Bryan Zepp Jamieson
February 17th, 2024
The Guardian on February 14th had a story by Aliya Uteuova with this lede: “Nearly 15% of Americans don’t believe climate change is real, study finds.” The University of Michigan poll continued, “Denialism highest in central and southern US, with Republican voters less likely to believe in climate science.”
My first thought was that this was actually kind of reassuring. Thirty percent of Americans don’t know the Earth revolves around the sun. Forty percent believe in angels. This poll showed that only one in seven respondents were total idiots who couldn’t see irrefutable evidence even as it was biting them on the ass.
It’s been quite a while since I stopped assuming climate denialists—the remaining ones—were acting in any sort of good faith. The ones remaining are getting more strident, perhaps reflecting the more intense propaganda emanating from the filthy fuels industries and the rightwing thinktanks. Certainly I am encountering more in social media, and seeing peripheral effects from the constant attacks on people acknowledging climate change.
Some are easy to ignore. The moment someone starts babbling about how climate change can’t exist because god swill and puny humans can’t change the divine plan, I just block them. They are at best delusional and at worst total morons, and no amount of logic or persuasion is going to convince them that I’m anything other than hellbound, along with Taylor Swift and Joe Biden.
Some parrot the same talking points we’ve been hearing for the past forty years. Climate change isn’t because of volcanoes, sunspots, Milanković cycles, end of an ice age, orbital perturbations, yada yada yada.
If I’m not busy, I’ll stick around to politely and firmly refute the points made. Even if I’m not feeling particularly charitable, I know this approach is by far the most effective. Usually they just run away. Being polite and earnest stymies trolls and confuses the more strident ones who think they can annoy the opposition into making silly mistakes.
Lately, I’ve seen more blatant lies. For instance one claim I saw was that CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere dropped by 20% during the pandemic-related shutdown.
Well, that would be lovely. Having the concentrations drop to 340ppm would ensure a habitable Earth 50 years from now. Unfortunately, it isn’t true. The rate of increase dropped by 20% in 2019, but that meant concentrations only increased from 417ppm to 419ppm.
Another claim was that the Harvard Climatology Department had PROVED that the only reason Earth was warming was because we were coming out of an ice age. Needless to say, nobody at Harvard has made any such claim, and the records indicate that, if anything, we probably would be going into an ice age about now.
However, with greenhouse gases at their current levels, no ice ages are in the offing, no matter what they might do for Ray Romano’s career.
But it’s the residual ripple effects of the propaganda that can be the most pernicious. The public at large has a mistrust of scientists, one carefully fostered by fundamentalists, oil-industry flacks, and the National Association of Zealots and Ideologues, ie, the galaxy of think tanks, radio show hosts, big churches, and Faux news and its clones, and the poison blogosphere.
The other day, just as a reminder that their standard tactics of smearing and lying have become more expensive, climate scientist Michael Mann won a million-dollar defamation suit against conservative bloggers who accused him of falsifying data and once compared him to a convicted child abuser.
A few days ago, I passed along a link to an article that Stanford Magazine did about Dr. Daniel Swain to some friends. It was a good article, and Swain’s expertise would be useful for that group.
But I got one response that caused my jaw to drop. “He’s a media whore,” my friend wrote.
Now, my friend has been a bit tetchy ever since the Dodgers signed Ohtani and Yamamoto. And while the article itself was well done, the magazine cover was, to put it mildly, a bit over the top. It portrayed a colossal Daniel Swain a good half a mile tall, striding through heavily-forested foothills, his head well above the clouds. I could see where someone might detect a slightly fawning note from Stanford, based on that cover. And from that, it could be inferred that it suggested the sort of treatment Swain might be expecting from the press.
Except I’ve been a regular on his blog, weatherwest.com, for most of a decade. I was familiar with his style and approach from before he became famous. (The way he became famous was unlikely in the extreme. In trying to describe a persistent blocking high in the Gulf of Alaska that was causing a massive drought in California, he coined the phrase “Ridiculously Resilient Ridge.” It caught the popular imagination. Now, only Swain knows if he ever actually sought fame, but I seriously doubt he sat up in bed one restless night and shouted, “I know! I’ll coin an awkwardly alliterative analogy! Eureka!”)
Swain does appreciate the opportunity to convey his expertise to the world. He puts in long hours doing just that—not just interviews, but in serious scholastic research and considerable effort in keeping his relatively small audience on his blog well informed, and encourages others of similar expertise to contribute freely.
I know a couple of people who are well known and who are media whores. They constantly self-promote, resent anything resembling competition, and pretend they have the answers. They’re depressingly easy to spot. I find them annoying.
But Swain is not one of them.
Indeed, the same day I had that email exchange, he did one of his “office hours” on YouTube. Anyone watching those quickly realizes that this is not a man basking in the effusive glow of public acclaim. As he often does, he was fielding questions from the chat thread, and he got one about Rossby waves. Those are defined as a “large horizontal atmospheric undulation that is associated with the polar-front jet stream and separates cold polar air from warm tropical air.” per Brittanica. There’s a hypothesis that decreasing ice cover in the Arctic Ocean and subsequent warming has caused the waves to increase in amplitude and decrease in frequency, allowing polar air to sweep into the middle latitudes. It caught the media’s fancy, since it was a handy explanation of big cold snaps in the midst of a warming climate. I admit I’ve based arguments on that myself.
Swain said that while he generally accepted the thinking behind the hypothesis, there just wasn’t any solid evidence that it was happening at this time. It was a very ‘Daniel’ sort of answer. If there isn’t a solid, concrete answer, he won’t hesitate to say so, and go on to discuss the elements that prevent a hard-and-fast answer. It’s exactly the sort of response a responsible scientist would give.
Certainty in the face of randomness and complexity is the mark of a charlatan.
But it’s not an answer a media whore—or any whore—should give. Don’t tell the marks what they need to know; tell them what they want to hear! It’s rule number one. If I was Swain’s unscrupulous agent, I would draw him aside and say, “Son, you’re doing it all wrong. I say, I say, son, you don’t get the return business if you’re saying things to the John like ‘You call that loving, mister? You sound like a Yugo with a flat tire!’ or ‘Oh, come on. That thing looks like the ghost of a poison mushroom. Can’t you at least paint it orange like the original?’ Nah, you gotta make them happy. Make ‘em feel big, y’know? Now, let’s hear your ecstatic moan.”
OK, he wouldn’t benefit from having me as an agent. Or as he might put it, I would be a “piss poor pimp.”
So why does a guy who normally is responsible, reasonably liberal, and scientifically literate declare a scientist who is the antithesis of a publicity hound a “media whore?”
Inculcation. Propaganda. The public at large is inclined to assume the worst of any responsible figure who challenges the present public gestalt.
That current gestalt is very toxic indeed. It’s pervasive, and manages to be both blatant and subtle at the same time. People honestly believe George Soros is giving scientists billions of dollars to push us all back to the stone age by destroying technology. And people don’t realize the people promoting such ideas are spending billions in order to protect trillions in profits made at our expense. It has to stop.
There’s no quick cure to it. It will take time. The parties dumping the poison into public discourse have to be called out, again and again, their lies shown for what they are, and the vacuity of their attacks exposed.
George Orwell once said, “In a time of deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” He also said, “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four.” It is not the freedom to say two plus two make five.
Be a revolutionary. Tell the truth, no matter how much people don’t want to hear it. Be like Dr. Daniel Swain.
In America, the number of people accepting the truth of climate change has climbed to 85%. Keep telling the truth, and truth will prevail.