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Chris Mooney

Climate Literacy Primer

Via The Intersection blog, Chris Mooney made me aware of a great brochure (pdf) from NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, that gives some basic climate science literacy information. It’s a great introduction to the multifaceted complexities of climate science, how climate works, how it’s measured, and how humans effect it.

It starts out with a great definition of a “climate-literate person.”

A climate-literate person:

  • understands the essential principles of Earth’s climate system
  • knows how to assess scientifically credible information about climate
  • communicates about climate and climate change in a meaningful way
  • is able to make informed and responsible decisions with regard to actions that may affect climate.

It continues with information about why climate science literacy matters (and why science literacy in general matters), how climate science is an ongoing process, and how we can know what is scientifically correct.

The main points explained in the brochure are the following:

CLIMATE LITERACY: The Essential Principles of Climate Science

  1. The Sun is the primary source of energy for Earths climate system.
  2. Climate is regulated by complex interactions among components of the Earth system.
  3. Life on Earth depends on, is shaped by, and affects climate.
  4. Climate varies over space and time through both natural and man-made processes.
  5. Our understanding of the climate system is improved through observations, theoretical studies, and modeling.
  6. Human activities are impacting the climate system.
  7. Climate change will have consequences for the Earth system and human lives.

There’s plenty of detail for each point given and the explanations are clear, giving a solid foundation for learning more about climate science and actually understanding the climate issues that are affecting (and will affect) our lives.

Chris Mooney wonders…

But anyway, it is interesting to contemplate whether climate “skeptics” take issue with any of these basics, or whether they are indeed “climate science literate” by this standard. For after all, the complicated data and “hockey stick” type issues that “skeptics” seem to seize upon don’t appear to have much to do with these basics; and yet these basics are all you need to know that global warming is a serious concern and that we stand to get fried.

(ed. …and by “skeptics” he means “deniers”… hence the sarcasm quotes)

I’ve heard and read plenty from deniers who plainly lack a basic understanding of the science and who enthusiastically ride the denier bandwagon regardless of where it leads… whether it’s something as silly as offering a big snowstorm in Montana as evidence against global warming, using a few out-of-context comments by some climate scientists to decry the state of scientific research, or claiming that a lone scientist with a new way of looking at data has overturned decades of climate research. The bandwagon in question is propelled by politically-created excrement.

Here’s one of my favorite parts from the brochure.


“Science, mathematics, and technology have a profound impact on our individual lives and our culture. They play a role in almost all human endeavors, and they affect how we relate to one another and the world around us. . . . Science Literacy enables us to make sense of real-world phenomena, informs our personal and social decisions, and serves as a foundation for a lifetime of learning.”

From the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Atlas of Science Literacy, Volume 2, Project 2061.

The fruits of science are all around us, yet the state of science literacy in our country is horrifyingly low. Not only do we have people who don’t understand science or how it works, but we have the much more harmful group of people who think they understand how science works and who think they have an understanding of scientific issues, but are hopelessly lost in an ideological quagmire created by politics, religion, or other insidious cultural influences.

Climate science denialism is a perfect example of how anti-scientific ideology mucks with the real issues in ways that will create tangible consequences. It’s not just a matter of philosophical differences (you go your way and I’ll go mine). It’s a matter of the actual, physical consequences of promoting actions (or non-actions, as the case may be) that would lead to the degradation of our environment (you can’t go your way and I can’t go mine… since you borked it all up, thank you very much).

There is no “your way” and “my way” when it comes to the habitability of this planet. There’s simply an “our way” because just like the anti-intellectual, anti-science deniers, I’m stuck on this planet. It’s my home. It’s where I keep my stuff. It’s where all my friends and family live. It’s where my daughter lives and will continue to live after I’m gone.

The anti-science crowd puts lives at risk. They put our country at risk. They put our world at risk. Whether it’s the climate science deniers, anti-vaxxers, homeopathy pushers, or the myriad of other pseudo-scientific proponents, it all boils down to a lack of understanding of (or a deliberate rejection of) science.

…and that affects us all.

Deniers are gleeful about the CRU emails

I haven’t addressed the issue of climate change here very much other than mentioning it in posts about conspiracy theories or science denialism. However, with the recent hacked email “scandal” at the Climate Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia, I thought it deserved at least a mention.

The reason I find it relevant to this blog, which tends to focus on issues where religion or dogma interfere with rational thinking, is that climate change seems to be one of those issues. It’s a scientific issue and the deniers tend to be, almost without exception, right-wing and/or religious… classic science deniers, though they’ll never admit as much. All the deniers that I’ve spoken with or read about fully believe they are basing their views on good, accurate science and that whatever it is they’re denying (climate change, vaccinations, evolution, etc) is only promoted by a conspiracy of dogmatic, agenda-driven scientists working with inaccurate, misinterpreted, or subversively modified data.

Frequently, it’s fairly easy to discern a denier’s ulterior motive. In the case of climate change science, the motive is most noticeably political… specifically financial. The “logic” goes something like this.

  1. Any action taken to mitigate climate change would be very expensive and would harm the economy.
  2. Therefore, scientists whose research indicates the Earth is getting warmer are wrong… perhaps fraudulent.

The rest is just smoke and mirrors… making unsubstantiated claims, getting the science wrong, misunderstanding the science, misdirecting from the main issues, taking things out of context, putting things in the wrong context, blowing things out of proportion, waving arms frantically, acting offended, and being dismissive.

The CRU email scandal is a combination of those actions. The illegality of the email hacking is a separate issue from the climate change issue and, for the purposes of this post, irrelevant. The content is what’s important and, as many other bloggers have already concluded, is mostly a non-issue. Chris Mooney does a good job explaining the issue in a post at Science Progress.

Says Mooney:

The truth, however, is that while the CRU emails don’t always look very good—and not all of them can necessarily be defended—in the end this saga amounts to little more than a distraction from the real and burning issues in climate science and climate policy.

The reason why the email amount to “little more than a distraction” is explained in detail in his article, but a quote that summarizes the conclusion is this (also from Mooney):

Unfortunately for climate skeptics, the CRU hacking incident fails to support the burden that they have placed upon it. Whatever behavior was revealed in these emails, even its most salacious interpretation can scarcely undermine the global edifice of knowledge about the causes of ongoing climate change—which may be bolstered by, but certainly does not rely solely upon, CRU’s research and analyses.

In essence, the most damning evidence in the emails, viewed with even the most scandalous interpretation, does nothing to undermine the vast, vast amount of evidence supporting the very real issue of climate change.

The American Meteorological Society, in response to questions about the email hack, re-affirmed their position on climate change, stating in part…

For climate change research, the body of research in the literature is very large and the dependence on any one set of research results to the comprehensive understanding of the climate system is very, very small. Even if some of the charges of improper behavior in this particular case turn out to be true — which is not yet clearly the case — the impact on the science of climate change would be very limited.

In addition to addressing what is in the emails, RealClimate notes another interesting point.

From the RealClimate blog:

More interesting is what is not contained in the emails. There is no evidence of any worldwide conspiracy, no mention of George Soros nefariously funding climate research, no grand plan to ‘get rid of the MWP’, no admission that global warming is a hoax, no evidence of the falsifying of data, and no ‘marching orders’ from our socialist/communist/vegetarian overlords.

I think it’s important to note that the emails in question span the past 13 years. If there were to be evidence of a giant scientist-created conspiracy, one would expect there would be at least something of an inkling about it in 13 years of email exchanges… but there’s not.

Deniers will continue to trot out snippets from the emails, however, with claims that all the climate research to date is now invalid, or that their (fallacious) claims have been verified, or that the scientific process has monumentally failed. They’ll continue their claims that climate change is not real, is not man-made, is not an environmental issue, and is not a cause for concern. They’ll continue to oppose any actions that would curb carbon emissions (and thereby curb pollution in general). They’ll continue to feign understanding of climate science (or even science in general) in order to give themselves the illusion of credibility. They’ll continue to use any bit of misrepresented, out-of-context, irrelevant data they can in an attempt to discredit actual scientists doing actual research into actual climate change.

They’ll continue to deny reality.