long-term (equilibrium) temperature response to a doubling of atmospheric CO2 concentrations…”

The paper notes:

“The most likely value of equilibrium climate sensitivity based on the energy budget of the most recent decade is 2.0 °C, with a 5–95% confidence interval of 1.2–3.9 °C…”

From this, sceptics have claimed the death knell of climate science. Having read it, the take home points are for me are:

  • the oceans have been sequestering a great deal of heat – much more and much more rapidly than we thought 
  • that will come to an end at some point in the future, with the heat coming back out as the climate system tries to reach a point of equilibrium (note: as the atmosphere and oceans exchange heat)
  • the rate of warming for the last decade has been at the lower end of model projections
  • thus in the short-term the climate may warm 20% more slowly than previously expected (i.e. transient climate response)
  • even though we may not see some of the extremes predicted in earlier models, a doubling of atmospheric CO2 concentration opens the door for an average temperature increase of +/- 4.0C.

Good news story and the death knell of the climate conspiracy?

Hardly.

The research is not that a radical departure from the results of climate science, but consistent with other work within the field.

It is also worth noting the paper does not take into consideration tipping points or other anticipated positive feedback mechanisms such as increased methane emissions – the release of vast quantities of this most potent greenhouse gas from beneath the Arctic tundra due to warming.

A small and maybe irrelevant point? Must likely not.

Indeed there are a quite few nasty surprises like methane out-gassing lurking out there – things known but generally avoided in many models (the planets decreasing albedo effect as the extent of the Arctic ice decreases anyone – anyone?).

It will be worth watching the research on climate sensitivity over the coming years: at least form the perspective of how policy makers, sceptics and the public react to this informaiton.

Just how fast, and how extreme, will the warming be?

A very interesting question indeed.  

Bad “climate” debts accumulating: no time for complacency

A 2.0C-4.0C increase in average temperatures will have a significant impact on large parts of the globe, if not devastating large swathes of it.

As the oceans draw down heat it will fuel their thermal expansion, a major driver of projected sea level rise. Nor will the oceans continue to do humanity a favour by acting as endless sink for the additional heat we’re adding to the climate system.

Crop production around the mid-latitudes is going to be hit hard, which incidentally is where most of humanity resides. Remember the aforementioned sea level rise? Many millions in the mid-latitudes will be forced to relocate.

But hey, wheat production will increasingly shift to Canada and the Arctic circle. You win some, lose some right?

Like avoiding a bad debt by taking out another high interest credit card to cover your repayments, this warming is going to raise its ugly head in the future. One may avoid paying your debts in the short-term, but at some point the Sheriff will come a-knocking and take the keys to your car and what personal property you have.

Likewise, the climate will come and “ask” us for the debt we “owe it”.

Things like coastal cities and productive farmlands will be the collateral confiscated to service the “warming debt” our species is accumulating.

Perhaps we’ve gained a little extra time – a tiny window of opportunity really – to bring down greenhouse gas emissions. Perhaps we have more time to plan adaptation measures.

Whatever the case, the window for action is still narrow: this research is not cause for complacency.

Sadly I fear laggard policy makers and the mischievous will see it as such, and continue to push the cause of inaction.

Deep time, deep history, climate change and living through interesting times

Let’s also place this “pause in warming” in context.

In geologic terms, the rapid increase in atmospheric CO2 and the warming trend is unprecedented in the planet’s history.

It is vital we stop thinking in terms of a climate change as the up-or-down temperature swings of a particular decade. We accuse sceptics of cherry picking; likewise we need to remove our own myopic filters.

We need to pay far closer attention to the paleoclimate record: as James Hansen has recently argued, we cannot fully appreciate the profound changes the planet is undergoing without drawing on the lessons of the geologic past.

Nor should we disregard the warming oceans, the decline of Arctic sea ice and the increasing levels of CO2 in the atmosphere – and the many other metrics – all point to the same conclusion: warming has not stopped.

Perhaps it is the own cognitive limitations and the transient nature of how we experience time that creates such a short-sighted and myopic view of climate change.

I suggest we think in terms of both deep time and deep history.

2.5 billion years from now, should our descendants or a successor species of comparable intelligence dig into the Earth’s crust they’ll find evidence of our civilisation: but not in artifacts or fossils.

Instead they will note the abrupt disappearance of species in the fossil record (evidence of a mass extinction event) and the changed chemical composition of ocean floor and terrestrial sediments.

The evidence will point to a warmer world relative to other periods within geologic history. Billions of years into the future, a faint but still distinguishable trace of humanity’s impact will be evident. 

That’s how profound and long-lasting the changes humanity has wrought are.

We’ve not seen this level of CO2 in the atmosphere in millions of years: most recently during the mid-Pliocene (5.3-2.5 million years ago).

At that point the average temperature was 3.0C-4.0C higher, while sea levels were 25 meters higher.

However, we won’t have the luxury of billions of years of perspective to ponder what happened: we’ll be living through those profound planet-shaping and epoch-defining changes.

Actually, we are living through those planet-shaping and epoch-defining changes.

Of stopped clocks and claims the planet is no longer warming

What also interests me is the sceptic response.

As anticipated, they’ve misinterpreted the paper and claimed it as vindication of their views.

My response to that is even a stopped clock gives the right time twice a day.

It’s well understood the rate of temperature change has varied over the last 150 years: to claim such a pause is evidence against warming is to merely be right by chance, and not for the reasons the sceptics likes to claim.

The sceptics are in no way vindicated: a slower rise in land temperatures does not imply climate change has stopped, or was “exaggerated”.

Indeed, lead author of the paper Alexander Otto makes that point in an interview with The Guardian:

“Otto said that this most recent pattern could not be taken as evidence that climate change has stopped. “Given the noise in the climate and temperature system, you would need to see a much longer period of any pause in order to draw the conclusion that global warming was not occurring,” he said. Such a period could be as long as 40 years of the climate record, he said…”

Sage advice the sceptics are won’t to ignore.

Which of course they do…

Perth’s resident climate sceptic and conspiracy theorist Jo Nova is the most self-congratulatory, breathlessly announcing they (sceptics) where right all along:

I think the climate sensitivity figure is still too high but it’s good to see estimates being revised in the right direction. Reality bites back. The deniers were ahead of the climate experts. We said the models were exaggerating and we were right.

Andrew Bolt in his usual fashion is not even close to being wrong claiming “alarmists” have finally admitted defeat:

Sure, warmists exaggerated the temperature rise so far, The Age finally admits. But we still have to believe they’ll be right about the apocalypse to come:

The rate of global warming caused by rising greenhouse gas levels could be slower than previously thought, but will still result in the same eventual higher temperatures as earlier forecast, new research has found.

Note also the story suggests there has been a “rate of global warming” over the past decade, without actually telling you what it is. If the reporter did, he’d have to admit there’s been no warming at all…

Bolt completely misrepresents the results of this paper; his view that there has been no warming is completely contradicted by Otto’s statements – whose work Bolt seeks to misappropriate to support his fallacious argument.

Bolt also gets it spectacularly wrong in his first sentence: no one is revising historical temperature increases down (as his wording implies), they are revising the short-term (i.e. transient) rise in the global temperature average slightly down over the coming decades.

Global warming has not stopped; it just may have hit a very small and minor speed bump. It is virtually certain to pick up speed again. 

Thus it would seem Mr. Bolt is struggling with such basic concepts as the past and future. But, hey like whatever Andrew: us warmists have always got it wrong.

I’m sure he got his “facts” from Watts up with That? or some other climate sceptic blog and they fitted nicely with his prejudices – he tags the post “Dud predictions” without fully appreciating what he is posting.  

Sorry to disappoint Andrew, but we’re still heading towards a much warmer world.

The sceptic response: the enemy of my enemy is the fact we can cherry pick

What’s remarkable here is not the paper itself, but the sceptic response. Indeed, their response is ripe with irony.

For decades sceptics have claimed the models constructed by climate scientists are unreliable and not to be trusted.

And yet, when a model or a piece of research shares the barest hint of concordance with their views they proclaim it as a victory for sceptics.

It seems the old adage “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” applies. 

To paraphrase in sceptic terms, “the enemy of my enemy is the facts I can cherry pick”.

Sceptic victory?

Hardly.

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QoD: The Gorilla is everything humanity is not

In referring to Life on Earth in the last post, I could not help but recall the incredible scene in which David Attenborough confronts the mountain gorillas of Rwanda.

In one of the most amazing and beautiful scenes in television history, Attenborough reflects upon humanity and how we have unfairly characterised the gorilla as brutish:

“There is more meaning and mutual understanding in exchanging a glance with a gorilla than with any other animal I know. Their sight, their hearing, their sense of smell are so similar to ours that they see the world in much the same way as we do. We live in the same sort of social groups with largely permanent family relationships. They walk around on the ground as we do, though they are immensely more powerful than we are. So if there were ever a possibility of escaping the human condition and living imaginatively in another creature’s world, it must be with the gorilla. The male is an enormously powerful creature but he only uses his strength when he is protecting his family and it is very rare that there is violence within the group. So it seems really very unfair that man should have chosen the gorilla to symbolise everything that is aggressive and violent, when that is the one thing that the gorilla is not — and that we are.”

There is a grandeur in this view of life and our relationship with nature – and a humility and reverence we all too often brush aside in the cause of efficient markets and personal enrichment.

Our debates, politics and discourse have become nasty, brutish and destructive.

We have forgotten what is at stake; and it is not just magnificent species such as the mountain gorilla.

We are at risk of losing that sense of who we really are; a species capable of both barbarity and genius, and whose only home is this planet.

Denial 101: the academic study of climate scepticism as diagnostic and risk management tool (FIRST DRAFT)

Note: As I’ve stated for some time, I’m planning on posting more detailed pieces on climate change scepticism based upon the last several years observations, research and interaction with commentators. 

This first piece sets out to explain “why” I believe a formal, multidisciplinary approach to studying the phenomenon of climate change scepticism is vital. It is not merely a question of politics: but risk management. Commentators are free to suggest changes, refute and debate. This is not an academic piece – so the views are my own. Potential flaws in analysis thus very much my own.

The value of good intelligence can never be underestimated (RAF war room 1941)

Introduction: it was never a debate 

The recent paper by Lewandowsky et.al (NASA faked the moon landing: therefore (climate) science is a hoax) that demonstrated a clear link between “denial” and free market fundamentalism is evidence of the growing appreciation that the climate change debate is not really a debate at all.

Rather we are now beginning to appreciate “climate scepticism” as the by-product of an individual’s values (and ideology) informing and shaping their cognition.

The clash is not over opposing facts: the issue pertains to the individual, how they wish to “see” the world and if those views are somehow contradicted – or challenged – by real world data.

A recent article by John Cook (How do people reject science, The Conversation 2012) provides further insight into climate change scepticism beyond the “why”, and suggests “how” an individual can come to deny scientific facts.

As Cook notes, confirmation bias is the most common mechanism for denying well attested scientific facts. Indeed, he asks the reader to watch the comments section of his article for examples:

To reduce the influence of those who reject the science, confirmation bias and misleading rhetorical arguments need to be exposed. Now is as good a time as any to start practising so I recommend beginning with the inevitable deluge of comments to this article. Look for cherry picking, conspiracy theories, comments magnifying the significance of dissenters (or non-experts) and logical fallacies such as non sequiturs

As predicted by Cook, climate sceptics began refuting the article upon publication – unintentionally and somewhat amusingly – utilising all the methods Cook outlines.

However it is important to remember that this pattern of behaviour and value-driven cognition is not isolated to the climate debate. Because this is not a unique phenomenon, there is a surprisingly large technical literature for academics and scholars to draw upon.

Indeed, when one views climate scepticism not through the Manichean framing device of “Sceptics versus Warmists” (fighting over the contested middle ground of public opinion), but as an example of a social and cultural phenomenon we gain not only fresh insight, but potentially the tools to mitigate the effectiveness of the denial “machine”.

The Windschuttle Affair as dress rehearsal for climate change denial; yes denial is more pervasive than one imagines, but shares common attributes

One can readily find examples of those who deny not only well-tested and supported scientific theories – climate change, evolution, the effectiveness of vaccines – but well documented and witnessed historical events. Indeed, there is a burgeoning and quite prolific community of those who deny historical events – 9/11, The Holocaust, Stalinist atrocities and The Stolen Generations in Australia.

For further exploration of the denial of these historical events, I would refer readers to Denial: history betrayed (2008) by Tony Taylor which discusses ideological driven historical revisionism in detail.

Taylor’s work foreshadows the Lewandowsky paper in surprising ways, but is based upon his personal observations and not the sophisticated use of statistical survey data employed by the authors of “NASA faked the moon landing”.

The common link between many of these incidents of “denial” is what Lewandowsky terms “conspiracy ideation”:

“…Another variable that has been associated with the rejection of science is conspiratorial thinking, or conspiracist ideation, defined here as the attempt to explain a significant political or social event as a secret plot by powerful individuals or organizations…” (Lewandowsky et.al pg. 4)

Indeed, when I read Taylor’s book I noted the mechanisms employed by revisionist “historians” mimic those of climate sceptics:

“…deniers will commonly accuse their opponents of a conspiracy against the denialist position when, as it happens, the deniers themselves are involved in a conspiracy or cover up of their own.” (Taylor, pg. XIII)

And that:

“…The key to historical denial lies in its self-deception transformed into an attempted deception of others, and this process tends to follow certain behavioural patterns.” (Taylor, pg. IX)

Taylor’s text is well worth reading; in particular how the “debate” over historical facts mimics debate over scientific facts.

It is worth noting that prior to the intensity of the present climate change debate (notably in response to the publication of IPCCs Fourth Assessment Report in 2007, the release and success of Al Gore’s An inconvenient truth and global negotiations at the Conference of All Parties (COP15) at Copenhagen in 2009) a very similar debate had already played itself out within the Australian political and cultural scene: the so called “History Wars“.

I would suggest that scholars examine the “Windschuttle affair” as a “dress rehearsal” for the climate change debate in Australia, and draw lessons from that. Keith Windschuttle was the historian who denied the sufferings of Australian Aborigines at the hands of the early settlers in his deeply flawed and debunked Fabrication of Aboriginal History (2002)..

Windschuttle’s writings kicked of a national debate – which continues in a more muted form today – and provoked considerable controversy. It is worth highlighting that Windschuttle received powerful patronage from the likes of the Herald Sun’s Andrew Bolt, the editors of the News Limited daily “The Australian” and then Prime Minister John Howard – all of who whom have featured heavily in the climate change debate as outright sceptics or enablers of the sceptical point of view.

When one looks back at the “culture wars” that have raged in Australia, one notes those who have denied the suffering of Australia’s first people also deny the science of climate change.

Strikingly, the same cognitive mechanisms and rhetorical deceits outlined in Cook’s How do people reject science were employed in this earlier History War.

The explanation for this is straight forward: the advocates for historical revisionism and climate change scepticism share a cluster of similar values – social conservatism, free market ideology and a disdain for “progressive” values.

I would suggest the same clustering of the values and world views (free markets, limited government) linked to scepticism in Lewandowsky et.al could be matched to the conservative “culture warriors” listed above.

We may be fighting a very different war, but it is being fought with the same weapons of previous conflicts.

The antecedents for today’s debate are there for study.

Actually, I want to understand…

Climate denial as area of academic study: from confusion to understanding

This growing literature on climate scepticism – such as the Lewandowsky paper – indicates the emergence of a new area of academic study.

Cognitive scientists, historians, sociologists and the broader scientific community are now gaining a better appreciation of the underlying motives for climate change scepticism. I would also refer the reader to the most recent edition of Nature: Climate Change (August 2012, Vol.2 No. 8) for a very useful collection of articles on the “human factor” in the climate change debate.

Indeed, a recent editorial in that journal called for greater engagement from the academic community on the climate change issue titled Clarion Call” (September 2012, Vol 2 No. 9):

Today’s mitigation efforts are widely regarded within the research community as woefully inadequate. With this in mind, Anderson and Bows urge scientists to overcome their natural reluctance to offer academic judgements — “Liberate the science from the economics, finance and astrology, stand by the conclusions however uncomfortable” — is their clarion call.

This broader approach does not refute the work of scholars such as Oreskes & Conway (The Merchants of Doubt) who have detailed the long running campaign of disinformation practised by conservative think tanks and a tiny cadre of ‘sceptical” scientists.

The evidence that demonstrates how both the tobacco and fossil fuel industries “planted the seeds” of doubt about climate change is well documented and conclusive.

But we must move past the formulation “funds from big oil = climate change denial”.

As others have noted, climate change is now part of the “culture wars” (A. Hoffman in Climate Science as Culture War, Stanford Social Innovation Review, 2012).

“Big Oil” and “Big Tobacco” may have nurtured climate change scepticism into being, but it has now spread well beyond its initial staging areas within conservative think tanks. It has been adopted by segments of the general public and conservative politicians as fundamental to their world view.

One needs only to look at the stated positions of Republican Presidential candidates on global warming in the lead up to the next US Presidential election: nearly all of them rejected the science (National Public Radio, In their own words: GOP Candidates and science, Corey Dade, September 2011).

I would argue such developments should spur greater efforts to both study and understand climate scepticism. And like any discipline, we can build and expand upon the original insights and work of many scholars.

Victory to these guys?

Stepping outside the narrative frame and ending our transfixed stasis

For over two decades we have been bewitched by the sceptic’s seemingly unstoppable ability to confuse the general public and “defeat” climate science (Robert Manne in A dark victory: how vested interests defeated climate science, The Monthly, 2012).

Indeed, in a recent talk in Melbourne Manne noted “He did not know how to win a “culture war” (Watching the Deniers – Question to readers: how would you counter the denial movement, 2012)

While such definitive victories may elude us, it is the opinion of this author that we can a) understand the “why” and “how” of anti-science movements and b) gain insight into how such culture wars are fought.

Indeed it may be possible – as in the case of climate change scepticism – to develop strategies to counter the effectiveness of such anti-reality movements.

While some would see this as a partisan approach to a “scientific” debate, there is ample historical precedence.

One need only look at the academic response to the “militia movement” in the United States, and the urgent desire to understand the culture and forces that created the likes of Timothy McVeigh and the Branch Davidians under David Koresh.

Learning from academic studies of American militia movement and the Southern Poverty Law Centre

The “Waco” incident of 1993 and the bombing of the Alfred P Murrah building in 1995 were traumatic events for American’s, and profoundly influenced politics and culture at the time.

In response – indeed with a surprising sense of urgency – academic scholars began an intense scholarly study of the various militia movements in the United States.

The demographic, sociological and ideological drivers for the formation militia groups were subject to intense study: indeed, the technical literature is quite large. Many of the reference texts I’ve read stem from the late 1990s and early 2000s when it was rightly thought an understanding of such groups was paramount.

Thus, we see a rush of works at that time: A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America (2003) by Michael Barkun; Enemies Within: The Culture of Conspiracy in Modern America (2001) by Robert Alan Goldberg; and Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture (1999) by Mark Fenster.

Militia groups sprung up across the US in the 1980s and 1990s, proclaiming (very loudly) an eclectic mix of beliefs including; a severely limited or non-existent Federal government, fears about a “New World Order” conspiracy, paranoia over gun control, millenarianism, Christian eschatology and racism.

It was from this “culture” that sprung the likes of Timothy McVeigh who bombed the Alfred P. Murrah building in 1995. In 1993, a combustible mix of extreme religiosity, millennialism and militia culture fed the stand-off at Waco between the followers of David Koresh and agents of US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

In addition to the work of these academics, there are other organisations we can learn from.

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) in the United States has a deep understanding of militia and hate groups – indeed, their website is a rich source of information on such groups. For many years activists from the SPLC and scholars have paid close attention to the writings and activities of the various militia groups still in operation in order to a) understand their formation and operation and b) watch out for “early warning” signs of violence.

One could also argue that studies in “terrorism” have grown since 9/11 as the need to both understand and foresee risk is eminently sensible.

By shedding ourselves of the narrative “frame” we are stuck in of (“Sceptic versus Warmist”), and approaching this as simply one further area of study – requiring  a multidisciplinary approach – we can “break the spell” of climate change denial.

There is nothing unique or special about the climate sceptic community. We need only see them for what they are.

Scholarship as a diagnostic and early warning tool

Firstly, let me state I am not directly equating climate sceptics with the likes of McVeigh or extreme militia groups.

However: the “hacking” of the Climate Research Unit (CRU) of the University of East Anglia (UAE) that feed the “Climategate” scandal was an act of cyber terrorism.

It was a deliberate act intended to not merely undermine the reputation of climate scientists and the science, but obviously designed to undermine negotiations at the 2009 Copenhagen Conference of All Parties (COP15).

The examples of death threats made against scientists are numerous; incidents such as the hacking of Real Climate (November 2009) and Skeptical Science (March 2012) also point to patterns of behaviour.

We ignore the climate sceptic movement – which is admittedly diverse, heterogeneous and fractious as any culture of conspiracy minded individuals – at our own risk. The historcical antecedents mentioned above should provide renewed imputeus in understanding climate change scepticism.

Conclusions: evaluating risk and the “hacktivist” nature of the climate sceptic movement

I believe there is a genuine risk that there may be fringe elements of the sceptic community who are disposed to fantasies of a coming New World Order etc. and who may fantasize about acts of retribution.

The CRU/Climategate “hack” offers compelling reason for such concerns. Should greater numbers of individuals take the claims of prominent sceptic arguments at face value – and act on these paranoid world views – it is probable we will see further incidents such as the “Climategate”.

There are antecedents for this diffusion of paranoia and conspiracy making witnessed in the militia movement in the United States. Indeed, not only should the science community be paying far closer attention to the sceptic “movement”, it may even be an issue for law enforcement agencies to monitor.

Many of the motifs of conspiracy culture – especially New World Order fantasies and fears of government control – have been “mainstreamed” by the prominence the media gives to sceptic voices and narratives.

In turn, the risk that less stable individuals or groups with less “mainstream” political agendas will adopt some of these views has been considerably heightened.

For the risks of such stochastic processes see Dances with Devils: How Apocalyptic and Millennialist Themes Influence Right Wing Scapegoating and Conspiracism by Chip Berlet and Talking points ammo: The use of neoliberal think tank fantasy themes to delegitimise scientific knowledge of climate change in Australian newspapers, Elaine McKewon for the dissemination of such fantasies in the Australian media.

In this regard, study of the climate sceptic community becomes both a diagnostic and risk management tool.

Such a tool may alert the world’s scientific community and government agencies to possible threats: i.e. cybercrimes such as hacking and tracking “grouping” behaviour on social media platforms that may lead to FOI “assaults” or targeted email campaigns against individual scientists.

Indeed, in the next piece I will explore how the climate sceptic movement is a heterogeneous virtual community composed of “core members” who provide both overt and implied cues for behaviours and norms for a much larger number of loosely aligned “associates”.

Similar patterns of behaviour can be seen with “hacktivist” groups such as Anonymous and LulzSec (though the political aims of sceptics and the “pranksters” of Anonymous are widely divergent, if not antithetical to each other).

The same pattern of recruitment by prominent voices on social media platforms – and the fractious “voting up” of “operations” by a greater collective swayed by rhetoric and exhortation – can be also be seen in way the climate sceptic community operates (see LulzSec: How A Handful Of Hackers Brought The US Government To Its Knees, Kyle Schurman and Anonymous Attack Anatomy Hacker Intelligence Report, Darshan Joshi et.al)

Again, the tools to study such communities are readily available: we should but merely “take them off the shelf” and employ them in our study of what is – in reality – a subgroup of a broader based conspiracy culture that finds its loci predominately in the United States (and to a lesser extent Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom).

There really is no need to reinvent the wheel.

I fully acknowledge each incidence of denial (of climate change, evolution and the Stolen Generations) is often a unique expression of the politics and culture of the time: however the tools for understanding are readily available.

QoD: “We have Palaeolithic emotions, medieval institutions and God-like technologies”

E.O. Wilson, a biologist whose work on the social insects I’ve long read with admiration (though I’m less enamoured with his recent work on kin versus group selection) provides today’s quote of the day. It is taken from an article from the Irish Times titled Mental blocks contribute to our inaction on climate change:

If this comes as a surprise, you are by no means alone. “We have Palaeolithic emotions, medieval institutions and God-like technologies,” is how noted Harvard biologist EO Wilson framed our dilemma. Many scientists suspect the general public is too wedded to magical thinking and heuristic reasoning to truly grasp the implications of what climate science has been spelling out with ever-greater urgency for the last two decades. This is at best a limited explanation.

Evidence from behavioural and brain sciences points to the fact that “the human moral judgment system is not well equipped to identify climate change – a complex, large-scale and unintentionally caused phenomenon – as an important moral imperative”, according to a recent article in the science journal, Nature Climate Change.

Thus I’m not impressed when anyone states “I believe in climate change” or “I don’t believe in climate change”. It has nothing to do with faith – for me at least. I recognise by cognitive limitations and defer not to the expertise an individual, but to the collective knowledge of the world’s scientific community.

I am personally ill-equipped to “prove” or “falsify” climate science: which is why I don’t debate the science. I will read the research in order to deepen my understanding, and ask questions and – yes – even be sceptical. But I believe I have the humility to acknowledge my limitations, unlike some.

The Wilson quote reminded me of the long running discussion that has been raging on my post on countering the denial movement. In response to a question from Sundance, a regular commentator here, on the question of “human nature” I noted:

We are pattern seeking animals, it is what marks our species as distinctive. And is foundational to our survival. Agreed. There is a difference between politics and human behavior, but one informs the other.

I’d also note the “flight or fight” response is also essential to survival (actually that’s a very crude way to describe a complex range of adaptive behaviors, but lets treat it as shorthand). It is near universal among all animals. Deep within the structure of our brain is the amygdala – associated with modulating fear, aggression and memory consolidation. But the flight or fight response can also be maladaptive.

The point is this: the interaction between our psychology, individual values and the norms of our community and society will temper how we react to the world quite profoundly. I have a hunch that the climate change debate is less about left versus right and more about our species and its ability to problem solve.

We evolved in the plains of Africa, and for hundreds of thousands of years lived in extended family groups as hunter gatherers. 5,000-10,000 or so years ago we started farming and building the first cities. In the last 100 years the world’s population has grown from 2bn to almost 7bn. We’ve been to the moon, invented writing and developed complex societies. Our cultural evolution has been stunning, and yes worth celebrating. I celebrate the achievements of our civilisation.

And [all the] while evolution has continued its slow, iterative pace. The cognitive skill set we have is perfectly adapted to foster the individual’s survival instincts has changed little. Put crudely, the problem is beyond the scope of the individual and even groups of individuals.

That’s what makes climate change seem overwhelming – terrifying even. Thus an individual’s reaction in either denial, indifference and at the other extreme fatalism (the world is doomed!) is understandable. Everyone will grapple with these basic emotions – including myself. I have no special knowledge, but I have meditated long on my own response and sought out the best information to ensure I am informed.

Flight or fight responses can be maladaptive: to give but one example of fight or flight misfiring, think of the zebra standing frozen before the lion unable to react.

Climate change is a civilisational challenge that transcends the individual’s ability to both fully understand it’s risks and devise potential solutions. This is why we may be at such a stalemate.

The scientific method is one of our tools in understanding the world, but also recognizing and explaining risk.

Climate science is the early warming radar of civilisation: we can pay attention to the looming danger on the screen, or scream at our instruments in terror and frustration. We can choose to dismiss one set of instruments, and claim it broken. But when all the instruments and all the warning systems are screaming “code red” to ignore them is denial. It’s flight or fight gone awry.

Then we are no different from the zebra standing transfixed in the face of a predator.

Readers here appreciate I am very much focused on exploring and even countering arguments from climate sceptics – this is part of the political debate and the discussion over values. I’ve always acknowledged that. Indeed, my values and centrist politics are stated on the “about page”.

But I see this debate between sceptics and proponents of the science as a tiny component of a much larger, richer and more complex problem of mitigation and adaptation.

And for me that is what is both fascinating and tragic. 

However I think Wilson’s quote sums it up beautifully, and far more concisely than I could.

I am also reminded on a beautiful scene in one of my favorite films, 1993’s Gettysburg (see above), based on the book “The Killer Angels” by Michael Sharma – a fictionalised account that famous battle from the US Civil War.

The scene contrasts our capacity for genius and our frequent descent into barbarity: “What a piece of work is man…”

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