Walking and chewing gum at the same time

Nature Climate Change has wandered into political science with a study from Stanford University. Seth Werfel’s examination of the “crowding-out” effect — the idea that humans have a tough time pursuing more than one strategy to solve a problem — is worth considering, even if its finding aren’t exactly earth-shattering.

The problem is laid out right off the top and requires no further explanation:

Household actions and government policies are both necessary to mitigate the effects of climate change. However, household behaviour may crowd out public support for government action by creating the perception of sufficient progress. … Further evidence suggests that the crowding-out effect may have been driven by an increase in the perceived importance of individual actions relative to government regulation and a decrease in the perceived issue importance of energy and environmental sustainability.

The results of the study’s survey, which involved 14,000 Japanese living in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima meltdown, show only a “marginal” effect, and some of the confidence intervals are pretty wide. But the conclusion is yes, people do tend to ease up on making political demands after they’ve taken a few steps to address the problem at home. No surprise there.

It may seem a bit trite. Activists are forever bemoaning the apparent inability of the citizenry to walk and chew gum at the same time. “You want me to buy new light bulbs (again!) AND call my congressman?” As Werfel summed up existing thinking among social theorists:

When people consider progress on a single sub-goal, additional actions toward achieving a superordinate goal are less likely to be pursued unless prior actions establish commitmentoward that goal.

But a couple of days after I came across the study, a piece in Slate magazine on a seemingly unrelated subject but with a similar theme got me thinking. In “Swim Lessons Won’t Keep Your Toddler From Drowning,” Melinda Wenner Moyer argues that too many parents treat swim lessons as sufficient when it comes to their responsibility for making sure their kids don’t drown. Instead of choosing supervision and lessons, they choose the latter alone and then return to their Instagram accounts. This despite the fact that drowning remains the leading cause of death from injuries among children between 1 and 4 years old.

The American Red Cross states that “the best thing you can do to help your family stay safe is to enroll in age-appropriate swim lessons,” which it starts offering at the tender age of 6 months. Yet the statistics are clear: Swim skills are simply not enough. Two-thirds of kids who drown, believe it or not, are excellent swimmers.

It’s not quite that simple, of course. Also playing a role is the tendency of many swim instructors to focus on technique and comfort levels instead of survival. The classes I took four decades ago were all big on staying alive (and I am happy to report that my offspring’s instructors this summer are still big on it), but apparently it’s not as top-of-mind as it used to be in all corners of the pool. It is another example, and one with even better stats to support it,  of a mindset that doesn’t allow for complexity. There’s no doubt that the crowding-out effect is real.

So what do we do about this latest addition to the long list of psychological obstacles (motivated reasoning, confirmation bias, plain old laziness, etc.) to getting people to care enough about anthropogenic climate trends? For me, it all goes back to the same place: People have to be taught to be critical thinkers in a democratic society. I know, I know. We don’t have time for pedagogical reform. Not when we have to get our carbon emissions down to zero two or three decades. But there’s no reason not to harp away at the idea that it is possible to act on parallel strategies simultaneously.

Meanwhile, if people are going to be intellectually lazy, then we can at least try to ease their stress by being more selective about what we ask them to worry about. We need to pay more attention to those things that pose real risks and stop fretting about every imagined catastrophe. When it comes to our kids,

When it comes to our kids, unsupervised play about the water’s edge is relatively hazardous. Unsupervised fort-building in the woods, not so much. We can apply the same thinking to environmental messaging. We all need to be responsible for our carbon footprints and we need to keep our members of Congress aware that we know how much of their campaign war chests is sourced from the fossil-fuel lobby. But maybe we don’t need to worry so much about nuclear reactors.

The Task Force on Climate Remediation Research is wrong, and here’s why

It’s hard to argue against funding scientific research. But let me try.

This past week 18 experts assembled as the Task Force on Climate Remediation Research released the product of its collective wisdom. A creation of the Bipartisan Policy Center, which the New York TimesCornelia Dean describes as “a research organization based in Washington founded by four senators — Democrats and Republicans — to offer policy advice to the government,” the task force concluded that the U.S. should be spending unspecified sums on research into what is colloquially known as climate hacking. Most everyone knows it as geoengineering, but the policy center wonks decided “climate remediation” is a less scary term.

Joe Romm weighs in, and talks with former and current members of the task force (including one who quit out of frustation with where the group was headed), at Climate Progress. I share his problems with the report, but want to delve more deeply into the speciific, as I suspect this issues is going to be a big deal for the foreseeble future.
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The narrow mind of Greenpeace

Way back when I was just a novice environmentalist, Greenpeace seemed like a good idea. It published a decent newsletter, was drawing attention to otherwise neglected issues, and, while understandably suspicious of technology, seemed to have more than a grudging respect for science as a tool to preserve those things worse preserving. It was one of the few NGOs that received what little I could afford to donate to charitable causes. I don’t regret supporting them in the 80s, and not just because I shared the group’s desire to save the whales.

I still want to save the whales. I no longer support Greenpeace.
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The natural gas question: A best-case scenario

ResearchBlogging.orgProponents of shale gas extraction are not particularly pleased with the attention drawn this week to a new study in Climatic Change that found widespread development of Marcellus natural gas may actually accelerate climate change rather than slow it down. Unfortunately for them, their primary argument rests on a lack of hard data on 1) the actual greenhouse-warming potential of methane; and 2) how much methane finds its way into the atmosphere during drilling and transmission of natural gas. You can find a good summary of the defense’s case at something called the Marcellus Shale Coalition. And it is unfortunate for them, because most opponents of the industry, and the author of new study, use exactly the same argument.
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The nuclear misdirection

We can’t seem to stop thinking about nuclear power. Given what’s at stake — the biosphere, the economy, our genetic integrity — this is understandable. But I think too many are getting distracted from the fundamental problem with splitting atoms and arguing scientific questions we are unlikely to resolve anytime soon.

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Mom and dad just cut our allowance … to zilch

ResearchBlogging.orgSee that black box over on the left-hand side of this blog? The one with the numbers counting down? That’s a little widget I assembled by rejigging one from trillionthtonne.org. The basic idea is that, if our climate can be expected to suffer severe disruption at a certain amount of global warming due to a certain amount of carbon emissions (since the beginning of the fossil-fuel era around 1850), then our best strategy should be to limit the cumulative carbon emissions to somewhere below that level, in this case 1 trillion tonnes of carbon.

But there’s plenty of uncertainty surrounding the estimate that a trillion tonnes of fossil-fuel emissions will lead to 2 °C of warming. What if the threshold is actually a lot lower? That, unfortunately, is the conclusion of a new paper in Geophysical Review Letters. Carbon emission limits required to satisfy future representative concentration pathways of greenhouse gases, by a team of Canadian climatologists led by Y.K. Arora of Environment Canada and the University of Victoria does not make for optimistic reading.

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Beyond Smoke and Mirrors

Smoke and Mirrors:
Climate Change and Energy in the 21st Century

By Burton Richter
Cambridge University Press, 218 pages.

Do we really another book summarizing the science of climate change and the available response options? Sure. Why not? What’s the harm? In this era of hyperfractionated audiences and echo-chambers, there’s no such thing as too many arrows in our collective quiver. This one, by Nobel Prize-winning physicist Burton Richter, doesn’t contribute anything new. But at this point in the conversation, there’s not much new to contribute, just novel approaches to making the argument that we can’t keep doing what we’ve been doing for much longer without trashing the planet.

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