Climate change denial-the playbook

Donald Trump has put together a pretty good team.  When it comes to denying climate change, he has brought in some seriously talented folk: getting Scott Pruit approved as head of the EPA is of course a master stroke.

But these guys are busy: there’s a whole list of environmental regulations to roll back.  How in Hell is a guy supposed to find time to keep up with the latest thinking on climate change denial?  Really, it’s a problem.  And no-one like to be behind the times—particularly if you have the president looking over your shoulder.

So here I offer a quick review of the most effective strategies that have proved their effectiveness over the last 50 years or so, and a primer on several new approaches that show significant promise.

 Mix up uncertainty with doubt

This trick has always been brilliantly effective in the past (particularly for the tobacco companies) and it shows no sign of losing its impact.  The reason is that most people are easily persuaded that uncertainty and doubt mean almost the same thing.  After all it makes sense.  If something is uncertain, how do you know what’s really true and what isn’t?

What makes this trick work so well is that most people don’t understand that ALL forecasts and predictions: whether it’s about the weather, energy prices, or stock market performance, are inherently uncertain. No-one: no economist, no scientist, no stock market analyst can tell you exactly what will be happening next year or even next month.  So every forecast is simply a best estimate, and the more experts that make a prediction, the greater may be the apparent difference in the forecasts.

Take the simple example of a weather forecaster saying that next week the temperature is going to hit 33 degrees.  Another says that temperatures more likely may hit 34 degrees.  No-one, not even the best meteorologist, can say for sure. So the climate denial strategy is to say that : hey, if the experts can’t agree about what the temperature is going to be then why should we believe them about anything to do with temperature?  Maybe the temperature will stay a cool 25 degrees?  And if a third forecaster says he thinks it may even hit 35 degrees?  Well doesn’t that just confirm that we can’t trust anything these guys tell us?  Someone might of course say that all three forecasters predict that temperatures will be at least 33 degrees.  But that’s not helpful is it, if the aim is to stress only the difference in the forecasts and the uncertainty around the numbers.

So the trick is to present uncertainty as evidence of bad science, of science that cannot be relied on or trusted, as science that’s invalid.  People naturally have serious doubts about science that can’t be trusted.

 Insist that climate change is really only about global warming

This is an essential element of climate change denial strategy. It’s important for two reasons: the first is that measuring global warming relies on measurements from several different types of instruments—so the measurements never give exactly the same value. The trend is incontrovertibly upwards, but the inherent variation in the measurements can be characterized as uncertainty resulting from invalid science and therefore subject to doubt.

And global warming is measured by fractions of a degree. So the gig is to convince people that fussing over a fraction of a degree is nonsense.  I mean, when kids get sick their temperature may easily rise 3 or 4 degrees!  That’s twice as much as Paris agreement target of 2 degrees warming! You see, it just doesn’t make sense. Of course, stay away from talking about ocean heat content—which is going through the roof.  Why confuse people with the facts?  And see, that’s the good thing about science: most people don’t understand it.

The second reason is that every winter snowstorm can be represented as evidence that global warming is not true. Since many people are not sure of the difference between weather and climate (and we’re not going to explain it are we?), once again, doubt is the result.

So keep switching talk about climate change to talk about global warming—which makes it much easier to argue that nothing much is happening.

Another good line is to focus on the extent of the Antarctic ice sheet.  Most people haven’t a clue what this is all about, but as recent measurements have shown that the ice sheet has been increasing in area (at least it was for quite a while and that’s the part to talk about), this unlikely phenomenon is a godsend for the denial brigade. In reality, the dynamics of the Antarctic ice sheets are extremely complex and not yet well understood by the experts. But, again, the lack of scientific consensus can be characterized as evidence of confused science and easily used to raise doubts about global warming.

 Fiddle the numbers

This trick is one of the most effective in the denier’s tool box. It works because it is uses graphs to show that scientists have got their numbers wrong—and graphs have an immediate visual impact. This is especially easy with graphs that show global temperatures over the last several years. These graphs are presented by the climate alarmists in the form of anomalies—meaning the difference between present mean temperatures and what the mean temperature was 50 or 60 years ago.

The trick is to change the baseline. If NASA’s numbers are based on say 1950 when the mean temperature was around 10 degrees C, shifting the baseline to another year when the mean temperature was slightly higher will produce a graph where all the recent anomalies are smaller.  Since most people don’t think to ask about the baseline year for the graphs, the different in the graphs is strikingly clear, and can be presented as evidence that the real numbers are false. This trick is quickly caught by the real scientists but by then it’s too late: the graph showing the apparent error in NASA’s measurements has already been picked up by the media, headlined in the denier-friendly press, and rolled out in government meetings called to discuss climate change action.

 Claim that carbon dioxide is good for the planet

Higher levels of CO2 in the atmosphere does at first lead to higher agriculture yields for some plants.  So focusing on this fact, and ignoring everything else about CO2 in the air is a good one-liner. If someone points out that higher levels of CO2 also leads to higher global temperatures the impact of which is generally negative for plant yields, and that climate change is producing longer droughts and unpredictable rainfall both of which seriously disrupt plant growth (not to mention heatwaves and wild fires) the recommended response is to claim that there is no proof of this. The science is ‘unproven’.  Whereas there IS proof that CO2 increases plant growth—at least at first.  Best not to mention the research that shows that even higher levels of CO2 eventually reduces yields. And of course never ever mention greenhouse gases.  Greenhouses get hot and we do NOT want to talk about that.

 Flat out lie

Although this may seem like a bit of a blunt instrument, and  one easily contradicted, the eagerness of most of the media to report anything considered newsworthy without fact checking it first ensures that even the most flagrant lies gain traction for a while—and that is all that is needed to once again sow doubt in the minds of a significant part of the population.  Figuring out the facts and unpicking the lie takes the media a couple of days—by which time the damage has already been done.

Alternative facts and fake news

This approach is sheer wizardry and President Trump gets full marks for developing maybe the most effective denial strategy since the tobacco companies came up with the idea of fake scientific institutes that used  alternative facts to prove that tobacco was harmless. The brilliant insight was to understand that popular TV and radio programs are much more effective than reports from pseudo scientists writing from institutes that most people have never heard of.

This strategy can be much further developed and frankly the denialists have been a bit slow to understand how effective this approach can be.  Here’s a few ideas:

  • The heatwaves and wildfires that are ravaging Australia can easily be dismissed by claiming that they are being exaggerated. Australia is a big place: showing the wild fires as a percentage of the total area of the continent brings the impact down to a few percent. So there’s nothing to worry about.
  • Sunspots and cosmic cycles need a higher profile. A few shots of solar flares works well. And it’s easy to find a scientist who will argue that increased solar activity is to blame for higher global temperatures. Of course, none of these reports should be peer-reviewed, meaning reviewed by scientists who actually know this stuff. That just exposes the reports to review by people who don’t understand the importance of alternative facts.  Alternative facts means the freedom to think for yourself without the embarrassment of being proved wrong. That’s important.
  • President Trump demonstrated the art of alternative facts perfectly when he claimed it wasn’t raining during his inauguration despite measurable amount of rainfall. It just goes to show that the facts are irrelevant if they don’t support the truth as we know it. It’s like history: it depends who writes it. Climate facts are the same: it depends who experiences it. It’s just not true that the Arctic is warming at an unprecedented rate. People who are there say it’s still cold as hell.  See?  Weather is the climate denier’s best friend and alternative facts are there to help.

 Keep’em waiting

This has been working well lately.  As more scientists start to get their evidence together, the line here is to say that yes the evidence is worth a look, but since there are other scientists who are not convinced (that’s our guys), then the sensible thing to do is to wait until the science is ‘proven.’  This makes us sound so reasonable. In fact, of course, we can continue arguing pretty much for ever that we need to wait until the science is proven.  Throw in a few alternative facts every now and again, and any action on climate change gets put on hold indefinitely.  It’s important to remember that in this play, we never say that climate change is wrong, only that we need to wait until we are absolutely sure because as Rex Tillerson put it so well: “What if the models are wrong?”  Exactly. What better way to insert doubt into the picture?  Since most people don’t understand the models, it’s easy to imply that they are probably a bit dodgy.  And Rex is an engineer isn’t he?  Carries some clout.

But we are not saying that climate change science is nonsense are we?  That’s getting harder to argue because let’s face it the evidence is overwhelming.  So what we do is imply that forecasting climate change impacts is all based on weird high-tech computer models that not many people can understand. If you can’t understand something, you mostly ignore it. Works for us doesn’t it?  Uncertainty and doubt: where would we be without these guys?








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