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.



Rob Ford and the planet

Apologies for the blatant exploitation of an ostensibly tangential news story to drive traffic to this blog. But I think there is a connection, and it’s high time I resurrected Class M.

The spark is, of course, the revelations about Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s contempt for the people who elected him. Toronto doesn’t deserve to be embarrassed, at least not in this manner. The latest affront to decency comes in the form of a drunken rant during which the mayor threatens to kill someone. Sooner or later, the city will be relieved of Ford, but in the meantime, we can contemplate how it is that a man with so little common sense and respect for society norms could continue to enjoy as much support as he does.

I would hope that most of us can agree that Ford’s behaviour  should disqualify him from serious consideration for political office. Why then isn’t the public en masse — not just politicians and newspaper editorialists — demanding his resignation? It evokes the contempt so many Americans have for the “liberal elite.” At some point in the past 35 years or so, intelligence, embrace of diversity and compassion became liabilities in the minds of a significant portion of the population. And progress on a long list of issues will be difficult to achieve until we remedy this problem, of which Ford is just a symptom.

Climate is such an issue. Tuesday’s victory of Terry McAuliffe in the Virginia governor’s race or climate change denier Ken Cuccinelli, a win that owes perhaps a small degree of its success to the campaigning of climatologist Michael Mann, suggests that, at least in one state, rejection of reality may no longer be as popular a position as the Tea Party once made it. But support for fossil fuel projects remains high, even among Democrats, including the U.S. President. Indeed, more oil and gas is now flowing from American wells and fracking operations than ever before thanks to support from the Obama administration. Despite reductions in domestic consumption, coal production and export continues at a furious pace. And the latest greenhouse-gas emissions projections do not paint an optimistic picture.

The UN Environment Program said that even if nations meet their current emissions reduction pledges, carbon emissions in 2020 will be eight to 12 gigatonnes above the level required to avoid a costly nosedive in greenhouse gas output.

The Emissions Gap Report 2013, which was compiled by 44 scientific groups in 17 countries, warns that if the greenhouse “gap” isn’t “closed or significantly narrowed” by 2020, the pathway to limiting the global temperature rise to 1.5C will be closed.

At UN talks in 2010, the international community agreed to limit the rise in average global temperatures to 2C by 2100, based on pre-industrial levels.

Scientists at the recent IPCC gathering warned that the world could emit enough carbon to surpass the 2C limit within 30 years, and this latest UN analysis heightens concerns that the world could be heading for a temperature rise of 4C or even 6C, triggering damaging sea level rises, extreme weather events and food insecurity. (The Guardian, Nov. 5, 2013)

We all understand why the powers that be are reluctant to stop burning fossil fuels. They make a lot of money and they know that switching to decentralized, more efficient,  clean renewable alternative source of energy and fuels is not compatible with maintaining their profit margins. Fair enough. Everyone has a right to be greedy. But too many of us consumer-citizens continue to support governments that are content to allow the status quo to continue. Too many of us have nothing but contempt for the scientists who are telling us what has to be done to prevent widescale disruption to life as we know it.

Just as too many suburban Torontonians continue to resent the liberal elite who, not too surprisingly, have determined the city’s fate for so long. It’s way past time to restore respect for education and the power to make a reasonable argument. It’s all connected, folks.

Tea Party shenanigans

As if you needed another reason to lament the state of American politics:

Across the country, activists with ties to the Tea Party are railing against all sorts of local and state efforts to control sprawl and conserve energy. They brand government action for things like expanding public transportation routes and preserving open space as part of a United Nations-led conspiracy to deny property rights and herd citizens toward cities. (New York Times, Feb 3, 2012)

The story ends on what would be a humorous note:

“The Tea Party people say they want nonpolluted air and clean water and everything we promote and support, but they also say it’s a communist movement,” said Charlotte Moore, a supervisor who voted yes. “I really don’t understand what they want.”

Another round of (yawn) stolen emails

If this is the best they’ve got, it’s kind of sad, really.

Looks like the link to the zip file of what was left over from the 2009 release has been removed, just a few hours after the world became aware that the FOIA gang is at it again. But most of what found its way onto the web so far, tiny snippets without even a clue as to the subject matter that prompted the excerpts, doesn’t ever rise to the level of lame.

Of course, that won’t stop the denial punks from engaging in a display of juvenile histrionics. But still, after the embarrassment of the BEST study conclusions, it is beginning to look like the pseudoskeptics are beginning to get desperate.

I’m with Mike Mann:

who is quoted in the batch of released emails described the release as “truly pathetic”.

When asked if they were genuine, he said: “Well, they look like mine but I hardly see anything that appears damning at all, despite them having been taken out of context. I guess they had very little left to work with, having culled in the first round the emails that could most easily be taken out of context to try to make me look bad.”
The Guardian

Shawn Otto’s take is good, too.

Big news from Down Under

Australia’s Senate has approved a controversial law on pollution, after years of bitter political wrangling. The Clean Energy Act will force the country’s 500 worst-polluting companies to pay a tax on their carbon emissions from 1 July next year.

Fighting the “he said, she said” cowardice

Don’t get me wrong. I love NPR. I listen to it for at least four hours a day. But lately I’ve found the network’s embrace of “he said, she said” journalism a little too difficult to swallow. This morning’s report on censorship of a scientific report commissioned by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality isn’t perhaps the most egregious example, but it does concern climate change, so it’s worth examining.

Continue reading “Fighting the “he said, she said” cowardice”

Fool Me Twice

My review of Shawn Otto’s new book, Fool Me Twice
Fighting the Assault on Science in America
, is up over at the relatively new sustainability-oriented blog/resource site, Planet 3.0. Here’s how I start:

Shawn Otto is a big name in the campaign to restore science to its rightful place as a major player in the public sphere. He spearheaded the first “Science Debate” effort in 2008 to get the presidential candidates to address scientific issues, and has been working, tirelessly but not entirely successfully, it would seem, since then to keep the home fires burning. The frustration that comes with failure — the best the group could do back then was elicit written responses to a list of science-oriented questions from Barack Obama and John McCain — evidently got him thinking about why Americans care so little about science. Fool Me Twice is the result.

Like the books that preceded this one (Chris Mooney’s The Republic War on Science, Al Gore’s Assault on Reason, Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum’s Unscientific America and Randy Olson’s Don’t be such a scientist!), it’s long on description and short on prescription. The subtitle, Fighting the Assault on Science in America, implies the latter…

Whole review here.

How asbestos made me a better journalist

A long time ago in a galaxy far far away, I was a 21-year-old journalism student spending a couple of weeks as an intern at Science Dimension, a government-funded magazine (there weren’t any private science magazines in the country). I was assigned two short features while there: one on canola bioengineering and another on Canada’s asbestos industry. Both amounted to free publicity for industries heavily supported by the Canadian taxpayer, but I think the canola story withstood professional scrutiny. The asbestos piece? Not so much.

That story continues to haunt me. The only good thing I can say about it is I learned a hard lesson about the need for skepticism, especially when tasked with interviewing scientists whose livelihoods depend on something other than following the facts wherever they might lead. I bring it up thanks to Jon Stewart’s Daily show team, who recently discovered that Quebec and Canada continue to dump the province’s asbestos onto developing nations despite the overwhelming consensus of the medical and scientific communities that it’s a powerful carcinogen.
Continue reading “How asbestos made me a better journalist”

Whale of a whopper

James Delingpole’s relationship with what is commonly understood by the term “journalism” is not readily apparent.

1. PLOS One publishes a peer-reviewed paper by some of the world’s leading marine biologists with an interest in the effects of underwater noise pollution. The paper tests the idea that naval sonar could have an impact on whale behavior. It makes no mention of wind farms.

2. The Telegraph publishes a story, “Wind farms blamed for stranding of whales” citing the paper, which has the conveniently precise title of “Beaked Whales Respond to Simulated and Actual Navy Sonar.”

Continue reading “Whale of a whopper”

A big part of the problem

From the wonderful “Overheard in a newsroom” service:

Reporter doing a phone interview: “Please slow down, professor. You’ve been researching this topic for a decade. I’ve been researching it since lunchtime.”