The climate at On Science Blogs

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Greetings and welcome. What we have here is just what the name says: On Science Blogs. I write about science blogging that catches my eye. Selection is somewhat random, but not entirely. I often collect and discuss a handful of posts related to current events–scientific developments, major papers, scientific or scientific-political disputes.

There will be some emphasis too on the craft of science writing, especially science and medical journalism. That’s partly because science and medical journalism is what I do. Also, until today, On Science Blogs’s home has been the web site of the National Association of Science Writers, and it’s always been partly about science writing.

From today, however, On Science Blogs will live here, at PLOS.   The PLOS Blog Network has invited me to join its crowd of marvelous bloggers, I have accepted with pleasure, and this is my first post. From the beginning my schedule has been a new post every Friday. That continues to be the plan except for holidays, which I usually take off.

I started writing On Science Blogs in 2009. By then it was clear that science blogging encompassed many skillful writers who knew a lot about science and medicine. They were both scientists and science writers, and their posts rivalled the best science articles in slick magazines and the classiest newspapers. But no one was writing about them. So I decided to. The archive of almost 4 years’ worth of past posts will remain on the NASW site, but you can get to them here.   We’ll be setting up an archive of my new posts here on the PLoS site as well. But that will have to wait until I’ve written a few more.

There are now thousands of science blogs. Keeping up is hopeless, so I don’t try. What you will find here are my comments on my own idiosyncratic selection. Deal with it.

WHITHER CLIMATE CHANGE DENIAL?

Does it seem to you that climate-change denialism is, ever so slowly, fading away? It does to me. I can’t defend that declaration with data, but in doing research for this post I was impressed with the quality and quantity of push-back from defenders of climate-change science. climate-change2 Not that we’re anywhere near implementing policies that can make a big difference. And getting there will take us through plenty of disputes about exactly which policies to adopt. But in the US at least it does seem as if Obama intends to nudge things along in small ways.

Not that denialism is gone, of course. At Future Tense, David Biello recently reported on attitudes of US farmers. An Iowa farmer who is also an economist told Biello that, to farmers, weather changes all the time, so they’re disinclined to think it has anything to do with human behavior. An Iowa State survey of 5000 farmers revealed that while 66% believe global warming is happening, only 41% think people have much to do with it.

But it’s significant to me that farmer denial seems to focus more on denying human responsibility than on denying warming per se. Agriculture being a big factor in warming, it’s hard not to believe that short-term self-interest has something–maybe a lot–to do with this sort of denial. Regulation of farming activity strong enough to slow down warming would be at best inconvenient for farmers, and maybe extremely inconvenient–and expensive.

Says Biello, “Few would have to change their livelihoods as radically as American farmers if efforts to combat climate change became more serious.” But he also notes that farmer attitudes may not matter. Farming practices are changing fast and in ways–reducing fuel consumption to save money, for example–that as a byproduct will help slow warming.

It will not surprise you to learn that conservative media are bastions of denialist sentiment, but now there are data to prove it. The data are from 2008 and 2011 but were published in April. Dana Nuccitelli reports at Climate Consensus–the 97%: “The results suggest that conservative media consumption (specifically Fox News and Rush Limbaugh) decreases viewer trust in scientists, which in turn decreases belief that global warming is happening. In contrast, consumption of non-conservative media (specifically ABC, CBS, NBC, MSNBC, CNN, NPR, The New York Times, and The Washington Post) increases consumer trust in scientists, and in turn belief that global warming is happening.”

Among Fox News tactics, the survey reports, is equating peer-reviewed research with politically liberal opinion and accusing scientists of rigging the data to secure funding. But you knew that.

WHITHER CLIMATE-CHANGE SKEPTICS?

Even if the outright deniers are decreasing in number and size of megaphones, the skeptics don’t seem to be. Of course, for those of us who write about science, skepticism is a good thing, right? But it leaves us down in the weeds, trying to define the nature of the arguments. Is this guy a denier or a skeptic? Or a denier in a skeptic suit?

In his useful taxonomic post at The Curious Wavefunction, Ashutosh Jogalekar lays out his own criterion, which seems to me as good as any: “[T]he difference between denial and skepticism sometimes simply comes down to whether someone is just throwing around opinions or actually sweating the details.”

Some observers have adopted “skeptic” as the catchall term for all those who comment critically on climate change, including outright deniers. “How to Talk to a Climate Skeptic: Responses to the most common skeptical arguments on global warming” is the title of Coby Beck’s exhaustive, near-scholarly compendium of standard complaints about global warming findings and valuable retorts to each of them. Despite the title, many of those responses are aimed at deniers. (If you don’t know this series of dozens of posts, go there and bookmark the list immediately. It was published in 2008, but is still full of material that will arm you against many of the denier/skeptic arguments you will encounter. Find the list of more than 60 posts and links at Grist, but also at Coby Beck’s own blog, A Few Things Ill Considered.)

One of the things we are probably going to see more of as public opinion and maybe even political opinion crawls into the believer camp is critics like Warren Meyer. He maintains indignantly at Forbes that “informed skeptics” do not deny global warming, or even human responsibility. They simply deny that it will be catastrophic, and believe, as he does, that there’s no need to impose restrictions on fossil fuels.

So it appears the debate will shift from denying that warming is happening to arguing about how serious warming is going to be, and from arguing against doing anything to arguing about what, exactly should be done. Differences of opinion will more and more focus on proposals about which reasonable (usually) people can (usually) reasonably disagree. So despite the rays of hope, the disputes aren’t going to go away. The effect may well be that remedial action won’t speed up much.

A reorientation of the debates away from frank denialism and inaction is inevitable, if only because of demography. A staggering 8 out of 10 young voters strongly support action by President Obama against climate change, and the survey these data come from showed that even half of those who dislike the president want him to take steps.  This survey is especially noteworthy because it polled young voters of both Democratic and Republican bent and was carried out collaboratively by Democratic and Republican pollsters. That makes it feel trustworthy. Bad Astronomer Phil Plait has greeted the survey with little glad cries. He hopes passionately that these ideas will get through to politicians and be reflected in the voting booth.

It may not be fast enough to slow down climate change much, but it’s pretty clear that if we wait, deniers and other older opponents of action will eventually be gone to the great melty glacier in the sky. Good riddance.

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