Climate Denial & The Effect On The Scientific Community – Interview w/Prof. Stephan Lewandowsky (Dec 2015)

By Kam Sandhu @KamBass

Ahead of #COP21 we spoke to Psychologist Stephan Lewandowsky of Bristol University, who had recently authored the report ‘Seepage: Climate Change Denial and its Effect on the Scientific Community’ to talk about how the climate change debate has been shaped.

Can you explain what ‘Seepage’ is? 

Basically that’s our hypothesis, that the challenge that climate scientists are facing from contrarians in the population has somewhat altered the way they think about the data and the way they talk about climate change. It’s just another paper in a sequence of papers that has looked at the influence of contrarian voices on climate science.

For example, there was study a couple of years ago that showed the IPCC’s 4th assessment report – the one that was published I think in 2007 –  turned out to be quite conservative and the actual developments that were reported subsequent to that, outpaced the prediction or projections of the IPCC. And so we built on that precedent and suggested that climate scientists have unwittingly adapted a phraseology that originated in contrarian circles and that’s the bottom line of our paper. 

A lot of money has been pumped into climate denial. Does this mean that essentially having more money can allow you to unpick the truth in debate?

Well, I don’t know if I can give you a clear answer to that. It’s certainly the case that what money can buy or any other motivating factor – ideology or politics – whatever it is that motivates people into taking contrarian action, that can certainly create a lot of challenge to scientists. There’s no question about that. There’s a long record of climate scientists being challenged or harassed over their work. Scientists are human beings. And if what you do is subject to critical scrutiny in one direction only, then it is quite likely that people will take subtle measures to avoid that, or to guard against that harassment and perhaps to slightly understate the risk. And that is what we think has happened in some cases related to climate change, where I think the climate science community has been very conservative in what it is telling us about what the risks are. 

You talk about framing in the report, in terms of this shaping the extent and kind of debate around climate change. Can you elaborate?

Well the framing is extremely important. Any issue that is debated in public, the parameters of that debate are determined by how it is being presented, that is how it is framed. Let me give you one example that’s got nothing to do with climate change but I think clarifies what we mean by that. 

The Republicans in the United states many years ago started using the word ‘tax burden’. So any tax was seen as a burden on people and the moment that frame gathers traction, it becomes extremely difficult to argue politically for a tax hike because you are confronted with language that implies a very strong impetus to lower taxation. And so the Democrats in response to that competed with the Republicans that their plan to provide ‘tax relief’ was better than the other one. So all of a sudden you have a situation where people are talking about a ‘burden’ in tax, and ‘relief’ that was necessary from the tax ‘burden.’ So that just goes to show that the framing is extremely important because of course you could also call tax a ‘civilisation surcharge’ which is basically what it is. If you didn’t have taxation you wouldn’t have civilisation, it’s as simple as that. You wouldn’t have an advanced society. So just by how you look at things you can control the discussion.

And as far as climate change is concerned the example that we have used in the seepage paper is the framing of his apparent recent temporary slow down in warming that was labelled ‘a pause’ in warming or ‘hiatus’. That framing that claimed that global warming had stopped was created by contrarians almost ten years ago they started talking about global warming having stopped. Of course that’s not true, but it was very successful because ultimately climate scientists started talking about a pause or hiatus themselves, even while they knew that global warming in fact hadn’t paused – that it was just a fluctuation in warming –  and that the warming rate was lower for some time over the last 15-16 years  than it had been previously and that’s all that happened. And so basically the framing is a crucial aspect of how contrarians can influence climate scientists.

What about the public psychology? Do we have a tendency to not want to deal with climate change?

It’s very difficult to answer that question because there’s so many different opinions about this and so many people with different attitudes so you can’t really generalise. 

But there’s certainly some people who feel threatened by climate change. What’s interesting for me from the psychological point of view is that threat is not a fear of climate change itself. But it is actually for some people a fear of the consequences of doing something about it. So rather than worrying about sea level rises or heatwaves or droughts or whatever else might happen with climate change, some people are terribly worried about a price on carbon or a tax that would affect how the economy is operating.

There’s a lot of research to suggest that the people who are believers in the free market, who’s world view is saying the only way to distribute goods in a society is through market principles – those people are very threatened by climate change. Not because of climate change but because of the consequences it entails if we deal with it. Because whatever we do about climate change we have to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and the way to do that is by interfering with the free market either by creating a tax or by putting a price on carbon or regulation or subsidies for clean energy or whatever. Whatever we do we have to interfere with the free market and some people find that emotionally and intellectually extremely challenging. And that explains I think 80% of the opposition to climate science. It basically is just a threat to people’s identity or world view.

You talk about boundary work in the paper. Can you explain what that is?  

That is basically the idea that there is a difference between science and nonsense, to put it bluntly. There’s boundaries here with science on the one hand and unsupported opinion on the other. So what the boundary work is about is for scientists to uphold that line. And to say ‘well hang on here we have the evidence base and out there we have people with an opinion and they don’t really have any support for that opinion’, so that’s the idea behind that.

And this boundary work has failed within climate change debates?  

Failed is too grand a term. Because of the intense public interest in this issue, there has been relentless pressure on scientists to consider other voices in this debate. And there is a lot of blogs out there and they have a lot to say on climate change and none of what they have to say, none is based on peer reviewed science but it is loud and plentiful opinion. Again there is a subtle pressure on climate scientists or any scientists for that matter to engage with the public. The difficulty is, in a contested arena if you’re engaged with the public, especially if the people you speak to are highly motivated not to accept anything you say as a scientist then that can open up these boundaries and you may get a flow from outside the scientific community into the scientific community and I would argue that that’s what’s happened with climate change. 

Can you talk to us about the perception gap between what people believe and what they believe the public majority believes, and how this affects thinking and action? 

I can certainly talk about that although I haven’t collected the data myself but I know the people who’ve done that. And what we know is from Australian survey data that in Australia at least, the number of people who are completely denying that the climate is changing is very, very small – something like 8% of the population. Now those 8%, when you ask them how common they think their opinion is, their own opinion, they say its 50%. In other words that small minority thinks that half the population is sharing their belief. Now that’s known as the ‘false consensus’ effect. That’s an inflation of belief about the prevalence of one’s own attitudes, and one of the consequences of that is that people are less likely to change their attitudes because they feel that it is held by the majority of people around them. 

Now the flip-side of that is that in the same study of people in Australia, people who were in the majority, namely who accepted the science, they felt that fewer than half of the population were sharing their opinion. So for them it went the other way round. They were actually a larger share of the population than they thought and that’s known as ‘pluralistic ignorance’ and that’s the flip-side to the false consensus effect. Now the problem with that is people who think they are in the minority when in fact they aren’t, that is potentially going to inhibit them from speaking out because they feel they would be subject to ridicule or whatever because they’re in the minority. So you can have this paradoxical effect where a tiny minority who think they’re very strong will keep talking very loudly while the majority will not speak out because they’re worried about being in the minority and that’s what’s happened in Australia in the climate debate for sure. And I think the reason that happened  is because some of the media in Australia have given disproportionate voice to contrarians even though politically they’re a tiny number and scientifically they have nothing of value to say. But whenever you have the media not representing the opinions properly that’s where you can get into these weird situations where small minorities are inflated and majorities are silenced. 

Have you spoken to a lot of climate scientists about their experiences and treatment? 

We talk to climate scientists all the time, one of our authors – our team member is a climate scientist so we know how climate scientists are being treated and being subjected to harassment and attacks. The response to the paper has been mixed from within the scientific community. Some people have embraced the message and said thanks, this explains so much because now I know why I feel that way. Other scientists say hang on you’re wrong there’s no such thing as seepage because I can resist deniers and bytheway there are scientific reasons why we talk about a pause in global warming. So the reaction has been mixed and the debate is ongoing and we published 2 papers since that paper where we provide further evidence against this pause. I think there is now fairly widespread agreement that the labelling and framing of recent events as a ‘pause’ was very unfortunate and was a mistake. Whoever made it it happen, whether it was contrarians or not, it it doesn’t matter, it was just the wrong framing to put on the phenomenon because there is absolutely no evidence that global warming has stopped. On the contrary, 2015 is going to be the hottest year on record by quite a margin even though we still have 2 months to go, it’s almost inevitable now. So this whole pause idea was always bad and I think a lot of scientists now are agreeing with us in that. That’s not to say that everybody agrees on the reasoning on that, not everybody believes in the seepage notion, there’s still a debate on that. 


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