Climate Through the Data Smog

Perhaps you know the story. . .

In 1854 the great Chief Seattle of the Duwamish, ruler of six tribes around Puget Sound, reluctantly agreed to the final sale of the tribal lands to the American Government. But he was so appalled by the greedy, grasping nature of the white man he gave a final passionate speech at the ceremony:

“The earth is our mother. Earth does not belong to man, but man to the Earth.

Will you teach your children what we have taught our children? That the earth is our mother? What befalls the earth befalls all the sons of the earth.

All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.

I have seen a thousand rotting buffaloes on the prairies left by he white man who shot them from a passing train. What will happen when the buffalo are all slaughtered ? All the wild horses tamed ? What will happen when the secret corners of the forest are heavy with the scent of many men and the view of the ripe hills is blotted by talking wires ? Where is the thicket ? Gone. Where is the eagle ? Gone. The end of living, the beginning of survival.”

Not surprisingly Chief Seattle’s powerful and noble speech is often quoted by environmentalists. Al Gore quoted it in his book Earth in the Balance in 1992.

There’s one small issue . . .

Chief Seattle didn’t say a word of it.

The record of Chief Seattle’s speech was significantly rewritten by Texas screenwriter Ted Perry for his 1972 screenplay ‘Home’. Even the ‘original’ record of the speech, on which this rewrite was based, is regarded as being inauthentic, the reporter Dr Henry Smith was present to hear Chief Seattle’s speech, but didn’t publish his account of it until 33 years later in 1887 !

Chief Seattle’s impressive ecological speech became very popular, but unfortunately is only a  myth,  just snake oil.

It’s not that people normally set-out to deceive or mislead, it’s just that we all tend to believe what we want to believe – the so-called confirmation bias. The truth ‘might be out there’, but sometimes you just can’t beat the attraction of a good story !

I recently read the book The Shallows, by Nicholas Carr. Nicholas argues that the internet is changing the way we all think, learn and remember. He suggests that scanning and skimming has now replaced slower deeper review of longer articles and books, as our dominant method of reading. We also rapidly jump between multiple sources of information quickly – often considering them as if they all had equal authority, even though we know information on the web isn’t all the same . . . as on the web there’s little peer review and  few mentions of sources.

Before the internet, access to facts was the preserve of the expert – someone with the right books on their bookshelf, or who subscribed to the right journals. Now we barely need to remember anything, from capitals of the world to our friend’s phone numbers, all the facts we need are sat on servers waiting to be browsed.

As a result we all can now easily go fact surfing, seeking ‘evidence’ to support any of our views or opinions. The internet seems almost  to invite this ‘point-scoring’ type of debate.

Perhaps we should be humble enough to remind ourselves that access to the facts doesn’t equal understanding.

The, so called, DIKW hierarchy suggests that access to data (bare unconnected facts) is less useful than information (assessed, meaningful and useful data, with context), which in turn is less useful than knowledge (learnt and employed, organised and structured information), which in turn is less useful than wisdom (deeper understanding – not just know-how, but know-why).

These cautionary reminders could of course apply to lots of issues, but the hot-topic (pun intended) seems to be climate change.

The questions of  belief or skepticism in man-made climate change has become a divisive political issue in the upcoming US Presidential election. I’ve been both surprised and somewhat saddened to follow some of the debate on climate change, including assertions that global warming is a hoax (not just a scientific error – but a deliberate global conspiracy), that carbon dioxide cannot be harmful because it is a “natural by-product of nature” or that it cannot be harmful because it’s just a trace gas !

As I’ve stated previously, despite having a Masters degree in environmental science, being a Chartered Environmentalist, and being paid to do environmental science for my day job, I’m simply not able to state from personal, first-hand experience that man-made climate change is occurring, because climate science isn’t my field.

I suspect that’s true for most people.

So why do I accept man-made climate change is occurring ?

It’s not blind trust, I’ve obviously done my own reading, but the key thing is I see no reason to doubt the professional view of 97% or so of the world’s climate scientists. Perhaps I have a defective conspiracy gene, but surely if 97% of the world’s oncologists or heart surgeons all agreed what was wrong with me, I’d be inclined to listen . . . and I probably wouldn’t suggest it was just a scam so they could line their own pockets by doing unnecessary heart surgery and chemotherapy !

Below is a list of scientific organisations that accept man-made climate change is occurring.

If you’ve any climate denying friends perhaps you might direct them to this list, and suggest to them that if they’ve read something on the internet that proves all these organisations are wrong, they should urgently contact them to help set them straight.

Just a thought.

RELATED ARTICLES – Do You Believe in Climate Change ?

Photo by Dawn, via Flickr

Do You BELIEVE in Climate Change ?

“The warning about global warming has been extremely clear for a long time. We are facing a global climate crisis. It is deepening. We are entering a period of consequences.” – AL GORE

“The problem is we are pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere much faster than the land and seas can absorb it, the accumulating gas is trapping heat and upsetting the world’s climate” – LEONARDO DICAPRIO

Should we listen to Al and Leo ?

Should we ‘believe’ in climate change ?

‘No’ and ‘sort of’.

Dramatic pause.

Climate change has become a massively loaded and divisive issue. For some it’s almost become an article of faith.

As I now sound like a climate change denier (which I’m not), I should probably explain myself. . .


Should we listen to the views of celebrities when considering the science of climate change ?

I’ve a lot of respect for both Al and Leo, they make good use of their celebrity status in support of many worthy causes, and they’ve both been important advocates for climate change, but neither of them are climate scientists.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m pleased they champion the issue and raise awareness, but just as I wouldn’t want to have to rely on Al’s or Leo’s advice on gene therapy or haematology, I’ll continue to treat any of their pronouncements on climate science with caution.

I suggest we’d generally all do better listening to the opinions of qualified climate scientists themselves, rather than celebrities, public figures or anyone else (myself included) when considering climate science, and then make up our own mind.

The problem is, of course, that for most of us life’s too short to wade through the enormous volume of information, papers and data. Instead we rely on others, especially the media, to review and summarise on our behalf. Needless to say this makes us vulnerable to opinion, bias and even outright lies. We need to tread carefully.

Last year the Mail On Sunday published the article The Mini Ice Age Starts Here suggesting that the previous cold winter debunked the idea of global warming. It attracted a significant response, not least from one of the scientists quoted in the article. Interestingly several recent stories in the Daily Mail have had a different tone. Don’t believe everything you read in the press!


So should we believe in climate change ?

My problem is with the word believe.

We don’t normally use the word belief when talking about robustly verifiable ‘facts’ - do you believe in apples or that that milk comes from cows ? Instead we tend to reserve it for situations where there is significant disagreement. either about the ‘facts’, such as believing in ghosts or UFOs, or about a particular policy or action, such as believing in capital punishment or fair trade.

Climate change is a scientific theory, like relativity, evolution or plate tectonics. Scientists form their view on theories by evaluating the currently available evidence, and then either supporting or opposing to whatever degree they see fit. It’s more accurate to consider proponents and skeptics, than believers and unbelievers.

But how do we decide what to believe ?

When considering essentially scientific matters it would be nice to think we carefully examine the available evidence and then rationally consider our view. Unfortunately psychologists tell us we tend to form our beliefs on an emotional basis, and then rationalise them afterwards to ourselves.

We are often more influenced by our friends and families, or our upbringing, than the merits of an issue itself. We cannot help but apply all our personal preconceptions and prejudices and collectively all these factors are referred to by psychologists as our cognitive biases. Interestingly they are considered to still apply, even if we are aware of them – so if you think you’re more objective than everyone else, you’re probably mistaken!

Once we’ve formed our beliefs it’s hard for us to change them.  How many times have you been successful in arguing someone into a different point of view ? Even though we kid ourselves otherwise, changing our mind usually requires as much of an emotional journey as an intellectual one. In order to change our opinions, we first need to change how we feel.

So do I believe in climate change ?

Based on everything I’ve read, seen and heard, I am of the opinion that the evidence clearly shows the world to be warming, and that this is due to the increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. I consider the evidence to be equally clear that this is due to our burning of fossil fuels, and that temperatures look set to continue rising.

It is my subjective opinion that this is a bad thing, and we should try and do something about it.

This isn’t some kind of statement of faith, no doubt if the scientific consensus changes, my views will change too.

Recent polls indicate that 48% of Americans now believe that news coverage of global warming generally exaggerates its seriousness.

Those of us concerned about the prospect of climate change should be alarmed by this. We need to better educate ourselves, and more clearly separate the science from our opinions when discussing climate change if we are to turn this around. After all, what we should do to prevent and respond to climate change IS a legitimate topic of debate. To quote American Senator Daniel Moynihan: “Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts”.

As somewhere to start I highly recommend an excellent series of short videos by ‘Potholer54’, the science journalist and writer Peter Hadfield. They are probably best watched in sequence.

1 – Climate change – the scientific debate

2 – Climate change – the objections

3 – Climate change – anatomy of a myth

4 – Climate change – Gore vs Durkin

5 – Climate change – isn’t it natural ?

6 – Climate change – those hacked emails

7 – Climate change – science censorship

8 – Climate change – has the earth been cooling ?

8a – Climate change – no global warming for 15 years ?

9 – Climate change – meet the scientists

10 – Climate change – imminent ice age debunked

11 – Climate change – hurricanes, atolls and coral

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Photo by Tom Harding