April 1, 2013
Commonality is the perception that we all share a common view on a subject. It comes about when emerging communications tools are abused to create a fact-optional perception of certainty on issues. Clever issue managers can create an impression that “we all agree” on something by using social media, declining media competence, information overload and a biased data-selection affirmation process. With commonality, research has morphed into risk assessments for politically-driven campaigns and science is now just one part of a consultation decision-making process. As “we all agree” on an issue, there is pressure to act (eg, via precaution or change-directed regulation) with no further need to dialogue, gather evidence or re-evaluate given emerging facts. The problem with commonality is that being wrong (when emerging evidence comes up against entrenched perceptions) is not only costly and frequent, but can take decades to right itself.
The Risk-Monger has been concerned at how “commonality” in environmental health policy debates has become both ubiquitous and insidious. It has also turned certain issues into exercises of manipulation and fact-futility. When everyone seems so certain and facts become counter-intuitive, then I must conclude that this is becoming a crisis: a crisis of common sense and a crisis of political legitimacy and public trust. This first in a series of commonality blogs looks at the three decade long commonality of climate change.
Climate Change without Global Warming
“We all agree” that the world is warming due to mankind’s increased greenhouse gas emissions. The scientific community (with the exception of a few cranks and lunatics) is united in its consensus that if serious changes in our lifestyle and energy consumption patterns are not made immediately, then the planet is heading towards a warming that will be “catastrophic on a global scale”. Studies upon studies have confirmed this view and the increasingly sophisticated models linking rising CO2 levels to increased feedback and faster warming trends have alarmed policy-makers into considering harsh corrective policy actions. UN bodies have been set up (run by activists) and Nobel Peace prizes have been distributed in a self-affirmation process. Only industry-funded lobbyists and lonely mad scientists would have the nerve to try to block our efforts to save the planet.
One little problem: the facts have not kept up with climate commonality. Over the last 16 years, global mean temperatures have remained flat while CO2 levels have increased dramatically. Models made less than a decade ago, with 95% certainty, are now proven to be wrong (see graph below) and with the upcoming solar cycle, many experts are now anticipating several decades of global cooling. But still every day, we are told by experts in front of TV cameras or scientific bodies, that the world is warming and these strange extreme weather events are further justification of how the planet is falling victim to our over-consumption and environmental neglect.
Source: The Economist, 30 March 2013
Sorry, but if the weatherman told me continually that there was a 95% certainty of rain, and each day was sunny and dry, I would look for another weatherman.
OK, let’s get the built-in “rage mechanism” out of the way.
- Risk-Monger, how could you be so stupid?
- Don’t you realise how complex climate systems are?
- What makes you think you can stand up to the entire scientific community?
- Are you paid by industry lobbyists?
I hope you are feeling better now.
What I am interested in here is assessing how strong the commonality forces at play are. What makes us continue to conclude that all of our present environmental predicaments (Hurricane Sandy, the coldest March and Easter in the UK in more than a century, extreme droughts in the American mid-west and floods in Australia) are all due to global warming when the global mean temperature has not moved in the last 16 years? What makes us so certain about this (95% certainty) without evidence to back it up? How long will we continue to speak through this narrative before the counter-intuitive or the industry-funded lunatic fringe become part of a fact-based dialogue? How much more public investment into renewables, smart grids and green solutions will be made during a time of global austerity before people begin to consider how it has distracted us from important global development issues?
What is causing this commonality?
Climate research has become a monster feeding on itself, with increasing funding pools anticipating certain conclusions and publication in peer-reviewed journals depending on affirmation of the climate consensus (“Oblivion” is the place for grey literature that has failed to affirm our bias that the world is warming). It is reminiscent of the research extravaganza in the 1920s into eugenics (which led to some rather regrettable social programmes, mostly in Germany, in the 1930s-40s). Scientists, like everyone else, follow the money (and research costs ain’t getting cheaper!).
The Risk-Monger coined the term: the Environmental-Industrial Complex in reference to how governments, scientists, industry and NGOs have identified mutually beneficial opportunities in battling the war on climate. Like the American Military-Industrial Complex, this phenomenon will continue feed upon itself so long as the public remains terrified of the evil lurking within (bring in the weakened media and social media to hype up the threats). When so many organisations have a profit to make or an advantage to take out of fighting climate change (legitimacy, new technologies and businesses, research funding or a place at the policy table), is it no surprise that the commonality forces (we all agree and must act now!) have remained so strong despite the lack of evidence?
Social media and the democratisation of expertise (wiki-knowledge) have allowed climate communications campaigns and clever PR tools to usurp scientific debate. We all re-post shocking photos from Greenpeace or clever graphics from the IPCC and share our Google-based expertise with our Facebook friends. Being right does not matter if everyone else agrees and affirms our perceptions. Social media has accelerated commonality far beyond its mastermind, Joseph Goebbels, could ever have dreamt of.
One of the more unfortunate complications of commonality is that we fail to realise, until too late, how stupid we have become (and nobody likes to be called stupid). The Risk-Monger has expressed his amusement about how we, somewhere along the way, have managed to convince ourselves that we humans are mighty enough to have an effect on global climate conditions. With Biblical audacity, we have come to believe that we can stop the sun from warming or the sea-levels from rising (apparently just by changing a light bulb). This is where commonality takes on religious proportions, and rather than laughing, the Risk-Monger is frightened. When eco-religion comes in, reason tends to run for cover.
How long will this climate commonality last? I suspect a long time still as there is enough money and public perception to give this narrative legs for a good generation to come. I would not bet on common sense or intellectual courage coming to the rescue anytime soon.