An Open letter to John Sutter

Sent to him, 9th July.

Dear John,

I was interested to read your article,
“We can’t ignore climate change skeptics — even if we really, really want to”
on your CNN blog.

It was encouraging to read your remarks
“My hunch — and my hope — is that by talking with skeptics, and by honestly listening to their life stories and points of view, there will be something to learn about how we can move on as a country together”
“My goal, instead, is to understand where they’re coming from — to lend an open, honest ear, to hear their stories”,
since it is quite rare for journalists to express such views.

I have attached my paper, “Why are people skeptical about climate change? Some insights from blog comments”, recently published in the journal Environmental Communication, which discusses exactly the issue you raise, of where climate sceptics come from and what their stories are.

The paper is based on a 2010 blog comment thread, “Reader Background” at The Air Vent blog where over 150 climate skeptics discuss their background and the reasons behind their skepticism.  A more recent thread of a similar type, can be found at Judith Curry’s blog, Climate etc, under the link Denizens II.
I recommend reading the comments on these threads. Of course, these represent the small minority of climate skeptics who actively comment on blogs.  You will note that many of the people commenting there have a strong scientific background.  There is a wide range of views, from ‘lukewarmer’ to more strongly sceptical positions – this indicates that statements such as “xx% of the population are climate skeptics” are misleading and unnecessarily polarising. There is also a very wide range of reasons for becoming skeptical. Some recall previous scares that failed to materialize, such as the 1970s ice age scare (yes, it did happen, despite the attempts of some to write it out of history) when we were told by scientists that we were getting more droughts or storms as a result of cooling of the climate.
Perhaps the most relevant driver for climate skepticism from your perspective as a journalist is the ‘alarmism’ and ‘hype’ associated with the climate change story. As one commenter puts it,
“Then Gore came along with ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ that set off my BS alarm”.
I wonder if you are aware of the extent to which journalists such as yourself, churning out the climate scare on an almost daily basis, are responsible for generating skepticism?

A less encouraging aspect of your article is your quotation of Oreskes and Lewandowsky. These people have no interest in forming a genuine understanding of climate skepticism. Their aim is to smear and abuse climate skeptics, by labelling them as “merchants of doubt” or “conspiracy theorists” or “deniers”.
If you wanted to find out why people don’t believe in God, would you consult the Pope?
Again, these aggressive attacks backfire, by creating sympathy for climate skeptics. I see that your twitter account says you are “Rooting for the world’s underdogs” – in which case logically you ought to be supporting climate skeptics.

If you have any questions or wish to discuss this further, please feel free to contact me by email or via the blog.


20 July: After 11 tweet-less days, Sutter said:
“PS: I’m back from Climate Skeptic Land (Oklahoma). Several people told me they don’t believe in climate change BECUASE @algore does…”
(and then apologised for his spelling).

4 Aug: Thanks to Clivere in the comments for pointing to Sutter’s article Woodward County, Oklahoma: Where no one believes in climate change? It’s quite a long article, but he doesn’t seem to have made an effort to understand climate sceptics, beyond getting a few soundbites like “I think all this global warming crap is overblown”. [For some reason he’s now changed the title to “Woodward County, Oklahoma: Why do so many here doubt climate change?”, a question he fails to answer]

10 thoughts on “An Open letter to John Sutter

  1. Nice, reasonable, rational letter Paul. It would be nice to think you might get a reply, but unfortunately, when Mr Sutter said he wanted to talk to sceptics, he was under the impression we were all knuckle dragging rednecks. Oreskes and Lew told him we were. He won’t want that cosy viewpoint spoiled.

  2. Anyone who reads Oreskes and thinks she is offering a meaningful discussion is already in trouble. And to consider Lewandowsky a credible academic is to misunderstand the term “serious”.

  3. I really do hope that John Sutter starts this conversation. It is necessary for journalists finally understand what skepticism is and what it is not.

    Lukewarmers, scientists and other people who think GHE is real, but not necessarily a (mitigateable) problem are trampled by a hoard of panicky journalists, eco-activists, and hard-core green-house-effect-is-against-thermodynamics people.

    We don’t know how much CO2 will increase during the next 100 years.
    We don’t have a good knowledge how much the world warms during the next 100 years.
    We don’t have a good knowledge what would actually be dangerous and how.
    We don’t have a working mitigation program.
    We don’t really know how much of the committed warming hype is true.
    We don’t know why surface and satellite measurements produce different trends.
    We don’t know why the hot spot is missing.
    And finally, we don’t know what is the TCR.
    What we know is that some people are really scared. And that some think there is pretty much nothing to be scared. And then some, who think adaptation is what we need to do.

    We have so many questions and some say the science is settled.

  4. The John Sutter article has no acknowledgement that the “science” or the solutions might be anything less than 100% perfect. Like with Oreskes and Lewandowsky it would appear that Sutter would just like to find “reasons” for the inferiority of those with different beliefs about the world than his own.
    There are a couple of fundamental counters to this perspective.
    First is that we should define the boundaries of the subject we are studying. Sutter believes in “climate science” but he does not distinguish the “science” from policy; nor hypotheses from evidence.
    Second is that Sutter does not distinguish knowledge of the real world from beliefs about the world. Popper recognized the difference, believing that scientists should seek to falsify their hypotheses. It is a perverse idea, that rarely happens for individuals. Who, after years of research is going to admit that all there efforts are in vain, or somebody else has better ideas? For science to work requires pluralism and competition in ideas.

  5. When Mr Sutter writes about sceptics he means ‘no nothing rednecks’. He’s thinking about those who are largely ignorant of the science but reject it on gut instinct (as opposed to those who are largely ignorant of the science but accept it on gut instinct who are sooo different). He used to think a sympathetic ear and a patronising bit of re-education would have turned those people but it seems they’re stubbornly resistant. Bravely he’s trying again in the hope of getting a different response. He certainly won’t listen to those people.

    Not that they will necessarily be able to articulate what’s wrong with how climate has been communicated so far. Even for those of us with a good grasp of climate science we haven’t got one single powerful reason why we’re sceptics. It’s usually a cumulative effect. So he listens and all he hears are undefined niggles. Surely that should be easy to suppress?

    And yet it isn’t. Bemused, he looks to his fellow believers for an explanation. Oreskes assures him that we’re all corrupt, greedy types whereas Lewandowsky thinks we’re deluded conspiracy nuts. Neither opinion is either informed or constructive. How would anyone solve Oreskes non existent oil funding? The sceptic community survives largely without any external money at all. As studies show, sceptics are no more likely to be conspiracists than any other group and probably less than many. If sceptics were given a choice between ‘conspiracy’ and ‘incompetence’ I suspect most sceptics would choose the later to explain the consensus. For some reason when sceptics describe errors, warmists hear claims of misdoings. Are we speaking a different language?

  6. Paul,
    You cite Lamb 1974 as support for
    “1970s ice age scare (yes, it did happen, despite the attempts of some to write it out of history)”

    But there is no ice age scare there, except for the usual observation that a return is likely in about 10000 years. Lamb notes recent cooling, which did indeed occur, though he has land only data which exaggerates it. And he concludes:

    “The question of whether a lasting increase of glaciation and permanent shift of the climatic belts results from any given one of these episodes must depend critically on the radiation available during the recovery phase of the 200-year and other, short-term fluctuations. An influence which may be expected to tip the balance rather more towards warming – and possibly inconveniently rapid warming – in the next few centuries is the increasing output of carbon dioxide and artificially generated heat by Man (MITCHELL 1972).”

    I had some involvement with climate science in the 1970’s. That last was the general view.

  7. Ah Nick, so when the Clash sang “The ice age is coming, the sun is zooming in” they were just making things up out of fresh air? Odd that, because the first time I heard that lyric I knew exactly what they were talking about — the scare stories of an imminent ice age I am old enough to actually remember first hand.

    I say The Clash were repeating what they heard in the media. Your rebuttal is to say what “the science” said at the time. But these are not competing things at all.

    The same thing is happening today — a few scientists spout a lot of alarmist nonsense, which the media dutifully report. Defending “the science” by repeating what other scientists say is blindly missing the point.

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