Archive for the ‘Denial of climate change’ Category

Cultural Cognition

Monday, February 17th, 2014

It doesn’t seem to matter which topic we choose – climate change, evolution, gun control, gm organisms, nanotechnology, vaccine use, incarceration methods and sentences, tobacco smoking – all have resulted in angry and polarized confrontations.

Why does this occur over and over again?

Dan Kahan at Yale has done a number of quite extensive studies, both experimental and survey based, looking at a variety of topics, trying to address this question.

Our wet, blue planet: how great are the risks? (nasa.gov)

Our wet, blue planet: how great are the risks? (nasa.gov)

In one study he asked his subjects how much risk climate change poses for human health, safety or prosperity. As in all his studies, the sample size was large enough that he could test for age, gender, race, class, education, political party, and cultural world view.

What did he find? For gender, race, class or age, no correlations.

What about degree of science literacy and numeracy? Not only not correlated, but in fact an increase in science literacy and numeracy magnified the polarization of views, perhaps quite the opposite of what you might have expected.

Surely political affiliation was correlated? Only barely: the typical political orientation of a person dismissing the risks of climate change was an Independent just right of center, while that of one who considered the risks to be great was an Independent just left of center.

Only one’s cultural world view strongly predicted the sense of environmental risk. People whose world views were simultaneously more hierarchical (authority respected) and individualistic (individual initiative prized) tended to dismiss the evidence of environmental risk, while those whose values were more egalitarian and communitarian considered the risks to be unacceptable.

Senator Inhofe is the ranking Republican on the Senate's Environment and Public works Committee. His book should embarrass him, but doesn't (demunderground.com)

Senator Inhofe is the ranking Republican on the Senate’s Environment and Public works Committee. His book should embarrass him, but doesn’t (demunderground.com)

Sandy Poster: this doesn't help either: it just polarizes us further (blogs.cbn.com)

Sandy Poster: this doesn’t help either: it just polarizes us further (blogs.cbn.com)

Kahan concludes that no matter what the evidence may be, we actually make our own decisions based on what he calls ‘cultural cognition’.

For example, each of us knows that as an individual there is little that we can do to alleviate the effects of climate change, yet at the same time we know that if we take a position on the question that is in conflict with that of our peers, we face the real repercussions of their anger, abuse, disapproval, dismissal, even shunning. Weighing the comparative risks, most of us accept the peer pressure, reject arguments we might otherwise accept, and survive intact in our social communities.

Kahan’s other studies have very similar results. Is all of this surprising? Maybe not. But it does mean that in many situations evidence-based arguments will not prevail.

Kahan proposes that the real challenge then is how to communicate good science in ways that reduce the polarization. For instance in the case of the climate change debate, focusing on alternative energy sources and possible geo-engineering solutions might be helpful. Involving diverse ‘communicators’ apparently may also make a difference.

Of course this isn’t saying that all extremists can be induced to moderate their views. And Kahan’s suggested solutions still look weak. But the problem before us now is clearer: we make some of our important decisions based on our ideologies, not on evidence. More evidence, more clearly presented, may not be the solution.

Congressmen John Boehmer, John Shimkus, Paul Rand (treehugger.org)

Congressmen John Boehmer, John Shimkus, Paul Rand (treehugger.org)


Canadian Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver and Prime Minister Stephen Harper (ipolitics.ca) These are all political leaders in North America. All dismiss the risks of climate change. According to Kahan, white men, especially entitled ones, are more likely to dismiss the risks of climate change than women or people of other races.

Canadian Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver and Prime Minister Stephen Harper (ipolitics.ca)
These are all political leaders in North America. All dismiss the risks of climate change. According to Kahan, white men, especially entitled ones, are more likely to dismiss the risks than women or people of other races.

Kahan’s conclusions are at least based on evidence-based arguments. Now we need unusual ways to communicate them or we probably won’t accept them anyway.

What if we’re just not smart enough to find ways to moderate our polarized positions? That really is too bleak to contemplate. Kahan’s ‘truth’ may be partial, but surely it is worth pursuing.

Gagged

Tuesday, March 12th, 2013

Censorship is a seductive tool for those in power. Unwanted evidence can be not just ignored, but even eliminated from the discussion.

Currently we are seeing too many successful efforts at higher government levels in both the US and Canada to limit and censor discussion of climate change.

In the US, apart from the refusal by the Republican Party in Congress to even address issues of climate change, the censorship has been at the state level. For instance last July the Virginia General Assembly agreed to the removal of all references to sea level rise and climate change from a commissioned study on coastal Virginia. About the same time, the North Carolina legislature insisted that a bill related to coastal development regulations be based only on historical records, rejecting any reference to predictions of sea level rise. And then in Texas state legislators made it illegal for state planners and zoning officials even to mention climate change or rising sea levels.

A recent report on the impact of rising sea levels in Galveston Bay estuary on the coast of Texas was censored, removing reference to rising sea levels. (rawstory.com)

A recent report on the impact of rising sea levels in Galveston Bay estuary on the coast of Texas was censored, removing reference to rising sea levels. (rawstory.com)

In Canada, it is actually worse. When the Conservative Harper Government came to power in 2008 they began to muzzle their own scientists. Scientists could publish their research, but they could not talk to the media about it. This censorship has grown to include discussion of Arctic climate change, polar bear protection, tar sands damage to the environment, and even reasons for the decline in sockeye salmon on the BC coast.

Canadian government scientists protested  government actions in Ottawa in summer 2012 (therecord.com)

Canadian government scientists protested government actions in Ottawa in summer 2012 (therecord.com)

Last summer, 2000 Canadian government scientists actually held a protest in Ottawa, lamenting ‘the death of evidence’ and surprising everyone since scientists are not renowned as activists. Theirs was a response not only to muzzling, but also to the extraordinary attack by the Harper government on its own federally-funded labs involved in environmental research: the closing of the world famous Experimental Lakes Area as well as the Polar Environmental and Atmospheric Research Lab are breath-taking examples of government cynicism. The Harper Government would like to see its support of the tar sands, its development of pipelines, its plans for Arctic development, and its management of fisheries all remain unexamined and uncriticized, free from the inquiring research of scientists or the glare of media interest.

Closing the Experimental Lakes Area in Canada is an absurd political decision by the Harper government. (wildernesscommittee.org)

Closing the Experimental Lakes Area in Canada is an absurd political decision by the Harper government. (wildernesscommittee.org)

So is closing the Polar Environmental and Atmospheric Research Lab at Eureka, Nunavut, at 80 degrees latitude (pearl.candac..ca)

So is closing the Polar Environmental and Atmospheric Research Lab at Eureka, Nunavut, at 80 degrees latitude (pearl.candac..ca)

And now, most recently, US and Canadian scientists working on a joint US-Canada Arctic research project were required to sign sweeping confidentiality agreements – an arrangement rejected by at least some of the US scientists.

The muzzling of scientists, the unfunding of inconvenient research, the censoring of commissioned reports, the passage of laws restricting even the use of the appropriate words – altogether, this is lousy news. Not surprisingly, criticism and ridicule in the national and international media have been ineffective.

Of course this a serious abuse of power, and such disdain for evidence erodes our democracies. Given what’s at stake, it is also very dangerous.

Famous writers have written seriously scary books about this sort of thing.

Seawalls

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2012

Erosion and resculpting of beaches as a result of storms and currents along the coasts of the world are nothing new. They are the forces that made the beaches in the first place. Only when we decided we wanted to build homes, roads, resorts and other businesses on the edge of the beaches – where it is admittedly a wondrous place to live and play and even work – did beach erosion become such a problem for us.

Trying to delay beach erosion with sweetgrass on the coast of South Carolina (coastalnewstoday.com)

To protect beach-edge property, roads, communities and economies, we have built seawalls and jetties that have generally made things even worse. Only when the homes finally tumble into the ocean, the roads slip beneath encroaching sand dunes, and resorts lose their shorelines do we finally accept the inevitable and migrate a little ways inland to try again.

Breakwaters on the New Jersey coast increase loss of sand of down-current neighbors, who then build their own breakwaters, and erosion just increases (coastalcare.org)

There are unlimited versions of this story. One recently in the news concerns Matunuck, an old community that faces the open ocean on the south coast of Rhode Island. The inevitable erosion has occurred, the future of the community is blatantly obvious, but once again a last ditch attempt is underway to delay the catastrophe by walling off the sea – against the advice of every scientist and environmentalist who may have been consulted.

Matunuck, Rhode Island will be swept to oblivion by the ocean surf. (nytimes.com)

Manatuck is just one of a multitude of communities threatened by receding beaches (nytimes.com)

Matunuck’s is a story of not giving up, of refusing to accept the mountain of evidence that has accumulated from so many beaches elsewhere, as if it can’t happen there.

No matter the evidence, there remains some sort of faith that nature can be kept under control, that things won’t need to change after all.

Will Malibu money be enough to hold back the sea? (malibusurfsidenews.com)

The alternative idea that humans must recognize what is actually happening, and get out of the way, is the least acceptable of the possibilities. But it is the only one that is truly a solution. Denial of beach erosion is so clearly absurd.

What’s missing still is adaptation.

If we can’t adapt to the familiar and predictable instability of coastal beaches, what are we going to do in the face of climate warming with its rising seas, shifting ocean currents, and erratic and unpredictable storms?

Are we really just going to continue to build ever larger seawalls to protect us from the future, hope for the best, and then fatalistically take what comes?

Good grief.
We are smarter than this.

Desperation, Montauk, NY (coastalcare.org)

Evidence

Wednesday, December 15th, 2010

How much evidence is enough?

A coastal town has encroaching tidal floods with every full moon, along with more severe storms. The townspeople want action – raise the level of the roads that are flooded, improve the drains, hire consultants from the Netherlands to look at the possibility of building dams and floodgates. But they know in the end that it will not be possible to hold back, mitigate or even adapt to the rising sea and the wetter weather.

Raising a coastal road by 18 inches in Norfolk, Virginia. nytimes.com

This is Norfolk, Virginia, at the mouth of the Chesapeake. The middle of the US eastern seaboard. As one resident is quoted: “No one who has a house here is a skeptic”.

Everyone who lives in the Arctic also knows with certainty that the climate is warming. They see the evidence every day.

Is that it? Do we have to live it to believe it?

Other evidence exists. 2010 is likely to come through as the warmest year yet – remember the colossal heat waves of last summer? – though we won’t know for sure until the data for November and December are included. We do know already that the past decade was the warmest on record.

Altogether, the evidence is overwhelming. Clearly associated with increasing levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases, the planet gets warmer, the seas rise, the glaciers retreat, Arctic sea ice melts, permafrost melts, coral reefs bleach, ecosystems shift, oceans acidify, and droughts, forest fires, floods, and storms intensify.

Another year passes, and it just gets worse. We still have no global action – the extraordinarily weak agreement of the UN Conference on Climate Change last week in Cancun is another serious disappointment, despite the positive spin it has received. There will be no action on carbon emissions taken by the next US Congress, China doesn’t intend to reduce its total emissions, while in Canada, despite the views of most of its people, the government once again also plans to do nothing but follow what the US does.

Canadian Environment Minister John Baird tells the UN Climate Change Conference that Canada rejects responsibility for leadership in reducing emissions (nupge.ca)

Why it is that we, especially in North America, so easily dismiss the reality of global warming, or are so reluctant to take action? The usual explanations – rejection of the science, manipulation by oil companies, conspiracy theories, commitment to economic growth – are just not sufficient. Clearly, overwhelming evidence is not the issue. There is something more, something deeper.

In the US, people are less likely to accept the evidence now than just several years ago, (people-press.org/report/556/global-warming)

We have identified our species as Homo sapiens, wise and rational. We assume that our collective actions should be based on evidence and rational negotiation. But are they, ever? There is a countering irrationality, immune to evidence, that most of us know lies within us, often difficult to control or even recognize. We may underestimate its influence in all our affairs.

Perhaps we are at best Homo pseudosapiens.