Or, should I say, anti-climate denial school. We’d all signed up for Denial101x, a new, six-week MOOC (that’s “massive open online course,” for all you education luddites) aimed at making sense of this whole phenomenon — and at giving us the tools to fight deniers, so that we can all get on with fighting climate change itself.
Our professor is John Cook, the Climate Communication Fellow for the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland and the founder of Skeptical Science, which over the past two years has been an invaluable resources for me, a newbie debunker of deniers.
Of course, there’s always more to learn. As a student, Cook told me via email, I can expect to leave the course with “a better understanding what’s happening to our climate, able to identify the techniques used to distort the science and be able to debunk misinformation.” That’s a great thing for a climate blogger, as well as — and this is really the point — for any concerned citizen of the world who wants to understand the truth about climate science for themselves.
The course doesn’t waste time wringing its hands over whether or not to call deniers “deniers” — a true skeptic, Cook explains in his welcome video, “doesn’t come to a conclusion until they’ve considered the evidence,” while “someone who denies well-established science comes to a conclusion first, and then discounts any evidence that conflicts with their beliefs.” But it is interested in why climate deniers believe the things they do. That’s because in order to effectively debunk climate denier myths, Cook told me, it’s important first to understand the psychology behind them — and to understand how and why they’re so good at casting doubt on the scientific consensus.
That, incidentally, was the theme of our first lesson. I’d recommend anyone who’s interested to sign up for themselves (it’s free, and only requires one to two hours of your time for its six-week run), but here are a few highlights from day one:
The untold – and terrifying – story behind the earthquake that devastated Nepal last Saturday morning begins with something that sounds quite benign. It’s the ebb and flow of rainwater in the great river deltas of India and Bangladesh, and the pressure that puts on the grinding plates that make up the surface of the planet.
Recently discovered, that causal factor is seen by a growing body of scientists as further proof that climate change can affect the underlying structure of the Earth.
Because of this understanding, a series of life-threatening “extreme geological events” – earthquakes, volcanoes and tsunamis – is predicted by a group of eminent geologists and geophysicists including University College London’s Bill McGuire, professor emeritus of Geophysical and Climate Hazards.
“Climate change may play a critical role in triggering certain faults in certain places where they could kill a hell of a lot of people,” says Professor McGuire. Some of his colleagues suspect the process may already have started.
It sounds like a pitch for a Hollywood apocalypse-fest – indeed the movie 2012featured the Earth’s crust collapsing after a rapid heating of the Earth’s core. The mechanism here is rather more mundane, though potentially no less devastating.
Evidence from the end of the last Ice Age has already shown that the planet’s uneasy web of seismic faults – cracks in the crust like the one that runs along the Himalayas – are very sensitive to the small pressure changes brought by change in the climate. And a sensitive volcano or seismic faultline is a very dangerous one.
The disappearing ice, sea-level rise and floods already forecast for the 21st century are inevitable as the earth warms and weather patterns change – and they will shift the weight on the planet. Professor McGuire calls this process “waking the giant” – something that can be done with just a few gigatonnes of water in the right – or wrong – place.
California has stepped up its attempts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by setting tough new targets for 2030.
Governor Jerry Brown issued an executive order to bring down emissions to 40% below 1990 levels, in the next 15 years.
The US state was already one of the most ambitious in its previous targets and has forced companies to pay for their carbon pollution.
Mr Brown said the new target must be met for the sake of future generations.
He called the plan “the most aggressive benchmark enacted by any government in North America to reduce dangerous carbon emissions”.
There were few details about how he intends to meet this target, but the governor has previously talked about increasing renewable electricity sources, reducing petrol use in vehicles and improving the energy efficiency of existing buildings.
Mr Brown mentioned by name some sectors that will have to reduce emissions – industry, agriculture and energy, plus state and local governments.
“With this order, California sets a very high bar for itself and other states and nations, but it’s one that must be reached – for this generation and generations to come,” he said in a statement.
California is the second-biggest producer of carbon dioxide through fossil fuels among US states.
Report by the Australian Academy of Science warns extreme weather events will contribute to the spread of disease and disrupt food and water supplies.
Climate change will have significant repercussions for Australians’ health as warming temperatures fuel extreme weather events, help spread disease and disrupt food and water supplies, according to a report backed by the country’s peak scientific and medical bodies.
The Climate change challenges to health report, released by the Australian Academy of Science, warns that vulnerable people, particularly the sick, elderly and poor, will “suffer disproportionately from the worst impacts of climate change.”
The report notes that the world will have warmed by “at least 2C compared with pre-industrial times” by the end of the century, leading to heatwaves, droughts, storms and floods that will “lead directly to loss of life and will have a negative effect on the mental wellbeing of communities.”
I participated in the event as one of the respondents to Senator Milne’s address and was asked to comment on ‘what role business should play in effective climate change response?’ My response is set out below, but one theme that emerged in the discussion is whether business has an ethical responsibility in its response to climate change? I argue that it does, and this excellent article by David Roberts today highlights the broader way in which climate change is being viewed as a moral imperative and why this frightens those opposed to action on climate change. This an issue business seems unprepared to deal with, but as the climate crisis worsens and its moral implications become more apparent, it is one businesses need to increasingly engage with.
What role should business play in effective climate change response?
Now if you’d asked me this question 8 years ago you probably would have got a very different answer. Back in 2007, like a lot of people I’d become increasingly aware of climate change. I’d watched Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth, I’d read Nicholas Stern’s report, and in the middle of the Millennial Drought – it seemed quite evident that the ground under our feet was shifting fundamentally.
Against this background, I began a research project exploring Australian business responses to climate change. We studied a range of major corporations focused on this issue:
an energy company anticipating the pricing of carbon emissions as an inevitability;
a manufacturer exploring ways to reduce its waste and energy consumption; and
banks and insurers focusing on the financial risks of increasingly extreme weather events.
Following the Stern Report it seemed even conventional economics had grasped the logic of climate science and how our reliance on fossil fuels was unsustainable. Major change in the very nature of business seemed not only likely, but inevitable.
And yet how wrong I was. Here we are in 2015, with our Prime Minister proclaiming ‘coal is good for humanity’, with amongst the highest per capita carbon emissions in the world, and the dubious distinction of being the first nation to have repealed a carbon pricing mechanism.
“How sad to think that nature speaks and mankind doesn’t listen” – Victor Hugo
History is littered with civilizations that refused to adapt to a changing climate, and collapsed because of it. We’re no different. The climate is destabilizing. We’re aware of environmental degradation. We know the causes. We know the risks. And yet we continue to dither.
Years from now, when the costs are clear, we’ll regret our inaction. Droughts, superstorms, resource competition, refugee crises, border disputes, failed states – these problems will define our political future. Soon, they’ll be impossible to ignore. It’s a terrible thing that our leaders won’t tell us these truths. What are they waiting for? What’s the plan? The proverbial clock is ticking.
Our dilemma invites cynicism. It’s true: humans have a way of self-correcting, of modifying priorities in the face of chaos. But that doesn’t inspire much confidence now, because our heads are buried in the sand. In 2008, when the economy was teetering, our government acted out of necessity. The consequences of collapse were too catastrophic. Maybe Wall Street was, in fact, too big to fail. Maybe an injustice had to be done in defense of the common good. I wasn’t convinced by this argument, but I understood the logic of interventionism. I wonder, though, why this same logic doesn’t apply to the planet. Is the earth not too big to fail?
Climate scientists agree: a disaster is looming. The planet is warming. Storms are becoming larger and more extreme. Water is rising. Food security is increasingly elusive. Our policy responses have been trivial. How is that possible? Are we so wedded to a worldview and a way of life that we’d rather perish than admit error? What could be more valuable than the physical system on which life, as we know it, depends?
Climate denialism is maddening for many reasons. The evidence is overwhelming, but the will to disbelief persists. There’s something all-too-human about this sort of obstinacy. People have fixed ideas about the world, and most are unwilling to revise those ideas. But this need for clarity is dangerous, especially when supported by a rigid ideology. Ideologies are useful because they provide a framework for interpreting the world, for making sense of things. But they also constrain our thinking by tempting us to see only what confirms our worldview.
The editorial excerpted below from the Louisville Courier Journal ia a perfect illustration of why climate deniers are freaking out about the Pope’s imminent Encyclical on Climate Change.
Some of the greatest barriers to climate awareness are not the scientific ones, but emotional and visceral among a large number of otherwise good people. Leadership from the Pope, and representatives of other traditions, is a growing force for affirmative action on climate change.
For virtually all of the last 10,000 years, our ancestors lived in in a geological age called the Holocene in which climatic conditions were remarkably stable and natural resources were plentiful, renewable and seemingly inexhaustible. But during the last few hundred years, exponential increases in human population growth and in the scope and scale of what eventually became a fossil fuel based global market system resulted in a new geological age known as the age of the Anthropocene. In this geological age, global human activities are in the process of undermining the capacity of the biosphere to sustain our growing numbers and our species has become a geological force that will determine the future of life on Earth.
At the dawn of the new millennium, we face multiple interconnected crises: the deterioration of Earth’s life support systems, chronic unemployment even in the developed economies, persistent and crushing poverty, an unstable and overreaching financial system, government institutions ill- equipped to deal with the scope and scale of these challenges, and ongoing rapid population growth in many parts of the world. Yet we lack an accurate intellectual map of where we are and where we should be going. The thought systems that serve as the intellectual foundation for many of the most influential institutions that manage society are in critical need of an update in order for us to effectively respond to these interconnected crises.
More than 10,000 people from 150 countries have signed up for a free online university course that aims to explain the science of climate science denial and give the public the best tools to fight misinformation.
The course, from the University of Queensland in Australia, has recruited some of the world’s leading climate scientists, along with psychologists, science historians and even world famous natural history presenter Sir David Attenborough, who all gave interviews for Denial101x. Course instructors include scientists and contributors to the Skeptical Science website.
John Cook, course developer, instructor and Climate Communication Fellow at the university’s Global Change Institute, told DeSmogBlog the seven-week course would explain everything from the fundamentals of climate change science, to the techniques used by climate science deniers and the psychologies of denial.
He hopes the course will help to “close the consensus gap” – the chasm between the 97 per cent of expert scientists who accept that humans are causing climate change and members of the public, politicians and media commentators who still reject the science.
“Considering that the Amazon is massively important for the global carbon cycle and stores so much of the planet’s biomass, finding out just how that carbon is stored and produced is very important if we want to understand what might happen in the future in different environmental conditions,” explained co-author Sophie Fauset from the University of Leeds, UK.
The tropical forest covers an estimated 5.3 million sq km and holds 17% of the global terrestrial vegetation carbon stock.
The findings build on a study published in Science in October 2013 that found that despite being home to an estimated 390 billion trees – made up by 16,000 species – just 227 “hyperdominant” species accounted for half of Amazonia’s total trees.
Dr Fauset observed: “If you then take abundance into account and then analyse the data again, then maximum size is very important as well. Trees that are able to reach a large size contribute more to the carbon cycle.”
As trees grow larger, they develop more biomass, which contains carbon. So the larger the tree, the greater quantity of carbon locked within its wood. As trees are long-lived organisms, this means the carbon is removed from the atmosphere for decades, if not centuries.
However, Dr Fauset cautioned against the idea of focusing attention on the 182 species and embarking on a vast planting programme to lock more carbon away from the atmosphere, where it contributes to global warming.
“While we have shown that there are a small number of species having a disproportionate influence on the carbon cycle, that is only what we have been able to measure right now,” she told BBC News.
“Given the amount of changes that are occurring in tropical regions, such as with the climate and with land-use changes, in the future there might be different species that become more important.”
A good example is the Brazil nut tree (Bertholletia excelsa), which can reach heights in excess of 48m (160ft). It is known to thrive best in dense, undisturbed rainforests.
A study in 2010 examining the natural dispersal of Brazil nuts suggested their intensive harvesting could threaten future regeneration of the trees.
Researchers found that large rodents – such as agoutis – quickly ate the nuts, rather than caching them, when supplies were scarce. When supplies were plentiful, almost twice as many nuts were buried, increasing the chance of successful germination.
This means that the species may not play such a dominant role in the carbon cycle in the future.
“Therefore, it is important that you maintain a bio-diverse forest that has a wide range of species with a wide range of life histories and strategies that will be able to deal differently with changes to the environmental conditions, ” Dr Faucet added.
“In the future, it might be different species that are more important for the carbon cycle than what we have measured right now.”
In a previous study, Dr Faucet and a team of fellow scientists found that the carbon storage capacity of protected forests in West Africa had increased despite the region suffering a 40-year drought.
The team suggested the increase in the forests’ carbon-storing biomass was the result of a shift in species composition.
As the drought period stretched over decades, it allowed the species that could survive under those conditions to be favoured.
The complexity of the global carbon cycle was highlighted in a separate study, also published on Tuesday.
Researchers suggested that global carbon emissions from forests could have been underestimated because calculations have not fully accounted for the dead wood from logging.
Lead author Dr Marion Pfeifer, from Imperial College London, observed: “I was surprised by how much of the biomass dead wood accounted for in badly logged forests.
“That such logged forests are not properly accounted for in carbon calculations is a significant factor.
“It means that a large proportion of forests worldwide are less of a sink and more of a source, especially immediately following logging, as carbon dioxide is released from the dead wood during decomposition.”
Estimates suggest that forestry, agriculture and land-use changes account for almost a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions from human activities. Only the energy sector emits more.