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Climate change is not all disaster and uncertainty

How does newspaper coverage affect how we view climate change? A new report has estimated that 82% of articles about climate change are framed in the context of “disaster” and “uncertainty”. The report’s…

Framing with disaster may not be the best option. Lone Primate

How does newspaper coverage affect how we view climate change? A new report has estimated that 82% of articles about climate change are framed in the context of “disaster” and “uncertainty”.

The report’s lead author, James Painter, notes that those dominant media frames may be doing us a disservice because the public “finds uncertainty difficult to understand and confuses it with ignorance.” Likewise, “disaster messages can be a turnoff,” and the report therefore suggests that a better framing might involve the language of risk. This, they suggest, would encourage focus on the trade-off between the risk - and cost - of inaction, and of climate mitigation.

The media’s role in shaping public perception, for better or worse, is known to be substantial. Likewise, the importance of finding a proper frame for the communication of climate science is well established.

It is therefore important to examine not only the psychological impact of the frames identified by Painter and colleagues, but also how they lend themselves to be distorted by people who, usually for ideological or political reasons, deny the fact that the globe is warming due to greenhouse gas emissions.

Disaster

It is not entirely surprising that the primary focus of reporting on climate change is framed within the context of “disaster.” After all, the frequency of weather and climate-related disasters has nearly tripled over the last 30 years.

Recent research in the UK and in the US has shown that unsurprisingly, experiencing disasters first-hand is linked to acceptance of climate change. This, in turn, leads to a willingness to contribute to mitigation policies.

And even when disasters are not witnessed first-hand, there is evidence that the public memories of tragic events are quite resilient. It is also well known that people’s risk estimates are determined at least as much by memory for relevant events than their actuarial incidence.

Individuals who deny the overwhelming scientific evidence on climate change may well be aware of these effects, as suggested by their sometimes frenetic attempts to downplay the link between, say, Hurricane Sandy and climate change — ignoring, for example, the fact that rising sea levels increased Sandy’s impact.

Those attempts to downplay the link between climate change and individual extreme events - notwithstanding the fact that climate scientists have at least probabilistically associated individual events with climate change, such the floods in England and Wales in 2000 - are unlikely to achieve their desired purpose. After all, arguing whether Humphrey Bogart’s death from throat cancer was brought on by his decades of chain smoking no longer detracts people’s attention from the overall pattern.

Maybe Bogart would have died from cancer without having smoked. Maybe Nat “King” Cole’s lung cancer that killed him in 1965 was not caused by smoking. Maybe Monty Python’s Graham Chapman, who died at age 48 from throat cancer, was not killed by his pipe. But there is no “maybe” associated with the chilling fact that nearly 1 in 5 deaths in the UK in 2000 can be attributed to smoking. Likewise, there is little doubt that many weather events are now amplified by the anthropogenic climate change that is already underway. The media’s focus on disasters therefore underscores a pattern, and from what we know about human memory and people’s responses to first-hand experiences, this coverage is likely to alert people to a growing risk.

Uncertainty

The impact of uncertainty framing people’s perception of climate risk is somewhat more ambiguous. As reviewed by Painter and his team, perceived uncertainty has a detrimental effect on people’s willingness to act. Any mention of uncertainty in the context of climate change is known to breed wishful thinking and people latch onto the possibility that things “may not be as bad as we thought”. They ignore the fact that greater uncertainty implies a greater risk. This is also well known to the ideologues who have developed the uncertainty mantra to a fine but macabre art to delay policy action.

However, in the long run people tend not to be entrapped by uncertainty-focused false prophets. In 1965, 44% of adults living in California smoked, and by 2010 that figure had declined to barely over 10%. Public health information and laws that protected citizens against indoor pollution were eventually passed against thuggish resistance by the tobacco industry. Aided by this, Californians recognised the risks associated with smoking and eventually smelled the science notwithstanding the massive disinformation campaign by the tobacco industry. And the same is true in most of the United States and in Europe as well.

Likewise, because the media’s focus on disasters will probably continue, people will increasingly smell the climate science when more and more record-breaking heatwaves, 1000-year floods, and extreme droughts and fires occur in ever more rapid succession.

The climate is changing, and people will find the consequences increasingly difficult to ignore — in the same way that people eventually could not ignore the adverse health consequences of smoking among their friends and family. Thus, the “risk framing” that Painter advocates may eventually emerge on its own, by the compilation of individual events until the pattern can no longer be ignored.

Eventually people learned that today’s puff on a cigarette might kill them 20 years later notwithstanding industry’s yappings about uncertainties. People will also begin to appreciate that today’s disasters are just small harbingers of what the future holds if we do not break our addiction to greenhouse gas emissions.

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45 Comments sorted by

  1. Mike Swinbourne

    logged in via Facebook

    I wish people would stop framing the climate change debate in terms of extreme weather events etc. It is far more than that, and it is the other effects which will be far mor important which are far more disasterous.

    The changing climate will cause mass extinctions both in the ocean and on land and it will fundamentally change our agriculture. The costs and effects of that will be simply enormous - far more than the pittance we are being asked to pay in terms of abatement.

    Distaster messages might be a turn-off, but real disasters are far worse.

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    1. Alistair McDhui

      Retired

      In reply to Mike Swinbourne

      The fall in temperatures could be quite major as the climate cools.

      The reason is that the control system that stabilises atmospheric temperature range uses CO2 as the working fluid, hence there is no significant CO2-AGW, but the integral part which is the oceans has a ~60 year time constant.

      This means a downwards' overshoot in the 2040s, a repeat of the Little Ice Age.

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    2. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Alistair McDhui

      Fair comment, Alastair, but even if greenhouse gases concentrations decline as early as the 2040's (highly unlikely, in my view; the best for whuch I care to hope is that anthropogenic additions to greenhouse gas concentrations will have all but ceased by then), there's a lot of accumulated heat in oceans which will be re-released to atmosphere via evaporation etc.

      I expect this to lead to increased occurrence of storm events.

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    3. Alistair McDhui

      Retired

      In reply to David Arthur

      There is no significant CO2-AGW because it's the working fluid in the control system that maintains DSW in = LW out.

      The heat transfer physics in the K-T energy budget is wrong - you can't apply the two-stream approximation at an optical heterogeneity.

      The 'missing heat' never existed I'm afraid - it's generated by a perpetual motion machine in the modelling.

      The next move is a 200 year new LIA.

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    4. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Alistair McDhui

      "The 'missing heat' never existed" That's just bullshit, McDhui.

      The "missing heat" is Kevin Trenberth's terminology for instrument-based studies not being able to close earth's heat budget, now understood to be accounted for through heat transfer to deep ocean.

      There'll be no new Little Ice Age - climate is shifting to Pliocene conditions.

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    5. Mike Swinbourne

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Alistair McDhui

      Hahahahahahah. Great Poe Alistair.

      I love it when people who are clever with words make statements which are so obviously completely ludicrous that no-one with an IQ above 50 would accept them, but which show that there really are people in the world stupid enough to think they are true.

      Poe such as this is a very clever way to show just how deluded deniers really are. Well done! Keep up the good work.

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    6. Alistair McDhui

      Retired

      In reply to David Arthur

      Come off it. In 2003 the sun went into the alignment of the large planets that always triggers major change to the fusion core and always leads to significant temperature fall as low magnetic field (hence no visible sunspots) leads to higher cloud cover.

      2003 - 1824 - 1745 etc.

      Trenberth is incompetent because as a Meteorologist he was taught incorrect physics - the failure to understand that the Radiation Field of an emitter is a potential not a real energy flux. Hence the imaginary 'back radiation' offset by the incorrect assumption that Kirchhoff's Law of Radiation applies at ToA. They then introduce twice real low level optical depth and have now created imaginary short term abyssal warming when it would take 1000 years!

      We may be seeing the effect of the MWP!

      Grow up an accept the simple fact that real scientists have entered the IPCC sheltered playground to take control from the children

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    7. Alistair McDhui

      Retired

      In reply to Mike Swinbourne

      My PhD in applied physics from Imperial, and prize winner, was hard won. Climate Alchemy has 13 errors, 3 of them elementary.

      Basically the famous 5, Sagan, Houghton, Hansen, Trenberth and Ramanathan cocked it up. Tyndall's experiment has been misinterpreted even, as anyone with a knowledge of basic statistical thermodynamics realises immediately.

      And as for 'back radiation, 2nd year students at a Russell Group University were this year given a project to design a reverse heat engine using a 'back radiation' collector, thereby to show them the elementary mistakes.

      And I haven't included the irreversible thermodynamics completely neglected by Climate Alchemy.

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    8. Sherry Mayo

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Alistair McDhui

      This is a false claim based on one dubious paper from a dubious journal that has been widely debunked.

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    9. Mike Swinbourne

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Alistair McDhui

      "....My PhD in applied physics from Imperial, and prize winner, was hard won....."

      Didn't I say you were a clever man Alistair? Your Poe betrays an insightful mind - able to write something that displays the deniers as ignorant fools. by satirising their ludicrous claims by using their own words.

      But we get it - you don't need to keep it up. We all know that the thermodynamics argument used by deniers (and creationists as well) demonstrates that they know nothing about science. But go ahead, I'm game for more humour.

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  2. John McKeown

    JRI Associate. Past: module leader, Gloucestershire University; and Assoc. Lecturer, Open University. PhD (Liverpool). Currently: IT support, Exeter University. Sector: at Higher Education.

    Thank you for this article about uncertainty and its abuses, and the encouraging parallel with public response to evidence of smoking risks.

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  3. Stewart Franks

    Professor School of Engineering at University of Newcastle

    Uncertainty does not imply higher risk - it implies higher ignorance. It is worthwhile to note that not one of the authors publish on actual probabilistic uncertainty estimation techniques. Again - another case of the ill-informed commentary under the guise of expertise, delivered by the conv.

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    1. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Stewart Franks

      While uncertainty may not imply higher risk, it does not preclude the possibility of higher risk. If anything, it permits increased likelihood of higher risk.

      Again - another case of reader participation, delivered by the conv.

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    2. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Stewart Franks

      Professor Franks, climate change is all about CHANGE, and with change comes the likelihood of perturbation away from the present conditions to which we and most other components of this ecosystem are adapted.

      Logic tells us that these changes are more likely to be deleterious to many of these components, including us.

      Before you set off on some hand-waving (wank?) about change being ever-present, we need to remember that both RATE and magnitude of the perturbations that humans have and continue to cause that are of great potential concern.

      Even a mere few minute's thought should bring these considerations to your mind. One can only assume you are too busy for any thinking.

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    3. Mike Hansen

      Mr.

      In reply to Stewart Franks

      More "ad hominem" and hand waving from Stewart Franks. The article provides a link to a detailed discussion on why uncertainty leads to increased risk. But Franks does not attempt to address the argument - rather he fires insults.

      In his seminal work Risk, Uncertainty, and Profit, University of Chicago economist Frank Knight (1921) stated "I would rather make a decision in a condition of risk, rather than uncertainty, owing mostly to the fact that I would rather be able to quantify what I stand…

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    4. David Rennie

      IT Consultant

      In reply to Stewart Franks

      Isn't Risk a quantitative estimate of ignorance. If ignorance is higher, risk must be higher. The IPCC descriptions of issues provides us with risk estimates for all its predictions. AGW is estimated as more than 95% likely to occur. One doesn't need to understand the mathematics behind the estimate to use the figures provided by the experts.

      The issue with AGW denial is not that the experts are uncertain but that the deniers claim that the experts are both certain and perfect and should therefore be able to predict with great certainty short term variations which are by their nature unpredictable with current computing power.

      Where the scientists, state that they need thirty year time frames to separate the noise from the trend, deniers claim to be able to identify trends in every minor fluctuation.

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    5. Gil Hardwick

      anthropologist, historian, novelist, editor and publisher at eBooks West

      In reply to David Arthur

      But David, humans are not passive components being deleteriously affected by climate change, even increasing change. The victim argument simply does not hold.

      Human rampancy is prominently active in the process.

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    6. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Gil Hardwick

      Correct Gil, human activity is prominently active in this regard.

      Many decision-making human agents are ignorant of the damage they're doing to themselves, everybody else, and all our heirs and successors.

      Why do you begin your reply to some comment of mine with "But"?

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    7. Gil Hardwick

      anthropologist, historian, novelist, editor and publisher at eBooks West

      In reply to David Arthur

      Because, David, your text had rendered 'change' itself as the active agent, when as you point out yourself it is humans.

      Partly I stand corrected, though mostly, again, mutually suffering the distinct limitations of online text as the medium of communication.

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    8. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Gil Hardwick

      Thanks Mr Hardwick.

      While we can post-Normally parse concepts of attribution as we will, note that I was responding to what I considered to be somewhat Panglossian remarks about the consequences of climate change.

      To that extent, I appear to have neglected ritual self-flagellation as entirely germane to the topic. I stand corrected.

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  4. Alistair McDhui

    Retired

    The claim that extreme weather events have nearly tripled is incorrect because it conflates financial damage with severity. Taking account of increased infrastructure and housing, severe weather has decreased.

    The reason for this is that warming reduces temperature gradients so hurricanes have steadily fallen in number and damage potential. However, as global cooling accelerates, severe weather will increase to the levels of the 1950s, the last cool period.

    As a final point, it is easy to…

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    1. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Alistair McDhui

      The clam that extreme weather events have tripled have come from reinsurers (eg http://www.munichre.com/en/media_relations/company_news/2010/2010-08-05_company_news.aspx,
      http://www.swissre.com/library/media/222918191.html)
      - they keep an eye on both risk exposure and frequency.

      Err, 1980's and 1990's lower atmosphere warming is well-correlated with equatorial Pacific conditions, as is post-2000 slowing in lower atmosphere warming - ocean currents changes have increased ocean take-up of accumulating…

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    2. Alistair McDhui

      Retired

      In reply to David Arthur

      There was substantial AGW in the Pacific caused by the burst of Asian aerosols reducing cloud albedo - you get this by correcting Sagan's faulty aerosol optical physics so the sign changes due to large droplet effects. That AW has now saturated - there is virtually zero CO2-AGW.

      The latter is heavily influenced buy the fundamental irreversible thermodynamics of IR to Space, in effect quantifying Gaia., which is what i and Brookhaven have done. They made a mistake though. I have tied it into atmospheric physics.

      As for the extreme weather, I rely on Roger Pielke jr.

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    3. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Alistair McDhui

      "That AW has now saturated - there is virtually zero CO2-AGW." What a load of ridiculous cobblers, as demonstrated by ongoing large-scale cryosphere changes (review by Hanna et al, "Ice-sheet mass balance and climate change", Nature 498, 51–59 (06 June 2013) doi:10.1038/nature12238

      Regarding extreme weather, it must be comforting to have a guru.

      Meanwhile, ~75% of a sample of about 33,500 people in Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Nepal, Pakistan and Vietnam say the weather has become hotter and less predictable in the past decade as a result of climate change, prompting job changes, migration and lifestyle adaptation (ttp://www.bbc.co.uk/mediaaction/where_we_work/asia/climateasia_overview.html).

      Care to give a reference for all this Gaia stuff you've done?

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    4. Robert Molyneux

      Citizen

      In reply to Alistair McDhui

      So you think that when bushfires (which will be become increasingly frequent as Australia heats up) destroy your home(s) every ten years or so, and the CPI in building means replacing them becomes more and more expensive, you simply adjust for CPI to some other base (say 2000) and this demonstrates that severe weather has decreased.

      Even better, if you give up after the third time and don't bother replacing the home, this means that the impact on GDP has disappeared.

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    5. Alistair McDhui

      Retired

      In reply to David Arthur

      Read up the start paper by Essex in 1985 who introduced radiation entropy into climate modelling and follow the literature trail.

      Basically, the Earth adapts to that external constraint, and does so by maximising atmospheric CO2 content to minimise radiation entropy production rate.

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    6. Alistair McDhui

      Retired

      In reply to Robert Molyneux

      My family lives in Australia and my son's father-in-law is a part time bush fireman doing controlled burns in WA.

      The idiotic greenies banned this in the East hence the higher bush fire number.

      As for the BOM temperature claims, this is just the latest temperature fraud funded by Gillard and disproved by Satellite data.

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    7. Robert Molyneux

      Citizen

      In reply to Alistair McDhui

      Going back to your original statement, I would like to see a simple compilation of events affected by temperature and wind (such as bushfires) together with an estimate of the energy involved.

      This could be reasonably objective in that the criteria and methods could be open to inspection.

      For example, it is easy enough to count the cyclones affecting Australia, and to estimate the energy contained within them as they cross the coast.

      The BOM / insurance people / actuarial analysts are capable of doing this, I think.

      The problematical part is coming up with estimates of the cost of these events, and insurance premiums / pay outs.

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    8. Alistair McDhui

      Retired

      In reply to Robert Molyneux

      Australia's climate is set by the beating of the 22 year solar cycle and the 19a and 38 year lunar eclipse cycles. You see this in the data going back well over a century, particularly the recent Brisbane floods which were well below the maxima in the past.

      What you must understand is that the CO2-AGW claims are based on Hansen falsifying the 33 K ghe in 1981_Hansen_etal.pdf where they imply that the removal of ghgs from, the atmosphere would reduce surface mean temperature to -18 deg C.

      This…

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    9. Robert Molyneux

      Citizen

      In reply to Alistair McDhui

      Alistair,

      I happen to consider that the absorbing of CO2 and heat by the oceans and its release by weather events makes any discussion about the warming of the atmosphere and of the continental surfaces entirely meaningless. Interesting, but meaningless..

      You only have to relax with a gin and tonic with ice cubes to see that the interactions of liquid water, dissolved gas and melting solids are extremely unpredictable. Personally, I think changes in temperatures could well be exactly NIL. Experiments with G&T yes, computers no,

      On the other hand, you could do energy balances, by counting weather events and estimating the energy involved.

      More frequent events, more energy involved - QED, we are in for increasing grief. Exactly what grief, who knows?

      Whether we can do anything about it is another matter. Why worry, when Abbott is looking after us.

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    10. Alistair McDhui

      Retired

      In reply to Mark Gray

      I bet you haven't a clue about the physics I and others are independently developing. In order to be independent I have not joined PSI etc. I am now on the second paper which goes back to basic physics to show the origin of the 13 mistakes in Climate Alchemy.

      So, take a large saucepan Fill it with water. Put on stove. When boiling, immerse head and it might just restore some thought to a cranium that appears to be full of prejudice. At least others try to debate the science.

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    11. Alistair McDhui

      Retired

      In reply to Robert Molyneux

      The Earth's climate is controlled by a classical PID system involving clouds.

      Climate Alchemy started off using fake science. See Para 2 in 1981_Hansen_etal.pdf. Apart from two small bands at ~0 microns, there is no effect of CO2 in reducing IR to Space in the 7-14 micron band. Then we had the 33 K ghe claim, completely wrong and based on that incorrect IR physics which has some new bits now to explain why Houghton is wrong. I got these from analytical spectroscopy.

      The 3 W heating from doubled…

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    12. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Alistair McDhui

      "... the Earth adapts to that external constraint, and does so by maximising atmospheric CO2 content to minimise radiation entropy production rate ..."

      Err, with all due respect, this is complete and utter nonsense. Dissipative systems function to MAXimise entropy production, not minimise it! Further, earth does NOT regulate its atmospheric CO2 concentration; it so happens that CO2 is soluble in sea water, so there is local CO2 transfer between atmosphere and ocean depending on ocean pH, atmospheric partial pressure, and temperature of each fluid, but this in no way constitutes some sort of magical planet-scale entropy-minimising Gaia stuff.

      You realise that if they legalise the stuff you're smoking, you'll be charged GST?

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    13. Gil Hardwick

      anthropologist, historian, novelist, editor and publisher at eBooks West

      In reply to Robert Molyneux

      Increasing bushfires are not an outcome of some abstract global warming, but very directly the result of people clearing volatile and oil-laden dry schlerophyll forest, specifically eucalypt forest, and building residential suburbs in them.

      Even in country areas, plainly once summer oil vapour levels reach a certain flash point it takes little to ignite.

      Prehistorically (= presettlement), dense understory retained significant moisture long after a precipitation event, tending to cool and moisten…

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    14. Robert Molyneux

      Citizen

      In reply to Gil Hardwick

      Gil,

      I live in Sydney on the coastal plain east of the "Blue Mountains". They received that (European) name hundreds of years ago because of the blue (eucalyptus oil) haze they are clad in. I don't think your theory stands up, although I would accept that clearing forests is a factor in local behaviour of fires.

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    15. Gil Hardwick

      anthropologist, historian, novelist, editor and publisher at eBooks West

      In reply to Robert Molyneux

      Which theory, Robert, or which part of it, didn't you understand?

      I'm happy to point out the facts again, as you will. No problem. It matters a very great deal, it's critically important that the process is properly understood.

      First, global warming and climate change are precisely that, global. Effects are local. We have bushfire prone areas as much as we have flood-prone and drought-prone areas, while at once we have vast tracts tangibly benefiting from climate change.

      Second, you confirm…

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    16. Robert Molyneux

      Citizen

      In reply to Gil Hardwick

      Gil,

      I think your theory is coherent and well argued - but more or less incorrect.

      I think that the monocultures we have developed by massive clearing and earthworks raise various problems.

      I just do not accept some of your statements. For example, the idea that a tiny proportion of rural lands that have roofed buildings could cause significant effects by reflecting heat is wrong. In particular the idea that a small house buried in a forest could make any difference is fanciful.

      On the…

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    17. Gil Hardwick

      anthropologist, historian, novelist, editor and publisher at eBooks West

      In reply to Robert Molyneux

      OK, Robert, whatever. As mentioned, I am weary of pointing out simple observable facts to people who refuse to come out bush with us, but sit there endlessly consulting their charts and oracles; I can only guess looking to the heavens instead of down at their feet, or these days up into the atmosphere, looking for signs from above.

      I have made no mention of any 'tiny proportion of rural lands'. Here it is you putting words into my mouth and on that basis thinking that somehow discredits my argument…

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    18. Robert Molyneux

      Citizen

      In reply to Gil Hardwick

      Gil,

      You state "I have made no mention of any 'tiny proportion of rural lands'. Here it is you putting words into my mouth and on that basis thinking that somehow discredits my argument.".

      What I really meant to say was you need to bring some quantity in as well as quality in your arguments.

      I googled the causes of bushfires - I agree that arson is very significant in bushfires starting near roads. For bushfires starting away from roads I would guess that lightning is the main / single cause…

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  5. Gil Hardwick

    anthropologist, historian, novelist, editor and publisher at eBooks West

    As discussed elsewhere, increased coverage of the many working solutions implemented over the long period would be far more helpful, as would recognition of the very many people working in the field over the past 50 years now - without whom the situation would be far far worse - for the real contribution they make in what can be well argued as persistently averting the very disaster all the doom-Sayers just sit there waiting to happen.

    It is hard enough already, recruiting bright and capable young…

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  6. Kevin Marshall

    IT Consultant at Engineering

    You make an analogy between climate change and smoking causes lung cancer. It is worth exploring this analogy further. According to Cancer Research UK 86% of people who caught lung cancer in 2010 were smokers. A smoker is 15 times more likely to catch lung cancer than somebody who has never smoked. Put another way, only 1 in 15 smokers who caught lung cancer would have caught it anyway – and you cannot identify which these people are. Also lung cancer has a 90% mortality rate and can be diagnosed…

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