Scientific literacy and climate concern: An inverse relationship?

This story has been around a while, but I haven’t been blogging much lately so I am only getting around to it now.

“..the most scientifically literate and numerate subjects were slightly less likely, not more, to see climate change as a serious threat than the least scientifically literate and numerate ones.”

So says a new paper. Troubling findings. Something’s not quite right, and am hoping to nail it down. “The Tragedy of the Risk-Perception Commons: Culture Conflict, Rationality Conflict, and Climate Change,” by Harvard’s Dan Kahan et al. tested a sufficiently large sample size of Americans on basic science questions — questions that anyone with a high-school education should be able to answer correctly — and matched them up against the level of concern each had about climate change. The more science they knew the less worried they were. Huh.

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Carbon dioxide emissions hit new record

From Long-term trend in global CO2 emissions, published by PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency and the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, comes some good news:

Even including the USA whose emissions in 2008-2010 are 11 percent more than in 1990, the industrialised countries have on average reduced greenhouse gas emissions by about 7.5 percent in the period 2008-2010, compared with 1990. Together they are well on course to achieve the [Kyoto] protocol, target of a collective average decrease in greenhouse gas emissions of 5.2 percent between 2008 and 2012 compared to the 1990 level.

Bet you didn’t know the Kyoto Protocol was a success, even without the U.S.

But then there’s the bad news:

Continuing growth in the developing nations and economic recovery in the industrialised countries drove the record-breaking 5.8 percent increase in global CO2 emissions to the all-time high of 33.0 billion tonnes, even though these have not returned to pre-recession levels in most industrialised countries. CO2 emissions went up in most of the major economies, led by China, USA, India and EU-27 with increases of 10 percent, 4 percent, 9 percent and 3 percent respectively.

Whole dreary report, including stats like “Since 2003, CO2 emissions in China have doubled, and in India they have increased by 60 percent,” is here.

Surprise! Clouds have a cooling effect

Drawing attention to misinformed pseudoskeptical analyses of peer-reviewed climatology studies is usually counterproductive. But in this case, it’s worth mentioning because the author makes such a common mistake that exploring the error might actually help shed light on the why so many people are easily led astray.

ResearchBlogging.orgThe offender is Anthony Watts, who is arguably (depending on how much weight you assign to blog popularity polls) among the most influential anti-science bloggers out there. His error was to confuse (or conflate, to use a fancier term beloved by social scientists) a direct effect with a feedback.

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Give it time?

More than a few writers have gotten a lot of mileage out of comparing the tobacco and fossil-fuel industries’ propaganda efforts to counter rapidly rising mountains of science that counter their “it’s all good” message. Al Gore featured it in his slide show. Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway wrote an entire book, Merchants of Doubt.

The fact that not only were the denial tactics similar, but so are some of the PR firms and even individuals involved makes for compelling storytelling. But maybe we haven’t taken the analogy far enough. Über-foodie Michael Pollan just wrote a piece in The Nation that suggests there’s still more to be learned:

By the 1930s, the scientific case against smoking had been made, yet it wasn’t until 1964 that the surgeon general was willing to declare smoking a threat to health, and another two decades after that before the industry’s seemingly unshakable hold on Congress finally crumbled.

Given that the fossil-fuel transnationals are orders of magnitudes greater in reach and influence than the tobacco industry ever was, and lying as they do at the foundation of our entire industrial economy, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that climate activists are accomplishing little more than bloodying their foreheads on brick walls. Walls that don’t even exhibit a visible record of the repeated collisions as they are already painted the color of blood.

Of course, we can’t afford to wait as long as anti-smoking forces did before scoring major victories. So does Pollan offer any hope? This is as optimistic as it gets:

When change depends on overcoming the influence of an entrenched power, it helps to have another powerful interest in your corner–an interest that stands to gain from reform.

Pollan says the healthcare costs of the current food system will force us to make the necessary change, and the healthcare community will step in as the necessary ally. Who will be the climate’s counterpart savior?

Change is the one constant

Fill in the blanks:

It is customary in the popular media and in many journal articles to cite a projected _________ figure as if it were a given, a figure so certain that it could virtually be used for long-range planning purposes. But we must carefully examine the assumptions behind such projections. And forecasts that ________ is going to level off or decline this century have been based on the assumption that the developing world will necessarily follow the path of the industrialized world. That is far from a sure bet.

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Another blow to the natural gas alternative

ResearchBlogging.orgA letter in Climatic Change looking at the life-cycle greenhouse warming potential of natural gas raised a lot of hackles a little while back. If, as the authors posit, replacing coal and oil combustion with gas-fired turbines could actually accelerate global warming rather than slow it down, then we have a serious problem, given the investments being made in gas.

Much the skepticism about that study could be traced to the background of the lead author, Robert Howarth, who happens to have a history of opposing gas fracking. Of course, Howarth’s scientific credentials, or his activism, have no real bearing on the math that produces some very daunting numbers about the practical impact of drilling for gas and burning it. But it is unavoidable that any scientist who dallies even tangentially with political activism will run into problems convincing skeptics that he or she hasn’t got some ulterior motive. So what this debate needed is an unimpeachable scientific authority to weigh in.
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Wouldn’t it be great if everyone was as good at admitting their mistakes?

Abstract: Peer-reviewed journals are a pillar of modern science. Their aim is to achieve highest scientific standards by carrying out a rigorous peer review that is, as a minimum requirement, supposed to be able to identify fundamental methodological errors or false claims. Unfortunately, as many climate researchers and engaged observers of the climate change debate pointed out in various internet discussion fora, the paper by Spencer and Braswell [1] that was recently published in Remote Sensing is most likely problematic in both aspects and should therefore not have been published. After having become aware of the situation, and studying the various pro and contra arguments, I agree with the critics of the paper. Therefore, I would like to take the responsibility for this editorial decision and, as a result, step down as Editor-in-Chief of the journal Remote Sensing.

Full mea culpa, and some unkind words for the authors and their allies in the denialosphere here. Here’s a little more to pump you up:

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