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What connects Edward Snowden, climate change, GCHQ and lemmings?

March 16, 2014

In today’s Observer, John Naughton ponders the apathy of the British public to the GCHQ revelations after Edward Snowden let the cat out of an enormous bag (Public apathy over GCHQ snooping is a recipe for disaster). Under the headline, the stand-first tells us: “The lack of public alarm at government internet surveillance is frightening, but perhaps it’s because the problem is difficult to convey in everyday terms”. (Frankly, we should probably be more afraid of sub-editors and their penchant for hyperbole).

Anyway, after setting the stage by describing how, when explaining complex and technical issues to a lay audience, Naughton belatedly figured out that you have to find ways to make arcane subjects relate to the audience’s own experiences, this is how he comes upon his topic:

“One of the things that baffles me is why more people are not alarmed by what Edward Snowden has been telling us about the scale and intrusiveness of internet surveillance. My hunch is that this is partly because – strangely – people can’t relate the revelations to things they personally understand”.

Thing is John, while you might be right about people not understanding quite how intrusive the spying is, I have a different view, based solely on my own reaction. Having worked in IT for many years, including with a security company during the ’90s, I have a pretty clear idea what’s going on, and what it means. I know about government collusion with security firms first hand. Read more…

Why climate change can never be ‘someone else’s problem’

March 13, 2014

After The Oregonian published a short article of mine on-line about the infamous ‘Oregon Petition’ – another bogus bit of nonsense that attempted to divide and conquer climate science – I checked back to see what the comments were like. As is so often the case with the climate change debate, there were a number of ironies on display, but also a more telling conclusion to be drawn.

I was struck by one comment, which connects with a number of other issues mentioned in the posts. It was this: “Who cares what an English writer thinks about anything?”.

The short answer is this: “Anyone who understands that the quality of an article doesn’t depend on where the writer was sitting when he wrote it”. But the remark also struck me as an echo of something the US has long abandoned – isolationism – and for any number of good, and mostly practical, reasons. Read more…

What drives a smart man like Charles Krauthammer to betray his own intelligence?

March 7, 2014

The pen may be mightier than the sword, but neither are effective if you just wave them about aimlessly

On my endless excursions around the US media, I ran across Charles Krauthammer’s Washington Post (WAPO) article “The myth of ‘settled science’”. With its half-truths, distortions and cheap, distasteful references to ‘whoring’, it’s what you might expect of your average, run of the mill, right wing demagogue. Trouble is, Krauthammer hardly fits that bill – and that is what’s really puzzling me. (If you don’t know who Krauthammer is, read on; he’s a serious player (or was) on the US stage). Read more…

How can the insurance industry insure itself against global warming?

February 18, 2014

Today, the UK government will hold talks with the insurance industry. The subject is, of course, the terrible flooding we’re experiencing here in Britain, the costs and damage done, and what responses we might expect from insurers.

These ‘summits’ will become more frequent, and more fraught, as time passes. The insurance industry rarely faces such a difficult assessment of risk, and notably exclude the most chaotic circumstances e.g. war, since it isn’t possible to determine a realistic premium when the potential losses are incalculable.

For some time, the insurance industry has been ahead of most other sectors, factoring in climate change to their long term risk assessments for reasons that are now become more obvious by the day. Munich Re – one of the world’s largest re-insurers (underwriters) were one of the first to warn of the dangers climate change could pose – as early as 1973! Read more…

Climate change science, the consensus, and a matter of trust

February 15, 2014

In yesterday’s Guardian, Dana Nuccitelli returns to a familiar theme; contrarian attacks on the consensus among climate scientists regarding the anthropogenic cause of climate change. (MP Graham Stringer and CNN Crossfire get the 97% consensus on human-caused global warming wrong).

He’s right to keep hammering the issue, although I suspect it’s more of a problem in the US than elsewhere (the UK’s problem is more likely apathy, frankly – although the current flooding is providing something of the proverbial shot in the arm. How long that lasts is another matter).

There is, however, a broader issue, of which the manufactured ‘dissent’ is but a part. The issue is trust. As information (of varying quality) becomes ever more ubiquitous, we are constantly assaulted with stories of greed, corruption, mendacity and deceit. At no time in history have we ever been so well informed – and simultaneously so badly informed. It is the paradox created by the internet and 24-hour news; information becomes like sewage – you can find items of value, but only if you’re prepared to wade through the sewers. Read more…

Climate Change Chaos: the long and the short of it

January 24, 2014

The aspect of climate change science that lends itself most readily to demagoguery is when it predicts the future. Unfortunately, climate science would not be much use to us if it didn’t.

Those who take the science seriously exist in an uncomfortable place somewhere between curiosity and dread. We want to know, want reassurance that our fears are rational, and that the costs of mitigation and adaptation are justified. Climate scientists inevitably find themselves obliged by their employers, by the media, by governments and the public they are supposed to serve, to make predictions.

Just like doctors; imagine how you would feel if your doctor said you were dying, but when asked how long you had, said ‘oh, I don’t know…could be weeks, could be years’.  Not much help, really.

Read more…

Climate change: the difference between blame and responsibility

December 16, 2013

In my previous post (Climate Change: Beating around the bush won’t put out the fire) I discussed the problems that arise when we focus on supply instead of demand. Consideration of supply is usually an attempt to support some kind of ‘business as usual’ scenario. It also embodies the dubious virtue of seeking to assuage demand rather than curtail it.

This is an untroubling message for the public at large, because in effect it says ‘hey – climate change is coming, but we’re going to figure out how you can carry on doing exactly what you’re doing now (more or less’). In other words, the solution is to find a ‘sustainable’ way to carry on consuming, and the public are required only to change a few light bulbs, stop leaving the TV on standby, put some insulation in the loft and drive a bit slower, and all will be well. Or something.

The other message – the one I’m touting – isn’t so easy to digest. The message is plain enough, as my last post made clear: we individuals are the problem. We are the drivers of climate change, of all environmental degradation, because it occurs on our behalf, collateral damage caused by the lifestyles we’ve become accustomed to, the endless consumption that so many of us now regard as a right. The indigestible part of this message is that we must change, that we must demand less, want less and accept less ‘things’, for it is the fulfilment of our desires that, in the end, will render them unobtainable for future generations. Read more…

Climate Change: Beating around the bush won’t put out the fire

December 6, 2013

There is just one reason we’re failing to address climate change. It isn’t discussed much. Nobody wants to hear about it. Nobody wants to confront it. Nobody wants to acknowledge the fundamental nature of the challenge. Yet we’re all edging closer and closer to unthinkable answers, no matter how hard we try to avoid asking the unthinkable questions. Read more…

Climate change and Haiyan: body bags don’t stop the ghoulish arguments

November 20, 2013

“As Michael Mann noted, we can’t say for sure what impact climate change had on Haiyan because we only have one planet, and we’re running a dangerous experiment with it. But it’s important to ask the right questions when it comes to extreme events like Haiyan. Asking if global warming caused Haiyan is the wrong question”.

Dana Nuccitelli, writing in the Guardian (Will extreme weather like super typhoon Haiyan become the new norm?)

Dana is writing about attribution – the business of determining cause and effect. Since typhoon Haiyan, many media outlets have given considerable time and space to the terrible destruction and loss of life. Many reports have not mentioned climate change at all. Others did so in order to give time to those who insist there is no connection – this despite the fact that if we can’t prove a connection, then neither can we disprove one. A very few have correctly put the storm in context; climate change did not cause Haiyan, but there is no way the additional energy in the climate system now could not have had some effect. We just can’t tell what that effect was, or the extent of it.

The trouble with inadvertently conducting novel experiments on a chaotic system like the climate is that science finds itself in equally novel territory. Constantly reacting to events after they happen, climate science struggles to keep up with the unfolding events, and to constrain the scientific analysis to bounds described by uncertainty. This necessary equivocation puts climate scientists at a disadvantage when confronted by demagogues who seek only to leverage each event for their own purposes, for such people eschew equivocation in favour of hyperbole and disinformation. The prudent uncertainty of science is in stark contrast to those so very certain that Haiyan was not influenced by global warming. Read more…

Heartland’s NIPCC Report in US Schools – Notes for Educators

October 28, 2013

“Despite criticizing climate scientists for being overconfident about their data, models and theories, the Heartland Institute proclaims a conspicuous confidence in single studies and grand interpretations…it makes many bold assertions that are often questionable or misleading and do not highlight the uncertainties… Many climate sceptics seem to review scientific data and studies not as scientists but as attorneys, magnifying doubts and treating incomplete explanations as falsehoods rather than signs of progress towards the truth. … The Heartland Institute and its ilk are not trying to build a theory of anything. They have set the bar much lower, and are happy muddying the waters.”

“Heart of the Matter”, Nature 475 editorial (28 July 2011)

Many US teachers have been sent a memo by The Heartland Institute, an organisation whose mission is to “promote free-market solutions to social and economic problems”. The topic of the memo was a report on climate change by the NIPCC, an acronym for “Not the International Panel on Climate Change”.

In essence, educators are being asked by Heartland to review climate change science at a remove. By distributing the NIPCC report “Climate Change Reconsidered II – Physical Science” (CCR2) to teachers, Heartland hopes that the view they sponsor via the NIPCC – one that entirely contradicts the official findings of the IPCC – will prevail in the classroom, or at least feature in the curriculum. Read more…

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