Robin Guenier responds to Jonathan Rowson

Last December, Jonathan Rowson wrote a paper A New Agenda on Climate Change: Facing Up to Stealth Denial and Winding Down on Fossil Fuels for the RSA. The report was criticised at Bishop Hill for its relentless muddled talk of ‘denial’ and failure to engage with the real arguments.

Robin Guenier has written a detailed set of notes commenting on Rowson’s paper (For a mini-bio of Robin, see the end of his document on UK climate policy on an earlier post).

Robin points out that details of a public opinion survey are not given in the RSA paper and appear to conflict with other surveys, and that the claim of an overwhelming consensus that climate change is a threat is unsubstantiated; the remainder of the paper is therefore built on two false premises. The issue of unilateral action by the UK being pointless (more “solitary lemming” than “setting a good example”) is discussed. There is criticism of the repeated inappropriate use of the term “denial”, which is confusing because it is used with different meanings. Finally, there are comments on the fact that global emissions will continue to grow – most countries have either not agreed on previous emissions-cutting agreements, (‘developing’ countries including China) or have backed out (e.g. Canada and Australia) – and that the need now is to focus on achievable aims such as adaptation. Read the notes in full for details and references.

Rowson says that his paper is “designed to provoke debate”, so I am sure he will welcome these comments, though it is a bit odd that apparently he has not responded to the notes that Robin Guenier sent him in March.

[The last three blog posts illustrate a common theme: people have been publishing papers saying that they wish to encourage public debate, yet provide no platform for such a debate and seem reluctant to engage in discussion.]

In my view, Rowson suffers from what I call the “Norgaard Delusion”. Kari Norgaard is a climate activist who visited a small town in Norway and was amazed to find that, despite people saying they were concerned about climate change, they continued their everyday lives, taking kids to school and even watching TV. She simply could not understand why they weren’t marching and protesting. So she decided they must be “in denial” and wrote a book about it. Rowson’s paper shows the same mindset, as does his latest blog where he cannot understand why a Labour policy document on economics does not discuss climate change.

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18 thoughts on “Robin Guenier responds to Jonathan Rowson

  1. It will be very interesting to see how Jonathan Rowson eventually responds. The Norgaard Delusion I find fascinating, and something that calls for a study in itself! It’s the psychological counterpart of the “missing heat” conundrum, ie. something that we can’t measure but “must be there”, deep below the surface. The “missing concern”?

  2. Well done Robin Guenier for that powerful Fisking of a sloppy piece of work. And thank you PM for the ‘Norgaard Delusion’ – very interesting observation, and thank you also for drawing attention to RG’s notes.

  3. It’s rather unfair to criticise Jonathan Rowson for showing “the same mindset” as the “Norgaard Delusion”. In fact, it’s precisely what he means by “Stealth Denial”: i.e. what be regards as the widespread phenomenon of people (two thirds of the population) accepting there’s a serious problem, knowing they are contributing to it – yet doing little or nothing to change their behaviour. He accepts that he’s subject to it himself. (Perhaps he derived the concept from Kari Norgaard’s book.)

    My point is that very few people are convinced there’s a serious problem to which they are contributing.

  4. I was in two minds about whether to include that last paragraph. May be I should not have done so, as it’s a bit of a distraction. Yes, I agree, few people are convinced there’s a serious problem to which they are contributing. But this is the mistake that both Norgaard and Rowson make. You ask people to tick a box on a questionnaire, saying something like “are you concerned about climate change, yes or no?” Obviously, most members of the public will tick the yes box, because they are vaguely aware of the issue and they’ve read about it in the papers. But that doesn’t mean that they are so convinced of a problem that they are going to ‘take action’. It’s therefore wrong of Norgaard and Rowson to label them as ‘in denial’. Thanks for pointing out that Rowson says he’s subject to it himself – I had not spotted that (page 3 of his report).

    Alex, the first question is “if” rather than “how”!

  5. Paul: you may be right about box-ticking. One of the (many) problems I’ve had with Rowson’s Report is the claim – based, he says, on a survey conducted for the RSA – that two thirds of the UK population “intellectually accept the reality of anthropogenic climate change”. If accurate, it would be an interesting finding as it’s wholly at odds from a recent Ipsos MORI finding that most (72%) of the UK population doesn’t think that climate change is entirely or mainly caused by human activity. However, it’s difficult to comment on this as he adamantly refuses to release the questionnaire, methodology and results of his survey. Indeed, it was my request for these that got me interested in the Report in the first place: as you may have seen from my bio, I have a professional interest in opinion research.

    In fact, he does lift the curtain very slightly in his Report. And what’s revealed is not encouraging: see paragraph 14 on page 6 of my response. Note how he asked respondents to comment on a statement made by an unnamed person whom he describes as a “prominent politician”. If that was typical of his survey, I’m not surprised that he’s reluctant to publish it.

  6. Rowson has now put a comment on his blog saying that he will reply to Robin.

    He also comments about people who use a “gratuitously insulting tone”. I wonder who he is referring to here – perhaps people who label those who disagree as ‘deniers’ who are ‘in denial’?

  7. I had never heard of the RSA before, so I spent some time mousing around the site; and I must confess that – having read far too many UNEP (and offspring thereof) papers and reports of meetings – my alarm bells were ringing right from the get-go with their frequent use of “innovative”!

    That being said, Robin, my hat is off to you for taking the time to respond so thoroughly to Rowson’s word salad.

    But I have a hunch that Rowson may well succeed in beating the IAC’s record for responding to my request (almost four years ago) for the compilation of responses to the questionnaire that formed the basis of much of their report on the IPCC.

    [In that instance, I had to “redefine” the word “soon” … so that it encompassed a period of four months. And I have yet to see the full “400+” responses they claim to have received. Nor, to the best of my knowledge, has the IAC offered any explanation as to why their 600+page pdf included a mere 232 responses.]

  8. Thanks Hilary. Rowson said (on 9th July) that he’ll reply to me “with commensurate detail” as soon as he can. I’m looking forward to that – although his last promise (on 10 March) was to reply “hopefully before the end of the month”. And that didn’t happen.

    What’s particularly interesting is that, as he puts it, his disagreements with me are “at a level where agreement is not likely to be forthcoming; at the level of values and ideology, the nature of political hope, social contagion, and deep assumptions about what it means to say action is ‘pointless’ and so forth”.

    Gulp: I wonder what all that means.

  9. 🙂 I’ll volunteer the clue to his ‘response’ lies in the use of the phrase ‘deep assumptions’ … and I’m sure you know what fun could be had with a target like that.

  10. Mr Guenier, the statement “two thirds of the UK population “intellectually accept the reality of anthropogenic climate change”” isn’t fully incompatible with “most (72%) of the UK population doesn’t think that climate change is entirely or mainly caused by human activity.” The subtle difference between the two is the degree of attribution to humanity. For example, I accept that anthropogenic climate change is real, but I laugh when I read it’s entirely caused by us. As to whether it’s mainly (i.e. >50%) caused by humanity is a good question I’m still pondering. Meanwhile I’ve decided to drive a small diesel and fight for reductions in human rights abuses, which I think is a more important subject.

  11. An interesting point, Mr Leanme. It depends of course on what’s meant by “anthropogenic climate change”. And that, I accept, could be open to two interpretations: either (1) climate change that is wholly or mainly caused by mankind; or (2) climate change that is not wholly or mainly caused by mankind but to which mankind has made a contribution. Therefore your “isn’t fully incompatible” point is arguably accurate. However in my view the phrasing and context of the RSA paper indicates that it’s the former interpretation that was intended.

  12. Mr Guenier: I think it’s important to be extremely precise because there’s such a tendency to lump the logic. Have you noticed how there’s a tendency to avoid the term anthropogenic? And how the debate is shifted into a surreal landscape whereby if we contribute SOME to climate change we are immediately blamed for ALL of it? I’ve been insulted quite a few times merely because I pointed out there’s a question in my mind regarding attribution.

  13. Fernando, you are correct of course, it is important to be precise. This is why we need to know exactly what the question was in Rowson’s survey (which is what Robin Guenier is asking for). We all know that you can get virtually any answer you like by phrasing the question carefully.

  14. Yes, my interest in the detail of the Rowson paper was triggered by my writing to the RSA asking for a copy of their questionnaire and responses (I’m the founder chairman of an online research company and am well aware of the extreme importance of the need for carefully, unambiguously and objectively drafted questions.) I became suspicious when first they completely ignored me then prevaricated and eventually refused to provide the data – for what seemed to me to be completely specious reasons.

    As I noted above, the tiny bit of data that is revealed in the paper is not encouraging: see paragraph 14 on page 6 of my response.

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