August 12, 2010

What Does it Take to Convince a Climate Change Skeptic?

A few months ago Will wrote about climate skepticism and the relationship between scientists and the public, explaining that individual consumers of information often view scientific information about climate change through a lens of personal interests.  This raises the question: what does it take to change peoples’ minds – people who have a vested personal or political interest in burying their heads in the sand?  Perhaps it takes seeing the effects of climate change with their own eyes.

Yesterday, Joss Garmen wrote on ClimateProgress about a recent article by Michael Hanlon, one of the UK’s most prominent climate skeptics.  Writing for The Daily Mail, where he is the Science Editor, Hanlon acknowledged blatantly in the title that, “yes, global warming is real – and deeply worrying.”  What prompted Hanlon’s about-face? A week-long trip to the Arctic where Hanlon accompanied a British science team investigating increases in summer ice melt.  Of the trip Hanlon said, “I have long been something of a climate-change skeptic, but my views in recent years have shifted.  For me, the most convincing evidence that something worrying is going on lies right here in the Arctic.”

In a year-long study that we completed back in April, Broadening Horizons: Climate Change and the U.S. Armed Forces, we noticed similar parallels when it came to the military’s engagement on climate change. In particular, the Navy to date has been the most forward leaning service to take hold of the implications of climate change, standing up its own Take Force Climate Change to study the impacts on U.S. naval forces. But why was the Navy the first and most active service to engage climate change? The Navy noticed measurable changes in its operating environment as a consequence of climate change, including a melting Arctic.

Going back to Hanlon, the scientific team that he accompanied was studying Greenland’s icesheet, which is melting at a rate that is 30 percent higher than 40 years ago and is permanently losing about 267 billion tons of ice per year.  Specifically, they were interested in a phenomenon called cryoconite:

Minute specks of black airborne dust – a mixture of desert sand blown thousands of kilometers from the south, soot particle from power stations and microscopic algae and bacteria – settle on the ice and, being dark, absorb the sun’s rays, magnifying their heat like a spyglass onto the ice.


This causes holes to form in the ice, in places rendering the surface of the icesheet into an unwalkable maze of serrated ridges.  From the cryconite holes, the surface water drains through a network of much larger sinkholes and crevasses on the ice sheet.


As for the melt lakes that sit on top of the ice caps, when they drain it can be sudden, spectacular and dangerous.


A week before my visit to the scientific centre known as Base 3, a large nearby ice lake about 2.5 miles across, literally had its plug pulled: a crack opened up in the ice at the lake’s deepest part, and with a biblical roar, a body of water the size of a London borough drained in just two hours.

Of course, it wasn’t just seeing these fantastic events with his eyes that changed Hanlon’s position. A long history of hearing the scientific evidence for climate change undoubtedly helped, too: “after coming here it is impossible to maintain that nothing is going on,” Hanlon wrote.

Hanlon’s conversion reminded me of a similar about-face by President Medvedev, confronted not with melting ice but with enduring drought and raging fires.  As fires raged around Russia amidst record high temperatures and drought, Medvedev seemed to reverse Russia’s denialist stance on climate change, stating that “what's happening with the planet's climate right now needs to be a wake-up call to all of us, meaning all heads of state, all heads of social organizations, in order to take a more energetic approach to countering the global changes to the climate.”  When it was politically expedient, Russia remained a denier in international forums.  But confronted by mounting evidence that the climate might actually be changing, with Russia’s drought and fires potentially linked to the changing climate, it seems like Medvedev could no longer deny what he is seeing with his own eyes.      

Hanlon’s article is a little depressing to me in that it suggests that climate skeptics may only change their minds when confronted with tangible evidence that climate change is real, at which point it may be too late to reverse or even slow its course.  However, it also provides hope that at the very least skeptics may change their minds eventually; hopefully sooner rather than later.