We are, according to Stephan Lewandowsky, dealing with a problem bigger than anything humanity has ever seen. That’s how he describes climate change in the latest issue of Nonesuch, the magazine for Bristol University alumni. Whether he means ‘…will ever see – when it arrives’ it’s difficult to say. However, if we are to take him at his word – that we are dealing with a problem now – I’m afraid I can think of worse things that have happened. 09-11-2015 20-06Click to enlarge.

I’ve transcribed the article below for ease of reading and commenting – Geoff


George Marshall

Climate change is one of our biggest challenges. So why aren’t more of us taking it seriously? George Marshall (BSc 1985), author and co-founder of Climate Outreach, and Professor Stephan Lewandowsky, member of Bristol’s Cabot Institute, consider what roles psychology and politics play in the climate change debate.

Mind over matter

George Marshall (GM): People respond very differently to climate change, and very few respond in proportion to its potential dangers. When people do pay attention to climate change, generally two things have happened: the issue has taken a form that speaks to their values, and it comes with a social signal from a peer group. For people who reject climate change, it carries a different signal: it’s a lie or a myth. Then there are the people in the middle who have a sense that there’s a threat, but they don’t feel that threat. Ask them what they think the greatest threat will be in the future, and they’ll mention climate change. But ask them what’s the greatest threat now, and they won’t.

Stephan Lewandowsky (SL): That’s true. People’s attitudes are fragmented and context-specific: they will contradict themselves in different settings. We call that ‘knowledge partitioning’. People have little parcels of knowledge that they tap into depending on the situation, but they don’t often integrate those parcels. There’s an opportunity there to determine which context is most effective for eliciting an engaged response.

GM: Climate change has, quite dangerously I think, been shaped by its origins in earth science, which has a very data-driven culture. There’s often an assumption that people operate on an entirely rational level: that if they don’t get it, they simply don’t have enough information.

SL: Yes, whereas actually, it’s about how that information is communicated, especially when it involves uncertainty. My research has shown that if people are told an outcome is uncertain, they find that less threatening than if an outcome is guaranteed but its timing is uncertain. For example, if you say sea levels may rise between ten and 90 cm, people say: ‘with a bit of luck it’ll just be ten centimetres’. But it’s just as true to say sea levels are almost guaranteed to rise by 50cm, the question is whether that’s by 2040 or 2060. People are more concerned about that, because there’s no uncertainty about the outcome, only the timing.

GM: Do you think people with conservative, hierarchical views inherently find climate change a more challenging problem?

SL: Well, we do know that people’s world views are a prime driver of their attitudes. People who are politically conservative and endorse free markets are very likely to reject the findings from climate science. The strength of that relationship never ceases to amaze me.

GM: I think climate change has taken on the form of its greatest advocates. For my colleagues in the environmental community, it fully reinforces and validates their view of the world, so they’ve given it the look and shape of their own values.

SL: I don’t agree. Outside English-speaking countries, climate change isn’t challenging to conservatives. Germany is decarbonising at an amazing rate. There are hardcore ideologues in every country who pretend that climate change isn’t a problem, but it certainly hasn’t become a political football in the same way as it has in the US or Australia.

GM: The German example is interesting. Research there showed that the only issue dividing those that believe in climate change from those who don’t is the extent to which they’re engaged with the political process itself. So an engaged conservative is as likely to accept climate change as an engaged liberal.

SL: We also know that people who think we can’t solve the problem are likely to deny the problem, because they think its’s unsolvable. I think that’s where the conversation should be: how the problem can be solved, how we can transform the economy and how we can decarbonise. We have the tools, it’s just a matter of political will.

GM: We have to recognise that the lack of immediate salience is a problem too. The issues we immediately lock onto are those causing problems that harm us now. With climate change, we have a very weak narrative, with multiple voices. That leaves the issue wide open to interpretation, and to people creating a narrative of intentionality: ‘they’re the enemy, they’re causing it.’ Instead, we need a metanarrative that recognises these different voices and approaches, so we can learn from each other.

SL: I agree. We’re talking about a problem bigger than anything humanity has ever seen – something so big that it’s ridiculous to think we can condense it into one thing. We’ve got to have multiple voices, even if it’s a cacophony at times. I do think the problem is solvable within our current economic system though. What’s lacking at the moment is leadership, legislation and regulation. Once we address these, I think things will change very rapidly.

Marshall will give the Cabot Institute Annual Lecture on Wednesday 11 November 2012. A video of his talk will be available at bristol.ac.uk/cabot

See also Geoff’s post here (with added Lew decorations).


  1. The amazing thing about Stephan is that in comparison he makes George look sane.
    On the second page, G quite rightly says (paraphrasing) that Guardian types love climate change cos it ticks all their boxes. Then S disagrees.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Loopy Lew also claims that Germany has been decarbonising at an amazing rate. Even CarbonBrief acknowledge that German CO2 emissions have been flat since 2010. The so-called Energiewende has been a shambles as new coal power stations have been set up to replace old nuclear.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. These guys remind me of the character Walter Reilly in Crocodile Dundee, pretending they’re experts in the sceptic outbaclk, where in fact they’re frauds who’ve never been in the wild in their lives.

    At this time of year there is always a rash of articles ‘how to talk about climate change to your conservative/republican relatives during the holidays’. They are always uniformally bad. You wonder if the authors have taken the smallest amount of time to run their advice past a non believer to see what kinds of replies they get. Tellingly, they never advise people to know the facts. Just use the 97% of scientists prefer Whiskers… I mean 97% of scientists believe in climate change.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. “GM: Climate change has, quite dangerously I think, been shaped by its origins in earth science, which has a very data-driven culture. There’s often an assumption that people operate on an entirely rational level: that if they don’t get it, they simply don’t have enough information.

    SL: Yes, whereas actually, it’s about how that information is communicated, especially when it involves uncertainty.”

    This perfectly encapsulates climate alarmists’ narrow viewpoint. Climate change has ‘dangerous’ origins in the earth sciences. Why? Because the earth sciences inform us empirically and fairly reliably of the much wider perspective concerning our ever-changing climate. Climate alarmists would much rather you concentrate upon their parsed version of what has happened climate-wise since 1850 plus what their models predict MIGHT happen 50, 100, 200 years from now. Hence, those who ‘don’t get it’ don’t get it because they have limited information, but because they have too MUCH information. They see the unending claims of ‘unprecedented’ and they weigh this against their knowledge of the past and they find such definitive claims do not stand the test of scientific plausibility.

    So GM is right; the assumption that those who don’t get it because they don’t have enough information is incorrect. But Lew is probably wrong in suggesting that the problem lies in HOW the information is communicated. I say probably, because he might simply be saying that the quality of the propaganda is not up to the job of convincing enough people that man-made climate change IS a real and very large problem (even, the biggest problem humans have EVER had to face) – in which case he would probably be right!


  5. When I see such surfers on the waves of CO2 Alarm getting their vital doses of publicity, I can’t help but recall that insightful reflection by another fan of that Malibu of the intellect, Mike Hulme in 2009 (see http://www.nature.com/climate/2009/0908/full/climate.2009.70.html) :

    “Solving climate change should not be the focus of our efforts any more than we should be ‘solving’ the idea of human rights or liberal democracy,” he writes. “It really is not about stopping climate chaos. Instead, we need to see how we can use the idea of climate change to rethink how we take forward our political, social, economic and personal projects over the decades to come.” But Hulme is not merely advocating intellectualism. Rather, he ultimately issues a John F. Kennedy-like call to action: “We need to ask not what we can do for climate change, but to ask what climate change can do for us.”

    Well, I suppose GM and SL are doing very nicely indeed out of it. I don’t know about GM, but SL has shown that while he can do a grand job of fancy speaking, with many a convoluted notion – some of his own devising, his actual technical work in support of it can be jaw-droppingly awful (see some analysis of it here for example:http://climateaudit.org/2012/09/08/lewandowsky-scam/ ). Potemkin villages dotted around Malibu now spring to mind. Time for more coffee methinks.


  6. Jaime Jessop, spot on. Part of the stock in trade for communicating climate science is to NOT explain it properly. The evidence is so poor that if people were fully conversant with it, many more would be sceptical. It’s rare for scientists to be interviewed about the science for this reason. Better that Dr Lew or Obama or some other unaware individual be the face of the science because when they spout confidently on the ‘facts’ they don’t know they’re lying. Plausible deniability is the phrase.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. To quote myself from above:

    “They see the unending claims of ‘unprecedented’ and they weigh this against their knowledge of the past and they find such definitive claims do not stand the test of scientific plausibility.”

    Then right on cue, up pops this little gem:


    “The pace of past episodes of climate change is likely to have been underestimated, according to research carried out by scientists at the University of Aberdeen and Friedrich-Alexander University (FAU) in Germany. . . . .
    Professor Wolfgang Kiessling, from FAU, adds that rates of warming through ancient episodes of large-scale climate change were probably much quicker than previously thought, perhaps similar to, or exceeding, the pace of warming today. . . . . . . ”

    Now, you would think, would you not, that this would automatically bring into question the claims by alarmists that the modern rate of warming plus other recent climate change signifiers is ‘unprecedented’? Of course you would. But you would be wrong. No evidence trumps Climate Science (TM) – more likely, the authors felt the need to include this statement for fear that their paper would not be published:

    “The team emphasise that their research doesn’t negate present-day concerns over climate change, but rather highlights a gap in our understanding of ancient climate change.

    “Our work doesn’t impact on how quickly climate is changing today, but instead it emphasises how the geological record is an imperfect archive of ancient climate behaviour,” explained Kilian Eichenseer, a graduate student on the study team. “Reliably comparing and contrasting ancient and modern climate change is therefore problematic.””

    If that’s not hilarious enough, Eichenseer then appears to peddle backwards furiously to say:

    “He added: “While there is little doubt that the current rate of climate change is unusual and something that causes understandable concern, caution should be exercised when describing modern changes as unprecedented in the context of Earth’s history.”

    What with Antarctic ice sheets melting/contributing to SLR then suddenly not melting/taking away from SLR, then this, and a whole host of other inconvenient research/data, climate alarmists really are getting their knickers in a twist lately. But not to worry (or rather, should I say, DO worry; ‘be afraid, be very afraid’ and all that) – we’re halfway to catastrophe, so the Met Office reliably informs us.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. The polarizing impact of science literacy and numeracy on perceived climate change risks

    Dan M. Kahan, Ellen Peters, Maggie Wittlin, Paul Slovic, Lisa Larrimore Ouellette, Donald Braman & Gregory Mandel

    Seeming public apathy over climate change is often attributed to a deficit in comprehension. The public knows too little science, it is claimed, to understand the evidence or avoid being misled. Widespread limits on technical reasoning aggravate the problem by forcing citizens to use unreliable cognitive heuristics to assess risk. We conducted a study to test this account and found no support for it. Members of the public with the highest degrees of science literacy and technical reasoning capacity were not the most concerned about climate change. Rather, they were the ones among whom cultural polarization was greatest. This result suggests that public divisions over climate change stem not from the public’s incomprehension of science but from a distinctive conflict of interest: between the personal interest individuals have in forming beliefs in line with those held by others with whom they share close ties and the collective one they all share in making use of the best available science to promote common welfare.



  9. Dan Kahan is honest enough to post results that don’t agree with how he sees the world but the then messes up when forming explanations as to why his original theory was wrong. “distinctive conflict of interest: between the personal interest individuals have in forming beliefs in line with those held by others with whom they share close ties and the collective one they all share in making use of the best available science to promote common welfare.” fits his view of the way people think, not the way those pesky sceptics actually think.

    I don’t know about Dan Kahan but I’m attracted to groups that think the way I think, not attracted to thinking the same way the groups I’m in already display. Perhaps it’s one of the fundamental differences between our two groups. Sceptics don’t need group approval. That’s why having celebs promote AGW doesn’t work and why ‘consensus’ means nothing. That’s why there are far more squabbles between sceptics than the one message fits all approach by the warmists. Sure, it’s nice not to jar too often, which is why even the sceptic blogosphere has different hang outs.

    What he observes is one group of people thinking the evidence would be scary and finding it more so, and the other group thinking the evidence would be poor and that being confirmed and surpassed. The science is scary and poor at the same time. If Kahan and his buddies want to influence sceptics, they need to make the science better, not more scary. They need to stop trying to appeal to a generic right wing outlook * and ask how rightwing see AGW specifically. Stop using the tools that only resonate with the side that’s already convinced**.

    * like listing right wingers who believe in climate change or saying that there’s money to be made from a green economy.
    ** I’m not sure that their convictions amount to any practical actions.


  10. I posted this on Bishop Hill a while ago in response to a comment from another annoyed Bristol alumnus:

    Like you I am a Bristol University alumnus. I graduated with an engineering degree in 1965.Earlier this year I received a glossy magazine seeking funds from alumni for the university’s Centenary Campaign. Included in the magazine was the following article which (if anybody from the Campaign is reading) explains why I won’t be sending Bristol University any money. I visited both Fiji and St Lucia during my working life and they are both lovely places. It is very important to remember the factor 50 suntan lotion though, especially if studying for a long time outside! Here is the article:

    “Building Resilience

    Conversations about climate change often focus on developed countries and low-carbon solutions. But for small island states in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans, like St Lucia or Fiji, rising sea levels and extreme weather are already a reality.
    PhD student, T….. S……. (Med 2008, PhD 2014-) is exploring how these communities are coping with these changes by talking to climate change experts, community leaders and schoolchildren in these three regions.
    ‘We have much to learn from their collective experience,’ explains T….., ‘Their insight (largely absent from international literature) will provide researchers and policymakers with powerful real-life examples. One of my objectives is to consider ways these can be introduced to the wider international development community.’
    T…..’s PhD is collectively funded by alumni donations to the Centenary Campaign. ‘Being an alumna myself, receiving this funding is particularly meaningful – it makes me especially proud to be part of the Bristol community. The support I’ve received has allowed me to address my research at pace, and work with people across the globe. Thank you.’”


  11. Significant numbers of people in the US have recently been forced to see up front the pernicious anti-intellectual movements personified by SL and G in the UK. The reactions seems to be hopeful- shock and rejection at just how shallow and derivative their sort of contrived faux intellectual posturing really is.
    I hope this realization comes to the UK soon.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Briefly, in gastroenterology there exists a thing called the Bristol stool scale. Interested readers can find it in wikipedia and make their judgements as to where Lew’s opinions fall.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. “Outside English-speaking countries, climate change isn’t challenging to conservatives. Germany is decarbonising at an amazing rate.”

    It is unclear why anyone would list “Germany” and “conservatives” in the same sentence. As I understand it, Germany practically defines what it means to be the liberal left.

    Shellnhuber wishes Germany and the world to decarbonize at an amazing rate but a HUGE open-pit coal mine suggests they haven’t made much “progress”.



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