Tag Archives: Policy

Circling the Square

Circling the square

I’ve been attending a two-day meeting at Nottingham, Circling the Square, organised by Reiner Grundmann and colleagues from the Institute for Science and Society at Nottingham. This follows a successful similar meeting last year. The conference has its own blog, where video, audio and text from the meeting are gradually being uploaded.

The themes of the meeting were science and its links with policy, with the public and with the media. Many aspects of science were discussed, including for example drugs policy, where ex-Government Advisor David Nutt gave a keynote talk that contained some interesting points but rather over-stated his case with some dubious claims. But I will concentrate here on the climate-related aspects of the meeting. Whereas some social science conferences on these topics are little more than echo chambers for activists, this is certainly not the case with this meeting, which included a broad range of views.

Mike Hulme – “Scientists speaking with one voice: panacea or pathology?”

Mike Hulme (UEA) is the author of (amongst many other publications) an interesting book Why we disagree about climate change.

On Tuesday morning, he gave an hour-long keynote talk on “Scientists speaking with one voice: panacea or pathology?”, discussing issues around the consensus debate on climate change. He asked whether consensus messaging is normal or useful in science, and whether figures such as 97% actually mean anything. He noted that the ‘high degree of consensus’ was used in the first IPCC assessment (1990), arising from group deliberations, and that more recently this had been picked up by what he called the ‘consensus entrepreneurs’ and ‘consensus defenders’.

He discussed possible motivations for the consensus, including shoring up authority, providing a foundation for policy, and closing down dissent, before describing the so-called linear model, or “the plan” (Sarewitz), or “gateway belief”, which states that establishing a scientific consensus with the public will lead to public support and policy action. He mentioned a recent paper by Van der Linden et al that claimed to find evidence to support this. But bizarrely, their own data in fact does not support the hypothesis at all – their measure of support for action only rose marginally from 75.2 to 76.9, as noted by Dan Kahan, who had previously pointed out that a decade or so of consensus messaging has had no impact.

He also quoted from a paper “Should we aim for consensus?” by Beatty and Moore (2010): “Requirement of unanimity is pernicious” and “the authority of a scientific body is not undermined by questioning, but depends on it”. A key point he made was that consensus is insufficient – far more important than the numerical value of any consensus is the character and integrity of the scientists.

Here is his conclusions slide (HT Mike Schafer)

The ensuing Q&A session discussed whether consensus messengers were mainly from other fields, whether climate scientists had overstated the case, and whether consensus messaging could fail because of the romantic appeal of the underdog.

“Science advice” panel

The remaining sessions were in the form of ‘panels’ where a group of three or four people give very short introductory talks around a theme, followed by a substantial discussion session involving audience and panel members.

The first panel session was on “Science advice” and opened with some words of wisdom from Miles Parker, who had worked at DEFRA. He said that scientific advisors needed to ‘understand their interlocutors’, something that scientists were not really trained to do. ‘If you want to advise, first listen’. Perhaps David Nutt could have benefited from this.
Also on this panel was climate scientist Hans von Storch. He emphasized that scientists have their own values and preferences, and tend to think of their own fields as being particularly significant, and that scientists should be more aware of their own cultural background and ways of thinking. His text has been posted on the conference website.

“Science, uncertainty and science advocacy” panel

On Monday afternoon, Judith Curry was on a panel on the topic of “Science, uncertainty and science advocacy”. Her introductory statement can be seen at her blog. She defined advocacy as “forceful persuasion”, making an analogy with lawyers. She said she was concerned that too many scientists, and too many professional societies, were indulging in advocacy. She also complained that she herself had been (falsely in her view) accused of advocacy. She felt that many climate scientists have done a poor job of assessing uncertainty, and understated it. She pointed out that there is really no code of conduct for scientists communicating with the public, and this had resulted in irresponsible behaviour by some.

On the same panel, Conrad Brunk made some similar points: science is increasingly being used for advocacy, and there is a tendency to downplay uncertainty. Scientists talk to the public in a different way from how they talk to each other, and this can make them vulnerable to criticism.

Daniel Sarewitz made some interesting points about uncertainty. He said that uncertainty is easy to define if you have a large sample of data points, but this is not the case for ‘wicked problems’ such as GM and climate. For example, he said that statements such as “there’s a 10% chance of 6C of warming this century” really have no meaning. He suggested that in such cases we should not use the word “uncertainty”, but should talk about “disagreement” instead.

“Science and the media” panel

This was followed by a panel session on “Science and the media” including Leo Hickman, formerly of the Guardian, now at Carbon Brief, who discussed the role of the advocating journalist, saying that this was valid as long as it was transparent. He also addressed the issue of poorly worded press releases (this was also discussed last year, particularly by David Colquhoun). He proposed that it was important for the scientists themselves to take control over press releases and sign them off personally, rather than relying on University press offices.

Mike Schäfer (Zurich) also spoke about the problems with press releases – according to one investigation, 40% of university press releases contain exaggeration. He also raised concern about possible increasing segmentation, with people selecting their own preferred media source now that so many different sources are available.

“Science and the civil society” panel

On Tuesday after Mike Hulme’s talk there was a session on “Science and civil society” that included Ben Pile. He described a ‘bubble’ of interactions between governments, academia, NGOs and business, from which he said the public was excluded. He criticised NGOs, saying that they were sometimes incorrectly seen as representing the public, and that this amounted to a ‘democratic deficit’. He showed data indicating decreasing hunger and mortality, together with increasing food production and GDP in developing countries such as Bangladesh, and said that statistics showed that climate was well down on the list of risk factors for developing countries – thus challenging the “climate change predominantly affects the poor” narrative.

In the ensuing discussion, Peter Webster mentioned the substantial drop in deaths from storms, which can be attributed to greatly improved weather forecasts. Ben’s controversial remarks about NGOs went unchallenged until, near the end of the discussion, panel member Maurice Frankel (famous for his role in the FoI campaign) said that he didn’t see a problem with NGOs, as they countered the view of the industry lobby.

It was interesting and encouraging to see Ben Pile and co-panellist Stevianna de Saille chatting amicably afterwards, despite being at opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of their views on environmental activism and green NGOs.

Thanks to Reiner Grundmann and colleagues for organising a very interesting meeting (and apologies to all those panellists I haven’t mentioned).

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.

Another report on climate communication

The climate change industry appears to remain convinced that there is nothing wrong with climate science, but there is a problem with “climate science communication”. Or at least this is the line they are trying to maintain.

There was the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee report on climate communication a couple of months back, to which the government responded yesterday.

Today sees the launch of the latest blockbuster in the field, Time for Change? Climate Science Reconsidered. It’s a glossy 156-page tome written by a team of scientists and social scientists mostly from UCL, headed by Chris Rapley, author of “Time to Raft Up“. I wrote to Rapley following that article, explaining his prejudices, false assumptions and lack of self-awareness, but he does not seem to have improved his understanding very much since then.

The main conclusions of the new report are

  • Climate scientists are not well prepared to explain their work to the public
  • A meta-narrative is required (not sure what that means)
  • Policy is complicated, many factors play a role, not just science
  • Values – what sort of world we want – are important
  • New forum for active discussion needed
  • A professional body for climate science should be set up

Despite the talk of ‘change’ and ‘new’, there doesn’t seem to be much new here.

Chapter 1 tries to deal with the complex science/policy interface, citing Hulme, Pielke, but this is an impossible question to deal with.

Chapter 2 is on how people think, cognition, and values, referring to Dan Kahan and others. There is an interesting discussion of alarmism, an aspect of the report picked up by The Times, with a frank statement that this has contributed to loss of trust.

The remaining chapters deal with communication and blogs,  telling stories,  public opinion, and their proposal to set up yet another organisation and forum for public discussion. It ends with a recognition of the need for self-reflection and humility, but as with the authors of the paper discussed in the previous post, it does not appreciate their own groupthink problem and the need to involve and listen to their critics.

Ultimately, the failure of the document is that it does not seem to realise that this focus on presentation and communication will be seen as spin and propaganda.

 Bishop Hill blog – comments on the bias, the navel-gazing and the dullness of the conclusions.

Carbon Brief – says “Academics urge scientists to do more to engage the public on climate change”.

Update 25 June:

Climate scientists do not seem very impressed by the report. They don’t like the jargon or the dictatorial tone.

The misfiring of the report and the apparent failure to anticipate this illustrates again the lack of self-awareness of the authors.

IPCC undermines UK Climate Change Act

Oliver Geden, an energy and climate policy analyst from Germany, has given an interview “EU’s climate policy has lost its scientific basis”. He explains that the specific target that developed countries should aim for at least an 80% reduction in emissions by 2050, which was explicitly stated in IPCC AR4 (2007), is not present in AR5. This means that there is no longer any basis for EU emissions reduction policies targets.

The relevant section of AR4 is this table on page 776, chapter 13.

(thanks to Oliver for pointing me to this – I had never been sure where these targets came from). In the latest IPCC WG3 report published in full yesterday, there is no such table with specific targets. The relevant chapter is again chapter 13, where there are only rather vague discussions of “Climate policy architectures” (Sec 13.4) and proposed policies in Sec 13.13.2.

From the UK perspective, this is very relevant for the UK Climate Change Act. The act was passed in 2008, a year after AR4, and proposes exactly the same target as in the above table, an 80% reduction from 1990 levels by 2050. Since there is no equivalent statement in AR5, it appears that the IPCC has undermined the basis for the Climate Change Act.

Why UK climate change policies are pointless – Robin Guenier

Adaptation vs mitigation

Following the release earlier this week of the IPCC’s report on “Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability”, there has been much discussion of the idea that drastic mitigation (i.e. major reduction of greenhouse gas emissions) is just not going to happen, and that the realistic policy focus should be on adapting to global warming if/when it happens.

Robin Guenier’s paper

Robin Guenier has written a concise  paper on Why UK climate change policies are pointless, which includes references and a brief biography.  He explains that under the 1997 Kyoto agreement, developed countries were supposed to reduce emissions, but developing countries were not under any obligation. Since then, some developed countries have abandoned the agreement while emissions from other countries such as China have soared, leaving only the UK and some EU countries committed to reductions. The next climate conference will fail to achieve a global mitigation agreement, as all previous ones have.  Regardless of what one believes about the science of climate change, UK emissions reductions policies are pointless and damaging;  “we should come to terms with international political reality by prioritising a strong economy, underpinned by reliable affordable energy, and by focusing on long-term adaptation to whatever climate change may occur”.

Other related links

There have been so many articles saying much the same thing recently that it’s hard to keep up with them. But before we get too carried away by this theme, we should remember that the Monday’s IPCC Report was from Working Group II, “Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability”, so it is not too surprising that adaptation is being widely discussed.

Economist Andrew Lilico has written a series of articles on this subject:

Graham Readfearn in the Guardian reports that the IPCC has been putting out the same alarmist message since its first report in 1990, but since then, despite all the dire warnings, global emissions have gone up 60%.

The Today Programme on Monday (see two snippets here) discussed the increasing importance of adaptation.

Cambridge Professor of Engineering Michael Kelly  has written a document on the enormous costs of decarbonisation, concluding that “Adaptation as necessary should be pursued” while the case for “mitigation through decarbonisation of the economy remains unproven”.

Researchers from Manchester University call for more emphasis on building resilience to weather events.

Cliff Mass gives  A Biblical Lesson in Communication about Climate Change“Joseph did not propose taking action to stop the drought, but to promote adaptation and preparation for this severe climatological event”.

The IPCC report takes us from alarmism to adaptation says Simon Jenkins in the Guardian.

The Atlantic reports on  The UN’s New Focus: Surviving, Not Stopping, Climate Change.

This week’s Spectator features an article by Matt Ridley on how adapting to a warming planet is far more effective than trying to stop it.  He points out that it now appears that the IPCC agree with Lord Lawson, who made this argument in his 2008 book An Appeal to Reason.

Leon Clifford blogs on the dilemma of “effective adaptation versus costly curbs”.

The US Financial Post picks up the same theme.

 John Christy writes that drastic mitigation would cause energy costs to skyrocket, and he would prefer to see his grandchildren have wealth and energy, so they are able to face what the future climate might throw at them.

The Economist joins the chorus,  saying that the right policy is “to adapt to change, rather than attempting to stop it” (discussed at Bishop Hill).

Finally, here is a paragraph from the conclusion of Lawson’s book:

One of the central messages of this book is that, in the light of the uncertainty that exists about the science, and the inevitable uncertainty there is about the future in general, it must make more sense to rely on autonomous adaptation, buttressed where necessary with positive policy measures to assist it, than to pay a very heavy price to try and secure a drastic reduction in emissions without even any realistic likelihood of achieving this.


Josh illustrates the Ed Davey policy: