Climate Change and The Post Truth World

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Recently we saw two climate-related headlines: the imminent break-off of a huge chunk of Antarctic ice (the fracture is shown above), and the release of a second paper questioning the existence of a so-called ‘global warming hiatus’.

Although I have more science degrees than any single human should be legally allowed :), a couple of years ago I decided to dive into an online course on ‘Climate Change for the Layperson’ (names have been changed to protect those involved!) Course participation was a really interesting exercise in understanding public perception and thinking … and in understanding the communication strategy of scientists.

For those who don’t follow these things closely, the ‘global warming hiatus’ is the flattening in the 5-year running mean of temperature anomalies that appears around 2005, in graphs like this one:

globallandtemp

Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Warming_since_1880_yearly.jpg

When I took my course, the only graph they showed was the following – which shows no flattening! …

landtemps_noflattening

 

Why no flattening? If you look carefully at the dates on the horizontal axis (sorry – no way to take a screenshot without the video-control overlay!) you’ll see the dates were cut off just after 2000. (I took the course in early 2014.) It’s hard to escape the conclusion that this cut-off was to prevent folks on the course noticing – and discussing – the ‘hiatus’. I raised this point with course faculty, only to be met with complete silence!

What’s my point? What I took away from this ‘Graphgate’ (as I jokingly called it) is that scientists sometimes massage data to avoid inconvenient facts that might be used against their preferred position. This strategy destroys trust. I also see the (very minor) Graphgate event as a small example of a broader problem. For the last 300 years, there’s been a growing tendency to take science as ‘Truth’ in every facet of human activity, rather than as ‘one means towards descriptive-accuracy in a delineated subset of phenomena’. In the arena of climate change, this tendency has displayed itself in claims of ‘proof’, rather than a discussion of evidence and uncertainty that displays appropriate humility. (James Lovelock, the originator of Gaia theory, seemed to me to be making a similar point, recently in a Guardian interview) To be clear: I’m not saying that the consensus scientific position is wrong. I’m saying that the portrayal of it as certain (proven! capital-T Truth!) has backfired, and will continue to backfire, until the broader context of planetary evolution is factored in. (I’ll briefly discuss this context in closing, below …)

So what of this week’s headline news? A new article in the journal Science supports a different paper published last year that says: there was no hiatus after all! (Separately, a number of papers have appeared in the past few years attributing the hiatus to oscillations in ocean dynamics.) According to both papers, there was a problem with data, and the graphs after all should always have looked like this:

noslowdowninglobalwarming

Source: https://usclivar.org/research-highlights/recent-global-surface-warming-hiatus-fact-or-artifact-data-biases

What to make of this recent release? Well, in a normal context, I’d say: Science is messy. Data-gathering in situations like this is hard. Stuff happens. This is completely to-be-expected. But here I want to add: … which is just one reason why there should be humility, and acknowledgement of uncertainty. Acknowledgement of the fact that science is inherently incapable of proof. As I’ll argue in the ‘Consciousness, Economy and Earth’ series (you can read the first article of that series here), science’s failure to acknowledge its own actual nature has been a massive contributor to the post-Truth movement, when seen as a reaction (over-reaction?) to inappropriate Truth-claims.

I also agree with what Benjamin Butler said here: it’s a mistake to think about climate change in separation from other ecological issues (such as loss of biodiversity). I’d also argue that the most constructive way to see the totality of ecological issues is in connection with the current state of human consciousness, and its emerging transformation. It’s in this context that climate change, science, and the post-Truth world can be effectively understood … and constructively responded to.

Nicholas Wright
Nicholas Wright
Economist

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