Impressionable youth and climate propaganda

How old do you have to be before it’s acceptable for your high-school teacher to expose you to propaganda?

Last week I had the honor of taking part in a video chat with a class of eighth graders at a private school in Atlanta. I got involved through a personal connection and then took a strong interest when I learned that the students would be sitting through both Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth and Martin Durkin’s Great Global Warming Swindle as part of an environmental writing section of their English course. Then their teacher, in an effort to nudge his students toward something approaching critical thinking, added a YouTube video by British journalist Peter Hadfield that makes a desperate attempt to supply an objective take on both documentaries.

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Take that, climate-deniers!

Climatologist Michael Mann is fed up. Actually, he’s been fed up a long time, given that he’s been the subject of mean-spirited investigations and slander for years now. We probably need more of this kind of rebuttal:

These are just lies, regurgitation of dishonest smears that have been manufactured by fossil fuel industry-funded climate change deniers, and those who do their bidding by lying to the public about the science.

Mann wrote that in an op-ed for the Vail Daily. It’s not the New York Times, but that’s the point. The climatology community needs to respond every time some ignorant editor agrees to print anything that distorts the facts about anthropogenic climate change and the scientists who devote their lives to studying it. And not just in the big venues read by the chattering classes.

The author of the offending letter that got Mann’s goat is one Martin Hertzberg, who claims to be a scientists, but keeps writing things like “The entire theory that ‘greenhouse gases’ in the atmosphere can reradiate energy back to the Earth and thus cause more heating, has been proven to violate the laws of thermodynamics, and thus to be completely devoid of physical reality.” [Citation, please.]

We can ramble on on these here science-oriented blogs ’til the cows come home (or the chicken come home to roost, or some such metaphor), but the battle needs to be waged on the streets, so to speak. As much as the Internet is vital medium, papers like the Vail Daily (circ. around 15,000) aren’t small potatoes. For millions of Americans, they are where the action is and we shouldn’t ignore them.

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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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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Celebrity worship

Number of hits returned when Googling news sources for “James Hansen” (head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and perhaps the world’s best-known climatologist, who was arrested in front of the White House this week as part of a coordinated climate change campaign) and “Keystone” (XL, the expansion of a continental oil pipeline that will bring Canadian oil sands product to refineries in the southern U.S.): 208

Number of hits returned when Googling news sources for “Daryl Hannah” (Splash and Blade Runner actress) and “Keystone”: 659.

(Searches carried out Aug. 31, 2011 at 8:50 a.m.)