Category Archives: Public opinion

Political fires: climate debate shifting in Australia, not to Abbott’s liking

Historians have long appreciated the weather can have a profound impact on the course of events.

A spring drought on eve of the French Revolution pushed up food prices, and was the final spark that pushed a hungry populace to revolt. Two bitterly cold winters destroyed the imperial ambitions of both Napoleon and Hitler in Russia. In the thirteenth century a “divine wind” saved the Japanese from Mongol invasion.

The weather can be both capricious and unpredictable, especially when it wrecks havoc upon the ambitious plans of generals and politicians. The weather can rob would-be emperors of certain victories.

Given humanity has now loaded the dice for more extreme weather events by continuing to alter the planet’s atmosphere and climate, it is virtually certain increasing political disruption will follow extreme weather events with greater frequency.

This is the lesson both the Abbott government and Australian population are now learning.

The Abbott government was elected on the promise of dismantling the price on carbon introduced by the previous Labor government. Helped by a vicious anti-Labor and anti-science campaign by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, they cruised into office promising a government of grownups.

But then New South Wales burned, changing the political landscape.

Very quickly Abbott and News Corp lost control of the climate change narrative. Desperate to disavow any links between the extraordinary fires and climate change, Abbott and his Environment Minister Greg Hunt fumbled badly in trying to control the message. According to both these men the fires could not, would not and should not be linked to the science.

To their frustration the public refused to listen and made the obvious connections.

Abbott simply dismissed the connection, and came across as stubborn and intractable. Day-by-day, Abbott is looking increasingly uncertain and strangely timid in office. His infamous bovver boy and mischief-making style is proving ill-suited for the role of Prime Minister. When he can’t attack, he freezes like a deer in headlights.  

Greg Hunt became an international laughing-stock with his now infamous “I looked it up on Wikipedia” comments.

Thanks to the fires, everyone is talking about climate change.

We need to appreciate the profound shift taking place in the Australian climate debate, and how the NSW fires are contributing to this.

Bare in mind these fires follow the flooding and Tasmanian fires of late 2012 and early 2013. These fires follow the battering New York took during Hurricane Sandy. These fires follow Cyclone Yasi. These fires follow the holocaust that killed almost 200 Victorians during Black Saturday in 2009.

A pattern is emerging, and people are noticing the climate regime has shifted. This fact is intuitively understood and accepted by the public who are often the victims of such events. Watching your home burn, your town flooded or choking on the acrid smoke of the fires that have drifted into the heart of Sydney will put to rest most people’s lingering scepticism.

For this reason both Abbott and Hunt are furiously stating they accept the science. Abbott may think climate change is “crap”, but it is now unacceptable for the PM to state this belief in public.

Those fighting the sceptic movement can take heart that climate change denial in Australia is a spent political force, consigned to the margins and conspiracy theory enthusiasts. 

However the events of this week are also a harbinger of the shape fires and political disruption to come.

In discussing the politics of climate change in Australia we’ve focused almost solely on the policies (or lack thereof) of the major parties and the Greens.

We’ve spent an inordinate amount of time dissecting and critiquing the role of the media. We’ve also convinced ourselves the future of the carbon price is dependent on the makeup of the Senate and the voting behaviors of the micro-parties.

Partisans on both sides of the debate have assumed the debate was about careful messaging, well-considered opinion pieces in the major dailies and peppering the media with sound bites.

But no one has talked about the weather and it’s potential to disrupt and reshape Australian politics.

Generals and conquerors in the past have learnt through bitter defeat the climate can wipe out entire armies, fleets and political ambitions. We’ve forgotten these lessons from history.

However the fires of NSW has taught us history is back with a fiery vengeance.

History is roaring back into life in the shape of a firestorm, laying waste to vast tracts of the bush, rural communities and the ambitions of the Prime Minister.

Those who forget the impact of extreme weather events on politics are doomed to fall prey to its unpredictable nature.

Just ask the Prime Minister.

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The sacrifices one must make (part 2): should Gillard resign for the good of the nation? Yes.

My post on whether or not Julia Gillard should stand aside  as Prime Minister got a little attention. But it was not an easy thing to suggest, especially given the vitriol and hatred the Prime Minister has experienced. I do not wish to “let the bastards win”. No one does.

But what matters now is the future of nation, the skeletal climate change policy framework we have only just begun to implement and a genuine contest of ideas.

There are times when personal careers have to be sacrificed.

This is such a time.

The editors of The Age have come to similar conclusions, arguing for “the good of the nation” Julia Gillard must stand aside:

It is time for Julia Gillard to stand aside as leader of the federal parliamentary Labor Party, as Prime Minister of Australia, so that vigorous, policy-driven democratic debate can flourish once again. Ms Gillard should do so in the interests of the Labor Party, in the interests of the nation and, most importantly, in the interests of democracy. The Age’s overriding concern is that, under Ms Gillard’s leadership, the Labor Party’s message about its future policies and vision for Australia is not getting through to the electorate. Our fear is that if there is no change in Labor leadership before the September 14 election, voters will be denied a proper contest of ideas and policies – and that would be a travesty for the democratic process.

And that:

The opposition under Tony Abbott has contentious policies on the carbon tax, the mining tax and schools funding; these are just the start of it. Yet Labor under Ms Gillard has been unable to step up to the contest. Mr Abbott is being allowed to run almost entirely unchallenged with his preposterous claim that a Coalition government would ”stop the boats”, in part by turning back the pathetic trail of rickety vessels laden with asylum seekers. This is a potentially dangerous and deeply dispiriting approach. Labor’s inability to unscramble this sloganeering is damning.

Time is running out. Labor needs to refresh its public face and present a compelling, united and inspiring voice. It is capable of doing so. Now it must find the will. There may only be one chance to minimise the damage that appears inevitable in September. To do nothing would implicitly weaken the democratic choice. If it is to be done, it is best done now. But it must be an unequivocal and energising change for the better.

There was nothing prescient in what I wrote, nor do I think the MSM pays much attention to bloggers such as myself. Farifax’s Sydney Morning Herald said the same thing a few weeks back.

It is simply that I am not alone in reading the situation or the risks should Labor continue to be led by Julia Gillard. Commentators across all sections of the media and on both sides can see the writing on the wall.

Is it fair? No.

Did Gillard deserve to be treated with respect? Yes.

Was she handed an extraordinarily difficult situation? Yes.

Was overt sexism a feature of the attacks on her? Yes.

Was the malice of the shock jocks and News Limited a factor? Yes.

As a nation, we need to reflect on just how toxic the level of debate has become these past few years. I lay much of the blame on News Limited and the Coalition. But the blame also rests with the Labor Party, Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard and Wayne Swan.

The nexus for all this strife began when the “kitchen sink” cabinet that included Swan and Gillard convinced Rudd not to take us to a double dissolution election on the carbon price. At that time the public and mood of the nation was with them.

But they blinked, they thought they could ditch a policy which helped deliver them office in 2007. Since then Labor has been paying the price for the failure of the first iteration of the ETS under Rudd.

They thought we lived in a time of “politics as usual”.

Politics has been reshaped by climate change: it is time to acknowledge that reality.

This is the new normal on so many fronts.

If you want to proportion blame then start with this decision. 

Julia’s finest hour, and the speech that will be her enduring legacy:

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Desperately seeking paradigm shifts: sceptics looking for new ways to attack consensus

Lu_paper

Paradigm shift, really?

Anti-science movements evolve: new sceptic lines of attack

The recent paper by John Cook et.al. clearly showing 97% consensus among scientists that the globe has warmed in response to human activities over the last 150 years seems to have rattled large parts of the sceptic movement.

And while they have been bitterly complaining about the paper, their criticisms have failed to spill over into the mainstream media. Their counter arguments remain firmly lodged within the alternative knowledge sphere they have constructed for themselves.

Failing to gain any real traction in undermining the Cook paper, their tactics are now shifting.

The new line of attack is to undermine the idea that a scientific consensus is stable. Drawing on popular notions of the lone scientific genius (aka The Galileo Gambit) and the history of science, they are beginning to stress the instability of scientific consensus.

How effective that is remains to be seen. It may not be enough to dissuade the public from their growing appreciation a scientific consensus exists, but they’re going to give it a good try.

The hullabaloo over Lu

This may explain why of late sceptics and papers such as The Australian have latched onto the deeply flawed paper by Qin Bin Lu claiming CFCs are to blame for global warming, not CO2. Their strategy is simple:

  • Claim the Lu paper has overturned the 97% consensus
  • Suggest that even if the Lu paper has not overturned the 97% consensus, then consensus can be changed at a moments notice
  • Therefore it would be foolish to act on climate change given these scientific uncertainties.

Whether they continue to champion Lu’s paper or not is besides the point. The tactic is designed to achieve two outcomes. Firstly, continue to undermine the public’s understanding a consensus exists. Secondly, undermine the idea of a stable and enduring consensus on any issue.

This in fact may be even more dangerous than previous lines of attack if one considers the implications of such thinking.

If the public understands there is consensus, they’re more ready to accept the science

While the public has mistakenly thought a debate between scientists has existed this is starting to change. That their attitudes can shift matters.

A study published last year in Nature Climate Change demonstrated that if informed a scientific consensus exists, the average member of the public is more likely to accept the science of climate change:

Although most experts agree that CO2 emissions are causing anthropogenic global warming (AGW), public concern has been declining. One reason for this decline is the ‘manufacture of doubt’ by political and vested interests, which often challenge the existence of the scientific consensus. The role of perceived consensus in shaping public opinion is therefore of considerable interest: in particular, it is unknown whether consensus determines people’s beliefs causally. It is also unclear whether perception of consensus can override people’s ‘worldviews’, which are known to foster rejection of AGW. Study 1 shows that acceptance of several scientific propositions—from HIV/AIDS to AGW—is captured by a common factor that is correlated with another factor that captures perceived scientific consensus. Study 2 reveals a causal role of perceived consensus by showing that acceptance of AGW increases when consensus is highlighted. Consensus information also neutralizes the effect of worldview.

Such acceptance cuts across the left-right political spectrum. For obvious reasons, the very idea of a consensus is considered anathema to the sceptics.

But if the average person can be primed to accept the science in response to understanding a consensus exists, what lines of attack can we expect from the sceptics?

Enter Lu and the idea of consensus being inherently unstable.

The would-be paradigm shifter: Lu at Waterloo

For those unfamiliar with this weeks drama in climate science, Qing Bin Lu at the University of Waterloo (NZ) claims to have overturned the scientific consensus on global warming.

It is CFCs, not CO2 to blame. As noted, this theory has long been discredited.

Lu’s paper has been championed by The Australian, other sections of the conservative press and politicians as evidence the scientific paradigm on global warming has been “overturned”.

His claims have been examined and dismissed numerous times, yet Lu persists promoting his discredited theory [for good commentary see Eli Rabett here and here].

I suspect it’s revival and championing by sceptics has something do with the success of the Cook et.al paper and shifting public attitudes. 

Luntz Mark II: desperate attempts to keep the debate going

For those with long memories or an appreciation of the history of the climate debate, maintaining public confusion was one of the central strategies suggested in the notorious Frank Luntz memo.

Luntz, a Republican operative during the Bush years suggested Republican politicians push the idea the scientific debate remained open. In 2002 Frank Luntz instructed Republican politicians to question the scientific consensus:

Luntz

Thus, if the public comes to understand there is a 97% consensus, their views on global warming and the policy options available to them will change. Right? We crack what is the hardest nut in the debate. 

But the merchants of doubt have a new product. With the Lu paper they are attacking the idea of a stable scientific consensus. They are tweaking their long running strategy of claiming scientific issues (not merely the consensus) remains open

It is Luntz Mark II.

Consensus: a stable ground for policy formation, or not?

The climate debate in the public sphere is not about the science: it is about policy formation.

Policies designed to mitigate climate change have been effectively stalled for decades in large parts of the world at the global level.

The sceptic position, unlike that of the IPCC or scientists is not policy neutral. In fact, sceptics and their backers are specific on policy: keep taxes on industry low, constrain or dilute environmental regulations and ensure markets remain “free”.

But if the public, and by extension politicians, accept the consensus then movement within the policy arena shifts from inaction to action.

So what are the sceptics doing in response to this perceived shift in opinion?

Shifting the debate from being about the percentages of scientists accepting a theory to that of a consensus position being insufficiently stable to form the basis of policy formulation. 

It is well-known scientific uncertainty is a problem within the policy making sphere. One just has to look at how delayed the social response and regulation over the risks of tobacco smoking significantly lagged the scientific consensus.

Thus the sceptics are re-formulating their line of attack to influence both public perception and the policy sphere with this new wedge strategy.

Lone-genius-scientific-paradigm-busting-superstar: re-framing the question of scientific uncertainty and consensus 

Rather than suggesting the scientists are at odds over the science, they’ve taken it a step further. They are now re-framing the question of how stable a scientific consensus can ever be

It is the Galileo Gambit, the idea that all it takes is one individual (or one paper) to radically transform our understanding of the world.

Lu is this weeks would-be climate sceptic Galileo. Next week, next month it will be some other obscure scientist with an equally improbable hypothesis.

They’re looking for someone – anyone – to shift the scientific paradigm. Because if the paradigm “shifts’ (or has the possibility of shifting) then climate change is “not real”. Then the sceptics can continue to argue the debate is not over.

This new line of attack needs to be given consideration.

Anti-science movements don’t fade away they evolve: the long debate has barely begun

The_cow_pock

The vaccine debate is 200 years old

I appreciate not everyone will find the following prognosis cheery, but I think there is some validity to it.

Anti-science movements never truly fade away, their popularity ebbs and flows. Their arguments and tactics evolve and adapt.

They are long-lasting, multi-generational movements that sometimes fade into obscurity (as far as official keepers of knowledge are concerned) and re-emerge in periods of crisis.

Take vaccination as but one example.

The above cartoon by James Gillray from 1802 captures the fear that inoculation against cowpox would lead to cow like appendages sprouting from a person’s body. Indeed, it was produced for the anti-vaccination movement of the day.

Two centuries later, despite the obvious benefits and success of mass vaccination, serious doubt has crept into the public’s consciousness. We are now seeing a resurgence of diseases such as measles and whooping-cough once thought under control. As fewer people vaccinate their children, herd immunity decreases and we’re faced with resurgent pathogens. Children die.

Let us consider another example.

The Creationist movement of the 1920s started out with a very primitive set of arguments against evolution derived from criticisms stemming from the mid-to-late 19th century opposition to Darwin. The Scopes Monkey trial of the 1920s saw them suffer a setback.

The movement was dormant for several decades, as it faded into the background, a tenant of a variety of Evangelical churches in the United States. But slowly in the 1950s it began to re-emerge. In the 1970s advocates renamed Creationism “Creation Science” and gained success in promoting it as an alternative theory to the Evolutionary consensus.

Suffering a number of setbacks in a series of court tussles, creationists again reformulated the basic tenants of creationism and labelled it Intelligent Design.

The climate sceptic movement is no different. They will adapt and reformulate their lines of attack.

This broad trend needs to be given consideration.

 

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War is over: victory over the deniers

Time for bold claims: the war is over.

The International Herald Tribune picks up on what may be an emerging trend: the decline of climate scepticism:

In a blog entry this summer, famed international correspondent Christiane Amanpour opined that the climate change denial club “is actually now shrinking faster than the polar ice caps.” 

Opinion surveys suggest she’s right. Two factors that may contribute to the changing attitude about the changing climate — and the melting away of many skeptics — are the extreme weather events that have affected the United States recently and the legions of climate activists who make it their business to convince and motivate an increasingly receptive public.

The post referenced above is titled The climate debate is over:

In the fierce and sometimes ugly fight over global climate change, we finally have an answer coming from the earth itself: the weather is telling us climate change is here and we are causing it. Theoretical physicist Michio Kaku is among the scientist who say the world is giving us signs that climate change is already happening (to see how he explains it, watch the video above).

This summer, there have been relentless droughts, wildfires, melting glaciers and unprecedented storms – all happening at the same time. And around the world people are demanding something be done about it. Even in the United States, ground zero for climate change denial, six in ten Americans say they believe it is indeed happening. But political leaders are missing in action – cowed by a vociferous climate change denial club, which is actually now shrinking faster than the polar ice caps.

In the video physicist Michio Kaku admits he was a sceptic until he looked at the evidence.

War is over…

Personally, I believe the climate change denial movement will splutter and rage on for a few more years as the most prominent voices and their well funded supporters continue to rage against reality.

But already one gets the sense the voices of Andrew Bolt, Jo Nova, David Evans, Anthony Watts, Marc Morano et.al are becoming increasingly marginal. Ironically they are becoming even more shrill in their claims of conspiracy theories and “It’s not happening”.

News Corporation and the think tanks will continue their desperate rearguard action against the public’s acceptance of the science: history’s judgement will be no doubt be unkind.

The deniers will achieve a few more Pyrrhic Victories: maybe they’ll find a flaw or two in the next IPCC report (AR5), publish a few hundred more op-ed pieces in major dailies and delay a carbon tax in the US for an electoral cycle or two.

Sure – public acceptance of the science will swing this and that for a few more years, but the trend is towards majority acceptance of the science. At some point public tolerance for the deniers will shift from a bemused indifference to disgust and exasperation.

Will that greater public acceptance of the science translate into voter demand for action?

The denial machine will attempt to arrest that as well – after all, that is their raison d’etre. They’re skilled at halting progress so they’ll continue to block, obstruct and show the seeds of disinformation.

But that’s all the denial movement has to look forward too: small scale, tactical victories in a war that is over. The funding for their activities will soon begin to dry up: they will retreat to the fringes of internet culture with flat Earth fanatics, UFO enthusiasts and other intellectual fringe dwellers.

How the war was “won”

However we must be honest: the victory was not achieved by activists or science communicators. Too late it was realized it was never about the science, but values and world view; ideology was the crucial driver of those rejecting the science.

We – the journalists, activists, bloggers, politicians, scientists fighting to bring climate to the forefront of public perception – fought the good fight. We did all we could have been asked to do: but the denial machine was more organised, better funded and prepared to engage in suspect and unethical behavior. Ruthlessness tipped the battle in their favor for close to three decades.

But at some point physics and chemistry was going to resolve the debate: brute reality was always the final arbiter.

And so 2012 will be regarded as the year the debate “shifted” against the sceptic movement – the extreme weather events of this year and Sandy ensured that.

But something like Hurricane Sandy was inevitable. Whether a storm of Sandy’s kind arrived this year or next, something of Sandy’s scale was always coming – and with it the profound  social and political implications of such a storm.

[Note: upon reflection, I think Tamino is very correct: activists and bloggers fought a valuable holding action, doing their best to hold off the onslaught against science.]

War is over – if you wan’t it

And so – with mock solemnity and virtual trumpets – I declare the end of hostilities in what is merely the opening phases of a longer conflict over containing climate change.

Let’s call it the “First Climate War”, a virtual battle over public perception fought in the opinion pages of newspapers, on blogs and social media and in back rooms across the globe. It was fought in the streets of Copenhagen and influenced the Australian election of 2007.

Participants included global media corporations, NGOs, sovereign nations, transnational bodies such as the UN, the fossil fuel industry, think tanks, scientists, eccentric billionaires, bloggers and politicians.

The First Climate War was a messy and brutal conflict more impenetrable and confusing than the Thirty Years War – and much like the Thirty Years War it was a conflict that drew in major powers, religious fanatics and obscure principalities, off of whom were sucked into its vortex by a mixture of principles and power politics.

But this initial phase of the conflict is coming to a close.

War is over…

Can we can go “home”; can we go back to how things were?

Can we dismantle our blogs; discontinue our Twitter accounts?

Can we can lay down our (metaphorical) arms, and begin to count the cost?

Those of you have been personally involved in this “debate” knows how it can feel: like brutal, bloody trench warfare.

But Like all wars, the cessation of hostilities is merely the prelude to reconstruction and new debates, the emergence of strange new alliances and emergencies.

As the World Bank notes in their recent report:

“A 4°C warmer world can, and must be, avoided – we need to hold warming below 2°C,” said World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim. “Lack of action on climate change threatens to make the world our children inherit a completely different world than we are living in today. Climate change is one of the single biggest challenges facing development, and we need to assume the moral responsibility to take action on behalf of future generations, especially the poorest.”

And that:

As global warming approaches and exceeds 2°C, there is a risk of triggering nonlinear tipping elements. Examples include the disintegration of the West Antarctic ice sheet leading to more rapid sea-level rise, or large-scale Amazon dieback drastically affecting ecosystems, rivers, agriculture, energy production, and livelihoods. This would further add to 21st-century global warming and impact entire continents.

The projected 4°C warming simply must not be allowed to occur—the heat must be turned down. Only early, cooperative, international actions can make that happen.

The half drowned world: will disasters like Hurricane Sandy further mobilise public opinion in favour of climate change action?

Like so many others I’ve been watching with concern Hurricane Sandy that is crashing into the Eastern seaboard of the United States.

The questions have already begun: is this climate change? Recall this is the second year in a row hurricane New York and the East Coast has faced a hurricane.

The Guardian notes this has potential to one of the worst storms to hit the US. This follows the brutal summer heat waves, wild fires and loss of crops that have devastated large parts of that country.

As a direct consequence of these events acceptance of climate change among the American public has been shifting towards an overwhelming majority (Bloomberg):

In a poll taken July 12-16, 70 percent of respondents said they think the climate is changing, compared with 65 percent in a similar poll in March. Those saying it’s not taking place fell to 15 percent from 22 percent, according to data set to be released this week by the UT Energy Poll.

Following a winter of record snowfall in 2010, the public’s acceptance of climate change fell to a low of 52 percent, according to the National Survey of American Public Opinion on Climate Change, which was published by the Brookings Institution in Washington. After this year’s mild winter, support jumped to 65 percent, the same as that found by the UT Energy Poll in March.

The public’s views on climate change can be rather fickle depending on the vagaries of the seasons and day-to-day weather events. However it is possible to see a storm of this magnitude and potential devastation will likewise further shift (or solidify) public opinion just as the heat waves and droughts have.

But Sandy is different as this piece from The Nation notes:

The presidential candidates decided not to speak about climate change, but climate change has decided to speak to them. And what is a thousand-mile-wide storm pushing 11 feet of water toward our country’s biggest population center saying just days before the election? It is this: we are all from New Orleans now. Climate change—through the measurable rise of sea levels and a documented increase in the intensity of Atlantic storms—has made 100 million Americans virtually as vulnerable to catastrophe as the victims of Hurricane Katrina were seven years ago.

It is not merely another data point in the collective memory of the general public – it is another extreme weather event clustered with so many others.

Time scales are shortening between events so that even the most obtuse and skeptical are noting. Rare events no longer seem as rare, but a common occurrence  Climate change is bursting from the confirms of IPCC reports and computer models into the public’s consciousness.

We, the human species, are a pattern seeking animal. Now we see the pattern in a storm that stretches the length of the continental shelf of the Eastern United States.

Even the most the more skeptical and disengaged minds are registering changes taking place on a planetary scale: something wicked this way comes.

The Great Awakening versus the Climate Beast: when will the voting public begin their demand for action on climate?

Among many in the activist community there is a belief – and I call it just that – the general public will undergo something akin to a “Great Awakening”.

In response to increased extreme weather events such as Hurricane Sandy it is believed the public will begin clamoring for action on climate change.

Put crudely, if you’re home is flooded or your crops are withering under harsh drought conditions, the lived experience will a far greater teacher than the 30 plus years of science communication.

The argument goes like this:

1/ There will be an increased awareness among the general public due to extreme weather events

2/ As a consequence there will increasing demand for solutions by those in democratic countries

3/ Politicians and political parties will adopt policies that provide solutions (i.e. renewable energy, carbon trading schemes).

Or:

Impact + demand = climate change solutions

Whether or not we will see the implementation of the “right” solutions remains to be seen.

But it is possible to detect a change in both the public’s perception and the tone of the discussion this year in response to the increasing incidence of extreme weather events across the globe.

Thus one could argue that such an awakening is emerging with the debate shifting from the reality of science to that of advocacy for solutions.

At this point, fighting climate sceptics is merely a mopping up operation: perhaps blogs such as this are on the clean up crew, clearing away the remaining detritus of climate sceptic arguments that still infect the media and political debate.

But is such an awakening of the general public – in a fashion many hope it will be – really on the horizon?

Many activists and environmentalists work on the assumption that once the public accepts the science this will flow through to policy action, the implementation of mitigation efforts and large-scale adoption of renewable energy.

But I believe it is just that – an assumption.

Perhaps nothing more than earnest (but understandable) hope: if “we” have failed, then perhaps there can be no greater teacher than something like Hurricane Sandy.

And yet despite the devastating weather across much of the US this past 12 months, ask yourself how much is climate change impacting the current US Presidential Election?

Not as much as one would expect, despite some of Obama’s vague statements on the issue.

We’ve spent nearly four decades vainly waiting for the public to come to terms with climate change and demand action from elected governments.

And the result?

Silence, indifference or at best a grudging acknowledgement that it is a problem for others in future years. Deeply encoded in this ambivalence is a mixture of self-interest (both personal and national), denial, a lack of information and appreciation of the issue and the failure of the media and politicians to lead and inform.

I firmly believe this conundrum will not be magically solved in response to increased disaster.

Increased disaster may raise deeply held existential fears: fears for one’s personal safety and well-being and that of loved ones; fear for the future of ones tribe (aka nation-state); fear of annihilation.

What political, economic and social impacts can we envision when that collective shiver of recognition and understanding pulses through the population of the world’s mega cities, shanty towns and affluent enclaves?

Do we expect people to willingly open their arms to such knowledge and receive it with calmly and react with a stoic fortitude? Ask yourself what your own reaction was, or those close to you?

Many of us who have stared directly into the maw of the climate beast have come away depressed and terror-stricken, overwhelmed by the knowledge of what is coming.

And when that beast comes for all – and now that it is here – when it closes is jaws?

What then – what then?

The half drowned world: of failed mini-states and keen intelligence’s

Disaster can bring forth the full spectrum of what is admirable in our species: the capacity for empathy, love, generosity of spirit and positive action.

And yet it can also give birth to the very opposite: fear, naked self interest, hatred and shortsightedness.

One only has to reflect upon the impact of Hurricane Katrina and fate of New Orleans in subsequent years. The city’s has been rebuilding both painfully and slowly, while many residents have failed to return.

Sadly, I fear this is closer to what many parts of the world will experience over the coming decades.

If you want a picture of the future, it will be of half deserted and flooded coastal cities in the poorer and less resilient parts of the globe.

The nations and regions with more resources and greater resilience will be the ones building seas walls (like the Dutch are doing now), shifting populations and agricultural production and investing in alternative energy sources – like or not, that will include nuclear.

Some will argue that we should begin deliberately engineering the climate to correct our mistakes – the first stirrings of this debate have begun.

In larger polities such as the United States, Russia and China the less affluent and resilient regions will become something akin to failed mini-states within larger national entities. Internal displacement, and the redirection of resources from these failed and climate ravaged regions will see their abandonment and decline.

These will be the sacrifice zones of climate change.

While many drown, starve or die in conflicts over resources, others will run mitigation and adaptation initiatives through a cost benefit analysis.

Should we build that sea wall for that community?

Should we surrender our economic or military advantage over competitor nations or neighboring states?

Should we transfer that technology to this or that developing nation?

And what of the climate refugees – should we open our borders to them?

Do we have a duty to assist them?

If you think the climate change debate is intractable and vicious now, just watch the tone of the debate over the coming years.

It is possible – perhaps likely –  the response to climate change across the globe will devolve to the national and sub-national level, as nation states make hard-headed calculations about how they can absorb the costs of climate change.

Central to their concerns will be how to preserve their military, economic and social dominance – and maintain control of vital resources – at the regional and global level.

One need only look at the United States recent proposal to abandon attempts to limit average temperature rises beyond the 2c degree “safe limit”.

It is hard to believe that in the early twenty first century, as we busy ourselves with our affairs, keen intelligence’s are making assessments about what is worth preserving and what may have to be abandoned to the rising seas and temperatures.

The costs may be terrible and the loss of life horrific but, based on their “clear-headed” and “pragmatic” analysis, some will argue it is better to lose an island nation or two or even several of one’s own crop growing regions than surrender global, regional or economic hegemony.

Many of us will oppose the injustice of such inhuman logic.

But there will be those who will cheer on such brutality in the name of pragmatism and national sovereignty.

What then – what then.

Hacking the Rio+20 Outcome Document: f*ck vague aspirational goals

For some weeks I’ve been attempting to write a post on the failure of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (or Rio+20). There are many others who have voiced their concerns, and summarised its failure far better than I could.  There is nothing more I could say except to express my own outrage and disappointment.

So over the weekend I read the “Outcome Document” closely, and decided to make a few changes.  Why not? If the world’s leaders seem incapable, surely a mere blogger can give it a go?

So I “hacked it” in order to: 

  1. translate the torturous language into plain English
  2. strip it back to the essentials and
  3. help create the future we must have, not just merely “want” as a vague aspiration goal 

The document itself is has no more value than one of the thousands of official statements and press released published every day. Well crafted, ambiguous and ultimately vacuous.

The early drafts released were fascinating, and show hot countries like the US and Canada were stripping out any meaningful passage. These appear as redactions is an editing process of omitting and inserting suggested changes and caused concern.

Following the lead of negotiators at Ri+20 I’ve redacted (strike through) and inserted comments (bold) in an effort to help clarify some of the issues.

Maybe this is what we should have striven for.

Maybe it what we should be hoping for.

Mike @ Wtd

I. Our common vision

1. We, the [Heads of State and Government and high-level representatives redacted] the citizens the world, [having….met redacted] sent representatives of State and Government to [at redacted] Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, from 20 to 22 June 2012, [with the full participation of civil society, renew our commitment to sustainable development and to ensuring the promotion of an economically, socially and environmentally sustainable future for our redacted] to ensure a the continuation of a habitable environment [planet and redacted] for present and future generations and to implement the following.

2. Eradicating poverty is one of the greatest global challenges facing the world today [and an indispensable requirement for sustainable development. In this regard redacted] and we are committed to freeing humanity from poverty and hunger as a matter of urgency.

[3. We therefore acknowledge the need to further mainstream sustainable development at all levels, integrating economic, social and environmental aspects and recognizing their interlinkages, so as to achieve sustainable development in all its dimensions. redacted] We therefore will integrate economic, social and environmental policies to maintain a habitable planet that underpins the above.

4. We will [recognize that redacted] achieve poverty eradication, change[ing]unsustainable and promote[ing] sustainable patterns of consumption and production and protect[ing and managing redacted] the natural resource base that is the foundation of our global civilisation. [of economic and social development are the overarching objectives of and essential requirements for sustainable development. We also reaffirm the need to achieve sustainable development by promoting sustained, inclusive and equitable economic growth, creating greater opportunities for all, reducing inequalities, raising basic standards of living, fostering equitable social development and inclusion, and promoting integrated and sustainable management of natural resources and ecosystems that supports, inter alia, economic, social and human development while facilitating ecosystem conservation, regeneration and restoration and resilience in the face of new and emerging challenges redacted]

5. We [reaffirm our commitment to make every effort to accelerate the achievement of the redacted] will achieve the internationally agreed development goals, including the Millennium Development Goals by 2015.[* Reissued for technical reasons on 22 June 2012. redacted]

6. We recognize that people are at the centre of [sustainable development and in this regard we strive for a world that is just redacted], our global civilisation. We will [equitable and inclusive, and we commit to work together to promote] achieve sustained and inclusive economic growth, social development and environmental protection and thereby to benefit all.  

7. We reaffirm that we continue to [be guided redacted] abide by the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations, with full respect for international law and its principles.

8. [We also reaffirm the importance of redacted] Freedom, peace and security, respect for all human rights, including the right to development and the right to an adequate standard of living, including the right to food, the rule of law, gender equality, the empowerment of women, tand the overall commitment to redacted], just and democratic societies [for development redacted] and freedom of expression are essential.

9. [We reaffirm the importance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as other international instruments relating to human rights and international law. We emphasize the responsibilities of all States, in conformity with the Charter of the United Nations, to redacted] We will respect, protect and promote human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, without distinction of any kind as to race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, disability or other status.

10. We acknowledge that democracy, good governance and the rule of law, at the national and international levels, [as well as an enabling environment, are essential for sustainable development, including sustained and inclusive economic growth, social development, environmental protection and the eradication of poverty and hunger. We reaffirm that to achieve our sustainable development goals we need institutions at all levels that are effective, transparent, accountable and democratic redacted] are the foundations of our global civilisation, and that these principles will ensure the maintenance of conditions for a habitable planet

11. We [reaffirm our commitment to redacted] will strengthen international cooperation [to [address the persistent challenges related to sustainable development for all, in particular in developing countries. In this regard, we reaffirm the need to redacted] to [achieve economic stability, sustained economic growth, promotion of social equity and protection of the environment, while enhancing gender equality, the empowerment of women and equal opportunities for all, and the protection, survival and development of children to their full potential, including through education redacted] to enshrine polices that deliver equality, protection of ecosystems, educational opportunities, good governance and economic growth that does not compromise a habitable environment.

12. We [resolve to redacted] will take urgent action to achieve sustainable development. [We therefore renew our commitment to sustainable development, assessing the progress to date and the remaining gaps in the implementation of the outcomes of the major summits on sustainable development and addressing new and emerging challenges. We express our determination to address the themes of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, namely, a green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication, and the institutional framework for sustainable development redacted]

13. [We recognize that opportunities for people to redacted] Each of us has the power to influence their lives and future, and participate in decision-making to create the future we must have. [and voice their concerns are fundamental for sustainable development. We underscore that sustainable development requires concrete and urgent action redacted] It can only be achieved with a broad alliance of people, governments, civil society and the private sector, all working together to secure the future we [want redacted] must have for present and future generations.  

Source: http://www.uncsd2012.org/thefuturewewant.html

Locking in the march of folly: of herding, theories about greater fools and Australia’s coal rush (part 2)

March of folly redux

The end of the coal bubble

We are at the top of the peak for fossil fuel extraction and as a source of energy: coal included.

Prices may continue to rise for a decade or more as demand for energy intensifies, but this is nothing more than speculative bubble that will spectacularly collapse.

How do we know this?

Apart from diminishing reserves the mother of all market corrections is coming: the climate is changing faster than anticipated.

Picture the world in but three decades with an additional 2c warming, a future in which the current heat wave devastating North America will be regarded as a mild summer.

In this scenario, coal prices will slam into the reality of climate change experienced by billions and collapse. Coal’s one advantage, the perception it is cheap and plentiful, will be seen more as a curse than a boon.

In this scenario the state of coal reserves will not matter becomes irrelevant. There is little doubt climate change will generate a range of policy initiatives to quickly – desperately – phase out coal and fossil fuel usage.

Countries will abandon coal as part of a massive mobilisation endeavor to mitigate rising temperatures. Treaties will come into place to slow and halt the extraction of coal. Billions of funding will pour into alternative sources of energy.

And if market friendly mechanisms fail to spur countries to switch from coal to renewable sources, we can expect economic sanctions against countries refusing to cease coal production.

In years to come, those soon to be opened coal mines and their supporting infrastructure will be seen as nothing more than monuments to folly.

The greater fool theory at play: coals future is limited, but the rush to exploit goes on

Expanding coal production is like betting your future on the tobacco industry.

Perhaps you might choose to ignore the health risks, the suffering of those with cancer or strain on the public funds for the short term.

But ultimately reality catches up.

The IEA has warned we are “locking in” dangerous climate change by betting on fossil fuels as a future source of energy:

Yet, despite intensifying warnings from scientists over the past two decades, the new infrastructure even now being built is constructed along the same lines as the old, which means that there is a “lock-in” effect – high-carbon infrastructure built today or in the next five years will contribute as much to the stock of emissions in the atmosphere as previous generations.

We seeing is the last throw of the profit-seeking dice: “Hurray! Dig it up before we can’t sell it any more!”

Because for the next 10 years or so there will be enough greater fools willing to dig up coal and sell it. But that too will have to stop. It’s inevitable.

But this will be a problem for the future, and is in no way reflected in next week’s opinion poll or babbling anxieties and concerns of the last market focus group.

So where does this leave us?

Locked into the march of folly.

History is unkind to fools

Our political and business elites have chosen to not only sacrifice their interests, but a liveable climate.

Gillian King at the blog “Thisness of that” writes perceptively about that failure. Inaction is not the fault of scientists – they’ve simply provided information – but with politicians:

What more can climate scientists do and say? They conduct the research and publish the facts. Their institutions have prominent websites about climate change (CSIRO, BOM, PIK, Met Office, NASA, NOAA, and more) and individual scientists have published books, websites and blogs aimed at general audiences…

Let’s stop pretending that political failure to act is the fault of scientists. It’s not. It’s the fault of politicians who choose not to know, choose not to lead, choose not to educate their constituencies. 

As I’ve stated many times, the problem is not that of our leaders are suffering form a case of information deficit.

The most privileged members of our society – politicians, business leaders, sections of the media and yes, even some in academia – have consciously and willingly ignored the issue.

Here’s a fact: they have all the data, projections and information at their fingertips. They have the means to influence the debate and the ability to implement policies that address climate change.

But a choice has been made; to ignore, to obfuscate, to deny and to pass the problem onto future generations.

One only has to look at the antics of the Australian leader of the opposition, Tony Abbott to see the choices our elites our making.

Abbott is currently touring Australia, popping up in supermarkets and fish shops claiming Australia’s very modest attempt at climate change mitigation (the so called carbon tax) will be the ruin of us all and promising to “axe the tax” the moment he gets into office:

 

Is it possible for the “climate change debate” in Australia to become even more insipid?

Here’s a suggestion Mr Abbott: have a look at the 40,000 local temperature records that have been broken in the USA this year. Or perhaps the flooding that has displaced millions in India:

 

That’s what disaster looks like Tony.

Believe me; paying a few extra cents for my groceries seems a good trade off compared to the alternatives.

With that in mind, I cannot but help ask “Have men like Abbott no shame?”

History is unkind to fools, no matter how clever or successful they are in the short term. The passage of time and the unfolding of events will inevitably showcase the failings and poor decision making of elites who have sacrificed not only their interests, but those they claim to lead, in return for short term gains.

Across a broad spectrum of politics, business and the media we already recognise just who the fools are.

Hindsight will merely confirm.

We already know their names.

The coming disappointment: how the deniers are about to learn some harsh lessons in realpolitik

Verily I say unto thee, economic Armageddon is upon us!

The wicked carbon tax is about to fall upon Australian like a biblical plague and devastate every household! Repent!

Let us pray that the good knight Tony Abbot will slay the wicked beast – he made a blood oath! – and save us!

Hide your money under the mattress before hordes of Greenpeace warriors descend upon every village to unplug your fridge! Repent!

Or, in the words of Douglas Adams “Don’t panic!”

Here’s my prediction: the world will not end of 1 July 2012.

Business will quickly adjust to the carbon tax – it is already in the process of adjusting (helped along my some generous cash handouts):

BUSINESS leaders overwhelmingly believe carbon pricing will survive and those directly affected have started taking steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, according to a survey of senior executives.

The survey of 136 executives commissioned by multinational GE found nearly three-quarters believed the carbon price scheme would remain despite the Coalition’s pledge to repeal it if elected.

But nearly half said they thought the scheme starting on Sunday – requiring big emitters to pay a fixed rate per tonne of carbon dioxide for three years, before evolving into emissions trading under which pollution permits can be bought and sold on the market – would eventually be replaced with an improved model.

The “tax” may be tweaked or rebranded by successive governments, but it’s here to stay.

The coming disappointments

The denial movement is about to receive some harsh lessons in realpolitik as they grapple with two major disappointments.

The first disappointment: business opposition to the carbon tax will melt away within six months as it did in New Zealand and Europe (see above). They will lose allies and supporters (except for some very loud and eccentric billionaires).

The second disappointment: the tax is here to stay, regardless of who is in power.

Now this is where Australian politics is set to get messy.

What’s this about a “blood oath” Tony?

There is little doubt Abbott and the Liberals will get into office at the next federal election – it will take a miracle to save the Gillard government.

But once the Liberals are in there will be months of “reviews”, opposition from business, community groups and a heated debate in Parliament, in the media and across blogs, Twitter and YouTube. 

Nor should we forget there will be a hostile Senate that will make it difficult to pass the legislation. Abbot will be faced having to call a double dissolution election in the hopes of gaining the necessary majority – the electorate will not go back to the polls with joy in their hearts.

Abbott and the Liberals have been running so hard on the “big scary tax” meme these past 12 months. They’re great hope has been the collapse of the Labor government prior to 1 July 2012. Once we the tax goes into effect and all the doom saying comes to nothing Abbott & Co are going to very silly indeed.

When – or if – the Coalition gets into office they’re stuck with the tax. No doubt they’ll rebrand the “tax” as part of their broader “direct action” approach to climate change. 

The denial movement – from Gina Rinehart, Plimer, IPA and journalists such as Andrew Bolt will froth at the mouth and talk about the Liberal Party’s “betrayal” on the issue. Reality will hit them hard, as it generally does for those who chose to live in denial.

And so we may very well witness the spectacle of a conservative “civil war”. Those taking a more pragmatic approach to climate change (such as dealing with it and retaining the “tax”) and those still stepped in the culture and habits of denial in conflict.

Some predicitons

What can we expect? I can’t tell the future but let me have a geuss or two:

  1. Prediction: Abbott will lead the Coalition to victory at the next Federal election only to watch his popularity collapse. This will hamper the chances of the Coalition government being re-elected. Malcolm Turnbull may replace him – either by challenging or Abbott stepping down – for the second term in order to offer the electorate a more “moderate” consensus-building politician.
  2. Prediction: Rinehart may try to use her new media empire to apply pressure to the Liberal government to repeal  the carbon and resource tax. The Liberals will learn just exactly why an independent media is not such a bad thing. By turning Fairfax into her vanity blog, she’ll drive away readers and drive the company into the ground.
  3. Prediction: despite the sound and fury the political debate very little will be done to actually address climate change.

To pilot a planet: the future of the climate change debate

“This world is a strange madhouse. Currently, every coachman and every waiter is debating whether relativity theory is correct. Belief in this matter depends on political party affiliation.” – Albert Einstein, 1920

I’d like to ask you – the reader – to conduct a simple thought experiment.

Imagine the children in your life and picture them as adults debating the reality of climate change. Now try to imagine their children doing the same thing. Then try to picture their children, and their children continuing that same debate. Its 2200 CE and future generations are locked into the same debate.

Does that seem at all plausible?

The intent of this thought experiment is to raise your gazes above the trench warfare that epitomizes today’s “climate debate”. Forget everything that seems so vitally important about the “debate” raging across blogs, YouTube and the opinion pages of the dying newspaper industry.

Ask yourself this question: “How long do you think this debate will continue?”

Years?

My own feeling: this debate will continue for centuries.

As long as there is an industrial civilisation we will be investigating, confirming, denying and debating anthropomorphic climate change.

Science controversies past and present

A recent paper in Physics Today contrasts the time lag between experts agreeing on “controversial” scientific theories and the considerable time lag before public consensus emerges. The author sees direct parallels between the climate change debate and past science “backlashes”:

“The historical backlashes shed some light on a paradox of the current climate debate: As evidence continues to accumulate confirming longstanding warming predictions and showing how sensitive climate has been throughout Earth’s history, why does climate skepticism seem to be growing rather than shrinking? All three provocative ideas—heliocentricity, relativity, and greenhouse warming—have been, in Kuhn’s words, “destructive of an entire fabric of thought,” and have shattered notions that make us feel safe That kind of change can turn people away from reason and toward emotion, especially when the ideas are pressed on them with great force…”

Thus we could speculate the climate debate will continue for decades, if not centuries. It will outlast most nation states now in existence – the very same nation states who will determine the course of history for future generations by their action – or inaction – on climate change.

Most of the individuals and organisations so prominent in the current debate will be forgotten, their existence barely noted in scant foot notes in some yet to be written history of climate change.

The irony is that we fight this debate as if month-to-month opinion polls are all that matter. In Australia, a carbon tax is about to come in effect on 1 July. It has proven enormously unpopular with the public while the conservative Opposition has been using it an opportunity to run an effective fear campaign: “We well be ruined, ruined by this tax!”

And while climate change scepticism may serve contrarians well enough in the short-term, the viability of our civilisation is being sacrificed for political gain.

The Great Awakening may not just be “around the corner”

Science has granted us with a view of the universe that often runs counter to cherished beliefs about ourselves and our place in the universe. Thus, for every major scientific theory one can find a counter-narrative.

Five centuries after Copernicus a 2004 survey found 20% of Americans in opposition to the idea the Earth revolves around the sun.

And yet it seems to me the scientific community, climate change activists, writers and bloggers are infected with an unrealistic optimism that “victory” is just around the corner. Most commentators propose it will take only a few more years before our civilisation undergoes the “great awakening”.

After all, it is an eminently sensible argument: surely “people” will get it, and demand action?

Many hope to see a global “mass mobilisation” with nations and individuals across the globe uniting to confront the enemy that is climate change. Commentators often cite the efforts of “The Greatest Generation” in defeating the Nazi’s and fascism during the Second World War as a parallel. I can understand this, the mythos that has been built around the Nazi defeat is great. Recall also the Germans and Japanese also mobilized for total war: effort does not ensure victory. 

More often than not those closest to the debate are projecting their own intellectual and emotional journey onto others.

Sadly, not everyone is “going to get it”.

Those of us blogging, reading and debating climate change are outliers: we are highly motivated to understand the science, politics and responses to climate change. For most individuals, it is an area of third, fourth or fifth level importance even if they accept the science.

What if I’m wrong, and there is a great awakening?

Still let’s challenge the above assertion: let us imagine the best of all possible worlds were we cap emissions and usher in a golden age of renewable energy.

Time to declare the debate over?

Should we avert disaster there will be those who will claim that as evidence climate change never was a problem: all those emissions taxes and support for clean energy was a wasted exercise to solve a non-existent problem. There will be groups wishing to wind back policy and legislative mechanisms in the same way conservatives are trying to wind back environmental legislation in Australia, the UK and the US.

“Surely not!” some of you would argue “Who would be so stupid?”

Well yes – we can be that stupid.

Consider the case of vaccination, a triumph for evidence based medicine.

It is still within living memory of many that that Polio, tuberculosis and Whooping cough killed thousands in the developed world. These diseases were almost completely eradicated in the developed world with the introduction of mass vaccination.

And yet we are now presented with the spectacle of millions of educated, middle to upper middle class parents conscientiously opposed to vaccination and reducing the populations “herd immunity” by not vaccinating their children.

These diseases – once thought banished – are now returning because there are those who doubt their effectiveness even when presented with the compelling evidence of children dying.

The point is these examples is this: we forgot mass horror and tragedy quickly, often within the span of a generation or two.

And even when we forget, we often refuse to believe facts that challenge our core values or beliefs.

It’s been over 150 years since Darwin published his theory of evolution in The Origin of the Species, and yet in public uncertainty about the validity about the science remains high from the United States (50% of the population) and around the globe. Those that “accept” evolution are very much in the minority.

America landed on the moon in 1969 and yet a staggering 10%-20% of the American population doubt this actually happened. If anyone had a vested interest in believing in American technological superiority it would be the average American citizen?

Strangely outlandish conspiracy theories have someone proven more compelling than actual reality.

How many Americans doubt their President was even born in the United States?

A recent survey of Australians show 10% believe the world will end in 2012 – a “New Age” belief that mangles and distorts Mayan cosmology despite the fact it has been debunked many times.

While one may be appalled by such willed ignorance, it is important to remember that denial is part of our nature and won’t go away even presented with the most compelling evidence.

The long debate

We cannot hope to quickly undo the damage to the atmosphere in a few short decades. It will take generations to both fix and manage the climate.

Now that we understand how CO2 impacts the atmosphere, we must forever abandon fossil fuels as an energy source.

The climate debate has only just begun.

And yet through all those long centuries that stretch before us, through the vicissitudes of wars, dark ages, renaissances and technological change we must hold onto the simple and fragile truth that the planet’s atmosphere must be managed intelligently and co-operatively by our species.

Our species made this mess; it is our species that has to manage it for all the long millennia ahead.

Climate change – the idea that we are altering the planet’s atmosphere – has profoundly changed how we view ourselves in the same manner Copernicus’s assertion of a heliocentric solar system unseated mankind from the centre of the universe.

It seems our fate as a species is tied up in trusting this wonderful construct we call “science”.

And yet to paraphrase Carl Sagan how very much it is like a fragile candle in the dark – a speck of light in a demon haunted world.

Tenacity, compassion and reverence for the truth: the accidental geo-engineers toolkit

Our role is not merely to debate the reality of climate change. I would suggest it is a far more expansive and nobler role than that.

We – the vanguard and the outliers of the debate – can be the mentors and teachers of the next generation. It falls to us to teach them resilience, tenacity and to trust the scientific method.

However, in addition to fostering scientific literacy we should teach the values of compassion and empathy.

Climate change has taught us the need to rebuild our industrial civilisation from the ground up in order to avert the suffering of billions fellow human beings.

Knowledge and compassion are inexorably linked – once cannot act without knowledge. Indeed, once you understand climate change, you are compelled to act. 

We can do more than bequest future generations a broken planet; we must also teach them to pilot the planet and our civilisation.

The generations that follow are accidental geo-engineers, a role neither asked for nor deserving. And while it may be impossible to forecast what our global civilisation will look like 1000 years from now, we can lay the seeds for its survival today.

Thus it falls to us to teach them the values that will guide them through the coming centuries of change: resilience in the face of adversity, compassion, empathy and a deep reverence for truth.

In essence, to lay the seeds of a humanist culture that recognises its place in the cosmos, appreciates the fragility of each individual life and our civilisation and fosters the hope we can guide it to better futures.

That is the legacy each of us holds in our hands, and has the power to pass on.

Embracing idiocy: creationism, climate change denial and birthers

Beyond help?

Not doubt the idea that a conservative world view often equates with lower “intelligence” is going to court controversy.

Calling climate change deniers, creationists and birthers “idiots” is not going to advance the debate.

But…

Coming via George Monbiot’s blog we have a recent study that shows a correlation between “lower” intelligence and conservatism.

“…drawing on a sample size of several thousand, correcting for both education and socioeconomic status, the new study looks embarrassingly robust. Importantly, it shows that prejudice tends not to arise directly from low intelligence, but from the conservative ideologies to which people of low intelligence are drawn. Conservative ideology is the “critical pathway” from low intelligence to racism. Those with low cognitive abilities are attracted to “right-wing ideologies that promote coherence and order” and “emphasize the maintenance of the status quo”(5). Even for someone not yet renowned for liberal reticence, this feels hard to write.

This is not to suggest that all conservatives are stupid. There are some very clever people in government, advising politicians, running think-tank’s, writing for newspapers, who have acquired power and influence by promoting rightwing ideologies.”

The end result is the creation of a counter-factual reality where the world is 5000 years old, evolution is a lie and climate change a conspiracy:

“….Don ‘t take my word for it. Listen to what two former Republican ideologues, David Frum and Mike Lofgren, have been saying. Frum warns that “conservatives have built a whole alternative knowledge system, with its own facts, its own history, its own laws of economics.”(6) The result is a “shift to ever more extreme, ever more fantasy-based ideology” which has “ominous real-world consequences for American society.”

Lofgren complains that “the crackpot outliers of two decades ago have become the vital center today”(7). The Republican party, with its “prevailing anti-intellectualism and hostility to science” is appealing to what he calls the “low-information voter” or the “misinformation voter.” While most office holders probably don’t believe the “reactionary and paranoid claptrap” they peddle, “they cynically feed the worst instincts of their fearful and angry low-information political base”.

I do believe there is truth to the last assertion. Most of the material produced by the think tanks and deniers is propaganda cynically designed to deceive and to appeal to the prejudices of a conservative audience.

The original paper can be found here, titled “Bright minds and dark attitudes“.

It does note that there are many factors producing a conservative worldview:

“…Of course, prejudice cannot be explained solely by intelligence, ideology, or intergroup contact. Prejudice has complex origins, including personal factors, such as ignorance and a lack of empathy (Pettigrew & Tropp, 2008), and social factors, such as resource competition and intergroup hierarchies (Sidanius & Pratto, 1999).

Simply perusing the reader’s comments on Andrew Bolt’s blog tends to support the view that prejudice and a lack of empathy are characteristics Bolt and his readers…

The authors conclude:

“….our investigation establishes that cognitive ability is a reliable predictor of prejudice. Understanding the causes of intergroup bias is the first step toward ultimately addressing social inequalities and negativity toward outgroups. Exposing right-wing conservative ideology and intergroup contact as mechanisms through which personal intelligence may influence prejudice represents a fundamental advance in developing such an understanding.”

However, Monbiot is perhaps more scathing of “liberals” for being, well… too nice:

“…But when I survey this wreckage I wonder who the real idiots are. Confronted with mass discontent, the once-progressive major parties, as Thomas Frank laments in his latest book Pity the Billionaire, triangulate and accommodate, hesitate and prevaricate, muzzled by what he calls “terminal niceness”(9). They fail to produce a coherent analysis of what has gone wrong and why, or to make an uncluttered case for social justice, redistribution and regulation. The conceptual stupidities of conservatism are matched by the strategic stupidities of liberalism.”

Intelligence by no means equates with political effectiveness, or with being “right”.

Sure, I’m comfortable calling out the idea that climate change is a socialist conspiracy as a ridiculous, far-fetched fantasy.

However I think idiocy is a universal trait that transcends politics.

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