The Climate Change Conundrum

When it comes to climate change, those who understand it the best are the least effective at explaining it.

One obvious reason for this is that the science behind climate change is complex and resists sound bites. A less obvious reason has to do with the nature of science itself. Certainty is the enemy of science. Scientists are always open to new evidence and abhor absolute truth claims. It is the nature of science to test and retest explanations against the natural world. Thus, scientific explanations are likely to be built on and modified with new information and new ways of looking at old information.

Unfortunately, the average person wants to know if climate change claims are “true” or not. The unwillingness of climate change scientists to make absolute truth claims continually gets them in trouble as they are seized on by the deniers in the media and the blogosphere. For example, Paul Jones, the Director of the British Climate Research Unit and the scientist at the center of the recent “Climategate” idiocy was interviewed by the BBC last week.  In the course of the interview, Jones said that an observed warming trend of 0.12 degrees C per decade between 1995 to 2009 was “not significant at the 95% significance level.” On the other hand, he said, it was quite close to being statistically significant.

The UK paper, The Daily Mail, ran the headline: “Climategate U-turn as scientist at centre of row admits: There has been no global warming since 1995.” The story went viral as the right wing echo chamber spread the news. For the hardcore climate change deniers, this was vindication that they had been right all along.  Most bloggers reprinted the Daily Mail article verbatim with only a slight variation to the original headline. For example, the headline at Marc Morano’s Climate Depot shouted, “The Jig is Up! Climategate U-turn as Phil Jones admits: There has been no warming since 1995”. Morano and the other bloggers neglected to link to the original BBC interview, so readers were not able to confirm the Daily Mail claims.

But, even without the actual interview, anyone who understands statistics would see that Jones was not claiming there had been no warming since 1995. Far from it. He said the the warming trend was “not significant at the 95% significance level”. To say that something is significant to the 95% level means there is only a 5 percent chance of a particular finding occurring purely by chance. So, what Jones was saying is that there is just less than a 95% chance that the measured warming of 0.12 degrees C per decade between 1995 and 2009 actually happened.

I don’t know about you, but if my doctor told me I was dying of cancer, but had close to a 95% chance of recovery if I took chemotherapy treatments, I would want to start the treatments immediately. Notice, no doctor is going to tell a cancer patient that recovery is guaranteed if they take a particular treatment.  Medicine, like climate change science, is not about claims of absolute certainty.

I wonder if the deniers like Morano are just ignorant themselves and don’t understand what statistical significance means or, are they willfully deceiving their readers by feeding into their already existing biases?

Well, here is Morano receiving the “Accuracy in Media” award from CPAC after addressing them at the 2010 Conference last week. I guess my question has been answered. Feed them the red meat and you will be rewarded.

Thus, The Conundrum

Al Gore understood the importance of communicating the science about climate change if there was to be any hope for policy addressing the issue. Unfortunately, Gore lacks the political capital inherent in being an elected official. If fact, until recently, the only elected officials talking about climate change were deniers like Inhofe and DeMint.

Yesterday, Obama finally decided to weigh in while at a town hall meeting in Nevada.

This is the answer to the conundrum. Obama is able to explain, in language anyone can understand, the absurdity of the deniers. Why does this message not end up in the mainstream media?

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