Strategies of Communication on Climate Change

Monday, January 27, 2014

Why is global warming such a conversation Killer?

Sometimes, you get this sensation that everything around you is made of the stuff dreams are made of. Can't be touched, can't be budged, can't be changed. This seems to be the case with global warming. Whatever you do, whatever you say, whatever you try, everything seems to move slowly and ponderously as in a dream; in the wrong direction.

Why is Global Warming Such A Conversation Killer?!!

Posted on January 24, 2014 by Joe Brewer in Cultural Tipping Points, Design for Action

The first thing we want to acknowledge is the bravery and generosity of all the people who have already engaged in the conversation and were moved to donate to the campaign. We know how busy life gets and how much generosity and effort it takes to stand behind something.  Thank you.
We would also like to share something strange that happened earlier this week.  We launched a crowdfunding campaign that fell completely flat.  Our friends — wonderful people who care so much about making a difference in the world — responded to the announcement by, with… silence.


We were surprised to discover that people who normally write back to emails didn’t write back.  People who like content on our Facebook walls didn’t engage.  People who support climate action didn’t support the campaign with pledges of support. It was as if we called out from our front porch with a “Y’all come for good food and great conversation!” and no one showed up. Building on the research study we conducted last year, we realized that this campaign got right down to the difficult and provoking conversation that causes most of the world to shut down or walk away. This was fascinating!

We saw a similar pattern in our mailing list.  Lots of people open our emails (typically 35-40%) and many of them click through to the offerings we provide (somewhere around 15-20%).  And yet when we launched ClimateMeme2 there was a tepid 4% rate click-through.

The question we are grappling with now is: Why is global warming such a buzz kill? Climate change clearly is not a trendy topic right now.  The total lack of buzz among our highly engaged passionista community earlier this week was a clear message and wake up call. We are also asking ourselves: Where did we mess up or poorly communicate? We really want to know!  Human-induced climate change is a planetary threat to the entire human tribe.  And yet most members of the human tribe manage to deny it, have a cynical opinion and avoid thinking about it (or acting upon it) in their daily lives.  There is something larger going on, and we want to observe and play with this.
And so we are shifting our focus from the horizon where we planned to conduct another detailed study on the memes that people have in their heads instead of global warming.  Now what we want to dig further into what are the belief systems in place that are blocking the climate change conversation from happening.

We would love to engage in a conversation with you about this.  We welcome your candid and honest feedback in the comments below.

Some inquiries we would like to pose to the group:
  1. If you were engaged and clicked through or donated, what about our project engaged your passions?
  2. If you weren’t, why not?  What was it about the project that turned you off?
  3. Is there some other topic that would have gotten you engaged?  What would you rather see us doing right now?
  4. What will it take to transform global warming into a trendy and important topic that people want to talk about? What examples of empowering climate change conversations have you seen or been a part of? What about it gave you power and hope?
We would love your participation and perspective. It’s only fun when people participate. This is important for learning deeper about this topic, and we are excited to explore and learn with you all. We really appreciate your contribution, perspective, spirit and generosity. Let’s work together to create a better future on this Planet.

Joe, Lazlo and Ting

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The war against science: launching a full scale attack against scientific knowledge

The war against science started with attacks against single scientists. Now, it seems to be moving to a full scale attack aiming to destroy the basis of scientific knowledge. It is starting in Canada (image from "Obsidian Portal")

By Max Paris, Environment Unit
6 January 2014

(CBC News) – Irreplaceable science research may be lost when Department of Fisheries and Oceans libraries across the country are closed down, researchers fear.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada hopes to close seven of its 11 libraries by 2015. Already, stories have emerged about books and reports thrown into dumpsters and the general public being allowed to rummage through bookshelves.
"We actually spent about three days in the Eric Marshall library boxing up materials," explained Kelly Whelan-Enns of Manitoba Wildlands, an environmental public research organization. That library was in the Freshwater Institute, the Fisheries Department's central and Arctic regional headquarters in Winnipeg.

Whelan-Enns described bookshelves in shambles, periodicals strewn across the floor of the library and maps — old and new— left lying around.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada told CBC News that all of its copyrighted material has been digitized and that the rest of its collection will be soon.
"Users will continue to have completely free access to every item in DFO’s collections. All materials for which DFO has copyright will be preserved by the department," Fisheries Minister Gail Shea wrote in a statement to CBC.

But that doesn't calm the nerves of some researchers.

"It's not clear what will be kept and what will be lost," said Jeff Hutchings, a marine biologist at Dalhousie University.

The Fisheries Department had 660,000 documents in 11 libraries spread across the country. The plan was to consolidate its collection in two main facilities in Dartmouth, N.S., and Sidney, B.C. Two other auxiliary facilities in Sydney, N.S.,
and Ottawa would house coast guard documents.

That meant closing archive facilities such as the Eric Marshall library, the library at the St. Andrews Biological Station in New Brunswick and the Maurice Lamontagne Institute's library in Mont-Joli, Que.

A Radio-Canada story in June about the Mont-Joli library showed thousands of volumes of the department's literature in dumpsters.

Fisheries and Oceans said the closings and consolidation would save the $443,000 in 2014-15.

Hutchings said he doesn't know how well the department's plan is going to work.

"We're dealing right now with a department that has lost people, resources, money. It's shutting down facilities. One wonders where they are going to find the resources to digitize this extraordinary amount of material," said Hutchings.
The department website says 30,000 documents are available online and that "outstanding items will be digitized if requested by users."

The website also says only duplicate items will be removed from its collection. 
It does add, though, that "in rare instances, materials which fall outside of the subject disciplines pertinent to the department's mandate" may be removed.
The Fisheries Act went through a major overhaul in 2012. At the time, critics said it was to get rid of environmental elements of the act that hindered the government's plans for resource development and export. [more]

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

A couple of guys with clear ideas on climate change

    Norman 9 days ago
     "CO2 , may be a factor in raising the Earth's temperature but I believe only a minor one. Science itself states that at certain altitudes it acts as a coolant mechanism. I believe that the principal reason for the rise is and has been a gradual decrease in our average distance from the Sun brought about by gravitational interactions between Earth and Jupiter. I further believe that this is a long term pattern which will reverse itself in due course and begin to swing in the opposite direction. Venus may play a part in this because it has the ability to slightly increase the distance of Earth from the Sun under certain conditions and co positions of it and Earth. Man's population will decrease from other natural population inhibiters built into the animal species. To wit, food resources. No animal can survive beyond its food resources."


And this is Lubos Motl (I wouldn't even remotely consider to link here to the source of this text. To find it you can google ""The reference frame" "Schellnhuber" and "master plan" )

"It may be a good idea for the German - or other - intelligence services to physically deal with Herr Schellnhuber and his thugs before it's too late. I assure you, Mr Schellnhuber, that if you will try to apply just a fraction of this insane megalomania on the territory of the Czech Republic, we will give you the same treatment as we offered to the Herr who was a de facto leader of the Czech lands until 1942."

"This Schellnhuber's lookalike, soulmate, and countrymate was serving in the years 1941-1942. Because it turned out that he was trying to help the set of people who would live in the 1000-year empire in the future, rather than the living generations of the Czech lands, our democratically elected government in London (representing the living generations of the Czech lands, rather than hypothetical future generations of the Third Reich) fired this blonde beast in May 1942 - by fireguns. Goodbye, Mr Heydrich."

Saturday, January 18, 2014

The problem with pattern recognition

The news is spreading about the shutting down of "Pattern Recognition in Physics" by the publisher, Copernicus. In the message announcing the demise of the journal, they say that it was closed, among other things, because of " the editors selected the referees on a nepotistic basis"

That, however, is just a part of the story and most of it had to do with the denialist stance of the editors on the matter of climate. But the problem with this journal was even deeper. What is exactly to be intended as "pattern recognition in physics"? I mean, when you studied physics, did they teach you about "pattern recognition?" If you are doing research in physics, you detect signals, apply theories, build models and things like that. But when do you do "pattern recognition? It is, at best, the "curve fitting" approach to physics which may be a lot of fun, but if it is not based on a good physical model is just normally an exercise in irrelevance.

So, the very concept of a physics journal dedicated to pattern recognition, alone, is very doubtful, to say the least. Then, it is no wonder that a (so-called) physics purely based on pattern recognition in physics results arrives in the denial of the physical basis of climate change. 

To understand what's wrong with pattern recognition as intended in this journal, you  may look at look to this comment. However, you can find an even better comment on pattern recognition in Shakespeare.

Hamlet. Do you see yonder cloud that ’s almost in shape of a camel?

Polonius. By the mass, and ’t is like a camel, indeed.

Ham. Methinks it is like a weasel.

Pol. It is backed like a weasel.

Ham. Or like a whale?

Pol. Very like a whale.

Friday, January 17, 2014

The unsustainable dullness of common sense

Jo Abbess correactly aims against the dullness of people who continue repeating the same silly memes about renewable energy and climate change. (image above)

Curmudgeons Happen

by Jo Abbess

I was talking with people at my friend’s big birthday bash yesterday. I mentioned I’m writing about Renewable Gas, and this led to a variety of conversations. Here is a kind of summary of one of the threads, involving several people.

Why do people continue to insist that the wind turbine at Reading uses more energy than it generates ?

Would it still be there if it wasn’t producing power? Does David Cameron still have a wind turbine on his roof? No. It wasn’t working, so it was taken down. I would ask – what are their sources of information? What newspapers and websites do they read?

They say that the wind turbine at Reading is just there for show.

Ah. The “Potemkin Village” meme – an idyllic-looking setting, but everything’s faked. The Chinese painting the desert green, etc.

And then there are people that say that the only reason wind farms continue to make money is because they run the turbines inefficiently to get the subsidies.

Ah. The “De-rating Machine” meme. You want to compare and contrast. Look at the amount of money, resources, time and tax breaks being poured into the UK Continental Shelf, and Shale Gas, by the current Government.

Every new technology needs a kick start, a leg up. You need to read some of the reports on wind power as an asset – for example, the Offshore Valuation – showing a Net Present Value. After it’s all deployed, even with the costs of re-powering at the end of turbine life, offshore North Sea wind power will be a genuine asset.

What I don’t understand is, why do people continue to complain that wind turbines spoil the view? Look at the arguments about the Jurassic Coast in Dorset.

I have contacts there who forward me emails about the disputes. The yachtsmen of Poole are in open rebellion because the wind turbines will be set in in their channels ! The tourists will still come though, and that’s what really counts. People in Dorset just appear to love arguing, and you’ve got some people doing good impressions of curmudgeons at the head of the branches of the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE) and English Heritage.

There are so many people who resist renewable energy, and refuse to accept we need to act on climate change. Why do they need to be so contrarian? I meet them all the time.

People don’t like change, but change happens. The majority of people accept that climate change is significant enough to act on, and the majority of people want renewable energy. It may not seem like that though. It depends on who you talk with. There’s a small number of people who vocalise scepticism and who have a disproportionate effect. I expect you are talking about people who are aged 55 and above?

Example : “Climate Change ? Haw haw haw!” and “Wind turbines? They don’t work!” This is a cohort problem. All the nasty white racists are dying and being buried with respect by black undertakers. All the rabid xenophobes are in nursing homes being cared for in dignity by “foreigners”. Pretty soon Nigel Lawson could suffer from vascular dementia and be unable to appear on television.

Continue reading on Jo Abbess's blog

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Problems with communication

It was what Luntz heard from the American people that scared him. They were contentious and argumentative. They didn't listen to each other as they once had. They weren't interested in hearing other points of view. They were divided one against the other, black vs. white, men vs. women, young vs. old, rich vs. poor. "They want to impose their opinions rather than express them," is the way he describes what he saw.

From "The Agony of Frank Luntz" by Molly Ball on "The Atlantic"

Thursday, January 9, 2014

From the other side of the polar vortex

While everyone in the US is freezing, here in Italy we are still waiting for winter to arrive. I am seeing mosquitoes flying in my house - never seen mosquitoes in Florence in January in all my life. Today it was a 15 degrees C (almost 60 F). Italy is not Nebraska, but in January we were supposed to have snow, once! Instead, it was raining; almost tropical weather. I was expecting to see a T-Rex walking in the garden, in turn transformed into a Jurassic swamp.

It reminds to me the movie "The Secret of the Wings" - maybe you have seen it (OK, it is not for adults, but I loved it). It tells the story of a world sharply divided in two parts: in one it is always winter, in the other it is always spring. It seems that we are seeing something similar in the real word: the Polar Vortex has sharply divided Europe in two: a Winter World and a Spring World - you see below how we are standing in Europe (from MeteoGiuliacci):

They say that next week everything should change and that temperatures should drop of even 15 deg. C. It really looks like a fantasy movie.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

The climate debate: what we have been doing wrong and how to do better

The frog that jumped out blog went on line less than one year ago. With the new year, I thought a little rant of mine could be in order. I started it listing all what I thought we have been doing wrong in communication the climate problem but, as I went on, I found that there were also more positive things that I could say. So, the final result is a something that tries to suggest some positive strategy for communication on the basis of network theory and some other observations. Probably, this text wants to say too many things in too little space but, now that I wrote it, maybe you'll find a moment to give a look to it and tell me what you think of it.

Perhaps you had one of those nightmares where you are chased by a monster. You desperately try to run away, but you find that your feet are glued to the ground. With climate change, it is something like that. You almost feel the breath of the climate monster on the back of your neck, but you can't move. Nothing is moving. Whatever we do to try to convince people of the danger ahead is just like the proverbial water off the duck's back. It doesn't stick.

But why are we in this situation? After all, we have a strong case: look, we have data, we have models, we have the scientific community compact behind the idea of human caused climate change and about what's to be done to stop it. So, we stated our case, we tried to do our best to explain how things stand. Then, we expected someone to do something. But no. Nothing has happened, nothing happens.

We redoubled our efforts. We read the book titled "Don't be such a scientist." We set up blogs, we wrote on facebook and on twitter, we gave interviews. We tried to be clear, pleaising, entertaining, we tried to bring solutions, not problems. We followed the advice that says "more than all, never scare anyone!" But it didn't work and, by now, it is clear that it won't work. We are reduced to wait for the next environmental disaster that we hope will finally wake up people from their torpor. But we have had already enough environmental disasters and people are not taking notice. So, are we bound to to lose this battle? There follows some thoughts of mine on this matter.

1. So, what have we been doing wrong?

We piped unto you, and ye did not dance; we wailed, and ye did not mourn. Matthew 11:17

This blog, "The frog that jumped out," has been useful for me to focus on the issue of communicating climate science. So, I think I have some ideas on what exactly we did wrong and the answer can probably be found in a mix of human psychology and the field of science called "Network Theory." It has to do with the human tendency of forming tribes, structures that in network theory are called "small worlds". You can see the structure of a small world network in the figure - it is structured as clusters of nodes strongly linked with each other within the cluster, but weakly linked on the outside (image from "researchtoaction")

That the web is structured in this way has been proven. That this is a property of not just the Web, it is clear for everyone to see. The social world around us is a network of small worlds/tribes - some are political, some are religious, some are cultural, some are dedicated to sports, some are just made of friends, and there are many more. It works this way; after all, we are a tribal species: everyone of us is embedded in at least one small world network. You may also belong to different ones on different "planes" of your cultural existence; say, one for your professional network, one for your political activity, one for your hobbies and more. Then, if society is built like a network of small worlds, it means that most of the ongoing communication occurs inside small worlds. Not that there are no contacts between small worlds, but they are less numerous and weaker.

The point is that the unit of information processing and dissemination in the social sphere is the tribe, not the individual. these small words/tribes are tremendously resilient. They are not formally exclusive, you don't need a badge and an ID to belong to your social network tribe. It is nevertheless clear whether you belong or you don't. If you belong, you have to know the background, the formally and informally accepted ideas, you have to know the jargon and use it properly. This set of commonly accepted ideas makes the group resistant to change.

This is an oversimplification, perhaps, but I have been interacting with some especially weird tribes, such as the "chemtrails" tribe; that is those who believe that the world's governments are engaged in an evil plot to poison us by spreading poisons in the sky and doing that in the form of white trails ("chemtrails") left by planes. Now, how can anyone possibly believe in that? And yet, the tribal identification of believers is so strong that they form a close knit community which react aggressively to every attempt to make the members reason on the absurdity of their beliefs (you don't believe me? Try yourself and then you'll tell me). You see that identification mechanism at work in the comments of the blogs promoting the chemtrails idea - it is a sort of "chorus." The whole as a primeval flavor; something that reminds the behavior of creatures running in packs and howling at the full moon.

The chemtrails example is extreme, but illustrates the mechanism. You see the same phenomenon, for instance, in the comments of the anti-science blog "What's Up with That?" kept by Anthony Watts. You see how members of Watt's tribe reinforce each other's beliefs by using similar language and themes. To be a member you have to repeat the commonly held memes ("there has been no warming during the past 15 years") and attack climate scientists ("Micheal Mann is an enemy of mankind"). The resistance of tribes to new information and is truly amazing.

The problem is that there is almost no way to crack the belief system of a small tribe from outside. Targeting individuals doesn't work: that person will simply compare your statements to those of his/her tribe and conclude that yours have no weight. You may say, "but this is what science says" and the likely answer will be "so what?" If you insist, the reaction may be aggressive ("scientists have been cheating the public in order to get fat research grants"). Not even major climate linked disasters, from Katrina to Hayan, can budge the tribe from its beloved feelings.

Of course, the structure of the Web is nuanced and complex and only a minority of small worlds are actively hostile to science. Most are simply indifferent and won't, in themselves, generate a strong counter-reaction to the climate change meme. Repeating the basic climate concepts over and over would probably create a foothold in these neutral worlds. The problem is that the effort is countered by the equal and opposite activity of hostile tribes. They have been effective in positioning themselves as a legitimate opinion. They have done so by being highly active and visible on the Web. One of their weapons that of aggressively trolling in the comments of scientific sites. A few anti-science trolls can completely hijack any scientific discussion and transform it into a brawl. The big, big problem is that it has been found that the opinion of initially neutral people can be strongly influenced by negative anti-scientific comments.

It is here that we have been doing our crucial mistake as promoters of the idea that we should do something to stop climate change. We tend to deal with anti-science trolls as if they were people who honestly want to know about science. They may disguise themselves in that way, initially, but their purpose is a different one: they just want to hijack the debate and turn it into a fight. They know very well that this is a very effective tactic to affect the opinion of neutral people and we have been falling into the trap over and over - picking up useless fights that served only to give visibility to people who didn't deserve it. The final result is the stalemate we are observing. We are not succeeding in affecting the majority of people and, as a result, nothing is being done about climate. We piped unto you, and ye did not dance; we wailed, and ye did not mourn.

2. The way to do better. 

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. (Sun Tzu)

If we look at past debates, we see that there is a winning strategy for science. It is to isolate the anti-science tribes and make it clear that they are minority social areas whose opinions are held by people who have no scientific credentials. Think of the battle on the health effects of smoking, or of the battle about seat belts in cars or about drunk driving. These concepts had opponents, but the battles were won by isolating them and making clear that their non-mainstream opinions (e.g. that there is no danger with driving while drunk or without seat belts) are dangerous fringe opinions which have no scientific basis and should have no equal space in the debate about driving safety.  Only in this way, it was possible to obtain effective seat belt laws and to stop drunk driving. Many people were not especially happy about that, but they accepted the mainstream opinion. 

So, our objective in the climate debate is clear: we have to isolate the anti-science tribes and make it clear that their positions on climate, for instance that there is no danger from global warming, are fringe opinions with no scientific basis. Furthermore, these opinions are dangerous and should have no "equal space" in the debate about how to keep the Earth's climate safe for humans. If we can achieve that, then we can gradually penetrate the neutral small worlds and attain something. It is the strategy to get something done. 

Then, strategy needs tactics to be put into practice. And the basic tactics in communication is always the same: know your target. You must understand whom you are speaking to and tailor your message to them. Otherwise, it is lost time - actually it is worse than that: you achieve the opposite than what you want to achieve. So, we need to consider that, in the vast universe of the Web, we are talking to three kinds of people, each embedded in their small worlds: sympathetic, neutral, and hostile. The ways to deal with them are different.

- Speaking to people who are already sympathetic to science poses no problems. We are talking the same language - we understand each other. We are a small world, after all, although we are a scientific small world. 

- Speaking to neutral people is where you can use the advice that you can read, for instance, in books like "Don't be such a scientist." You have to be competent, you have to be clear, you have to be honest. If you do that, you don't have to follow particular rules in your job of informing people. For instance, you may have heard that you shouldn't scare people. It is true, but it doesn't mean you should sugar the pill so much that you turn yourself into a Ronald McDonald of climate. The best way, I think, is to be honest about what you are talking about and if you see serious danger ahead, you should say that. Most people, out there, are decent people who can appreciate honest talk. It takes time, you have to keep at that, but eventually it works.

- Speaking to people who belong to hostile tribes, well, it is simple: you don't! Our objective is to isolate them, denying them visibility, and we are learning how to do that. For instance Gavin Schmidt - climate scientists - recently refused to have a TV debate with a hostile opponent saying "Television is performance art, not scientific debate. We shouldn't confuse the two." Well said! That, of course, generated loud accusations against him of being a "coward". Sure, sure.... they can howl at the moon as much as they like - but they know very well that they were beaten. Schmidt perfectly understood that it would have been a mistake to give to his opponent the chance of appearing as if he were on an equal scientific footing and to have a wide exposure with that. And, recently, the Reddit's science forum banned climate deniers. You see? We are learning to know our enemy! And if we know our enemy (and ourselves) we can win this battle.

3. Conclusion

And if I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. Paul, Corinthians 13:2

The battle on climate is turning out to be the ultimate battle for humankind - if we lose it, we lose everything. You don't have to be a scientist or an expert to fight it, but if you have the right frame of mind it is your duty to fight. It is a tremendously difficult battle, but not an unwinnable one. But don't forget also another thing: science is not everything. The reason you fight is not just because you know that you are scientifically correct. A medical doctor is a good doctor not just because she knows the science of medicine, she is a good doctor because she cares about her patients. The same is for you. You are fighting the climate battle not just because you know the science of climate. It is because you care about the life of your friends, your family, your children, all of humankind and everything which is alive on this planet. This is the only way to win. 

This said, sorry for this rather long rant of mine. But, if you arrived all the way to here, I hope you might have found some useful suggestions in it.