Saturday 15 March 2014

Do dissenters like climate change?

Ronald McDonald enjoying himself after Hurricane Katrina.

The kind of "conversations" I am having in the so-called climate "debate" made no sense to me until I asked myself the question whether climate dissenters might like climate change? Maybe a strange question, but it would explain a lot about the debate.

Take Watts Up With That (WUWT), the largest climate dissenter blog. The mainstream opposition of the IPCC. Every post I have read there on a topic where I am knowledgeable contains serious errors. The other posts are likely not better. HotWhopper finds errors on WUWT that make one cringe every single day.

But almost no one at WUWT seems to care about these errors. If anything they cheer the loudest when Lord Monckton has a guest post. These posts probably deserve the prize for the highest error density. Or as Barry Bickmore eloquently writes:
Lord Monckton is a living symbol of the fact that many climate change contrarians will believe anything that seems to support their case, even if it’s coming from the most ridiculous source.
And it is not just that science is overtaxing these people, also very simple to check cases of misquotations of a paper on global water vapor or misleading statements about the web traffic of WUWT are accepted without critique. I informed the WUWT audience of the misquotation, but no one cared. If I may quote one of my last comments:
[N]o one here complained about being misinformed. No one said, I do not believe in climate change, but Forest Mims misinformed me and that is wrong. I do not like being misinformed and I feel that this gives our community a bad reputation.
They were happy to discuss any other typical climate ostrich meme or ask: "Do you feel any amount of shame for helping promote death?" The clear misquotation was not interesting, however. That is not what one would expect from a group that wants to develop an alternative to mainstream science.

In discussions with dissenters I get the impression that they make a determined effort not to understand what the others write. This is especially visible on twitter where you only have 140 characters and cannot be very precise. With colleagues and people that accept the science, this imprecision is no problem, they make an effort to understand you and normally manage to interpret the text in the intended way. I try to avoid such "discussions" on twitter, but see others try and end up in endless twitter streams that go nowhere. As an example, see this post by AndThenTheresPhysics about a discussion on twitter and elsewhere on whether greenhouse gases warm or cool :-) the Earth surface temperature.

Such unproductive discussions are unlike anything I know and especially unlike anything I am used to among scientists. Climate dissenters, for example, often dodge the discussion by moving to new topics before agreement on first topic is made. That does not give the impression that the dissenter wants to understand the reason for the difference of opinion. And it does not show much confidence that one's opinion holds up to scrutiny. In the scientific community, you stay at one topic, try to find out where you agree, where you do not agree and why you do not agree. Until you arrive at statements that are so simple that rational persons can agree upon whether it is true or not or what research would need to be done to verify them.

This part of the rant is getting too long. Let me just state that I do not have the impression that the climate dissenters want to understand the climate better. They mainly seem to want to have some fake "arguments" for discussions, to have some fodder to annoy greenies.

This impression fits to the large differences in acceptance of the science between political groups. The rather remarkable consensus of the US Tea party supporters is that global warming does not pose much risk, for example. This suggests that people arrive at their opinion about climate science based on their political positions and not based on arguments. It could be that the dissenters just find science largely irrelevant compared to their political views and good relations with peers who hold similar views. However, it may go beyond that, I have the impression that the climate dissenters do accept the science and are just mocking opposition, because they do not trust themselves to say that they like climate change. Partially their liking may also be subconscious. Humans are complex.

Salmonella infection

Before I explain why climate dissenters may like climate change, I have to make a detour and explain how a Salmonella infection works. I do not want to compare climate dissenters with a disease, but I need the mechanism. If someone knows a similar evolutionary mechanism for cute fluffy animals with big eyes, please tell me so in the comments, then I will replace this part.

Evolution is a beautiful topic. Many people just think of survival of the fittest and in the worst case think that this fitness has to do with building as much muscle as possible in the fitness studio. The intricacies of evolution are well illustrated by the famous creed: "Evolution is cleverer than you are." Also the evolved behavior of Salmonella about with I learned a year ago via a Nature article (pay-walled, press release) is full of beautiful surprises.

Salmonella attacks the intestinal lining of the gut and thus provokes an immune response. What I had not realized is that this immune response actually helps Salmonella to reproduce. While the immune response also hurts Salmonella, it hurts the other bacteria much more and thus makes the niche for Salmonella larger. They are suffering, but the others suffer more. Relative suffering is their survival strategy. That is the mechanism that is important for this post.

Producing the proteins that provoking the immune system comes at a cost. Thus Salmonella bacteria that do not produce them can reproduce faster. Mutant Salmonella bacteria that are just as good in withstanding the immune system, but do not help in provoking it, thus have a fitness advantage. From the perspective of a sick human it is somewhat strange, but from the Salmonella perspective the active bacteria are altruists that help the other Salmonella and the passive mutant Salmonella are the parasitic free-riders.

Once the mutant Salmonella gain the overhand, the immune system goes down and the other bacteria again grow strong and remove the mutant Salmonella, which is the end of the infection.

Relative suffering

This mechanism was what made me wonder whether some people might like climate change. Yes, it will bring suffering over everyone, but they may think that others will suffer more than they will (and their children) and that climate change thus improves their relative fitness.

What is important here is relative fitness, the fitness relative to others. The competition between members of one species is generally stronger than the competition with other species. All members of the same species are interested in the same resources.

For a jaguar and a gazelle being able to run fast is important. This absolute competition and in the long run it makes both species fast and healthy. Relative fitness on the other hand gives stag deer their bulky and cumbersome antlers. They are necessary in the competition with other deer, but require unnecessary resources and make fleeing more difficult. From an outside perspective relative competition can be nice, it not only produces beautiful antlers for above the fireplace, but also the long stems of trees as lumber. From an inside perspective though, relative competition is wasteful, while absolute competition can lead to long term improvements.

Transferring it to everyday life, absolute fitness is helping your firm get ahead and getting promoted in the process. Relative fitness is working against or even eliminating the people that might be alternative candidates for promotion. Both strategies work. From a group perspective relative competition is bad and should be limited. If relative competition is used too much, the firm will go broke. Given the importance of groups for human survival and thriving, relative strategies will normally play a minor role.

The situation is naturally not all black. Humans have a large range of behavioral modules and whether they are activated depends on circumstances. Relative suffering, if it exists, is just one of them and likely a minor one. Humans have flourished because we have a great capacity for collaboration and can build complex and large organizations. Humans have empathy, a sense of fairness, and like Salmonella can behave altruistically to be benefit of the group.

Also the climate dissenters will have all of these modules and are also capable of empathy. That could be why they report so much fear from reading about climate science or watching a harmless IPCC video. However, they may mix fear with another unpleasant feeling: cognitive dissonance. There is an inconvenient mismatch between what relative suffering and empathy tells them to do. And a nasty mismatch between what their religion and their political leaders tell them to do.

Climate politics

If you think in terms of relative suffering, the climate "debate" makes much more sense. For example, it explains why people are militantly against mitigation, while adaptation is normally accepted.

Also Richard Betts observes:
"It is much less common to see discussion of the implications of the science for other questions [as mitigation policy] such as adaptation planning, ..."
When it comes to adaptation, there is hardly any controversy. Although, if the greenhouse effect did not exist or if the climate were not changing much, adaptation would be an expensive extravagance. Still the dissenters do not complain that dikes are strengthened based on "crappy science".

Climate impact studies to inform adaptation are often performed in close collaboration with (local) authorities. Adaptation is an administrative issue and is hardly ever even seen as a political issue. Weather services around the world are setting up regional climate service centers to provide stakeholders with information for adaptation. These are the same authorities that do not see sufficient urgency to agree on an international treaty that would include mitigation and paying for the adaptation of poor countries.

The irony is that adaptation needs detailed local climate information and input from many (non-physical) sciences. Thus this part of science is thus much more uncertain as the global climatic changes that are typically attacked by the climate dissenters. But adaptation helps the local group and not the outsiders. It strengthens relative fitness.

ozone layer

The contrast in the political response between global warming and the ozone layer is also striking. Also the ozone layers is an example where we need government intervention and international collaboration, where everyone has to participate to stop the emissions of ozone destroying CFCs. But we got it done, with much less protest from the right-wing politicians. Yes, the fossil fuel industry is more powerful as the CFC industry and changing our energy system is a much bigger task. But I am not sure whether those explanations are sufficient.

From the perspective of relative suffering, another important difference would be that all would suffer equally from the depletion of the ozone layer. And in the case of the hole in the ozone layer at the poles, the high and mid latitude countries, the rich industrial countries, would suffer more than the developing countries. That may well have been decisive. The time line is suggestive, ten years after the first paper on ozone depletion and 18 months after the discovery of the hole in the ozone layer, the Montreal protocol to protect the ozone layer was signed.

WUWT is just trying to prove me wrong with two posts that CFC denial is not very strong. Still I would argue that the balance of evidence shows that climate dissenters are more active.

New York and French farmers

Mother Jones recently reported on an experiment that makes logically no sense, but can be understood from a relative suffering perspective. My emphasis.
In the experiment, research subjects from upstate New York read news articles about how climate change might increase the spread of West Nile Virus, which were accompanied by the pictures of the faces of farmers who might be affected. But in one case, the people were said to be farmers in upstate New York (in other words, victims who were quite socially similar to the research subjects); in the other, they were described as farmers from either Georgia or from France (much more distant victims). The intent of the article was to raise concern about the health consequences of climate change, but when Republicans read the article about the more distant farmers, their support for action on climate change decreased, a pattern that was stronger as their Republican partisanship increased. (When Republicans read about the proximate, New York farmers, there was no boomerang effect, but they did not become more supportive of climate action either.)
When these Republicans read that climate change causes suffering among French farmers, they like it and want more of it. In the past I would probably have guessed that French framers leave them cold, which is still not a very Christian thing to do. That they even want more of it, can be understood by relative suffering.

Relative suffering is only a sensible strategy for groups on the top. Thus it could also explain why the attacks against climate science are most frenetic in the USA, why the best educated Republicans are most against global warming and why there is strongly support for this political campaign by libertarian billionaires.

Climate communication

What does the idea of relative suffering mean for climate communication? Let's not assume that this brain module is very important for every climate dissenter. Many will also simply be dissenters because their peers are. Thus, when discussing with strangers it is still best to start friendly and assume good faith. Even if you are almost always disappointed, assume that the person is interested in an honest discussion and understanding and is interested in making the world a better place. My old strategy remains: Explain what is wrong about the ideas of WUWT and Co. and simultaneously make clear that this is not a scientific discussion, but that these ideas are long debunked and that everyone could know this.

However, I would now add: try to limit the part about science as that is not the real problem and write as much as possible about the evidence that climate change will hit the industrialized countries extra hard and especially Australia and the USA and especially the bible belt. Those are likely more convincing arguments as any scientific arguments you could make. Reserve the number of dead people in the poor countries for discussions with progressives.

This also partially fits to a great recent science communication post by Rob Lamberts: Facts won’t beat the climate deniers – using their tactics will. His advice is to reduce the amount of time you talk about science and increase the amount of time you talk about your opinion. And especially, make a lot of noise.

Rich countries suffer most

I am no expert for climate impacts, but intuitively I would expect that climate change will be the big equalizer. Yes, more people will die in poor countries, you have to set priorities and if you are poor and need to eat preparing for natural catastrophes has less priority.

However, when it comes to the economy and thus to the balance of power, it is at least clear that the rich countries have much more too lose. The figure below comes from an article by Roger Pielke Jr. on losses due to hurricanes. Think of the beginning of the graph as the poor countries and the end as the rich countries.

The reason the rich countries are rich is because we have accumulated so much capital over the decades and centuries, in infrastructure, buildings and networks. A lot of this capital will be sub-optimally invested if the climate changes, or it could even be destroyed and would need to be rebuild elsewhere, if that is possible. Naive economists will probably assume we will invest and adapt rationally and have perfect foresight into what the future will bring and that this will thus hardly cost anything. The climate "debate" makes me doubt rationality. Perfect foresight or even just knowledge on the uncertainties of economic costs seems to be a rather unrealistic assumption on decadal time scales.

Some examples. Economists can dream otherwise, but I am reasonably sure that The Netherlands will be evacuated after a huge flood, not gradually before. Suddenly all that capital will be destroyed, people will be scattered and the economic networks of trust will be disrupted. These displaced people will be unproductive without their network and lose their skills while finding a new place in society. It was known that New Orleans was a dangerous place, but the "rational" people did not do anything about it before the disaster struck.

And not just the flooded area will be affected. Companies trading with The Netherlands would have huge loses and many would go bankrupt. The European economy would be hit hard because of missing imports and exports via the harbor of Rotterdam. It will take time to increase the capacity of the other harbors, for many companies that will be too late.

Competitive forces have made the Western economies highly optimized. That is efficient, but can also create large catastrophes. It is known from mathematics that in highly optimized complex systems even a minor disturbance can have huge consequences; the distribution of the magnitude of the consequences follows a power law. An economic example could be the economic slowdown triggered by the Lehman bankruptcy, which was a small bank relative to the impact.

The Just-In-Time strategy aims to improve the return on investment by reducing inventory; it also makes a firm more vulnerable. But if the competition does so, you have to do the same. If a manager refuses to do so, his shareholders will replace him.

We are especially vulnerable to disturbances not yet experienced. And climate change will deliver many surprises. It was only when there was a flooding in 2011 in Thailand that people realized how important these river basins are for the production of hard disks. And it also illustrated that it is not so easy to move a company out of harms way and diversify the risk by the fact that most companies rebuild their factories in Thailand, because that is where their customers and suppliers are. Networks (cities) are longer lived than people, companies or buildings and cannot be easily relocated.

People in poor countries, on the other hand, can be very flexible, if only because less physical and human capital is involved. A colleague of mine wanted to investigate how changes in flood patterns would impact the brick production in Bangladesh on the banks of the Ganges. It turned out to be not worth studying. They stop production months before the flood season, the laborers do something else elsewhere. The owners of the brick factories did not even understand the question, why they did not use a longer production season. The other owners did the same, was a common answer. My guess would be: without much capital investment, it may not be much more productive to have a longer season, not worth any risk.

Europe and USA

Not only the balance of power between North and South will change. I had a look at the KNMI climate explorer. I hope I am not cherry picking, if I do then out of pure ignorance, but the data confirmed by expectations. Knowing about the dust bowl and the large economic problems in the 1930s, I thought I'd look at meteorological drought projection. Please find below the data for precipitation minus evaporation on average over a year and because I was interested in drought, I have plotted the expected change in the 10 percentile. This percentile means that 10% of the years are drier than this value.

These figures suggest that the climate dissenters in the USA will be hit hardest by drought and that the balance of power and wealth will shift somewhat towards Europe. I think that that is worth repeating, that that is likely a convincing argument.

Within USA

Quite fitting is that also within the USA, it are the Republican states that will be hit hardest by drought and will suffer most economic losses. I am also no expert for American politics, but I would expect that the rich Democratic states will not be very eager to help the Republican drought states, especially after all those years of dishonest denial that climate change is a problem and all the nasty childish blockades by the Tea Party. I would not be surprised if the urban Democrats enjoying the sea breeze will think, let them burn, the imports of foods from overseas are already expensive enough. I hope they would be kinder, but after all those decades of partisan battle to make the world a worse place, I am not so sure.

Wrapping it all up

Try to talk about climate science as little as possible. This is not where the problem lies. That is just a charade. Make clear it is a charade. Because of onlookers one should probably not duck the science completely. One way to do so is answering by linking to a good information resource. (Start a blog.)

Emphasize your opinion and how nice a sustainable world would be. Children that can play on the street again and therewith introduce neighbors to each other and build a safe community. Emphasize how comfortable well-insulated homes are, how nice it is to read a book in the train and not get high blood pressure from the other road users.

And emphasize, that we have most to lose. I hope the upcoming report (29 March 2014) on the second working group of the IPCC on climate impacts, adaptation and vulnerability will provide current information on this. I am a bit handicapped myself because the hard science is what I understand best. Hopefully others are more flexible.

It is probably not productive to answer someone who thinks the global temperature is cooling — yes, they exist — by saying that he likes to see other people suffering. On the other hand, I think it is good that people know this mechanism may exist. I expect that many people do not want to be this way, that for many it is an unconscious bias and that when they become aware of it, they do not want to be that person. Communicating this is probably more something for broadcasting as for a personal conversation.

When you talk to people you know — and those are actually the most important conversations, much more important as the charade on the internet — do take the advice of George Marshall into account.

What do you think? Does relative suffering make sense to you, does it explain some of your experiences in the climate debate? How could we test and refine the idea and turn it into science? Do you know of any related ideas? What would be good topics to talk about with the dissenters?

Related reading

Planning for the next Sandy: no relative suffering would be socialist
The American way of water management strongly contrasts the Dutch way and bring the concept of the relative suffering to mind.
Conservatives Who Give a Damn. Who Knew?
Some conservatives have noticed that renewable energy is compatible with conservative values. The new green tea party is scaring the hell out of the Koch Brothers.
Gingrich on Climate – The 2007 Version
If you would explain a Martian the conservative ideology, this is how the Martians would expect conservatives to respond to climate change, instead of betraying their own values in comments at WUWT and Co.
A Conservative's Approach to Combating Climate Change
Another conservative Martian, who is not willing to give up his conservative values to conform with the angry cries of Rush Limbaugh.
Facts won’t beat the climate deniers – using their tactics will
Climate ostriches do not have real facts, but produce a lot of noise. Forget the Moncktonites. Ignore them as much as possible. Forget the facts, everyone knows they are solid. We need more noise.
Sea Level Rise Predictions Have Little Effect On Florida Real Estate
Dr. Ken H. Johnson (director at Florida International University's Real Estate School): You would think that there would be some sort of a price discount, perceived cost that the marketplace would pick up on and you'd see a price change. However, this just isn't showing up until the water is right at the property's edge. h/t Hank Roberts.
New IPCC climate report projects significant threats to Australia
This article by Tom Arup in The Age reports on the consequences of climate change for Australia. One half is still missing, whether these consequences are worse for Australia or for its neighbors.

* The photo at the top of Ronald McDonald is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. The second photo of the Terracotta Warriors that do not listen is by Paul Stevenson and published under a creative commons CC BY 2.0 license.


  1. I believe you lost the argument with the words "climate change". Do you mean global warming or global cooling with this term? Or do you believe the climate should be static? If you believe it should be static, then how do you maintain a static climate? If it is CO2 that controls all climate change, what concentration will maintain an unchangeable climate? The climate has changed pretty much throughout the earth's history and it has changed abruptly. Man has tried to control weather and climate for a very long time: incantations, prayers to gods, sacrifice and now controlling mystic molecules.

    Morphing all weather variability into a catchall term, indicates to me that the science is a tad weak. In my field, correct use of terms has been critical. Apparently for climate scientists this is not the case.

    I suppose I'm one of those climate deniers. I deny you can control the climate.

    Evolution on a bash climate deniers?

    1. Classic example of the types of discussion referred to in the first paragraphs of the post.

  2. Anonymous, well said. I had considered to remove redleg's comment because it is off-topic, but it actually fits to the topic. :)

    We should have some consideration for the poor guy, he is trying to lose weight by eating less and moving more. This does work to some extend on the short run, but is horrible for your mood, your body and brain lack energy.

    redleg, may I advice you to have a look here? (Change the 1 to higher numbers and remove the part after the running number to see the other posts.) Changing your lifestyle so that your body wants to be leaner is a much healthier and pleasant way to lose weight. And you will feel at home, this community has many libertarians. If this tip helps you, I hope you would be so kind as to read a textbook on the climate in return.

    The term climate change is more general as global warming and refers to all the changes that happen, not only the increase in global mean temperature, but also changes in the circulation and precipitation patterns, not only changes in the mean, but also changes in the weather variability around the mean and it refers to changes in the biosphere and cryosphere, ect.

    A lobbying firm proposed the Republicans to use the word climate change rather than global warming because it sounds more neutral. That could be a boomerang, because the term climate change provokes less fear in the Republican brain and thus inhibits thinking less.

    Yes, I expect that a stable climate is optimal. This is the climate we have build our entire infrastructure for, this is the climate we know well from observations. My conservative side does not believe in messing with complex systems on which our livelihood depends, but that is just me.

  3. VV, those blog posts on dieting are a bit old. (Still, I hope it's gone well for you, redleg! Keep at it.)

    Yeah, I found I had a much easier time losing weight by dropping unhealthy foods (most sugar, beer, and processed carbs). I eat lots of meat, veggies, fruit, and some whole grain carbs. I picked up weights to build muscle, and I slowly found some cardio that worked for me, and this helped my body be burn more calories.

    And, VV, good post.

  4. A lot of food for thought in your article as always, Victor.

    There is evidence, as you say, that science deniers are really thinking climate change will harm other people more than themselves, which is why they argue "bring it on, we'll adapt" among other things (other things being "it's not happening", "it's cooling", It's the sun", "it's undersea volcanos").

    On the other hand, as you also suggest, for the ordinary pleb denier (not the Matt Ridley's etc), that's not a conscious idea.

    I used to try to combat the crazy ideas of deniers with facts. I still do to quite a degree. I've long also thought that it's not facts that are the barrier to acceptance.

    Thing is, it requires shifting the discussion. Most of us probably tend to let other people take the lead in discussions, such as is seen on Twitter. It's the deniers who keep shifting to another topic when they lose a point. However that means we're letting deniers set the ground rules - and for them there are no rules.

    I like what you are suggesting. Don't just follow the lead of science deniers in a discussion. Shift the topic to what can be agreed upon.

    No-one wants more fires and floods, for example. Drought is another thing that spells a lot of hardship, not just for farmers but for city dwellers as well. All of these will be worse in a hotter world. (The impact of a drought at 40 degrees Celsius is a whole lot different to that of a drought at 45 degrees Celsius, which is what we're heading for down our way.)

  5. Sou: "Thing is, it requires shifting the discussion. Most of us probably tend to let other people take the lead in discussions, such as is seen on Twitter. It's the deniers who keep shifting to another topic when they lose a point. However that means we're letting deniers set the ground rules - and for them there are no rules."

    Well said. And not letting them change the topic, them keeping doing that and you explicitly pointing to that, shows that they do not have evidence for their weird claims.

    Sou: No-one wants more fires and floods, for example. Drought is another thing that spells a lot of hardship, not just for farmers but for city dwellers as well.

    Some may partially or subconsciously want more of that, as long as others get even more of that.

  6. Victor,

    When I first started reading your post I was in disagreement - I felt that the contrarians in my family who live in hot Brisbane do not really think climate change will be good for the place - but by the end of your post I found myself agreeing with you.

    I think it's telling that many contrarians are older and so have fewer years left on this planet and so are unlikely to see the worst of climate change. Following your logic, they are relatively better off under business as usual today than future generations will be under business as usual. So they discount the rights of future generations for their own benefit today, something which I feel is wrong.

    And now I want to complain about blogger. If I want to comment using my regular handle with a link to my blog, it won't let me receive email updates to this comment thread. This is very annoying.

  7. They do not have to think it is good for Brisbane, just that it will be worse elsewhere. However, I do not want to claim that relative suffering is the dominant mechanism for everyone. The most common is likely that people want to have the same opinion as their peers. Another simple egoism.

    However, egoism cannot explain why you like it that French farmers get ill. An egoist would be indifferent. And it also cannot explain the enormous activism of the climate dissenters. That is not relevant for your family, but the people that attack climate science put an enormous amount of time and effort in their political campaign.

    Even if many of them have a tip jar, I do not think that that will repay them for their time. That is altruism (towards their group) or at least they may think it is. And the minimal additional costs for renewable energy and energy saving cannot be counted as fitness advantage, everyone in their group contributes similarly.

    And it is not just time, but also enormous loses in reputation. They make utter fools of themselves. Especially, the scientists involved, who used to be well respected before in the scientific community. (Maybe the flood of comments by the fools repay for that a little, but I would personally think that you like to be respected by people you respect.)

    That many old people are against mitigation could be because that makes sense for egoists, the benefits will come too late for them. Old people will also be richer and thus maybe expect to suffer less than average. And old people no longer have to care about their reputation any more, they no longer have to reproduce or raise children, where you do not want to look like a fool or may need help from other parents.

    P.S. Sorry about blogger. In retrospect I would have used WordPress, there are many small annoyances, but it is now too much work to change.

  8. Victor,
    I had to read this article more then once and still have to think about. I hope I can practice the wise part.
    It is anyhow a good start for handling discussions on coming IPCC reports.


  9. Hallo Pieter,

    The same for me. It is a complicated post. On the one hand it combines many things I have been thinking of, which produced the large number of internal links. On the other hand, I am not really expect on impacts and that makes writing harder.

    And because it combines so many ideas, it became much too long. I should probably write a summary somehow and could write long posts about many of the details. Writing this post was an interesting journey. It is one of the nice things of blogging that it helps you to sort your thoughts.

  10. About a week or two ago I was wondering about the idea of climate deniers actually believing in climate change, and did a cursory look to see if anyone had written about it. Anyway, I feel like this post is important and worth thinking about. Firstly, the idea that the reaction of deniers is a survival strategy is something that resonates for me. I think it's important, though to make a distinction between deniers who are among the wealthy elite, and the populist deniers. My hunch tells me that there are at least some elite "deniers" who know climate change is real based on the facts on the ground, but perhaps have underestimated what it's capable of doing, and are looking to capitalize on the disaster while retaining a fossil fuel system that profits them as long as possible. Historian Gwynne Dyer has spoken on the subject of climate change and warfare, and he knows that for the military and security industries, climate change will provide plenty of opportunities and job security, which fits right along with the post 9-11 mold that has already been created at least in some parts of the Western world. And I think this can cross party lines. For example, I don't think it's an accident that John Kerry likened climate change to a weapon of mass destruction even as his State Department found nothing of note in the flawed, industry friendly Keystone environmental assessment. If you are following developments in US Homeland Security and constitutional rights, we are seeing evidence of a corporate state preparing it's "immune system response" through the lens of police state disaster management while guiding the public perception in advance.

    American, religiously leaning conservative deniers outside of the upper crust I think are guided by a contradictory mix of a sense of personal freedom and obedience to authority, in which punishment and judgement play a role, invoked by a righteous ruler. Liberals as well as intellectuals (climate scientists) are a threat to this for a variety of reasons. There's a lot to unpack there, and I won't go into it more, but I personally think that finding a way to demonstrate how being a steward of the environment might make you more free or a better Christian (in the US) might actually be an effective frame.

    You stated that "Also the climate dissenters will have all of these modules and are also capable of empathy." I think you're missing the point that there are in fact people within the population exhibiting anti-social personality disorder, or clinical psychopathy, who in fact are well suited for high level government and corporate positions, whose personality profile indicates they do not have a sense of empathy, and openly deceive for personal gain. There are a number of characteristics that form this pathology, and the corporate structure, which places shareholder interests over the general population, creates a kind of pathological system in which these personalities can operate. These are the Machiavellian strategists and CEO's I mentioned earlier, who are influencing public perception from the pulpit and the office. Recognizing these social and psychological divisions creates the need for a more comprehensive strategy, as I believe, and as you have indicated, "denial" could be a kind of survival mechanism. In the case of upper crust psychopaths who have no trouble using covert destabilization, assassination, torture, fraud, or what have you, to advance an agenda, climate change also has an upside. Another thing about psychopaths and survival, like clinical narcissists, they can be quite self assured and charismatic on a surface level, in spite of their lack of in depth knowledge and their cold ability to dispense with those who get their way.

  11. I disagree with Global Warming being an "equalizer". It is true, that we affluent people have more to lose, but Climate Change will act rather like supply-side economics: Farmers in New England and France may face fewer and less severe droughts, but have droughts ever been a problem there? In Germany and much of Asia, increased precipitation may even increase flooding, whereas in the Southern US, precipitation may even decrease, worsening droughts.

    In this light I also judge the latest controversy over droughts in the USA. It's a variation of the "it's not bad" myth: warmer climate means increased precipitation, and sure our drought-affected farmers would not want Climate Action to ruin them.

    Might this lead to the republican voter base suddenly oppose supply side economics? I don't know.

  12. Thomas, yes more poor as rich people will die due to climate change and I am happy that we belong to the group with moral values that find this to be important.

    However, this will not make the poor go away. The main causes of death are chronic disease and car accidents. Everything else makes headlines, but is marginal in practise.

    The rich will lose their money and thus power. Their mansions in the mountains and outskirts will be hit by fire and their condos along the beach by storms and sea level rise. They won't die if they are not too stupid to try to defend their property against nature, but they will lose wealth.

    Farmers will still have something to eat, but droughts and floods will eat into their profits. During the dust bowl in the 1930s many farmers had to give up and move to the cities in the hope of getting a job. I would guess that this is a demographic group more likely to be climate change dissenters. Somewhat ironically, as this is also the group that may be able to notice climate change with their own eyes, without having to rely on measurements by the weather services.

    I do not have any proof, but intuitively I would expect more casualties among the poor, but simultaneously most loses among the rich. It would be nice if someone working on climate impacts could clarify this or study the data with this in mind.

  13. Another interesting exploration, Victor; it touches on something that I have recently thought a great deal about. I see your point about 'relative suffering', but see also that it is a tricky argument to make; I would like to add three points, which may contribute.

    1. It is no accident that one can almost never find anybody stating they welcome the predicted consequences of global warming. Some norms are so fundamental and universal, that most people would not dare to publicly question them, even if they question them privately. The potential damage of global warming is one of these cases. It's why I think the argument has not been framed in terms of values, but in terms of climate science being false -if we accept the facts of global warming, we are bound by ubiquitous and deeply rooted norms to also accept it is a bad thing and must be prevented. The pseudosceptical movement is, I think, an effective way of avoiding the normative question altogether, simply because "if it isn't true, there is no conversation about whether it is good or bad". Note the tobacco companies realised early that they had no mileage in arguing that cancer was the smoker's own fault, and not the cigarette maker's responsibility -they instead tried to attack whether the link between smoking and cancer was a fact at all.

    2. Valuing (ie: appreciating, respecting) one's society is more important for conservatives than for any other social group. They interpret the political implications of AGW as an attack on the morality of their society and way of life - Green might be the 'new black' for inner-city hipsters, but it is definitely the 'new red' for conservatives.

    The baby-boom is over; changing economic axes of power, particularly the relative decline of the USA as the world economic engine, makes the current era quite unsettling for the conservative demographic. The deep-set psychology of the conservative is to respond to the uncertain world around them -with all its threats and challenges- by looking back to what they imagine was a better time. This impulse naturally alienates them from environmentally oriented scepticism or criticism of their generation.

    3. Having said this, there are surely some interests who are quite conscious of the dangers of global warming, but nonetheless deliberately spread misinformation -if you think of what kinds of personalities these are likely to be -ambitious, covetous -the kinds of people who sit on boards of Wall Street banks also sit on boards of Enron etc. These corporations must serve their shareholders, and will learn from tobacco and others, how to seed doubt.

    These interests only needed to bankroll the re-framing of the science as though it were really just a left-wing invention. The rest of the work could then be done by a veritable environmental counter-movement of true believers.

    This is why I like where you are heading in your closing paragraphs, about re-framing the global warming issues so that you align more with conservative values. I find one useful way to think about this is to use the metaphor of "political forcings". If the sum of political forcings for a group or individual is reasonably balanced, then there is plenty of room for dialogue; but if the political forcings are skewed very strongly, there is no practical hope of rational dialogue. I suspect there is an 'ineducable 10%' at either pole of the global warming spectrum -the Jo Novas and Anthony Watts of this world are ineducable, and I have met several greens who I'm sure would resist the any new development in the scientific consensus that found AGW was not the problem we all thought it was. The productive dialogue is with the middle, although 90% of what is actually publicly said (particularly on the internet) is actually an argument with one polarised minority.

    Thanks for these interesting posts, Victor!

  14. Hi Mark, thank you for your kind words and wonderful comment. Given the length of your comments, I would almost suggest to start a blog. :) (Not that I mind.) You seem to like thinking and writing.

    1. I wonder whether the dissenters like the consequences in private or subconsciously. It would be interesting to listen to their private diner conversations.

    The quality of their "arguments" is a big give-away. If they really had an issue with the science and wanted to understand the climate better, they would put more effort in the quality of the arguments and they would protest much louder when presented crap at WUWT and Co. But they love the crap.

    2. It is interesting that parties allied to the dissenters call themselves conservative and Christian, while they are not particularly conservative or Christian. Wouldn't one expect that a conservative would preserve nature and the environment? Instead they support every financial, business and social innovation that uproots communities and social structures. Some of these may be good for the economy, more typically good for existing business, which is not the same, but these innovations are not especially conservative. The main reason why conservatives would deserve their name is that they typically support policies that reduce social mobility.

    The loss of US power is one of the hopeful points. It makes more sense to invest energy in relative suffering if you are at the top. n the middle you would invest your energy in improving your own lot. That could be the reason that Europe is more active in mitigation. Unfortunately, it will still take some decades before the world is again more multipolar.

    3. I guess managers are a special case. The task of a company is to make money for its shareholders. Nothing else. A manager may have moral values in private, but if he would act on them professionally, he is more likely to be replaced. This system creates a force towards amoral behavior.

    Given this fundamental difference between humans and companies, I do not understand why companies are nowadays almost treated as if they have human rights. With the first stock companies in The Netherlands it was very clear that people understood the problem and that they were willing to revoke the license of a company if they would not behave well.

    I think you are right, that we should focus our communication on the moderates and not the 10% extremists. A problem is that these moderates are hard to reach, because they are not very interested in the topic. They are mainly informed by main stream media about climate and the media play a strange role in the climate debate by treating scientific matters in the way one would treat political matters, something they do not do for other scientific topics.

    It will be hard to prove, but I am not so sure there at greens that would resist new scientific findings. There is certainly a group that would like to present the scientific findings in the most alarming way possible to get people to take the problem seriously.

    However, if science would find there was a mistake and no problem with climate whatsoever, I see no reason why that should be a problem for these people. There are sufficiently other social problems to work on and almost all of the policies related to mitigation would still make sense for other problems. The emphasis for the various options may change and doing so sensibly given limited resources would make sense.

  15. Victor,

    An interesting analogy you develop here. There is an English idiom, “keeping up with the Joneses” ie it’s not *what* you have that counts but whether it is better than what your neighbours have that counts. In the same way it’s not whether climate change affects you or not that matters, but whether it threatens your superiority in the world. I’m sure there will be proper psychological research that could be quoted here, rather than my musings, however.

    My real reason for commenting is, however, to take you to task on:

    3. I guess managers are a special case. The task of a company is to make money for its shareholders. Nothing else. A manager may have moral values in private, but if he would act on them professionally, he is more likely to be replaced. This system creates a force towards amoral behaviour

    I think this is simplistic at best, writing as a manager in a company!

    The reverse of what you write can also be argued: That the inherent morality in human nature and our innate altruism creates a force from human managers to drive companies towards moral behaviour.

    A recent example:

    It is often written that certain companies behave immorally, and that the company managers must be lacking in moral direction, a theme often developed by George Monbiot for example. Working for a company sometimes described as such, all I would say is that those actually working in such a company have the desire to act morally as those outside. They simply disagree on what is the right thing to do. This may be motivated reasoning of course, or they may be right; animal testing labs might be a good example to think about for instance.

  16. VeryTallGuy, Sorry, I did not want to insult any one, but did not know how to write that more friendly. :) Are you manager of a traded company? That was what I was talking about. If you own your company or have stable relationships with the owners and creditors, you have more possibilities to act like a human. And your costumers and employees appreciate that. Thus there are also advantages to visible moral behaviour.

    I formulated it carefully, just as a force in the wrong direction, thinking of the Apple example. I do not think they are representative. That is also why they made the news. Apple also did not pay dividends for a long time, while being highly profitable and still pays very little, while sitting on a bag of money.

    A nice study for non-managers was recently performed by economists from my university, Armin Falk and Nora Szech. They investigated moral behaviour in an economic game. People could use the money that made to save a mouse from being killed. If they had to decide on their own, they were willing to pay more money to save a mouse as when they introduced a market.

    Abstract. The possibility that market interaction may erode moral values is a long-standing, but
    controversial, hypothesis in the social sciences, ethics, and philosophy. To date, empirical
    evidence on decay of moral values through market interaction has been scarce. We present
    controlled experimental evidence on how market interaction changes how human subjects value
    harm and damage done to third parties. In the experiment, subjects decide between either
    saving the life of a mouse or receiving money. We compare individual decisions to those made
    in a bilateral and a multilateral market. In both markets, the willingness to kill the mouse is
    substantially higher than in individual decisions. Furthermore, in the multilateral market, prices
    for life deteriorate tremendously. In contrast, for morally neutral consumption choices,
    differences between institutions are small.

  17. Victor,

    Alas, I do not own my company, but am merely a cog in a huge impersonal machine...

    And I was not insulted at all, but really wanted to just remind you that managers are just as human and fallible as anyone else and probably likely or unlikely to act morally.

    I’m afraid I haven’t time to read the mouse paper in any detail; from a very cursory look my immediate impression is that the lesson might be that removing distance from consequence of decisions makes those decisions less likely to be made morally rather than specifically for managers; from the conclusions:
    Many people express objections against child labor, other forms of exploitation of the workforce, detrimental conditions for animals in meat production, or environmental damage. At the same time, they seem to ignore their moral standards when acting as market participants, searching and buying the cheapest electronics, fashion, or food, and thereby consciously or subconsciously creating the undesired negative consequences to which they generally object

    Another example might be in the selling of sub prime mortgages and their conversion to collatoralised debt obligations (CDOs). The further removed from the reality the more likely we are to make dubious decisions. Paying for things we can’t afford with credit cards is also more likely than with cash.

    However, I’m no expert in this and may have misunderstood something fundamental.

    My own perception from my experience is that managers are perhaps more likely to act morally for their company than when presented with the same decision privately. I was talking to my boss recently who openly advocates driving above the speed limit for fun on local mountain roads, something in my opinion which is dangerous and reprehensible. He would never dare to advocate such behaviour for his employees to save time on company journeys. Equally I’m sure this depends on company culture, circumstances etc.

  18. Oops, had missed this until you linked it at ATTP, Victor. Great post, great comments. Maybe you should give up the blog and write a book? :)

    Anyway, I will have more to say after I digest this some more, but two things I'll note off the top of my head are the research finding that Republicans are prone to feeling disgust about out-groups (no link, sorry, but it shouldn't be hard to locate) and the fact that we have this process going on. Krugman has much more on the subject of rising inequality, and IMO is worth following in detail.

  19. :-) Thanks Steve. Let's not exaggerate. Blogging is a good exercise for my upcoming book. I would need a good editor. Especially this post was full of writing mistakes.

    Yes, inequality is also a big problem, for fairness, for economic growth, for market access and for our democracy. And the level of the discussion seems to be almost as low as for the climate "debate".

    "Well you do not want communism do you, with everyone the same salary?" As if there is no such a thing as an optimal distribution, somewhere between no variability and the current extreme inequality and the low level of social mobility in the USA.

    Relatively egalitarian nations with a strong state in Scandinavia are doing very well. Third world countries have high inequality and nearly no state. Are they desirable? If I may be just as polemic as the anti-communists. A non-functioning state is not much different from a totalitarian state. The local war lord is typically not the nicest guy. That is all somehow no argument and wasn't Chilly under Pinochet (?) a wonderful libertarian example country.

    Really, really weird. A German blog, wrote a nice piece on this post and similar to you extended it to the radical free market ideology of the climate dissenters. This made me wonder whether relative suffering is behind the libertarian free market fundamentalism as well. Could be something for my next book.

  20. Tim Harford, the uncover economist just wrote a piece for the Financial Times on reducing inequality.

  21. Victor,

    Your relative suffering hypothesis seems loosely similar to social dominance theory:

    I recently discovered that there is an association between endorsement of free-market economics and rejection of climate science (, and it has me wondering if there is an association between social dominance orientation (SDO - and rejection of climate science. I know high measures of SDO are associated with high measures of religious fundamentalism and right-wing authoritarianism, which I learned while helping a friend work on a paper explaining the psychology behind religious-based prejudice towards sexual minorities. There might be part of an explanation for the relative suffering idea in there somewhere.

    I haven’t had time to look into this much further, and my expertise on social psychology is VERY limited. Something to think about, maybe someone with more knowledge on this could help explain further or point us to more information.

    Adam Nowakowski

  22. Thank you Adam. Unfortunately, blogger does not autolink, here are the three links in the same order:

    Wikipedia: Social dominance theory

    Lewandowsky et al.: NASA Faked the Moon Landing—Therefore, (Climate) Science Is a Hoax An Anatomy of the Motivated Rejection of Science

    Wikipedia: Social dominance orientation

    I also have the impression that many climate dissenters are right-wing people. Many of the UK personnel in active in the UKIP. Monckton, e.g. was boss of the Scottische UKIP until he was kicked out and destroyed the party before leaving.

    HotWhopper links to a careful study of right-wing authoritarians:
    Bob Altemeyer's The Authoritarians (for insight into behavioural traits common to climate science deniers as well as bigots (in regard to sexism, homophobia, racism etc))

    That is probably also part of the picture, some will hold these positions because people in power hold them. Finding your place in the peck order and sucking up to more powerful people seems a logical evolutionary strategy. The actual liking and encouraging of hierarchy and inequality is a bit weirder for those not at the top. That might need an explanation.

  23. As a refugee from the Ozone issue (you could ask the Weasel or James) the major difference is that when it became political in the 1980s and 1990s the industry didn't much care because they knew they had replacements ready to go and they just took care that there was enough ramp up time to get them into place.

    Eli has heard it said that another difference is that the chemistry industry had a lot more chemists and the fossil fuel guys are all engineers.

  24. Excellent post again and fascinating comments.A number of these ideas had not occurred to me before and my natural inclination is to argue against your proposition.
    SO I will go ahead and argue against your proposition ;-)
    I don't doubt that there might be some truth in the idea of "relative suffering", and possibly some people it might be a dominant factor, but my experience leads me to think it is rarely the major motivation.
    I see many of the more intelligent and knowledgeable deniers, very interested in "winning" arguments. Showing that they are smarter than the person they are arguing with (discussion of course is almost never an option). I think many delight in being part of an oppressed minority that is fighting against entrenched interests that are vastly more powerful than themselves. In my view they HAVE to protect their rationalizations from from any attack. this is why I think almost all deniers refuse to accept information that supports ACC in any area until it becomes obvious that only their fringe base will believe their arguments. I think that is why there are almost no arguments any more that subsurface volcanos are the source of increase in CO2. That argument is no longer persuasive with enough people to be convincing, so they stop using it.
    That is also happening with "the Earth isn't warming" as well. though people like Goddard have made that such a central part of their conspiracy that he cannot easily give it up.
    I certainly think that the strong politicization in the US on a host of issues have made ideology a central defining aspect to climate change. It HAS to be wrong because the people supporting it ARE the enemy. I think this is true of both the low and high information deniers. This allows "your" side, because it is in the right, to use any tactic in order to win. this blurs the line around facts and truth, so that they are not that important. Facts are ONLY useful if they can be used to defeat the enemy. Facts that support the enemies position must be countered in any way that limits their effectiveness. One can use or not use facts depending on whether they help your position or not. So there is no need for consistency or having a logically defendable argument.
    I am guessing that 1. ego at being able to "beat" someone in an argument, 2. desire to convince others who read what you are writing that you are extremely smart, courageous and moral. and 3. public expression of defiance and strength to the nefarious powers you are standing against, are each powerful motivations.
    I don't see your suggested motivation as being as large a factor as these. I certainly think it could be large part of a fall back position, but I am happy to "discuss" it further :-).
    In the interest of not having you suggest I start a blog, I will truncate my response here.

  25. Tony Learns, still it might be a nice idea to start your own blog. :)

    I am sure there are more factors. Also people wanting to have to same opinion as their peers is likely an important force. I think, Dan Kahan of Cultural Cognition sees that as important. That could also not be all, because otherwise we would have a consensus about everything after a certain time. This may be especially an important force for people that are not very interested.

    There are downright psychopaths, enjoying to hold humanity hostage. "Well you have to convince me, otherwise nothing will happen." After having clearly demonstrated that no evidence or argument will ever stick.
    These are probably also the people that come up with arguments like that global warming has stopped or that CO2 is heavier than air and will thus stay at the bottom of the atmosphere (ignoring turbulent mixing) and cannot change the temperature. These people seem to enjoy to play with greenies like a cat plays with a mouse. The weaker and the more stupid the argument, the more it annoys the greenies. One should still explain why these people exist, even if in this case maybe insufficient selection pressure will do.

    Another mechanism that can almost any irrational behavior is wanting to belong to a group. Coalition building is very important for humans, alone we are prey, together we are the lords of the lands. Thus to get into a group is worth some losses. The more important the group is the more you may want to sacrifice. Like the initiation in student clubs, celibacy for catholic priests and destroying your intellectual credibility for pseudo-skeptics.

    To me relative suffering explains a lot of my interactions, but that is just subjective and those interactions are just with a small group of people, not with the large bulk of people rejecting climate science. But this is the small group that suffers the large reputation losses by publicly sprouting all that nonsense.

    In the experiment with the farmers, they only changed what would happen to the others. It would be an interesting experiment to explicitly change how well you do relative to the others. Maybe that would give an even clearer result, if I am right, which is currently not guaranteed. At the moment this idea is just an idea. I hope someone from the right field will read it and will try to make science out of it. Then we can hopefully quantify how important this mechanism is.

    What I am currently wondering about is why still so many US Democrats reject climate change. That is a minority, but still strange and cannot be explained with tribalism.

    If I wanted to show I am smart, I would select a defensible position or at least not a science related one that can be proven wrong. How about a fundamentalist free market position? In economics you cannot prove much and you can be sure that no one will be willing to implement it and destroy the economy. Thus you will never see any results that would show you wrong. A much saver weird position. :-)

  26. As I understand it the rejectionist Democrats tend to come from coal producing states, particularly West Virginia. Illinois politicians can be unreliable about it as well.

    For the study about the farmer's attitudes, France is an odd choice to test for remote empathy. There is a streak of francophobia in the US particularly among conservatives, but visible even in centrist institutions like the NYT. It became quite virulent (rhetorically anyway) during the invasion of Iraq due to the French government's opposition, despite their being accompanied by most of the rest of the world. The researchers should have used somebody more sympathetic, like the Germans. :-)

    Anyway, I doubt most denialism is rooted in such a sophisticated understanding of the problem. For most of the more extreme it's a matter of team identification; the less committed, having been taught the controversy for so long, simply are under the impression that there is legitimate debate. I can't really blame them.

  27. afeman, I have heard about the coal-Democrates with respect to politicians. Is that also important for the voters? That would explain some. At least the rejection of policies. I am still at loss why that has to mean to reject the basic science.

    Choosing France has also wondered me. It was quite some time after Freedom Fries, but still why not take some neutral example. Maybe Denmark, most will not even know it is in Europe.

    For many followers, the theory of just wanting to have the same opinion as the neighbours and being badly informed is likely a good explanation. Not fully sufficiently, because if everyone would look at their peers, we would have a consensus on almost anything after some time.

    The above post is more searching for an explanation for people that are very active. They could be well informed and they put a lot of effort into it. That is pure altruism. They cannot be expected to repaid for all their work with lower carbon taxes (and also their neighbours get this).

    I would not expect most of them to consciously go through the above thoughts to arrive at their opinion. The above mechanism, if it exists, would produce a brain module that nudges someone into harming other groups if that can be done at little risk to oneself. Or a preference for doing well relative to others, getting higher up in the hierarchy/ranking, rather than absolutely doing well.

    People also do not have children because they would like to out-reproduce others, they just want to have children, a family. The evolutionary question, why do people want to have a family, has as answer that this is good for reproduction.

  28. ...just two further thoughts on why people do deny climate change....

    Layperson's razor
    Like in Moon Landing conspiracy theories they just apply the layperson's formulation of Occam's razor,
    "the simplest explanation is usually the correct one".

    Judge, Juror and Culprit in one
    It is easier, as my own judge, to acquit myself, than to accept anthropogenic climate change and the consequential effects of changing my way of consuming and producing.


  29. Agree, there are many reasons, not just the one of the above post.

    To be honest, I do not get why people would personally feel guilty about climate change. It is a tragedy of the commons. No one can solve this problem alone. You can feel less guilty by making a joint solution possible by starting to engage in an adult discussion on the solutions rather than childishly pretend there is no problem.


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