Monday, March 30, 2015

The collapse of the shale bubble: does it bring also the collapse of climate denial?

The Western press has been engaged in a major PR campaign destined to convince the public that Climate Change does not exist or it is not human-made. Perhaps this campaign could end soon, together with the collapse of the shale oil and gas bubble in the US 

So, we have now a presidential candidate in the US who explicitly denies the human role in climate change (and compares himself to Galileo for doing that!). He is not alone, a majority in the US senate seem to take the same position. Also, the public in the US, by far and large, seem to be less inclined to see climate change as a serious problem than the public in every major country in the world (image below from Ecowatch.

Are Americans more stupid than the rest of the world? Probably not; on the contrary, the US has one of the highest literacy rates in the world, just as it has the best universities, the largest number of scientists, the largest number of Nobel prizes, and more. But then, why do Americans deny so strongly the human role in climate change? The favored explanation that can be read on the web is that it is due to cultural factors and, in particular, to a diffuse "anti-intellectualism" in the American culture.

That might be, but an entity such as "anti-intellectualism" is hard to define and one could argue for it being present in many other countries. I think we should look for something else. One element that we may examine is that the disbelief in the human role in climate change has a starting date: look at this image (from Gallup)

You see the remarkable dip in the belief in anthropogenic climate change that occurred approximately between 2007 and 2010. So, what happened that caused such an effect? Likely, one important factor was the 2009 "climategate" story, the diffusion of stolen e-mails exchanged among climate scientists. We may also see another, smaller, drop in 2013-2014 that might be related to the meme of "climate change has stopped" that started to be diffused in late 2012. But neither story, alone, is enough to justify such a major effect. Both had to be promoted and diffused in the media to have an impact. The real cause of the changing public perception is how both stories were managed as part of an anti-science public relations (PR) campaign. 

But, then, why is it anti-science PR so much more important in the US than it is in the rest of the world? Here I think that we can find an interesting correlation with some economic factors. The PR storm that attacked climate science goes in parallel with the development of the America shale oil and shale gas industry which grew to become a major component of the US hydrocarbon production in little more than ten years.

Bubbles grow on belief, and belief is the result of successful PR campaigns. It was PR that, for a while, managed to generate powerful memes such as the US "energy independence" or "a century of abundance" of shale gas. The main pitch for the shale industry came with the period of fastest growing production; approximately starting in 2005. As the industry grew, the public perception of the climate problem went down.

It is well known that PR works best when it is question of demonizing an adversary and it is no surprise that it was used in this way by the fossil industry. One target was their main competitor: renewable energy. But much more damaging to the shale bubble was climate science and the concept of "unburnable carbon." If ever this idea were to take hold of the law making process, then, it would have been the end of the legend of "a century of abundance". Hence, climate science and climate scientists were a legitimate target of the PR campaign by the fossil industry.

The toxic legacy of this anti-science campaign has left a deep impression on the American public. The "anti-intellectualism" that some people claim to be a cause of the skepticism of the public about the climate problem may actually be an effect of this campaign.

Now, with the collapse of the oil market, it is likely that we'll see the bursting of the shale bubble. Prices may recover, at least in part, but never again the industry will be able to regain the past momentum and to speak of "centuries of abundance" to come. So, in parallel, are we going to see the end of the anti-science PR campaign? Will climate science denial collapse together with the shale industry? Maybe not right away; the effects of these campaigns are often long lasting. But, at least, from now on, they'll have less and less money to use to spread lies around (*).

* Unless some other lie can be found


  1. What if the primary forcing effects are "natural", whereas human activity is incremental?

    What about the Gleissberg/Suess/de Vries cycles? Sunspots? Solar magnetic and solar winds? Underwater volcanoes?

    What about the effects of population overshoot?

    Will not the cumulative effects of Peak Oil, overshoot, loss of arable land and topsoil, water, forests, and fisheries, and LTG overwhelm civilization long before climate effects do?

    Why is the topic rarely, if ever, discussed in a nuanced manner to consider as many factors as possible?

    What if the presumed effects of climate change, i.e., warming or whichever, can't be reversed?

    What if the climatological effects are primarily "natural" and can't be altered, only adapted to?

    The vast majority of people don't understand Peak Oil, overpopulation remains one of the last taboos, and LTG are still largely considered to have been disproven, even as the World3's BAU scenario continues to track closely and the effects bear down on us globally. If the vast majority of people don't understand Peak Oil, carrying capacity, and LTG, how can they possibly understand the complexity of atmospheric and ocean forcing mechanisms?

    1. Anon:
      I remember an article years ago in a car magazine that was reviewing some supposed "kits" that you could buy to give your car more horsepower, better fuel economy and better emission performance. As I recall the kits were being sold for $25 or $50.
      The response of the magazine staff was "What do you think the automotive engineers have been doing in between coffee breaks?"

      So my question to you is;"What do you think climate scientists have been doing in between coffee breaks?" Are you imagining that thousands of scientists in hundreds of countries have missed something, or many things, that you can conjure up in a few minutes without experience, training or decades of hard work?

      Assuming of course that you are not a climate scientist but just your average citizen who cares deeply to understand the truth of the matter.

    2. "Assuming of course that you are not a climate scientist but just your average citizen who cares deeply to understand the truth of the matter."

      Is one permitted to be a scientist and an average citizen who deeply cares? :-D

  2. Climatologists study the natural forcings in order to be able to quantify the anthropogenic contribution. The current best estimate (from AR5) is that man is responsible for just over 100% of the warming seen in the last fifty years.

    Think about it - if you've heard of a forcing, or any phenomenon in climate science, it's because climate scientists have studied it.

    As an example, underwater volcanoes produce less than 1% of the CO2 which comes from human activities. Solar activity has been on a cooling trend since the 1970s. The risks from other forms of environmental degradation are looked at if they might interact with the climate.

    The reason why the climate 'debate' is a bit primitive and, frankly, stupid, is because of the expensive PR campaign described above. If you're not happy with the information you're getting, blame the Koch brothers, or the media outlets that carry their lies.

  3. The "best universities" are increasingly staffed with foreigners, who also make up the bulk of grad students in science and engineering. The science taught in the typical US high school is pathetic and risible. The scientific literacy of the average American is abysmal.

    1. AA, you should see how bad the situation is elsewhere!

  4. I wonder if things would have really ended up much different, even without the massive PR campaign by the FF industry. Bill Gates appears to know the damage being down by AGW, yet he still invests heavily in FF:

    Obama appears to know the damage being done by AGW, yet his environmental record is arguably worse than that of his predecessor:

    Nearly all world leaders appear to know the damage being done by AGW, yet no meaningful action has ever been instituted through any UN climate change summit in 23 years:

    In fact, we followed the projections of 'The Limits to Growth' to a T for the last 4 decades:

    And the FF industry is still at it, "quietly building a network that dwarfs Keystone"

    I think there are complex civilizational systems running the show that no one has any control over.

  5. Ugo
    You provide a valuable service.

    It is sad of course to see my country GB down there and dirty with USA.
    Having said that, those of us here who are not readers of the Daily Express and only see their headline on the rack in the shop, know that the D Express is wrong on everything, frequently including shock headlines of impending extreme storms and wonder drugs that never quite match up! All my longish life the DE has had a hard time admitting the loss of the British Empire - even the military bases handed over to the Americans after WWII.
    The centre-right D Telegraph (the most read paper by a large fraction of social class AB) and the right-wing D Express and D Mail which are read by C1 & C2, perhaps should be viewed more seriously. They have also propagated climate change denial. Last year, however, the D Telegraph and D Mail (the latter a platform for years of vicious CC denial) retracted some of their denial; see

    A recent survey of British attitudes shows public concern for climate change ranking well down on immediate public issues, and CC appears to only 15% of respondents as a concern for the next 20 years. However, 88% of the public think world climate is changing and only 11% of those think that change is due entirely to natural causes. Britain appears 'laid back' rather than in denial, but there again I remember people here were pretty laid back at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis!

    GB shares a tradition of "anti-intellectualism" with the USA, but I guess that our tradition is not any worse here recently because of PR campaigns against climate science. We certainly, however, get the backwash from all kinds of American propaganda, and it has very seriously affected public perception of medical science - to the point where I personally know of more than a few persons with serious conditions who have died much sooner than otherwise because of their inability to resolve the cognitive dissonance they have absorbed. Medical science is a gigantic and highly variegated field and inherently in my opinion suffers over many key serious issues even more from methodological gaps and uncertainties than climate science. Except of course the final 'medical' outcome for the individual is well known without any science. Smile.


    1. Hi, Phil, as you noticed, English speaking countries are those most affected by the Koch machine. The advantage, in Italy, is that most people are impervious to propaganda written in English. Another good way to avoid that, would be to be totally illiterate!

    2. Hi Ugo
      Yes indeed!
      Or we could forget English and learn Chinese? The people there seem better educated. Sadly, that is not enough, if collectively the Chinese middle-class cannot get away from their itch to own motor cars and acquire a serious grip on their oligarchs and learn to stop poisoning their wonderful soil.
      Meanwhile I turn off my TV - the images speak more loudly than words - and I can think more clearly about the passing of empires.

    3. Ugo
      A post-script.
      Why do I find this from the estimable Tom Murphy so depressing?
      And it does not even reach Climate Change, although other limits such as resource extraction get a look-in.
      OK, its America - but these are scientists?
      How is my imagination filled by a different list of questions?


  6. Here's another candidate for "American Exceptionalism" in this regard:

    One of the components of USAmerican intellectual life is wide-spread Biblical fundamentalism, adhering to a 'literal' interpretation of scripture. This builds on the more general 'Puritan' heritage enshrined in the greater culture.

    In this tradition, science must be brought into conformance with literal readings of holy writ. Ergo, great efforts are expended to conform most fields of science with the short time-table of Creationist thinking. While attempting to sport the trappings of scientific debate, they more or less dispense with scientific method.

    As with the Catholic opposition to scientific developments of the Renaissance, I see the movement not so much as anti-intellectual, or even anti-science, per se. Rather it is the subordination of intellect and quasi-scientific reasoning to religious ends. That it has those anti- consequences seems secondary, to me.

    Nevertheless, in the resulting culture wars - formerly in Europe and ongoing in the US - both the institutions of education and the media are prime battlegrounds.

    While the oil industry's PR is largely secular, it enjoys the free ride from religious agendas, and targets audiences left ambivalent and with impaired abilities to evaluate climate (or any other) science on its merits.

    Against that background, in terms of the years of declining credence in anthropogenic climate change, we also see a simultaneous rise of the USAmerican Tea Party, with its entourage of fundamentalist literalisms, and willingness to legislate its values. My guess is that, if you chart the Tea Party's fortunes against the credence graph, you'll find its trajectory to be inversely proportional.

    Hopefully, at least that strident influence is on the wane!

    Dave Z

  7. Wonderful speculation, but saying doesn't make it so. This certainly isn't the first industry boom, and it can't be said that normal parts of an industry business cycle have much to do with PR campaigns without proof of that particular PR campaign. Certainly during the bust of 1986 no one was claiming that the lack of buy in by the american public to the claims of global cooling of the 70's was diminishing because of a PR campaign, until the scientist changing their minds is now to be confused with a PR campaign.

  8. Ugo,

    You need to recheck your sources regarding the paragraph on the literacy level in America. First of all a read of Morris Berman and Chris Hedges completely disputes your data.

    And here just for you from the Daily Impact blog/website.

    2. Stupid People

    1) According to the Pew Research Center, onl y 35% of Americans think climate change is a “very serious” problem, and that’s down 10% from one year ago.

    2 ) American “millennials” — those born since 1980 — when tested and compared with those of 23 other countries, came in 17th for literacy. For problem-solving with technology they were in a four-way tie for last place (with the Slovak Republic, Poland and Ireland). And — whoa! — for numeracy they achieved a three-way tie for last place. They were tested by the Education Testing Service, largest in the world. And in this test “literacy” did not mean familiarity with the classics, it meant “the ability to understand and follow simple instructions.” Similarly, numeracy had nothing to do with calculus and more to do with the ability to make change.

    3) In the 2014 national elections, just over one in three of the American who were eligible to vote, did so. The lowest turnout since World War II. How stupid is that? And who is to blame for that?

    1. Phil, literacy is clearly in decadence everywhere in the Empire. Literacy is expensive, it is a great effort that was attempted starting about one century ago, but that now is declining - we can't afford it any longer.

      My point is, anyway, that literacy in the US is not in worse shape (or perhaps not in much worse shape) than anywhere else in the Western Empire. Literacy is declining everywhere and perhaps the US still has enough financial resources to maintain it a little longer, while the remote provinces are abandoned.

      So, the idea of my post is why the US people are so much more confused about climate science than other people belonging to the same cultural area? I don't think there is a difference in literacy large enough to justify this difference.

      BTW: belief in AGW doesn't tie with scientific literacy. The work by Dan Kahan shows that it ties mostly with political beliefs. Scientifically literate people have intellectual tools allowing them to select data and interpretations fitting with their political beliefs



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)