A candid climate scientist explains how to fix the debate

Summary: Here are brief excerpts and my comments from a speech by an eminent climate scientist. It illuminates important aspects about one of the great public policy debates of our time. He was speaking candidly to his peers, but we can also learn much from it.

Science Communication
From Wikimedia Commons.

“Some Thoughts from a Reluctant Participant”

Presentation by Richard Alley.

At the Forum on Transforming Communication in the Weather, Water, and Climate Enterprise — Focusing on Challenges Facing Our Sciences.

Given at the 2018 Annual Conference of the American Meteorological Society, 7 January 2018.


The text was generated by YouTube’s transcription software, so there are errors in it. Hopefully only minor ones. At the end you will see the video of the presentation, its abstract, and a brief bio of Professor Alley.

Why climate science is right yet so many do not believe!

To show the reliability of climate science, Alley borrows credibility from physics by talking about computers, cell phones, and GPS. He tells the assembled meteorologists and climate scientists about the Greenhouse Effect (Joseph Fourier 1824 Tyndall 1859, etc.). Later he turns to another subject.

“This is a survey that was done by the folks at the Pew Research Center …They asked a question: ‘Do universities and the colleges and universities have a positive or negative effect on the way things are going in our country?’ …The party that now controls the House the Senate and the presidency in Washington, that controls a lot of State houses, this poll asked them — and the average voter said universities and colleges have a negative effect on the nation and some of them probably answered with a cell phone.”

So Alley tells the audience that many Republicans are too stupid to see the connection between the universities training people in the advanced physical sciences and their cell phones! This is the crudest kind of tribalism. There are many reasons for people to worry about the role of universities in America. Their increasing abandonment — even opposition — to core western values. Their skyrocketing cost and indifference to educating undergraduates in ways useful to their lives. Their increasing role as advocates for far-left political and social changes. Alley must know this, but chooses to paint a different picture to his audience.

He then gives an analogy.

“I want you to do a mental picture for me. Think of a …big European capital and ask yourself are the roads ideally designed for modern traffic? …A big modern city has outer belts and inner belts and overpasses subways and it’s built around a bunch of oxcart paths from a thousand years ago. We’re trying desperately to live with oxcart paths from a thousand years ago because they got ingrained …”

That is a disturbing use of a “just so story” (like Kipling’s How the Elephant Got His Trunk) in a speech about hard science. It is aslo quite false. First, modern cities have transportation problems irrespective of their age. For example, New York and Washington DC were built on logical grid systems in the past two centuries — no oxcart paths — and have traffic problems (3rd and 9th worst in the US, respectively). San Jose barely existed before the widespread use of cars, and today has the 5th worst traffic. Second, we have more than adequate tools to deal with congestion — buses, cabs, light rail, and subways were all developed over a century ago.

The actual explanation for these two things is simple. We are not locked into the current system, it is not “ingrained”, and we do have alternatives. We just prefer not to use them. The reasons are complex, and political scientists have explained them.

Alley goes into another long excursion, then begins the serious justifications for the current state of climate science.

“I counted ice core layers. We counted 110,000 ice core layers before we got to the folds. I had a student come up in classes a few years ago who had a little printed religious tract that said what an evil lying person I was because the world is 6,000 years old. And I had counted more years than that. …you go into evolution real fast and there’s a whole lot of really bright people in high schools around America that are never gonna come to med departments and work on evolution antibiotic resistance because they’ve been told that evolutions in evil eye and people are going to die because of this now.”

The political influence of Christian fundamentalists on climate science is negligible. Alley uses them as a “whipping boy” or distraction from the more important sources of low public confidence in climate scientists’ forecasts.

So in Alley’s version of the world, the public’s confidence in climate science results from dumb Republicans and Christian fundamentalists (plus some research about brains). So there is no need for climate scientists to listen to their critics, or consider what they might be doing wrong. On to the fixes!

But first, more wrapping climate science in the prestige created by other fields of science.

“I can remember my dad railing against the idea that we had to get rid of the lead and the gasoline because it would ruin our lawnmower.  You know the tobacco scientists. There have been a lot of groups over time who have attacked science to avoid having to deal with the policy implications.”

First, look at public opinion.

“What I want to do is see is see if we can go a little bit as to how we might solve these things. How we might end up going where we want to go. …So our fellow citizens, I think they’re almost all really good people, I think they want the right things — they’ve been misled by a few loud voices.”

Before discussing fixes, Alley reminds the audience that there is no need to listen to those who disagree with them. To Alley, communication consists only of talking — not listening. Then follows a long digression, leading to this.

“These are maps on a survey that was done by the Yale climate communications people on how the public views climate change …”

This survey excites Alley, but let’s look at what it actually says. First, here are the interactive maps Alley discusses. See the survey’s report here (the maps show 2016 data, I link to the May 2017 data). These are the work of highly credentialed experts; the survey is sophomore level work.

Question 1: “Do you think global warming is happening?”

Over what time horizon? Since the little ice age ended? During the respondent’s adult lifetime? Without knowing this information, the responses are meaningless. Due to the Recency Effect, people tend to remember recent events best — and overweight their significance. That does not work well when asked about science, but works very well for hunter-gathers on the African veld. It is hard-wired into us, and well-designed surveys take that into account.

Question 1.3: “Assuming that global warming is happening, do you think it is mostly human caused?”

If the respondent is benchmarking since the end of the last ice age, or the Little Ice Age, the answer is “no.” If they are thinking of the past century or so, the answer is “probably not”. If they are thinking of the decades after 1950, the answer is “yes” (per the IPCC’s AR5). If they are thinking of the past 20 years (roughly El Nino peak to El Nino peak), the answer is “who knows?” The change is too small (0.16°C per decade).

Doing Communication Right!

Now this post is already too long, and we are only at the 30 minute mark of Alley’s 56 minute presentation — having touched on only a few of the many points he makes. I urge you to watch it in full. Let’s conclude with what I consider the key point he makes. Alley quotes from a presentation earlier on Monday by Edward Maibach, a communications science professor at George Mason U: “Increasing Public Understanding and Facilitating Behavior Change: Two Guiding Heurtistics.” It is in the abstract.

“The organizing heurstic for improving communication effectiveness is: simple clear messages, repeated often, by a variety of trusted sources.”

This is “the hair of the dog that bit me” advice. Take a drink to cure a hangover, derived from belief that the cure for rabies was taking a potion containing some of the infected dog’s hair. It is awful advice. Professor James Hansen began the current campaign for political action to fight climate change by telling a simple story to the US Senate in 1988. After thirty years of telling simple stories, activists have almost nothing to show for their vast investment of money, effort, and political capital.

The reason is simple. This advice is outdated. It was once effective, but now works as well as 1950 TV commercials would if aired today.

“Persuasion requires … a strong message through simple stories and vivid action.”
Film as a means of political persuasion by Hans Traub (1933). Quoted in Film in the Third Reich: A Study of the German Cinema, 1933-1945 by David Stewart Hull.

“Successful propaganda tells simple stories that are familiar and trusted, often using metaphors, imagery and repetition to make them seem natural or true.”
Propaganda and its techniques by Analyzing Contemporary Propaganda, a collaboration between Renee Hobbs and the United States Holocaust Memorial.

“The receptivity of the masses is very limited, their intelligence is small, but their power of forgetting is enormous. In consequence of these facts, all effective propaganda must be limited to a few essential points. These slogans must be repeated until every last member of the public understands what you want him to understand.”
— From a text about government by one of the founders of modern politics: Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler.

Americans are bombarded with roughly $260 billion in advertising every year. More Americans are more sophisticated today than in the past. Simple stories are not the sure-fire tools they were in the 1930s.

People have legitimate reasons to question the need to make for massive expenditures on the basis of climate scientists’ long-range forecasts. Many eminent climate scientists have cogently stated them. The response of climate science as an institution has been to mock or ignore public concerns and ostracise their members with heterodox beliefs. Neither generates public confidence.

Nor do speeches like this one.



Richard Alley

Abstract of his presentation

Some Thoughts from a Reluctant Participant.”

“Our funding increasingly requires that we learn and then make that learning useful to the public. Successful communication thus is no longer optional but an imperative. Despite encouraging signs that we are getting better at communicating our science to the public, major challenges remain. These challenges can seem large. Some people simply don’t want to hear about our results.

“I work on sea-level change, for example, and knowing what is coming could save immense sums of money. But, the best news we could give people on this topic is that change will be small and slow. Worse news may not be welcoming. Making scientific knowledge of this type actionable for policymakers and the general public requires building broad understanding of the science. Informed responses by policymakers can be blocked if the public is confused, and those who seek to generate confusion have a much easier task than those of us fostering broad understanding.

“In order to get the communication right, we must first get the science right – everything else rests on this bedrock of knowledge. Beyond that, the scholarship is clear that scientists’ voices are essential but insufficient. We need help from a broad range of people and disciplines. Wise use of weather, water, and climate knowledge helps businesses, industry, agriculture, and the military save lives, save dollars, and save the environment. Enlisting the full breadth of those who benefit from our science can be highly successful. We need to include the voices of military leaders, farmers, and businesspeople as well as artists, teachers, medical experts, and more. Scholars in social science and communications are increasingly examining our challenges, successes, and shortcomings, and we have much to learn from these efforts.

“In recent years, AMS, its members, and the weather, water, and climate community have been leaders in improving communications. These successes create an urgency for us to continue, because we now have the attention of so many.”

About Richard Alley

He is a professor geoscience at Penn State U (see his pages there). He was a lead author in the IPCC’s AR4, is a highly cited author, and the recipient of many awards and honors for his work. See his Wikipedia entry for details.

For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. For more information see The keys to understanding climate change, and especially these …

  1. Important: climate scientists can restart the climate change debate – & win.
  2. How we broke the climate change debates. Lessons learned for the future.
  3. Thomas Kuhn tells us what we need to know about climate science.
  4. Daniel Davies’ insights about predictions can unlock the climate change debate.
  5. Karl Popper explains how to open the deadlocked climate policy debate.
  6. Paul Krugman talks about economics. Climate scientists can learn from his insights.
  7. Milton Friedman’s advice about restarting the climate policy debate.
  8. Disturbing research about the use of “narratives” in climate science papers.
  9. Professor Michael Mann destroys the case for massive immediate action on climate change.
  10. Roger Pielke Jr. describes the decay of climate science.
  11. Roger Pielke Jr. describes the distorting of climate science.
 The Rightful Place of Science: Disasters and Climate Change
Available at Amazon.

To learn more about the state of climate change…

… see this book by Professor Roger Pielke Jr: The Rightful Place of Science: Disasters and Climate Change. See my review. Here is the publisher’s summary…

“In recent years the media, politicians, and activists have popularized the notion that climate change has made disasters worse. But what does the science actually say? Roger Pielke, Jr. takes a close look at the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the underlying scientific research, and the data to give you the latest science on disasters and climate change. What he finds may surprise you and raise questions about the role of science in political debates.”

14 thoughts on “A candid climate scientist explains how to fix the debate

  1. I don’t trust either side because instead of science we are presented with a mirror image of the sectarian divide that is a feature of the media and politics. Having abandoned objectivity climate science has been forced to abandon the scientific method in order to defend their turf.
    Grave injustice has been done to their profession and to the public because they have become an extension of the war that divides the world.
    Not content with producing facts they now add their opinion and they are not done there either as they presume to tell us what to think and then pronounce judgment in advance on anybody who would be so arrogant as to hold another view.

    1. 7zander- I will save the editor the trouble of responding to this. While you are generally correct about some of the political responses, if you had been reading this site regularly (or even at all) about this topic, you would have come across, at the minimum, writings by Judith Curry, former chair of the climatology department at Georgia Tech University who agrees that over the past 200 years the earth is warming, but that there is substantial doubt as to the extent of, and the causes for, that warming. She has been an ardent supporter of the need to study this, to question this, and to answer questions raised by critics rather than throw them under the bus.

      Calling anyone who questions your orthodoxy “deniers” is not particularly scientific, just ask Galileo (and if you don’t understand this reference, either look it up, or feel free to ask and i will explain it further ;-) ) ). These behaviors utilize a true scientific method rather than devolving into calumny and ad hominem arguments that promoters of anthropogenic global warming have used to silence any dissent (NOTE: the science is never settled, despite what we have been told by them and our politicians).

    2. 7znder,

      “I don’t trust either side”

      That’s the beauty of science: no trust is required. Will your cell phone work? Will the nukes on the Minuteman missiles work? Science advances by demonstration.

      The science of weather and climate has made great progress. Short-term weather forecasts for your city are quite accurate. Hurricane forecasts are moderately accurate, and improving fast. Ditto seasonal forecast. The IPCC is quite specific about the confidence level of their conclusions (it’s made of people, so they might be a little over-confident). Still, the IPCC’s Working Group I work (The Physical Basis) provides a firm basis for public policy.

      The primary problem with the long-term (multi-decade) models is that they have not been validated. A secondary problem is that predicting which scenario (e.g, the four RCPs in the IPCC’s AR5) to use for planning is not a matter of climate science. The scenarios assume the future paths of GDP, population, public policy, and technology.

      More broadly, in Climate Science we see business as usual as described by Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (long the best-selling science book, ever). Mainstream science — most scientists, and the institutions — support a paradigm. Those who attack it (science requires some to challenge it) are treated poorly. Nobody can tell who is correct. This makes applying science to public policy a challenge — not the easy “listen to the scientists”.

      It will all sort out, eventually. If a new paradigm emerges in climate science, it will triumph eventually, as explained by Max Planck (1918 Nobel Prize in Physics).

      “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

  2. Interesting post, thanks. His full title is

    Transforming Communication in the Environmental Sciences:
    Some Thoughts from a Reluctant Participant

    You’ve inspired me to listen to the whole talk later.

    1. Paul,

      The first part of his title repeats the title of the forum, which is shown.

      Please post your comments on the full presentation after you see it.

  3. Thanks for posting Dr. Alley’s talk!!

    I was confused by a comment President Obama made during his Speech in Milan last year:
    “Obama Speech & Interview Milan 5/9/2017


    I have listened to the president’s speech a few times and it sounded like he predicted (claimed) that a 3 foot increase in sea level is going to happen from our past sins (the discussion on sea level starts at about 25 minutes into the video) and things could get worse (as in even higher levels of sea level rise) if we don’t address the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere.

    Dr, Alley’s talked a bit about his Ice Sheet Collapse work (give or take 41 minutes into his talk) during the Q&A part of the talk. It appears the president, or likely his speech writer, miss-interpreted Dr. Alley’s estimates of sea level rise due to Ice Sheet Collapse. I will have to listen to Dr. Alley’s discussion a few more times to make sure I understand the nuances of the estimate(s) better.

    I 100% agree with Dr. Alley that meteorologists have an opportunity to enlighten the public about weather and climate as they are communicating with the public regularly.

    Dr. Alley covered a lot of ground in his talk going as far as disusing solutions to the problem. If I had been at the meeting I would of asked him his thoughts on the Jacobson law suit.

    1. Kakatoa,

      (1) “I was confused by a comment President Obama …”

      What confuses you about this? The stability of the Antarctic ice sheet is a frontier issue in climate science, with widely varying forecasts. More data and better models will eventually give more precise and accurate estimates. Here is what Professor Alley says:

      “I’m speaking tomorrow morning about Ice Sheet collapse. We’re expecting 2/3 of a meter of sea level rise by 2100 under a high emission scenario, with an uncertainty of maybe a third down and four up. If we ever talk about the mean without that uncertainty you know and you say well you’re not sure. No, I’m not. But even the chance that that 2/3 of a meter turns into four or five or something is just scary as all get-out.”

      He is referring to this presentation: “Loooong Tails: Reducing Uncertainty in Projections of Sea Level” at the conference.

      “Projections of most-likely sea-level rise by the end of the century are generally less than 1 meter even for a high emissions pathway. The reservoir of ice on Earth could raise sea level more than 60 m, however, and ice tends to melt in a warming world, giving a long tail toward higher rise in the plot of likelihood of possible futures (probabilty density function).

      “Costs likely increase more rapidly than linearly with sea-level rise, so the long tail is even more prominent economically. Physical understanding shows possible paths that could generate a few meters of sea-level rise within decades or less after onset of rapid retreat, and that might even be likely. Such ‘collapse’ mechanisms are very poorly constrained, however, and involve physics of ice fracture that may prove difficult to constrain.

      “Guidance from paleoclimatic evidence is helpful but may not include any situations matching the rapid warming over extended ice of a high-emissions pathway. Such a poorly quantified but potentially consequential outcome of strong warming presents a large challenge for communications; the public generally expects us to avoid unnecessary alarmism but expects us to warn of possible dangers. This situation thus offers a great opportunity for valuable science to reduce uncertainty. Some ways forward are already evident, but new ideas may be needed as well.”

      (2) “I 100% agree with Dr. Alley that meteorologists have an opportunity to enlighten the public about weather and climate”

      Several surveys have shown that meteorologists tend to more skeptical beliefs about climate change than climate scientists.

      Boston Globe, Feb 2017: “Mish Michaels isn’t alone: Many meteorologists question climate change science.”

      For a more complete analysis see “Meteorologists’ Views About Global Warming: A Survey of American Meteorological Society Professional Members” in BAMS, July 2014.

  4. At about 21 min:

    “If you have a bias in one direction you tend to stick with what you’re brain already has wired.”

    It doesn’t occur to him that this might apply to anyone on his side of the climate debate.

    “our fellow citizens, I think they’re almost all really good people, they’ve been misled by a few loud voices.”

    Again, he doesn’t seem to realise that this applies to many of those who are terrified about climate change by listening to Al Gore etc.

  5. Then at 31 min:

    He says that most people think climate change could be solved, but hardly anyone talks about it to their friends and family. He jumps back and forwards between these, as if there is some kind of contradiction or surprise here.

    “Can we solve it? Are you talking about it? Can we solve it? Are you talking about it?”

    “A whole lot of our fellow citizens believe we can solve problems that they don’t admit exist!” and he laughs at them, contemptuously.

    But the “can we solve it” is not that at all – it’s “Should we fund research into renewable energy sources” which is a completely different question. Rather than thinking, and resolving his apparent contradiction, he just laughs at the ignorant plebs.

    1. Paul,

      “he just laughs at the ignorant plebs.”

      Lots of that in this presentation. I can’t tell from the video, but I suspect that played well to the audience. It’s one reason the 3-decade-long campaign — lavishly financed, with support from so many major sectors of America — has produced so few results. Now it appears they’re doubling down on their failed methods.

      No signs of learning or introspection in this presentation. Lots of preening that they’re like physics. I felt sad for him.

  6. I think your title is in error as Richard Alley does not explain how to fix the debate, rather he fails to accept there is a debate. The entire presentation is about how the “truth” should be communicated to us.

    It is more of the problem identified in your article of 4 August 2015: “The goal is always the same: keep the message simple, crush dissent (no matter how well founded).”

    In addition to the points raised by you:

    Richard Alley seems to be under the impression that the only reason somebody could support funding research into renewable energy sources is climate change. I suggest that the reason that got much more support than the other questions is that people see other benefits.

    Also note that it is only research that gets the support, requiring utilities to produce 20% electricity from renewable sources gets much less support. I suspect that requiring a higher level of renewable energy would be opposed by the majority.

    1. Bill,

      (1) “I think your title is in error as Richard Alley does not explain how to fix the debate”

      I think his presentation clearly shows an intent to fix the debate. My title reflects the speaker’s intent. Whether you or I agree is a different matter.

      (2) “Richard Alley seems to be under the impression that the only reason somebody could support funding research into renewable energy sources is climate change”

      Why do you believe that? He makes only glancing mention of renewables, solar, and wind.

    2. On (2) Larry, I think Bill may be picking up on the same bit I was talking about, where Alley says “can we solve it” when the graphic is in fact about support for renewable energy, not necessarily the same thing.

    3. Bill and Paul,

      That’s a great catch! I missed that entirely. At 30 minutes he says this (a wonderful example of motivated reasoning, fueled by his belief that we’re all fools):

      So if you say “climate is changing” there it is {map shows disagreement}. If you say “humans are causing it”, it’s the same map {showing disagreement}, but now most of the area of America is below 1/2. “Do scientists agree?” — even lower.

      This is how inexpensive it is to buy confusion. Confusion is really cheap; understanding is more expensive. …They have been convinced that we scientists don’t agree on this. “Is it bad?” {“Are you worried about climate change?} Yeah, they’re a little more worried. …

      And then “should we be looking for solutions?” {“Should we fund more research into renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind”}. …But what happened when you get to solutions, not problems? Hope. …A whole lot of our fellow citizens believe we can solve problems that they don’t admit exist.

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