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Climate Change: A fundamental shift of our place in the world

A scientist colleague told me recently that he had realized that talking to the press about climate change was not about education and outreach, and he was no longer sure of his role. During the 1990s at the federal research labs, there were initiatives to communicate science to the public. A common vehicle was a one-page popular summary of technical journal articles. An underlying premise of this public outreach was that there was one conversation, that of informing the public of meaning, value and societal importance. This naive notion of outreach did not recognize other types of conversations. Already in the 1990s, there was an emerging political conversation about climate change. There were also philosophical conversations about humans, nature, conservation and sustainability – some anchored in religious convictions. A more psychological conversation evolved about being responsible for doing damage to the planet.

As these conversations have evolved, scientists have thought more formally about communication. In one meeting of scientists, I said that every time a climate scientist wrote or talked it was potentially political. When scientists participated in interviews, blogged or sat on panels at the local museum, then there was almost certainly a political element that might be extracted from their words. Some of my colleagues were offended at my statement, maintaining that that they never spoke politically, only from dispassionate knowledge. I also maintained that most scientists are ill-prepared to participate in the political arguments.

On February 16, Secretary of State John Kerry framed climate change, the persistent warming of the Earth and its consequences, in terms of weapons of mass destruction. Secretary Kerry and President Obama reached for the seemingly easy comparison of climate change deniers to those who believed that the Earth was flat before the European sea exploration of the fifteenth century. This comparison motivated a predictable and easy response from those who consider climate change to be an exaggerated risk, with the public presence of that risk being maintained by a community of self-interested climate change believers – the warmists. So now we have the warmist versus the deniers. This is yet another type of conversation – tribal, you are wrong because of who you are.

One of the more prominent pieces that appeared in response to Kerry’s statements painted climate change deniers as mavericks of the past proved right by progress. Richard McNider and John Christy wrote an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal entitled, “Why Kerry is Flat Wrong on Climate Change.” They maintain that, in fact, the scientific consensus of ancient times was that the Earth was flat, and it was the skeptical minority that motivated the thinking and exploration that proved the Earth round. They then walk through a list of failed predictions by prejudiced scientists who could be forgiven their follies if they were not so wrong and persistent in their message.

This recent kerfuffle, as one of my journalist colleagues calls it, was motivated by the Secretary of State. When the Secretary of State speaks, it is at its very root a political statement. I don’t have any way of knowing the calculation or preparation in the use of comparisons to flat earthers and to weapons of mass destruction. It is safe to say, however, that both were meant to make a point that was more political or rhetorical than scientific. The response by McNider and Christy shows the relative ease that these comparisons can be turned around. That is one of the attributes of political argument, the ability to twist and parry statements to make points, both substantive and not, to advance a political agenda.

If I were to take the time to analyze this fuss in my class on climate change, I would ask my students to look through the documents and identify questions from two perspectives. The first is scientific, using the principles of scientific investigation, what needs to be analyzed? The second is rhetorical, what forms of argument are used? I will accept Secretary Kerry’s statements as political. McNider and Christy write, however, as credentialed scientists. Yet the form of their argument relies on statements of prejudice, presentation of isolated information, invocation of disconnected facts to superficially bolster a point, fragmented quotes and easy personal conclusions that support their argument. These elements mark theirs as more a political than a science-based argument.

There is, however, a point made by McNider and Christy that caught my attention: namely, the claim of scientific consensus in the ancient world. But this point is actually difficult to substantiate because scientific investigation in the ancient world was so limited. In the basic teaching of science and mathematics, students are taught that Eratosthenes measured the circumference of the Earth about 200 BCE. This fact is generally touted as a scientific accomplishment that stood in contrast to the non-scientific belief that the Earth was flat. When the scientific and quantitative investigation of the natural world challenged the belief-based description in this way, it often ended badly for the scientist or mathematician, for example, Hypatia of Alexandria, who was torn to pieces by a mob during times of great religious conflict. It is easy to chip away at the idea of the scientific consensus in the ancient world being that the Earth was flat.

That question aside, McNider and Christy’s point put me in mind of the psychologist Gardner Murphy’s 1975 book, “Outgrowing Self-Deception.” Murphy maintains that we have two ways of ordering reality, “the way of science and the way of personal desire.” We are drawn powerfully to our personal desires because they in some way bring safety to our well being. In pursuit of this safety, we develop a personal imperative to believe that we are essentially correct or right. In our groups we share this rightness for collective assurance. This sometimes self-deceiving rightness often forms and aligns with society’s power structures, some political, some economic and some religious. It is, perhaps, a foundation of the tribal conversation.

In a late chapter of “Outgrowing Self-Deception,” Murphy offers a perspective on humankind rather than on the foibles of the individual. Murphy maintains that the scientific methods of Copernicus were frustrated by the underlying beliefs that the universe was “perfect” and a heliocentric model of the universe required orbits to be circular. Why? Circles were divinely perfect. Galileo’s observations challenged the human-imposed paradigm of the perfect universe and “force experimental physics into the center of the new knowledge as it forced the sun into the center of the solar system.” Charles Darwin, too, challenges the widely held perception that humans are different from all other living creatures. Through these and other examples. Murphy blames the often tortuously slow pace of breakthroughs in human thought on self-imposed deceptions, confrontation of power structures, and both individual and group imperatives to be right.

Today, climate change is often called the challenge of century, an existential threat and, according to Secretary Kerry, akin to a weapon of mass destruction. The fact that we have developed these types of conversation – political, philosophical or tribal, demonstrates that the science-based reality of climate changes stands as a fundamental breakthrough of human knowledge. We have the ability to transform the very nature of the planet – and we are doing so. Our individual and group perception of our place in the world is changed. We have to assume the responsibility of what we are doing to the planet. There is the responsibility of how we use the knowledge that we have generated of the ways the planet will change.

If we are to use the knowledge of climate change, then we challenge the familiar power structures of economies, politics, beliefs and perceptions. These challenges are consequential to a far larger portion of society than those of Copernicus, Galileo or Darwin. We, therefore, expect the conversations and the progress to be tortuously slow and conflated with arguments to maintain the power structures. To make the knowledge-based part of the conversations more effective, we must realize that we are in multiple types of conversations, set in the context of a fundamental change to the body of human knowledge. The political, economic and belief machinations will continue. Compared to those earlier times where we were merely trying to place the Sun in the center of the Solar System, the conversations about climate change are far more important. Those whose knowledge is based in the way of science need to find and to focus on the conversations that speed up the use of knowledge about climate change – to own and play their roles.

What do you think? We welcome your comments and debate.

[THE CONVERSATION is an on-line salon about sustainability issues that is sponsored jointly by the Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise, the Graham Sustainability Institute, the Michigan Energy Institute and the Risk Science Center at the University of Michigan.]

Richard B. Rood is a Professor in the Department of Atmospheric, Oceanic and Space Sciences and the School of Natural Resources and Environment at the University of Michigan. He teaches atmospheric science and climate change problem solving. He has made research contributions in the fields of numerical modeling, data assimilation, and atmospheric transport and chemistry. He also has experience in the design, implementation, and management of software and hardware systems used in high performance computing. You can follow his blog here.

5 replies
  1. Terence W Moran says:

    I’ve pretty well given up on Dr. Rood’s blog due to the lack of meaningful moderating. For someone who obviously cares about getting the message right and getting the message out, it boggles my mind that he seems incapable of directing his moderators to crack down on crack pots.

    The Canadian Government has silenced not only Canadian scientists, but also scientists from abroad who make use of our facilities to advance their knowledge. Do not think that the next administration, or the one that follows that could not do the same in the US.

    Silencing scientific voices is a draconian measure. It indicates just how powerful the scientific message is in the minds of politicians bent on drilling, digging and burning arguably the dirtiest fossil fuel imaginable. I don’t think these political minds are wrong. The scientific community has a long and strong history of speaking truth to power. Industrialists as well as their bought politicians are aware of this.

    The Scientific community must get it’s message out now, before their lips are sealed by those that fear the message. Hansen, Mann and others have been at the forefront, but every credentialed academic owes his community the truth. We paid for their education through our taxes. In return we deserve to have the truth shouted from the rooftops of every institute of higher learning around the world.

    This will undoubtedly cause personal hardship for some. It is however a price that we have every right to demand. We send young men out to fight wars, others to quell riots. Scientists, most of whom have made a decent living thanks in part to donations society has made, must be forthcoming with the knowledge they have acquired.

    Terrence W. Moran

  2. Mark Barteau
    Mark Barteau says:

    The statement that jumps off the page to me appears in the penultimate paragraph of Dr. Rood’s commentary: “We have the ability to transform the very nature of the planet – and we are doing so.” That is the heart of the matter, whether one is concerned about causes, effects, or responses to climate change, or about the deep divide in our public and political discourse about this issue.

    I am reminded of the line from the movie Patton (a slight embellishment of what the general is usually quoted as having said): “Fixed fortifications are monuments to the stupidity of man. If mountain ranges and oceans can be overcome, then anything built by man can be overcome.” We intuitively accept the converse: anything that man can build is puny by the scale of the mountains and oceans of the natural world. We may do a bit of nip and tuck on the face of the planet with monumental feats of engineering. We may effect changes, both good and bad, on a regional or even continental scale, to our air, water, land, flora and fauna. But we tend to discount our ability to change the planet.

    We know better. The war in which Patton came to glory and the world that it gave rise to taught us that. The bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagaski may not have had the power to deliver on the prospect of Armageddon, but their successors surely did (and do.) And “even a limited regional nuclear conflict would have catastrophic global impact, as detailed in new atmospheric and climate models in a forthcoming paper in the journal Earth’s Future” according to a commentary in Forbes just last week.

    Man’s ability to alter the planet, even to the point of destruction of its habitability by humans, is unequivocal. We know that we can go out with a bang, but it is harder to think that we might go out with a whimper. It is harder to accept that the incremental effects of our lifestyle, energy use, economic development and technological advances might wreak changes on a planetary scale.

    We must realize, however, that the changes in our consumption of fossil fuels and emission of greenhouse gases, while not on the abrupt timescale of nuclear detonation, have not been incremental. I was struck recently by the realization that the world’s energy consumption has gone up five-fold in my lifetime. While skeptics may dismiss the “hockey stick curve” of CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere vs. time, it is undeniable that we have been riding a similar abruptly rising curve of energy consumption, not just on geological timescales or on the timescale of the species, but in our lifetimes. And since that consumption is largely of fossil fuels, it is equally undeniable that our emissions have traced a similar curve in our lifetimes.

    We may well moderate the rate of climb of consumption and emissions, or perhaps even reverse the trend in time to achieve a 450 ppm atmospheric CO2 concentration scenario. But the five-fold increases in energy consumption (or even two-fold for younger readers) that we have lived through are not incremental! We do have the power to change the planet and we have been doing so in our lifetimes. Humanity’s impact is not puny. That is the fundamental change in our understanding of our place in the world that must occur, whatever our views about natural cycles, the accuracy of climate models, or political agendas. Welcome to the Anthropocene!

    Mark Barteau
    Michigan Energy Institute

  3. Richard Rood
    Richard Rood says:

    Hi Nicole,

    Thanks for the comment and question. Here are ways I view climate change as different from, say, water pollution or stratospheric ozone depletion. In advance … not a complete list.

    1) Water pollution is often traced to a particular contaminant source (like the recent spills in West Virginia and North Carolina). It is more locally or regionally confined. Therefore it is easy to imagine a way to manage, control or clean up most water pollution. The same is true for problems that get classified as air quality – for example, we can control soot emissions.

    2) A special challenge of climate change is the fact that it takes a long time for impacts to people and ecosystems to be realized. Once realized you can’t just fix it by turning off carbon dioxide pollution. Even if you could turn off carbon dioxide pollution, there is still warming we have built into the planet. Plus, the carbon dioxide does not just go away. Most of what we emit stays with us for 1000s of years. By the way, I often define “long time” as 50 years because that is the amount of time that we can plan for or perhaps build up a retirement savings.

    3) The scale of climate change is truly global. We’re melting ice (takes a lot of energy). We’re warming the ocean (takes a lot of energy). We’re heating the surface air temperature. We’re changing ecosystems. Taking all together the scope is far greater than we associate with air and water quality.

    4) And, IMHO, the most important thing. With air quality and water quality we usually think of a contaminant that is some sort of potent chemical that exists as a trace or residue. But since our economy is driven by use of energy, and since our use of energy remains, primarily, burning fossil fuels, carbon dioxide emissions are, presently, a direct measure of a good economy, societal success. It’s not a contaminant that we are motivated to get rid of. Economic recession is our most proved way to reduce emissions, and no one wants that.

    Richard Rood
    University of Michigan

  4. Nicole Casal Moore says:

    This point made me stop in my tracks. “the science-based reality of climate changes stands as a fundamental breakthrough of human knowledge.” It resonates, but can you say how it’s different from, say, water pollution?

    Nicole Casal Moore
    Lead Public Relations Representative
    University of Michigan

  5. Tom Catania, Executive in Residence at the Erb Institute says:

    Thank you Richard for your thoughtful piece.

    In my own contributions to this and similar conversations I have tried to highlight the evolving attitude to this issue in the more mainstream business and economic media, especially those frequently read by corporate leadership. One of my touchstones in measuring the growing consensus around the science of climate change is The Economist magazine. The most recent issue again reinforces my argument. The headline of the most recent article is: “Who pressed the pause button: The slowdown in rising temperatures over the past 15 years goes from being unexplained to over explained.” March 8, 2014.

    The headline would tend to suggest that the substance of the article would be a typical snarky piece that cherry picks data to make the point that climate change is not happening, or that all assertions about the data are politically motivated, as Richard Rood discusses in his addition to the conversation. However, If you fast forward to the closing of the article you will find the following:

    “The solar cycle is already turning. And aerosol cooling is likely to be reined in by China’s anti-pollution laws. Most of the circumstances that have put the planet’s temperature rise on “pause” look temporary. Like the Terminator, global warming will be back.”

    In my view the article gives a fair-minded review of the explanations for the pause in measured global warming and ends by assuming the planet will see a continued march upward in global temperatures.

    Let me quickly add, however, that I continue to believe that in the not too distant future today’s warriors on the fronts of battle against climate deniers debating the science, will look back on these as the halcyon days. The ugliness of the “what do we do about it” period post-consensus on the science, will bring out all the nearly fatal infirmities of the world’s political processes and some of the most craven opportunism of the private sector as resilience and adaptation dollars are dispensed. Sorry to end on down note, but the solution dispensers might be soon explaining to our climate scientists, as Hamlet did to Horatio, “There are more things in heaven and earth, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

    Tom Catania
    Erb Institute
    VP Government Relations, Whirlpool (retired)


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