Paper in a recent issue of Climatic Change: Understanding public complacency about climate change: Adults’ mental models of climate change violate conservation of matter
And we’re not talking about out-of-touch middle Americans, either. We’re talking 212 MIT grad students. When asked to anticipate CO2 levels under two emissions scenarios, more than 3/4 gave answers that would require carbon dioxide to disappear from the universe.
The authors, John Sterman and Linda Booth Sweeney, are from MIT, too – so they likely weren’t intending to take a cheap shot at MIT’s reputation. Rather, they were pointing out how tricky it is to imagine complex systems at work – and how our brains gravitate toward easy (but error prone) ways of thinking.
At the heart of the problem is our obsession with CO2 emissions and removal rates. As the MIT students demonstrate, it’s all too easy to think that if we can level off our emissions (itself an almost unimaginably remote goal at the moment), CO2 levels and temperatures will start to drop. Problem is, that misses the (dare I say it?) inconvenient truth that emissions already outpace removal by more than 2 billion tons per year. So just leveling off emissions still means a steady, uncompromising rise in atmospheric CO2.
The authors do a nice job of drawing comparisons: We typically deal with the world on some sort of a “wait-and-see” basis. Is the kettle boiling? Wait for the whistle. Is the bathtub full? Turn off the tap. That’s how most of us operate. When even slightly more complicated relationships are left to the public to decide, it’s always a struggle: look at the battles we’re still fighting to get people to wear seat belts and vaccinate their kids.
If reasonably smart people are prone to making foolish errors when it comes to climate change, it’s even easier to lead them into those errors with some sophistry. That’s what Myron Ebell, of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, has made a career doing: popping off fallacies and ad hominem attacks with the unerring regularity of Wallace’s automatic porridge-flinger.
He probably doesn’t realize it, but he got his comeuppance this month, in a Vanity Fair interview. He scoffed his way through his questions, insulting climatologists’ pedigrees rather than addressing their research (NASA’s Jim Hansen “isn’t even a climate scientist!” Right, he’s, uh, an atmospheric physicist. Your point?). Fortunately, interviewer Michael Shnayerson cut away regularly to get counterpoints from actual climate scientists.
Ebell’s ability to lap up disapproval, badmouth the opposition and crow about his own brilliance is infuriating, especially for someone whose own climate credentials add up to an undergrad degree in philosophy. But it reminds me why critical thinking is still the most important subject in school.
Documentary director Martin Durkin takes unsavoriness one step farther. In “The Great Global Warming Swindle,” Durkin falsified data on temperature graphs and claimed they came from NASA when in fact they came from an obscure journal populated by other climate skeptics. And all this in the name of revealing some sort of carefully concealed truth to the public.
Tellingly, e-mails from the U.K.’s Times asking Durkin for explanation received unprintable replies. When you don’t have anyplace left to argue from, you start yelling. Squeaky wheels are the same the world over.
I’d write something unprintable myself, but I’m holding fast to the belief that people can still tell a shaky argument by the way it’s delivered. Shrill, blustery, self-congratulating, or circular? Not interested. Reasonable premise, reliable evidence, intact logic? Let’s talk.