Why It's Not Enough To Be Right About Climate Change


A couple weeks back, I found myself enmeshed briefly in a local debate here in Calgary regarding the validity of the argument that a continent-wide spell of frigid weather raised a serious challenge to the scientific foundations of anthropogenic climate change. In the depths of the cold snap, a rookie city councillor, Sean Chu, tweeted:

I replied:

The exchange and other snarky dismissals of Chu’s line of reasoning got picked up by the Calgary Herald, which ran a news item on its blog and a follow-up piece defending Chu against “anthropogenic global warming religionists” on the op-ed page.

As we were engaged in our local rhetorical joust, climate change deniers continent-wide were re-enacting the same little drama on stages big and small, eventually inspiring one of those killer rapid-fire round-ups of TV news talking-head idiocy on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. “Apparently decades of peer reviewed study can be, like a ficus plant, destroyed in one cold weekend,” Stewart concluded.

In itself, any given one of these minor foofaraws (or are they argle-bargles?) is barely worth wasting the pixels contained in this sentence. But as a whole — as a tenaciously consistent, recurring pattern of discourse — they actually illustrate a singular challenge to concerted and sustained climate change action. So if you’ll stick with me, let’s unpack the mess a bit and take a look.

Now, the phrase “Hot enough for you?” is a cartoon cliché, a bit of glib small talk placed in a character’s mouth as a signifier for “obnoxious person.” I’d argue that its 21st century reboot should go like this: If global warming is real then why is it cold? This sentiment, the current iteration of which was parodied by Stewart, is trucked out by right-wing critics of action on climate change with such seasonal regularity that it has inspired its own Tumblr.

The line is especially notable for its tone, which is usually hyper-confident and self-congratulatory, freighted with the assumption that there’s not a climate scientist in the world who can possibly explain cold regional short-term weather on a warming planet. In Stewart’s clip round-up, the Fox commentators invoking the line sound like they’re dismissing the ravings of flat-earthers (as opposed to, you know, being flat-earthers).

Never mind that the argument backing the phrase is logically identical to the argument that the arrival of night proves the sun has been extinguished forever. Never mind indeed that the very moment this latest round of witty rejoindering swept frozen North America, Australia was sweltering under a record-breaking heat wave. No, your typical deployer of the If global warming is real then why is it cold? trope is not just convinced he’s right but delighted by the certainty he’s just sprung a logical trap on you that will have you stuck in a snowbank till the next summer heat wave.

The tendency among climate change advocates, in the face of such braying nonsense, is to fire back with a barrage of facts, footnoted arguments, citations and links. There’s even a whole subgenre in this vein, an online chapbook of bullet-pointed lists tallying the 8 ways to prove you’re right or 14 ways to debunk your right-wing uncle or 27 LOLCAT gifs that are more complex and nuanced than the baseless argument behind the question If global warming is real then why is it cold?

The hitch, though, is that the assertion, the line of thinking and the whole vast culture propping it up are not sustained by insufficient access to facts. They are sustained by a mistrust of the sources of those facts — and, moreover, the disseminators of them. In other words, it’s not them, it’s you. It’s us.

Let’s dissect another local case in point, which arrived in my Twitter feed hot on the heels of that city councillor’s musing on the connection between cold weather and climate change. It was a link to an ad in the Calgary Herald, touting the latest line of denial — that cosmic rays are largely responsible for climate change — from Friends of Science, an astroturf “public interest” group funded through the office of arch-conservative University of Calgary professor Barry Cooper.

I’d seen this line of reasoning already awhile back, when Friends of Science’s under-read Twitter feed sent me a link to the source of this paradigm-shifting scientific breakthrough in response to something or other I’d posted about climate science. Thus did I learn that Friends of Science has a new pet dissenter, an astrophysicist named Nir Shaviv who co-authored a paper in a journal called GSA Today arguing that “cosmic rays” were a bigger factor in climate change than anything people had ever done, and so “a significant reduction of the release of greenhouse gases will not significantly lower the global temperature, since only about a third of the warming over the past century should be attributed to man.”

Now, GSA Today is a legitimate scientific journal. This is a genuinely remarkable finding. It invites further consideration. And here’s where those of us in the consensus camp — which includes more than 97 per cent of climate scientists, the vast majority of Canadians and pretty much all of Europe — part ways.

You or I might consult a valid source —, for example, which is written and curated by climate scientists — and we might discover in less time than it takes to tweet that Shaviv’s paper has been considered, responded to and determined not to actually bring the entire climate change consensus down into a pile of rubble.

Indeed, Michael Mann and Gavin Schmidt reported at that the claims in Shaviv’s paper “were subsequently disputed in an article in Eos by an international team of scientists and geologists … who suggested that Shaviv and Veizer’s analyses were based on unreliable and poorly replicated estimates, selective adjustments of the data (shifting the data, in one case by 40 million years) and drew untenable conclusions, particularly with regard to the influence of anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations on recent warming.” So then: Just lousy science. Happens all the time. Move along.

But Mann and Schmidt go even further. They speculate on the impact of the study if cosmic rays had in fact done all the stuff Shaviv and his co-author said they did. “Even if the conclusions … had been correct,” they write, “this would be one small piece of evidence pitted against hundreds of others which contradict it. Scientists would find the apparent contradiction interesting and worthy of further investigation, and would devote further study to isolating the source of the contradiction. They would not suddenly throw out all previous results.”

There’s a really significant point there. Did you miss it? THEY WOULD NOT SUDDENLY THROW OUT ALL PREVIOUS RESULTS. (If net etiquette still allowed it, I’d have made the previous sentence blink like a late-’90s Geocities post.)

Friends of Science, however, has no qualms with throwing out all previous results. I’d speculate they uncovered Shaviv and Veizer’s paper on a needle-in-a-haystack hunt for something to use for the expressed purpose of throwing out all previous results. Convinced there must be a magic bullet, Friends of Science found one. They discovered a single data point against a thousand others and reckon they’d found Galileo in the pages of GSA Today. (Friends of Science’s Twitter feed actually cites Galileo in reference to Shaviv.) It’s a very slightly more highfalutin version of If global warming is real then why is it cold?

To come back to my point: there is no amount of contradictory data that you or I or could assemble, no PowerPoint TED-exy talk we could deliver, no infographic so incontrovertible and compelling that it would convince the Friends of Science or anyone else peddling this line to reconsider their position in any fundamental way. The data doesn’t count. The accumulated facts don’t matter. This is about culture and social trust and a kind of tribalism. You’re wrong — or at least I am — because I’m One of Them.

The motivation here is explained in significant measure by a fine old Upton Sinclair line: “It’s difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” But it’s not just the financial investments or the near-term rewards; Friends of Science and their brethren on Fox News and on Calgary City Council are invested culturally in climate change being something other than primarily human-caused. They are invested culturally in the idea that Gavin Schmidt and Michael Mann and thousands of other climate science PhDs are no more likely to know the truth than Nir Shaviv or Barry Cooper or anyone who just stepped outside into an abnormally chilly morning.

There’s a name for this, and (to amble finally to my main point) it is a vital concept for climate change communicators, climate scientists and anyone else with skin in this game to understand. The name is cultural cognition. It comes to us from Dan Kahan of Yale University and his colleagues, whose 2010 paper in the Journal of Risk Research is an essential read for the tribe David Roberts at Grist once dubbed climate hawks.

Cultural cognition, Kahan and his colleagues write, “is a collection of psychological mechanisms that dispose individuals selectively to credit or dismiss evidence of risk in patterns that fit values they share with others.” Subjects in Kahan’s study were divided into those holding “hierarchical and individualistic outlooks” and those holding “egalitarian and communitarian outlooks” — conservative and progressive, more or less. They “significantly disagreed on the state of expert opinion about climate change.” And they did so, the paper argues, due to the “polarizing effect of cultural cognition.”

Put more plainly, people tend to trust information only from sources and outlets they’ve already identified as their sort of people — sharers of common cultural values, members of their tribe. To reach those who reject the consensus on climate change, the paper concludes, “communicators must attend to the cultural meaning as well as the scientific content of the information.”

It’s not enough to be right. To put it in Colbert Nation’s terms, it has to feel truthy. The message has to come in the right frame, through the right kind of channel.

Among the tools Kahan et al. innumerate to do so are these:

1) “Identity affirmation” (a framework in which accepting the consensus leads to an outcome you already like — in the climate change context, perhaps energy independence or an entrepreneurial boom).

2) “Pluralistic advocacy” (emphasizing that experts from a range of backgrounds are involved — clergy and right-wing political icons like Bloomberg and Schwarzenegger as well as your Al Gores).

3) “Narrative framing” (stock characters, familiar arcs — maybe farmers and tradespeople and CEOs instead of activists and progressive policy wonks, engaged not in saving the planet but renewing the economy).

None of this is wholly new, of course. Climate hawks and other progressives have been talking about getting the frame right for years, playing up the entrepreneurial angle of green energy and cleantech, making a hero of Texas natural gas baron T. Boone Pickens. So why does the counterfactual denialist/hoax message persist? One possibility, very funnily illustrated in a little Socratic dialogue I found via Metafilter, is the “crazification factor” — the argument, based on the number of votes Alan Keyes got when he ran against Barack Obama in the 2004 Illinois Senate race, that there’s some core group of dug-in, dead-ender partisans who will never move on some issues.

In the case of Obama v. Keyes, the number was 27 per cent. Polls suggest Canada’s denialist base is much smaller — in a 2012 survey, for example, 86 per cent of Canadians agreed that humans were at least partially responsible for climate change, and only two per cent flat-out denied it was happening.

The voice of the If global warming is real then why is it cold? contingent, however, seems much louder in the public discourse than a 1/50 share. Which leaves me wondering: Could part of the problem be that the engagement of this argument on any level — and particularly one of just-the-facts rebuttal — amplifies it well beyond its actual constituency? Might climate change advocates themselves be way off in their perception of the size and scope of opposition to their point of view? And if so, might it not be best to carry on as if everyone in the room already agrees that the guy making the “Hot enough for you?” joke is just being obnoxious for its own sake?

Image Credit: Polar Vortex wind currents on January 7th, 2014 from and featured on the Washington Post.

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