North America from space
North America from space in composite image from NASA’s Earth Observatory satellite.

Writing about “climate change” is at once easy and difficult. The term is claimed by various groups as “weather,” “something that’s been with planet earth for several billion years” as well as “about to cause the end of the world.”

Spark Neuro, a neuromarketing firm, took a semantic approach to analyzing “climate change.” Six terms were examined with participants hooked up to measure galvanic skin responses, facial coding, eye tracking and electroencephalographs to track brain activity. Three groups were chosen to study reactions: Democrats, Republicans and Independents.

The company’s algorithm takes into account that we are not solely rational; we have emotions. Those emotions skew or load affect onto our responses to the world around us, including the words we use. That is as true of scientists as well as bus drivers, college professors and, well, all of us.

As you might imagine, alarmists who want to motivate a lackadaisical public would want something more dramatic than “climate change.” Most surveys that ask us to rate “the most important thing’”among a list of policy choices generally rank “climate change” at or near the bottom. Other priorities are seen as more important, including health care, the homeless, unemployment, education, and perhaps even fixing potholes.

So, ramping up the emotion of “climate change” is important if it is to have a higher priority, and especially if major transformations in lifestyle and government expenditures are required. The winning terms in Spark Neuro’s research were “climate crisis” and “environmental destruction.”

I asked Spencer Gerrol, President of Spark Neuro, if the company would be willing to analyze a different set of terms ─ for a client that wants to tamp down the emotional loading of a term like “climate crisis.” The political arena is populated by those promoting apocalyptic thinking.  Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris and Jay Inslee each referred to climate change as an “existential threat” at a townhall sponsored by CNN.

A list of terms to describe those advocating for what is likely an implausible future include:  “alarmist,” “doom-sayer,” “scaremonger,” and “fanatic.”

Gerrol detoured around my request and suggested a different objective. “This is one of those polarizing situations with two groups locked into opposing understandings of climate change. I think it would be better to encourage people to be more like political independents. We found them open to different possibilities. Then, we could get more dialogue and possibly some meaningful things done. We should work to break up the prevailing group-think and seek out those willing to debate in the spirit of learning.”

Building Blocks for a Spirit of Learning on Climate Change

There are many pathways to understanding the nature and dynamics of climate change. A modest approach is to seek guidance from the scientists who labor in this arena.

Will Happer is a physicist and author of over 200 scientific peer-reviewed papers and a co-author of one of the first books on how CO2 emissions affect the climate. Happer points to the difficulty of building computer models to predict future climate change since the calculations need to encompass two very turbulent fluids – the oceans and the atmosphere. After all, the earth is a water planet with 70% of the surface area covered by water, while the atmosphere contains aerosols, green-house gases and large amounts of water cycling as rain, snow and clouds.

Complex equations and real-world data to describe these two interactive systems are truncated because of their complexity, their variability in geologic and historical time, as well in different regions of the world. Nevertheless, the simplifications of computer models provide a façade of exactitude that has not existed in the past, does not exist at the present, and unlikely in the future.

Dr. Judith Curry, similar to other climate scientists, has opined that “early predictions of warming are too high relative to actual observations. Blaming all of the recent warming on carbon dioxide emissions is incorrect. Solar indirect effects and multi-decadal oscillations of large scale ocean circulations have been effectively ignored in interpreting the causes of the recent warming.”

It is difficult for us — primarily lay consumers of ‘cience and often via the media — to fully grasp these learnings from those who ply the scientific waters.

But we can get a good sense of how scientists interact with each other in terms of what might be called the intellectual combat of scientific inquiry. That process is not a simple reading of papers and articles. Recall how Albert Einstein had to fight against the prevailing consensus in order to convince the scientific community of his theories of relativity. This required a paradigm shift from Newton’s fixed space to a flexible space.

More recently, medical experts were convinced that it was stress and spicy foods that caused peptic ulcers since it was inconceivable that bacteria could live in an acidic environment. However, Barry Marshall and Robin Warren showed that Helicobacter pylori was the chief culprit for those ulcers. Another paradigm shift that had to overcome the prevailing scientific consensus. Einstein, Marshall and Warren each received Nobel Prizes.

Today, we are in the midst of a contest between methods and concepts of how best to understand climate dynamics ─ a collection of phenomena and processes that have been with planet earth for several billion years.

In order to fully appreciate the debate among climate scientists, especially with respect to predicting the future with computer models, we need to recognize the major role that statistics plays in interpreting the data, actual and putative. Nicholas Lewis has been playing an important role in this scientific drama.

Recently Nature, an important journal in the science community, retracted an article that delved into the interaction of ocean and atmospheric O2 and CO2 composition. The authors explained their retraction:  “Shortly after publication, arising from comments from Nicholas Lewis, we realized that our reported uncertainties were underestimated owing to our treatment of certain systematic errors as random errors. In addition, we became aware of several smaller issues in our analysis of uncertainty. Although correcting these issues did not substantially change the central estimate of ocean warming, it led to a roughly fourfold increase in uncertainties, significantly weakening implications for an upward revision of ocean warming and climate sensitivity.”

And just recently Nicholas Lewis scorched another article, likely to experience the same fate as the preceding one. 

After discussing several statistical errors and missteps, Lewis asks why such problems continue: “It is a little depressing that after many years of being criticized for their insufficiently good understanding of statistics and lack of close engagement with the statistical community, the climate science community appears still not to have solved this issue.”

You might ask why an op-ed such as this should dig into such minutiae. My goal is not to prove that the consensus is wrong (even if it is overstated), but rather that the foundations employed in predictive climate models need to be vetted again and again. This is one of the missing elements in most of the articles we read in the media and from lobbying groups. We read about consensus and certainty, not the ebb and flow of the quest for climate change understanding.  It appears that alarmism is enhanced when the rush to consensus stumbles over the math used to predict the climate future.

Perhaps another give-and-take would further reveal the failure to listen in the consensus community.

Steven Koonin, director of the Center for Urban Science and Progress at New York University and formerly Energy Department undersecretary in President Obama’s first term, gave a talk that partly dealt with sea level rise. A commentary by Dr. Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, criticized Koonin. Obviously, both are well-regarded scientists with important institutional roles. Yet, there’s the give-and-take that we miss out on in reading mainstream media accounts, but is essential to figuring out what to believe: Is there an argument over fact? Is there an argument over interpretation? Or is there anger that blinds participants to actual scientific dialogue?

It is worthwhile tracking the back and forth between Koonin and Schmidt regarding sea level rise. Is there a scientific debate or rather one creating a strawman of the other?

Koonin describes the approach he took in a recent talk on climate, reflecting on the critique offered by Gavin Schmidt: “I try to be careful with my words (even in an unscripted talk) and am disappointed that they’re not read with comparable care. I’m also disappointed that Schmidt didn’t address the point I made, rather than just dismissing what he thinks I said.

Schmidt says, “Apparently, Koonin doesn’t think rapid sea level rise is going to happen in the future because it hasn’t happened over the last 100 years at the Battery in NYC.”

Koonin replies:  “Again, Schmidt is criticizing an interpretive quotation. The transcript from the video is:  ‘I don’t think that’s going to happen [a one meter rise by 2100]. I’m not certain, but it sure looks discordant with what we’ve seen for the last 150 years.’”

Koonin further explains:  “For sea level to rise 1 meter by 2100 would require an average rate of 12 mm/yr through the end of this century. That’s about six times the rate we’ve seen for the past 150 years and four times the rate we’ve seen in recent decades (and likely also in the 1940’s). So I don’t see much reason to change my quote.”

So, if this brief exchange characterizes nuances in the scientific dialogue over climate change and its effects, we can see how media and advocacy groups fail to understand the tectonic gaps in attempts to measure not just sea-level rise, but CO2 effects, climate sensitivity, anthropogenic contributions to climate change, and the multitude of other variables distributed over planet earth, and impacting poor and rich societies in different ways. This is the difficulty in the minutiae of scientific discourse that the consensus blithely ignores.

With respect to sea level rise, Curry notes that “future sea level rise scenarios ignore all contributions from natural climate variability, and rely on climate models that are apparently running too hot that are anchored by unrealistic emissions scenarios.”

The Unintended Consequences of Mistaken Predictions

Far be it from me to say that prediction X is incorrect since the prediction cannot be falsified until the time comes for measuring its truth or falsity. But so many predictions have been wrong that it is probably best to temper the doom-saying.

A funny example – now that we have survived to 2019 – is ABC’s 2009 broadcast of an apocalyptic vision in its special Earth 2100 with dystopian visions for the years 2015 and onwards. Predictions included milk costing $12.99 a gallon, gas $9 a gallon, a hurricance leveling Miami with thousands killed, and at some time New York City underwater. Read that again: New York City is underwater.

But none of that happened. It makes for good theater, but not a news commentary, especially not about sea level rise. And yes, Abaco island was devastated by Hurricane Dorian this year, but the buildings were not built for that situation. Better architecture and building materials may be the better answer to Mother Nature rather than trying to change her with solar panels and wind turbines in distant regions of the world. That’s a discussion worth having.

Plausibility is the better path than implausibility when it comes to climate predictions. Curry has delved into a fairly technical analysis of the worst-case scenario to identify plausible climate change outcomes. Her recent article requires a close read on the various projections of climate sensitivity. That discussion goes beyond the scope of this essay, but for those wanting to follow her analysis, you can find it here.

Suffice it to say, the expansive predictions of a world overwhelmed by sea level rise falls into category of the highly implausible. A computer prediction can’t change the bottom-line conclusion of what is plausible and what is implausible, unless one imports truncated and unrealistic computer models. While it is fascinating to read of end-of-the-world predictions, disastrous climate change effects are more likely to result from the impact of large meteors, exploding super volcanoes, uncontrolled disease without vaccines, and crazed dictators.

The Danger of Exaggerating Climate Change

Our emotions affect how we use and react to words. That is what drove Spark Neuro’s investigation into words that would engender stronger emotional reactions than the simple phrase “climate change.”

Emotions can drive frenzied group behavior as well. Think of intense sports rivals with stands packed with their respective supporters. Think of a celebrity in the midst of a crowd of fans. Fans? Oh yes, that comes from the word “fanatic.”

Adulatory crowds also have negative versions: mob behavior. Think of the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror in the late 18th century. Think of the 21st  century Muslim man in India who was hung by a Hindu mob for eating beef and hurting religious sentiments. The examples are multiple and extend to all factions and to all nations. We are all potential converts to fanatic behavior.

The question becomes whether there is value in psyching up a community to any particular cause. Here I am not arguing the moral certainty of group X or Y, of whether one animated group is justified or not. Rather, the point is that environmental and social advocacy groups are, in fact, seeking to animate the public into a more visceral response. This is not a question of facts, but of animating what is perceived as a lackadaisical public.

Led by the organization Public Citizen, about a dozen groups from Sierra Club, Greenpeace to Progressive Democrats of America, have urged major media outlets to substitute more dramatic language than simply “climate change.”

“The words that reporters and anchors use matter. What they call something shapes how millions see it—and influences how nations act,” according to Public Citizen. “And today, we need to act boldly and quickly. With scientists warning of global catastrophe unless we slash emissions by 2030, the stakes have never been higher, and the role of news media never more critical.”

“We are urging you to call the dangerous overheating of our planet and the lack of action to stop what it is—a crisis––and to cover it like one.”

The real danger may not be spending trillions of dollars in a Green New Deal but its crowding out of other needs to more immediate problems with more visible chances of success. Also consider that developing countries may see this Green Deal emphasis as morally pernicious: First World countries built their countries on polluting technology but now want to deny that same opportunity to Third World or less developed countries. That rationale has driven the exemptions to China and India in the Paris Climate Agreement.

One can argue the rightness or wrongness of such prioritization of national and international expenditures, but the larger point is that discussions should not be short-circuited by hyped up language, especially in the age of social media.

I can hear objections that a mass movement to save the world from warming, sea-level rise, hurricanes, pestilence and similar catastrophes has important value. Others, who may have doubts about such dire predictions, may simply want to hedge their bets and could be persuaded to spend exorbitant amounts to “save the planet.”

But would transformative projects to upend a bleak climate future actually work? One such possible future is already here. The California wildfires show how imposed governmental guidance, corporate interests, environmentalist preferences, and a desire to live off the beaten path can combine in perverse ways, and thus fail to protect the citizenry. Even the most idealistic climate advocate should acknowledge the likelihood of disasters flowing from good intentions.

In 1841, Charles Mackay, a Scottish journalist, collected a series of such emotion-driven crowd phenomena that can be likened to current efforts to ramp up climate advocacy: Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. There was the Dutch Tulip mania in the 18th century. The fascination of alchemists and their delusion of being able to turn base metals into gold. The Flagellants of the 14th century who whipped themselves, hoping to seek the pity of God or to rid themselves of the bubonic plague. In the United States, we might note the Salem Witch Trials of the 17th century, or more recently, the Red Scare of the 20 th century. These are just a handful of public delusions that are a recurrent human social problem. Call it an outsized emotional reaction that spreads to a community (which is sometimes described as a mass psychogenic illness). It can be positive or negative, mild or frenzied, localized or uncontained and widespread.

That is the herd thinking to which we are susceptible. Mackay observed in 1841, “Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.”

That danger has always been part of the human condition. The challenge is to recognize it, to be cautious in participating it, and to avoid urging it upon the wider community when the cause is uncertain, ambiguous and unlikely to be solved by the frenzy of the masses.

Joe Nalven is a former associate director of the Institute for Regional Studies of the Californias at San Diego State University.