Belfast Telegraph

Koch-funded climate denial, the Kardashians and global warming: an interview with climatologist Judith Curry

Climate change debate taken over by social media and propaganda

By James Stafford

Climate change continues to drive energy policy, despite the fact that there is no way to reconcile eradicating energy poverty in much of the world with reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

This is one of the many conundrums of the climate change debate — a debate that has been taken over by social media and propaganda, while scientists struggle to get back into the game and engage the public.

In an interview with James Stafford from US climatologist Judith Curry discusses:

•    The Koch-funded climate denial machine

•    Why the public is losing trust in scientists

•    How alarmist propaganda has skewed the climate debate

•    How climate change has contributed to a new literary genre

•    The impact of social media and the ‘Kardashian Factor’

•    Climate and the ‘clash of values’

•    Global warming or global cooling?

•    The Polar Vortex and ‘global warming’

•    Extreme weather hysteria

•    Why climate change should not drive energy policy

James Stafford: You've talked a lot about the role of communication and public relations in the climate change debate. Where do scientists fail in this respect?

Judith Curry: Climate science communication hasn’t been very effective in my opinion.  The dominant paradigm seems to be that a science knowledge deficit of the public and policy makers exists, which is exacerbated by the Koch-funded climate denial machine.  This knowledge deficit then results in the public failing to act with the urgency that is urged by climate scientists.

This strategy hasn’t worked for a lot of reasons. The chief one that concerns me as a scientist is that strident advocacy and alarmism is causing the public to lose trust in scientists.

James Stafford: What is the balance between engagement with the public on this issue and propaganda?

Judith Curry: There are two growing trends in climate science communications – engagement and propaganda. Engagement involves listening and recognises that communication is a two-way street. It involves collaboration between scientists, the public and policy makers, and recognises that the public and policy makers don’t want to be told what to do by scientists. The other trend has been propaganda. The failure of the traditional model of climate science communication has resulted in more exaggeration and alarmism, appeals to authority, appeals to fear, appeals to prejudice, demonizing those that disagree, name-calling, oversimplification, etc.

There is a burgeoning field of social science research related to science communications.  Hopefully this will spur more engagement and less propaganda.

James Stafford: You've also talked about the climate change debate creating a new literary genre. How is this 'Cli-Fi' phenomenon contributing to the intellectual level of the public debate and where do you see this going?

Judith Curry: I am very intrigued by Cli-Fi as a way to illuminate complex aspects of the climate debate. There are several sub-genres emerging in Cli-Fi – the dominant one seems to be dystopian (e.g. scorched earth). I am personally very interested in novels that involve climate scientists dealing with dilemmas, and also in how different cultures relate to nature and the climate. I think that Cli-Fi is a rich vein to be tapped for fictional writing.

James Stafford: How would you describe the current intellectual level of the climate change debate?

Judith Curry: Well, the climate change debate seems to be diversifying, as sociologists, philosophers, engineers and scientists from other fields enter the fray. There is a growing realization that the UNFCCC/IPCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change/Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) has oversimplified both the problem and its solution. The wicked climate problem is growing increasingly wicked as more and more dimensions come into play. The diversification helps with the confirmation bias and ‘groupthink’ problem.

Hopefully this diversification will lead to greater understanding and policies that are more robust to the deep uncertainties surrounding the climate change problem.

James Stafford: You've also talked about the "Kardashian Factor" ... Can you expand on this?

Judith Curry: The Kardashian Factor relates to a scientist’s impact in social media.  There is a growing disconnect between scientists who impact within the ivory tower, as measured by publications and citations, versus those scientists that are tweeting and blogging. While some of the smartest people on the planet are university professors, most of them simply don’t matter in today’s great debates. The use of the term ‘Kardashian Factor’ is designed to marginalize social media impact as shallow popularity.

Social media is changing the world, and academia hasn’t quite figured out what to do about it. On issues relevant to public debate, social media is rivaling published academic research in its impact. Social media is leveling the playing field and democratizing science. The skills required to be successful in social media include good writing/communication skills and the abilities to synthesize, integrate, and provide context. Those who are most successful at social media also have a sense of humor and can connect to broader cultural issues – they also develop a trustworthy persona. These are non-trivial skills, and they are general traits of people that have impact. 

So, why do I do spend a lot of my time engaging with the public via social media? I’m interested in exploring social media as a tool for engaging with the public, group learning, exploring the science-policy interface, and pondering the many dimensions of the wicked climate problem. I would like to contribute to the public debate and support policy deliberations, I would like to educate a broader and larger group of people, and finally I would like to learn from people outside the group of my academic peers (and social media is a great way to network). I am trying to provoke people to think outside the box of their own comfort zone on the complex subject of climate change.

James Stafford: Does the current debate seem to lack 'layers' that get lost in the politics and socio-economics?

Judith Curry: The debate is polarized in a black-white yes-no sort of way, which is a consequence of oversimplifying the problem and its solution. Although you wouldn’t think so by listening to the Obama administration on the topic of climate change, the debate is becoming more complex and nuanced. Drivers for the growing number of layers in the climate debate are the implications of the 21st century hiatus in warming, the growing economic realities of attempting to transition away from fossil fuels, and a growing understanding of the clash of values involved.

James Stafford: How does the climate change debate differ, in your experience, in varying cultures; for instance, from the United States to Western Europe, or Canada?

Judith Curry: The U.S. is more skeptical of the idea of dangerous anthropogenic global warming than is Western Europe. In the U.S., skepticism is generally associated with conservatives/libertarians/Republicans, whereas in Western Europe there is no simple division along the lines of political parties. In the developed world, it is not unreasonable to think ahead 100 or even 300 years in terms of potential impacts of policies, whereas the developing world is more focused on short-term survivability and economic development.

James Stafford: How significant are cultural elements to this debate?

Judith Curry: The cultural elements of this debate are probably quite substantial, but arguably poorly understood. A key issue is regional vulnerability, which is a complex mix of natural resources, infrastructure, governance, institutions, social forces and cultural values.

James Stafford:  Are we in a period of global warming or global cooling?

Judith Curry: The Earth’s surface temperature has been generally increasing since the end of the Little Ice Age, in the mid 19th century. Since then, the rate of warming has not been uniform – there was strong warming from 1910-1940 and 1975-2000. Since 1998, there have been periods exceeding a decade when there has been no statistically significant warming.

Continually increasing amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse act to warm the planet, so why hasn’t the surface temperature been increasing? This seems to be caused primarily by a change in the circulation patterns in the Pacific Ocean, although solar cooling is also contributing to an extent that is uncertain.

James Stafford: What is the 'polar vortex' and what does it have to do with global warming?

Judith Curry: The polar vortex is a circulation pattern in the upper atmosphere that influences surface weather. Ideas linking changes in the polar vortex to global warming are not supported by any evidence that I find convincing.

James Stafford: How does the media take advantage of every major -- or even semi-major -- weather event to make dire climate forecasts or support one or another polarised side of this debate? Can you give us some recent examples?

Judith Curry: The impact of extreme weather events in raising concern about global warming became apparent following Hurricane Katrina. The psychology of immediate and visible loss is far more salient than hypothetical problems in the next century. Hence extreme weather events have been effectively used in propaganda efforts. This is in spite of the assessment of the IPCC that doesn’t find much evidence linking extreme weather events to global warming, other than heat waves.

James Stafford: Where should energy fit into the climate change debate, and how much of a concern to the climate is the energy resources drive? Does anyone really know?

Judith Curry: It has never made sense to me for climate change to be the primary driver for energy policy. Even if we believe the climate models, nothing that we do in terms of emissions reductions will have much of an impact on climate until the late 21st century.  Energy poverty is a huge issue in much of the world, and there is no obvious way to reconcile reducing CO2 emissions with eradicating energy poverty. Again, this conundrum is evidence of the wickedness of the climate change problem.

Judith Curry is a US climatologist and former chair of the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology, as well as the co-author of over 140 scientific papers. Her prolific writings offer a rational view of the climate change debate. You can find more of Judith’s work at her blog:

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