Strategies of Communication on Climate Change

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Losing the debate on climate change: why climate activists are their own worst enemies

September 27: Despite near certainty in new UN report, a climate of denial persists

From the blog of Peter Sandman

When the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its new report – claiming more certainty than ever before that the global warming threat is dire – Marco Werman of PRI’s “The World” interviewed me about why I thought many people might find the report’s conclusions hard to accept, and might go into a kind of psychological denial instead. The interview lasted about ten minutes, but was cut to less than five for airing. I made too many minor points that got used, albeit in abbreviated form. So my main point got almost completely lost – that climate change activists were their own worst enemies because they kept saying things that were likely to provoke or deepen people’s denial instead of things that could help people overcome their denial.

For example, I told Marco, too many environmentalists were greeting the IPCC’s bad news triumphantly, almost gleefully – sounding more pleased that they were being proved right than devastated that the world’s in deep trouble. People who like their SUVs and are having a hard time accepting that they may have to give up their SUVs (that’s a kind of denial) may just barely be able to believe it if a fellow SUV fan sadly tells them so. They’re not about to believe it’s exultantly announced by someone who has hated the internal combustion engine since before global climate change was even an issue. For several better explanations of my thinking about climate change denial, see any of the other entries with “climate” and/or “denial” in their titles in the “On Environmental Activism” section of my Precaution Advocacy index.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Climate change: we are losing the debate

"It's one of those days when I feel I got off on the wrong planet. Terrifying report on climate breakdown greeted with indifference and guff." (tweeted by George Monbiot)

The new IPCC report is out and it tells us what we already know and that most people still refuse to believe or choose to ignore. Nothing new in the debate; nothing will change. The best that will happen is that the report will generate a moderate interest for some days before disappearing from the mediasphere. At worst, someone will find in it something that can be interpreted as a mistake and that will be enough to demolish the whole report in the media, just as it happened for the previous report with the story of the melting Himalayan glaciers.

Scientists are still working on the basis of the idea that their job is to examine, analyze, and report; then it is over. Maybe that's a correct definition of the duty of scientists in many fields, but scientists are also human beings and, as human beings, they must do more when their findings indicate that we are facing a terrible danger, as it is the case with climate change. They are the ones who can perceive the danger better than anyone else and it is their responsibility to tell people about that.

Imagine that you see someone who is going to jump out of the window of the fourth floor. You go there and you tell him "as a scientist, I can tell you what your speed will be when you reach the ground. But I won't tell you whether jumping out of the window is dangerous or not."

Now, look at the summary for policy makers of the IPCC report and look for the word "danger." You won't find it.
Let's face it: we are losing this debate. We need to start telling people what we really think about the dangers ahead. Otherwise, there is no hope.

(similar considerations have been expressed by Clive Hamilton in a post titled IPCC report will make no difference in culture of denial)

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The frog is too tired to jump out

From the blog "The Rational Pessimist" - a post that provides much food for thought. Why does the IPCC continues to do the same report over and over, when people just yawn about it?

The New IPCC Report and Climate Change Fatigue

Six years ago, the release of the Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) caused a considerable stir. I suspect that the publication of the Fifth Assessment Report (AR5), with the first instalment coming this week, will be met with a yawn.

What has changed? I would cite four main factors: 1) the Great Recession, 2) the coordinated and well-financed campaign of climate scepticism, 3) the hiatus in temperature rise and, last but not least, 4) climate change fatigue. I further suspect that even if 1) through 3) had not occurred, 4) alone would have been sufficient to break the momentum of any action to mitigate climate change.

So why can’t we keep our concentration in the face of what must be the greatest threat faced by humanity in the last 10,000 years? Perhaps because the lag between cause and effect, which in the case of climate change is measured in decades rather than years, is just too big.

In the past, I believed that life insurance offered some hope as a role model for evaluating long-horizon risks since the industry is built on individuals evaluating outcomes decades into the future. But in the case of life insurance, individuals can take a rough stab at the distribution of future risk by looking at the distribution of current risk.

A twenty-something woman with young children knows that there is an outside chance that she (or her partner) could die due to a heart attack, stroke or cancer in her thirties or forties. Why? Because out of the few hundred friends and acquaintances that she has come into contact with over the years, she probably knows, either directly or indirectly, more than one person who has died young. In short, life insurance melds well with an individual’s personal life narrative.
But climate change doesn’t. The risk is abstract to the extent that it has no connection with the life experience of most people. Even the burning embers diagram of the Third Assessment Report (TAR) of 2001, does a poor job of communicating risk (and even this was excluded from AR4 for political reasons as you can read here), since it is just a representation of broad categories of risk and not based on experiences that individuals can internalise:

Burning Embers jpeg

Therefore, while the decadal unit of measurement is most appropriate for measuring the extent and effects of anthropogenic global warming (AGW), it appears too long for social and political action to coalesce. Yet AGW is moving at lightening speed when compared with natural climate change.

The climate scientist Stefan Rahmstorf, writing in the scientist-led blog Real Climate, highlights a recent paper by Marcott et al in Science that reconstructs the global temperature record back over the last 11,000 years. This period, termed the Holocene, encompasses the years since the last glacial period ended, which is broadly commensurate with the rise of human civilisation.

Marcott jpeg

As you can see, we were merrily moving in slow motion toward a new ice age when we started to burn fossil fuels. Rahmstorf then kindly provides us with a chart that adds the back story of temperature during the last ice age plus the IPCC’s central estimate of temperature out to 2100 based on the most likely fossil fuel emission trajectory. The step change is obvious, but is still not fast enough to impact on the future expectations of voters.

Global Temperature Since Ice Age jpeg

With no visible urge to mitigate emissions visible within the broader population, we appear to be reduced to praying a) that climate sensitivity to a CO2 will come in at the low end of estimates, and b) that this will give us sufficient time for a backstop non fossil-fuel energy technology to be developed and scaled up before extremely dangerous climate change is locked in.

This is a pure, high-stakes gamble: if we don’t get lucky with sensitivity and technology, we are left with a horrendous pay-off in terms of negative climate change effects. Unfortunately, no means of conveying this threat in a way that meshes with the life narratives of ordinary individuals appears to exist.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Keep calm and jump out!

I am writing this post in a moment of pause of the 2013 Ottawa conference of the Club of Rome. As always, these conferences cover many themes, but there is an underlying one that is pervading the talks of this one: climate change.

We can say that climate change was one of the main factors of the scenarios of the report to the Club of Rome "The Limits to Growth" already from the 1972 version. At that time, it was not recognized as such but it appeared in the models as a parameter labeled "pollution". But, with time, it has become clear what we are facing. Today's presentation by David Wasdell at the meeting framed the problem in dramatic terms.

So, what kind of solutions can be proposed? The talks at the CoR meeting have been oscillating between two poles. One, that we can call the "soft" scenario, consists in trying to find a way out of the problem that won't hurt anyone. It is an attempt of creating a "win-win" situation in which citizens, companies, and organizations will gradually evolve in a bottom-up process into more efficient and emission conscious entities; saving money in the process. That should take the system into a "decoupled" state in which prosperity doesn't depend any more from the amount of energy consumed. In its most extreme form, this idea says that we shouldn't do anything; market forces will take care of all problems. In a more realistic approach, it says that the system should be gently nudged to take the right direction by such things as a carbon tax.

The other scenario, that we may call the "hard" one is based on declaring an emergency. The idea is that we don't have time to slowly steer the system while making sure that we don't hurt anyone's sensitivity (or wallet). Emergency management is not a win-win question. So, the concept is a top-down approach where specific targets are enacted worldwide after they have been agreed upon at the international level. Realistically, it would not possible (and not even advisable) to impose such measures by force, but it is known that society can react to an emergency by doing the right thing; with everybody accepting to make sacrifices for the common good. That has been done in the case of war or natural catastrophes - so it is possible, as long as we recognize that we face a true emergency.

The first scenario has the frog crawling out of the boiling pot and remaining warm and happy all the time. The second has the frog jumping out from the pot all of a sudden; maybe suffering a little for the heat shock, but reaching safety faster. In between these two extremes, there is space for intermediate solutions: keep calm and jump out!

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The beauty of propaganda - II

My Russian friends told me that, in Soviet times, they didn't believe their newspapers but they had no other sources of information. In our times, we  believe our newspapers even though we have plenty of other sources of information (see "the arctic ice disaster" and "the beauty of propaganda")


Comment from 

"The Pause?". . .Man that's a good one! Why would one in the scientific community go to the world with that kind of excuse? Oh I know, Like the time your grade school teacher asked you for your homework and your response was that your dog ate it. "Global Warming!" . . . shouted from the hilltops and billions wasted on a hypothesis that is traveling the digestive track of poor "Fido" only to later realize the truth of the matter finding itself in the proverbial front yard as a big pile of steaming poo! Now is the time for you to blame the dog again by trying to rub his nose in it. Looks like the evidence is stacked up against you by 60% ! HAHAHA Don't worry, one day your grand children will be able to look back on this and laugh at you !

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The beauty of propaganda

First of all, note that the "Mail" sells almost two million copies per day. Consider also that other newspapers reported the same news. Then note the more than 156.000 Web shares and the over one thousand comments.

So, several million people have been exposed to the idea that "global cooling is coming" and to the parallel one that "the Arctic is recovering"

Now, consider how many people may have had the time and the willingness to go see the real data; for instance here, or here, showing that the Arctic is NOT recovering. Maybe a few thousand people? A few tens of thousands? Hardly more than that. So, you can imagine which message the public is getting.

You see the beauty of propaganda? Volume always triumphs over truth.

Monday, September 9, 2013

The Arctic ice disaster

By all means an impressive presentation of the Arctic ice disaster. But, alas, it has only some 55,000 views on Youtube - that is nearly nothing.

At the same time, the "Daily Mirror" and the "Telegraph" are aggressively proclaiming, once more, that sea ice is "recovering" (see here for a discussion of what is really happening). 

So, while the planet's ice keeps melting, we are swamped by lies that fill the available media space. How are we going to let the truth out?


BTW, in order to debunk this new tsunami of lies, you may wish to note from the clip above that the amount of ice in 1979 was 16855 km3. According to the available data, today we have lost almost 14000 km3 of ice from that date. Now, the difference between the August volumes in 2012 and 2013 is about 1400 km3. So, we lost 14000 and we gained 1400: that's what they call "recovery"????

The point is that there is so little ice left in the Arctic ocean that a small fluctuation may appear as a large effect, but in absolute terms it is not. Motivated reasoning, anyone?


Friday, September 6, 2013

Climate change and the war in Syria

It escapes me how it can be that God cares so much about what we eat and what we don't eat. But I must also admit that the Pope knows more than me about theology. So, this Saturday I am going to fast for peace in Syria. There is nothing else that I can do, anyway. 


From "The Atlantic" of Sep 2, reporting portions of a memorandum by William Polk, a former State Department policy planner, on the situation in Syria. As published here

Syria has been convulsed by civil war since climate change came to Syria with a vengeance. Drought devastated the country from 2006 to 2011.  Rainfall in most of the country fell below eight inches (20 cm) a year, the absolute minimum needed to sustain un-irrigated farming. Desperate for water, farmers began to tap aquifers with tens of thousands of new well.  But, as they did, the water table quickly dropped to a level below which their pumps could lift it.

USDA Foreign Agricultural Service, Commodity Intelligence Report, May 9, 2008

In some areas, all agriculture ceased.  In others crop failures reached 75%.  And generally as much as 85% of livestock died of thirst or hunger.  Hundreds of thousands  of Syria’s farmers gave up, abandoned their farms and fled to the cities and towns in search of almost non-existent jobs and severely short food supplies.  Outside observers including UN experts estimated that between 2 and 3  million of Syria’s 10 million rural inhabitants were reduced to “extreme poverty.”

The domestic Syrian refugees immediately found that they had to compete not only with one another for scarce food, water and jobs, but also with the already existing foreign refugee population.  Syria already was a refuge for quarter of a million Palestinians and about a hundred thousand people who had fled the war and occupation of Iraq.  Formerly prosperous farmers were lucky to get jobs as hawkers or street sweepers.  And in the desperation of the times, hostilities erupted among groups that were competing just to survive.

Survival was the key issue.  The senior UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) representative in Syria turned to the USAID program for help. Terming the situation “a perfect storm,” in November 2008, he warned  that Syria faced “social destruction.” He noted that the Syrian Minister of Agriculture had “stated publicly that [the]  economic and social fallout from the drought was ‘beyond our capacity as a country to deal with.’”  But, his appeal fell on deaf ears:  the USAID director commented that “we question whether limited USG resources should be directed toward this appeal at this time.”  (reported on November 26, 2008 in cable 08DAMASCUS847_a to Washington and “leaked” to Wikileaks )

Whether or not this was a wise decision, we now know that the Syrian government made the situation much worse by its next action. Lured by the high price of wheat on the world market, it sold its reserves. In 2006, according to the US Department of Agriculture, it sold 1,500,000 metric tons or twice as much as in the previous year.  The next year it had little left to export; in 2008 and for the rest of the drought years it had to import enough wheat to keep its citizens alive.

So tens of thousands of frightened, angry, hungry and impoverished former farmers flooded constituted a “tinder” that was ready to catch fire.  The spark was struck on March 15, 2011  when a relatively small group gathered in the town of Daraa to protest against government failure to help them.  Instead of meeting with the protestors and at least hearing their complaints, the government cracked down on them as subversives.  The Assads, who had ruled the country since 1971,  were not known for political openness or popular sensitivity.   And their action backfired.  Riots broke out all over the country,  As they did, the Assads attempted to quell them with military force.  They failed to do so and, as outside help – money from the Gulf states and Muslim “freedom fighters” from  the rest of the world – poured into the country, the government lost control over 30% of the country’s rural areas and perhaps half of its population.  By the spring of 2013, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), upwards of 100,000 people had been killed in the fighting, perhaps 2 million have lost their homes and upwards of 2 million have fled abroad.  Additionally, vast amounts of infrastructure, virtually whole cities like Aleppo, have been destroyed.

Despite these tragic losses, the war is now thought to be stalemated: the government cannot be destroyed and the rebels cannot be defeated.  The reasons are not only military: they are partly economic– there is little to which the rebels could return;  partly political – the government has managed to retain the loyalty of a large part of the majority Muslim community which comprises the bulk of its army and civil service whereas the rebels, as I have mentioned, are fractured into many mutually hostile groups;  and partly administrative  – by and large the government’s  structure has held together and functions satisfactorily whereas the rebels have no single government.
See also

Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Will to Believe

In 1896, William James argued that in some cases the will to believe is a good thing, even in the absence of evidence. He said, actually, that "belief will create the fact". This may be an excellent attitude for many things in life, when it is question, for instance, to decide that life is worth living. Unfortunately, however, this idea can be perversely turned into disaster. Believing that - say - free energy can be produced on one's desktop won't create a free energy device. And it is the same with catastrophic climate change: disbelieving it won't make it go away.

The more I read, the more I understand how important is the "belief filter", probably hard wired in human minds. The human tendency to believe the unbelievable, provided that it is comforting, is fantastic. And, unfortunately, it is one of the reasons for the disaster we are facing.

Antonio Turiel provides new evidence for this human tendency in his blog, "the oil crash". In a post titled "Scream, but nobody will listen to you", he presents two movie clips; in the first, a guy plays some mumbo-jumbo with electric wires, pretending that he can obtain infinite energy out of a multi-outlet strip. In the second video, the same guy explains the trick: absolutely trivial.

The point that Turiel makes is that a lot of people have watched only the first video and just a few the second, despite the fact that in the first video the protagonist invites watchers several times to go see the second. The couple of videos, in fact, was intended as a way of debunking the many bogus claims of infinite energy, desktop nuclear fusion and the like. It didn't work; actually it backfired. So strong is the human will to believe.

Here are the two clips. They are both in Spanish, but the action and the images should be clear enough for everyone