A lot of Australia’s media coverage on climate change is political and wrong

The facts are simple:

  1. There is scientific consensus on human-caused climate change. Looking at 12,000 peer-reviewed abstracts on the subjects of ‘global warming’ and ‘global climate change’ published between 1991 and 2011, where those papers took a position on the cause of global warming over 97% agreed that humans are the substantial cause of it.
  2. One third of articles in Australia’s major newspapers rejected or cast doubt on the overwhelming findings of climate science. Also, Andrew Bolt indulges in humanity-baiting for ratings.

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Climate sceptics are more likely to be conspiracy theorists

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A study just published in PLOS One finds that people who deny man-made climate change are more likely to believe in (a) completely free markets and (b) conspiracy theories about vaccination and the new World Order.

Free-market worldviews are an important predictor of the rejection of scientific findings that have potential regulatory implications, such as climate science, but not necessarily of other scientific issues. Conspiracist ideation, by contrast, is associated with the rejection of all scientific propositions tested.

Read the entire paper here, or this summary in the Guardian.

The IPCC report: doubt it if you’re a fool

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The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its 5th assessment report this week. You might have heard.

They have said that long-term trends confirm that our climate continues to warm, that this will very likely have very dire consequences for weather events and sea levels in the next couple of hundred years, and that they’re now 95% certain (up from 90% five years ago) that human activity is contributing to this in an unprecedented way.

Naysayers continue to dispute this. These naysayers are deluded.

I’ve read the Summary for Policymakers of the most recent report. You can too, it’s a PDF downloadable from the link above. It is complicated stuff. I get most of it, but I am a person who lives and breathes science. I was a scientist for some years. I have a Masters degree in applied science. I read about science all the time. I understand physics and probability. I take science and maths courses for fun in my spare time.

But even so it is challenging for me to absorb the details of this report.  And despite my extremely strong science background I am not a climate scientist. Which means that the vast bulk of humanity has no chance. I’m not being a snob when I say that. Most people just don’t have the background in peer review methodology and chart design and sampling theory and heat transfer methods to understand the summary, let alone judge the findings.

So the very best reasons to believe the IPCC report are:

  • There is zero chance that the roughly 800 climate science experts at the IPCC could all conspire to fool the world, even if for some reason some (or most!) of them wanted to.
  • There is zero chance that climate scientists and impacts experts (including those outside the IPCC) who comment on man-made global warming – 97.2% of whom agree it’s happening – could all be fooled or are also conspiring to fool us.
  • We trust scientists in all other areas of endeavour – medicine, chemistry, astronomy, etc. Why are we selectively second-guessing these guys?

So I’m continuing to make the personal lifestyle choices I can to minimise my own environmental impact. And I will strongly support, with my votes and donations, large-scale endeavours that I think make sense for curbing our reliance on carbon-emitting technology.

If you don’t you’re a fool.

Climategate: What Really Happened?

American public opinion on man-made climate change swung wildly in 2008 due to a fiasco known as “Climategate”. MotherJones writes an excellent article about how it was allowed to happen.

The trigger was the release of internal emails from the East Anglia University’s Climate Research Unit (CRU). They showed discussions between climate scientists who were frustrated at being abused and threatened; who were tired of lies; who wanted to fight back and make the public aware of the facts around the up-tick in carbon emissions. Industry seized on those discussions as admissions of doubt and duplicity. The result?

In November 2008, 71 percent of [US] respondents agreed that the planet is warming. Five weeks after Climategate, only 57 percent believed it.

In September 2009, RealClimate, a blog launched by Mann and other scientists to fight back against skeptics, weighed in. Several of the blog’s contributors drafted a public statement about what they saw as a pattern: “An unverified accusation of malfeasance is made based on nothing, and it is instantly ‘telegraphed’ across the denial-o-sphere while being embellished along the way to apply to…any and all scientists, even those not even tangentially related. The usual suspects become hysterical with glee that finally the ‘hoax’ has been revealed and congratulations are handed out all round…Net effect on lay people? Confusion. Net effect on science? Zip.”

A year and a half later, the question of who stole the emails and released them has never been answered. Mosher and other climate skeptics maintain that it was likely an inside job, carried out by someone at the University of East Anglia who wanted problematic science exposed. The CRU, on the other hand, maintains that it was the work of someone outside of the university—a “very professional job,” says Trevor Davies, pro-vice chancellor for research at East Anglia and the former head of the CRU.

So did the scientists do something more diabolical than gripe about critics and fret over how their research would be interpreted? Not according to seven separate inquiries on the subject, each of which found that the researchers’ work was not in question—though several concluded that their behavior was.

But none of the exonerations mattered: The scientists had lost control of the narrative.

Science and reason

The Guardian has a good article about science, reason, and Martin Rees’s question about whether humans will use advances in science to survive or destroy themselves.

Using reason, humans associated disease with an invisible agency, which is why malaria has its name, from mal aria (bad air). Using science, humans grasped the fact that malaria was a microscopic infection delivered by an identifiable insect in particular climatic conditions, one that could be treated and prevented.

The question raised by Martin Rees, astronomer-royal and president of the Royal Society, in his Reith lectures – the last of which is broadcast on Radio 4 today – is whether humans are smart enough to make the best of the accelerating advance of science. Lord Rees’s book, Our Final Century, speculates that human civilisation may not survive another 90 years. The cocktail of modern biology and information technology could advance human prospects, or as easily deliver oblivion.

Just as good as the article, though, are the comments beneath it. Climate change and the basic philosophy of science continue to drive a wedge between reasonable people and loons.

Climate change skeptics

About half of the people in the UK doubt that global climate change is man-made. My experience of Aussies so far is that the percentage here must be at least that high. Why do so many people doubt what the vast majority of scientists agree on?

According to Ben Goldacre, there are a few reasons:

  • We’re predisposed to undervalue bad news that will only affect people far in the future.
  • We tend to look for flaws in arguments for things we don’t really want to do.
  • Climate change is complex science.
  • We’ve seen governments distort, ignore, misrepresent, or waffle on science before, so we don’t trust them.
  • The media gives more attention to contrarian headline-grabbing viewpoints than they should, because they grab readers.
  • “Zombie” arguments that keep getting brought up no matter how oftenthey’re refuted.

Ultra-dense Deuterium May Be Nuclear Fuel Of The Future

I was browsing the energy section of ScienceDaily and came across an alternative-energy article about using extremely compressed heavy hydrogen – deuterium – to produce energy by fusion. Very cool stuff.

Nuclear fusion is the name given to the process of combining the nuclei of two atoms together into one new atom. Depending on what you’re smashing together, the process might absorb energy or it might release it. In general, for lighter elements, it releases energy. Fusion is what happens inside stars, and what makes them release energy. (This is is contrast to fission, which is the splitting apart of atomic nuclei into smaller bits, which might also absorb or release – as in, nuclear bomb – energy.)

Deuterium, or heavy hydrogen, is a hydrogen atom with a neutron in it (regular hydrogen has no neutron). When two deuterium isotopes (atoms with odd numbers of neutrons) combine with a water atom, you get D2O: heavy water.

If you can make two deuterium isotopes fuse, you get fusion energy. Quite a lot of energy, in fact. But it’s not so easy to make them fuse. Which is a shame, because hydrogen is the universe’s most plentiful element, and finding or making deuterium isn’t much more difficult.

What the ScienceDaily article describes is that researchers at the University of Gothenburg have been able to fuse deuterium pretty efficiently using lasers if they first compress the deuterium into an ultra-dense form. Like really dense: they’re producing microscopic amounts of it in Gothenburg, but a 10cm cube of it would weigh 130 tonnes. Denser than the core of the sun.

But if you can produce that ultra-dense deuterium the atoms are so close together that you can feasibly produce fusion. And voila, energy. And they claim they may be able to tweak the process so that, unlike other nuclear energy processes that produce highly radioactive waste, all this system spits out is non-radioactive helium and hydrogen. Wunderbar.

I’m glad that alternative energy research isn’t stopping at wind and solar. Think, you big brains, think!

How much global warming is too much?

From ScienceBlogs’ The Island of Doubt: are we safe with 2 degrees of warming?

The short answer is “nobody knows,” of course. The ice core records suggest that we’re adding CO2 to the atmosphere faster than the planet has ever seen before. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the consequences of doing so — planetary warming and extreme drought in dry areas, for example — will be felt soon, or at all. But in the past, such consequences sooner or later come about. And it would be foolish to operate on the assumption that the Earth has some of kind of hitherto undiscovered compensatory mechanism that spares us from them.

Which is why politicians would prefer climatologists tell them just what kind of warming civilization can handle and what we can’t.

Hi! I’m not really here right now. I’m on vacation in Australia. Through the magic of scheduled blogging, I’ve set a little something I find interesting to be posted each day I’m gone.