Scientist In Residence: Danny Richter on Confronting Climate Change Skeptics

I thought it a good time to lay down a primer on how to talk with a climate skeptic, especially when they’re trying to swindle you.

First, it’s good to know that most skeptic arguments begin with a fact. At best, this fact is taken out of context. At worst, this fact (or data set) is deliberately altered to fit the skeptic’s case. The skeptic will then cling to this fact, hammering home how if this one fact is true, then there is no way the other millions of data points the IPCC used in context and without doctoring them could be true. If they’re a good skeptic, they’ll have 3 or 4 of these facts in their back pocket, and they’ll throw them out at you in succession.

Some of these facts are so good, they are used by skeptics over and over and over again, and there are in fact excellent websites dedicated to putting what truth exists in them back in context. Here are a couple that I have used repeatedly:

  • Real Climate-This site is excellent. Written by various scientists at the cutting edge of climate change research, I’ve found it to be generally well-written, and it has all the technical depth you could want.
  • Skeptical Science-Also excellent. It is more organized towards skeptic confrontation, with a list of 139 common skeptic arguments and rebuttals to them. Not as in depth, but if you want to throw yourself into the trenches with skeptics, this is probably your go-to resource.
  • And i f you happen to be in government, or a member of the media, check out this site. It’s a match-making site between volunteer climate scientists and those with questions.

However, sometimes you’ll meet a skeptic with some really random piece of information that they’ll throw out at you which is not covered in one of these websites. On such territory, even the best climate scientists can sometimes founder because, knowing nothing about the source of the claim, and being a sucker for details (that’s how they became a scientist in the first place, after all) they can’t counter the assertion. Many a scientist has foundered on these rocky shores, and lost in the court of public opinion despite their superior technical training and knowledge.

The lesson I have drawn from this sad, over-played drama is: do as the skeptics do. Have one good argument that is easy to understand. Keep coming back to it. Make the argument such that if it is true, all skeptic arguments must be false. Don’t let the skeptic drag you into details you don’t know, because they are irrelevant. The argument I have come up with is based on three simple questions:

  1. Does CO2 trap heat?
  2. Is the concentration of CO2 rising?
  3. Are we responsible for that rise?

As you may have guessed, the answer to all three arguments is “yes”. Expanding further:

Point 1: We have known that CO2 has trapped heat for over 150 years. We know because John Tyndall (the same guy who figured out why the sky is blue, as it turns out) stuck some CO2 in a box with a thermometer in it, shone some light through it, and found that the temp was higher when there was more CO2. Not exactly rocket science, but NASA still finds it worth putting on the web.

Point 2: Keeling Curve. 52 years of direct measurements of CO2. No models, no proxies, just direct measurements.

Point 3: Turns out, we’ve emitted twice as much CO2 from the burning of fossil fuels as is necessary to account for the rise in CO2. The other half has been absorbed by our friend the ocean, and is causing ocean acidification. The data go back to 1751, and come from fuel production data. You can get the data yourself here. Sabine et al., 2004 in Science has a good and simple breakdown of the sizes of the sources and sinks of CO2 for the last 200 years.

In summary, CO2 traps heat, the concentration of CO2 is rising, and humans have dumped twice as much CO2 into the atmosphere as is necessary to account for that rise. We have a gun, the gun is smoking, and we pulled the trigger.

Stick to this argument, and you can win in the court of public opinion. The court of science ruled long ago, so public opinion is now the only court that matters. You’re not talking with words that put people to sleep immideately like “regional variability”, “Pleistocene”, or “adiabatic lapse rate”. Your talking about words that people understand. “Box”. “Temperature”. “Burn”. “Twice”. The only thing that might get them is “CO2”. But if they can’t stay awake for that, then you’re wasting your time.

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10 comments on “Scientist In Residence: Danny Richter on Confronting Climate Change Skeptics
  1. There is no debate over the questions mentioned in the article. The debate is as follows:
    1. Do the H2O vapour increase or decrease as a result of CO2 increase? Measurements shows that water vapour concentration decreases to such an amount that the transparency remains constant (Miskolczi 2010). There are doubts about the measurements but the fact is that these are the best measurements available to date. But, let’s assume that the answer is that the water vapour concentration increases. How high is the increase? Without the water vapour feedback the temperature increase for a doubling of CO2 is less then 2 deg C (1.something – one can find the exact value in the IPCC report or any textbook).
    2. Everybody wants a good environment and a green world. How do we achieve this? Do we put the poor pay more for their heating and food in order to get the money to a few rich ones that promises us that they’ll save us from Armageddon? Or we start to take small actions that fix actual, measurable issues (over fishing, over hunting, over foresting, real pollution, etc)
    3. Does the goal justify the means? The answer is NO. The goal (even the noblest goal ever) doesn’t justify the means because the means always distort the goal. If the means are bad the goal will be distorted and will be bad.

    • Dear Friend,

      Thank you for providing such a text-book example of the climate skeptic tactics I describe in my article! I think this will really help other readers get the gist of what they’re dealing with. Your numerous grammar mistakes will be particularly encouraging to those aspiring to win in the court of public opinion.

      By the way, I also share your concern for the poor. This is why I advocate for a revenue-neutral carbon tax. This would return 100% of the tax on carbon back to Americans evenly. Since the poor spend less on carbon than the rich (they tend to only own smaller homes and fewer hummers, after all), they would actually end up ahead if we tackled the problem today. Tack on all the renewable jobs that can’t be outsourced that would result from a higher price on carbon, and the poor will be doing pretty well for addressing climate change.

  2. You’re the scientist is residence, are you joking?

    Anyway I know a far better way to talk to a skeptic; first sit them down somewhere, talk really slowly to them, ensure to enunciate every word clearly, have some music from a Theremin playing in the background. Slowly tell them that climate change is real, then get them to take a drink of green Kool-aid, then say that wind turbines are good, more kool-aid, Al Gore is really God incarnate (they’ll need a long drink for that one), say the oceans are rising, another green drink, then repeat this series of statements and drinks for at least the next 24 hours. By the end of that time, the skeptic will be fully converted to the dark side. There you go. Glad I could help. Cheers.

    • Dear Sir,
      Your advice bears a disturbing resemblance to date rape. That is illegal. In no way do I advocate such extreme actions, and I must decline your advice. No, I will stick to simple facts, direct measurements, and good old arithmetic to make my case, and leave the green Kool-aid to you. After all, as we know from the song by Sublime, date rape always leads to something bad in the end.

  3. Clouds provide a negative feedback, not a positive. None of the GCM’s model cloud formation or precipitation properly. Are you new to this discussion? You sound like a hyped-up college freshman who just saw “An Inconvenient Truth” or something.

    • Clouds? I mentioned clouds exactly 0 times in my article. Cutting and pasting arguments from one comments section to another will only get you so far Mr. Mangan. I suggest you remove your head from the cumulus you seem so fond of, and read before you type.

      And for the record, you gave a great example of newly added skeptic argument #141 on the skeptical science website: http://www.skepticalscience.com/clouds-negative-feedback.htm

  4. Thank you, Danny. It’s good to have things so simple and boiled down. I’ve bookmarked this page for future reference. I’ve often thought the existence of ice core samples, clearly preserving warming temperatures, should be pretty convincing as well (to those who actually have an open mind–most so-called skeptics are ideologues). Any thoughts?

  5. Hi Greg,

    First, I must disagree that most climate skeptics are ideologues. Certainly the loudest are. But the majority are just decent people who don’t want to believe their actions are messing up the world. They should be disabused of their confusion on climate as gently and respectfully as possible. The ideologues, as merchants of willful ignorance and pseudo-science, need to be confronted, but when we do we should remember that our real audience is not them, but the people who listen to them.

    As for ice cores, I agree! Scientifically, they are one of the most rich and valuable troves of evidence we have. Though they have many uses, I think their most valuable revelation for the purposes of dealing with climate skeptics is that CO2 has not been above 300 ppm for the last 800,000 years. When it was at 300 ppm (as opposed to the pre-industrial 280 ppm), sea level was 4-6 m higher than it is today. It really makes you stop and think.

  6. Dear Danny
    You say “Thank you for providing such a text-book example of the climate skeptic tactics I describe in my article! I think this will really help other readers get the gist of what they’re dealing with. Your numerous grammar mistakes will be particularly encouraging to those aspiring to win in the court of public opinion.”

    I do not know what you mean by skeptic tactics in my post because you do not refute anything I said. You do not attack my message but my grammar. I am Romanian and, yes, I do a lot of mistakes when I write in English. How is your Romanian? :-) Why did you feel the need to attack my persona instead of my ideas?
    I was just explaining where it is the debate. Don’t you agree that I am right? Isn’t the debate about the feedback due to H2O vapours? Don’t you agree that a doubling of CO2 by itself will increase the temperature only by aprox. 1.3 ? Do you think that the sensitivity is higher then 3.3 ? I think it’s less then 2. You see? Here it is the debate.

    Trying to avoid the debate, using personal attacks, trying to situate yourself on higher pedestal (using the word “science” like a talisman) doesn’t promote your point of view. It will impress the wannabes and the ones not paying attention (who, alas for you, will become very attentive once asked to pay money from their pocket).

    Regards!
    Mircea

    PS
    100% refundable tax is not a bad idea.

  7. This is an example of skeptic tactic:

    The theory of Natural Evolution is used by many AGW proponents as an example of another theory that was also met with a lot of resistance by skeptics. AGW theory is like the theory of evolution. The skeptics opposes it but the theory is true.

    The theory of evolution is true*, but not as it was enounced by Darwin and how it was understood at the beginning of the last century. Yes, it had some truth in it (evolution of man without the need of a direct intervention of a spiritual creator) but it had a lot of falsities in it too. One of the falsities was the social Darwinism that formed the base of Nazism and of the racial theories of that time. This social Darwinism together with the marxist historicism formed the base of communism.
    The two most deadly events in the history of humanity had at their base the wrongly understood theory of natural evolution of species and the human hubris that they can social-engineer the human society. Popper’s piecemeal social engineering was too small for them as it is now for a big part of AGW proponents.

    Mircea

    *I believe that it is a fundamental law of the Universe. However, please note that the existence of a spiritual creator is not disproved by this law.

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