Guest essay by Eric Worrall
An opinion piece published in Nature suggests that admitting there are unresolved uncertainties with climate science, improves your credibility with people who don’t already agree with you.
Sociology: Impacts on climate change views
The risks posed by climate change have been a subject of public policy debate in many countries. In some (most notably the United States), even the existence of an anthropogenic element in climate change remains controversial, despite increasing scientific consensus. Consequently, citizens’ acceptance or rejection of consensus science on climate change has become a topic of interest among social scientists. A 2012 paper by Daniel Kahan and colleagues in Nature Climate Change offered relevant insights and received considerable attention among climate scientists.
The stream of social science research on climate risk perceptions, including that of Kahan et al., forces recognition that climate ‘facts’ are not all that matter in judging risks. Values also matter. Climate change and efforts to reduce its risks affect different people and the things they value in different ways that change over time and are not entirely predictable. Climate choices involve trade-offs between different objectives and time horizons, also evoking values.
To inform such choices, science needs to produce more than just physical facts — it should also attend to the social effects of climate choices, including inaction. Climate education needs to recognize that knowledge is evolving and that some uncertainty is inevitable. In addition to facts, it might offer mental models that embody these complexities and encourage dialogue across different points of view. One potentially useful analogy that has been suggested is coping with progressive medical conditions such as hypertension or atherosclerosis, for which there may be multiple defensible responses, each with associated risks, and room for informed disagreement. Science can promote better-informed choices, but not straightforward answers.
Read more (requires free registration): http://www.nature.com/nclimate/journal/v6/n4/full/nclimate2970.html
The full opinion piece is unrelentingly alarmist – it contains several of the usual tired social signals, referencing the fossil fuel disinformation conspiracy theory, and other climate shibboleths, such as the suggestion that climate skepticism is a right wing phenomenon.
The article is correct about one thing – it recognizes that claiming certainty only plays well with people who are already utterly convinced of your point of view.
The authors seem to think the main uncertainty is deciding how to reduce our impact on the global climate. But as the ghastly track record of failed climate predictions demonstrates, there are huge uncertainties yet to be resolved. Climate scientists can’t even make up their minds about the temperature of the Earth, about whether or not there was a pause in global warming, let alone about what the climate might do next.
To suggest the science is in any way settled is utterly implausible. To base expensive policy decisions on models which have yet to demonstrate any predictive skill is a massive misallocation of economic resources.
Updated to fix a typo