Summary: The public debate about climate change has evolved, reverting to the standard form of American Politics. Fearmongering, relying on exaggerated and one-side evidence. No only does this chaff further confused the policy debate about this vital issue, it raises another question. We should worry why both Left and Right believe we are most easily influenced by appeals to fear. Perhaps they’re right. As AA tells us, recognition of a problem is the first step to solving it. Perhaps America’s greatest problem is this weakness of its citizens.
Civilization grows more and more maudlin and hysterical; especially under democracy it tends to degenerate into a mere combat of crazes; the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.
— H L Mencken, In Defense of Women (1918)
- The new climate change debate
- An example of these trends at work
- For More Information
- A fear-mongering classic: Reefer Madness (1936)
(1) The new climate change debate
Quietly climate activists (supported by journalists) have shifted the public debate about climate change. Logically, as their previous tactics were failing to produce their desired political change. Polls in the US showed flat minority support (here, here, and here). Worse, the Australian people voting to roll-back their government’s ambitious policies. So they have adopted more aggressive marketing techniques.
(a) The IPCC has dropped from their script. Formerly described as the “gold standard” description of climate science research, the most reliable statement of consensus climate scientists’ thinking, has become “too conservative”. Some activists began saying this in 2011-2012. It was a widespread response to the release of AR5 in 2013. For examples see Inside Climate News, The Daily Climate, Yale’s Environment 360.
Now ignoring the IPCC has become standard practice by activists and journalists, as in the articles cited in the following sections. It’s an excellent example of an open source movement at work (see John Robb’s seminal book Brave New War).
(b) Activists have replaced professional climate scientists as their spokesman, people willing to give confidence apocalyptic forecasts without qualifications — or strong support in the IPCC or climate science literature. Compare and contrast these articles:
- “NASA Talk Explores How Global Warming May Be On Vacation“, NASA press release, 4 August 2014
- “There’s something distinctly fishy about claims that global warming has stopped“, Geoffrey Lean, news article in The Telegraph, 7 August 2014 — Oddly, many of his facts are wrong.
(c) Aggressive broadcasting of research that supports their message, erasing mention of its qualifications and limitations. Contrary research is ignored. Countering this, putting individual research in a larger context, is a primary function of the IPCC’s work — another reason activists increasingly ignore it. The current hysteria about methane releases provides a clear example (e.g., by Jason Box this week), as the latest IPCC report (AR5, WGI, 188.8.131.52.2) disagrees (for more current rebuttal, see NYT’s Andy Revkin).
More examples: “Deadly irukandji and box jellyfish invading Sydney Harbour because of climate change, scientists say“, Daily Telegraph, 8 August 2014. Scary, but much of this is contracted by other sources — such as the Australian Marine Stinger Advisory Services’ Jellyfish & Climate Change page. Others are in the comments: about tornadoes.
(d) All “extreme” weather (i.e., unusually on a 10 – 20 time scale) happening today becomes evidence of climate change — and by implication anthropogenic catastrophic climate change. Even when the climate science literature says otherwise (see the IPCC’s SREX; also research summaries here and here). Long severe droughts are commonplace in the geological record of the American Southwest and Australia, but journalists too often say otherwise. There are exceptions, such as the San Jose Mercury News coverage of California’s drought (“California drought: Past dry periods have lasted more than 200 years, scientists say“, 25 January 2014).
Taken to extreme this becomes “climate porn” — wild unsubstantiated lurid claims of imminent doom. For examples see Robert Marston Fanney (fantasy writer; bio here) writing at his blog RobertScribbler: Terrible Thunderstorms of Fire Over Canada as Arctic Territory Continues Record Burn (as usual, no sources cited providing any historical context for his claims).
(e) Even reporting on non-climate change disasters includes mention of the inimical effects of climate change. As in “Will climate change worsen Ebola outbreaks?“, Washington Post, 5 August 2014. As support it cites a single 12-year old article in an obscure journal reporting on a single epidemic.
(f) There is a clear consensus held by the overwhelming majority of climate scientists. It’s being expanded to matters on which there is a weak or no consensus. The standard expression, as stated in IPCC’s AR5 Working Group I (and supported by other surveys):
“It is extremely likely (95 – 100% certain) that human activities caused more than half of the observed increase in global mean surface temperature from 1951 to 2010.”
Based largely on a controversial single study by Cook et al, having activists evaluating articles (with few controls), increasingly outlandish statements are made of the consensus of climate scientists about the future of the world. Again, often directly contradicting the IPCC’s careful assessments.
(2) An example of these trends at work
All of these tactics were applied in the campaign to arouse hysteria about the “super” “monster” El Nino coming in 2014-15. These predictions had only a weak basis in climate science, and were unsupported by the major climate science agencies. Yet they were widely and (with too-few exceptions) uncritically circulated by the much of the major news media.
- About the warnings of a monster super El Nino coming to you this year, 2 May 2014 — provides detailed information about these cycles and their effects.
- Learning about – and from – the super monster El Niño coming this year, 16 June 2014
- Looks like yet another false alarm. Probably no super monster El Niño coming this year, 25 June 2014
The latest forecasts should produce mea culpa apologies from these alarmists:
If an El Niño were to occur, it is increasingly unlikely to be a strong event. … This means the chance of El Nino developing in 2014 is approximately 50%, which remains significant at double the normal likelihood of an event …”
— Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology, 29 July 2014)
Instead activists probably will ignore their latest false alarm and move to new and equally outlandish fear-mongering). Nor will their fans learn.
In desperation at their lack of impact on public policy after years of failed forecasts (some examples here), climate activists have turned to outright fear-mongering. This exaggeration of often (but not always) real concerns is sop for them — acid rain, we’re running out of room for landfills, Alar, world-wide famine (in 1975), overpopulation (even as fertility was starting its long collapse), urbanization replacing farmland creating famine, etc.
What should worry us is that the Right does the same. US foreign policy since WW2 has largely been driven by fear-mongering, exaggeration of foreign threats from the Soviet Union (until it collapsed) to the small tribes of the al Qaeda, the Taliban, and ISIS. Ditto with America Going Bankrupt and the Collapse of the US Dollar. See other examples here.
We should worry because expert political mechanics believe that US public opinion is most easily and effectively shaped through fear. Our recent history suggests that they are correct. Their beliefs provide a mirror in which we can see ourselves; it’s not a pretty picture. Perhaps we’re not the most gullible people on the planet, but we seem to be auditioning for the role.
Can a people so easily manipulated government themselves? We can do better. As with any problem, step one is recognition.
“Mr. President, if that’s what you want there is only one way to get it. That is to make a personal appearance before Congress and scare the hell out of the country.”
— Senator Arthur Vandenberg’s advice to Truman about starting the Cold War. On 12 March 1947 Truman did so. From Put yourself in Marshall’s place, James P. Warburg (1948); in 1941 Warburg helped develop our wartime propaganda programs.
(4) For More Information
(a) For more about this subject see “Engagement vs communication vs PR vs propaganda“, by Judith Curry at her website.
(a) Posts about climate change:
- The important things to know about global warming
- Posts about climate change
- Science & nature – studies & reports
(b) Posts about the public debate on climate change:
- Programs to reshape the American mind, run by the left and right, 2 August 2010
- Climate science: the debate, the eventual solution, and the best cheap seats from which to watch the action., 19 August 2010
- What does the American public want done to fight climate change?, 2 February 2014
- A key to understanding the climate wars (about one of our big weaknesses), 15 March 2014
(c) Posts about climate change as seen by the Right:
- About those headlines of the past century about global cooling…, 2 November 2009
- The facts about the 1970′s Global Cooling scare, 7 December 2009
- Start of another swing of the media narrative – to global cooling?, 11 September 2013
- Global Cooling returns to the news, another instructive lesson about America, 25 January 2014
- A look into the GOP mind: untethered from reality and drifting in the wind, 3 March 2014
- Is the Tea Party wrong about global warming? Yes! And no., 11 May 2014
(d) Posts about climate change as seen by the Left:
- A note on the green religion, one of the growth industries in America, 17 March 2009
- More attempts to control the climate science debate using smears and swarming, 19 October 2009
- Quote of the day – hidden history for people who rely on the mainstream media for information, 12 February 2010
- The hidden history of the global warming crusade, 19 February 2010
- A real-time example of the birth and spread of climate propaganda, 9 March 2010
- Lies told under the influence of the Green religion to save the world, 30 July 2010
- Puncturing the false picture of a scientific consensus about the causes and effects of global warming, 20 September 2010
- A new video about global warming, a Leftists’ wet dream pretending to be humor, 1 October 2010
- More about the forecast for flooded cities in the late 21st century, 16 October 2010
- Looking into the past for guidance about warnings of future climate apocalypses, 17 October 2010
- Lessons the Left can learn from the Right when writing about climate change, 12 December 2012 — Propagandist Phil Plait
- Fierce words about those “wacky professional climate change deniers”, 20 January 2013 — More by propagandist Phil Plait
- We can see our true selves in the propaganda used against us, 14 May 2013 — Skillful inaccurate article in The Guardian
- A powerful story about global warming in Alaska that’s set Twitter aflame, 23 June 2013
- Climate lies are the tool of choice by both sides to influence your opinion. Why is that?, 11 July 2013
- The North Pole is now a lake! Are you afraid yet?, 3 August 2013
- Climate science deniers on the Left, captured for viewing, 29 September 2013
- Apocalyptic thinking on the Left about climate change risks burning their credibility, 4 February 2014
- Climate change sinks the Left, while scientists unravel mysteries we must solve, 24 January 2014
- The Left sees “Climate buffoons” and “deniers”. What do they see in the mirror?, 7 March 2014
- This is what defeat looks like for the Left, and perhaps also for environmentalists, 17 March 2014
- The Left stages a two minute hate on Nate Silver, Roger Pielke Jr (& me), 29 March 2014
(5) A Fear-Mongering Classic from 1936