Ignorant, out of touch, crazy

Those are the terms chosen by young American voters to describe climate change deniers in a poll conducted for the League of Conservation Voters. LCV is obviously pro-environment, but historically nonpartisan, and they used both a Democratic and a Republican pollster.

The fact that, to be accepted in Republican circles, its necessary to be ignorant, out of touch or crazy or, at the very least, deferential to the crazies who dominate that side of politics, is being recognised as a problem for the Republicans and an opportunity for the Democrats, going well beyond the specific issue of climate change.

The climate denial issue came up again in Andrew Bolt’s interview with Kevin Rudd, and I’ve been reminded of his repeated claim that I got estimates of the climate impact of the government’s emission target wrong. In fact, it was Bolt who was wrong, as on almost every topic he touches, in this case, out by a factor of 100.

Motes and beams (repost)

The Oz and Andrew Bolt have a tag team attack on me today (Google it if you want). Most of it consists of quotations, with lots of ellipses, that are meant to show me as a dangerous radical. I can’t say I’m too upset by that – from their perspective, it’s a fair assessment. But Bolt also repeats his claim that I made a factor-of-5 error in my estimate of the impact of Australia’s current 2020 target on global temperatures.

This is a striking piece of chutzpah, given that this estimate was made in the process of correcting a calculation by Bolt, which was out by two orders of magnitude. But it has finally provoked me to clear up some of the confusion on this. The starting point was this post by Bolt who used a calculation by Damon Matthews that each tonne of CO2 emitted into the atmosphere changes the equilibrium temperature by 0.000 000 000 0015 degrees, that is 1.5*10^-12 in scientific notation. Noting that the carbon price is expected to reduce emissions by 160 million tonnes per year by 2020, Bolt made the calculation that the emissions avoided in the year 2020 will reduce equilibrium temperature by 2.4*10^-4 or 0.00024 degrees, and treats this as an estimate of the impact of the policy.

This is an amazing howler on Bolt’s part. He’s only counted one year of emissions reductions for a policy that is supposed to permanently reduce emissions. I made the very quick calculation that, if the policy stays in place until 2100 and that the 2020 reduction in emissions was maintained over this period, the number used by Bolt would imply a reduction of 0.02 degrees. I did another rough calculation that came out the same way.

Bolt came back with a lower estimate by Roger Jones, who suggest that the policy would reduce temperature by only 0.004 degrees, lower by a factor of 5 than my estimate, but higher by a factor of 20 than Bolt’s silly calculation.

At this point I slipped up. As a result of a misunderstood conversation with Roger, I gave an incorrect explanation for the discrepancy. Roger subsequently advised that he had made his calculation using a standard modelling tool called MAGICC. I finally got around to downloading MAGICC, and trying it out, so I can now give an explanation for why our estimates differ. There are three main points

(1) The most important factor is that we are estimating two different things. MAGICC produces estimates of the temperature change by 2100, but the atmosphere takes a long time to reach equilibrium. For reductions in CO2 emissions spread out over the rest of this century, the change by 2100 is only about half the long run equilibrium change.

(2) Estimates of the sensitivity of the global climate to changes in CO2 concentrations vary. The most common measure is the equilibrium temperature change for a doubling in atmospheric CO2. Until recently MAGICC used 2.6 degrees as the default, on the low side of most estimates. I used 3.5, which gives a value around 30 per cent higher

(3) Finally, while it’s obviously silly to assume, like Bolt, that the policy is in effect for only one year, it’s not entirely clear how we should project its impact into the future. That depends on baseline projections of emissions from which to calculate percentage reductions. My simple estimate takes a constant reduction over 80 years, which is probably a bit on the high side. If you assumed that emissions were going to decline anyway over the second half of this century, the effect of the policy would be reduced, perhaps by half.

Those three factors, taken together, would account for the discrepancy in the two estimates. I don’t claim that I’ve got them exactly right and there may be points I’ve missed. But for someone like Bolt to pontificate on a subject like this, when he is incapable of avoiding or correcting even the most absurd errors, brings to mind Matthew 7:3-5.

A couple of minor points

First, Bolt’s behavior in crowing about a minor mistake on my part, while ignoring his own total absurdity, is par for the course among delusionists. A while back, there was a major scandal (it even got a “Gate”) over the fact that the thousand-page IPCC volume on the impact of climate change included an erroneous claim about Himalayan glaciers. But delusionists get away with far sillier stuff on a daily basis. For example, Christopher Monckton, until recently Bolt’s favorite source of scientific evidence[1] used Gavin Menzies 1421 to argue that the retreat of polar icecaps was nothing new, since the great Chinese fleet had taken the Arctic route on the return journey from discovering America.

Second, as Cut and Paste notes, I said when I took up the Climate Commission position that I’d try to refrain from polemics with people like Bolt. I haven’t stuck to that as well as I might have, and now I think it’s totally pointless. So, from now on, I plan to give as good as I get and, if possible, a bit more.

fn1. He was, after all, Thatcher’s science adviser, if only in bizarro world.

99 thoughts on “Ignorant, out of touch, crazy

  1. @Mel

    You’ve signed on to the conspiracy theory that all research on climate change is controlled by warmists? Do you think this was true even when the money was coming from Bush?

    Lindzen, Christy and (I think) Spencer have all received NSF funding for their work. The fact that the preponderance of research money goes to people who agree with the mainstream view is scarcely surprising – if most researchers didn’t agree with it, it wouldn’t be the mainstream view.

  2. PrQ,

    I’m still with the mainstream on AGW.

    My point is that money is not the major motivation for the cantankerous old goats who promote denialism. I’ve read a couple of history of science books and the cantankerous old goats are always there, telling the bright young things that they’ve got it all wrong.

    There is a thesis in geriatric psychology to be written on this.

  3. @Mel
    Mel, your analysis is a little unbalanced. You point out that the free-enterprise think-tanks funded by the Koch brothers are not exclusively focused on climate change denialism, but fail to point out that the more generously funded environmental groups are also not exclusively focused on climate change campaigning, nor is it necessarily the main focus of their activities (if 20% is a fair estimate for the RW thinktanks, I’d suggest its also fair for the environmental NGOs). So, assuming the dollar figures you’ve cited are correct, the funding asymmetry is still significantly lower than you’re suggesting.

  4. TM:

    “but fail to point out that the more generously funded environmental groups are also not exclusively focused on climate change campaigning … ”

    Sometimes I fail to point out the bleedingly obvious.

    I also failed to point out that many corporations want a green tinged image and thus fork out money for environmental issues including AGW.

    Back in 2008, private foundations, most of which are based on corporate wealth, put a lazy US$900 million into climate change funding. That alone is one thousand times more money than Kochtopus money put into denailism.

    My point remains. In fact I now think the ratio is more like 1:1,000.

  5. @Mel

    Conversely, even if it were true, you’d never know it from the way climate change gets covered in the (mainstream) media.

    What happens to the funding balance when you add Fox News, News Corp and the like on the side of the denialati?

    Also, how often does green tinge = green wash? In such cases, should that funding shift to the other side of the equation?

    So many questions, so little time.

  6. @Mel

    Perhaps you’re right about the balance of advocacy money. If we exclude money for actual science, the figures you cite suggest there still are probably more dollars going into policy advocacy. The AEI and other RW “think” tanks should also be included of course.

    It may be that because

    a) they are the rock throwers rather than the advocates of a position, their position is easier for the media to play when pretending to “balance”

    b) and the English-speaking mass media leans heavily to the right, the efforts of these RW rock throwers get a much more sympathetic hearing and extensive coverage than would be the case for anyone else with equal funding.

    Those pressing the case for anti-vaccination or anti-GM don’t get the benefit of “balance” in the media but rather, are treated as ratbags.

    Given that the anti-vaccination and anti-GM positions are no more flawed than those denying anthropogenic climate change (the anti-GM position perhaps somewhat less so)* it seems the main difference is that these positions (like mitigation of CO2 emissions) contradict established commercial interests (respectively Big Pharma and Agribusiness) meaning that the populist appeals against remote authority wouldn’t help the right in the long run.

    *NB I strongly support the standard vaccinations and know of no persuasive scientific reason to reject GM crops as a group. There may be a marketing need to restrict the roll out in some cases on other grounds (e.g. consumer choice)

  7. Not sure how the argument got into a question of who is or isn’t more likely motivated by money, but as an aside, AGW denialism is pretty much a child of the internet, isn’t it? Look at how ridiculously cheap and easy it is for Anthony Watts (TV weatherman with no undergraduate degree in anything), for example, to publish whatever guff he wants, and have it recycled via Andrew Bolt within 24 hours, turning up next morning on the Alan Jones show, and thereby convincing 50% of the Coalition that it is all crap and they have to replace their leader.

    If denialism was solely restricted to publication in magazines and newspapers, I find it hard to believe it could have achieved the political success that it has. It’s the cheap, self publishing, promotional power of the internet that has given it legs.

  8. Sometimes I fail to point out the bleedingly obvious.

    Well, it may have been bleedingly obvious, but the trouble is, you left it out of one side of your calculation, while including it in the other.

    I also failed to point out that many corporations want a green tinged image and thus fork out money for environmental issues including AGW.

    Back in 2008, private foundations, most of which are based on corporate wealth, put a lazy US$900 million into climate change funding. That alone is one thousand times more money than Kochtopus money put into denailism.

    Your argument’s starting to get a bit more dodgy at this point. Your link states that the $900 million in grants was for “addressing global warming”. In order to be compared directly to the Koch Bros. denialist funding, all that money would have to have been used exclusively for promotion/public relations/advertising of the climate change problem, and not for actual emissions reductions or low emissions technology development. Can you confirm that all of that $900 million was spent on promotion and campaigning? Personally, I doubt it.

    My point remains. In fact I now think the ratio is more like 1:1,000.

    I don’t dispute your general point. It seems very likely to me that significantly more money is spent on promoting awareness of climate change as an issue than is spent on promoting denialism. That’s why it’s surprising to me that you’re using sloppy reasoning and dodgy figures to support this view. There’s no need, so why do it?

  9. @Fran Barlow the economics and sociology of science does not work in the way you seem to suggest. Why should climate scientists be expected to be cut from a finer moral timber than other scientists?

    Popper wrote that the growth of knowledge depends not on the ethics of the individual scientists but on the critical spirit to scientific community as a whole. The critical scrutiny of others policed the truth, testing ideas.

    Philosophers of science have repeatedly demonstrated that more than one theoretical construction can always be placed upon a given collection of data.

    Thomas Kuhn used a quote from Max Planck: “a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it’.

    As Kuhn pointed out, in a paradigm shift, the transition between worldviews was neither instantaneous nor calm, and involves a protracted set of attacks, both with empirical data as well as rhetorical or philosophical arguments, by both sides.

    A field’s textbooks must be rewritten in the aftermath of a scientific revolution. Once rewritten, they inevitably disguise not only the role but the existence and significance of the revolutions that produced the current paradigm.

    Knowledge does not grow as though it was a match onwards and upwards to the light. It moves in zigs-and-zags and abrupt shifts.

    p.s. where would the department of climate change be but for climate alarmism?

  10. There is plenty on the Koch Bros and their programme of public manipulation


    Google articles on the Koch Bros secret meetings.

    Koch Bros don’t need to use their own money as they command a small army of 1 percentile aspitants who have access to corporate funds to divert. In an earlier secret meeting Murdoch was represented by one of his key executives.

    As is probably mentioned above denialist activites are not about scientific research, they are about misrepresentation of research mega amplified by the Murdoch slave media empire. Koch dollars go a long way when all they seek to do is cast doubt.

    The method is the “how many times do you beat your wife” tactic, timing and broad access to people who really do not care that much as they assume that their government is taking care of these big issues on the one hand and have a vote on the other.

    Mel, your “legwork” is pretty lame.

  11. TM:

    “That’s why it’s surprising to me that you’re using sloppy reasoning and dodgy figures to support this view. There’s no need, so why do it?”

    I acknowledge that I’ve done nothing more than a very rough back of the envelop ballpark thingie.

    I like to prick holes in dumb arguments made by the Left even though I consider myself a moderate Leftist and one of those dumb arguments is that Evil Corporations are putting vastly greater dollars into denialism than is spent by pro-AGW corps, foundations, private philanthropists, universities, governments etc..

    The fact that conservatives and libertarians ( even more so the better educated ones) are swayed by BS by denialists is a far more interesting story than the story about Evil Corporations. PrQ puts it mostly down to dishonesty and I’m sure some of it is, but I think what is more important is how all of us are effectively imprisoned by the ideologies we subscribe to.

    The same applies to Greens leader Christine Milne- no she isn’t lying- she really does believe in the horrors of frankenfoods and this is largely because of her ideological priors.

    I’m glad to see Fran has not swallowed the frankenfoods fable about GM food, but her priors are Marxist and Marxists have always tended to be techno-optimists.

  12. My point is that money is not the major motivation for the cantankerous old goats who promote denialism.

    On the whole that’s correct. The movement relied for its start on corporate money of various kinds (Exxon and the anti-science foundations set up by the tobacco lobby), but now it’s become a self-sustaining piece of tribal identity for cantankerous old goats. At this point, most of the corporations would happily settle, but the goats won’t let them

    Still, as you said in another thread, a valid point is rarely helped by quoting dodgy numbers, and yours are thoroughly dodgy.

  13. BilB:

    “Mel, your “legwork” is pretty lame.”

    Well rather than mouth off, how about you show us your figures.

    You can start by detailing the anti-AGW funding provided by “1 percentile aspitants” (sic) you mention.

  14. PrQ:

    Still, as you said in another thread, a valid point is rarely helped by quoting dodgy numbers, and yours are thoroughly dodgy.

    I’m happy to accept that the numbers are a bit dodgy but they are nonetheless, I think, enough to dispel the myth that this is all about money.

    I think part of the collective conservative psych is to react against anything proposed by someone who is (at least nominally) progressive.

    Hence conservatives squawking madly about the dangers of Obamcare even though it is much the same as the Romneycare they didn’t oppose.

  15. “This” (being climate change denial) is very much about money.

    In fact it is a little ironic that the keenest footsoldiers for the denialist obfuscation effort are unpaid, will never profit from their efforts and will suffer along with the rest of us to the extent that they succeed in delaying or preventing the scientifically ascertained reductions of CO2 required.

    The amounts of money involved are staggering. There is even a good argument that the entire economic system, as currently structured and controlled, is at stake.

    Actual traceable and reported figures on the amounts attributed as having been directly “spent” on denial are tiny when compared to the “in kind” (such as having the Murdoch machine tell lies dressed up as truth) contributions toward the goal – ie: delay indefinitely action.

  16. On the topic of FF, here is that crazy greenie Fatih Birol from that loopy-out-there crank outfit IEA:

    About two-thirds of all proven reserves of oil, gas and coal will have to be left undeveloped if the world is to achieve the goal of limiting global warming at two degrees Celsius, according to the chief economist at the International Energy Agency.

    Addressing participants in the latest round of UN climate talks in Bonn, Fatih Birol said this should be an “eye-opener” for pension funds with significant investments in the energy sector – particularly in coal – as well as for ratings agencies.

    He predicted coal would be hardest hit in the “unburnable carbon” scenario, followed by oil and gas. “We cannot afford to burn all the fossil fuels we have. If we did that, it [average global surface temperature] would go higher than four degrees.

    Why are my fellow Australians so dead-set keen on being the laughing stock of the rest of the planet? I refuse to believe it is because they are simply stupid. Even blind partisan hackery doesn’t explain it.

    Anyone who isn’t a shill got any suggestions as to what is going on here?

  17. Mel, you would have to have been living in a rock cave in the Kimberlies somewhere for the last ten years to have said that “this” (your incredibly dodgey summation of climate change denier expenditure) is

    “enough to dispel the myth that this is all about money”

    What the…..?

    Australia’s No1 Climate Change Denier (denier of everything actually), Tony Abbott has roundly abused prime ABC television time in an attempt to claim that Climate Change does not exist and that any money spent addressing it is a total waste and a threat to the entire economy. And every Coalition redneck that I have spoken to believes this to be the case.

  18. The conspiracy theory of ignorance which interprets ignorance not as a mere lack of knowledge but as the work of some sinister power, the source of impure and evil influences which pervert and poison our minds and instil in us the habit of resistance to knowledge. (Kark Popper Conjectures and Refutations)

    the truth is out there but for sinister forces excuses people from hard analysis and persuasion.

    The possibility that are ignorance is large in the dciences and many social consequences are unintended is not as an exciting an explanation.

    Milton Friedman argued that people agree on most objectives, but differ on the predicted outcomes of different policies and institutions.

    There is Christopher Robert and Richard Zeckhauser‘s taxonomy of disagreement:

    Positive disagreements can be over questions of:
    1. Scope: what elements of the world one is trying to understand
    2. Model: what mechanisms explain the behaviour of the world
    3. Estimate: what estimates of the model’s parameters are thought to obtain in particular contexts

    Values disagreements can be over questions of:
    1. Standing: who counts
    2. Criteria: what counts
    3. Weights: how much different individuals and criteria count

    Any positive analysis will tend to include elements of scope, model, and estimation, though often these elements intertwine; they frequently feature in an implicit or undifferentiated manner. Likewise, normative analysis will also include elements of standing, criteria, and weights, whether or not these distinctions are recognized.

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