Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Climate change debates and flags of convenience

One of the perverse thrills of paddling in Vancouver is cozying up to the massive container ships parked out in English Bay (right). A little while back, I paddled past one rusting behemoth with the word "Monrovia" painted in white on the red hull. Each letter was about the size of my little kayak.

Monrovia is the capital of Liberia, the country where that vessel is registered. There is no thriving trade between Liberia and western Canada. Merchant ships merely register in Liberia in order to avoid regulations and to reduce costs. Liberia is the flag of convenience.

As a scientist, I sometimes find the challenge of communicating about climate change similar to that of operating a ship according to the rules of your native country while the "competitors" take advantage of the lawless wilds of other nations.

People opposing the basic science of climate change in the public sphere need not adhere to the slow, rigorous method of hypothesis testing or build coherent arguments over time based on the balance of published evidence. That provides the rhetorical advantage of adopting whatever "flag" or argument is convenient that week, whether about sunspots, an error in an IPCC report, or temperature trends on Mars. If the argument is proven false in the court of public opinion, you adopt another flag. The sequence of arguments does not have to be logically consistent. The goal of the organized sceptic movement* is simply to keep the ship sailing.

The temptation for scientists to adopt the practices of the opponents in the debate is what the late Steve Schneider described called the "double ethical bind" in a famously mis-used quote:

On the one hand, as scientists we are ethically bound to the scientific method, in effect promising to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but – which means that we must include all doubts, the caveats, the ifs, ands and buts. On the other hand, we are not just scientists but human beings as well. And like most people we’d like to see the world a better place, which in this context translates into our working to reduce the risk of potentially disastrous climate change. To do that we need to get some broad based support, to capture the public’s imagination. That, of course, means getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have. This “double ethical bind” we frequently find ourselves in cannot be solved by any formula. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest. I hope that means being both

The response to that honest, clear assessment of the communications challenge says enough. For years, that one line about offering up "scary scenarios" was itself a Liberia to many of Schneider's opponents.

It can be challenging to stay level-headed about communication in the face of often unscrupulous opposition. That's why I find that the keys to communication about climate change are not the usual suspects of technical expertise, passion, ability to drop jargon, etc. etc. In my experience, successfully communicating about climate change takes, more than anything else, patience and humility.

* Note: It's important to separate the funded movement from individual people's doubts about the science of climate change, which can be grounded in science, culture, religion, politics, moral values, you name it. And there are vocal sceptics who rely on a consistent line of argumentation; perhaps Lindzen's earlier arguments about the water vapour feedback could fall in this category, though it's fair to say that ship has since migrated to other shores.

1 comment:

masterymistery said...

The science may be OK, but the politics is not:

In Australia, legislation has passed introducing an emmissions trading scheme (ETS) = "carbon tax".

the fact is Australia's contribution to global carbon emissions is so small we could shut down the entire Australian economy for three years and still make no impact on global warming.

The only reason I can think of for the carbon tax introduced by prime minister Gillard is to set a good example (that no other country will follow).

masterymistery at
cosmic rapture