Understanding Climate Risk

Science, policy and decision-making

Archive for the ‘Public opinion’ Category

Where are the economists?

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For those who didn’t catch it, during the week an op-ed of mine was Climate Policy will Stay a Mystery until Silent Specialists Join the Debate was published in The Age. It was based on an earlier post where I detailed the benefits of Australia’s climate policy and the tricks used by opponents to make it look more ineffective than it is likely to be. In the op-ed I ask where are the barefoot economists who will challenge untrue statements about climate and the economy? Text reproduced below (with small edits for clarity).

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Nope – I can’t change your mind on climate

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So after last night’s ABC program I Can Change Your Mind on … Climate live blogged here, the answer is a resounding “No, You Can’t”. Minchin in an op-ed in The Age/SMH:

I’m sure I did not change her mind, but I hope she saw that not all sceptics are mad, bad and dangerous; that there remains a lively scientific debate about the drivers of climate change; and that scaremongering about global warming is backfiring on the warmists.

He goes on to say that of Lomborg’s cornucopian solution:

Lomborg instead advocates significant global investment in green energy research and development in order to make green energy so cheap that everyone will want it.

Now, that I can support. If there is to be any common ground between sceptics and warmists, this surely must be it. Let’s work to make green energy a realistic, affordable alternative, instead of stupidly trying to make conventional energy so incredibly expensive that we will stop using it.

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I can change your mind on climate – live blog

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Welcome to the live blog for I Can Change Your Mind About … Climate on ABC1 from 8:30 pm AEST. From the show’s blurb:

Separated by a generation, and divided by their beliefs, two passionate, intelligent and successful Australians go on a journey of mutual discovery to see if they can change each other’s minds about the most divisive issue in Australia today: climate change.

It’s a pity we don’t have cards for climate change bingo to mark off squares for “It hasn’t warmed since 1998″, “scientists are only in it for the grant money”, “the temperature record cannot be believed” and so on. Likewise, I don’t recommend drinking games. You’ll be on your ear by 9. Read the rest of this entry »

Can the ABC make its mind up about climate?

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Tonight the ABC is broadcasting  the battle between science and belief in the minds of ex Senator Nick Minchin and Australian Yoof Coalition founder Anna Rose. This will be followed up by a Q&A on climate change (yep, another one) with panelists

Oh goody – not a climate change scientist amongst them, though there will be a few in the audience.

I’m going to live blog the show here.

Stefan Lewandowsky and colleagues will be doing an expert live blog here: http://myresearchspace.grs.uwa.edu.au/events/icanchange and tweeting under the hashtag #qandascientists

Clive Hamilton at Crikey has already concluded that by framing it as a debate, the ABC has handed a win to the doubters. The picture below showing that the largest poll group on the ABC site is dismissive of climate change shows the site is being gamed. My inside intelligence says the program is pretty interesting.

ABC Climate Change Poll 7:45 pm April 26

If you want to have fun in my sandpit, come along and join the fun here online and with the TV on from 8:30 Eastern Australian Standard Time.

The pink surfboard conundrum

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The pink surfboard conundrum: calculating risk v a social licence to operate

by Professor Roger Jones, Professorial Research Fellow at the Centre for Strategic Economic Studies (CSES) at Victoria University and FAQ Research writer. Cross-posted at Crikey.

Coal seam gas issue presents a wicked problem. Wicked problems are hard to define, have competing values and cannot be definitively solved. For wicked risks, perceptions are just as important as the risks themselves.

So when a wicked risk becomes a hot political issue how do you know whether you’re being reliably informed or being sold a pink surfboard?

Recently, Ben Cubby reported in the Sydney Morning Herald on the public relations challenges discussed at an industry conference:

“A consultant, Daniel Tormey, recounted his experience with the development of oil drilling off California’s coast, and drew parallels with opposition to the coal seam gas industry in Australia.

“Environmental concerns were addressed, and the public had not logged any major objections, he said, but then the Hollywood actor Daryl Hannah was photographed carrying a pink surfboard and protesting about oil drilling. At that point, support for the industry collapsed, and he warned gas executives that the same thing could happen here. ‘Once you see the pink surfboard you know you can’t win.’”

Advocates, both pro and con CSG, are trying to capture public opinion and create their own pink surfboard moment, while preventing their opposition from getting the upper hand.

The CSG industry and a social licence to operate

The coal seam gas industry is seeking a social licence to operate.

Part of that social licence is tacit, where the community recognises the benefits of an industry and accepts that it is acting in a socially and environmentally responsible manner. Another part of that licence is exercised by government in permitting the activity and ensuring that a range of conditions are met on behalf of the community.

Here’s what the Australian coal industry says about their social licence:

“The Australian coal industry respects that its long-term future relies on its ‘social licence’ to operate. This means that the majority of the community remains supportive of Australia’s coal mining industry once aware of the economic and employment the industry provides; the essential products that it produces for domestic and overseas markets for energy, steelmaking and other industrial processes; and the impacts it can have on the environment and some local communities.”

They also state:

“The Australian coal industry places premium value on maintaining its social licence to operate. In order to do so, the industry promotes the pro-active steps that it is taking to address impacts on the environment and some local communities, and works with those communities and governments to address concerns as they arise. The objective is to ensure the responsible, long-term development of Australia’s coal resources in a manner that is accepted and supported by the Australian community.”

The industry’s licence to operate is focused on maintaining a healthy coal industry. This is also relevant to other fossil fuel resources including coal seam gas. Continuation of the industry is a core part of their social LTO. Transforming the industry away from fossil fuel extraction to another form of energy resource is not on the table.

Other players would like to see this licence suspended or even cancelled because of the risks from fossil fuel emissions to groundwater and to agricultural productivity.

So the stakes are high.

Wicked risks

Three areas of risk are particularly relevant to negotiating wicked risks: calculated risk, perceived risk and political risk.

Calculated risk

Calculated risk is the estimate of risk calculated by expert assessment.

This combines science and values to estimate the likelihood of risk and assess the costs and benefits of various options for risk management. Aspects of calculated risk surrounding CSG include the identification of reserves, exploration and extraction, the interaction of CSG and groundwater, the greenhouse gas footprint of the production and consumption cycle, land-use and land planning, onsite environmental impacts and broader social and environmental outcomes.

Critical environmental issues include the extraction and injection of groundwater, the chemistry of the coal seam gas and groundwater, the chemical agents used to extract the gas, and the volumes  and quality of groundwater consumed in the process.

Perceived risk

Perceived risk is how a risk and risk management options are seen by an observer.

It includes how that person frames that risk via their personal values, but is also affected by a number of heuristics, or mental rules of thumb. For example, the short-term framing of economic gains from fossil fuel extraction is very different to long-term values attached to the sustainable use of groundwater. The value that a farmer puts on their livelihood is often very different to how a mining company will maximise shareholder return.

If external costs are to be allowed for, utilitarian economics will put a dollar value on all commercial, social and environmental aspects of risk, claiming that costs and benefits can be balanced this way.

Broader measures of welfare suggest these different viewpoints are very differently balanced. For perceived risk, emotional, rather than analytic, decision-making is likely to dominate.

Political risk

For political risk, the rubber hits the road on calculated versus perceived risk.

Good policy requires credible estimates of calculated risk, whereas good politics has to navigate the emotional currents of perceived risk. Much of this takes place in the rough and tumble market of public opinion, dialogues of power and privilege, and social discourses describing personal and institutional aspirations.

Pink surfboards can be game breakers.

How these come together is shown in the following cartoon. It combines calculated and perceived risks in “good” policy making where the various economic, social and environmental interests in a complex risk are combined. The prize is a social licence to operate.

Risk and pink surfboards

Reading the material being presented to the public via the social, print and broadcast media the debate on CSG is clearly dominated by the pink surfboard aspects of risk management. The main links are between perceived and political risk. That’s not to say that efforts aren’t being made to calculate the technical aspects of risk, it’s just that this is mainly taking place behind the scenes.

In the time it takes to assess things like the long-term effect of widespread CSG on groundwater, the socio-economic  balance between agriculture and CSG in rich fields, strategies for environmental management, how to substitute CSG for higher-emitting fuels rather than just add to them, the argument could be won or lost (depending which “side” it is viewed from).

Also, it is not a good strategy to admit to areas where the level of knowledge, therefore the ability to calculate risk, is low. It’s easier and cheaper for the media to report on pink surfboards. It’s cheaper and more politically effective to influence perceived risk, which requires a working knowledge of the psychology of selling, of pink surfboards and purple pachyderms. Look over there – a big shiny thing!

But if CSG is to be extracted sustainably, then good policy is vital.

In future articles we will look at how risk is being assessed and contrast that with appeals to risk perceptions. A pink surfboard on an astroturf background may be eye-catching but it’s not informative.

Professor Roger Jones is a Professorial Research Fellow at the Centre for Strategic Economic Studies (CSES) at Victoria University. Read more about FAQ Research writers here.

A Sceptical Climate: biased climate media in Oz

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Many Australians did not receive fair, accurate and impartial reporting in the public interest in relation to the carbon policy in 2011.

An estimated 25% of Australians read one of the ten capital city newspapers (omitting the Canberra Times). Between February and July last year, these ten papers printed almost 4,000 articles on climate change policy, a whopping 28% in The Australian alone. Most were on the Gillard Government’s carbon price policy. Of the total, 43% were negative, 41% neutral and 15% positive. News Limited  publications comprised 65% of the total. For the News reader, the respective numbers were 50%, 41% and 10%. That’s right, less than 10% of the 2,770 articles on climate policy in the major News Limited papers during this period were positive towards climate policy.

Total articles on climate change policy Feb-Jul 2011

Ratio of negative to positive articles in 10 major Australian newspapers Feb-Jul 2011

In December, the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism (ACIJ) released its report A Sceptical Climate: Media coverage of climate change in AustraliaPart 1- Climate Change Policy. The study provided a snapshot of how climate change policy was covered over a six-month period from February to July 2011. The dominant issue during this period was the introduction of the Gillard Labor government carbon emissions pricing scheme. Read the rest of this entry »

Science controversy and communication

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Two new articles in Physics Today, one open access and the other behind a paywall (you need to be a member of a partner organisation to get access) cover science controversies and communicating the science of climate change.

The open access article, by Stephen Sherwood of the Climate Change Research Centre at UNSW, is excellent (Steve also did a great presentation at Greenhouse 2011 on climate feedbacks). He covers past controversies surrounding Galileo and Copernicus and compares them with climate change. His argument skewers the contention that the Galileo movement puts up of the climate skeptic being the lone holder of true knowledge persecuted by the all-powerful Church of the Holy Global Warming Consensus.

Greenhouse warming today faces an even greater array of bogus counterarguments based on the uninformed interpretation of data from ice cores, erroneous views about natural carbon sources, alleged but unobserved alternative drivers of climate change, naive expectations of the time scales over which models and observations should match, and various forms of statistical chicanery and logical fallacy. Many of the arguments sound reasonable to an inexpert but intelligent layperson. Critics use the alleged flaws to attempt to discredit the entire field.

Debates between mainstream scientists and silver-tongued opponents cannot be won by the side of truth no matter how obvious the fallacies may be to an expert. Incredibly, as recently as the mid-19th century, a highly charismatic figure calling himself “Parallax” devoted two decades of his life to crisscrossing England arguing that Earth was flat. He debated legitimate astronomers—sometimes teams of them—in town-hall-type settings and wowed audiences. For similar reasons, Einstein himself gave up debating his critics early in the 1920s.

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Written by Roger Jones

October 6, 2011 at 7:25 pm

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