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Why is climate change scepticism such a slippery concept?

Nov 27, 2013 by | 4 Comments

What exactly is cli­mate change scep­ti­cism? The quest to provide a sat­is­factory answer to this ques­tion is now well into its second decade, with scholars, com­ment­ators and cam­paigners (on both sides of the argu­ment) offering tax­onomies and clas­si­fic­a­tion sys­tems in an attempt to pin the term down.

Some con­sider scep­ti­cism to be a form of ‘flat earth’ denial: the product of con­spiracy the­ories and the domain of crack­pots. Others point to the his­tor­ical evid­ence that the same tac­tics – in some cases the very same insti­tu­tions and indi­viduals – have been behind co-ordinated attempts to smear the sci­ence linking smoking and lung cancer and that linking human CO2 emis­sions and cli­mate change.

Certainly, there is some truth in both of these con­cep­tu­al­isa­tions: some people deny that there is any link between human activity and cli­mate change, or even that the earth is warming at all. And it is a matter of record that lobby groups have run cam­paigns expli­citly designed to under­mine the sci­ence of global warming.

But these are minority forms of scep­ti­cism (if that is even the appro­priate term to use). In the UK, the pro­por­tion of people who dis­pute that human activity is playing some role in chan­ging the cli­mate is small. Most people, if they are scep­tical at all, fall some­where between unin­ter­ested, uncer­tain and dis­in­clined to trust what they read in the papers.

A new invest­ig­a­tion led by Stuart Bryce Capstick at Cardiff University is the latest attempt to bring some clarity to the debate. Drawing on both survey data and focus groups with mem­bers of the UK public, the study sug­gests that scep­ti­cism can be divided into two cat­egories: ‘epi­stemic scep­ti­cism’ (where people doubt the reality or causes or cli­mate change) and ‘response scep­ti­cism’ (where people dis­pute the efficacy of acting to tackle the problem).

Interestingly, the study found that it is the latter type that is most strongly asso­ci­ated with a lack of con­cern about the issue. As the authors put it: “This is important because whilst there are clear argu­ments which can be made con­cerning the level of sci­entific con­sensus and degree of con­fid­ence in an anthro­po­genic com­ponent to cli­mate change, doubts con­cerning per­sonal and soci­etal responses to cli­mate change are in essence more disputable.”

This state­ment seems to get to the heart of why scep­ti­cism is such a slip­pery concept: so much of it is bound up with (or even indis­tin­guish­able from) broader soci­etal ques­tions where there is no right or wrong answer. How much influ­ence should gov­ern­ments have over people’s lives? To what extent should industry be reg­u­lated? These are issues that go beyond cli­mate change, yet are central to its resolution.

It is well known, for example, that people don’t trust journ­al­ists or politi­cians. Yet meas­ures of cli­mate change scep­ti­cism often ask ques­tions relating to media exag­ger­a­tion of the problem. What could be inter­preted as a state­ment of scep­ti­cism about cli­mate change may in fact be a rejec­tion of the trust­wor­thi­ness of the media in general.

There is a sense, then, in which attempts to clas­sify and re-classify scep­ti­cism are a some­what cir­cular exer­cise. Dogmatic ‘response scep­ti­cism’ – although seem­ingly ori­ented towards the feas­ib­ility of tack­ling cli­mate change – could be equi­valent to epi­stemic scep­ti­cism in terms of the prac­tical out­comes for the planet. In other words, a stead­fast response sceptic, who doubts the severity of cli­mate impacts and ques­tions the wisdom of spending public money on mit­ig­ating them, is effect­ively acting as if there were no problem in the first place.

And, as anyone who has ever tried debating with cli­mate scep­tics below the line on com­ment threads will con­firm, the cat­egories of scep­ti­cism are often crossed with a frus­trating level of fluidity.

An argu­ment may begin with dis­agree­ment over the sens­it­ivity of the cli­mate to carbon dioxide, but then move on to the sup­posedly com­prom­ised research funding of ‘alarmist’ sci­ent­ists and end on the dubious motives of politi­cians adopting green taxes.

The reason for the shape-shifting char­acter of so many sceptic argu­ments is that none of the spe­cific reasons on their own are the basis of the dis­pute – for many, cli­mate change simply looks and feels like the kind of issue to which they ought to be opposed.

Capstick’s new paper rein­forces a finding that is now well-established: that people’s world­views, polit­ical beliefs and per­sonal values are strong pre­dictors of whether they doubt cli­mate change.

People apply motiv­ated reas­oning pro­cesses to select­ively accept the inform­a­tion that sup­ports their existing beliefs. And it is this motiv­ated reas­oning that pro­pels the whole pro­cess along.

Very few people beyond the com­munity of cli­mate sci­ent­ists pro­du­cing the data can claim any real authority with regard to the under­lying facts them­selves. We decide whether to trust the inform­a­tion we receive, and weigh up the pros and cons of acting on it, based not on a deep inter­rog­a­tion of the evid­ence but on our judge­ment of whether it seems legitimate.

As this judg­ment of legit­imacy is itself a product of our per­sonal politics, it is per­haps no sur­prise that scep­ti­cism is such a slip­pery concept to get to grips with.

First pub­lished by the Guardian Sustainable Business 19.11.13

4 Comments + Add Comment

  • Is it pos­sible that the reason for shifting argu­ments is that scep­tics have many reasons for their scep­ti­cism, that all apply in par­allel, but you can usu­ally only use one at a time?

    For what it’s worth, I’ve noticed the same thing looking the other way. They start off with con­nec­tions with present-day extreme weather, when you point out that even the IPCC dis­agrees, they shift to the Arctic, and the polar bears. After that’s debunked, they’ll move on to sea level rise. When you tell them how slowly it’s rising, they’ll switch to Antarctic ice sheet instability. Then the spread of mal­aria and other dis­eases, or spe­cies extinc­tion, or all the crops stop growing and what remains of humanity turning to can­ni­balism, or whatever.

    The only time I’ve regarded such shifting as ille­git­imate, though, is when one starts off cri­ti­cising the simplistic pop-science ver­sion of AGW theory sold to the gen­eral public, much of which is sci­en­tific­ally indefens­ible, at which point someone will switch in the deep tech­nical lit­er­ature in its place as the target of your com­plaint. But most of the time it is simply that they have mul­tiple argu­ments avail­able, and they’ll use whichever one suits.

    I agree that very few people out­side a very spe­cialist com­munity (on both sides) under­stands the tech­nical issues and detailed data. And I agree that polit­ical pre­con­cep­tions affect the extent to which people either trust or crit­ic­ally examine the inform­a­tion they’re given. The inter­esting thing is that this effect also extends to the more sci­en­tific­ally lit­erate — in fact, the more sci­en­tific­ally lit­erate people are, the *more* polit­ic­ally polar­ised they seem to become. And sci­ent­ists have polit­ical views, too. The obvious corol­lary of these obser­va­tions is one that the soci­olo­gists seem to be reluctant to examine too closely, but it is poten­tially worrying.

  • Nullius: Skeptics of cli­mate change may indeed have many reasons for their skep­ti­cism, but wouldn’t you agree that the stated reasons should be accurate rep­res­ent­a­tions of the dis­cip­line? In all my inter­ac­tions with so-called skep­tics, I have yet to meet one who provides an honest sum­mary about what is known about cli­mate pro­cesses (whether from the IPCC or other cred­ible sources) and why we know it. The skep­tics will typ­ic­ally run through a litany of dis­cred­ited talking points (in the 70s sci­ent­ists believed in cooling, it’s the sun, they ignore the role of water, etc.). If a skeptic wants to be taken ser­i­ously, they must first demon­strate they know what they are talking about and drop all the wild con­spiracy mongering.

    And while I don’t doubt that many envir­on­ment­al­ists hold erro­neous (or even anti-scientific) views, on the issue of global warming, the shifting argu­ments that you allege are irrel­evant, as the burden of proof has been con­vin­cingly sat­is­fied to anyone familiar with the sci­ence. If the pre­vailing views of the vast majority of cli­mate researchers are in error, then that would create powerful incent­ives for enter­prising researchers to make a name for them­selves and pub­lish evid­ence for why all the experts are wrong. That’s how sci­ence works–it is intensely com­pet­itive. Yet, we see nothing in the tech­nical lit­er­ature from the so-called skeptics.

  • Tres Rios,

    I would agree that it is *desir­able* that reasons for either belief or scep­ti­cism about cli­mate sci­ence should be as accurate about it as is reas­on­ably pos­sible, given the access people have to the back­ground inform­a­tion. (At the same time, freedom of belief and expres­sion means that everyone has the *right* to a dif­ferent opinion, even if it is wrong.) I some­times mutter a bit myself about the mis­con­cep­tions and mis­un­der­stand­ings rife on *both* sides of the debate, but then it is pointed out to me by my friends that I’ve spent years being trained as a phys­i­cist and fur­ther years studying cli­mate sci­ence as a hobby, and it’s not *reas­on­able* for me to expect Joe Average to be able to argue about dif­fer­en­tial equa­tions with me, or to demand that they keep quiet unless they can. They’re right. We all par­ti­cipate at our own level, and we are all fal­lible. So I try not to judge others for their level of knowledge.

    For me, it is not really a matter of “wanting to be taken ser­i­ously”. People will come to their own judge­ments about my abil­ities — it makes no dif­fer­ence to me. I try to under­stand other people’s argu­ments and reas­oning, and better explain my own. I see debate as a con­test of ideas, in which the strongest sur­vive and flaws are iden­ti­fied, by which I can test my own beliefs. What mat­ters to me — and many other scep­tics — is that I am *allowed* to debate with those who dis­agree with me. I don’t expect or require them to be per­suaded — although it’s nice if they are — but it is a joint failure if my ‘oppon­ents’ refuse to even argue, on the grounds that I am not worth taking ser­i­ously. If the other player doesn’t com­pete then I ‘win’ the debate by default, but it is a hollow vic­tory that fails to achieve its true pur­pose. So in a sense I do think it’s a *good* thing if scep­tics are taken ser­i­ously enough to debate with, but it’s not an aim as such.

    Like you, I have come across many believers unable to provide an accurate sum­mary of the state of IPCC sci­ence. I’d hes­itate to call it ‘dis­honest’, though, since I think in most (but not all) cases it is simply that they are too trusting of what they have been told, and are only repeating the media/activist sim­pli­fic­a­tions, half-truths, and errors.

    As a case in point, con­sider what you say here about “pre­vailing views of the vast majority of cli­mate researchers”. Do you know what those actu­ally are?

    Considering the number of times the “sci­entific con­sensus” has been cited, there has been sur­pris­ingly little survey research on the views of sci­ent­ists gen­er­ally and cli­mate sci­ent­ists in par­tic­ular. The best survey (with the most com­pre­hensive ques­tion set) is prob­ably von Storch and Bray, who found around 53% in favour (, Doran and Zimmerman found 82% of respond­ents thought human activity had been a sig­ni­ficant con­trib­utory factor ( Anderegg con­structed a list of sci­ent­ists of who only 66% were for the con­sensus, although there was no claim that the sample was rep­res­ent­ative. There have been sur­veys of met­eor­o­lo­gists, chem­ists, and earth sci­ent­ists that have come out with num­bers in the range of 50–85%, but it depends on what ques­tion you ask, and I don’t think the pat­tern is fully under­stood. One think that very few of the sur­veys do is to ask *why* sci­ent­ists believe what they do.

    Unfortunately, it appears that instead the sur­veyors have their own agendas, and the res­ults you see quoted in the press releases are for lit­er­ature sur­veys (which don’t accur­ately reflect the opin­ions of sci­ent­ists as they double-count those who get pub­lished more), or filter sci­ent­ists according to who is pub­lished or cited most often. We all agree that those that are ‘in the club’ are solidly pro-consensus. Although we would also emphasize that sci­ence is not decided by a vote.

    So to attempt my own “honest sum­mary” of the main­stream sci­ence, I’d say that the divi­sion of opin­ions depends on what ques­tion you ask — ran­ging from “it’s warming”, through the many grad­a­tions of “it’s some/mostly/all due to anthro­po­genic CO2” all the way through to “in 30 years time all the crops are going to stop growing because of global warming and those few of us who aren’t dead will become can­ni­bals” — with strong con­fid­ence at one end of the spec­trum and very little con­fid­ence at the other. On the most com­monly asked ‘con­sensus’ ques­tion — whether the observed rise is mostly anthro­po­genic — we think around 15% of cli­mate sci­ent­ists are scep­tical, pos­sibly up to 60% of other sci­ent­ists (but with very little con­fid­ence), and well under 10% (the sample sizes are small so it is hard to tell pre­cisely) of well-published ‘core’ cli­mate sci­ent­ists such as those working for the IPCC.

    It’s prob­ably worth noting that there are a lot of not­able scep­tics who would be included in that number, too. The observed warming 1950–2000 is about 0.6 C, so “mostly” means at least 0.3 C, which would imply a tran­sient cli­mate response of about 1 C. Since many scep­tics estimate TCR to be around 1–1.5 C (and have been pub­lished in the tech­nical lit­er­ature saying so), it’s not some­thing they’d prob­ably object to too much if they thought about it, although there would no doubt be more of an argu­ment about whether the evid­ence was suf­fi­cient to say it had been ‘proved’ at any given con­fid­ence level. Either way, it is a very dif­ferent ques­tion from the polit­ic­ally rel­evant one: will cli­mate change cause ser­ious damage in the future worth the cost of pre­venting? We know very little about sci­entific views on that one.

    I would agree with you that the incentive to pub­lish counter-evidence is how sci­ence works — but ‘sci­ence’ as a matter of prin­ciple does not restrict itself to ‘approved’ chan­nels, but accepts pub­lic­a­tion in any arena. The only thing that mat­ters is whether the argu­ments stand up to cri­ti­cism. Sceptics pub­lish most of their material in the scep­tical blogs, where it under­goes a very public and open peer review, although there is a fair amount that makes it to the sci­entific journals, too. It is fas­cin­ating to see how sci­ence here has adapted so quickly to the internet age, and I’m sure this is a har­binger of things to come. We live in inter­esting times.

  • […] On the Talking Climate blog we reported back from the Tyndall ‘Radical Plan’ con­fer­ence that was held just before Christmas at the Royal Society in London, and also asked why cli­mate change scep­ti­cism is such a slip­pery concept. […]

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