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CAGW: a ‘snarl’ word?

By Andy West | Climate Etc. | November 26, 2018

The term ‘CAGW’  has both appropriate and inappropriate usage.


Rational Wiki says: ‘CAGW”, for “catastrophic anthropogenic global warming”, is a snarl word (or snarl acronym) that global warming denialists use for the established science of climate change. A Google Scholar search indicates that the term is never used in the scientific literature on climate.’10

Where in turn the link for ‘snarl word’ says: ‘A snarl word is a derogatory label that can be attached to something (or even to people), in order to dismiss their importance or worth, without guilt. When used as snarl words, these words are essentially meaningless; most of them can be used with meaning, but that seldom happens.

So setting aside the snarl implications of the word ‘denialist’11 above, is all the usage of the ‘CAGW’ acronym meaningless, i.e. it is essentially a snarl word only? Or is there significant meaning associated with some usage, i.e. does it have legitimate, ‘non-snarl’ currency also, associated with real meaning?

In typical usage ‘CAGW’ may be followed by words such as narrative, message, story, line, debate, controversy, mantra, meme, myth, scare, hysteria, hoax, scam, religion, cult, cause, movement, believers, faithful, crowd, advocates, promoters, proponents, consensus, theory, hypothesis, premise, claim, case, conjecture and various others. Or it may appear in sentences without any direct descriptors such as those above, for example: ‘Proof positive that CAGW is about power, politics and greed is the fact that…’, ‘Without this strong feedback there is no real basis for CAGW since…’, ‘I have been waiting for someone, anyone, to enunciate a unique, broadly accepted goal for a program to “dodge” the CAGW “bullet”…’, ‘Cost / benefit analysis is apparently against the rules when it comes to CAGW…’, ‘The alarm is not about a warming of the globe, nor particularly AGW. It is about CAGW’.12

These demonstrate a much wider application than for just the ‘established science’, which I take to mean mainstream science, as expressed in the Working Group Chapters13 of the IPCC’s latest full report (AR5), so hereafter AR5WGC. Whether or not any such usages of ‘CAGW’ are justified, they are broadly categorized (albeit with overlaps, especially meme and consensus at the boundaries) as follows:

  1. expressing a communication aspect, applicable not only to climate scientists but to any parties communicating or exchanging on climate change, such as social authority sources, policy makers, NGOs, businesses, other scientists, whoever, and reflected by the words above starting narrative, message and similar.
  2. expressing a social phenomenon aspect, whether assumed to have deliberate causation or emergent causation, and reflected by the words starting, myth, scare and similar.
  3. expressing the aspect of adherents of the phenomena in b), as reflected by the words starting believers, faithful and similar, OR of subscribers to the science per d), OR both.
  4. expressing the science aspect, as reflected by the words starting theory, hypothesis and similar.
  5. expressing the aspect of actual physical climate change, sarcastically or not, as being potentially catastrophic (usually without extra descriptors in this context).

Usage without descriptors per the example sentences, are generally contextualized by one of these same categories.

The communication aspects

This is the most straightforward category to characterize. Within the public domain, there is manifestly a widespread narrative of certainty (absent deep emissions cuts) of near-term (decades) climate catastrophe. This has emanated from many of the most powerful and influential figures in the West throughout the twenty-first century, as exampled by the quotes listed a) to z) in footnote 1. While based only on English language reportage, this sample nevertheless includes leaders, ex-leaders and candidate leaders from 8 Western nations (with the US, Germany, UK and France being economically 4 of 7 and politically 4 of 6, top world powers9), along with high ministers, high UN officials, the Pope and UK royalty, over about the last 15 years. The narrative is also framed in a most urgent and emotive manner, which hugely increases its re-transmission capability14, is global in scope (‘the planet’), and unequivocally attributes the imminent catastrophe from global warming to humans (via ‘emissions’), i.e. the ‘C’ is due to AGW.

Rational Wiki is essentially correct regarding the literal usage of ‘CAGW’ in climate science literature (I found a few references on Google Scholar). Yet it’s right too in a more meaningful sense; i.e. nothing like this narrative of high certainty and imminent global catastrophe is represented within mainstream climate science, i.e. per the AR5WGC. A point that has been noted before on this and other climate blogs. Albeit ‘catastrophic’ (or similar) is actually used in AR5WGC, this is in reference to local / specific improbable scenarios only (e.g. the term used for maximal, yet very rare end of spectrum, episodic river flooding)15. No reasonable interpretation could produce the exampled narrative framing that has achieved such a high public profile over many years. So according to mainstream science, i.e. no skeptics required, this climate catastrophe narrative is flat wrong15a. Even at the best stretch it drags fuzzy possibilities plus probabilities from behind a hedge of caveats and limitations, then pushes them all front and centre, promoted to high certainty within an apparently well-mapped space15b. Nevertheless, this narrative / story / line / mantra exists, and at the highest authority level.

The sampled authority figures do not just speak for themselves. They represent their governments and parties and organizations, to some extent their nations. The power of this representation coupled with high emotive framing should be a very significant factor in the propagation of the catastrophic narrative across society, and especially down the pyramids of functionality spreading out from national / UN leaderships, so influencing policy (impending catastrophe is often cited as the main reason to act). However, other sources are transmitting in parallel, e.g. environmental NGOs, and total propagation will be due to the merged contributions of all. Penetration / propagation of the same catastrophe narrative is highly visible further out from primary leaderships, as exampled by the quotes listed a) to z) in footnote 2, which cover lesser-ranking / local politicians, leaders of less influential nations, NGOs, economists and influencers.

Emergent narratives typically spawn many variants, which are briefly analyzed in the companion post ‘The Catastrophe Narrative’, with further analysis in the (common) footnotes file.

There is nothing inappropriate about coining a name for the widely communicated narrative of certainty of imminent (decades) catastrophe as exampled by footnotes 1 and 2, which prior to the exception of the current US administration permeated Western / UN (and other) authorities high and low, and that falsely claims to be underwritten by ‘the’ science. ‘CAGW’ as a label for this narrative is suitable and has full meaning. Likewise for the narrative variant categories as exampled by footnotes 3 to 5; while as noted in the companion post, a few of such specimens or more emphatic localization may technically escape either full-on certainty or full-on global or maybe, depending especially upon ambiguous word-choices, full-on catastrophe, even this subset are highly emotive pitches of the same ilk that typically aren’t backed by mainstream climate science.

As climate scientist Mike Hulme noted a dozen years ago, this narrative created significant impact even back then: “It seems that mere ‘climate change’ was not going to be bad enough, and so now it must be ‘catastrophic’ to be worthy of attention. The increasing use of this pejorative term – and its bedfellow qualifiers ‘chaotic’, ‘irreversible’, ‘rapid’ – has altered the public discourse around climate change.” In 2010, Hans von Storch agreed16a.

The science aspects

Emphasizing the Rational Wiki quote above, Jacobs et al (in 2016 book) finds no merit in the claim ‘that catastrophic anthropogenic global warming is the mainstream scientific position’, i.e. mainstream science doesn’t support the concept of a high certainty (absent action) of imminent global catastrophe. So, although the IPCC integrates a range of scientific opinion and incorporates various outlier possibilities, within the scientific community there cannot be a widely accepted theory or hypothesis or premise or case for this. Hence directly tying mainstream climate science (including conventional AGW theory, no ‘C’) to this concept via ‘CAGW’ labeling, or implying that ‘CAGW theory’ is dominant (so perforce must cover the mainstream), is inappropriate. Some think no current science can claim the catastrophic15b, however…

This doesn’t imply an absence of scientific support for the principle. A minority of scientists, some very vocal, believe that ‘CAGW’ scenarios are more realistic. Footnotes 6 and 7 provide examples of about 50 climate scientists plus environmental and other scientists expressing their views of the catastrophic. To express a truly held belief is not to dissemble, so presumably these individuals have theories (probably not all the same) which lead them to this view, albeit not reflected by the mainstream / AR5WGC. Or at least they think such theories from other sources are highly credible. Their expressions typically ignore more balanced interpretations from their mainstream colleagues, or otherwise criticize the mainstream as being too conservative, often performing the same transformation / promotion as mentioned at the end of paragraph 2 section 2 above. Emotive phrasing is common, also featuring a large range of highly negative metaphors (e.g. hell or ballistic missiles or cars speeding towards cliffs), and / or the end of humans or civilization or the planet, with typically a sense of inevitability (unless major action). Hence using say ‘CAGW theory’ to label the claims of specific such scientists, is legitimate. But the much more typical sweeping references that imply ‘CAGW theory’ is the ‘official’ science, are illegitimate. In relation to the current mainstream, ‘CAGW theory’ is very much unofficial science.

Portraying scientists who propagate ‘CAGW’ notions as representative of the mainstream, via ‘CAGW’ labeling or any other means, is also inappropriate. However, this is a forgivable sin for the general public; how would they know that James Hansen, for instance17, occupies a minority fringe at odds with the main climate science community? And they aren’t the only ones subject to confusion about what is mainstream and where particular scientists might stand. Catastrophe narratives have infiltrated climate science and science communities generally. Their strong emotive content erodes objectivity17a and pressures scientists to reflect such narrative, hence especially within science communication.

In his book climate scientist Mike Hulme describes a step change towards the catastrophic in the ways that climate change risk was expressed in the public sphere, following an international climate change conference held in Exeter UK, in 2005. And to continue Hulme’s 2006 quote (via the BBC) from section 2: “This discourse is now characterized by phrases such as ‘climate change is worse than we thought’, that we are approaching ‘irreversible tipping in the Earth’s climate’, and that we are ‘at the point of no return’. I have found myself increasingly chastised by climate change campaigners when my public statements and lectures on climate change have not satisfied their thirst for environmental drama and exaggerated rhetoric. It seems that it is we, the professional climate scientists, who are now the (catastrophe) skeptics. How the wheel turns… … Why is it not just campaigners, but politicians and scientists too, who are openly confusing the language of fear, terror and disaster with the observable physical reality of climate change, actively ignoring the careful hedging which surrounds science’s predictions?” (bold mine). Yet in the face of continuing emotive pressure, even 12 years later a wider acknowledgement of this issue is still weak25.

So, in respect of the science aspects ‘CAGW’ has both appropriate and inappropriate usage. Without a proper survey it seems more typically the latter. Thus it’s likely regarding purely the science aspects that Rational wiki is mostly right, albeit only technically, in saying: ‘Despite the qualifier, denialists apply the term indiscriminately to anything approximating the mainstream scientific view on climate, regardless of whether or not “catastrophic” outcomes are implied’, and notwithstanding its own serious snarl word issue11. In practice, the deep entanglement of catastrophe narratives with climate science communication creates very understandable confusion, and an environment where serious misunderstanding is inevitable.

Given also that for many years the climate change narrative from highest authorities to the public is insistently catastrophic, Rational wiki’s claim that deployment of the acronym is a deliberate ploy of the desperate (‘an attempt to move the goalposts’), is one that ignores the big picture. A-list presidents and prime ministers plus the UN elite and other authorities too (along with some scientists), already moved the goalposts, and indeed repeatedly reinforce that the catastrophic is backed by mainstream science. This impressive and coordinated array of authorities are not generally referred to as ‘deniers’, and it shouldn’t be a surprise that very many folks believe their attribution. Hence such folks are confronted by a complete clash between the unequivocal authority expression that the catastrophic is indeed backed by science18, and affront from individual scientists or their supporters as expressed on side channels when they’re specifically associated with the catastrophic. This affront is very understandable18a. Yet so is the response of those who feel that somewhere within this clash they’ve been hoodwinked, and assume the enterprise of climate science must be the culprit (in fact, an emergent phenomenon is ultimate cause). It’s especially confusing that some actors have a foot in both camps (e.g. significant IPCC contributors who publicly express catastrophe narrative19).

Starting even before AR5 some scientists projecting more severe climate change consequences, including a subset clearly claiming catastrophic outcomes20, complain that mainstream science per the IPCC is way too conservative, even politically diluted. Whether their science is bunkum or has a basis in reality, they likely have significant support. Albeit that the important distinction between ‘severe’ and ‘catastrophic’ isn’t provided, 41% of 998 AGU+AMS members asked about ‘the likely effects of global climate change in the next 50 to 100 years’, replied ‘severe/catastrophic’ (2012, pay-walled, but some details at Wiki). In a more recent expression (Mar 2018) some climate scientists objected to oil companies presenting AR5 as evidence showing lack of serious harms, claiming it was outdated (published 2013/14), and later science predicts much worse consequences. Some scientists emphasizing much higher impacts are socially touted as having better understanding than the majority driving the ‘conservative’ consensus.

However, notwithstanding plenty of catastrophe narrative ballyhoo30 from usual voices regarding the new SR15, as the content itself indicates31 there seems little chance that the steady and incremental evolution of the IPCC reports will change to a dramatically different position for the full AR6, or indeed afterward. And ironically, if various outlier theories regarding the catastrophic did gain enough ground to cause a paradigm shift, becoming mainstream, most of the inappropriate usage of ‘CAGW’ would transform to legitimacy overnight. It’s likely that social pressure to converge upon (cultural, not scientific) narratives of the catastrophic, has contributed to such theories; emotive memes are a major component via which many large-scale social consensuses are formed, e.g. within religions. Such consensuses don’t relate to truth. Note: scientific probing of worst case scenarios is potentially useful, as long as such efforts don’t morph into emotive narratives that help panic the public and policy makers towards perceived ultra-urgency and radical solutions, or indeed towards any agenda. With its speculative nature preserved, such exploration doesn’t earn a ‘CAGW theory’ label. Yet wielding it as authority with sexed-up likelihoods and / or emotively overwhelmed conditionals in order to pressure and persuade (e.g. footnote example 7aa), certainly earns the label ‘CAGW narrative’.

The social phenomena and adherence aspects

Just as with the science section above, there is appropriate and inappropriate deployment of ‘CAGW’ to describe social phenomena in the climate domain. So for instance it’s appropriate to talk about a social consensus in catastrophe among certain groups, but not a scientific consensus within the IPCC, say. It’s appropriate to describe ardent members of a green NGO who are heavily involved in promoting climate catastrophe narratives, as ‘CAGW advocates’ say, yet certainly not to apply this term to ‘all Democrats’, for instance, even if statistically there is somewhat more catastrophe narrative promotion by members of that party. Such labelling even when appropriate, does not imply any wrong-doing or dysfunction on the part of those so labelled, although some level of ‘faith’ (to use another partner term that crops up) in the narrative that many world leaders have lavished on the public for many years, is both likely and eminently understandable. Partner terms like ‘hoax’ and ‘scam’ are generally inappropriate too, because they cannot be main causation for the CAGW phenomenon32.

It comes down to who is adding the catastrophic, or ‘C’, to the mix. Michael Barnard at Quora notes in his discussion of ‘CAGW’: ‘Emotive adjectives are intended to create an emotional response rather than an intellectual response. Catastrophic is an emotive adjective.’ Yes. For sure, over-emotive content tends to cloud judgment; in memetic terms more-emotive memes have a greater selection value than less-emotive ones in domains of high (or even perceived high) uncertainty, thus preferentially prospering. Which is exactly why the narrative of catastrophe abounds within authority statements about climate change, per footnotes 1 to 5, plus is so pervasive within the public domain generally. (However, an ‘intent’ can’t be assumed; regarding emergent narratives the great majority of people are propagating what they genuinely and passionately think is truth). The Quroa text continues: ‘Adding catastrophic to the neutral phrase “anthropogenic global warming” is making it needlessly emotive.’ So, if indeed the person deploying ‘CAGW’ is needlessly adding the ‘C’, then yes. But… if that ‘C’ merely reflects the catastrophic that already existed regarding the social phenomenon or group or followers being described (e.g. Greenpeace politically pressuring with a campaign based upon certain catastrophic climate change), or indeed per section 2 catastrophic narrative or section 3 *specific* science / scientists aligned to catastrophe, then the ‘C’ is a correct and proper description. Emotive persuasion was injected by that being described, not by the mere act of (correctly) describing it.

Michael’s valid points about emotive descriptors and neutrality miss the big picture. While emphasizing as I do that ‘CAGW’ misrepresents mainstream / AR5WGC climate science, he makes no mention that according to an array of the highest authority sources, so largely within the public understanding too, the catastrophic is backed by mainstream climate / AGW science. Not to mention missing that describing pre-existing highly emotive phenomena, requires a meaningful reference to the emotive content.

Summary and Discussion

According to majority / mainstream science and indeed minority skepticism too, the CAGW narrative is a major misrepresentation22. Yet according to a minority of scientists at the opposite fringe to skeptics, this narrative reflects a more realistic position. Whether future history proves notions of CAGW to be right or wrong, acronym usage like the last 2 instances is entirely meaningful; notions of the catastrophic (absent major emissions cuts) and a copious narrative about them, patently exist. Such narrative is widespread in the public domain, being emphatically promoted by highly influential Western authority (until the current US admin exception) plus a raft of other authorities too23, who frequently cite imminent catastrophe as the principal reason for action on emissions. Nor has it spread via demonstrable scientific confirmation (albeit such confirmation may conceivably occur one day), but merely via emotive persuasiveness.

Nevertheless A-list presidents, prime ministers and the UN elite (the latter contradicting their own IPCC) claim that CAGW is validated by mainstream science. It’s difficult to see how this false backing could ever be questioned in the public mind, unless the mainstream science community pushes back far more strongly against such assertions. Meanwhile the fringe camp, i.e. those scientists (general and climate disciplines) comfortable with catastrophic projections, are much less shy about pushing authority with their concerns.

Despite oft-used inflationary descriptors or terminal metaphors5g,7h, sometimes references to extreme weather, or even straight propositions like the ‘save the planet’ or absent action a collapse of civilization, catastrophe narrative as it appears in footnotes 1 to 5 has no consistent definition of what ‘catastrophe’ actually means, or indeed quite how this state is arrived at. From the PoV of narrative success this is a fantastic attribute, allowing the latitude for each person to interpret the worst in their own terms (hence over numerous propagations, a generic apocalypse canon eventually emerges). Perhaps such vagueness might be expected from non-scientists, yet the public propagation from exampled scientists6,7 is no less emotively descriptive and no more consistent regarding actual meaning. Arguably, it is more lurid and emotively penetrating, and less objective.

This fluidity allows the CAGW narrative to hi-jack any view that is not actively skeptical via highly emotive persuasion, also seize the perceived moral high ground, while simultaneously bypassing objective considerations about the real meaning, and by omission avoid culpability regarding any unsupported (by the mainstream) mechanisms of, and uncertainties regarding, global catastrophe, which are not actually detailed. (When quotes are from scientists some detail may appear in associated papers, typically falling short of the framing of high certainty of global catastrophe, yet the public and likely authority too, only sees the public quotes anyhow). In short, it has very high selective value. Its emotive potency even sets the bounds of what skepticism is perceived to be within the public domain, and thus enables authority sources to claim mainstream territory even though mainstream science doesn’t support the catastrophic via any reasonable interpretation of this collective narrative.

Along with appropriate usage, there is much inappropriate usage from engaged skeptics deploying the term ‘CAGW’. In complete contrast to the situation with A-listers and influencers above, whose linkage of the catastrophic with mainstream science isn’t challenged, indeed is often praised, similar associations from skeptics typically attract vociferous objection. Misuse increases polarization and impedes greater understanding; this blunder28 from skeptics shouldn’t be overlooked. However, it seems unlikely that the great majority of the public are even aware of the ‘CAGW’ acronym26, so the impact upon them of any misuse via this term must perforce be very modest indeed. Yet whether leaning skeptical or orthodox or indifferent regarding climate change, few of the public will be unaware of the narrative of certain (absent action) man-made catastrophe that perfectly reasonably earns the acronym ‘CAGW’.

The misdirection and bias plus instinctive kick-back invoked by such highly emotive misinformation, as propagated for years by the exampled A-listers / authorities / orgs, utterly dwarfs any above impact. This acronym may indeed be an invention of skeptics24, yet not the untamed narrative that it describes. The latter doesn’t injure only mainstream science, but all science, including even that work which may point towards more severe consequences, because its long and high profile in the public domain isn’t any result of science, and the emotive biases it amplifies leak back into science21.

So ‘CAGW’ can be used as a ‘snarl word’, and is, albeit misunderstanding is likely the main cause. It is also a perfectly reasonable and meaningful term for a long-lived narrative elephant (with consequent effects) in the public domain and from top authority sources, plus a presence in some science too, and an ethic behind some social responses. Thus, when describing these phenomena, CAGW is not at all the straw-man that some of the orthodox claim. When the naming of a valid concept is avoided, discussing that concept becomes difficult, with awkward / obscure phrases and dancing around the issue. Or still more comedic, like whispering about he-who-must-not-be-named in Harry Potter. Hence despite some acquired cultural aggressiveness, which often sticks to terms within conflicted domains, the appropriate use of ‘CAGW’ is meaningful and necessary. Without it, the domain would simply need a virtually identical replacement term27 to express the valid concept it accurately covers.

Link to footnotes [Footnotes]

November 26, 2018 - Posted by | Full Spectrum Dominance | ,

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