May 21, 2014

Krugman’s “Point of No Return” and the Gorilla Problem

A column by Paul Krugman, the New York Times columnist, that stuck with me.

Points of No Return

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the power of doctrines — how support for a false dogma can become politically mandatory, and how overwhelming contrary evidence only makes such dogmas stronger and more extreme. For the most part, I’ve been focusing on economic issues, but the same story applies with even greater force to climate.

To see how it works, consider a topic I know well: the recent history of inflation scares. …

Over time … as the promised inflation kept failing to arrive, there should have come a point when the inflationistas conceded their error and moved on.

In fact, however, few did. Instead, they mostly doubled down on their predictions of doom, and some moved on to conspiracy theorizing, claiming that high inflation was already happening, but was being concealed by government officials.

Why the bad behavior? Nobody likes admitting to mistakes, and all of us — even those of us who try not to —sometimes engage in motivated reasoning, selectively citing facts to support our preconceptions. …

Think of it this way: Once upon a time it was possible to take climate change seriously while remaining a Republican in good standing. Today, listening to climate scientists gets you excommunicated …

And truly crazy positions are becoming the norm. A decade ago, only the G.O.P.’s extremist fringe asserted that global warming was a hoax concocted by a vast global conspiracy of scientists (although even then that fringe included some powerful politicians). Today, such conspiracy theorizing is mainstream within the party, and rapidly becoming mandatory; witch hunts against scientists reporting evidence of warming have become standard operating procedure, and skepticism about climate science is turning into hostility toward science in general.

It’s hard to see what could reverse this growing hostility to inconvenient science. As I said, the process of intellectual devolution seems to have reached a point of no return. And that scares me more than the news about that ice sheet.

Full column here.


So, Krugman posits, even ‘Counting on Catastrophe’ isn’t going to be enough to change denialists.  My assumption is that, in the face of overwhelming severe and extreme weather, denialism becomes irrelevant.  I touched on this back in 2012: Frankenstorms and Gorillas.

SevereFor those who care about the science, that’s true.  But the denialists don’t really care about the science (and hence the personal attacks on the scientists).  Denialism’s job is to convince the public that there is too much doubt to justify action, that the science itself is corrupted, that it’s all a plot to transfer wealth, that it’s part of the political and culture wars.

And it’s worked.

The problem is that extreme weather events and trends (droughts, floods, ice melts ) are consistent with the predictions of climate change and generate unease in the population.  The denialist’s job is then to  persuade the public to ignore that which, if immediate and local, is increasingly difficult to ignore.

It’s rather like living with a large gorilla.  So long as it remains passive, even as it grows, we can live with it.  But when it stomps around and upsets the furniture, and looks to be getting ever more angry, then advice to ignore it is futile.  The denialists must either make the gorilla go away or acknowledge its presence.

So long as there are extreme weather events, the onus of proof is not on the science; it’s on the denialists.  The latter must explain why such events don’t matter (i.e. ignore the gorilla), provide assurance that they won’t get worse (i.e. ignore the gorilla’s behaviour) or accept that we have a gorilla problem.

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      1. Simply that the exact same article could be used with examples from the forces for climate change action. When dialogue is so polarized, EVERYONE is playing the game. It would not be rocket science to act on climate trouble indicators without creating an opposition, but climate action is so totalitarian in outlook – indeed, it was the first to use climate science as a weapon in the larger political and culture wars, and as a tool for slicing themselves off a bit of the economic pie. Why else would something as obvious as reducing impacts on nature generate any opposition at all?

        1. Blaming both sides is the easy way out, and pretty much without merit. Especially when in terms of concrete steps taken so far, the climate deniers have almost totally won. Your argument about culture wars, etc. leaves out science entirely.

          But indeed, why is something so obvious as reducing impacts so polarizing? Is the status quo so good that climate deniers can’t even contemplate reducing greenhouse gas emissions?

    1. So this conversation is revealing. The Climate Action side can never just discuss the quality of the debate or evaluate their own tactics; they’re too busy using them to suppress opposition and to slipstream their political agenda in behind the solar panels. And you can’t let someone sit on the fence, even if they are on side with your action and trying to help you. You need to convert them. This shows that the Climate Action side is mostly zealots, and zealots will generate opposition, even if they are more or less correct. So good luck with that. If people have to shrug off melting ice sheets and tornadoes to stay free of your oppression, they will. It’s how they feel between tornadoes that matters.

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  1. Gord you seem to have a lot of emotional capital wrapped up in the now, on again, off again, popular rhetoric of global warming.

    Even though it seemed to have calmed down for a while, until recently, up it pops with the news that last April was the hottest or record (which, of course is an absurd comment to make without taking into account the history since before records where kept).

    I don’t remember you commenting on the very cold, sustained winter we have just experienced!

    Do you have a desperate urge to be on the side of convention, interpreting that as the more scientists claim a warming earth the more you want to side with them.

    (Beware the current fad is that sugar is the new fattener and its in every thing).

    Anyway, regardless of what you believe, there is a multitude of scientists who claim the earth’s climate has not warmed for nearly twenty years now. I have posted many of them so I wont bore you with more . . .

    There is, nevertheless, a bultitude of scientist who declare, “yes, I believe in global warming but I do not believe in human caused global warming“. Errrrr, me too!

    For what it is worth, since I was a kid, sailing my little sail boat off the coast of Yorkshire, then as a matelot on a mine sweepers in the Scottish Isles, then sailing for the last ten years the length of the Salish Sea I cannot say I have seen a drastic sea level change one way or another.

    I have lived on the Nanaimo waterfront for the last fifteen years: there is a concrete marker just in my line of vision that surely would show some change in sea level, be it a notch above miniscule, after fifteen years. Yet nada!

    But of course anecdotal evidence doesn’t count, does it? Especially from, whoooo-ah, a denier!
    (Actually, I am not a denier, I just try to keep current).

    The issue is not climate change. Good heavens earth is a living, palpitating mass of creative energy: change is its signature!

    It has been changing ever since it calmed down from that raging fireball inferno so long ago.

    Anyway, when eventually it does subside I’ll be sure to avoid hitching a ride on your asteroid called anxiety!

    1. With all due respect, your efforts to keep current have failed badly, judging by this mix of misunderstandings of climate change, platitudes, and blathering.

    2. The “cold winter” you refer to didn’t set any cold weather records in North America. Globally, the Dec-Feb period was the 8th warmest on record and all of the top 10 were since 1998.

      This is what you turn to to dispel a global warming myth? Check your facts before pumping up the fear.

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    4. “The issue is not climate change. Good heavens earth is a living, palpitating mass of creative energy: change is its signature!
      It has been changing ever since it calmed down from that raging fireball inferno so long ago.”

      Too bad scientists never considered or took into account the possibility that climate can naturally change. Of course not. Clearly they’ve overlooked this in their calculations. Good thing we have internet comments to remind us!

  2. The ice is melting. You won’t notice it if you are bobbing around on a little boat in the middle of the ocean. In fact you won’t even notice a tsunami if it happens to pass.

    The ice is melting. You can call it what you like, you can call it anything you like. The only thing you can’t call it is water that is freezing.

    The ice is melting. NASA knows this, field surveys know this and it is not a matter of belief but of measurement.

    The ice is melting. No single human has been able to do anything about it, but more than likely every one of eight billion humans has contributed to this melting.

    Today Vladimir Putin made the single largest contribution to date, a contract with the Chinese Government over the next 30 years for the delivery of 38 billion cubic metres of natural gas. Every joules worth of this gas will be combusted using the oxygen you and I and every other living thing on this planet needs for survival.

  3. The part of the IPCC reports I find most disturbing is that we’ve delayed action so long that what is required is not even being discussed by any major politician. For instance, John Horgan has made some tepid remarks about Northern Gateway but his “all of the above” energy strategies is just a commitment to the status quo. Federally, Trudeau supports the tar sands and Mulcair seems to want to avoid the environment entirely. If anyone were serious, they would be talking about a national cap & trade or carbon tax, scaling down the tar sands, putting a moratorium on LNG and new energy extraction projects. But because pundits are so silent on this issue and the Overton Window is tugged so strongly by the deniers and stallers that this comes across as fringe & kooky.

    Waiting for a real disaster isn’t good enough. There’s a lot of lag time in climate so when the impacts become severe enough that it can’t be denied it will be too late to even mitigate let alone prevent.

  4. The ice is melting. So what ?

    This is good for Canada, and Norway, Finland, Russia or Alaska. Higher crop yields. More ice free ports. Lower transportation and heating bills.

    Global warming, if it exists, a big if btw, also has benefits.

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    2. Not good for anyone when you consider the amount of methane that will be released from thawing permafrost all across the arctic zone.