Strategies of Communication on Climate Change

Sunday, July 28, 2013

More and more boiling frogs

The concept of the boiling frog as a metaphor for the human behavior regarding climate change seems to be gaining popularity all the time. The image above is reproduced from "Skeptical Science"

The boiling frog also originated the name of this blog: "The frog that jumped out". Thinking about that, however, we may have a small problem: where do we exactly jump to?

Friday, July 26, 2013

So, how much for a brand new planet?

In a paper in Nature the authors estimate as about 60 trillion dollars the cost of methane release from melting permafrost. 

Friday, July 19, 2013

What's in a meme? Why climate change doesn't go viral

A "meme map" of climate change as proposed by Lazlo Karafiath and Joe Brewer

Memes are ideas that survive and multiply in the human mind. They spread, they diffuse, they affect everyone. Memes are the basis of what we often call today "viral" communication, but which has been the normal way of communicating of human beings for millennia. Some memes are good - in the sense that they correspond to reality - others are bad for the opposite reason - they are delusionary memes; they form the body of the legends and myths that pervade the Internet nowadays - from chemtrails to fake Moon landings.

When we deal with climate change, unfortunately, "bad" memes seem to be much more common than good ones. There is a long, long list of false and extremely common memes: the earth is not warming any more, Greenland was ice free during the Middle Ages, scientists have altered the data..... You can find a list of 174 (!!) of these bad memes at "Skeptical Science." The mind of some people seems to be infested with these bad climate memes - such as the one of the British secretary of state for the environment.

So, why all those delusionary memens on climate? Maybe, we simply didn't work enough at finding "good" memes that spread. Maybe, if we were clever enough, we could put together  a viral communication system that would spread the correct message about climate change. That was the idea put forward by Lazlo Karafiath and Joe Brewer, co-founders of DarwinSF. They have been trying to find these good memes. The results have been interesting, but so far we still don't have the magic meme on climate change.

But why exactly do bad memes spread so much more easily than good ones? A recent study from UCLA researchers gives us an interesting explanation. The study has to do with a region of the brain called the temporoparietal junction, or TPJ, but, in the end, the whole story reduces to what they call "mentalism"; people attempting to read other people's minds and act accordingly. .

"You might expect people to be most enthusiastic and opinionated about ideas that they themselves are excited about, but our research suggests that's not the whole story. Thinking about what appeals to others may be even more important."

You see? It is simple! People will spread a meme if they think that their circle of friends and acquaintances will like it. There is nothing especially important in the meme itself - it may be quite stupid and dealing with absolutely vague and remote entities. Think of the one that says "Pluto is warming and hence global warming is caused by the sun". Most people probably, have only a vague idea of what and where Pluto is and what its warming could mean. Nevertheless this meme spreads, just as others of the same kind do. Why is that? Well, simply because these memes carry a soothing message. They say, "See? Those pompous scientists got everything wrong. There is nothing to be worried about and, in any case, it is not our fault."

Now, you can share this kind of memes with your friends and acquaintances without worrying about upsetting them. After all, everybody likes poking fun at pompous people, such as scientists are. It is almost as much fun as sharing pictures of cute kittens. Surely, not the same as sending to your friends a message about climate change that says, basically, "hey, we are all going to starve and die".

To be sure, there is more in meme spreading than just the interpretation proposed by the UCLA researchers. But if they are right - and what they say makes a lot of sense - then it is useless to keep searching for the magic meme that will bring climate change back to people's attention. The message about climate change simply will not go spontaneously viral.

At least we know what the problem is. That doesn't mean it is unsolvable, but purely bottom-up communication (the kind done with blogs and social media) is not enough. We need to think also in terms of top-down communication. In other words, we need the media to inform the public about the danger we are facing. Unfortunately, they are not doing their job very well. The latest example of a long series of disaster is a recent piece by "The Economist," about which you can read at "Skeptical Science" and at "Thinkprogress."

So, how can we convince the media to do a better job? Ideas, anyone?


Thursday, July 18, 2013

Another attempt at communicating the urgency of the problem

Another attempt at communicating the problem: using music to describe the temperature increase during the past century. Is it effective? Difficult to say, but surely these attempts are multiplying.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Climate change perspective: Canada in flames

With ongoing climate change, we often get both type of weather extremes at the same time. While Canada was battered with record floods in Calgary and Toronto, huge megafires were recently raging in Nothern Quebec. According to available statistics (see below) this fire is the 3rd largest since at least 1959, and has burned almost as much forest (1.6 mil. acres) as all forest fires this year in the US.

Here is the fire as seen from space by MODIS spectroradiometer:

And here is the same fire from the ground:

Let's look at the at the historical size of the wildfires in Canada from 1959, when the data are available:

The Eastmain fire is the 3rd largest in the history of Canada given that no bigger fires occured after 2000. Source: Canadian Forest Service.

Anf if we look at the longer-term perspective of the area of forest fires since 1921, we see a trend of an increased fire activity:

Source: Flannigan and de Groot 2009 (PDF presentation).

Regarding the tragic death of 19 firefighters this year in Arizona, lets look at the forest fires data from USA:
Six of the record fire seasons all occured after 2004. Source: National Interagency Fire Center.

The increase of wildfires is the combination of climate change and of aggressive fire suppresion after the WW2, so that the forests have grown much denser. Once they start to burn, crown fires are almost impossible to extinquish. Climate change and associated increased drought (less soil moisture), higher temperatures and more intense heatwaves add to the deadly combination. Forests in Western US are therefore in greatest fire deficit for at least 3000 years

But compared to Russia, US forests seem quite healthy! Look at the following graph:

Blue and red circles show yearly size of burned forests in Russia according the two methodologies, green circles show size of burned forest in USA over the longer time period (as show in previous graph alone).

In Russia this fire season seems to be a quiet one (as opposed to extreme years of 2010, or 2012), so no worries. Why then, an oil and natural gas rich country needs to borrow 40 mil dollars from the World Bank to fight forest fires?

So clearly, we see a taste of what will happen to our forests if climate change continues unabated.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Fighting catastrophic climate change: it is a job for psychologists

It is becoming more and more clear that we can't fight catastrophic climate change unless we understand why we can't fight it. And this is a job that involves understanding how the human brain works (if it works!). Here is an excerpt from an article by psychologist Mary Pipher on Time Magazine that examines the question

I’ve learned not to argue too long with people who do not “believe in” human-made climate change. I figure it’s impossible to reason someone out of a position that they didn’t reason themselves into. But the fact is that even those of us who do believe climate change is man-made are in partial denial about our enormous global problems, and almost all of us minimize or normalize the situation.

Our denial is understandable. Our species is not equipped to respond to the threats posed by global warming. Humans are built to find food and shelter, reproduce, and enjoy each other. We are genetically programmed to react to threats by fleeing or fighting, and at first, our environmental crisis does not seem to allow us to do either. We’re better at dealing with problems that are concrete, close-at-hand, familiar and require skills and tools that we already possess. Our global storm is invisible, unprecedented, drawn out, and caused by all of us. We have Paleolithic arousal systems, Neolithic brains, medieval institutions and 21st century technology—not a good mix for solving our climate problems.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Global Warming has stopped: the meme that won't go away

Image from "ClimateNexus"

A remarkably effective set of data from "Climate Nexus". Warming has not stopped and, yet, the "warming has stopped" meme remains alive and well. Another illustration of the fact that rational arguments just don't stick. Most people much prefer legends. And the warming continues......

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Empire of illusion: virtualizing reality

"Empire of Illusions," by Chris Hedges, is a long screed about how virtual reality is trumping real reality and how, in the process, it is destroying the entity we call sometimes "civilization". Surely worth reading even though, I must confess, I found it a bit too disheartening for my taste. Out of this book, I would like to propose to you a citation that compares two dystrophies: Huxley's "Brave New World" and Orwell's "1984". Of the two, Huxley seems to have been the one who better understood the future that would become our present.

From "Amusing Ourselves to Death" by Neil Postman (1952) as cited in "Empire of Illusion", by Chris Hedges, p. 39"

"What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared that the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared that we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy-porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny "failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions" in 1984, Huxley added, they are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us. "

Yes, Gaia can: wildfires in Colorado

Thursday, July 11, 2013

The greatest misallocation of resources in human history.

Think of invading Russia in winter, of the Spanish Invincible Armada, of the US highway system, of the Pentagon budget, and of developing the Ford Edsel. Well, these were peanuts in comparison of what we are doing now

From "carbon tracker"

Unburnable carbon 2013: Wasted capital and stranded assets

This new research from Carbon Tracker and the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at LSE calls for regulators, governments and investors to re-evaluate energy business models against carbon budgets, to prevent $6trillion carbon bubble in the next decade.

Unburnable carbon 2013: Wasted capital and stranded assets has revealed that fossil fuel reserves already far exceed the carbon budget to avoid global warming of 2°C, but in spite of this, spent $674billion last year to find and develop new potentially stranded assets.

read the whole post on carbon tracker...

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Yes, Gaia can!

(Mauritius island, April 1, 2013. Notice that, miraculously, it mentions climate change as the cause of the disaster)

Monday, July 8, 2013

Communicating the climate problem: the Aristotelic approach

This 2007 video by Greg Craven has been viewed by more than five million people. Touted as the "rational response to the climate change debate" (see also Craven's book), it has been seen as an important milestone on diffusing the right climate message. So much that it gained a dedicated post in the denialist blog "WUWT"

In some respects, there is no doubt that Craven's argument is effective. Show the alternatives, discuss them, then come to a conclusion on purely rational grounds. It is the Aristotelic approach; it is speaking in syllogisms.

But there are problems with this video. For one thing, in the Youtube page where it appears, about one third of viewers pressed the "don't like" button. And, if you look at the more than 40 thousand comments, you'll notice that many, perhaps the majority, are rabidly denying the human role on climate change, or even its existence.

So, it seems that the video preaches to the believer but that it doesn't budge the unbeliever.  That doesn't meant that the clip is not well done, nor that it has had no impact. But, six years after its first appearance, we can see that the debate is way too complex, harsh, difficult, and emotional to be winnable by a "rational response".

It is a debate that cuts through our very essence as human beings. Syllogisms may affect our brain cortex, but are not enough to change the way our deep brain works. We need much more than syllogisms to win this battle.

Or so I see it. What do you think?

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Unconscious obstacles to caring for the planet

"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. Here is an excerpt from the chapter by John Keene. (highlights by the Frog)

 I suggest that when it comes to how we see ourselves, we live in acurious world of doublethink. In spite of Darwin's contribution linking mankind with its biological heritage and Freud's account of the disowned operations of the mind, our public discourse tends to follow the Enlightenment view that rational thought now predominates, and there is recurrent surprise on finding so frequently that this is not the case. One might say that the problems potentially posed by significant global warming tick all the wrong boxes as far as our evolved, individually learned and group responses to our environment and to danger are concerned. The plasticity of human behavior and the power of language, which have been such an advantage in the development of the species, mean that human individuals have to develop their own models of the world and their relationship to it. These models, which operate to a considerable degree outside awareness, are profoundly affected by experiences in infancy. These partly unavailable and partly disowned assumptions, which powerfully affect our behaviour, are not just the domain of psychoanalysis but are well recognized in folklore, myth and in our literary and dramatic heritage. Sadly, rapid and magnificent technological advances have had little impact on these fundamental processes, which restrict our capacity to comprehend and deal with external reality and to restrain our capacities for self-destruction.

Friday, July 5, 2013

The Desdemona groupthink trap

In Shakespeare's play "Othello", Desdemona tries to help her friend Cassius, succeeding only in reinforcing the suspicion of her husband, Othello, that she is betraying him with Cassius. Accordingly, I proposed the name of "Desdemona's trap" (or also "Desdemona effect") to the phenomenon that occurs when arguing in favor of something leads to the opposite effect, that is reinforces the negative opinion of the target. It happens all the time with climate change.

Now, I found that a paper by Dan Kahan (see also here) shows exactly this effect and measures it experimentally. As you can see in the figure above, there exists a consistent fraction of people for whom increased scientific literacy; e.g. having heard more about the problem of climate change, makes them become more skeptical and tend to dismiss the whole idea as a hoax.

It is the Desdemona trap clearly identified: the more these people know, the less they understand. It is an effect that agrees with the well known say "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing". They are not knowledgeable enough to understand the science of climate change, but they are knowledgeable enough to understand the denialist arguments about climate change. That makes them able to indulge in one of the most cultivated arts in the human discourse: that of deceiving oneself.

That is not the case for everyone and Kahan identifies those who are most likely to fall into to the Desdemona trap as people having a "hierarchical" vision of life,. In this, Kahan seems to agree with the findings by Lewandowsky indicating that deniers exist mostly within a mindset that can be defined as "conspiratorial". As I argued in a previous post, there is nothing fundamentally wrong in suspecting the worse, but it is an attitude that may well backfire (as in another common say, "too much of a good thing").

In the end, anyway, the problem is not so much the individual vision: "hierarchical" or "egalitarian" attitudes are just triggers that, as Kahan himself says in his talk, start a self-reinforcing loop that makes individuals conform to the ideas of the group they feel they belong to. So, the Desdemona trap eventually evolves into the "Desdemona groupthink trap" - more difficult and more stubborn than the same problem at the individual level. Once a group has evolved into accepting a certain idea, it is impossible to change that idea by facts and logic. Attempts of doing so will only reinforce the group's attitude by making them suspicious that their opponents are their enemies, or anyway perpetrating a hoax on them. 

You see? The problem is wholly described in a sentence by Pogo that has become another common say: "we have found the enemy and he are us". We have to beat the "Desdemona groupthink trap." Not easy. Ideas, anyone?

Thursday, July 4, 2013

A meme-infected mind

Image from

"Skeptical Science" reports a rather extraordinary statement by the British Secretary of State for the Environment, Owen Paterson. Here it is:

"Well I'm sitting like a rose between two thorns here and I have to take practical decisions - erm - the climate's always been changing - er - Peter mentioned the Arctic and I think in the Holocene the Arctic melted completely and you can see there were beaches there - when Greenland was occupied, you know, people growing crops - we then had a little ice age, we had a middle age warming - the climate's been going up and down - but the real question which I think everyone's trying to address is - is this influenced by manmade activity in recent years and James [Delingpole] is actually correct - the climate has not changed - the temperature has not changed in the last seventeen years and what I think we've got to be careful of is that there is almost certainly - bound to be - some influence by manmade activity but I think we've just got to be rational (audience laughter)  - rational people - and make sure the measures that we take to counter it don't actually cause more damage - and I think we're about to get -" 

(See here for a detailed debunking of these statements)

Doesn't this statement give you the impression of an infected mind? Something like a Petri dish full of bacteria festering on their nutrient solution.

Minds, however, are not so often infected by real bacteria or virus but are easily prey to their virtual equivalent: "memes." Originally proposed by Richard Dawkins in the 1970s, the concept of meme sees ideas as able to reproduce and spread hopping from one mind to another; it is the origin of the idea of "viral communication".

As we see from the statement from Secretary Paterson, sometimes a human mind seems to be more a battleground for infectious memes than the rational computing device that we imagine it to be.

But what is really maddening, here, is how well "negative" memes (intended as contrary to reality) spread. There exist perfectly good memes that describe how climate change is happening; for instance "the Arctic is melting" is a meme that describes reality. But, no; these memes don't spread, don't stick. So, Mr. Paterson doesn't mention that "the Arctic is melting"(true) but that "in the Holocene the Arctic melted completely" (not true).

That is confirmed by a study by Lazlo Karafiath and Joe Brewer, co-founders of DarwinSF. They found that memes that describe the reality of climate change simply don't stick. Why is that? Perhaps we didn't find the right memes; or is it that the human mind is structured in such a way to reject reality when given a chance to do so?

Hard to say; in any case we can't hope to diffuse the urgency of doing something about climate change if we don't take into account the concept of meme. For a start, you may give a look to this video - also by the founders of DarwinSF

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Pollution in scientific communication

Ask not what science communication can do for you, ask what you can do to perfect the new science of science communication!

If you have 16 minutes, invest them in listening to this fascinating talk by Daniel M. Kahan (I watched it twice, from start to finish!). 16 minutes that can change your view of science communication.

It is science communication seen by a professional in communication science. The main point of the story is that some subjects being communicated show a tremendous right/left, conservative/liberal polarization. The main example is climate change, which is seen in completely different ways by conservatives and liberals. But the interesting point is that this polarization does NOT occur for some issues where people, instead, simply trust the experts; as when you use antibiotics to treat an infection.

Kahan concludes that science communication should be protected from what he calls "pollution," an effect of the media and of political campaign. This is destroying the usefulness of the science in which we have invested so much and that we need so much. So, he concludes with the radical proposal that science communication should be "protected" as the environment is protected. Not so easy, surely, but it is a fundamental issue that should be discussed. 

Advice on Climate Change

h/t Mondi Sommersi

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The tipping point of climate change denial

In a previous post I had noted how the position of climate deniers was becoming more and more untenable. Now, the speech by President Obama seems to have moved things forward quite a bit: many people seem to be "feeling the heat," almost literally.

At least, so it seems from a revealing article by Chris Ladd, Republican commentator writing on the Washington Times. This article needs to be read and savored - truly stunning for the way he clearly states how the GOP communication strategy is backfiring. Peter Sinclair has already commented on this piece; let me reproduce here some excerpts from it (highlighting mine):

..... we must realize that our strategy of blind blanket denial is developing into a political suicide pact. 

We must stop wheeling in crank “scientists” who deploy tactics borrowed from the tobacco industry to “debunk” the credible research on climate change. 

On a political level, Republicans must not confuse climate change with other science vs. belief issues. On this issue public opinion will eventually move in the direction of established facts regardless of how much distortion we generate.
Climate change ..... is becoming apparent enough to the average layman to affect their holiday plans. We cannot swim against this scientific tide much longer.

When public opinion comes into line with the established science, our denialist position will cost us our opportunity to participate in shaping policy. We are setting ourselves up for a sudden, catastrophic political collapse which could spread beyond this single issue.

 .... conservatives cannot participate in shaping these alternatives if the party allows itself to be defined politically by a pack of ridiculous cranks. Categorical climate denial might be the single greatest threat to the long term future of the conservative movement. For the Republican Party in the U.S., denial is a river that is rapidly running dry.

Now, the political debate is a complex system and, as such, it is subjected to rapid "phase transitions" in which issues ignored up to a certain point become suddenly centrally important. That may be the result of a single, exceptional event, such as the 9/11 attacks, or as the result of a gradually mounting body of evidence; as it may happen with climate change.

Are we seeing the climate debate tipping point arriving? We can't say yet, but note that Mr. Ladd's article didn't attract (so far) the usual flow of rabid denialist comments. So, we may be in for big changes, indeed.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Connecting the dots, anyone? 19 Firefighters killed in Arizona

Fighting catastrophic climate change is the best way we have to honor the memory of these brave firefighters who died doing their duty. (image from ABC news)