I said in a recent posting:
“If anything the deniers seem interested in postponing the emergence of certain relevant truths as long as possible”
In response, a commenter asks:
What truths would these be? And who is trying to get them out?
It seems odd to answer, since the answers seem so obvious to regular readers of this flavor of blog, but after all, if they were obvious to everyone, there wouldn’t be much of a problem. So I’ll take it on.
First let me refer you to William Connolley’s definition of the consensus: wherein he refers to the IPCC third assessment report:
- The earth is getting warmer (0.6 +/- 0.2 oC in the past century; 0.17 oC/decade over the last 30 years) [ch 2]
- People are causing this [ch 12] (see update)
- If GHG emissions continue, the warming will continue and indeed accelerate [ch 9]
and less certainly but very probably
4. (This will be a problem and we ought to do something about it)
I would also say
2.1. Humans are changing the radiative properties of the atmosphere more rapidly than they change in nature (absolutely certain). Update: CO2 is the majority term in this forcing but there are several other components worth considering.
2.2. The climate must inevitably change in some way faster than it changes in nature as a consequence (absolutely certain in a physical sense; the radiative fluxes must change. almost certain in a practical sense; one could imagine the climate somehow contriving to change in a way that wouldn’t disrupt human life very much but the likelihood of this is incredibly small and the evidence for this is mostly contrived)
2.3. The simple back-of-the-envelope prediction of warming in the global mean is almost certainly valid on many streams of evidence (This is essentially William’s point 3 above) but changes will not be limited to that. As an example, increased drought in the southwest US is becoming a robust prediction.
2.4. We may already have won a 12 meter sea level rise and the more we persist in our behavior the more likely this is; we don’t know how fast our prize will be delivered.
Update: 2.5 There is a delay built into the climate system in addition to the delays built into economics and politics. The day we decide the problem is serious enough to act predates measurable benefits of our actions by decades.
2.6 The problem is roughly cumulative. Each increment of carbon you add to the system stays there for centuries. If we stopped emitting altogether, the planet would not cool off; it would keep warming for a decade or two and then stay at that level for a very long time. Keeping emissions rates constant will result in a constant slope to the rate of increase; only a net emission rate near zero stabilizes climate.
2.7 Technical solutions exist. It is not necessary to change society dramatically except to adapt to higher energy prices a little bit faster than would otherwise be the case.
Also there are salient factors we don’t know.
3.1. There are reasonable dynamical arguments that storm intensity, both middle latitude convective cells and tropical cyclones, will increase, and such a prediction is consistent with, though not yet strongly confirmed by, observational trends.
3.2. There is paleoclimatic evidence that there are feedbacks that release additional carbon in response to warming. These are not well-constrained and are likely to amplify the human effect; we don’t know how much
3.3. As stated above, we don’t know when the rapid sea level rise will start or how fast it will go
3.4. Temperatures are likely to exceed the range seen for the last 2 million years at a time when ecological systems are under severe stress already. It’s difficult to constrain how much this will exacerbate the current extinction event.
3.5. Models seem to understate the transient variability of the system under abrupt forcing. This isn’t entirely surprising but leaves us with some difficulty constraining how much trouble we may be in.
Then there is the social context:
4.1. PR professionals are being paid to keep these facts obscured from the public. Some of them do not shy away from spreading lies.
4.2. Scientists are not paid to emphasize these facts and are actively discouraged from doing so both directly and indirectly (because any outside effort weakens their competitive position.) Update: The relevant climate sciences are not especially well-funded and the relevant sciences are not direct beneficiaries of the engineering strategies we advocate. The widely believed mechanisms for corruption don’t actually exist.
4.3. The paid PR staff on the side of sounding the alarm is vastly smaller than the team doing the obfuscating and has much fewer resources. Admittedly some of the alarmists are intellectually lazy and some few of them may also be dishonest but on the whole, seriously dishonest people will go where the money is.
4.4. Mamet’s Law applies:
“Law, politics and commerce are based on lies. That is, the premises giving rise to opposition are real, but the debate occurs not between these premises but between their proxy, substitute positions. The two parties to a legal dispute (as the opponents in an election) each select an essentially absurd position. “I did not kill my wife and Ron Goldman,” “A rising tide raises all boats,” “Tobacco does not cause cancer.” Should one be able to support this position, such that it prevails over the nonsense of his opponent, he is awarded the decision. …
“In these fibbing competitions, the party actually wronged, the party with an actual practicable program, or possessing an actually beneficial product, is at a severe disadvantage; he is stuck with a position he cannot abandon, and, thus, cannot engage his talents for elaboration, distraction, drama and subterfuge.”
Update: Anything else?
I think most people who are well informed as to the state of the science and the policy context would consider these assertions factual. I think the press has failed to convey these facts to the public, especially in English speaking countries and particularly the USA. To some extent that is because English is the language of the bulk of the paid denial professionals.
The greatest mystery, to me, is how those denial professionals justify their behavior to themselves. Can all of them believe their own nonsense? If not, do they really think they are better off with more money on a sick planet that with less money on a healthy one? I can’t understand where these people come from.
Anyway, if the public understood the outlines of the situation as described here, we’d be much better off than we are.
As for “who is trying to get them (those facts) out”, at present that would mostly be a bunch of scientists acting as communication amateurs in their spare time, some idealistic fresh college grads with badly paid internships at nonprofits, a handful of self-supporting pundits, a few professors and postdocs in policy sectors, and a very small group of decent journalists like Andrew Revkin and John Fleck who nevertheless don’t entirely have the nerve to spell out what the denialists are doing. All this activity surely accounts for less than a part in a hundred thousand compared to the total economic activities of the energy sector, and I would guess perhaps a tenth of the effort of the actively paid denial squad.
Update: Heh, bad timing. The balance of resources may be shifting at last. I worry, though, that the Gore campaign may settle for symbolism at the expense of actual education.