Strategies of Communication on Climate Change

Friday, May 31, 2013

Wagon trains and white water rafting


by Bill Everett

About four decades ago, an early member of the Club of Rome used "a 'wagon-train model' of pioneers moving into unknown illuminate the collective cybernetics of social goal-seeking and social change." [1] At that time, we discussed roles in an expanded version of the model: scouts fanning out ahead of the wagon train and exploring the "near-future" territory, pathfinders dispatched toward one or more desirable immediate objectives based on scouting reports, road-builders and pioneering engineers dispatched along the selected path to "smooth" the way and overcome obstacles, and so on.

We can suppose that the country of the "future" is not totally unknown. Explorers have reported the existence of very distant "valleys of sustainability" and also the dangerous (possibly uninhabitable) regions in the near vicinity. Further, let's suppose we have formed a wagon train and plan to try to reach one of the distant valleys of sustainability to settle there. We have a sort of model (simile or metaphor) to guide us in "organizing" the different specialists or roles that are needed for our wagon train to have some chance of getting there from here.

Projecting this model into the past, we can suppose that we found bodies of water and waterways and that we converted our wagons into rafts or boats, finding the water path easier. But the current in our river of history has been speeding up. I have a strong feeling that there are rapids ahead, quite likely with dangerous white water. The banks of the river now seem too high and steep, and the landing places where we could land our rafts and boats, converting them back into wagons, seem to have been left behind. We may already be committed to trying to make our way through the rapids and survive the white water.

If this is the case, then Platt's notion of an inertia period [1] is a dangerous simplification, and we must focus on a point made on slide 33 of Ian Dunlop's UN presentation [2]: "There is no alternative to an emergency war-footing approach to speed up the process." In other words, instead of scouts, pathfinders, road-builders and pioneering engineers, the necessary roles include bow-man/lookout, port paddlers, starboard paddlers, and stern oarman. Prompt and accurate warnings and instructions from the front of our craft, prompt vigorous appropriate actions by the paddlers on the left and right sides, and strong properly directed exertions at the stern might keep the longitudinal axis of our craft properly aligned to the current and the slope of the water surface to prevent capsizing (see the last minute or so of the video for a failure example). It may also be possible to shift into a part of the current that passes around destructive waterfalls.

In terms of the "emergency war-footing approach," in the very little time remaining before we hit the rapids, we need to develop, test, and practice the necessary rapid communication channels and the appropriate actions to have at least some control over the "attitude" of our carrier in the turbulent section.


1. John Platt, "How men can shape their future," Futures, March 1971, pp. 32-47,‎

Thursday, May 30, 2013

The wrong side of democracy

Here are the results of an opinion poll on the "Telegraph" on whether humans are responsible for climate change.

Now, imagine that they had asked whether gravity is responsible for keeping our feet stuck to the ground......

(h/t Leo Hickman for the link and Daniela Green for the cat picture)

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Climate change in a perverse culture

"Engaging with Climate Change"; edited by Sally Weintrobe, is a beautiful book written by people who care about the world, about nature, and about the well being of all humans. A refreshing lecture in a debate based on hate and personal attacks. It goes to the heart of the matter, to the way the human mind reacts to the perspectives of climate change, as shown in this excerpt from the chapter by Paul Hoggett.

Perverse thinking
by Paul Hoggett - excerpt from "Engaging with Climate Change" (Rutledge 2013) (highlights in boldface by The Frog)

One problem facing citizens in the developed world is that we are cursed by our knowledgeability. Information saturates the world in which we live, and as a consequence we cannot but help know about things we would rather not know about: things such as global inequality and poverty, or massacres and pogroms, some of which, as in Bosnia, occur on our very doorstep. In his compelling book "States of Denial", Stan Cohen argues forcefully that in post-Holocaust society organized denial has become a crucial mechanism for sustaining citizen apathy in the face of violence, injustice and disaster. We 'know' and yet we seem to be ill-equipped to bear the pain of what we know. In the perverse state of mind, reality is not rejected outright but is simultaneously acknowledged and disavowed.

Hoggett then goes on describing the "perverse" states of the mind that lead to apathy: skepticism, turning a blind eye, internal propaganda and more. He concludes that:

... perverse thinking... has been greatly facilitated by the spread of virtualism in economic and social life. I have speculated that such perversity may have infected the practice of politics itself, leading to a kind of virtual or "as if" politics in which enormous energy is put into the specification of objectives, targets and indicators and the corresponding demonstration that one's performance is moving towards such targets. ... the attempts to reach international agreement around climate change, first embodied in the Kyoto Protocol and more recently in the failed Copenhagen Summit, in some ways bear an uncanny resemblance to such perverse forms of politics, as though government actors themselves no longer know whether they are simulating or not.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Climate change: what influences the level of public concern?

In short: it's a political problem. According to a recent study by Brulle and others, the degree of concern about climate change depends mainly on one's political position: either as a democrat or as a republican. The article explains this point and tells us much more; for instance how extreme weather events have no influence on public concern and how the efforts of scientists have, at best, only a marginal effect. Seen in this light, the turning of climate change into a politicized issue may well be the greatest tragedy of our times, as it made it impossible to attain the degree of consensus necessary to act decisively on the problem (h/t Max Iacono).

Shifting public opinion on climate change: an empirical assessment of factors influencing concern over climate change in the U.S., 2002 – 2010. Robert J. Brulle, Jason Carmichael and J. Craig Jenkins, Climatic Change, DOI 10.1007/s10584-012-0403-y

Excerpt from the "Conclusion" (highlight in boldface by "the frog")

.... we found that weather events, in themselves, do not influence the overall level of public concern (so far). The promulgation of scientific information about climate change has a small but significant effect. Science articles, generally not read by the public, have no discernible effect, while major assessment reports and articles on climate change in popular science magazines do affect public concern. The implication would seem to be that science-based information is limited in shaping public concern about the climate change threat. Other, more directly political communications appear to be more important. 

The major factors that affect levels of public concern about climate change can be grouped into three areas. First, media coverage of climate change directly affects the level of public concern. The greater the quantity of media coverage of climate change, the greater the level of public concern. This is in line with the Quantity of Coverage theory of media effects, and existing individual level research on the impact of television coverage on climate-change concern. The importance the media assigns to coverage of climate change translates into the importance the public attaches to this issue. Second, in a society with a limited amount of “ issue space, ” unemployment, economic prosperity, and involvement in wars all compete with climate change for public concern. 

The most important factor in influencing public opinion on climate change, however, is the elite partisan battle over the issue. The two strongest effects on public concern are Democratic Congressional action statements and Republican roll-call votes, which increase and diminish public concern, respectively. This finding points to the effect of polarized political elite that is emitting contrary cues, with resulting (seemingly) contrary levels of public concern. As noted by McDonald ( 2009 : 52) “ When elites have consensus, the public follows suit and the issue becomes mainstreamed. When elites disagree, polarization occurs, and citizens rely on other indicators, such as political party or source credibility, to make up their minds. ” This appears to be the case with climate change. 

The implication would seem to be that a mass communications effort to alter the salience of the climate change issue is unlikely to have much impact. A great deal of focus has been devoted to the analysis and development of various communication techniques to better convey an understanding of climate change to individual members of the public. However, this analysis shows that these efforts have a minor influence, and are dwarfed by the effect of the divide on environmental issues in the political elite. Additionally, the analysis has shown that, in line with the media effects literature, the effects of communication on public opinion regarding climate change are short lived. A high level of public concern over climate change was seen only during a period of both high levels of media coverage and active statements about the issue ’ s seriousness from political elites. It rapidly declined when these two factors declined. Thus, if public concern is to be sustained under the present circumstances, there is a need for continuous public communications efforts to maintain public support for climate change action in the face of opposing messaging campaigns (Habermas 1989 : 141). 

The more important factor at the aggregate level is the polarized positions taken by Democrats and Republicans. This polarization over environmental issues is long standing, and has extended to the climate- change arena, making it a highly partisan issue. Given the vested economic interests reflected in this polarization, it seems doubtful that any communication process focused on persuading individuals will have much impact. As Orr ( 2005 ) has noted, the barriers to action on climate change are based in the distribution of social power in the economic, political, and cultural spheres. Introducing new messages or information into an otherwise unchanged socioeconomic system will accomplish little (Luke 2005 ). Observing the limits of communication to resolve conflicts of this nature, Strömbäch and Kiousis ( 2011 : 6) note that “ some conflicts and questions of power are rooted in enduring and incompatible differences between positions or interests, and cannot be resolved through communication. ” 

Therefore, any communications strategy that holds Climatic Change out the promise of effectiveness must be linked to a broader political strategy. Political conflicts are ultimately resolved through political mobilization and activism. Further efforts to address the issue of climate change need to take this into account.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Climate change: reframing the issue

This video by Ryan Cooper is a very simple, but it goes to the heart of the problem. If we consider climate change as an environmental issue, nothing will be done. People just won't make sacrifices for the sake of an entity called "the environment" which has no face and no shape.

But if we reframe the question as a security issue: then it is our issue - it is everyone's issue. It is a problem for real people, not for abstract entities. Then we can move and do something - we must move and do something.

If you think about that, this is exactly the point that Ian Dunlop makes and that was described in a previous post on the Frog Blog. It is an issue that needs an "emergency war footing". It seems that more and more people are coming to see the problem in these terms. It may well be the only remaining chance we have.

h/t EcoEquity

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Stopping climate change is not just a good idea, it should be the law!

The Gummi Bears riding their "quick car" in the tunnels of the Gummi Glen. In this animated TV series of the 1980s, the characters were always shown buckling up before riding their quick car. At that time, seat belts laws were not yet commonplace and were often ignored. So, the Gummi bears were enlisted to remind to children that they had to wear seat belts while riding a car. 

Already in the 1960s, crash tests had clearly shown the effectiveness of seat belts in saving lives in traffic accidents. Nevertheless, the introduction of seat belts for passenger cars faced many obstacles. One was with the automotive companies, which often saw seat belts as an extra cost that they didn't like to bear. But customers were probably the most important problem. People knew about the risk of traffic accidents, but still they disliked seat belts, normally not using them even when they were available in their car. People often doubted the usefulness of belts; fearing the risk of remaining trapped in a burning car. Many disliked the feeling of constraint that wearing belts generated. More than all, it was a psychological problem: most drivers felt that they had a certain "power" on their vehicle and disliked the idea of a passive constraint on which they had no control.

Because of these motives, when a seat belt law was enacted in Italy, in the 1980s, it is said that you could buy t-shirts that had a fake seat belt printed on the front side, with the idea of duping traffic officers. If it is true, it is a great example of how weird is the way the human mind works. People would pay money NOT to be safer! (And, if it is a legend, the very fact that it diffused in the media indicates that some people were at least willing to consider it as true). Fortunately, today things have changed and there surely exists a general consensus that seat belts are not just a good idea, they are the law.

The story of seat belt laws has many points in common with that of the climate change problem. The reaction is in many ways the same: people ignore the climate problem, just as people in the 1970s often sat over seat belts rather than wearing them. Unfortunately there is no clear-cut consensus, today, that stopping climate change is not just a good idea, it should be the law.

So, can we learn something from the case of seat belt laws as a "model" for fighting anthropogenic climate change? Of course there are differences but, yes, it is worth examining in some detail seat belt laws as a success story in societal risk management.

A first point is that seat belt laws never were the objective of the kind of widespread denialist campaign that we are seeing today against climate science. That was not for lack of arguments: a 1981 paper by John Adams had found no clear evidence that the introduction of seat belts reduced the total number of traffic fatalities. Had the "Merchants of Doubt" stepped in at this moment to exploit Adam's data, probably we still wouldn't have seat belt laws. But no lobby decided to ride the issue and, without a political support, this view of seat belts remained confined to a tiny minority and it didn't generate the kind of aggressive denial that is typically seen in the debate on climate. Over the years, Adam's paper was disproved by experimental evidence clearly showing that seat belts do save lives and reduce injuries not just in laboratory tests, but also in the real world (see, e.g, this paper).  

Notice how the lack of complete certainty did NOT stop the effort of legislating on the mandatory use of seat belts. Seat belts laws can be seen as a correct application of the precautionary principle: don't wait for absolute certainty, but act when there are sufficient data to establish that a risk exists.

Finally, seat belts were mandated by law much before the public was fully convinced that such laws were necessary - it was sufficient that policy-makers and opinion leaders were convinced. A 1977 poll in the US reported that 80% of respondents strongly opposed seat belt laws. These early data contrast with the present general opinion, which is now opposite. A 2008 poll, reports that "when asked whether they favor front seat belt laws 66 percent of 16- to 20-year-olds said they favor them 'a lot', and 26 percent said they favor them 'some' ". Evidently, the public learned to appreciate seat belts only after being pushed (a little, and sometimes a lot) to use them.

So, the story of seat belt laws shows us the importance of financial lobbies in the decision mechanisms of our society. Today, legislative action against climate change has been stopped by a series of effective propaganda campaigns which have succeeded in politicizing the issue and making it impossible to manage rationally. This is probably the most important stumbling block we are facing nowadays. As long as the denial machine is financed and active, progress with the climate issue can only be very slow.

But it is not impossible to beat even a very powerful lobby: it could be done in the case of the tobacco and the pesticide industries. It takes effort and patience but, if we work on that, eventually we'll succeed. Then, the example of seat belts shows us that absolute certainty is not necessary in order to act on a dangerous problem. The fact that a law may be unpleasant - such as wearing a seat belt every time one rides a car - does not prevent from reaching a general consensus that the law was needed.

We do have sufficient evidence that the problem of climate change is serious and important and, at some moment, we'll arrive to a general consensus that stopping climate change is not only a good idea, it is the law.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

The important thing is to do something

A post by Max Iacono, inspired by the post by Ugo Bardi on the meeting on climate change held in the town of Fiesole

by Max Iacono

A meeting such as the one whichtook place in Fiesole easily could be viewed as the first in a longer series of stakeholder meetings convened as part of a participatory local economic and social development program lasting several years.   Two “development” paradigms or models come to mind here.  One is “community development” and the other is “local economic development” or more generally “local development”.  “Local development” is a more encompassing term which can include local economic, social, political/ governance, cultural and environmental kinds of development; and an adequate local response to climate change can be viewed as engaging in a particular type of “local environmental development” program; in reality the various “dimensional” types of local development mentioned above all are inter-related and mutually supportive or constraining.

Without going further into the distinctions between community development and local economic or other kinds of local development each pursued in different ways  -since the international experience is wide and diverse- it is useful to note that often participatory local development initiatives begin with an assessment of the current situation in which the locality finds itself;  the local stakeholders look at both problems and opportunities which the community faces and then try to identify strategies and programs to self-develop the locality or community to which they belong.  If the meeting in Fiesole -or in the countless other localities throughout the world where it might have taken place- is viewed in this way, then the meeting might be seen as only the first in a series of many geared to assessing local problems and needs, developing strategies and then implementing an appropriate set of practical measures and actions. 

It is of course very difficult -in fact impossible- to know in advance what practical measures eventually should or could be implemented by local stakeholders at the community or local levels in the millions of communities and localities existing throughout the world  to mitigate against climate change and its many diverse effects in each particular place.   These measures by necessity will vary enormously from place to place and context to context.

One fairly obvious general effect of climate change however is that the weather is getting “wilder” in various ways.  So there are  -and there will continue to be- more droughts, more fires, more very heavy rainfall or snowfall, more floods, more hurricanes,  more tornados, and seasons that are ever more out of kilter -e.g. longer or shorter and more intense summers or winters- thereby also affecting agriculture in various and differing ways,  as well as plants, trees, animals, insects, pollinators, vector-borne diseases and etc.

It would seem that the first thing any community or locality would need or wish to do is to understand:  i) how exactly it is being affected already in some of the ways above or in other ways over any single calendar year period;  and ii) how  is it most likely going to be affected in let’s say another five years based on current trends in the worsening of climate change.  Since this is the most probable scenario because parts per million of CO2 continue to increase by about 3 ppm per year and increasing quantities of methane also are being released and more ice melt also is occurring.   But it also can be useful to look at the history of severe weather events in the locality and around its general area over the past 50 to 100 years, if it is available.   This is because a flood that before might have occurred only once in every 100 years now might occur on average once per decade.  

Once this first general assessment is done it will be easier for local stakeholders to discuss sensibly what might be done and what could be planned and done by the local community,  or by the province or the region or the country within which it is set. 

The other aspect which I think any local stakeholders probably need to understand is the difference between various kinds of actions and measures which are possible and namely those which belong in four categories:  i) prevention ii) mitigation iii) adaptation and iv) reversal.  Measures implemented in one category may have effects in some of the other categories too but generally speaking there are different measures for different objectives.
For instance although Fiesole may wish to focus on preparing better for any fires which may occur, nothing prevents its residents from also being aware of what is involved in the Keystone pipeline decision in the United States which will affect prevention probably more than any other single development at this time. And although I wouldn’t necessarily advocate it because I think it would be mostly ineffective, they also could write a letter about it to president Obama so that he at least might know that people all over the world are watching what he does or fails to do.  Doing something about preparing for fires  (mitigation locally) while writing such a letter (prevention internationally) would help to synergize and further activate the concern and action for climate change by those involved.  The important thing is to actually do something and to remember that it is mostly by doing –and often by trial and error- that we learn ever more about what to do and how to do it and develop further both our capacities and our confidence and motivation for taking further action.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Ian Dunlop: an emergency war footing action against climate change

Ian Dunlop, is an energy expert, director of "Australia 21," member of the Club of Rome, and more. On climate change, he is an extremely effective speaker who doesn't do any pill sugaring; as you can see in the video above. The slides he presents are also avaliable on-line. From this set of slides, here is the conclusion:

The climate & energy challenge is far greater & more urgent than is acknowledged officially

“Official” solutions, and current processes, are not working and will not deliver the required transformation either to the extent, or in the time, required.

Market forces will not deliver without fundamental regulatory change.

If we are serious about avoiding catastrophic outcomes, emergency “war-footing” action is essential

“It is no use saying ‘we are doing our best’, we have to do what is required.” 

Winston Churchill

Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Arctic is the real canary in the coal mine!

While the „denialosphere” is desperately trying to develop just-another-misunderstanding of climate science (search for “global warming stopped” meme), there is another *real* issue. Specifically, the last time planet Earth enjoyed carbon concentration at around 400 ppm for a longer time period, average summer temperatures in the Arctic region were significantly higher.

According to the latest and most comprehensive paleoclimatic analysis, which brought us high resolution temporal data back to the Pliocene (Brigham-Grette et al., 2013, Science), summer temperatures in NE Arctic region were ~8 °C higher compared with present-day climatology.

There are tree recent paleoclimatic temperature reconstructions from the Arctic region. Two of them are presented in the following graph:

The graph shows temperature anomalies (relative to 1960-1990 climatology) during the summer in the Arctic region with a 10-year resolution in the last 2000 years (Kaufmann et al., 2009) (txt tfile). The second reconstruction shows a newer analysis (Shi et al., 2012) (txt file), based on more proxy data and with yearly time resolution. The shortest curve represents the instrumental temperature records according to NOAA (1880-2010) for the summer temperatures in the Arctic.

The fit of the two paleo-reconstructions is not perfect, but the trends are similar and warmer, as well cooler periods in the past can be observed – the well known “Little Ice Age” and “Medieval Warm Period”. The recent “hockey stick” is also familiar to most people engaged in climate change discussion, since a similar trend is valid for the whole Nothern hemisphere and the planet.

But there is more. What we already knew is that as CO2 concentration continue to rise, global temperatures will do the same. The arctic region will warm even faster. Maybe some positive feedback loop will kick in. Maybe even more than one. But now things look even more complicated, since the recent work of Brigham-Grette et al. (2013) has shown us, what the area around the lake El’gygytgyn in the NE Arctic Russia (and by proxy also most of he Arctic) looked like last time, when CO2 concentration was approximately at the present level. Watch out:

Still concerned only about polar bears? This article was originally published at Neven's Arctic Sea Ice Blog. There is also another excellent representation of human extremely complex influence on planet Earth, which many call "The Anthropocene", not without a reason!

A comment by Ugo Bardi: The decline of Arctic ice is probably the most visually evident consequence of global warming. It is clear, obvious, impressive: no one can miss it. And with the troubles of the polar bears, you would think that no one could remain indifferent. You would think that a well argued and well researched article such as this one by Alexander Ac would have some effect.

Yet, the accumulating evidence fails to make a dent in the general indifference. News about the polar melting appear in the media, but they fail to generate a reaction: most people seem to be immune to memetic infection from Arctic news. In large part, this lack of reaction is due to the "Star Wars Force Push" effect. As Peter Sandman states, people react to emergencies in way that are far from being rational: "When somebody says something that people don’t want to hear – and certainly don’t want to have to think about or acknowledge – they sometimes self-mockingly stick their fingers in their ears and sing, “La-la-la-la-la.” This is a very literal representation of the essence of denial."

So, it is not enough to place the evidence in front of people: most of the times, they will just ignore it. Even if the canary dies, they'll keep mining.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Truth is flooding out?

I don't know what's your impression; maybe I am biased, but I have this feeling of an acceleration, of something that's boiling up in people's minds. More and more people are entering the fray; and they are doing it forcefully and with strong arguments. And not just scientists: people with different backgrounds and abilities are coming forward. The latest one I stumbled upon is Gaius Publius; again not a climate scientist. It is very well written and an example of how to communicate the danger of climate change. Is truth finally flooding out?

The climate crisis in three easy charts

I’m preparing to pivot back to climate crisis, starting with some reformatting of the earlier Climate Series posts — the transition to WordPress wasn’t kind to them — and the organization of this material into book form. (There’s also a climate-themed novel in the works; thriller fans, stay tuned.)
As a result, I’m doing serious study to refine both the concepts (or rather, the explanation of them) and the dating of coming events (the crisis in its various stages).

The first part of that pivot includes two media appearances this week. I’ll be on Virtually Speaking With Jay Ackroyd this Thursday (May 2) at 9 pm ET to discuss climate crisis for a full hour, followed by a Sunday appearance with Avedon Carol as part of the Virtually Speaking Sundays weekly media panel.
It’s the climate discussion I want to focus on here, and I’d like to do it by focusing on three diagrams and a few references back to my earlier climate pieces.

Climate catastrophe will usher in a new geologic era

Long-scale earth history is divided into Eons, then Eras, then Periods. But in fact, prior to the Cambrian Period, when life on earth exploded in number and variety, earth history is the story of non-life or small single- or multi-celled life. And starting with the Cambrian period, there’s just one “eon” anyway. It’s eras and periods we care about.

So let’s start there, with the Cambrian Period and the flourishing of life on earth. Consider the chart below:

The divisions across the top are geologic periods, starting with the Cambrian (“Cm”), the period of “visible life”‘ — meaning a proliferation of hardshelled species. It’s the big explosion of life on earth. The numbers across the bottom are millions of years ago. The spikes show extinction events, with the percentage of marine species going extinct expressed on the vertical or Y axis.
The chart doesn’t call them out, but starting with the Cambrian period, we’ve had three geologic eras (the larger divisions):

Paleozoic Era — “old life”
Mesozoic Era — “middle life” or the Age of Reptiles (dino days)
Cenozoic Era — “new life” or the Age of Mammals (including us)

The Paleozoic Era runs from the start of the graph to the big spike at 250 million years ago on the X axis. It encompasses six geologic periods and ended in the greatest mass extinction event on the planet — geologists call it the “Great Dying”.

The Mesozoic Era runs from the Great Dying at 250 million years ago to the big spike at 65 million years ago, the event that wiped out the dinosaurs — and every other large species. That cleared the way for mammals to grow big and thrive.

We’re now in the Cenozoic Era. Keep those transitions in mind — when mass extinctions change which groups of species can evolve and rule, it’s the end of an era and the start of another. Now look at the chart again. The whole chart shows 540 million years, and just three geologic eras. The next extinction event on the scale of the one at 250 million years ago, or the one at 65 million years ago, will change the shape of life on earth and usher in a new era. Ready for that?

[Update: For a chart that shows geologic eras, periods and their subdivisions in one place, click here. Opens in a new tab.]

Where does man fit in?

Great question — where does man fit in? Answer: We come in very late.
First, notice the last three geologic “periods” at the top-right in the chart above. The period marked “K” is the Cretaceous, the period at the end of the Mesozoic Era. The next period (“Pg”) is the Paleogene, the one that marks the start of the Cenozoic (new life) Era. The period after that (“N”) is the Neogene, which ended just 2 million years ago. The period after that, not shown, is the Quarternary Period, our current one.

The Neogene-Quarternary boundary is the start of the time of great glaciers, and the best way to show that is with the chart below, showing earth temperatures mapped across the geologic periods (at the left end) and geologic epochs (the rest of the chart).
Click here to open the full version in another tab. It’s a big, interesting chart. (Source here.)

First, get oriented. On the Y axis is global temperature using change — in °C — from global temperature in the year 1800 as the norm or zero mark. (The global pre–Industrial Revolution temperature is generally the mark from which other global temperatures are measured, unless otherwise noted. To convert from °C to °F, just double the number; you’ll be pretty close.)
On the X axis, the first big division — from 542 million years ago to 65 million years ago — represents the first two geologic eras, the Paleozoic and Mesozoic (which unfortunately aren’t called out on this chart). “K” at the top and bottom is still the Cretaceous Period, and the end of the Cretaceous Period is also the end of the dinos and the end of the Mesozoic Era.

In this respect, both charts are the same. Man hasn’t showed up yet — our mammal ancestors were the equivalent of field mice in that world, small prey with soft shells and hiding skills.

But before we look at the rest of the X axis, notice that in the left-most part of the chart, the Y axis shows a huge change in global temperature relative to pre-Industrial norms. Looks like a monster spike, especially the first one, doesn’t it?

The Cambrian temperature spike is 6–8°C (about 11–14°F) higher than pre-Industrial levels. It’s also the temperature we’re headed for by 2100.
But let’s not get distracted. Let’s set some markers in this chart in the horizontal (time) dimension. The whole rest of the chart — the part after the period called “K” — shows the  Cenozoic Era (“new life” or Age of Mammals).

From here to the right, the chart’s subdivisions show Epochs, which are sub-parts of Periods.

[Update: For a chart that shows the relationship between eras, periods and epochs, click here. it will help you stay oriented.]

Jump through the next five divisions — the epochs marked “Pal” through “Pliocene”. That takes you through the Neogene Period (“N” in the first chart) and to the start of the modern Quarternary Period, the one we’re in, and the one we’re interested in.

The epoch of the Pleistocene, which starts the Quarternary Period (again, see the chart), is the great age of glaciers. Homo habilis evolves at this time, a little over 2 million years ago. Homo erectus evolves shortly afterward. Each starts in Africa — now you can probably guess why — and each leaves Africa and spreads across the globe. (Homo erectus, by the way, lasts a long time on this earth. Longer than us by a lot.)

Homo sapiens evolved much later, in the Pleistocene — the age of glaciers, remember — just 250 thousand years ago, almost died out in Africa, but rebuilt our numbers, then spread out of Africa like our cousins. Because that was the glacier age, we’re still hunter-gatherers like the the rest of our cousins. The big beasts of the earth are creatures like woolly mammoths and sabre-tooth tigers, and we’re all alive on a fairly frozen planet with glaciers coming and going.

At the end of the Pleistocene is another extinction event. At the same time that the last glaciers recede (see chart), the big mammoths and tigers (et al) die off. Simultaneous with a noticeable change in climate, what we call “human civilization” begins. You can see that above, around 12–10 thousand years ago [corrected] as the planetary temperature stabilizes. From then until almost now, planetary temperature is pretty stable. Notice it doesn’t take much of a wobble to mark the “Little Ice Age”.

Just two more points to make in this piece and I’m done.

First the bad news

Folks, that little climb in temperature you see near the right end of the graph above is just the beginning. Remember the Cambrian spike at the left end of the graph? Take another look and note the increase — about 7°C. Now here’s Figure 21 from the Copenhagen Diagnosis, a report prepared by … oh … every single one of the world’s top climate scientists for the benefit of our world’s “leaders,” who met in 2009 to discuss how to pass the climate buck one more time:
What you see is temperatures from 500 AD to about 2000, with a number of prediction scenarios going forward. See the scenario called “A1FI”? It’s the one in red. That’s the one we’re on if we don’t stop spewing carbon. I call it the “do nothing” scenario — otherwise known as the “Keep David Koch Happy” scenario.
All you need to know? We’re on track for about +7°C — the peak temperature in the big Cambrian spike — by the year 2100.

Now the good news

Despite all this doom-and-gloom, it’s not over yet. Truly. By my calculation, we have a 5–10 year window to avoid the catastrophe. It won’t be easy — we’re past the point where any transition will be smooth — but we can make the transition and survive as a civilized species, humans in a recognizable world.
But two things are needed:
  1. This has to be our top priority, which means you and everyone you know has to be fully aware and in full battle gear. (For reference, it’s called “hugging the monster.”)
  2. It’s us vs. David Koch and all of his friends and enablers. Tackling any other enemy is tackling a dummy while the game is being played.
Educate your friends, and put a wrench into the Koch machine. How’s that not a plus?

If the Koch Bros keep getting rich, we move backward. If Barack “Hope & Change” Obama approves Keystone, we move backward. If the U.S. develops “domestic oil” resources, we move backward. For every new car (“carbon-delivery system”) sold, we move backward. People need to know this and think like this. We can stop the crisis, but only if we stop carbon. It’s that simple; and that stark.

But it’s also doable, and we’re the species that’s most equiped for “doable.” It’s what our big brains are for.

I’ll have more in the weeks and months ahead. I haven’t given up, not by a long shot. But you can’t pull out of a tail spin if you don’t admit you’re in one. Me, I think we can pull out.

[Updated for clarity and to correct two typographic errors, one in naming and one in the age of our species. We're 250 thousand years old, not 250 million. Also updated to add links to a chart showing all eras, periods and epochs in relationship to each other.]

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Monday, May 13, 2013

Michael Mann on the role of scientists in communicating the implications of climate change

The book by climatologist Michael E. Mann is correctly subtitled "Dispatches from the front lines" because it tells the story of a true communication war. With his reconstruction of past climate termed the "hockey stick", Mann had been singled out as a convenient target for a disinformation campaign aimed at discrediting climate science and science in general. The campaign was only partly successful, also because Mann and many others resisted and fought back. That's everybody's task, now: fighting back and re-establishing truth.  

Here is an excerpt from Mann's book (p. 253)

From "The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars" - by Michael Mann

When we first published our hockey stick work in the late 1990s, I was of the belief that the role of a scientist was, simply put, to do science. Others, I felt, should be left to assess and publicize any implications of the science. Taking anything even remotely resembling a position regarding climate change policy was, to me, anathema. Doing so, I felt, would compromise the authority of my science. I felt that scientists should take an entirely dispassionate view when discussing matters of science - that we should do our best to divorce ourselves from all of our typically human inclinations - emotion, empathy, concern. In the interviews I conducted with reporters, I was careful not to wade into the dangerous waters of expressing a personal opinion and to avoid entirely the subject of policy implications.

Everything I have experienced since then has gradually convinced me that my former viewpoint was misguided. I became a public figure involuntarily when our work was thrust into the public spotlight in the late 1990s. I have remained a public figure since, but I have come to embrace, rather than eschew, that role. Despite the battle scars I've suffered from having served on the front lines in the climate wars - and they are numerous - I remain convinced that there is nothing more noble than striving to communicate, in terms that are simultaneously accurate and accessible, the societal implications of our scientific knowledge. Indeed, much of my time and effort over the past decade has been dedicated to doing so.

I can continue to live with the cynical assaults against my integrity and character by the corporate-funded denial machine. What I could not live with is knowing that I stood by silently as my fellow human beings, confused and misled by industry-funded propaganda, were unwittingly led down a tragic path that would mortgage future generations.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

400 ppm: time for a communication tipping point

Image from Celsias

The round number of 400 ppm of CO2 concentration in the atmosphere has no special physical significance. The dreaded atmospheric "tipping point" that will lead us to climate catastrophe could have been passed already, or perhaps it could be somewhere at a higher concentration that we'll reach in the future.

But 400 ppm could herald a different tipping point - one that has to do with the perception of the urgency of the climate problem. A communication tipping point.

Perhaps, the low point in climate consciousness was reached last year, when the US presidential elections went through without climate change even being mentioned in the debate. Think about that: is there any way to sink deeper than that? But things are changing. The writing is on the wall: the Web is bubbling up with sites, blogs, forums, videos. There is a general understanding that if we still have a chance to avoid disaster, we must catch it now. Even the blog you are reading, "the frog that jumped out" is a result of this new perception. And that's going to have effects.

The "communication sphere" is a complex system that is subjected to tipping points just as many physical systems. So far, it has remained precariously balanced on a situation where organized denial has been able to block the consciousness of the danger we face from diffusing in the communication space. But, if we reach the tipping point, the communication system will undergo a transition that will change everything. It will bring back the climate problem to its rightful place in the list of priorities we have: the most worrisome, dangerous, terrible threat that humankind has ever faced in historical times. The number "400" could be the mark of this communication tipping point.

Recognizing that a problem exists is the first step to solving it. A small push in the right direction may be just what we need to pass to the next stage. So, let's all push together!

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Communication strategies on climate change according to Peter Sandman

by Max Iacono

In considering what to do and then deciding collectively to do it, the communication strategies identified in the Peter Sandman article found here: can be quite useful to take into account.

Sandman does a very good job of discussing “being in denial”  -something which he correctly indicates is different from what we commonly call climate change “denialism”-  He also discusses how to deal with the so called psychological dissonance which can end up reinforcing being in denial rather than alleviating it,  if the wrong communication and engagement strategies and methods are used.  Sandman is also careful to say the following in his concluding remarks:

Finally, a crucial reminder: Don’t get so preoccupied with denial that you forget about apathy. And, in fact, don’t imagine that apathy and denial are all there is. Some people are still unaware that global warming is an issue they should be thinking about; some have acquired misinformation that keeps them from getting involved; some are on our side already and need support to do even more than they’re doing now. Denial is one aspect of climate change risk communication. I believe it is important, growing, and neglected. But it’s not the whole ball game”.

So a good local strategy might eventually try to work “across the board” with respect to the preceding issues. That is, being in denial, trying to reduce internal dissonance, apathy, ignorance, being under the influence of climate change denialism, general inertia, feeling isolated or without support,  or more simply living under the dominating preoccupation with all sorts of matters of everyday life and the ongoing need for personal and family survival.

What I personally take away from reading the Sandman article is in fact fairly simple:  Engage with others respectfully, tell the truth, stay calm and clear and avoid one’s own inappropriate ego-voyages of various kinds.  In other words, simply treat others the way one generally likes to be treated oneself.  Decades of studies in cognitive psychology from Leon Festinger onwards would seem to have concluded what probably was known reasonably well in advance already.

I also think that much can be learned by various climate activists or “climate change believers” about how best to communicate with others by looking closely at the single case we all know best.  Which is ourselves.  

An honest introspection and self-appraisal of oneself as an individual case study can reveal precisely -or at least reasonably so-  why and how each of us who now “believes in climate change” or is an activist of one sort or another came to think and act the way we now do.  Did someone else empower us?  Were we converted by attending a single meeting?  How exactly did we come to think the way we now think or act?  What personality characteristics or other traits or attitudes or values or ideas or predispositions were involved or played a role?   What particular contexts and situations or specific events or “turning points” of our personal life trajectory made a difference? What motivates us now?  What de-motivates us?  Why?  Apart from the benefit in terms of how to best to figure out how to communicate with or influence others,  such an honest self-appraisal has all sorts of other personal benefits. 

And again, this has to do with things which have been known for a long time, namely “Know Thyself” as written by Plato about Socrates.  It is by honestly knowing oneself better that we also can come to better understand what makes others tick.  Naturally all sorts of psychological defense mechanisms (denial and dealing with dissonance being only one, and repression, rationalization, dissociation, splitting, projection, introjection,  and some others described by Freud and/or by others later on,  often come into play and typically prevent us from doing that properly or thoroughly.  An excellent reference on the interaction of various psychological defense mechanisms and of how personal experience between humans is often “negotiated” (or denied and etc.) can be found in R.D. Laing’s “The Politics of Experience” :   Generally speaking we are NOT particularly transparent to ourselves, rather the opposite if anything.  For instance we may deny what we project, repress what we deny, rationalize what we want to believe and several other fairly insidious interactions of the above basic defense mechanisms which can take place routinely in our minds.

But I do not think we all need to become expert clinical psychologists or psychiatrists to do climate change communication and awareness and action work.  All we have to do is be respectful of others -and of ourselves as well- and stick with the facts and the truth (the scientific as well as the social and the media and the political and perhaps also the psychological truth) and we will be more than halfway there.  Also remembering that often when one is telling the truth at the right moment one doesn’t need to shout it or hammer it in, since whispering it is typically more than sufficient.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Communicating climate change in ONE graph

It is sometimes said, that one (good) picture is worth of thousand words. Let's try to do that experiment. Let us have the instrumental temperature record since 1880 till present, coupled with paleoreconstructions of global temperatures using various "proxies" during the last 540 millions years, and add to that the boiling-frog (i.e. business-as-usual) scenario with policy unrestricted GHGs emissions:

*This graph show the reconstructions of global temperature during the last 542 millions years, together worst case temperature rise by the end of this century following the 8.5 RCP (Representative Concentration Pathway) scenario (van Vuuren et al., 2011). 8.5 is amount of additional radiative forcing (in W/m2) relative to the preindustrial period. Global temperature rise of » 4,7°C (8,5°F) is taken from the latest draft report of U.S. Global Change Research Program (p33, PDF). Also note that the scale of x-axis is varying, and that such rapid current+projected temperature rise did not occur during this period. Source of the graph: Wikipedia.

Thus even if we consider large uncertainties of the paleoclimatic temperature record, going anywhere close to the “worst case” scenario would, in the long term, completely deglaciate our planet. Climate change itself would probably not allow such dramatic rise of global temperature, not seen for tens of millions of years, but this is clearly something we would collectively like to avoid. 

A comment by Ugo Bardi:  This post by Alexander Ac is a good example of the subject of this blog. We are trying to "package" the information on climate change in ways that are not only understandable, but also direct and effective. This "one graph" summary of climate change goes in the right direction, but I would like to add a caveat. 

We shouldn't forget that most people, out there, are not able to read even simple x-y graphs. This specific graph, with a variable x scale, is not easy to read and will be confusing for people who never learned the specific "graph language" that scientists find so obvious. Still, this graph may be a winning weapon to penetrate the "climate illiteracy" that affects a good number of scientists and professionals who are not specialists in climate. 

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The hockey stick is real!

The ice building of "Monte Senario" on the hills near Florence, in Italy, as it was in early 20th century. At that time, it was filled with snow in winter and it could produce tons of ice in summer. Today, it would be barely able to produce a few ice cream cones; and probably not even that. It is tangible evidence of warming and not just that: it proves that the climate reconstruction called the "hockey stick" is correct in indicating that temperatures have substantially risen up during the past century

Evidence that you are doing something right in the climate change debate often comes from the denial reaction. Most of the times, messages on climate change are simply ignored but, occasionally, the reaction is strong; sometimes rabid. Then, you must have hit a sensitive point!

The most egregious example of this denial reaction is with the so called "hockey stick" curve, the reconstruction of past temperatures that comes with a shape that vaguely reminds, indeed, a hockey stick. Here is the original curve as proposed by Mann and others which appeared as Figure 2.20 from the IPCC Third Assessment Report of 2001, based on Mann, Bradley & Hughes 1999

Later studies confirmed the curve, also extending it all the way to about 10,000 years ago in a new study by Shaun Marcott, Jeremy Shakun, Peter Clark and Alan Mix.

Nevertheless, the controversy didn't die out; on the contrary, it keeps flaring, as you can find yourself by googling the term "hockey stick temperatures." If you mention the hockey stick in any kind of on line debate, it is almost certain that you'll be attacked by people who will start by stating how surprised they are that you are still believing that old and debunked graph. Entire books have been written with the purpose of "debunking" the hockey stick curve, to say nothing about personal attacks and legal harassment against Michael Mann and other researches in the field. 

So, denial has had a certain success with the hockey stick and the question is how do we counter these attacks. It is not easy, but let me try to suggest some strategies on the basis of my personal experience. First, let me list three things that you should NOT do.

1. Climate change denial is grounded in fear. Most people react to bad news by turning away, if they can (this is what I called the "Star Wars Force Push Effect". But for some, fear is so great that they feel that they can't just turn away; they rather react taking an aggressive denial posture. Since fear is not rational, it cannot be overcome by rational arguments. Trying to discuss the science behind paleoclimate measurements will just make deniers more aggressive. 

2. If you try to defend the scientists who performed these studies, you'll be subjected to what I call "Desdemona's trap". In Shakespeare's play, Desdemona tried to help a friend in need but she succeeded only in reinforcing her husband's idea that she was betraying him. The more you try to defend a fellow scientists, the more you'll appear to be in collusion with him/them. In taking this attitude, you'll simply reinforce the belief that scientists are engaged in a world-wide conspiracy designed to trick the world into believing in the fictional story of climate change. 

3. Letting yourself dragged into a heated hockey stick debate is tantamount to disaster. If you are a scientist, most likely you know much more about the matter than your opponents. But this is not a debate that you can win using data and rational arguments. Most people who read the exchanges will have a hard time understanding what is science and what is pseudo-science. We are all human and we react to emotional arguments more than to scientific ones. Once the debate veers into straight accusations and insults, many people may well conclude that scientists are the evil guys of the story. 

All right, that's what is not to be done. What do we do, then? Well, there are no miracle solutions, but I can tell you of a test that I made and that seems to have worked well. 

As I described in a previous post of mine, recently I spoke about climate to several of my fellow citizens in the town of Fiesole. I introduced the issue of climate change by showing them something they know well: the ice house that, a century ago, was producing ice in summer.
The ice house is something they could relate with; surely not a machination of some evil scientists. It was obvious that the old ice house, today, couldn't produce any amount of ice larger than enough to make a few ice cream cones. So, climate has changed over a century, and it has radically changed. Only after having them understand the local change, I introduced the global temperature measurements, showing them that what we experienced in our town is consistent with the global warming trends. I short I could show to them that the hockey stick is real!

That I coupled with a call to action; emphasizing concrete measures that could be taken to avoid brush fires, to make life more comfortable during heat waves and the like. In this, I followed the advice from Peter Sandman, an expert about risk management, as I described in a previous post.

I didn't have any denial reaction - as instead it had happened in previous debates in the same town. I was somewhat afraid that someone could have risen up and said "but this winter was cold, so where is global warming?" but that didn't occur. And it was not the lack of negative reactions; if you have some experience with speaking in public, you can easily feel the mood of the audience. In this case, it was a clearly positive reaction. People understood what I was telling them and agreed with me. They also felt "empowered" at the idea that they could do something practical together.

It doesn't mean it will work all the time and in all situations - it may be more difficult on line than in real life. But I think it is a good strategy for a variety of cases: start with local evidence of long term warming, something that people can understand. Then, emphasize positive action and don't enter in useless squabbles

Try it; then you'll tell me how it worked. 


You can read the whole story of the hockey stick debate in Michael Mann's excellent book "The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars"