Cassandra has moved. Ugo Bardi publishes now on a new site called "The Seneca Effect."

Friday, December 20, 2019

Why we are Running Toward the Cliff at Full Speed: One of the Reasons is that People Never Change their Mind.

Below, you'll find a report on a televised debate on climate change of a few days ago, in Italy, in which I participated. Probably, you won't be familiar with some of the names and the events mentioned, yet, I thought you might found this story interesting enough to be reported in English. After all, there have to be reasons why the famous letter of the 500 (so-called) scientists who claimed to refute climate science had its origins in Italy. What the reasons for the strength of the anti-science movement in Italy is difficult to say, but it is true that Italians tend to be a little extreme when they debate. The story below is surely a good example of that. But it was interesting and, in a certain sense, even fun. The same kind of fun you have when you watch a horror movie. The difference is that, here, the characters were real people. Here is the story, translated and slightly adapted from my Italian blog. (UB). 

Years ago, one of my acquaintances told me the story of when he had ended up in jail accused of various financial crimes (but it was a political trap - I'm sure). He told me that he had a very interesting experience: among other things, in Sollicciano (the penitentiary of Florence) the inmates make excellent cheese.

Now, I don't know if I'd like to go to jail just for the sake of an experience - or maybe for some cheese. But maybe I had in mind something like that when, a few days ago, I agreed to participate in a televised debate in a TV program called "Byoblu" conducted by Claudio Messora.
You can find the registration here (in Italian). I think it can be seen as an illustration of something that Benito Mussolini said long ago, "Many enemies, much honor" (molti nemici, molto onore). In English, you might say: "it is good to be surrounded, now we can counterattack in all directions!"

In the debate, I certainly was surrounded by many enemies: a nice selection of representatives of the Italian anti-science: Franco Battaglia, Uberto Crescenti, and Enzo Pennetta. And that makes three against one. In addition, the conductor showed an old clip of the Nobel prize Carlo Rubbia where he engages in a rant against climate science (and that makes four against one). The moderator, Messora, was clearly biased, too, often using terms such as "catastrophists" and "alarmists", but his associate who collaborated in the moderation, was anti-science in a truly shameful way. There was also my colleague Marco Rosa-Clot, who is a serious and competent person, but who is not convinced of the human effect on climate. So he was not really an ally. In short, 6 against 1.

How did I get into that? I don't know - maybe I imagined myself being a samurai in a movie who takes out five or six enemies, one after the other, with a series of sword strokes. That turned out to be not so easy for me. Anyway, let me tell you how it went.

So, first of all, it wasn't difficult to manage Crescenti - a geologist with good academic credentials but with zero understanding of climate science. I was sorry to make him look like a grumpy old man who complains about everything, but that is his level.

As for Pennetta, he is someone interested in esotericism, UFOs and stuff like that, occasionally trying to criticize climate science. Let's say that it is not the sharpest knife in the drawer. Here, he literally put his head on the block in front of me, making the mistake of attacking me on a field in which he is not familiar, that of the pretended "wrong predictions of the Club of Rome." He ended up mangled by his own crap.

Then, there was the clip of the Nobel prize Rubbia - the famous one of 2014 in which he strings together a series of climate howlers that could make a wild dog run away in disgust. Here, too, it was fairly easy to manage him by pointing out how he himself had said at the end of the clip that CO2 emissions had to be reduced. My colleague Rosa Clot also gave me a hand on this.

As for Messora's minion, he had the courage to ask me if I was part of an esoteric Gnostic sect that hates humankind (it's true! You can find it in the clip). It didn't help him to win the debate.

And we come to Franco Battaglia. Here, things did not go so well for me. Battaglia was very clever: he knew that if he had used some of his typical climate arguments, such as the "tropospheric hot spot" or the "small candle in the room", I would have torn him to pieces. Instead, he used an intelligent technique, attacking from an unexpected direction. He pulled out a statement by a European politician and asked me if I agreed that 300 billion euros were enough to reduce CO2 emissions by 50% by 2050. And he asked the question with the request "answer yes or no. "

Now, this kind of tactic ("answer yes or no") is often very effective in debates. The user gets to position himself as a leader in the debate and he puts the opponent in difficulty if he falls into the trap. In this case, if I had answered yes, Battaglia would have replied with his usual rigmarole "now let's do some arithmetic" to show me that I was wrong. If I said no, he would have said, "then you agree with me." and onward with the rigmarole.

When confronted with "answer yes or no," the best thing is to react creatively. I could have answered Battaglia with something like, "I will only answer if you promise to answer yes or no to my question" and then ask him if he is paid by the Heartland Institute (this is a big weakness for him). Instead, I must confess that Battaglia took me by surprise. I reacted by counterattacking, and that allowed him to say, gloating, "Bardi refuses to answer." On this exchange, I have to say that he won. It was Rosa Clot who answered the question: he is a solid specialist in photovoltaic energy expert and he quietly demolished Battaglia's arguments. The rest of the debate was not especially interesting. 

Overall, I think I was quite effective, you can see it from the hundreds of angry comments that arrived: all against me and against climate science. It means that I hit hard enough. And now, let's see if we can learn something from this experience.

1. First, the scientific level of climate science critics is abysmally low. If you like to win easy, I suggest you discuss with people like Crescenti or Pennetta. Besides understanding nothing about climate science, they are also scarce as debaters. Think of something like Conan the Barbarian who faces an overweight accountant from Duluth (MN) in a duel.

2. The above is valid only if you can have room to argue and assert your point of view. If the moderator leaves no space for you, it is a different story. Typically, in a televised debate, the moderator can simply cut you off if you don't say the things you are supposed to say. And then you are silenced: it happened to me at least two times in debates on the Italian state TV. So beware: in these things, there are dirty tricks. Not even Conan can win if you give him a cardboard sword and tie his shoestrings together.

3. As I said in other posts, the scientific climate debate has now disappeared. It has completely morphed into a political debate. This means that it doesn't matter whether you can demolish your opponent with scientific arguments, the public will still split into factions depending on their ideological position. This is normal: when one watches a football game, he cheers for his team, not for the team that plays better. And so, have no illusions that you can convince anyone using scientific arguments. 

4. The political debate follows very different rules from the scientific debate. In politics, blows below the belt, insults, personal attacks, lies, half-truths, and the like are allowed. It is total war: you don't use the rapier but the mace. You have to be very careful and be prepared to answer even nasty questions. It is not obvious that someone who is not a politician or a journalist can stand up to the professionals. One tactic successfully used by the Italian climate scientist Stefano Caserini consists of defining strict rules before the debate. But it doesn't always work.

5. A debate of an hour and a half like the one I told you about sucks so much psychic energy that it leaves you dazzled for a couple of hours and it takes a whole day to recover. And don't read the comments you receive, you risk depression. Let's say it's a bit like going to see a horror movie - you're happy when it ends and you feel relieved because it was just fantasy. Except that the people you meet in these debates are real!

And now some final considerations. Is it worth engaging in such debates? Honestly, I'm not sure of the answer. Wouldn't it be better to simply ignore these people? Perhaps yes, certainly for people like Crescenti the principle of sitting by the river applies. But it is also true that people like Franco Battaglia are proving to be very dangerous. Battaglia knows nothing about climate science, but he understands a great deal about how communication works. He is a very intelligent man who uses all the tactics and tricks of the trade and he is very effective, especially with a less experienced and more easily influenced audience. That's his specific target, on this he learned from a true master: Silvio Berlusconi.

The problem is that Battaglia is gaining visibility in Italy as a regular contributor to Nicola Porro's blog on "Il Giornale," a major Italian right-wing newspaper. And that's no good. I believe we should strive to counteract these people in the media, not just on high-quality scientific sites. The debate is becoming tighter and harder: it is all about our survival. We should try to engage more and more directly the forces of the anti-science. 

As a last note, I wanted to thank Claudio Messora for inviting me to this debate. In a sense, he had set up a trap for me, but it is also true that he was honest by telling me first who the other participants were (apart from the gnostic esoterism guy but that, well, it was OK). Then, he promised me that he would give me space in the debate and he did exactly that. And that was good. We remain in good terms with each other and we are discussing about a new debate, one of these days.  


  1. >The debate is becoming tighter and harder: it is all about our survival. We should try to engage more and more directly the forces of the anti-science

    While I understand people engaging in debate like this, I fear the opposite, legitimising stupidity. Imagine if part of the scientific debate over evolution, involved creationism.

    A political debate is one thing, how to fix the problem and having a variety of ideas discussed but if the problem isn't acknowledged there seems little point. Does that mean ceding the high ground to this nonsense ? Well, yes, but look to the recent COP, this is getting WORSE, not better, so what we have been doing so far is going about this the wrong way, as all we're doing is entrenching the stupidity.

    It's like a debate on anti vaccination, all you do is end up with dead people (See Samoa), there is no both sides to that either. You're either pro polio or against it.

    There is no coming back from this (not int he technical sense but in the political sense), we'll collapse society but this is not some comparatively minor spat like WWII, this will truly be apocalyptic, when ? ahhh ... many books to be written about that yet I suspect :)

  2. Since science is around, this has always been a fact: some scientists work to improve mankind's well-being, some scientists strive to develop means of mass destruction (sometimes simultaneously: e.g., nuclear power.)
    If even clever people can't solve the differences between their world views, then what's cleverness (read science) for?
    Maybe it is just another way to keep the tension on (the yin-yang flow, for the esoterics out there), just like politics and religion, until humanity comes to fulfill its purpose.

  3. I've debated a number of skeptics or out right deniers on air. I found it fun but I'm simply an activist with a radio show, Nature Bats Last on PRN.FM.
    Your gravitas from decades of writing that has proven incredibly prescient.
    At the end of the day belief in climate change or gravity are optional, participation mandatory.

  4. Have you ever asked a denialist 'What would it take to change your mind?'

    They can't reply 'nothing' - it would reveal them as a bigot.

    They would find it difficult to give a quantitative answer too. So they simply evade.

    I think it's a useful tactic, but I've only tried it on social media, where they always ignore the question.

    1. Tried many times. Typically, they will say: "I'll change my mind if you can provide proof that CO2 warms the earth." And of course they get to define what such a proof would be. Then, whatever you propose won't be good enough.

  5. You might be able to occasionally win a climate debate battle, but you'll never win the overall war on overshoot. Climate change is just one symptom of overshoot. Overshoot also includes deforestation, desertification, resource depletion, extinction and many other symptoms.

    Neither the political left or right will acknowledge overshoot as it implies the need for a new economic system, finding a sustainable population, and rationing of resources. Furthermore, the beneficiaries on the left and right of the current system will not tolerate meddling with "their" resources or economic system. The politically dispossessed have been the only casualties so far as shown by the rapidly growing wealth disparity in the first world. This will play out exactly as it did for the Romans, Babylonians or Anasazi.

  6. [" Is it worth engaging in such debates? "]

    I think you know the answer to that. There's no other way.
    Surprisingly, not so much to deal with the "Alex-Jones-ification" of the West; that thing is nasty and dangerous, no doubt; but the most effective way to deal with them is by ricochet: The least intelligent and most ignorant among us are best dealt with by the "normals" around them.
    The main reason why such Intellectual carnage needs to occur is to REDUCE the root system of the 'doubt plant' that is seeded every time an individual with a science or engineering background puts out their contention out in the public sphere.
    You may have heard a few bits here and there that some prominent central bankers and other influential people of the financial world have recently started to become a little bit more explicit in their acknowledgment of the climate predicament. The truth is as influential as they might be, any large scale contortion of the system would need to have a critical mass of the majority across all social class of people understanding the 'How' & the 'Why'.

    The intellectual carnage HAS to take place on ALL broadcasting entities by government decree for something like a year, during which all arguments that needs to be crushed has to be crushed. But it will have to be somewhat legally binding; meaning: A trial is occurring here that also happens to be a "fight to the death".

    Not only must the fight take place in an official arena diffused to all by DECREE, because it's result will have to influence subsequent governments for years to come; but the result of it will have to be UNDERSTOOD by all, following reassurances that no commercial or ideological vested interest is motivating the diagnosis.
    For the vulgarization part, the "order of magnitude" demonstration principle should be used with utmost dedication.
    You can explain the motive force of the internal combustion engine to an un-contacted aboriginal tribe by explaining the analogue of steam refrained from escaping any sort of cookware even if the combustion is not the same. You can show them a piston linked to a shaft and they might be floored by the sight of a vehicle, you can reassure them that what makes it move can be reasonably understood by even them.
    Same thing for teaching computers to someone with at least elementary school level math proficiency. A little more tedious, but doable nonetheless. You start by showing them how numbers are expressed. Then how basic computations are made before taking the final jump which is how the "if" can be introduced as a computation. As soon as they understand how the conditionality element can be computed they can grasp at how the whole digital edifice could have come into existence.
    The difference is scale and complexity.

    And finally of course, while they're at it, they should come clean on 'peak oil' and refrain from using that goddamn high fructose corn syrup flavored assclown 'it's-peak-oil-demand-because-non-renewable-renewable-energy-harvesting-technology-is-coming-right-in-the-nick-of-time-for-a-LOL-seamless-transition-that-will-preserve-the-happy-consumer-economy-with-green-growth' slant that's been popping once in a while in the financial news the last few years.

    Mark my words Ugo; if at any time the 'crowd' feels climate change is being used to mask fossil fuels' drastic plunge in EROEI and basically, unambiguous overshoot, the answer to governments request for cooperation will most likely be somewhere between the middle finger and civil war.
    You don't want to fuck with that one. Trust me.

    Tedious and messy ...I know. But do your part, and I'll deal with the Alex Jones crowd of clueless morons, which is also tedious and messy ...

  7. I totally sympathise with you prof, but there are a couple of mistakes we scientists always do:

    1 never never be sarcastic in public debate, sarcasm is synonymous of arrogance. Laymen totally dislike that. People know that scientists were wrong many times, because they were, and being sarcastic or saying something like "I'm having fun listening at you" reinforce the idea that we are fooling them!

    2 never never answer things like "you don't have the authority to ask me this or to say that". The public know that scientists have lied in the past and that will happen again. It's just human. Replies like that just reinforce their mistrust. Plus, not all relevant knowledge is produced by science. Science is just one way to produce knowledge and like other forms is political... always. Bruno Latour docet...

    I'm a former engineer and I'm now an academic working on Science, Technology and Society studies. One of my field most important contribution is that even the most neutral science is not totally apolitical. You can't use 'facts' to convince people, especially when you're trying to undermine your interlocutor authority. Battaglia is the worse... but he had a good point. How do we reduce emissions with a limited budget and with the present technologies? this is a very pertinent question. It points at the fact that we might be in a situation in which it could be maybe easier to mitigate and adapt to climate change instead of simply reducing emissions. This is an important debate that we have to have!

    1. As time goes by, the more that very thought crosses my mind.
      We should take a page from the stunt man's book of trick and learn how to "gracefully" brace for impact...

  8. If you are honest about science then one realizes we are path dependent systematically with multiple problems that combine to be predicaments. I don’t need to repeat them other than to say normally scientist ignore economics which is also a problem with a decline process that means our ability to manage all the other problems will decline and this overall decline will further cause the economics of humans to decline. It is a vicious circle.

    We are carbon trapped so renewables are little more than a short-term techno fix. Our modern greens are very delusional on this subject. We also have the modern greens preaching degrowth that is delusional because systematically globalism must grow or is comes apart. Degrowth will crash the economic system that powers our ability to mitigate the predicament of being path dependent and carbon trapped. We are clearly in a paradigm of decline on all levels. Even intelligence is splintering into unwise areas of noise that actually lower overall intelligence because of the corruption of quality intelligence.

    Behavior is the key and proper behavior accepts we are in a decline process. Proper behavior can be reached through Kubler Roth. Once we are at acceptance than proper behavior can be adapted and then and only then can techno solutions be applied. This also means the destructive change of degrowthing can be embraced. Degrowth means abandonment, dysfunctional, and irrational. Degrowth must be part of the process once behavior has been adapted. Degrowth and techno solutions then are applied in a proactive way to adapt and mitigate to decline once acceptance of failure is reached. This means embracing decline with science and engineering but also education and leadership. This would be like an organized retreat where an army has a flexible withdrawal in force. If we do not get proactive and begin retreat the decline process could become like a disorganized route.

    Of course, the above is just mind games because we are path dependent in the bigger picture. Common agreement is not there. We are in competitive cooperation in the big picture which means we tolerate each other to allow survival but we continue to try to overcome our neighbors. There are no solutions at this level and there can never be with populations at the level it is and with the consumption levels that allow populations to be at this level. This is a duel force preventing mitigation at the highest levels. This then means the only place to find solutions is lower down the chain to where humans scale properly and that is some kind of local and small community.

    This is where people can change and make a difference but of course only in regards to mitigating and adapting to decline that ultimately will lead to collapse. The key to all this is behavior that produces a local wisdom that accepts decline and failure. This then allows a success of sorts that is a local that has increase resilience and sustainability in the face of human and planetary decline. It means getting out of the denial of death on multiple levels from the personal to the community. It means lifeboats of techno solutions and hospices of behavioral changes. The top is gone just as the planet is gone as we once knew it but the local is not. Restoration can be done to the local in the sense that the natural and the human can be strengthened. For a cascading decline process over time frame unknown.

    1. Wise words, but implementing such strategies would probably require a "Pentti Linkola-type" of dictatorship with full support from the military - a combination which will remain unrealistic, at least until the situation becomes clearly dramatic.
      Best regards.

    2. You say in your blog "Renewables show no evidence of having what it takes to replace fossil fuels and maintain the status quo"
      For me, the point is :renewables show full promise to replace fossil fuels in concert with manageable human behaviour change - while still preserving civilized amenities.As Ugo's headline indicates humanity is having trouble recognizing a changed mind leading to changed behaviours (in concert with renewable suite) is mandatory for survival of any civilized amenity.

    3. "Renewables show no evidence of having what it takes to replace fossil fuels and maintain the status quo" Of course, renewable will not maintain the status quo. The status quo is already dead, maybe still kicking a little, but dead. What's at stake, right now, is the survival of something that could be still called a "civilization." And the only thing that could provide that survival is renewable energy.

  9. Well, the status quo is not “manageable human behavior is my point. Technology could do amazing things with the proper behavior but we don’t have the proper behavior. In fact, behavior is devolving not evolving. The proper wisdom should be choosing what knowledge and technology to use and not to use. Wisdom today is corrupted by the reptilian desires for more technology and more comforts with little wisdom that rejects knowledge and technology. A behavior of a toughness of spirit is clearly needed in a time of planetary and human decline. If this were present then applying technology could leverage our abilities to overcome much but only so much. We are clearly in planetary succession so the best one can adapt to is succession not a growing complex ecosystem.

    Renewables are wonderful technology. I have 3600 watt system along with batteries and inverter. I am also downsizing with dignity and collapsing in place. I am doing this relatively speaking because I live in a world of people and place firmly locked in the status quo. I am personally leaving the status quo as best I can when it is realistic and practical. The old saying of don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater is applicable. If I were to waste resources just to get out of a situation of wasting resources what good am I doing? I am starting from the point of view that we are trapped and path dependent meaning we can’t have what we have today without fossil fuels both because of the physics and human behavior. The problem is both behavior and technology which makes it almost unbreakable

    There may be places akin to Byzantium when Rome was falling that may rise to the occasion and be transformed by renewables but I don’t see how this can last very long considering it is global value chains that deliver renewables. Globalism is late stage with an end date that a finite planet will enforce. I am of the point of view that one can be optimistic in the pessimism of failure if one goes local with proper human scaling. The top is gone but the local can be restored and strengthened to buttress local survival in the face of overall failure. That is the best it gets in my view. I wish comfort, long life, and happiness and that can still be possible but only in the realism of a decline with acceptance of pain and suffering on the horizon.

  10. My issue with the debate is how it often drives conversation to directing resources to Climate Control over Climate Adaptation. Millions have been spent haggling over optimal Atmospheric Carbon PPM and how to achieve some optimal condition. Also the Carbon focus leaves out things such as Solar Energy output Variability related to Carbon PPM. If the Suns Output drops 1/0 Watt per square Meter Earths 26 Trillion Square Meter should more Atmospheric Carbon be injected to compensate? If some believe the temprature in Madrid to Warm should we make Duluth Cooler? Who gets to Control Earths Thermmastat? I do not have the answers but a well insulated and constructed Home may provide habitility across a broad range of conditions and Indoor Farming may provide Food too.
    I would like to see the cinversation move more towards improving Adaptability to Change than controlling it.

  11. Merry Christmas Mr. Bardi! TY for contributing to our Public Knowledge Commons.

  12. Mr. Bardi, my wife is Italian and her family is from Falcada and Santo Stefano di Cadore. This is a beautiful area in the Dolomites of Italy. I go there every 3 years or so to see her family and enjoy a wonderfully green place. I have gone exploring in this Alpine region and I found a town that was like a museum of past living in this region. I wish I could find it on the map to reference it but it is up near Austria. This town and its story told with signs spread around the town pointing out aspects of a culture of animal husbandry. In this town animals outnumbered people. Their lives centered around animals and the low carbon living this required.

    This town is an amazing blueprint for how others could live it we had both behavioral changes and policy support by government. Instead we embrace techno optimism of more and more efficient. What this does is focus on more complexity and more complicated tech instead of less with less. This type of policy means that this way of life cannot make it and still allow people to have the comforts and opportunities of the status quo. You can’t go low carbon and modern without help.

    Nonetheless many Italians have a special ability to maintain the old ways through hobbies and tradition. In Falcade my wife’s uncle still comes over to the old house and cuts the grass with a scythe. If you go up the mountain there are places where cheeses are still made in the traditional way. Cows are taken up the mountain in the spring to graze on the lush grasses. This way is small scale and not energy intensive but it also lacks the profitability of industrial AG with high stocking rates and energy inputs.

    These villages still have active downtowns. People still go into the mountains in sustainable wood lots to collect wood for their wood heating. Many houses have impressive wood heating systems that utilize thermal mass within the house to heat the home all day long with a smaller amount of wood needed. These areas are also suffering the attrition of modernity on sustainability and resilience but these areas are using traditional behavior to resist the worst of this delocalizing effects of the status quo.

    Merry Christmas


  13. I think this is the town I mentioned in the above comment:

  14. To help in your fight you may consider checking out the quite prominent french engineer JM Jancovici's website, he's got an analysis of Italy's specific predicament, in English on his website I sorely wish I could do an Italian translation of this.



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)