What do citations tell us about the climate divide?

UPDATE:  An interesting turn of events has led me to write a follow-up to this post.

I came across an interesting article in Geoforum this past week:

Jankó, F., Móricz, N., & Papp Vancsó, J. (2014). Reviewing the climate change reviewers: Exploring controversy through report references and citations. Geoforum, 56, 17-34.

The authors are in the Faculty of Economics and the Faculty of Forestry at the University of West-Hungary, in Sopron, about an hour directly south of Vienna, Austria. They take an interesting quantitative and human geographic perspective of the use of citations in understanding the physical science basis of climate change from both scientific and skeptical perspectives. A number of bloggers have taken on the science in the NIPCC (Richard Telford has several posts on his blog), but this paper provides interesting insight into the human aspects of scientific report writing. As such the paper falls much more easily into human geography than it does the physical sciences it seeks to understand.

Figure 1.  Heartland's funders did not particularly like the comparison between climate science and the Unabomber. (image source: wikipedia)
Figure 1. Heartland’s funders did not particularly like the comparison between climate science and the Unabomber. (image source: wikipedia)

The issue of climate change is as much part of the domain of human geography as it is physical geography. In particular the dynamic of ‘skeptical’ backlash against the consensus of anthropogenic climate change is well worth studying.  Understanding resistance to scientific knowledge around climate change will be key to eventually moving forward with adaptation policies that can find broad acceptance.  The public self-reports as being less knowledgeable about climate change than it was in 2007 (Stoutenborough et al., 2014), and multiple, competing narratives are likely to play a role in that dynamic.

Lahsen (2013) points out that without examining the differences in perception between climate groups we risk making the science behind our current understanding of anthropogenic climate change more vulnerable to public backlash, and we frequently see interaction between place and social change within the organizations (Jankó et al. mention the impact of the grossly unpopular Unabomber billboard in Chicago on the Heartland Institute’s network of funders and climate change affiliates).

To study characteristics of resistance and acceptance of the science surrounding climate change, the authors review the citation lists of both the IPCC (AR4 – WG1, the Physical Science Basis) and the NIPCC ‘s Climate Change Reconsidered.  By examining similarities and differences in citations and the use of citations we can understand how the rhetoric around climate change science changes the interpretation of the published literature. Jankó et al. use a great quote from Bruno Latour to help guide the discussion:

Whatever the tactics, the general strategy is easy to grasp: do whatever you need to the former literature to render it as helpful as possible for the claims you are going to make. The rules are simple enough: weaken your enemies, paralyse those you cannot weaken […], help your allies if they are attacked, ensure safe communications with those who supply you with indisputable instruments […], oblige your enemies to fight one another […]; if you are not sure of winning, be humble and understated” (Latour, 1987, pp. 37–38).

Figure 2.  Citations are important, but they're rarely used in an impartial manner. (image source: wikipedia)
Figure 2. Citations are important, but they’re rarely used in an impartial manner. (image source: wikipedia)

I feel like this overstates the case for the IPCC a little bit (though I may be biased). The IPCC is not set up to directly combat ‘skeptical’ literature, as is the case of the NIPCC.  The NIPCC is explicitly structured to mirror and refute the IPCC.  Regardless, we often think that as researchers we use citations in a neutral manner, but I would argue that that’s rarely the case. Citations in the literature are selected to help bolster arguments, they’re selected because we know people, and they’re occasionally massaged to change the point of an argument in an effort to support our own.

So the question becomes, how is the literature used and modified in these summaries to help develop an agenda?

Interestingly Jankó et al. show that only 4.4% of total citations (IPCC + NIPCC) were used in both reports. This was surprising to me. I had expected that many of the primary sources to explain climate systems and their modern behaviour might have made up a much larger proportion of both reports. Jankó et al. include a table with analysis of many of the overlapping citations (Appendix B)and we see that most cases of duplicate citations show similar tone in the treatment of the citations. Differences do exist however.  Where there is extensive overlap in citations Jankó et al. have some very insightful points to make here.  One surprising point was that both reports use particular language around references they like (‘find’, ‘indicate’, ‘report’, ‘show’, ‘conclude’) and don’t like (‘claim’, and ‘contend’), although how the language is applied to individual citations varies between reports (the discussion of Tropical Cyclones is well worth a read).  The other main difference in these overlapping citations is that key NIPCC citations, challenging climate change are often found in the IPCC to support understanding of uncertainties.  Thus, what the IPCC sees as an uncertainty, the NIPCC sees as evidence against anthropogenic climate change.

The real issue that piqued my interest however was the much higher proportion of paleo-journals in the NIPCC literature.  The Holocene is cited 12 times more frequently in the NIPCC than in the IPCC,  Geology and Quaternary Research are both cited 10 times more often.  Why would skeptics cite paleoecological literature at higher rates than the IPCC?  In large part this is due to a key motivation for the NIPCC, and a particular focus in the paleoclimate sections.

The analytical goal of the NIPCC is to increase the perception of uncertainty, attempting to add more ‘non-supportive’ and ‘uncertain’ literature to the argument, and to use that increased uncertainty to take apart the arguments for anthropogenic climate change.  In this way the paleo-literature becomes a tool for skeptics with which to attack our understanding of climate change science.  Indeed, of the 18 references from the Holocene in the NIPCC, only one could be considered ‘Neutral’ while the other 17 were considered to be ‘Not Supporting’ of climate change science.  For Quaternary Research 2 citations were ‘Neutral’ and ’12 were ‘Not Supporting’.  Again, what might be considered uncertainty in the IPCC is considered evidence against in the NIPCC.

Figure 1.  Does showing climate has changed in the past prove that climate change is natural?
Figure 3. Does showing climate has changed in the past prove that climate change is natural?

Jankó et al. explain this trend by showing that the NIPCC uses the past to explain the present in such a way as to downplay the unprecendented nature of modern climate change, while the IPCC uses the past to search for analogues of modern climate change.  Effectively, the NIPCC view stops at the present:  The past was warmer, therefore change is not unprecedented.  The IPCC is searching for ways to explain the future: The past had warmer periods. What caused those changes, what happened  during those periods, and how can we use the past to constrain models for the future?

This, to my mind, is the difference between the camps.  The science marshaled in the IPCC is focused toward improving hypotheses and theoretical (and mechanistic) models.  It is prescriptive science in that uncertainties are identified, and used to improve our understanding of modern and future change.  In the ‘skeptical’ camp, science is marshaled to disprove anthropogenic causes, and when it does, the avenue of research is closed.  It is effectively a descriptive model without an overarching theoretical framework.  This allows it to attach the label ‘skeptical’ to disparate threads of knowledge across the literature, without having to concern itself with how those pieces join together.  Jankó et al. point out that the narrative style of the NIPCC report is structured around an anecdotal style, summarizing each paper individually and often adding textual quotes, while the IPCC synthesizes knowledge from multiple sources and provides block references for statements.  In one we see a descriptive format that highlights any contrary (or uncertain) position, in the other we see an effort to synthesize knowledge into a theoretical framework.

The scientific basis for anthropogenic climate change is strongly grounded in a fairly simple physical model that finds broad based theoretical support across a range of physical sciences.  The scientific community has shown that over time (since at least the 1970s), counter-examples and uncertainties found in the literature have been able to highlight weaknesses in our understanding, bu, rather than collapse the structure, these weaknesses have been marshaled to improve the science and to develop a much more robust scientific understanding of climate change.

Literature Cited

Idso, Craig Douglas, & Siegfried Fred Singer. 2009. Climate change reconsidered: 2009 report of the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change (NIPCC). Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change.

Jankó, F., Móricz, N., & Papp Vancsó, J. (2014). Reviewing the climate change reviewers: Exploring controversy through report references and citations. Geoforum56, 17-34.

Jansen, E., J. Overpeck, K.R. Briffa, J.-C. Duplessy, F. Joos, V. Masson-Delmotte, D. Olago, B. Otto-Bliesner, W.R. Peltier, S. Rahmstorf, R. Ramesh, D. Raynaud, D. Rind, O. Solomina, R. Villalba and D. Zhang, 2007: Palaeoclimate. In: Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Solomon, S., D. Qin, M. Manning, Z. Chen, M. Marquis, K.B. Averyt, M. Tignor and H.L. Miller (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA.

Latour, B. (1987). Science in action: How to follow scientists and engineers through society. Harvard university press.

Lahsen, M. (2013). Climategate: the role of the social sciencesClimatic change119(3-4), 547-558.

Stoutenborough, J. W., Liu, X., & Vedlitz, A. (2014). Trends in Public Attitudes Toward Climate Change: The Influence of the Economy and Climategate on Risk, Information, and Public Policy. Risk, Hazards & Crisis in Public Policy,5(1), 22-37.