Saturday, January 31, 2015

Climate Crisis: Convincing and Communicating

A Pew study released the other day compared two recent surveys which asked the same basic questions of two groups: scientists and non-scientists.  Some of the questions were general ones about science and society, others were about "beliefs" on specific issues.  These got the headlines, because of the difference between the percentage of scientists versus the percentage of non-scientists on what they believe is proven fact on "key scientific issues."

One of the issues that got into news stories was climate change, and predictably, a higher percentage of scientists than other citizens believe it is caused by that nebulous euphemism, "human activity."  The very high percentage of scientists (87%, which is about 10 points lower than climate scientists alone) probably is expected, but notable was the size of the gap between them and others, and the low percentage of non-scientists (50%).

Perhaps even more alarming, or maybe more telling, was another comparison, between a similar Pew poll of citizens in 2009 and this one.  In 2009, 11% of those surveyed said there was no solid evidence the climate is warming.  But in 2014--after mounting and very obvious evidence in every region of America over those 5 years--it was up to 25%, fully one quarter.  Opposite to the evidence.

One could point out that this means that 75% at least do accept evidence and experience on this topic. But it must raise again the question (which it perhaps answers) of what if any evidence will convince enough people to stop wasting energy and attention on denial, so our society gets into the fast lane of addressing the climate crisis?

There is a lot going on here.  Attitudes towards science and scientists is a complex area (or a tangled morass) that would take many words to even approach.  Then there is the fear factor of all the implications of the climate crisis that amps up denial, so that the perception of climate change actually intensifies denial of its existence or causes.

All of this bears upon questions that recur in many forms almost constantly. How can the climate crisis be communicated effectively, so that at last society addresses it with the necessary unity and dedication?

Scaring people won't do it, says Dean Ornish, you need a positive approach: "If we are going to find sustainable ways of dealing with global warming, we have to base it on love and feeling good, not fear and loathing. If it’s fun, then it’s sustainable."    

Science won't win over climate sceptics, asserts Adam Comer in the Guardian--we need stories. But what kind of stories?  Comer also suggests the positive--stories about low-carbon solutions.

Or maybe personal stories of the negative effects.  Climate scientist Heidi Cullen admitted in a New York Times oped that she found these more powerful than scientific facts.  But will they, as the headline promised, change minds? Maybe, she writes, in combination with factual documentaries and works of fiction that both evoke feeling and offer a broader humanized perspective.

Others agree that negative stories get to people better.  But which ones?  David Roberts notes that environmentalists have been tearing their hair out trying to figure out what horror will get the attention --drought?  Disease? Sea level rise?--that will finally turn the tide (so to speak) and galvanize action.  His own candidate in this piece is flooding, some of which happens regularly right now due to sea level rise in several coastal cities.

Or the story doesn't have to even be related to climate, like the man who is walking 3,000 miles across America to increase awareness of the issue, and who gets attention for it by the fact of his walk, and how he relates to people he meets.

Do any of these actually work?  Who knows? In a different piece, David Roberts links to some of his posts analyzing the complexity of responses by those he calls conservatives, while debunking claims (desperate claims in some cases) of psychological etc. means to convince them.

Bill McKibben, who has been writing about climate change probably longer than anyone, takes the "ignore them" route by continuing (for example) his series of carefully written and assessed evaluations of where we are in this area (many of them over the years, like last summer, in the New York Review of Books) that appeal to believers monitoring the changing situation,  while simultaneously organizing activists--particularly young ones--to turn this into the civil rights movement of the age.  Presumably, at least until the old denialists die, he's given up on the "emotional consensus" he once called for, though perhaps I'm the only one who remembers these words, which he uttered in an interview or press conference I saw eons ago on C-Span.)

Naomi Klein has joined the fight, admittedly late in the game, with her political and economic perspective, and eloquent support for activism as well.  Like many, she sees the climate crisis as requiring major change (though few disagree on scale, they don't always agree on the time scale) and the nature of these changes being beneficial in a much wider way than only addressing the climate crisis.
(Elizabeth Kolbert at the New Yorker was skeptical of Klein's prescriptions.  Their dialogue is worth a look.)

But the problem remains, so it isn't surprising that it is the headline for a recent Atlantic article: How to Talk About Climate Change So People Will Listen/
Environmentalists warn us that apocalypse awaits. Economists tell us that minimal fixes will get us through. Here's how we can move beyond the impasse. Unfortunately the long piece that follows, a serious analysis with some convincing and unconvincing conclusions, isn't about this.  Yet another product perhaps of the articles and the headlines written by two different people, possibly two different species.

But the writer (Charles Mann) does suggest that the issue that might finally galvanize action is the threat of the technological "solution" of geoengineering, which is dangerous in palpably scary ways.  So he comes down on the fear factor as the motivator of acceptance.

Let me give the short version of my answer.  First, I believe communicating clearly and more effectively on this issue is essential.  Second, while I believe that "conservatives" and others suspicious of science and today's scientists raise other issues that ought to be recognized and addressed,  and I suspect the increase in total denial is partly due to failures to communicate clearly, I don't believe it all is, and I don't believe evidence, or stories of any kind will convince everybody.

While we're dealing with a crisis of an unprecedented nature, within a particular historical context, we're also operating within political constraints that may well be centuries old. In the 19th century for example, John Stuart Mill theorized that under most circumstances the masses are always innately conservative--in the sense of not wanting to risk change--while liberals are always a minority, and must find ways towards a temporary majority on specific matters.  That's part of our context.  It's there underneath the fear and ideology, and the greed that also takes advantage of it.

Nevertheless, there is a public out there that's close to (or already is) an effective majority on this issue, though it may take more than that to overcome entrenched power.  I support communicating evidence (and repeating it, because what you may lose in attention by repetition you may gain in understanding among nonscientists) and arguing for specific solutions to specific problems (ways of cutting down on carbon pollution, directly and through alternative energy sources)--because there are an awful lot of people who are listening, even if only now and again.  I support activism, from demos and creative variations on attention-getting actions, to divestment campaigns. I support positive stories (though Ornish obviously doesn't understand the magnitude of the crisis) and I support negative stories, and I see dangers in both.  So in terms of strategy, I'm for all of the above.  Because in the end it's individuals at a particular time, so it's serendipity, before it's a politically effective constituency.

Third: what I fear will be a consequence of this stubborn inability to reach "emotional consensus" and common effort.  I am afraid that the current complacency riding the undercurrent of denial will suddenly become panic (my guess it will be the result of sky-high food prices, already going in that direction.) And that panic could demand unfortunate reactions.

  There are ways to prepare for that, to make it less consequential perhaps, and ultimately overcome it.  Our politics now aren't encouraging in this respect.  But not everything is politics.  I'll have a post (much shorter I hope) on one aspect of that soon.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

2014, 2015 and the Climate of History

     Not my photo of Clam Beach (it's from here) but it's been this kind of day.

It's hard to complain about our weather here.  It was a rainy December until Christmas, and it's pretty much been sunny ever since.  Warmer than usual for winter, and at times, warm enough to think it might be summer.

Clam Beach is only 8 miles away on the 101, but we don't usually think of it, especially in winter, because it's so open and often windy.  But we've been there twice in the past week or so, two warm, windless golden afternoons, among the families and their sandcastles, kids with kites (new kinds to me, small low-flying ones, shaped and colored like butterflies), dogs frolicking with their humans and each other, (mostly) girls on horseback trotting on the sand.  Though once, at sunset, we saw two horses a-galloping at water's edge, moving silhouettes against the burnished sky and glittering water.  With men in the distance grouped to fish, and some people with sticks down near the waterline with the shore birds, clamming.

Sure, it should be raining. With a rainless January in SF and north, the CA drought is worse than ever. The West in general is unusually hot, and south of us the heat has melted much of the snowpack in the Sierras built up in November and December, all but very high up.  A lot of places depend on that spring melt for their water.

We're hoping here for a rainy February and March, like last year.  But the unseasonable, even unprecedented perfection of our recent weather isn't the only reason it seems otherworldly.  It's that the weather doesn't make sense anymore.

It was apparently a pretty temperate 2014 on the East Coast, too. At least until this snowy winter, including the latest storm, all of which is fed and made more intense by warmer ocean water.

 Unfortunately, the big picture was not so good.  Despite the slowing in the global warming rate that still has scientists scratching their heads (Ocean capture?  Volcanoes?) and despite the temperature neutral bust of this year's El Nino, both NASA and NOAA culled their data to declare 2014 was the Earth's hottest year on record, which means from 1880 at least.  The ten hottest days in that period have all happened since 1997 or 2000, depending on whether you throw out 1998 as freakishly hot.  For the entire state of CA it was also the hottest year on record (by 1.8F), and December the hottest month.

There's more evidence, accumulating faster, is it worth it to recite it? Carbon dioxide accumulation in the atmosphere reached a record high in 2014, growing at the fastest rate in 30 years. More and faster melting in Greenland.  More land species on the brink.  The crashing of marine life is just beginning.  And so on.

But as Amy Davidson's piece in the New Yorker was headlined: Our Hottest Year, Our Cold Indifference.  Denial and indifference have definitely emerged as factors as potent as greenhouse gases in determining the future of civilization.  It doesn't look great in either category.  No wonder the atomic scientists who used to monitor the danger of nuclear apocalypse in their calculations on the likelihood of doomsday, this year have named the climate crisis as a chief reason they've shoved the Doomsday Clock hands forward to three minutes to midnight.

So that's where we are.  Lots of people are pushing back, organizing, speaking out, acting and trying to act--much of which is coming to a crescendo this year, as the world's nations meet to make or not make serious commitments to address the climate crisis, both causes and effects, but especially causes.

There is a kind of orchestration, you might even call it a chess game beginning.  Two of the major players (both on the same side) are President Obama and Pope Francis.  Obama has already secured some commitments from China.  He made a point of pushing India in the right direction during last week's visit.  And he's done more than any other U.S. president to act effectively here.

The word has been out for weeks that Pope Francis is about to take the highly unusual step of issuing a papal encyclical on the moral necessity of addressing the climate crisis.  For Catholics this is especially serious, because encyclicals invoke papal infallibility on faith and morals.  But it is important beyond active membership.  It has already caused some grumbling, and will undoubtedly be met with vituperation when it happens.  But Pope Francis will have confirmed his status as the most progressive pope since John XXIII, and he will be a beacon and a hero to many.  This issue can never have too many heroes.