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Climate Denial Hits Brazil

Last year, I wrote about how journalists in developing nations were doing a better job of covering climate change, largely because denial hadn’t really taken root in many of these countries. In particular, I singled out Brazil for praise: According to a study by James Painter of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University and his colleagues, Brazil’s major papers contained the least climate skepticism in all of the 6 major nations surveyed (U.S., UK, China, France, India, Brazil).

So it is with much dismay that I report to you that, in conjunction with the Rio+20 conference, climate denial is making a strong showing in Brazil. I initially became aware of this troubling development through a Brazilian Facebook correspondent—and received helpful translations of some of the content itself from another Brazilian and Portugese speaker.

In what follows, I’ve also had to rely on Google translate a bit—hardly ideal, but necessary in this instance, as I don’t speak Portugese. While I certainly wouldn’t trust any quotations below to be precise, I do think they give the broad gist of what is being said.

Basically, the high profile denialism achieved liftoff due to the popular comedian Jo Soares, who gave it quite a boost on his widely watched Letterman-like Programa do Jo (The Jo Show, we'll call it). In May, Soares had on the geographer Ricardo Augusto Felicio, for a nearly half-hour denial fest that has gone pretty viral.

Who is Ricardo Augusto Felicio? He’s a professor at the University of Sao Paulo, specializing in the study of Antarctic climate. His faculty webpage says—according to Google translate—that he “Conducts research and serious criticisms of climate variability and its consequences, demystifying the ‘anthropogenic climate change’ and its ideology embedded.” In other words, he seems to be wearing his denial proudly on his sleeve.

Rio-Inspired Optimism (If Not Optimism About Rio)

If the goal was to get the world focused on sustainable development, then this definitely counts as terrible timing.

With global leaders pressured by the unending European debt saga—which most recently has engulfed Spain, the euro zone’s fourth largest economy—it’s not surprising that environmental concerns aren’t exactly at the front of their minds. Accordingly, Barack Obama, Angela Merkel, and David Cameron aren’t attending the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (dubbed “Rio+20”), which opens in today in Brazil’s “Marvelous City.” They’re dispatching their administrations’ next tier personages in their stead—still heavyweights (especially in Hillary Clinton’s case), but the move hardy suggests that Rio is at the top of the global agenda.

Indeed, the gloom and pessimism about this mega-environmental conference is manifest. In one sad tweet, Bill Easterly of New York University commented, “Delegates gather in Rio to commemorate 20 years of nothing happening since a UN Summit where nothing happened.” In fact, leaked negotiating text from the summit suggests we can expect a statement full of good intentions, expressing much concern, oh yes much concern about our environmental plight–but few commitments to do anything.

In other words, more of the same.

In the 20 years since the historic 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, the world has clearly failed to fulfill that event’s lofty goals. And perhaps that was too much to ever expect. Describing the ethos of that bygone era, Mikhail Gorbachev recently put it this way: “there was an overwhelming air of enthusiasm and hope for the future. It was a time of optimism and, in retrospect, innocence, as everyone celebrated the end of the Cold War.”

The Normalcy of Hypocrisy: From Clean Energy to Health Care, Conservatives Flip Flop in Support of the Team

One striking feature of the liberal psyche is how it is simultaneously outraged by hypocrisy on the conservative side of the aisle—and yet also morbidly fascinated by it.

Just this morning, reading, I came across the following examples:

1.      Ezra Klein’s much discussed New Yorker article, on how Republicans came to oppose the healthcare individual mandate that was, you know, their own idea for 20 years. I find Klein a bit wishy-washy overall, because he uses a political psychology analysis (which is generally good) but fails to acknowledge its full implications: Republicans engage in team-oriented groupthink more strongly than Democrats. This is the finding of Klein’s own key source, moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who stresses that in-group loyalty is stronger on political the right. Still, Klein's is a good article overall for factually capturing the flip-flop.

2.      In the same Ezra Klein piece, we find the following additional examples of conservative hypocrisy, or flip-flopping: “In 2007, both Newt Gingrich and John McCain wanted a cap-and-trade program in order to reduce carbon emissions. Today, neither they nor any other leading Republicans support cap-and-trade.” And: “In 2008, the Bush Administration proposed, pushed, and signed the Economic Stimulus Act, a deficit-financed tax cut designed to boost the flagging economy. Today, few Republicans admit that a deficit-financed stimulus can work. Indeed, with the exception of raising taxes on the rich, virtually every major policy currently associated with the Obama Administration was, within the past decade, a Republican idea in good standing.”

3.      At Climate Progress, there’s a recent piece on Republican hypocrisy in opposing innovative clean energy companies and supporting fossil fuel subsidies. Wait, aren’t these guys supposed to be in favor of the free market? Doh…

The New ExxonMobil: Has the Tiger Changed Its Stripes?

For a decade, now, I’ve been a reporter on climate science. And one of my earliest stories was a Mother Jones cover, exposing ExxonMobil’s funding of think tanks that support climate denialism. The piece was actually nominated for a National Magazine Award. It got around.

With this article and others, I contributed a great deal to a narrative that others, notably Greenpeace and this blog, were also forging: Climate science was under attack by corporate interests; leading the charge was ExxonMobil.

As it turns out, if anything that story now appears more accurate than we knew at the time. But there’s a crucial caveat to it—it may not be so accurate any longer, due to changes at the top of the company.

How do we know this? Simple: We read New Yorker writer and Pulitzer Prize winning investigative reporter Steve Coll’s new book Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power. I just reviewed this lengthy work in the journal Democracy. You can read the full review here, but I want to summarize the key salient points regarding climate change (the book covers much more than that) below.

Throughout the First Half of the 2000s, ExxonMobil Was Perhaps Even Worse than We Knew.

Mann Handled: A Decade Ago, Conservatives Attacked a Scientist—And Created a Leader

This is a review of The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches From the Front Lines, by Michael Mann.

I first became familiar with the name Michael Mann in the year 2003. I was working on what would become my book The Republican War on Science, and had learned of two related events: The controversy over the Soon and Baliunas paper in Climate Research, purporting to refute Mann and his colleagues’ famous 1998 “hockey stick” study; and a congressional hearing convened by Senator James Inhofe, at which Mann testified. Inhofe tried to wheel out the Soon and Baliunas work as if they’d dealt some sort of killer blow against climate science. In fact, just before the hearing, several editors of Climate Research had resigned over the paper.

I went on to stand up for Mann, and his work, in Republican War. Little did I know, at the time, that he himself would become the leading defender of his scientific field against political attacks.

Recently, Mann came out with a new book about his travails entitled The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches From the Front Lines, detailing his decade long battle against political attacks and misrepresentations. The response has been all too predictable. For months, conservatives have been giving it one star reviews on, some of which suggest that they probably haven’t read it.

What is most fascinating to me is that the science the right is attacking Mann over—principally, the 1998 hockey stick study and its 1999 extension, as prominently exhibited in 2001 by the IPCC—is relatively old news. Indeed, and as Mann himself explains in the book, “attacks against the hockey stick…were not really about the work itself.” That work has been supported by other researchers—there is now a veritable “hockey team,” Mann notes—and anyways, the case for human caused global warming never depended on the validity of the hockey stick alone. It was always just one part of a far broader body of evidence.

Thus, conservatives who fixated on Mann, and continue to do so, tell us through their own actions that this is not really about scientific inquiry at all. If it was, then they’d be doing something quite different from giving Mann one star Amazon reviews.

How Do We Explain Scientifically Literate But Anti-Science Conservatives? Paging Drs. Dunning and Kruger

As regular readers of this blog know, I have spent a lot of time discussing what we call the “smart idiot” effect: Political conservatives who know more about science—or, have a higher level of education—tend to be more in denial of science or facts in contested areas, like global warming, than are less knowledgeable conservatives.

Any way you look at it, this is a puzzling phenomenon. For after all, we also know that leading climate scientists—e.g., those who have the most knowledge, the most expertise—clearly accept the science, and are deeply worried about it. A 2010 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), for instance, examined the scientific publication records of climate researchers and compared these with their views on global warming. It turned out that the scientists publishing most in the literature were overwhelmingly accepting of the idea that human beings cause global warming.

What this suggests is there is a level of scientific training and expertise beyond which the smart idiot effect largely vanishes. In fact, while there are assuredly some climate skeptics remaining within the scientific community, the PNAS study found that on average, their “relative climate expertise and scientific prominence” tended to be “substantially below that of the convinced researchers.”

What this implies to me is that the conservatives who become worse science deniers with a little knowledge or education may be evidence of an odd effect that, in the psychology literature, goes by the name of Dunning-Kruger (after the researchers who famously discovered it). In other words, they may be over-confident in their abilities, but simultaneously, unaware of it. (A little knowledge truly can be a dangerous thing.)


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