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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 02/16/2011

Classifying beliefs about climate change

By Jason Samenow

Is convinced versus unconvinced the way to go?

In the climate change debate, commentators on the issue in the media and cocktail parties alike often use labels to put people into camps based on what they "believe" about the issue. The labels I've heard include: the mainstream, alarmists, progressives, deniers, delayers, skeptics, believers, hawks, contrarians, naysayers, doomsayers, chicken littles, non-skeptical heretics,and dissidents - to name a few off the top of my head (heard others? comment below).

The problem, of course, is that people's beliefs about the issue can be either simple or complex and these labels may or may not perfectly fit. And then there's the problem that some find certain labels offensive, e.g. "denier" due to holocaust connotations. As Andrew Freedman recently wrote, using insulting labels does little to promote much-needed civil discourse on this heated issue.

Over at the blog Climate Etc., Judith Curry provides some interesting commentary on the issue of labels. She discusses a range of label "taxonomy" ideas for the spectrum of beliefs put forth by some of her colleagues at a recent workshop entitled "Reconciliation in the Climate Change Debate". She also addresses the suggestion we try to do away with these labels, which she rejects.

"A nice idea, but labels are just too useful in discourse on the subject to avoid," she says.

She proposes we classify beliefs about climate change using a spectrum ranging from "convinced" to "unconvinced" based on a recommendation she received from "a bonafide expert on conflict analysis and resolution" (who she doesn't name).

At the recent American Meteorological Society meeting in Seattle, the theme of which was "communicating weather and climate", I had actually heard this same suggestion at a forum on effective communication.

I like convinced vs. unconvinced, as it's non-confrontational and implicitly shows respect for a person's stance on the issues. And importantly, as Curry points out "Convinced - unconvinced allows for a spectrum and the opportunity distinguish what a person is convinced or unconvinced about."

So using this classification, one could clearly indicate how convinced a given individual is about very different but critical questions, the answers to which no doubt shape varying degrees of support for action:

* Whether climate warming is happening
* Whether climate warming (assuming it's happening) is mostly a result of human activities
* Whether human-caused climate change is already causing serious impacts
* Whether human-caused climate change poses serious future risks

How convinced are you that this might be a good way to compare and contrast people's beliefs and more neatly, civilly frame the debate?

By Jason Samenow  | February 16, 2011; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  Climate Change, Latest  
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Judy Curry has the right idea though, but rather than label people, every paper should be labeled. There is an interesting but frustrating thread at in which "poptech" is defending his list that he calls "850 Peer-Reviewed Papers Supporting Skepticism of "Man-Made" Global Warming (AGW) Alarm" All poptech has managed to do, IMO, is prove the need for proper labels. In many cases papers will require multiple labels. If we label papers, that does not and should not label the authors.

Your list, Jason, is not a bad start, but might need more categories. IOW, there could be a mix of natural and man made warmings that are hard to separate. Some impacts may have trends matching up to AGW, some might be natural cycles similar to the 70s. Arctic ice decreases may or may not impact polar bear populations as a whole (some groups do better and some do worse). In any case, a discussion of the details of any particular effect or impact should result in a fairly clear set of labels.

Posted by: eric654 | February 16, 2011 11:42 AM | Report abuse

I heard recently about how the more you try to convince someone they are wrong, the more you will dig your heels in. Human nature to construct all kinds of rationalizations, etc. So yes, I do think the rhetoric has been heating up. Part of this is intentional for political reasons from those who don't like the implications of trying to decrease oil usage, etc. But some is genuine. The problem is that we paint with this broaud brush, so anyone who questions human causes for climate change or climate change itself is deemed an irrational religious conservatives, or anti-science/delusional.

Personally I'm not expert but generally believe the consensus that we are causing these issues. The problem is there's a logical reason to be sceptical even of consensus. There are political and social reasons that people come to consensus and the scientific community isn't immune to group-think. Once something has become accepted, challenging that acceptence is extremely difficult no matter how good the argument is. The majority usually finds ways of attacking challenges and making up things to account for exceptions. One example of this is in nutritional science where you have "paradoxes" that try to explain away anomolies that don't fit the prevailing paradyme.

Since there's a decent contingent who believe we're basically going to destroy the planet if we don't make radical changes yesterday, it's doubly hard to keep a cool head and try to discuss things deliberately and patiently. For those people it's kind of damned if you do, damned if you don't - if you do, you'll alienate a lot more sceptics who might have otherwise been converted, but if you don't, you'll waste yet more time and really seal our doom!

I actually think Obama is tackling it in a pragmatic and potentially most effective way by changing the debate around and emphasizing less polution and more clean air, etc. Apparently polution is a lot less controversial these days and people are much more apt to make sacrifices to avoid it than they are for some theoretical (albeit with convincing science behind it) doom 30-100 years out...

Posted by: dvdmon | February 16, 2011 12:09 PM | Report abuse

I was in my Geography lecture the other day and my professor raised an interesting and extremely valid point about this climate change topic. He said that a large majority of the climate change going on these days is natural. He also said that we should be far less worried about warming too much and the sea level rise than we should about the coming of another Ice Age.

The FACT is that we are statistically overdue for another Ice Age. Historical numbers show this. An Ice Age has TYPICALLY occurred about every 8 to 10 thousand years. The last Ice Age occurred about 12 thousand years ago, which means we are well overdue for another one. Considering the amount of population we have and the amount of agriculture we rely on, another Ice Age would be CRIPPLING to our needs. Considering this, he said we are far more equipped to deal with a warming of the temperature, except for those of us with waterfront properties. Yes, we'll lose that property but we will not lose agriculture that is CRITICAL to our everyday lives.

The far more concerning thing, also, is that an Ice Age would only take 2 weeks to set in. The point is that warming temperatures are much more gradual than what another Ice Age would bring. That and we're not even sure what would set off an Ice Age. It could happen very quickly.

Yes, there are some people out there who will view this point as extreme, and that I'm ignoring the facts that the temperature is warming. However, this point is extremely well supported by science and is far more concerning than losing a bit of waterfront property.

Posted by: tengoalyrunr30 | February 16, 2011 12:25 PM | Report abuse

Appreciate the three of you already going in-depth, diving in, and giving some feedback. Jason expertly gathering this into a succinct blog post, in my opinion! Glad it prompted you all to react and give us your thoughts.

Posted by: Camden-CapitalWeatherGang | February 16, 2011 12:34 PM | Report abuse

"He said that a large majority of the climate change going on these days is natural.

did he explain why he thought that was the case. that's certainly NOT the consensus view among scientists in general or among climate scientists in particular.

how can you say this?

"an Ice Age would only take 2 weeks to set in."

and then say this?

"we're not even sure what would set off an Ice Age."

Posted by: walter-in-fallschurch | February 16, 2011 1:19 PM | Report abuse

I recently found two examples of labels.
1) BBC Radio 4’s The Moral Maze compared
climate change deniers with pedophiles.

2)Prof Beddington “climate sceptics” the equivalent of Holocaust deniers and paedophiles, but also of gay-bashers and racists.

Posted by: system317 | February 16, 2011 1:19 PM | Report abuse


he said that statistics have shown that only 35% of climate change was caused by humans. yes, thats a large number, but it is not the majority. i do believe that there are steps we can take to reduce our impact on the global temperature of the earth... but it's important to know how much we can do that. i'm not sure what his source is... but it's definitely believable... don't forget what greenland was like when it was first discovered... quite green.

what i meant by we're not sure how much it would take to produce another ice age is this - how MUCH of a temperature variation would it take to... let's use this example... cause the algae buildup in the ocean to be too much and then the atmosphere gets out of whack and we have another ice age. OR what kind of temperature rise would it take to shut down the thermohaline circulation in the ocean and then have no movement in the ocean whatsoever, causing absolutely ridiculous air patterns that we've never seen before (e.g. constant storms in the tropics, nothing but calm conditions in the midlatitudes, etc).

Posted by: tengoalyrunr30 | February 16, 2011 1:50 PM | Report abuse

James Delinpole has just written a column trying to justify the term "econazis" and claiming that a Nazi came up with the idea of global warming. Since calculations about the effect of carbon dioxide on global temperature have been done for over a century, the latter point is nonsense.

My point in raising this is that there are loud jerks on both sides. Some of the loud jerks are still worth listening to and some aren't.

I find that the term "sceptics" is not appropriate to many of the more ardent opponents of the idea of anthropogenic global warming.
Many tend not to be skeptical about any idea that would argue against anthropogenic global warming.

I also find the term "alarmist" obnoxious.
If you don't like the term "denier", don't use "alarmist".

People will use labels, but we need to recognize that labels are not even a good way to judge a person's viewpoint, let alone the person. I think we all know people for instance who make occasional comments I would consider racist, but who treat individuals without any prejudice.

I like Jason's labels as well as any and his 4 questions are a decent way to classify viewpoints, if we must. I would answer them: Obviously, probably, possibly, probably.

Posted by: Dadmeister | February 16, 2011 1:56 PM | Report abuse

are you familiar with this website?

he undertakes to explore all the standard skeptic arguments, like "the warming is natural" etc...

it's curious to me that he was able to say "35%" man-made. wonder where he got that idea? anyone know?

he also addresses ice ages there.

Posted by: walter-in-fallschurch | February 16, 2011 2:32 PM | Report abuse

i'm still wondering from whence your teacher pulled that 35% figure.

if not us, what does he think is causing the other 65%? the sun? cosmic rays? does he think the co2 rise is natural?

Posted by: walter-in-fallschurch | February 16, 2011 2:49 PM | Report abuse

@walter-in-fallschurch: i'm definitely interested as to where he got the 35% figure from. In terms of the other 65% I think where he is coming from is the natural cycles of the earth (e.g. warm period from 7th-9th century, cooler period 13th-15th century). That's what I think, but I'm not 100% sure. I might talk to him about it some more just to see where he's getting his ideas from.

I'm still concerned though by the Ice Age question. It's extremely worrisome that as much as 50-60% of the agricultural capacity of the Earth would be lost within one year of the Ice Age starting. To me, that's more concerning than losing that shoreline. Yes, obviously increased warming is a problem, don't get me wrong, but I'm wondering why this Ice Age possibility hasn't really been brought up that much. I've been kind of tossing that one around over the past two weeks or so, and figured this was definitely a good forum to bring it up in.

Posted by: tengoalyrunr30 | February 16, 2011 3:01 PM | Report abuse

maybe the erroneous 35% figure came from here?:

The skeptic argument...

CO2 only causes 35% of global warming. CO2 does not account for even a majority of the warming seen over the past century. If other species accounted for 65% of historical warming that leaves only 35% for carbon dioxide. (Doug Hoffman)

What the science says...

The Nature commentary by Penner et al. on which this argument is based actually says that on top of the global warming caused by carbon dioxide, other short-lived pollutants (such as methane and black carbon) cause an additional warming approximately 65% as much as CO2, and other short-lived pollutants (such as aerosols) also cause some cooling. However, claiming that CO2 has only caused 35% of global warming is a gross misinterpretation and misunderstanding of the paper.

it's false argument #146;

Posted by: walter-in-fallschurch | February 16, 2011 3:57 PM | Report abuse

Ice ages are thought to be caused by changes in the orbit of the earth, something that man has no control over. Carbon dioxide is something that man at least theoretically could control the production of. Climate models also indicate such strong warming in the future as to overwhelm the forcing that causes ice ages.

I would expect ice ages to develop gradually compared to the pace of anthropogenic warming.

Posted by: Dadmeister | February 16, 2011 4:04 PM | Report abuse

so that "nature" paper is not saying humans have only caused 35% of the warming and that 65% is natural.

but i can see how reading the "65% additional warming" from other (i.e., non-co2) sources could be misconstrued - especially after being "passed around" a few times (like a phrase in that game "telephone").

Posted by: walter-in-fallschurch | February 16, 2011 4:10 PM | Report abuse

The spectrum needs an additional category beyond unconvinced: UNCONVINCABLE

As I've commented in the past, I'd label skeptics (based on science considerations) as unconvinced, and deniers (science doesn't matter) as unconvincable

Posted by: SteveT-CapitalWeatherGang | February 16, 2011 4:42 PM | Report abuse

It's not clear to me that labels are very useful, regardless of how carefully selected they may be. You touched on this when you stated that people's beliefs may be simple or complicated. A well informed understanding of climate change is necessarily going to be complex and label-defying.

Personally, I think the main problem in the discussion is that we're being asked to make what are some very important political and economic decisions--but the science that we have is still in its early stages. It really shouldn't be an argument about whether climate science is right or wrong, but whether it's mature enough to drive these kinds of decisions. Or maybe it would be better to phrase it: How do we best use climate science, given its current level of maturity?

Posted by: ElJocko | February 16, 2011 5:17 PM | Report abuse

A question for the author -

Do you think it would also be appropriate to apply the "convinced/unconvinced" filter to the following scientific issues:

- evolution
- cancer/epidemiology (e.g., cigarettes, dioxins)
- contraception/disease prevention
- water toxicity/birth defects
- air pollution/lung disease


If you answered "no" to any of the above, then your classification system is useless, as it can not be replicated. This is the rule of science, and you can't allow people to dismiss established science simply because they're not "convinced." If you did, you would enable all kinds of chicanery - in fact, reporters like you do this every single day, and the result? All kinds of chicanery.

My view is that the media is scrambling on this one, not because there's a real question about the science, but because the science denier movement, funded as it is by deep-pocketed oil and coal interests, understands how thin-skinned most reporters are, and works the refs accordingly.

I hope that some day reporters will wake up and realize that their insistence on reporting "both sides" of an issue is a destructive act, to wit, "Some people say that driving drunk is dangerous; others, who have never been in or seen a deadly accident, disagree."

Jay Rosen nails this one:

Posted by: mateosf | February 16, 2011 5:44 PM | Report abuse


As a practical matter for simply classifying people's beliefs (irrespective of their legitimacy), I think it could work for any issue. But, make no mistake, I'm not equating beliefs with truth and understand your perspective.

Posted by: Jason-CapitalWeatherGang | February 16, 2011 6:58 PM | Report abuse

SteveT-CapitalWeatherGang wrote, " The spectrum needs an additional category beyond unconvinced: UNCONVINCABLE

As I've commented in the past, I'd label skeptics (based on science considerations) as unconvinced, and deniers (science doesn't matter) as unconvincable "

You are still missing a category.

What about the people who will continue to believe in catastrophic, man made, global warming regardless of all contrary evidence? Shouldn't they have their own category as well?

From my perspective, there are quite a few people whose faith can not be shaken. What shall we call them?

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | February 16, 2011 7:08 PM | Report abuse

What has turned many people into skeptics is the shrill desperation on the part of the self proclaimed experts.

They seek to demonize/marginalize anyone who dares to question their views, or has the nerve to point out earlier failed predictions.

Posted by: frontieradjust | February 16, 2011 7:11 PM | Report abuse

Jason, All,
I think this is a terrific discussion and topic. As I was the moderator at the Seattle AMS forum on communication I do have a few observations and yes a suggestion of my own. First, is the topic "climate change debate" about science, politics, economy, religion, personal baggage, peer competition, all of the above or many many more issues and "categories?" Science and scientists? We are "skeptics" - period. Nothing wrong with that word. Is Pat Michael a skeptic? i think so. Is Jim Hansen a skeptic I hope so. That's what what science does best. Find the biggest rock. . .don't wait for it to move walk around and see what's on the other side. Politics, faith, economy (more world $$ to "save the Earth" or to adapt to what we have done?) personal agendas and baggage. Pick a word. Let's stop searching for categories and words that might only polarize more. What are our common goals as human beings?

Bob Ryan

Posted by: rtryan1 | February 16, 2011 7:42 PM | Report abuse

Walter and tengoalyrunr30, I think you've both managed to turn a more general legitimate label into the "35 percenters" (implying an urban legend). There are a large group of skeptics who believe that a lot of warming is natural. For example, back in 1998 when I had researched the topic for a few years, it was obvious to me that the 1998 spike was mostly natural. At the time it was speculated that there would be more El Ninos and that warming was accelerating. I thought the warming was mostly natural with a slow underlying boost from CO2. More than a decade later, I believe that natural and mannmade warming are still difficult to separate out although I am a bit stronger believer in CO2 warming that I was.

Would I use a number like 35%? No scientist would use a number like that, it cannot be substantiated. It would also be very context dependent. It is better to fall back on a label like Jason's (or maybe a bit more complex): that a small warming from CO2 is inevitable from the radiation physics. An extra warming from water vapor feedback specifically from that CO2 warming is possible although that is natural feedback, which can be undone by natural processes. Cyclical warming is also more evident now that the extra El Nino's of the 90's seem to have turned into a "normal" ratio of El Ninos.

Posted by: eric654 | February 16, 2011 8:32 PM | Report abuse

Bob, I totally agree with you in principle, but the notion of "what are our common goals as human beings" speaks to idealism, not to a significant subset of human beings in the real world.

The debate on climate change should be restricted to current and future science based evidence, understanding, and prediction with associated levels of uncertainty (which will never be zero).

Just as daily weather and weather forecasts have value only to the extent they are a factor in making weather dependent decisions, the same is true for climate. The primary difference is that climate is significantly more important (at lest prominent) in national-level policy decisions. And there's the rub.

I contend that policy decisions should be based on science, only. For this I feel it's important to identify (categorize) who speaks responsibly as a science based skeptic from those who are "unconvincable" - whether denying or convinced with total unwavering certainty concerning the existence of climate change and the possible contributions thereto of human activities.

Posted by: SteveT-CapitalWeatherGang | February 16, 2011 8:55 PM | Report abuse

hhmmm... the urban legend zone. that's where most "skeptics" (scare quotes intentional) live - flitting from the latest distortion to the next (but i love my in-laws and wouldn't trade them for anything).

every "argument" on john cook's skeptical science page could be considered an urban legend.

Posted by: walter-in-fallschurch | February 16, 2011 10:00 PM | Report abuse

Convinced and unconvinced is not sufficient.

Although it is right that the labels as currently used are derogatory and inaccurate. In my case I believe that the climate is changing but the change is not CO2 driven. Looking at graphs that show thermal maximums and ice ages, there is a trend that show that the most recent thermal maximum was warmer than the previous one and so on. In other words the return from the last Ice Age to the forthcoming thermal maximum should bring us to record global warming naturally.

But on top of the the swing from Ice Age to Thermal Max, I believe the climate is made crazy mainly by the loss of the forests or the loss of the absorption side of the hydrologic and carbon cycles, and not mainly from the increase in the emission side. Deforestation is certainly a human activity. Surely one cannot argue that the loss of the forests have nothing to do with what is going on with the weather.

Now, rather than pointing to the emission side of the carbon cycle, we should point our finger to the hydrologic cycle instead. This is because with deforestation, there will be hydrologic cycle acceleration that will also bring about warming of the atmosphere following the resulting increase in the quantity of water vapor in the atmosphere. Hydrologic cycle acceleration result directly from the loss of the forests.

How should one who believes in climate change as being caused mainly by deforestation be classified, while at the same time is unconvinced that the changing climate is driven by the increase in the levels of CO2?

Ok to having friendly categories that will usher in a very lucid discussion over the complexities of the climate of our planet. But convinced and unconvinced are too simplistic.

Posted by: pinoythinker | February 16, 2011 10:06 PM | Report abuse

eric, you said,
"Would I use a number like 35%? No scientist would use a number like that, it cannot be substantiated."

that's the beauty of it. it's like, if you're gonna tell a lie, add some good details. "it's a natural cycle" seems popular lately. it has replaced "it's the sun" as the #1 (false) argument.

isn't there something like 90% confidence that "most" of the post-1900 warming is "man-made"? what % would YOU attribute to humans? what are the supposed "natural" causes?

Posted by: walter-in-fallschurch | February 16, 2011 10:49 PM | Report abuse

Huge swings in extreme weather? 100 year floods every 5-6 years? Bigger hurricane, longer droughts? Increases in extreme weather is the prediction of the models.

Believe what you want. Physics and Chemistry doesn't care. Above 350 ppm CO2 in the atmosphere and The Change is coming.

Or we can pray.

Posted by: thebobbob | February 17, 2011 12:15 AM | Report abuse

Probably any way you can get to a reason dialog is a good idea, and have less divisive labels couldn't hurt. What should the label be for people who know better deliberately obfuscating the facts in order to further their position. Case in point the original person who twisted the statement in the Nature paper to say something it didn't. There is a certain faction that will do these sorts of tricks and cherry pick data in such a way that there seems to be some "scienceiness" to their arguments. What is worse someone like a geography teacher professor could pick up on it not realize the deception and pass the misinformation on to students.

Posted by: sgustaf1 | February 17, 2011 5:22 AM | Report abuse

Hi Walter, I think we are getting somewhere: I agree that the way 35% or other arguments get promulgated, they become urban legend. A backyard fence is probably not greatest way to impart scientific knowledge. That's why I would only rate full papers with reasoning and references.

pinoythinker, the hydrological cycle will be decelerated, not accelerated by a decrease in forests. That's because forests transpire more moisture into the air. Without forests there is less moisture in the air, less soil moisture (which is cooling), etc. Without forests, the world will be hotter and drier (all other things being equal). A related point is that the hydrological cycle leads to cooling, so any acceleration in the hydrological cycle will be cooling (again with all other things staying the same)

Back to Walter, you asked "isn't there something like 90% confidence that "most" of the post-1900 warming is "man-made"? what % would YOU attribute to humans? what are the supposed "natural" causes?"

The answer by techniques is divide and conquer. For example they show that the TSI didn't increased enough to account for 20th century warming. Then they show that solar magnetic increases didn't account for 20th century warming. Then they show that PDO is not enough to cause 20th century warming. They have an occasional post where they "add" these various effects, but in those posts they always make sure to add in some cooling from aerosols or other stuff "just to be complete". But the fact is remains that every single measurement of natural warming causes increased in the 90's (and other decades to lesser extents). That's why we saw a big warmup in the 90's. Call it 90% natural if you really want a number.

But there is always going to be warming from increased CO2 which is perhaps 95% manmade (some would argue 100%, but if man were not around, there would have been a natural rise in CO2 over the last century). That increase in CO2 causes warming as shown by fairly simple line-by-line models of the atmosphere.

So the trick at skepticalscience is to show long term trends and try to imply that feedbacks are part of that. But long term trending really can only be used on the slow small CO2 increase (0.2 to 0.5C so far). Every bit of the rest of the warming is natural whether one chooses to call it "feedback" or not. Meaning it will or won't happen depending on natural factors. Nature giveth and nature taketh.

Posted by: eric654 | February 17, 2011 6:11 AM | Report abuse

Forgot to add: the flip side to my argument about the 90's is that in the 00's, especially the late 00's, nature is trying to cool the world, so the bit of warming we have seen is 100% man made. You might then argue that skepticalscience is correct in looking for long term trends (adding the mostly natural warming of the 90's to the almost all man made recent warming). But the only way to understand how natural causes and natural feedbacks work is to study each time period in detail. A 30 year trend tells us nothing about the next 30 years.

Posted by: eric654 | February 17, 2011 6:31 AM | Report abuse

in your first reply, your estimate or the 90s is 90% natural?! and for the 00s it's 100& man-made?

Posted by: walter-in-fallschurch | February 17, 2011 7:44 AM | Report abuse

Walter, correct, although a little extreme to make a point. Probably should have said 0.1 man made, 0.2 natural for the 90's and 0.1 man made for the 00's (no net natural).

Posted by: eric654 | February 17, 2011 8:30 AM | Report abuse

It would seem to me labeling is akin to profiling. It allows us to put people in convenient categories where they can selectively be ignored or amplified according to our own biases.

It is an attempt to make the debate "easy." Given the history of similar debates (evolution?) they are never easy, cannot be made easy, and don't benefit from being easy.

While de-binning, de-jargoning, and de-ranting the labels and replacing them with a dial-an-epithet vernier may possibly be more polite, it doesn't appear to me to inform the debate any more effectively.

Posted by: cawpost | February 17, 2011 9:07 AM | Report abuse

People are slow reacting to a problem that has failed to make a difference in their life.

If it could be determined that there are multiple extreme. unprecedented weather disasters taking place, clearly related to global warming, people might be willing to take significant action.

But that doesn't seem to be happening. The weather has pretty much stayed within the bounds of earlier historic extremes.

Until something happens that has never happened before, people will remain unconvinced,

Posted by: frontieradjust | February 17, 2011 11:05 PM | Report abuse

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