The Head-Shrinking Scourge Of Sceptics


Professor Joseph Reser of the Australian Psychological Association fears that “climate deniers” are hobbling the push to save our poor, sweating planet. He would be better advised to check his “facts”, because many aren’t merely wrong, they are ludicrously so

shrink brainThe  eminence grise of the 21,000-member Australian Psychology Society (APS) is Professor Joseph Reser of Griffith University, a contributing author to the 5th IPCC report. With funding support from the since-axed Department of Climate Change, he and his team ran two large-scale Australian surveys in 2010 and 2011 (3096 and 4347 respondents), to document people’s climate change views.  From the results he has filed two academic reports totaling 340 pages, endlessly quoted by the APS.

Reser found that  “genuine distress at the implications of climate change appeared to be a reality for possibly 20% of survey respondents” (p141). Amazingly, 52% of the total 7443 respondents thought that global warming impacts were “currently” being felt in Australia, 45% thought they had personally witnessed the environmental impacts, and 59% thought their home turf was vulnerable to climate change horrors.

Climate worrywarts, according to Reser, are suffering

“…apprehension, anxiety, or loss due to the threat and projected consequences of climate change, for oneself, humanity, and/or the natural world”,  along with hopelessness, dread, “uncertainly” (sic) , resignation, pessimism, real sadness, preoccupation, psychological distress, genuine alarm and fear, “and a clear sense that things will likely get worse”.

He also has discovered supercharged sorrow because of  the alleged loss of species and ecosystems through lately non-existent warming.


The APS sees all this as a great opportunity to provide ‘stress and distress’ counseling to our panicking citizenry, and to help   design behavior-change programs. Considering the APS favors 30% emission cuts by 2020, and 90% by 2050 (back to the caves, everyone!), our behaviour would  certainly need some changing. Yikes, we’re nearly to 2020 already. Even Kevin Rudd wanted only a 5% cut by 2020, from 2000 levels.

Amusingly, Reser imagines that human emissions have been damaging the planet “for at least the past several hundred years” (p123). Those 600 steam engines 18th century Europe clearly have a lot of global warming to answer for. So, apparently, do  the Virgin Queen’s fireplaces.

In the 2010 survey, Reser asked how concerned you are that “electricity will become unaffordable”. A whopping 85% said they were fairly or very concerned. This embarrassing question disappeared from the bigger July-August 2011 survey, without explanation.

While professing to play a straight bat with his 2011 survey, Reser includes a question about what strategies you are relying on re climate change, “such as, ‘Pretend that climate change is not happening’”. Well, for 15 years that warming hasn’t been happening, so no need to “pretend” anything. Another question precludes any sceptical answer:

  • Which of the following statements best describes how you feel about climate change?
  • The issue is overwhelming and I feel helpless
  • I am frustrated that not enough is being done
  • I am hopeful that if we take action now, we can stop it
  • I am tired of hearing about it, and I want to see some action taken. (author’s emphasis).

Maybe we need a fifth choice here:

  • I wish Professor Reser would stop frightening the horses.

The tenor of Reser’s surveys also can be judged by the ten questions he asks to test respondents’ “objective knowledge” about climate “facts”, then cross-tabulated against a myriad of other survey findings. Below are five statements he rates as “True” and he marks down anyone saying they are “False”. The result: most respondents struggled to get the 50% pass rate on Reser’s ‘facts’ (but Greens voters got the best scores):

1.  Australia is one of the most exposed nations with respect to projected impacts of climate change 2. Climate change will increase the risk in Australia for diseases transmitted by water and mosquitoes over the next 100 years.[1]
3. Globally, the current burning of fossil fuels accounts for 80-85% (CO2) emissions added to the atmosphere.[2]
4. The change in global temperature for the last 100 years is greater than for the last 1000 years  [Hello to Michael Mann’s discredited “Hockey Stick” reconstruction of global temperatures].
The number of weather-related disasters around the world has doubled since the mid 1990s.[3]

Regarding 1, we can discover elsewhere in Reser’s report  that CSIRO and  Bureau of Meteorology and Professor Will Steffen merely ‘deem’ Australia to be more exposed than other continents (not ‘nations’) to this hypothetical warming, because of hypothetical flooding of our long coastlines and all that.

The four “fact” options are, in fact, a mix of futurology (1 and 2), a Nobel Prize-worthy discovery, if ever established (3), paleoclimatology – a highly-uncertain science (4),  and vagueness multiplied (5). In the first survey, he muddled his own preamble to a  question, wrongly claiming (p78) that the 2007 census asked people about their concern about climate change.

While Reser is a whiz at survey-processing, his lack of smarts on the man-made warming debate let him down. Not once in 340 pages does he mention the halt to warming since 1997 – although even the IPCC now acknowledges a 15-year hiatus.  Instead, Reser discovers   “more and more … a profoundly changing global environment” (p134). He spends scores of pages, and much of his survey, on making or noting illegitimate connections between various recent big weather events and the ogre of (not-happening) global warming. Even IPCC scientists reject links between climate change and specific weather events, other than heat waves and precipitation.

But he suggests that since nearly half the public is convinced such links exist (eg., between climate change and 2009′s Black Saturday bushfire catastrophe in Victoria), the misperception should be harnessed for warmist-indoctrination purposes.  (One respondent was convinced about the global warming narrative because he/she had seen snakes in mid-winter). Reser continues that it makes “considerable practical as well as psychological sense” to bring climate change “home” to people via the climate/weather-extreme linkages, to prompt people to swap light globes and other green activities (p134).

He’s personally convinced there ares links and evidently feels no moral discomfort. He believes the “hard-line position” of science against linking specific extreme weather events and climate change is crumbling in favor of a ‘more pragmatic’ stance, which will accept the need for ‘near real time’ causal accounts and explanations. In any event, scientists can fall back on the meme that linking climate change to a storm etc., can be done, if couched in ways involving “the probabilistic nature of attribution”, he says. So let’s go with the link, he says, since “ newspaper, new media, and popular science headlines and images around the world repeatedly proclaim this interconnection between climate change and the increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events” (p136).

I suspect the Reser formula for this climate “education” has gained real traction, given the drumbeat of stories lately making the dud climate/storm/drought linkages.

Reser is rattled by surveys – including CSIRO’s – finding ‘sceptics’ in the community numbering 40% or so. He insists on a figure for sceptics of 4.7-8.5%, based on his own surveys. His concern is that larger sceptic numbers, like 40%, from other polls and even from the ABC, are broadcast by the media, and  then plunge believers into swamps of “confusion, frustration and pessimism” (p145).

His solution is simple: he redefines ‘sceptics’ so stringently that hardly anyone would qualify. To Reser, a stringent sceptic (4.7% of population) believes the world’s climate is not changing . They also believe that climate change is entirely natural and Australia will never start feeling any impacts of climate change. A more-inclusive Reser-defined sceptic  (8.5%) embraces a sceptic take on most of those propositions. The CSIRO is more plausible. It reported in January that, of of mid-2013, less than half of all Australians (47.3%) thought climate change was happening and humans were causing it.

Even on Reser’s stringent definition, scepticism grew from 2010 to 2011. His desperate rationalisations include media campaigning biased against true believers – this argument relying on axe-grinding work he cites  by researchers like Wendy Bacon. [Bacon, a journalism academic,  thinks any coverage whatsoever of sceptic views constitutes media bias]. Noting that  sceptics are ‘conservative white males’ sharing a weird worldview (p31), he suggests that they are dismissing the ‘science’ to reduce their anxieties. It never occurs to Reser that an unpredicted halt to warming of well over a decade might be encouraging a bit more scepticism about the IPCC.

In fact, his 2011 survey showed that only 29% bought the IPCC line of dominant human influence on warming, and nearly 70% did not (p176).

Reser’s view seems to be that sceptics can’t face the terror of global warming, so they are ‘frantically shoring up’ their equanimity by trying to discredit “the science, the scientists, and confronting documentaries” – I assume he means Gore’s  error-riddled Inconvenient Truth. Reser at no point grasps the importance to the science debate of the IPCC’s 51%-plus attribution of warming to human activity.

He brushes aside notions that “climate change” means any climate change, and insists that by the conveniently-circular United Nations definition, “climate change” means “human-caused climate change”. However, he concedes that his use of the term “climate change” in the survey might have led to confusions among respondents. Nonetheless, he thinks, “climate change” ought to “immediately raise issues of responsibility, accountability, and guilt” (p126).

He blames some rising scepticism on “oversaturated and sensationalized media coverage” (p142), as if his own output isn’t full of sensational claims about storms, disasters and planetary crises. As he puts it,  “Unfolding environmental changes and dire science prognoses are strongly suggesting that Australia and the world will be facing very serious and life-affecting challenges. …what is at risk are not only cherished aspects of familiar local and global natural environments, but life support systems and livelihoods as the world alters” (p160).

He discovers that Hurricane Sandy has generated “the global significance of much of New York City being inundated by a disaster associated with climate change”, although there is no evidence whatsoever that the hurricane was climate-change related (p152).

Reser’s endemic confusion between “climate” and “weather” probably stems from his use of the American Psychological Association definition, which fails to specify any time period, let alone the normal 30-year averaging of weather. The 2011 survey was funded not only by the late Department of Climate Change et al, but also by the Australian Red Cross.

Thus your Red  Cross donations, which you might imagine help feed starving Somalis,  may be  funding academics to labour over  mental health impacts in Australia of less than a degree of warming in the past  100 years.

Tony Thomas has suffered resignation, pessimism, real sadness, preoccupation, psychological distress etc from having to plough through Reser’s reports. He blogs


[2]  Changes in atmospheric CO2 are not tracking changes in human emissions.






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