Scare tactics: merits and lack thereof

In what New York Magazine is calling the most-read article in the publication’s history,   writes about what will happen if we don’t stop burning fossil fuels soon. In a nutshell: the climate “will now go to war with us for many centuries, perhaps until it destroys us.”

This has made more than a few climatologists rather cross. The argument is that because “The Uninhabitable Earth” focuses on an unlikely worst-case scenario, and therefore might needless scare the public into inaction.

There are a few questionable statements regarding the science of climate change. You can see them in the annotated version, to which I’ve linked above, and in commentaries by the likes of Michael Mann, whose credentials are impeccable on these matters. But not that many mistakes. Indeed, if you look at a Climate Feedback‘s comprehensive scientific review of the whole thing (which is thousands of words long), Wallace-Wells does rather well for someone who hasn’t written much about climate change until now. So the real question about the wisdom of running the piece isn’t “Does it fairly describe the science?” but “Should we really be telling people how bad things might get?”

First, it helps to know that Wallace-Wells bent over backward to ensure readers were under no illusions about what the feature is all about:

What follows is not a series of predictions of what will happen — that will be determined in large part by the much-less-certain science of human response. Instead, it is a portrait of our best understanding of where the planet is heading absent aggressive action. It is unlikely that all of these warming scenarios will be fully realized, largely because the devastation along the way will shake our complacency. But those scenarios, and not the present climate, are the baseline. In fact, they are our schedule.

The emphasis is mine, because it’s important. Wallace-Wells knows we’re not going to do nothing about global warming. But he and his editors at New York agreed that is fair to talk about the consequences of business as usual, even if that business is evolving rapidly (though probably not fast enough).

David Roberts of Vox comes down on the side of those who believe we shouldn’t be hiding the truth, even if it is scary. “Did that New York magazine climate story freak you out? Good” is his response to the responses.

Over my 407 years in the climate-o-sphere, I’ve cycled through just about every school of thought on the right way to communicate climate change. What I’ve come to believe is that on this, as on most matters, nobody really knows anything. Even if there are accurate statements about how people in general respond to messages in general, they won’t tell you much about how you ought to communicate with the people you want to reach.

Here’s the thing about science communication theory: it’s complicated. I’ve been writing about greenhouse gas emissions and sinks for 30 calendar years now (longer even than Roberts’ hyperbolic 407) and the one thing everyone in this field can agree on is that we really have no clue about best practices.

For a while back in the early days of blogging, “framing” was the buzzword. But it turned out that that means either a) unethically spinning your message to make it more palatable to a given reader/listener/viewer or b) just using conventional hooks that journalists have been using all along. Then Al Gore came along with his famous/notorious Keynote presentations (as an Apple board member he wasn’t going to use PowerPoint), and talked about a “hope budget” so his army of presenters didn’t depress their audiences.

Do scare tactics spur populations to action, or do they paralyze? Obviously, it depends on the issue. Fear about overbearing government regulators seems to work pretty well in mobilizing gun owners to get out and vote, if recent history is any guide. And did all those pictures of mushroom clouds not lead to citizen movements that in turn led to nuclear disarmament treaties? And Wallace-Wells has another ally from an surprising source: Tech writer Farhad Manjoo of the New York Times points out that all the craziness about the Y2K bug 17 years ago was probably warranted, because it actually led to solutions for what would have been a nightmare scenario for anyone who uses a computer.

On the other hand, it’s easy to imagine situations in which, if you just tell people how bad things are but don’t give them the tools to do something about the threat, you’re probably only going to make matters worse. Cyncism is not a good thing for civilization to embrace.

The problem is climate change is a threat without precedent. Although some of the damage can already be seen — just ask residents of Vanuatu and other island states that are losing significant land mass to sea level rise at this moment — most of the really bad stuff is a generation or two removed from our here-and-now brains. We’ve never really faced this kind of challenge before, and so have no way to know what will and won’t work when it comes to getting people to care enough to change not just a few lightbulbs, but their choice of candidates for public office. Maybe fear will do the trick. Maybe we should emphasize the fact that just about every other facet of life will benefit from a low-carbon economy.

Every strategy is well represented in the climate communications business today. It’s no longer the purview of volunteer and semi-pro bloggers, but involves Pulitzer-winning websites and well-rounded teams at established national newspapers. The industry exists because everyone knows that most scientists aren’t very good at communicating their work themselves, and (with rare exceptions like Michael Mann) need the help of professionals dedicated and trained in the subject, which just happens to be the biggest public policy challenge of our time.

So when you read about scientists taking umbrage at the notion of discussing in public what business as usual means for the planet, first ask yourself one question. If even professional communicators can’t agree on whether scare tactics are wise, how likely is it that introverted lab rats with no communications background will have a deeper insight into a fundamental question about human cognition and behavior?

I still wish Wallace-Wells had treated a couple of items differently. This is why I think magazines like New York should not assign climate change stories to those without a science background. But I don’t think he was wrong to write “no matter how well-informed you are, you are surely not alarmed enough.” My experience working alongside scientists who study things like climate change and other environmental problems makes it clear to me that they are by and large a conservative sort who loathe to be saddled with the label of alarmist, as the deniers are wont to call them. They prefer to couch their published predictions in cautious, moderate language. It’s only when you get them alone and off the record that they’ll admit how bleak things really are.

Maybe that’s the way science should be. But every now and then we need to hear the unvarnished truth.



If kids are responsible for climate change …

How many kids should you have? Used to be the answer was “none of anyone’s damn business.” But that’s not the approach a pair of sustainability experts took in a new paper that concludes the single-most powerful thing anyone can do about climate change is having fewer offspring.

In “The climate mitigation gap: education and government recommendations miss the most effective individual actions” (Environmental Research Letters, 12 July 2017) Seth Wynes of Sweden’s Lund University the University of British Columbia and Kimerbley Nicholas of UBC find that the greenhouse gas emissions associated with introducing a human to the planet are far larger than any other single action, especially the ones that governments and corporations keep reminding us we should be doing.

You can also live car-free, avoid airplanes, and give up meat, which are second, third and fourth on their list. “These actions have much greater potential to reduce emissions than commonly promoted strategies like comprehensive recycling (four times less effective than a plant-based diet) or changing household light bulbs (eight times less),” they write. But nothing comes close to smaller families.

Here’s a easy-to-consume infographic, where the right-most column is the “climate savings” that come with forgoing one child:

There’s plenty of argument to be had over their calculations of “quantified future emissions of descendants” but the basic idea shouldn’t surprise anyone. Adding another one or two copies of yourself is obviously going to have a larger effect than just trimming a few hundred kilos of methane from your annual budget. Still, reaction has been rather strong. Apparently, people don’t take kindly to being told families are a problem, not a blessing. Google it and you’ll see. I’ll just point you to Vox‘s David Roberts, who points out that it all depends on where the parents live. Here’s money quote:

By averaging out the impact of a developed-world child into one single figure, the study obscures the single most salient fact about individual carbon emissions, namely that wealthy people produce way more. That’s true not only between countries but within them as well.

I called it a money quote for a reason. Rich kids are a bigger burden. But again, no surprise there. Indeed, there’s really not a lot new here at all.  Way back in the 1970s, Paul Ehrlich and John Holdren came up with a nifty little equation to measure environmental impacts of civilization:

I = P x A x T

Where Impact is the product of the size of the Population, the Affluence of the population and the resource intensity of the Technologies involved in maintaining the population. This new paper is really just a reminder that we have to think about all three if we want to change our global-warming trajectory.

So sure, have fewer kids. There’s no doubt that that will make a difference. But so will buying less stuff, which is something that rich folks may find is hard to do. And so will not burning fossil fuels.

There is one important message in Wynes and Nicholas’ paper that hasn’t got much attention, though. “National policies and major energy transformations often take decades to change locked-in infrastructure and institutions, but behavioural shifts have the potential to be more rapid and widespread.” Meaning less time behind the wheel can occur right away, while electrical power plant designs take decades to change.

And so:

It is especially important that adolescents are prepared for this shift. They still have the freedom to make large behavioural choices that will structure the rest of their lives, and must grow up accustomed to a lifestyle that approaches the 2.1 tonnes per person annual emissions budget necessary by 2050 to meet the 2 °C climate target.

The typical carbon footprint of an American is approximately 10 times the target Wynes and Nicholas mention. So that’s a lot of behavioral shifting. But if you do have kids, and you instill in them (preferably by example) the need to cut their A and T factors, then perhaps your contribution to P won’t be quite as problematic.

Hyper-local climate impact forecast, finally

A study published in Science at the end of June should have found its way onto the front pages and screens of every community newspaper and local news program in the country. But it didn’t. At least, not around these parts. Which is a shame, because it’s precisely the kind of story we’ve been waiting for all these years. (Apologies to the spirit of Douglas Adams). I’ll do my best to rectify the oversight.

In “Estimating economic damage from climate change in the United States,” a team of researchers led by Solomon Hsiang, who specializes in public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, applied the latest datasets on expected damages we can expect because of what we’re doing to the planet to the economy. On average, they calculated that the U.S. would lose about 1.2% of its GDP for each degree centigrade (1.8 °F) the Earth warms. But we already knew that level of damage -— lost crops, coastal erosion, heat deaths and so forth — was in the pipeline. What’s interesting is that the team also produced specific forecasts for each county.

For the first time, we’ve been offered at least a rough idea of what fossil-fueled business as usual will cost us, at home. We’re not just talking about polar bears anymore. It’s now about jobs, wages, infrastructure, crime. Any news outlet that’s paying attention should have jumped on this. There’s even a handy-dandy interactive map:

You can zoom in on any county (even Hawai’i and Alaska). For example, Polk County, NC, where I live, is expected to lose about 7% of its economy due to the various effects of climate change. Of course, it’s a very coarse estimate, and one that’s based on the assumption that we make no significant policy changes to mitigate the anticipated effects. No one really believes that particular outcome is likely — just look at how fast the costs of solar panels and wind turbines are falling, or how rapidly Elon Musk’s little car company has become more valuable than GM. But the exercise is valuable because business as usual is the only baseline we have for which the elements are known precisely. And then there’s Donald Trump, so …

There are two other points worth thinking about. First, there’s this depressing observation:

Combining impacts across sectors reveals that warming causes a net transfer of value from Southern, Central, and Mid-Atlantic regions toward the Pacific Northwest, the Great Lakes region, and New England (Fig. 2I). In some counties, median losses exceed 20% of gross county product (GCP), while median gains sometimes exceed 10% of GCP. Because losses are largest in regions that are already poorer on average, climate change tends to increase preexisting inequality in the United States.

Once again, the South and the poor get the short end of the stick. This is mostly because the harm associated with hotter summers in the South will be more deeply felt than the benefits of slightly warmer winters up North.

Second, although the data are only presented by county, you can actually extract even more localized information by giving the map a close look and considering the surrounding geography. In the case of Polk County, the low-elevation foothills of the the county’s eastern parts will almost certainly be responsible for most of the anticipated decline in gross county product, because it’s where most economic activity and the lion’s share of the population are concentrated, and also because the higher-elevation western side is next door to even higher-elevation counties (Henderson and Buncombe), where the predicted impact is negligible. Which means my home town of Saluda, which is geographically more connected with the mountains than the foothills, will probably do better than the rest of the county.

Speaking of avoiding the really bad stuff, it’s almost poetic justice that, as employees of NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information in Asheville, the seat of Buncombe county, many of the scientists responsible for cranking out the climate data on which this study relies happen to live in a part of the world that is not expected to suffer too much. At least not in the next few decades. Sooner or later, of course, everything will go sideways.