How Can You Tell The Difference Between A Climate Denier & An Environmentalist?

'Pico of the Caribbean' sez: "go read about me mate, or I'll unbuckle your swash." Image credit: Russ George.

Short answer: there is little difference between the thought patterns of deniers & environmentalists.

Most of us don't have the time or expertise to maintain a current, in-depth understanding of science and public policy issues. Instead, a values test is imposed when novel or contradictory information is encountered.

Values test script: Does this new information match my belief system? If it does not, the information is seen as wrong or 'biased.' If it does match, however, it is seen as 'good' or accurate.

The power and ubiquity of the values filter - a way of thinking employed by all non-experts - makes it easy to spread doubt about climate science and also explains why so many environmentalists are dead-set against anything that can be labeled 'geo-engineering,' for example.

Speaking of geo-engineering, presented below are two new marine science news items that will try the values of even the most die hard anti-corporate, climate action campaigner.First - some background on how framing works.
Politically speaking, framing describes the thought process by which new, or contradictory information is unconsciously categorized as matching, or not-matching, long-held personal values.

Example: when a Republican presidential candidate describes Cap & Trade as a 'job destroying tax' [framing words] persons with no idea of how Cap & Trade works use their values test to conclude Cap & Trade is 'bad' (simply on the basis of it being falsely framed as a government levied tax). Corollary: a candidate for office who has supported, or who has failed to oppose, Cap & Trade also is viewed as 'bad.'

New information that should, logically, be able to break a political framing can not always do so. To illustrate just how hard it is to alter a values-based frame, I'll refer now to some recently published science on importance of trace iron levels to marine plankton growth and thus to long term historic climate trends. (Watch the comments on this post and you'll see how resistant to changed perceptions people can be on the "green" side as well as on the Teat Party end of things.)

Setting the stage.
First, from the news site Irish Weather, the story Understanding How The Ocean Impacts Climate Change demonstrates how powerful marine plankton blooms have been as a long-term (seasonal) carbon sink.

Lisa Collins, environmental studies lecturer with the USC Dornsife College, spent four years collecting samples from floating sediment traps in the San Pedro Basin off the Los Angeles coast, giving scientists a peek at how much carbon is locked up in the ocean and where it comes from.

Collins' research suggests that the majority of particulate organic carbon (POC) falling to the basin floor is marine-derived, not the result of runoff from rainfall. This means that the ocean off the coast of Southern California is acting as a carbon "sink" -- taking carbon out of the atmosphere via phytoplankton and locking it up in sediment.

Though estimates regarding the effect of carbon in the ocean already exist, her hard data can help climatologists create more accurate predictions of how carbon will impact global warming.


STOP....and read on for the iron seeding Frame Buster.

A recent article in New Scientist magazine describes how incredibly important iron-dependent plankton blooms have been in shaping paleo-climatic trends. Specifically, the story titled Iron-rich dust fueled 4 million years of ice ages demonstrates that:
DUST is all that's needed to plunge the world into an ice age. When blown into the sea, the iron it contains can fertilize plankton growth on a scale large enough to cause global temperatures to drop. The finding adds support to the idea of staving off climate change by simulating the effects of dust - perhaps by sprinkling the oceans with iron filings.

Iron-rich dust falling on the ocean has long been known to spark blooms of plankton, and researchers suspect the process could have intensified the ice ages that have occurred over the past few million years.

The thinking goes that, during warm periods, much of the Southern Ocean is an oceanic desert because it lacks the iron crucial for plankton growth. That changes at the start of ice ages, when a wobble in the planet's orbit causes an initial cooling that dries the continents, generates dust storms - particularly in central Asia - and sends dust onto the surface of the Southern Ocean.

The plankton that then bloom take the carbon they need from the water, causing the oceans to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to compensate. This cools the atmosphere further, creating yet more dust-producing regions, and the cycle continues, sinking Earth into an ice age.

I've posted on iron seeding controversies several times and reactions were always similar. Readers disputed my belief that large scale experimental trials had merit. Some were upset that a person could write such stuff on Treehugger.com. (A few Treehugger writers even seemed to think I had strayed from the true green path.)

Here's an excerpt from such a "radical" post, Anti-Science Environmentalism: Iron Seeding Experiment Protested...Again, which explains the environmentalist opposition to iron seeding with a metaphor:

Imagine driving safety activists advocating closure of hospital emergency rooms, on the theory that if automobile drivers knew there were no means available, following an accident, for stabilization, diagnosis, and treatment, that they (drivers) would proceed with greater attention and caution. Knowledge that there was no backup would make driving behaviors "safer," in other words. If you believe that I have a bridge in Brooklyn you might want to bid on.

By analogy, then.
Stopping scientific investigation into and understanding of a potential means of stabilizing earth as it enters a climate crisis will force industries and governments to to forge ahead with emission reductions. That seems to mirror the ethical view behind the cited protests against iron seeding experiments.


Update: At the risk of sounding condescending, I thought it might be good to list the long-held values which I think make so many environmentalists decide they are opposed to iron seeding experiments.

  • Opposition to defense industry involvement:- Because iron seeding of the oceans is so often categorized as "geo-engineering" on the blogs and in news papers, and because all the other oft-discussed geo-engineering techniques require deployment of defense department technology (rockets, satellites, artillery, etc.) the presumption is that taxpayers would get little bang for the buck and that the military industrial complex Eisenhower warned us about would screw it up for the sake of profit, hiding any negative impacts and covering up any evidence of failure. (I happen to agree with this presumption in large part.)
  • Anti-corporatism:- The mere possibility that iron seeding would be conducted by large corporations or that it would give breathing room for carbon intensive industries sets many against the technique. It's the us versus them idiom that's been around since rivers burned and Congress enacted a Clean Water Act
  • 40 years of pollution control tradition:- Since the first Earth Day, US environmentalists have favored the "polluter pays" principle, based on which it is expected that a polluting industry must use air pollution control devices or water treatment systems before discharge is allowed. EPA sets the treatment standards and industry pays the price. Iron seeding, however, means in-situ' waste treatment takes place in the free environment, bypassing long cherished expectations of environmentalists and a regulatory bureaucracy. ( It's not an entirely valid values analogy, however, because much of the human-emitted CO2 found now in the ocean predates 1970, and because CO2 from every nation and cultural practice is mixed in with US-industry emitted CO2.)