Ronald McDonald enjoying himself after Hurricane Katrina.
The kind of "conversations" I am having in the so-called climate "debate" made no sense to me until I asked myself the question whether climate dissenters might like climate change? Maybe a strange question, but it would explain a lot about the debate.
Take Watts Up With That (WUWT), the largest climate dissenter blog. The mainstream opposition of the IPCC. Every post I have read there on a topic where I am knowledgeable contains serious errors. The other posts are likely not better. HotWhopper finds errors on WUWT that make one cringe every single day.
But almost no one at WUWT seems to care about these errors. If anything they cheer the loudest when Lord Monckton has a guest post. These posts probably deserve the prize for the highest error density. Or as Barry Bickmore eloquently writes:
Lord Monckton is a living symbol of the fact that many climate change contrarians will believe anything that seems to support their case, even if it’s coming from the most ridiculous source.And it is not just that science is overtaxing these people, also very simple to check cases of misquotations of a paper on global water vapor or misleading statements about the web traffic of WUWT are accepted without critique. I informed the WUWT audience of the misquotation, but no one cared. If I may quote one of my last comments:
[N]o one here complained about being misinformed. No one said, I do not believe in climate change, but Forest Mims misinformed me and that is wrong. I do not like being misinformed and I feel that this gives our community a bad reputation.They were happy to discuss any other typical climate ostrich meme or ask: "Do you feel any amount of shame for helping promote death?" The clear misquotation was not interesting, however. That is not what one would expect from a group that wants to develop an alternative to mainstream science.
In discussions with dissenters I get the impression that they make a determined effort not to understand what the others write. This is especially visible on twitter where you only have 140 characters and cannot be very precise. With colleagues and people that accept the science, this imprecision is no problem, they make an effort to understand you and normally manage to interpret the text in the intended way. I try to avoid such "discussions" on twitter, but see others try and end up in endless twitter streams that go nowhere. As an example, see this post by AndThenTheresPhysics about a discussion on twitter and elsewhere on whether greenhouse gases warm or cool :-) the Earth surface temperature.
I've now spent abt 2 weeks of my time trying to convince various pple that the greenhouse effect exists. I think that's enough now.— There's Physics (@theresphysics) March 9, 2014
Such unproductive discussions are unlike anything I know and especially unlike anything I am used to among scientists. Climate dissenters, for example, often dodge the discussion by moving to new topics before agreement on first topic is made. That does not give the impression that the dissenter wants to understand the reason for the difference of opinion. And it does not show much confidence that one's opinion holds up to scrutiny. In the scientific community, you stay at one topic, try to find out where you agree, where you do not agree and why you do not agree. Until you arrive at statements that are so simple that rational persons can agree upon whether it is true or not or what research would need to be done to verify them.
This part of the rant is getting too long. Let me just state that I do not have the impression that the climate dissenters want to understand the climate better. They mainly seem to want to have some fake "arguments" for discussions, to have some fodder to annoy greenies.
This impression fits to the large differences in acceptance of the science between political groups. The rather remarkable consensus of the US Tea party supporters is that global warming does not pose much risk, for example. This suggests that people arrive at their opinion about climate science based on their political positions and not based on arguments. It could be that the dissenters just find science largely irrelevant compared to their political views and good relations with peers who hold similar views. However, it may go beyond that, I have the impression that the climate dissenters do accept the science and are just mocking opposition, because they do not trust themselves to say that they like climate change. Partially their liking may also be subconscious. Humans are complex.
Salmonella infectionBefore I explain why climate dissenters may like climate change, I have to make a detour and explain how a Salmonella infection works. I do not want to compare climate dissenters with a disease, but I need the mechanism. If someone knows a similar evolutionary mechanism for cute fluffy animals with big eyes, please tell me so in the comments, then I will replace this part.
Evolution is a beautiful topic. Many people just think of survival of the fittest and in the worst case think that this fitness has to do with building as much muscle as possible in the fitness studio. The intricacies of evolution are well illustrated by the famous creed: "Evolution is cleverer than you are." Also the evolved behavior of Salmonella about with I learned a year ago via a Nature article (pay-walled, press release) is full of beautiful surprises.
Salmonella attacks the intestinal lining of the gut and thus provokes an immune response. What I had not realized is that this immune response actually helps Salmonella to reproduce. While the immune response also hurts Salmonella, it hurts the other bacteria much more and thus makes the niche for Salmonella larger. They are suffering, but the others suffer more. Relative suffering is their survival strategy. That is the mechanism that is important for this post.
Producing the proteins that provoking the immune system comes at a cost. Thus Salmonella bacteria that do not produce them can reproduce faster. Mutant Salmonella bacteria that are just as good in withstanding the immune system, but do not help in provoking it, thus have a fitness advantage. From the perspective of a sick human it is somewhat strange, but from the Salmonella perspective the active bacteria are altruists that help the other Salmonella and the passive mutant Salmonella are the parasitic free-riders.
Once the mutant Salmonella gain the overhand, the immune system goes down and the other bacteria again grow strong and remove the mutant Salmonella, which is the end of the infection.
Relative sufferingThis mechanism was what made me wonder whether some people might like climate change. Yes, it will bring suffering over everyone, but they may think that others will suffer more than they will (and their children) and that climate change thus improves their relative fitness.
What is important here is relative fitness, the fitness relative to others. The competition between members of one species is generally stronger than the competition with other species. All members of the same species are interested in the same resources.
For a jaguar and a gazelle being able to run fast is important. This absolute competition and in the long run it makes both species fast and healthy. Relative fitness on the other hand gives stag deer their bulky and cumbersome antlers. They are necessary in the competition with other deer, but require unnecessary resources and make fleeing more difficult. From an outside perspective relative competition can be nice, it not only produces beautiful antlers for above the fireplace, but also the long stems of trees as lumber. From an inside perspective though, relative competition is wasteful, while absolute competition can lead to long term improvements.
Transferring it to everyday life, absolute fitness is helping your firm get ahead and getting promoted in the process. Relative fitness is working against or even eliminating the people that might be alternative candidates for promotion. Both strategies work. From a group perspective relative competition is bad and should be limited. If relative competition is used too much, the firm will go broke. Given the importance of groups for human survival and thriving, relative strategies will normally play a minor role.
The situation is naturally not all black. Humans have a large range of behavioral modules and whether they are activated depends on circumstances. Relative suffering, if it exists, is just one of them and likely a minor one. Humans have flourished because we have a great capacity for collaboration and can build complex and large organizations. Humans have empathy, a sense of fairness, and like Salmonella can behave altruistically to be benefit of the group.
Also the climate dissenters will have all of these modules and are also capable of empathy. That could be why they report so much fear from reading about climate science or watching a harmless IPCC video. However, they may mix fear with another unpleasant feeling: cognitive dissonance. There is an inconvenient mismatch between what relative suffering and empathy tells them to do. And a nasty mismatch between what their religion and their political leaders tell them to do.
Climate politicsIf you think in terms of relative suffering, the climate "debate" makes much more sense. For example, it explains why people are militantly against mitigation, while adaptation is normally accepted.
Also Richard Betts observes:
"It is much less common to see discussion of the implications of the science for other questions [as mitigation policy] such as adaptation planning, ..."When it comes to adaptation, there is hardly any controversy. Although, if the greenhouse effect did not exist or if the climate were not changing much, adaptation would be an expensive extravagance. Still the dissenters do not complain that dikes are strengthened based on "crappy science".
Climate impact studies to inform adaptation are often performed in close collaboration with (local) authorities. Adaptation is an administrative issue and is hardly ever even seen as a political issue. Weather services around the world are setting up regional climate service centers to provide stakeholders with information for adaptation. These are the same authorities that do not see sufficient urgency to agree on an international treaty that would include mitigation and paying for the adaptation of poor countries.
The irony is that adaptation needs detailed local climate information and input from many (non-physical) sciences. Thus this part of science is thus much more uncertain as the global climatic changes that are typically attacked by the climate dissenters. But adaptation helps the local group and not the outsiders. It strengthens relative fitness.
ozone layerThe contrast in the political response between global warming and the ozone layer is also striking. Also the ozone layers is an example where we need government intervention and international collaboration, where everyone has to participate to stop the emissions of ozone destroying CFCs. But we got it done, with much less protest from the right-wing politicians. Yes, the fossil fuel industry is more powerful as the CFC industry and changing our energy system is a much bigger task. But I am not sure whether those explanations are sufficient.
From the perspective of relative suffering, another important difference would be that all would suffer equally from the depletion of the ozone layer. And in the case of the hole in the ozone layer at the poles, the high and mid latitude countries, the rich industrial countries, would suffer more than the developing countries. That may well have been decisive. The time line is suggestive, ten years after the first paper on ozone depletion and 18 months after the discovery of the hole in the ozone layer, the Montreal protocol to protect the ozone layer was signed.
WUWT is just trying to prove me wrong with two posts that CFC denial is not very strong. Still I would argue that the balance of evidence shows that climate dissenters are more active.
New York and French farmersMother Jones recently reported on an experiment that makes logically no sense, but can be understood from a relative suffering perspective. My emphasis.
In the experiment, research subjects from upstate New York read news articles about how climate change might increase the spread of West Nile Virus, which were accompanied by the pictures of the faces of farmers who might be affected. But in one case, the people were said to be farmers in upstate New York (in other words, victims who were quite socially similar to the research subjects); in the other, they were described as farmers from either Georgia or from France (much more distant victims). The intent of the article was to raise concern about the health consequences of climate change, but when Republicans read the article about the more distant farmers, their support for action on climate change decreased, a pattern that was stronger as their Republican partisanship increased. (When Republicans read about the proximate, New York farmers, there was no boomerang effect, but they did not become more supportive of climate action either.)When these Republicans read that climate change causes suffering among French farmers, they like it and want more of it. In the past I would probably have guessed that French framers leave them cold, which is still not a very Christian thing to do. That they even want more of it, can be understood by relative suffering.
Relative suffering is only a sensible strategy for groups on the top. Thus it could also explain why the attacks against climate science are most frenetic in the USA, why the best educated Republicans are most against global warming and why there is strongly support for this political campaign by libertarian billionaires.
Climate communicationWhat does the idea of relative suffering mean for climate communication? Let's not assume that this brain module is very important for every climate dissenter. Many will also simply be dissenters because their peers are. Thus, when discussing with strangers it is still best to start friendly and assume good faith. Even if you are almost always disappointed, assume that the person is interested in an honest discussion and understanding and is interested in making the world a better place. My old strategy remains: Explain what is wrong about the ideas of WUWT and Co. and simultaneously make clear that this is not a scientific discussion, but that these ideas are long debunked and that everyone could know this.
However, I would now add: try to limit the part about science as that is not the real problem and write as much as possible about the evidence that climate change will hit the industrialized countries extra hard and especially Australia and the USA and especially the bible belt. Those are likely more convincing arguments as any scientific arguments you could make. Reserve the number of dead people in the poor countries for discussions with progressives.
This also partially fits to a great recent science communication post by Rob Lamberts: Facts won’t beat the climate deniers – using their tactics will. His advice is to reduce the amount of time you talk about science and increase the amount of time you talk about your opinion. And especially, make a lot of noise.
Rich countries suffer mostI am no expert for climate impacts, but intuitively I would expect that climate change will be the big equalizer. Yes, more people will die in poor countries, you have to set priorities and if you are poor and need to eat preparing for natural catastrophes has less priority.
However, when it comes to the economy and thus to the balance of power, it is at least clear that the rich countries have much more too lose. The figure below comes from an article by Roger Pielke Jr. on losses due to hurricanes. Think of the beginning of the graph as the poor countries and the end as the rich countries.
The reason the rich countries are rich is because we have accumulated so much capital over the decades and centuries, in infrastructure, buildings and networks. A lot of this capital will be sub-optimally invested if the climate changes, or it could even be destroyed and would need to be rebuild elsewhere, if that is possible. Naive economists will probably assume we will invest and adapt rationally and have perfect foresight into what the future will bring and that this will thus hardly cost anything. The climate "debate" makes me doubt rationality. Perfect foresight or even just knowledge on the uncertainties of economic costs seems to be a rather unrealistic assumption on decadal time scales.
Some examples. Economists can dream otherwise, but I am reasonably sure that The Netherlands will be evacuated after a huge flood, not gradually before. Suddenly all that capital will be destroyed, people will be scattered and the economic networks of trust will be disrupted. These displaced people will be unproductive without their network and lose their skills while finding a new place in society. It was known that New Orleans was a dangerous place, but the "rational" people did not do anything about it before the disaster struck.
And not just the flooded area will be affected. Companies trading with The Netherlands would have huge loses and many would go bankrupt. The European economy would be hit hard because of missing imports and exports via the harbor of Rotterdam. It will take time to increase the capacity of the other harbors, for many companies that will be too late.
Competitive forces have made the Western economies highly optimized. That is efficient, but can also create large catastrophes. It is known from mathematics that in highly optimized complex systems even a minor disturbance can have huge consequences; the distribution of the magnitude of the consequences follows a power law. An economic example could be the economic slowdown triggered by the Lehman bankruptcy, which was a small bank relative to the impact.
The Just-In-Time strategy aims to improve the return on investment by reducing inventory; it also makes a firm more vulnerable. But if the competition does so, you have to do the same. If a manager refuses to do so, his shareholders will replace him.
We are especially vulnerable to disturbances not yet experienced. And climate change will deliver many surprises. It was only when there was a flooding in 2011 in Thailand that people realized how important these river basins are for the production of hard disks. And it also illustrated that it is not so easy to move a company out of harms way and diversify the risk by the fact that most companies rebuild their factories in Thailand, because that is where their customers and suppliers are. Networks (cities) are longer lived than people, companies or buildings and cannot be easily relocated.
People in poor countries, on the other hand, can be very flexible, if only because less physical and human capital is involved. A colleague of mine wanted to investigate how changes in flood patterns would impact the brick production in Bangladesh on the banks of the Ganges. It turned out to be not worth studying. They stop production months before the flood season, the laborers do something else elsewhere. The owners of the brick factories did not even understand the question, why they did not use a longer production season. The other owners did the same, was a common answer. My guess would be: without much capital investment, it may not be much more productive to have a longer season, not worth any risk.
Europe and USANot only the balance of power between North and South will change. I had a look at the KNMI climate explorer. I hope I am not cherry picking, if I do then out of pure ignorance, but the data confirmed by expectations. Knowing about the dust bowl and the large economic problems in the 1930s, I thought I'd look at meteorological drought projection. Please find below the data for precipitation minus evaporation on average over a year and because I was interested in drought, I have plotted the expected change in the 10 percentile. This percentile means that 10% of the years are drier than this value.
These figures suggest that the climate dissenters in the USA will be hit hardest by drought and that the balance of power and wealth will shift somewhat towards Europe. I think that that is worth repeating, that that is likely a convincing argument.
Within USAQuite fitting is that also within the USA, it are the Republican states that will be hit hardest by drought and will suffer most economic losses. I am also no expert for American politics, but I would expect that the rich Democratic states will not be very eager to help the Republican drought states, especially after all those years of dishonest denial that climate change is a problem and all the nasty childish blockades by the Tea Party. I would not be surprised if the urban Democrats enjoying the sea breeze will think, let them burn, the imports of foods from overseas are already expensive enough. I hope they would be kinder, but after all those decades of partisan battle to make the world a worse place, I am not so sure.
Wrapping it all upTry to talk about climate science as little as possible. This is not where the problem lies. That is just a charade. Make clear it is a charade. Because of onlookers one should probably not duck the science completely. One way to do so is answering by linking to a good information resource. (Start a blog.)
Emphasize your opinion and how nice a sustainable world would be. Children that can play on the street again and therewith introduce neighbors to each other and build a safe community. Emphasize how comfortable well-insulated homes are, how nice it is to read a book in the train and not get high blood pressure from the other road users.
And emphasize, that we have most to lose. I hope the upcoming report (29 March 2014) on the second working group of the IPCC on climate impacts, adaptation and vulnerability will provide current information on this. I am a bit handicapped myself because the hard science is what I understand best. Hopefully others are more flexible.
It is probably not productive to answer someone who thinks the global temperature is cooling — yes, they exist — by saying that he likes to see other people suffering. On the other hand, I think it is good that people know this mechanism may exist. I expect that many people do not want to be this way, that for many it is an unconscious bias and that when they become aware of it, they do not want to be that person. Communicating this is probably more something for broadcasting as for a personal conversation.
When you talk to people you know — and those are actually the most important conversations, much more important as the charade on the internet — do take the advice of George Marshall into account.
What do you think? Does relative suffering make sense to you, does it explain some of your experiences in the climate debate? How could we test and refine the idea and turn it into science? Do you know of any related ideas? What would be good topics to talk about with the dissenters?
- Planning for the next Sandy: no relative suffering would be socialist
- The American way of water management strongly contrasts the Dutch way and bring the concept of the relative suffering to mind.
- Conservatives Who Give a Damn. Who Knew?
- Some conservatives have noticed that renewable energy is compatible with conservative values. The new green tea party is scaring the hell out of the Koch Brothers.
- Gingrich on Climate – The 2007 Version
- If you would explain a Martian the conservative ideology, this is how the Martians would expect conservatives to respond to climate change, instead of betraying their own values in comments at WUWT and Co.
- A Conservative's Approach to Combating Climate Change
- Another conservative Martian, who is not willing to give up his conservative values to conform with the angry cries of Rush Limbaugh.
- Facts won’t beat the climate deniers – using their tactics will
- Climate ostriches do not have real facts, but produce a lot of noise. Forget the Moncktonites. Ignore them as much as possible. Forget the facts, everyone knows they are solid. We need more noise.
- Sea Level Rise Predictions Have Little Effect On Florida Real Estate
- Dr. Ken H. Johnson (director at Florida International University's Real Estate School): You would think that there would be some sort of a price discount, perceived cost that the marketplace would pick up on and you'd see a price change. However, this just isn't showing up until the water is right at the property's edge. h/t Hank Roberts.
- New IPCC climate report projects significant threats to Australia
- This article by Tom Arup in The Age reports on the consequences of climate change for Australia. One half is still missing, whether these consequences are worse for Australia or for its neighbors.
* The photo at the top of Ronald McDonald is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. The second photo of the Terracotta Warriors that do not listen is by Paul Stevenson and published under a creative commons CC BY 2.0 license.