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Engagement Can Be Tiring

Image Credit : Skeptical Science

This is a record of a short email exchange.

I feel it encapsulates some of the difficulties of communicating climate change science when there are a large number of people in the conversation who have a destructive agenda.

They may have different reasons for attacking the process of science learning by the general population, but they unite on strategies that belittle people and spread doubt.

At the same time, there are people with accurate knowledge who take different positions about how much emphasis they should place on the risks posed by climate change.

We need to get our act together and form a united front, surely ?

Date: Thu, 19 Apr 2012 15:48:31
Subject: Twitter / catch up
From: CV
To: joabbess

Hey Jo,

Not sure if you remember me from Oil Drum, PowerSwitch and a few energy/climate events in London a few years ago? Anyway – I’ve been following your Twitter conversations with Tamsin [Edwards] and Richard [Betts] recently (I now work with Tamsin at Bristol – my work is based on modelling Greenland surface mass balance) and thought I’d drop you a line. How life going? I appreciate I haven’t read all the relevant tweets but must admit not to fully understand what you guys are discussing, or where the conflict has arisen. What’s up?


Hi CV,

I do appreciate your attempt to broker some good communication.

I have three basic problems, I think.

1. I think Dr Richard A. Betts appears to want to tone down the concerns of those who have read the science and are alarmed at the risks posed by the increasing pace of global warming. I don’t think this is helpful as it feeds into the agenda (see Note) of the self-styled “sceptics” on climate change, and makes it hard for the alarmed voices to be heard. For a scientist in a top Government research institution to dismiss voices of alarm is also unhelpful in my mind because of the prestige factor. There are many knowledgable and intelligent people who are highly concerned about climate change who are not necessarily climatologists but who can read a research paper and have sufficient education to understand the conclusions. It is unhelpful to wave away voices of alarm by categorising them as “activists” or “environmentalists” (as [Lord] Anthony Giddens and others have done). [Note : there are several “sceptic” agendas as far as I can make out – including the “curmudgeon” who is anti-climate change science because of a bias against government policy and law; and the “believer” who is convinced that global warming is a hoax; and the “argumentator” who just loves to get under the skin and irritate people for the attention…this is in addition to the paid public relations trolls…]

2. Richard was making comments by Twitter that seemed to encourage the climate change self-styled “sceptic” snipers to attack me, which was very unpleasant. It was made more unpleasant by the fact that I did not see all of these comments to begin with as he was not using my @name. He appeared to be dismissing me, and this contradicted his declaration that he was open to “engagement”. His words included a statement to the effect that he expressed that I was attacking academic freedom and that I was anti-democratic, neither of which I found helpful.

3. The theory that “engaging” with the climate change “sceptics” can be productive and positive is something that I disagree with based on personal experience and my ad hoc summary of research surveys I have looked at. I feel that Tamsin Edwards has perhaps been too accepting of the theories of public engagement – I do not think they can be successfully applied to the issue of climate change. I am more inclined to accept Chris Mooney’s report that the sociopolitical brain-wiring of people determines their acceptance of climate change science. I also do not have any evidence to suggest that the climate change “sceptics” can actually shift from their positions, because they are continually absorbing (and creating) disinformation – they effectively live in a strange parallel universe. I am still of the opinion that attempting to communicate with the climate change “sceptics” is a waste of precious time, and recent events have only “confirmed” that “bias” (or “warranted” that postpositivist “conjecture”).

The biggest problem with the social discourse on climate change, in my view, is the belittling of its serious potential consequences. This is an approach taken by many, such as [5th Viscount] Matthew [Matt] Ridley, who mocks “scare” stories of the past, including the Millenium Bug and the UN research into desertification. He is patently wrong about both of these. As a computer programmer I was heavily involved in remedial action to prevent the Y2K bug taking down major banking and insurance systems on 1/1/2000. Thousands of people spent millions of person-years averting a genuine crisis. And encroaching deserts and rising aridity are making life in the Tropical zone less sustainable by the year.

Whilst I fully understand the problems of using “Apocalyptic language”, and I appreciate the laying out of this kind of issue by [Professor] Mike Hulme, I cannot accept “mollification” or “pacification” on the issue of climate change science. We already know enough to justify taking a number of actions in relation to energy and agriculture that are no-regrets, even if they cost a bit for a few years. We should make those decisions, take those actions. The risks of not doing so are too great to make light of, or waste time debating who may have offended whom on Twitter.

With my finest regards,


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