“The good news is, if you want to fix the climate, this has probably been the wrong fight all along, and there is somewhere far more profitable to put your energy.”

And that’s it. This post marks the end of any formal, structured engagement  of mine with the wacky world of climate change denialism. Not because I don’t care any more. I do. But rather because there is just no point, and there are more important ways for me and, I think, the rest of us, to spend our finite time and energy.

It all came to a head for me with this article, published in (yet again) The Australian by the Archbishop of Sydney George Pell, in which Pell regales us with his fascinating process of engagement with climate science. You can read the link, and I don’t want to waste time on the details of his articles, for that is not the point of this post. It is the latest puff piece from Australia’s conga line of denialists doing what they do best: repeating long-debunked bunkum about climate science with the clear aim of muddying a topic that is by its very nature a little complex. This is all done in the name reinforcing the status quo.  The only thing unique Pell brings to the piece is his own particular brand of pomposity, which I have to imagine is available on a range of topics.

George Pell- plagiarist of other climate deniers

I could refute this piece but I won’t. It has been done, and done, and done. Our most reputable scientific organisation has provided easily accessible resources of plain English answers to common climate questions. The Australian Government has done the same. The IPCC reports themselves are, in all honesty, not too bad for the most part for anyone of moderate intelligence and genuine interest (like myself, a non-scientist).

George Monbiot has shown Ian Plimer up for the buffoon that he is both in print and on screen. A veritable squadron of leading scientists took his book to pieces in terms so clear no one could seriously contend that Plimer was a serious climate scientist. Greenman continues to produce his outstanding series of short videos, Climate Denial Crock of the Week.

The worst offenders in Australian media have been well and truly called out on their anti-climate science agenda. Firstly, there was this exceptional open letter calling for a return to editorial responsibility above the false notion of “balanced” reporting of climate science. Then more recently, Robert Manne wrote an extensive essay that put very clear evidence and analysis behind the assertion of an outrightly biased agenda of The Australian in their reporting of climate science.  Predictably, The Oz galloped to their own defence. Personally, I would find their case hard to argue when the presentation sent to me by Larry, the climate change denier who made a total dick of himself in his brief email exchange with me, nominated The Australian as one of the entities that was on their side (I wish, I wish, I wish I could find that presentation on my hard drive).

My own most recent contribution was to coin the phrase Queen Bee denial, to highlight the persistent practice of expecting answers delivered on a platter, rather than do the straightforward work of checking out some of the references I have linked to above.

Everything that can be done in this space, has been done. Contrary to persistent suggestion, scientists are not simply “poor communicators” who “can’t speak to normal people”. The great majority of the climate scientists I have met, and I have met and heard from many of Australia’s best, are very good communicators. No, they are not Darryl Sommers, and there is not a band, a cartoonist and a puppet ostrich to make it light entertainment. Its climate science, and it’s kinda hard. The late Steve Schneider once showed the patience of a saint, expertly fielding about an hour of questions from an audience of self described “climate sceptics”  for the Australian television program Insight. At the end of the show, it appeared that precisely no one had changed their mind.   Telling our scientists to do a better job of communicating is a foolish cop-out on the failings of the rest of us, and a gross misunderstanding of the nature of the problem.

Hey Hey, It's Climate Science!

Here’s the thing. If you take your cues from George Pell on climate change science, it actually does not matter what he says, or what I say in return. You will listen to him, and not to me.  If you suspect I am being overly simplistic, well, I only wish I were.

Recently, The Age, as part of The Climate Agenda, investigated this issue when they addressed this clever question:

The Age has reported that just ”42 per cent of people [in Australia] believe in a wholly scientific explanation for the origins of life”, something that has been proven by science. By contrast, 34 per cent believe in UFOs and 22 per cent think witches exist”, something which has never been proven by science. Given this track record of acceptance of science, is it realistic to have a fruitful public debate on the science of climate change?

A few views are canvassed, but I have to offer my backing to that expressed by Professor Stephan Lewandowsky, from the University of Western Australia’s school of psychology.

He says people reject science ”not because they are lacking information, and conversely, providing further information will not lead to greater acceptance”.

More important than information is people’s world view and cultural beliefs – their ideology.

In the US, for example, the more educated you are as a Republican, the more likely you are to disbelieve climate change science. The reverse is true for Democrats and independents, Lewandowsky says.

Under these circumstances, he agrees it is difficult to debate science, because ideologues ”are not in the business for any reason other than to defend their ideology”.

There is a pretty simple test for that last statement that I have placed in bold. If these people were in the business of debating science and not defending ideology, they would be working scientists, operating with the scientific method. Of course, the actual scientific debate occurs is in the literature. Actual literature I mean, not 800 words in The Australian. Cases are laid out clearly, points are committed to writing with references, and then subject to review and critique. But denialism fails in the world of real science. It simply cannot get up because it has all the scientific rigour of an episode of Mr Moon.

Mr Moon: Not actually science

That’s why they have inhabited this playing field of so called “public debate and scepticism”. Because they win, keep winning and as I am arguing, they actually can’t lose. They feed their audience what their audience wants to hear. As Steve Sherwood argued this week, this idea of public debates on climate change is like asking him to make the prosecution case for murder in 3 seconds.

As I recently explored, the tactics of denial are universal in the anti science crowd, being born largely out of creationism, and adopted and refined for climate change, tobacco, anti-vaccine and even HIV/AIDS. They do it because it works, and it works because science and fact are only persuasive once someone is actually ready to listen. I just cannot envisage a situation where someone who listens to George Pell on anything will listen to me on climate change. It is not going to happen.

It is, in my opinion, over. There is nothing left to do in this space.

The good news is, if you want to fix the climate, this has probably been the wrong fight all along, and there is somewhere far more profitable to put your energy.

Recall if you will that changing what people think is not actually our goal. Our goal is preventing runaway climate change. Most of the world’s emissions come from the energy sector, and most of that from coal, followed by oil and gas. The best, most available substitute for coal and other fossil fuels is nuclear power. Always has been and in my opinion, will be for at least the rest of this century if not for ever (with the commercialisation of Generation IV nuclear).

Now in a strange twist of politics and values, it is generally understood to be true that those of a more conservative disposition are quite often both in denial about climate change yet, broadly speaking, supportive of nuclear power. Science is invoked to support both positions, which only reinforces the general point I have been making so far of the pointlessness of debating climate change in the face of entrenched values. I have to conclude that there is a powerful force at work: a commitment many people carry to needing to disagree with certain others. I raise this in my presentation on changing my mind on nuclear. The mere fact of John Howard being pro-nuclear was enough to hold me in my opposition for a few extra years. Yup, it’s daft and immature, but I reckon its incredibly prevalent and goes some way to explaining this curious state of affairs about the political divide of nuclear power.

The point is, however, that these people can be largely ignored. They don’t actually matter. All they need to get behind the biggest, best and most effective response to climate change in nuclear power is a satisfactory financial argument, with a few lashings of energy security. Plenty of them would even be ok with paying a little more in the short term to do away with the host of other pollutants from fossil fuels that even they will not embrace in the need to disagree with others. It’s a non-fight.

I’m afraid the fight is with the Left. The fight for the climate is with the environmental movement, who keep a large enough portion of our population in knee-jerk opposition to nuclear that it becomes a political no-brainer (I know of no other policy position that simultaneously thrills both the Australian Coal Industry and the Australian environmental movement. It’s a gift).  The anti-nuclear wings of this movement do this with the same host of anti-science trickery as the climate denialists, with similar effectiveness.

Those are the minds we need to change, not the environmentalists but those listening to them. The beautiful thing is that in this case, it can be done.

For one thing, this audience, unlike the conservative one, cares about climate change, somewhere between a little and a lot. So with the exception of the true ideologues, the very fact of nuclear power being zero-carbon provides a very meaningful intellectual opening.

For another thing, we can appeal very honestly and sincerely to those values. We care too, a whole lot. We actually can achieve a position of trust and credibility in terms of values. From here we can then offer a factual understanding of nuclear power that has a chance of taking root. It’s not spin ,we actually do care. This works. I, along with Barry Brook, fronted probably the most hostile possible audience (on paper) in Adelaide to do our thing. Yes, we were slagged off by some. But one woman stood up in this group of her own peers and announced that she had changed her mind. We had, without fail, appealed to a logical and unflinching line of genuine climate concern. It works.

Finally, it is already happening, in significant numbers and high profile cases. A remarkably uniform consensus is emerging among high profile environmentalists who formerly opposed nuclear power that we have been mistaken, and quite badly in fact. Most of these people are making up for lost time in bringing this message out, and we can help them.

This is where the fight for the climate is happening, over here on the left. The very act of structured engagement with climate denial means they win because our time has been wasted when we could have been doing this instead. Screw ’em. Honestly, just screw ’em. I know fighting is tempting but don’t. Walk away. We’ve done all we can. They have their audience and we ain’t getting them. It’s like trying to sell a Vivaldi fan on Slipknot.

Not gonna happen...

No, what we have to do it wake up our own team. Rest assured, if it’s a fight you want, this one is hard work. But at least with this fight, there actually is a possibility of victory. It will be the sweetest victory of all. The one where climate denialists are finally consigned to where they belong …

Irrelevance.

50 comments

  1. A very fair call. I completely relate to your decision to walk away from them, I almost literally do it myself. Some people are denialists just for the sake of having a good debate because they know people are quite passionate about it – and for good reason!

  2. I agree in principle, though I was tempted to make an exception for the Lord Monckton video a couple of days ago and actually had a link to it on my blog for one day, until I recalled that this is against every principle explained in Dale Carnegie’s book about influencing people.
    Then again, while there is not much point in establishing that global warming is real, it is probably still necessary to point out the amount of damage again and again. This is the strongest reason to support nuclear energy in the first place, after all.
    While you are at it reconsidering the basic message, would you be interested in discussing what Carnegie has to say about the subject of efficiently influencing people?

    1. Yes, sounds very much in keeping with the themes of the post. Please introduce the concepts with a reference.

      And yes, I agree that reinforcing the seriousness is important, but I would argue that this is still a conversation to be had with the left. It may sounds stupid that we need to tell environmentalists that climate change is important, but I have watched people retreat in their assessment of the seriousness before my very eyes the minute nuclear power is raised as an option. That kind of dishonest rubbish needs to be called out in our own team.

      1. (Also on my own blog as a separate post titled “Selling trucks”):

        One of the principles explained in Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People” is that the only way to win an argument is to avoid it.
        To illustrate it, he lets one of his students explain about the high art of selling trucks (pages 117 to 118).

        This particular salesman was in the habit of arguing against the trucks other companies build. When some prospective customer would praise the virtues of the trucks of some other company, he would tell them what was wrong with that particular truck.

        The prospective customer would join the argument. That would leave the salesman attacking, and the prospective customer defending the great virtues of the competition.

        The result would of course be that the prospect would end up selling himself on the competing product.

        After studying the methods of Dale Carnegie, the salesman changed his ways. When some prospect mentioned some competing product, he just agreed that this was a great truck made by a fine company and sold by good people.

        That would be the end of the topic “competing product” right there. The rest of the conversation would focus on the topic the salesman is interested in. The trucks of his company.

        He became one of the star salesmen for his company with that little change in message.

        Now imagine the following discussion between someone advocating for nuclear energy (A) and a potential new supporter (B).

        A: “What do you think about nuclear energy?”

        B: “I think we don’t need it. Renewable energy is the best solution for global warming.”

        A: “Renewable energy? Are you joking? Don’t you know that the laws of physics make that impossible? Didn’t you ever hear that the sun doesn’t shine at night? Renewable energy is a miserable failure everywhere it has been tried!”

        B will now be forced to defend renewable energy all day long, selling himself on it even more in the process.

        I leave it as an exercise for the reader to figure out what the equivalent to “great truck made by a fine company and sold by good people” would be.

        I may be wrong, but I happen to think that this approach is more promising.

        1. Karl, I don’t feel you’re making a fair comparison. In your first scenario the customer is expected to choose between two products which may have trivial differences but are fundamentally the same – trucks. In the second scenario the ‘customer’ is being asked to choose between two fundamentally different products.

          What if the salesman was trying to sell a bike to someone who (thought they) wanted a truck even when it is obvious a truck would not meet their needs, how should our salesman approach that particular sell?

          1. That is Carnegie’s scenario (a real world experience), not mine. It serves only to explain his point that you can’t win an argument.
            I happen to think that is one interesting piece of advice if you want to be more effective in influencing people. I may be wrong and it won’t work.
            Do you disagree with Carnegie? Or do you just think there is no way to avoid this particular argument?
            To answer your question, I would just sell the bike anyway and let them worry about trucks.

            1. I think the concept has merit. Unwittingly, I think I have employed it once or twice, just because it seems to make life easier (yeah what’s not to like about solar panels? Electricity made quietly from sunlight. Amazing stuff).

              Is the answer to you little riddle perhaps to be sincerely enthused about renewables in concept and where they are sensibly deployed as basically something very cool (which I do believe, by the way)? Would that ease the path of getting the conversation out of the way more smoothly as one transitions into talking about how one actually might do away with baseload fossil?

              Hmmm… I have not convinced myself. I don’t know that I have the answer but I certainly agree with the conceptual representation of a problem that I think does exist.

            2. The point I was trying to make was that I don’t think Carnegie’s salesman example transfers well to the ‘renewables only’ or ‘nuclear too’ discussion. I think you are stretching the concept too far and in so doing you misapply Carnegie’s advice.

              Going back to bikes and trucks for the moment in an attempt to keep this neutral. How exactly does one sell a bike to someone who believes a truck is better? Please, run me through the interaction. I’ll begin:

              Imagine the following discussion between someone selling bikes (A) and a potential new customer (B).
              A: “What do you think about bikes?”
              B: “I think I don’t need one. A truck is the best solution for zipping through grid lock traffic.”
              A: Trucks, great vehicles, made by fine companies, sold by good people. Now this bike…

              What comes next? You still have to sell the bike. Do you point out how good it is at ‘zipping through traffic’? What if your potential customer takes that as a challenge to their stated belief about trucks? In fact what if your potential customer mistakenly believes trucks can do everything and more you say your bike can do? How would you avoid stepping on their misinformed toes and securing a sale?

              1. @Ben Heard

                Yes, something like “(yeah what’s not to like about solar panels? Electricity made quietly from sunlight. Amazing stuff)” would be the equivalent of “great truck made by a fine company and sold by good people”. And it makes life easier and has more potential to get support.

                @Marion Brook
                What comes next?
                “A: That’s a very interesting point. I understand our product is quite good at reducing delivery times as well. By the way, have you ever heard how helmets have reduced the risk from bike accidents by 98 percent?”
                The principle is that you can’t win an argument, so you need to avoid it. If you think of a scenario where that is impossible for some reason, well, obviously the principle won’t work then. One should still try, though.

        2. One should still try, though.

          Fair enough. I can’t argue with that. 😉

          I’m glad you are trying and I really do hope you have success with this approach. I guess, from my perspective, my skepticism come from the fact that I have, basically, already tried this approach and it’s failed me. The objections I presented in my last comment are examples of the kind of objections I’ve personally encountered. The equivalent NP v’s renewable discussion looks something like this (the bracketed statements are not part of the conversation) :

          A. Nuclear power is CO2 emission free. (demonstrably true)

          B. So is renewable power. (demonstrably true)

          A. Yes it is, but nuclear power is also 24/7, baseload.(demonstrably true)

          B. Renewable power can do that too. (has never been achieved)

          A. Nuclear power is despatchable. (demonstrably true)

          B. So is renewable power – if you do it right. (has never been achieved)

          Whenever I’ve attempted to advanced the case for nuclear power, whilst simultaneously avoiding any challenge to claims regarding renewable capabilities, the basic response from any potential supporter always came down to some, rather perplexed, permutation of the question:

          “But, why bother with nuclear power when we’ve got renewables?”

          Under the circumstances, it’s a reasonable question. If we must allow they are correct about renewables (even where we know they are not) then the two types of energy technologies appear to be, at best, technically interchangeable. Decisions would then come down to subjective qualities – aesthetics, brand loyalty or social stigma/prestige.

          But this isn’t one persons personal and legitimately subjective choice between two, basically interchangeable items. This is a global societies choice between a habitable planet and an uninhabitable one. Nuclear power and renewables are not interchangeable, they are not the same basic product in different colours; they are different products with different capabilities. We do not need to make a choice between them any more than one would choose between the truck and the bike. You get the bike to help you get fit or to negotiate rush hour traffic; you get the truck to haul heavy loads, long distances, if you want to do both you get both.

          In matters of life and death people need to understand the full implications of the decisions they make and to make those decisions they deserve to have all the information at hand.

          1. If one assumes that one can have both bike and truck (as you seem to do), there is no need at all to talk anyone out of supporting renewable energy. It becomes irrelevant for the question of supporting nuclear or not.
            If on the other hand they say “we don’t need nuclear, renewable will do the job”, all that is needed is “great, once renewable energy has replaced the last bit of fossil fuel, switch off the nuclear plants, hope you get there soon”.
            That is a huge strategic advantage, considering the massive majorities that support renewable energy. If your nuclear advocacy depends on turning that majority around, you get yourself a much more difficult uphill battle than you have already anyway.

            1. …there is no need at all to talk anyone out of supporting renewable energy.

              I advocate explaining the capabilities, limitations and utility of a product. Why is that “talking anyone out of it”?

              1. If you prefer, that could be rephrased as “there is no need for explaining the capabilities, limitations and utility of renewable energy”. That follows from the position (I understand you share) that you can sell both the bike and the truck.

                1. Karl, I can see how Carnegie’s approach might get someone listening, but I really think you take it too far.

                  If some gullible, misinformed customer entered a truck dealership asking for a vehicle that could negotiate traffic, the ethical truck dealer would explain to them that they were in the wrong place; they needed something small and narrow, like a bike, not a truck. On the other hand a shonky, unscrupulous dealer would see the opportunity to make a buck out of the customers naivety and attempt to sell them a truck anyway.

                  I know this is not a course of action you would intentionally advocate, but can you see that this is where Carnegie’s advice can lead when stretched into service beyond it’s original parameter of like for like products?

                  Anyway, I don’t expect we will resolve our differences on this matter any time soon. I also feel we are a little too far off topic to continue this conversation here. I am happy, therefore, to bow out and let you have the last word on the subject. All the best.

                  1. I can see your point that we won’t agree on this. And since my point (and Carnegie’s) to begin with is that the only way to win an argument is avoiding it, I also agree that it is a good idea to stop this discussion before it becomes one.

            2. If on the other hand they say “we don’t need nuclear, renewable will do the job”, all that is needed is “great, once renewable energy has replaced the last bit of fossil fuel, switch off the nuclear plants, hope you get there soon”.

              Australia doesn’t have any nuclear power plants so that would be “burn coal and gas till renewables replace them”. Great. We’re stuffed.

              1. No, that would be “build nuclear, and switch it off once renewable energy has replaced the last bit of fossil fuel.”
                That applies to countries with an existing nuclear fleet as well (in that case selling bikes means increasing the capacity).

                1. I am quite sure we won’t see renewables shutting down any nuclear plants in the future, any more than we are seeing them shutting down the coal plants today. But thats immaterial. The immediate need is to get a rapid nuclear buildout today, and if you’re prepared to defer a choice between nuclear and renewables till after we’ve seen off coal and gas by the most expeditious route, so am I. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof, as I imagine even Pell would agree.

  3. We are all in this together now, regardless of opinion or fact. We face either the challenges of climate change, or the challenges of climate taxation. Nuclear is the clear answer to both.

    It is, as you say, unfortunate that our cultural ideologies get involved. The rational side of politics has been put in a position where it cannot reasonably support ‘the science’ because of the lunacy the has been attached to it.

    If you want to make the case, nuclear power is actually the wedge issue that can do it. A ‘real response to a real problem’. It gives the right a way to both remain rational and address the issue without breaking the country, to differentiate themselves substantially and.show the current tinkering for what it is.

    The Liberal’s have resisted all efforts to become directly supportive of skepticism. Give them an industrial response to an industrial problem, as a response to the political solution we have now.

    Labor desperately needs to create breathing space for themselves. Again, nuclear provides an answer.

    In the end, climate change skepticism doesn’t change your message one bit. It just defines your target audience. Be content in that, and allow others to present nuclear as a solution to those whose desire is foremostly to not be associated with the Greens or anything they peddle.

    1. Yup, I’m pretty much on board with that. I think a proper nuclear discussion has the power to change the nature of our views on climate change quite fundamentally, and in a really positive way.

  4. I sympathise with your sentiments and feelings of despondency when it comes to debating mad dog denialists like Pell and the many voices in The Australian. However, I implore you not to give up talking loudly about the fact of climate change and the urgent need for action.

    Because it’s not the denialists we’re talking to when we confront their spurious and ideologically-tainted claims. It’s the onlookers. As you say, we’ll likely never sway the denialists themselves. But there are many who watch and read these discussions, and they’re the ones we need to convince.

    It’s not easy, but it’s possible – if only by the sheer number of intelligent, informed and insistent people who will defend climate science. If the public see a majority of voices on the denialist side, they’ll assume via ad populum that it’s the winning team.

    Once the denialists no longer look like they have a clear numerical advantage, people will be forced to listen to the content of the arguments to decide, rather than falling back on the heuristic of the majority have it. And science and reason will always (eventually) win the content debate.

    But we’ll never get there if the Good Guys give up. So once again, I deeply implore you to keep fighting. We can’t let them silence the voices of reason.

    1. Tim… I have a profound appreciation for the sentiment of your comment. Thank you.

      I’ll give this some thought but I fear you are mistaken.

      I for one don’t think the denialists ever looked like they had the clear numerical advantage, in fact they would often trade on this point to paint themselves as renegades. So I don’t believe there is anything that can force people to listen to the content; they either value your voice because of some facet of who you are in relation to their values, or they don’t.

      So I still believe my efforts are best spent on speeding the implementation of the solution, which means talking to those who already accept climate science is real, but selectively treat it as non-urgent when confronted with the prospect of nuclear as a solution.

      My exception to my retiring from this game is when I am personally approached by people expressing a sincere interest. The last time this happened, it was a former operator of the Torrens Island power station, who heard me speak about nuclear power. Having spoken so lucidly on that issue, he seemed to think that perhaps climate change was not bullshit after all, otherwise why would this smart guy say it is? Weird process, but true. Here is some of his email to me:

      “many thanks for your presentation today (15th Sept) for the U3A Flinders Group of members. The turn out of members was very good and it certainly showed a keen interest in your topic.

      Besides being an impassioned speaker, I felt that you delivered a very compelling, logical and rational argument about the introduction of nuclear energy to source our electricity needs for the future.

      Your presentation on the use of nuclear power for electricity generation was convincing, I would be interested in reading such a convincing argument that will clearly demonstrate that CO2 gas emissions are the direct cause of global warming.”

      There you go. Strange, but true. I won his trust by addressing nuclear, something that was more aligned with his technical values already, and he then ascribed me authority to convince him on climate change.

      1. Indeed, we must all focus our efforts where they’re of most benefit. And your work talking to people who are making real decisions about how to deal with climate change is clearly crucially important.

        However, while the public are not in support of dealing with climate change, the bottom-up political pressure will not exist to drive important and difficult long-term decisions (it was a fluke of a hung parliament that saw the carbon price legislation go through).

        And I agree that denialists have never had a numerical advantage. But to an onlooker (especially one who frequents the pages of The Australian), the impression they give is they represent a serious movement poking holes in contentious science. And public opinion surveys show support for climate change is softening under this onslaught. And may scientists have already bowed out of the public debate for fear of reprisal. This all saddens me.

        I am also very aware of the underlying psychology that muddies this debate (I wrote about just this on The Drum earlier this year). And I happen to be a cautious proponent of nuclear power – and a strong proponent of a thorough discussion and consideration of nuclear power (particularly thorium).

        But I stress that none of us – particularly those versed in the science – can lower our guard against the populist denialists, nor ought we encourage others to do likewise. Irrationality is a tough hump to overcome, but we must continue to speak loudly and speak well if we’re ever to have a chance of overcoming it.

        1. Tim you argue the case very well, and, to be honest, I write posts with decisive statements in anticipation of good strong challenges; thanks for rising to it in this case.

          You are giving me something to think about, and certainly you are appealing to my loftier and pugnacious characteristics rather well…but…

          “Irrationality is a tough hump to overcome, but we must continue to speak loudly and speak well if we’re ever to have a chance of overcoming it.” Perhaps this illustrates my position best. Do we, in fact, need to overcome the irrationality that swirls around climate science in the general populace, or do we just need to get on with implementing the plug and play solution of nuclear power? Which actually requires us to attend to the big rationality blind spot of our own team, a task that should be easier if we get organised? As Christopher Polis has started to address in his comment above, isn’t nuclear power the technology that basically takes the sting out of the climate science debate? Where most of those who fight us would just say “Go for it, we’ve been telling you nuclear is good for ages, you stupid hippies” and we can say “Thanks, we will, you reactionary nutbags” and we can just get back to hating each other in peace, but with a stable climate and a secure energy supply?

          In keen anticipation…

          1. While I’m pro-nuclear (in principle – but provisional on the empirical evidence about its economic and environmental viability in Aust), my concern with raising it too quickly, and without sufficient preparation of the public, is that it might backfire.

            If the rational voices in society have one great flaw, it’s assuming most other people are also rational. In fact, most people make their decisions irrationally based on emotional associations rather than considered reflection. Words ‘mean’ things in an amorphous way – and for many people “nuclear” means “bad” – largely thanks to the ’80s anti-nuclear movement + Chernobyl _ Fukushima.

            And most people also don’t think in shades of grey unless coaxed. So even though some aspects of nuclear are ‘bad’ – dealing with waste, for example – it’s (arguably) not nearly as bad as the cost of coal. I’ve written about this myself in Cosmos, on the ABC site and elsewhere.

            But any discussion of nuclear must, IMO, include a ‘softening up’ period to make people open to even listening to the facts about nuclear, and allowing them to consider the trade-offs between it and fossil fuels.

            In my opinion, that preliminary stage hasn’t even started yet, and it needs to happen before there’ll be sufficient political will to make nuclear happen. Even if the Right is ideologically predisposed to nuclear, politicians on the Right are ideologically committed to public opinion. And the last thing you want is to be squeezed between anti-climate change from the Right and anti-nuclear on the Left.

            What I’d like to see is not only lobbying on nuclear power, but a concerted effort at outreach to the public to ‘prime’ them for the debate. Start moving the Overton window, if you will, towards nuclear before the debate starts in earnest. And if you wanted assistance in doing that – I’d be more than willing to help.

            1. “What I’d like to see is not only lobbying on nuclear power, but a concerted effort at outreach to the public to ‘prime’ them for the debate. Start moving the Overton window, if you will, towards nuclear before the debate starts in earnest. And if you wanted assistance in doing that – I’d be more than willing to help.”

              I would love your help (and plan to track down you articles BTW), and I would be interested to know what you think of Decarbonise SA and the effort I am promoting here because I you have summed up the purpose very nicely. I maintain a pretty regular schedule of public appearances, everywhere from people’s lounge rooms with 10 friends to CEDA lunches and mining conferences, as well as articles here and in the print media, and an original animated short video, to achieve precisely the priming you are talking about. I’m quite aware there is a path of public discussion that needs to be trod. I’m trying to get people talking and along with the efforts of many notable others, I think it is working. Slowly. But it needs a turbocharge. That can only come from the left.

              So returning to the theme of my article: if what we want is climate stability and we are prepared to accept (I certainly am) that all and even most people may never think as we do about climate change, what do we do?

              You talked about the importance of that denial-busting activity to prevent too many people from getting the wrong idea. I’m less and less convinced of the importance of this. There is the section who never want to acknowledge climate change as real (with Pell the literal and figurative Archbishop). That’s the opposition. There is the section who firmly do, which I actually think is quite a bit larger than most people think. They are basically “our team”. Then there is everyone else who, based on my observations and sort of backed up by your plea for me to continue, oscillate in opinion very, very easily. Probably depending on who opened their mouth last, Barry Brook or Bob Carter. They are basically spectators, and every few years they are voters too.

              What good are these people? All you can ever achieve with them is a window of public opinion through which you might jam some policy, as opened up back in 2006/07, thanks largely to Al Gore and Tim Flannery, which has now well and truly closed again. As you say, the passage of a carbon price many years later was an electoral fluke. Denial-busting has just become an ongoing game of whack-a-mole that prevents us from getting anything truly useful done. If you are a denier, that means you win!!! The only option is to walk away and start a new game.

              So, we ignore the opposition. We talk to the spectators at such times and in such ways as does not unduly sap our time and energy. But what we really do is turn around and look squarely in the eyes of our own team and say “I’m getting sick of fighting for a stable climate. Does anyone else feel like actually winning?”. We do to our own people on nuclear what we have been doing to the far right on climate change; address an absurd, illogical and ideologically driven rationality blind spot. Except rather than just banging our heads against a brick wall, we are actually in the house having a conversation.

              Imagine the shot in the arm that it would give to the acceptance of climate science to have the Australian Conservation Foundation announce provisional support, in much the same terms you have, to an exploration of nuclear power, on the grounds that climate change simply demands a re-appraisal. That would do more to take the steam out of denialism than any direct attack because it would simply move it to the margins. It would well and truly capture the attention of the spectators, who would see much of the opposition agree with us, but for different reasons. Right now, the message from the environmental movement on climate change is (once you have established the limits of the renewables-only path) “Climate change is an emergency. Lets burn more gas and roughly the same amount of coal”. I blame no one for scoffing at them.

              So on balance, my advice to anyone frustrated with denial will remain this. If what you care about is the climate and you have a choice between spending your time attacking this idiocy, and talking to your friends about nuclear, talk to your friends about nuclear. Start the new game, because we can’t win the old one.

              1. I see your point – and you’re right. I agree with you wholeheartedly about moving the debate forward. And nuclear must be a part of that conversation.

                In fact, I feel precisely the same way about atheism. Atheists banging on about the non-existence of God isn’t solving the problem of filling the moral and cultural gap left by the removal of religion – so I encourage atheists to propose and debate positive alternatives to religion rather than just play the defensive action against theists.

                I can see that your work with nuclear is taking precisely the same approach in the climate arena – and I applaud you for that.

                But I still caution against letting climate denialists have a free run in the media. We need to keep pushing forward with positive solutions while fighting a rearguard to ensure the denialists don’t overtake us in popular opinion. That rearguard doesn’t need to be a head-on battle with them. It could be the dismiss-as-Irrationalists strategy I mention elsewhere here. But we can’t allow the public to think we have no response to their blathering.

                1. “But I still caution against letting climate denialists have a free run in the media…But we can’t allow the public to think we have no response to their blathering.”

                  Yes, I think I can get on board with that. I think the balance of efforts needs to shift, and (a very powerful) part of the response needs to be “we are too busy talking about nuclear power to waste our time with you over and over again”, said, as you mention, in the media for the benefit of those listening.

                  Love the atheism example BTW

              2. You say

                “Then there is everyone else who, based on my observations and sort of backed up by your plea for me to continue, oscillate in opinion very, very easily, probably depending on who opened their mouth last, Barry Brook or Bob Carter. They are basically spectators, and every few years they are voters too.”

                I disagree that spectators change sides via that mechanism. The vast pool of uncommitted includes some who may commit to pro- or anti- climate change or nuclear power or whatever, from time to time. The effect is that the group of people who are, at any given time, amenable to consider nuclear power changes as people slosh into and out of their camp. Similarly, the anti’s are added to or subtracted from by this same process of sloshing about, as waves of the undecided gain commitment.

                Our best prospects are thus to address the undecided, in the hope that a greater percentage will tend to slosh into our bucket, and to do so sooner, rather than to directly attempt to persuade the marginally committed anti-nuclear brigade.

                In other words, I tend to agree with those who have argued for a passive approach to the arguments of anti’s and reserve our best efforts for those who are truly wavering.

                Unfortunately, this audience is itself hugely diluted amongst those who have not and will not engage with the topic of nuclear energy. They are neither hot nor cold – they are turned off.

                Perhaps, just maybe, there is a third way, which is via building acceptance on another topic which is of interest to the turned-off. Hence, the idea that ACF or Greenpeace or some other recognised and trusted (by some) organisation might support discussion of nuclear power in the context of climate change options, or in the context of pollution reduction, may be such a game changer.

                There is a risk in this approach, which is that the Greenpeace or ACF or whatever discussion could be overwhelmed by empty rhetoric from the opposing side and end up taking some of our weaker members back into the confused/uncommitted/don’t care categories, if not entirely right across to their way of thinking.

        2. Tim Dean,
          Certainly one cannot stop the denialists spouting their nonsense, and I agree we can’t all simply withdraw and let the denialist voice be the only one getting heard; however, fighting their nonsense anew, every time, just seems to lend it legitimacy by allowing them to present themselves as “the other side of the debate”; this in turn creates the impression of their being the other “half” of the debate, which futher lends credence to their position…

          I think the best way to smother the denialist position is to stop engaging them in fresh “debate”. Instead make it clear (as Ben has here) that the debate has already happened, any concerns have already been addressed, and then point them to a resource like this: http://www.skepticalscience.com/argument.php
          The above site also enables one to offer a short (dismissive) cut and paste rebuttal of their most prominent argument (e.g. “It’s Urban Heat Island effect” Urban and rural regions show the same warming trend. ) whilst implicitly emphasising the fact that the point they are raising is not new and has already been extensively addressed.

          Ben,
          Terrific post, truly inspiring.

          1. I disagree with the legitimacy argument. Even if debating Irrationalists (as I call them) lends them a tad more legitimacy, not debating them gives them free reign, which causes more harm. And, as I said above, it’s the onlookers we’re trying to convince, not the Irrationalists themselves.

            However, I do very much agree with the tactic of branding Irrationalists (whether they’re climate change deniers, creationists or homoeopaths etc) as being ignorant and out of touch. Paint their view as embarrassing to hold. Dismiss them as being irrational, dogmatic, biased or deceiving people because they wish to advance their radical agenda. Explain why they’re cooks – explain the biases, the fallacies, the political agendas – and you may not even need to get into curly scientific debates. I just wish more people did that to Andrew Bolt.

            And I strongly support ‘cheat sheets’ to help people attack spurious arguments in the public sphere. The Right has been using them for years. Just browse climate denialist or creationist websites and you’ll see many ‘dinner party guides’ that equip non-experts to debate other non-experts.

            Where are the scientific and rational equivalents (excepting rare gems like Skeptical Science)? Maybe we should make them…

            1. Tim, I’m going to email you my presentation “Dealing with Denialism”. See what you think (anyone else wants it let me know, I can’t post it to WordPress). The incoming Greens Senator in the audience loved the presentation and said she felt far better equipped going to Canberra having seen it. You will see that it focusses on exposing the weakness of the methods, rather than engaging in the science argument.

              1. Ben, I’d love to have a look at your presentation. I’m often feeling it difficult to talk with denialists so it would most definitely help me. If you’d actually like to make it available on the internet, I’d be happy to host it at ThoriumAustralia, but only have a link from it here?

            2. Tim,

              I agree with almost everything you say. This was interesting:

              Dismiss them as being irrational, dogmatic, biased or deceiving people because they wish to advance their radical agenda. Explain why they’re cooks – explain the biases, the fallacies, the political agendas – and you may not even need to get into curly scientific debates. I just wish more people did that to Andrew Bolt.

              Discrediting the opposition is a time honoured tactic. If one can pull it off successfully, it’s the strongest hand one can play. As Ben points out in the main post and I see you have discussed elsewhere, people don’t believe the science, they believe those they trust. If you can discredit Andrew Bolt et al in the eyes of their readers then you’ve won.

              Of course, discrediting the opposition is also a favourite of both nuclear power opponents and climate change deniers. No-one wants to sink to using the baseless lies, smears and innuendo these anti-science groups employ, therefore, if this is a tactic we are going to pursue we need to be very sure we have good evidence behind any ascription of a particular motivation, bias or agenda, or (even better I think) do as Ben has done here and expose the psychological traps they’ve fallen into using more general results from sociological or psychological studies. They don’t even have to be ‘bad people’, just entirely human and entirely fallible.

          2. Hey, cheers Marion. If I can continue to birth inspiration from posts that begin with me being utterly, thoroughly pissed off, I will be very pleased!!!

            But it is pretty much policy around here to never hit publish without a positive message.

  5. I applaud your decision to put aside climate denialism and focus on solutions to the problem. It was a relief when Barry decided to follow that course on BNC.
    They won’t be convinced as demonstrated by the backpeddling response to the latest study (Berkeley) of world temperatures, initiated by the AGW denialists, and performed by Muller,( the erstwhile darling of the deniers), which confirmed the climate scientists data.
    http://www.adelaidenow.com.au/news/world/sceptic-warms-to-climate-change/story-e6frea8l-1226181026309

  6. Excellent article: It should be read by those on both ends of the political spectrum who care about truth and beauty … and by pragmatists in between who want to get things done. I’m not sure there is NO proper role for ideology in the environmentalist movement (well, I’m sure there is one), but you certainly show us how dangerous it is. Thanks for this.

    1. My very great pleasure Evan, and welcome as a first time commenter, I hope you return.

      There will always be ideology, that’s probably ok. But it has been allowed to well and truly trump outcome. That is not ok.

      Please pass it on, I would like this piece to get the most readers it can.

  7. Hi Ben, useful article and well written.

    As you know I have a slightly different view from you on two accounts

    1) I do think it is worth while to combat pseudo-skepticism (a better description and possibly less emotive than denial and to all intents and purposes functionally equivalent) wherever it appears – if only in the hope of ensuring that those who can still be persuaded are not continually misled – but it is energy sapping and I have long been an advocate also of trying to move the debate to where it needs to be – namely, what do we DO about AGW

    2) On Nuclear I have shifted from being an advocate (here’s something I posted on the Drum within a couple of weeks of the Fukushima earthquake/tsunami “The only real viable alternatives today are gas (which is typically 30% to 50% less CO2e than coal) and Nuclear (which is virtually zero CO2e). Again there is denialism here – because despite the alarmism associated with the issues in Japan if you actually bother to research the facts Nuclear has a far better safety record per MWh generated than any fossil fuel by orders of magnitude. Yes, I know Nuclear has real risks but what we need is rational evidence based debate about it as an alternative rather than fearful ignorant denial.”) to being considerably more cautious

    What has changed my views?

    Two factors:

    one is that as I have studied the evidence I have become increasingly convinced that renewables like distributed wind with intelligent predictive anemometering and suitable load management plus Solar CST with TES can do far more of the heavy lifting than I first thought possible, not to mention the delivered cost of rooftop solar PV being highly cost competitive and able (at least for residential consumers) to considerably lower the demand on the centralised power generated grid.

    The second is that, although I have good confidence in the low risk associated with (especially modern) nuclear generation technology, the hazard if things go wrong are great and Fukushima has shown that it is the people side that lets this down – there was far too much hiding and obfuscation and avoidance of responsibility from Tepco management. I’m afraid I simply don’t trust either private or government enterprise to do the right thing in the event of a problem.

    I also, as you know, have significant concerns (in Australia) with the very long lead times required to deploy ANY nuclear (in part because of political opposition, in part because of the large capital requirements and difficulty in gaining investment and in part because we have a very serious lack of skills and capabilities).

    There have been many studies, on the other hand, showing just how rapidly renewables can be deployed (yes I am aware of the shortcoming in terms of capacity, load factors etc – but they are constantly improving while cost is reducing).

    However, I retain an open mind on the question.

    At the end of the day I would wish to see far less of the argument of “Nuclear” OR “Renewables” – as I find that counterproductive. I am certainly no fan either of the non-science denialism practiced by the greens when it comes to the nuclear option.

    To me I would prefer to debate a “This, And” approach , especially on a global level (where many countries may simply have no other viable option than Nuclear ).

    At a global level I think we need to rapidly decarbonise – that will require a mix of CCS, energy efficiency (especially in urban design and transport), reduced consumption per capita in the advanced and wealthy nations (too offset increased consumption per capita which we have no moral right to deny to the world’s poor) AND the best nuclear we can build, design and manage.

    The question at a local level is what, precise, mix of each of these elements will work best and what mix of market based mechanisms and government incentives should be put in place to achieve the maximal reduction for the minimal cost.

    Phew – long post for my first effort Ben and compiled on the fly – hope you don’t mind, and if you feel you should direct me to post on other places here please feel free – I will now go and take a look around the blog (having just jumped here from the conversation)

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