Strategies of Communication on Climate Change

Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Frog jumps to "Resource Crisis"

(image h/t Mike Haywood)


One year of blogging with the frog has been a remarkable learning experience. At this point, I think I have learned enough to conclude that it is better to merge this blog with my other one, "Resource Crisis". The frog doesn't disappear, it just jumps there.


One year ago, I started the blog titled "The frog that jumped out." The first post appeared on April 28 2013 and from then on I published 127 posts for a total audience of more than 80,000 contacts. Not a bad result for a blog that was a totally personal effort - without any attempt to use SEO or other Web tricks to diffuse it.

This year of blogging on "The Frog" has been a learning experience that changed my views of how to act on the climate problem. At the beginning, I thought that there was a problem of communication; that the fact that nothing was being done about climate change was the result of us not being able to pass the message in the right way. That is something that many scientists have discovered. The result has often been a search of better methods of communication. It has led, for instance, to books such as "Don't be such a scientist" where the main idea is that scientists should improve their skills of communicating with the public by becoming clearer and more entertaining. That, in itself, is not a bad idea: scientists are often extremely poor at communicating: boring, pompous, incomprehensible, and even worse. Improving on that is surely a welcome trend.

But transforming yourself into a Ronald McDonald of climate science doesn't solve the problem. No amount of gee-whiz power will carry the message across to people who don't want to hear it. The mistake in this idea is steeped in the so called "information deficit" model. It says that people are not doing anything about climate change because they are not informed enough. Therefore, if we find a way to explain to them how things stand, they'll do something. Hence, the idea of "sweetening the pill". Alas, no. It doesn't work that way.

The real problem can be summarized by a comment that I received from a friend of mine (DJ at Bottleneck Foundation):

"The main problem is that the deniers are rolling rocks downhill in human mindspace and we are rolling them uphill. "


I think this concept explains a lot of things, although I would personally modify it as follows: "The main problem is that we are trying to roll rocks in human mindspace and the deniers are trying to keep them where they stand".

That is, in order to fight the dire effects of human caused climate change, it is not enough that the problem is recognized. We need to generate deep changes in the way society functions. But this is almost impossible to do because society is simply not geared for deep changes. Our society, as most complex systems, exists because it has built-in mechanisms that resist change. It is much easier to keep things as they stand than changing them.
 
So, effecting change is a systemic problem, not just a communication problem. That makes the problem more difficult but, at the same time, gives a different perspective to it. Systemic changes occur all the time - they are simply unavoidable. No matter how much society tries to resist change, it must, eventually, cede to physical reality. So, at some moment in the future, we'll have to stop our emissions of fossil carbon in the atmosphere either as the result of depletion or as the result of the damage generated by climate change. The problem is that we are not doing that fast enough to avoid a traumatic adaptation (this is what I call the "Seneca effect"). However, the end result is certain: it is only a question of which trajectory we'll follow. Eventually, we'll have to learn to live within the limits of this planet.

These considerations affect the future of this small blog, "The frog that jumped out". Once you see the climate problem as a systemic problem, you see that the solution is not just communicating what the problem is (although that's also necessary) but promoting a whole array of actions that go from new technologies to new kinds of social and economic behavior. As a result, I think that the focus of this blog on communication alone is a bit too narrow. So, my idea is to merge it with my other blog, Resource Crisis, which has a similar focus. After all, the climate crisis is also a question of resource depletion: we are depleting the capability of the atmosphere to absorb the products of the combustion of fossil carbon without overheating.

"The Frog" does not disappear from the Web, I'll still keep it as a repository of posts specifically dealing with climate change. But most of the action will be on the other blog, Resource Crisis. So, thanks to all of you for your attention and your support and I hope we can continue the discussion there!












Friday, April 11, 2014

My view on climate change



After my resignation as editor of "Frontiers" in protest over their retraction the paper "Recursive Fury," dealing with the attitude of climate deniers, I received plenty of support but also a lot of the usual pseudo-scientific criticism on the question of climate change. So, I thought I could repropose here a post of mine that I published in 2012 in order to clarify my views on this matter. In the end, it has all to do with the concept that forms the title of this blog: "Resource Crisis." One of the resources we are depleting fastest is the capability of the atmosphere to absorb the products of the combustion of hydrocarbons


From "Cassandra's Legacy", Dec 12, 2012. 

Climate change: Confessions of a Peak Oiler

 by Ugo Bardi


 Peak oil may well have arrived or be arriving soon, but that has not stopped CO2 emissions from increasing and climate change from going on, faster than ever. That may soon make the peak oil problem irrelevant. Here is a personal view of how I came to be a peak oiler who is more worried about climate change than about peak oil. (Image from The Daily Kos.)


In 2003, I attended my first conference on peak oil, in Paris. Everything was new for me: the subject, the people, the ideas. It was there that I could meet for the first time those larger than life figures of ASPO, the association for the study of peak oil. I met Colin Campbell, Jean Laherrere, Kenneth Deffeyes, Ali Morteza Samsam Bakthiari, and many others. It was one of those experiences that mark one for life.

In Paris, I learned a lot about oil depletion, but also about another matter that was emerging:  the conflict of depletion studies with climate change studies. That ASPO conference saw the beginning of a contrast that was to flare up much more intensely in the following years. On one side of the debate there were the "climate concerned" people. They were clearly appalled at seeing that their efforts at stopping global warming were threatened by this new idea: that there won't be enough fossil fuels to cause the damage that they feared. On the other side, the "depletion concerned" people clearly scoffed at the idea of climate change: peak oil, they said, would make all the worries in that respect obsolete.

My impression, at that time, was that the position of the climate concerned was untenable. Not that I became a climate change denier; not at all: the physical mechanisms of climate change have been always clear to me and I never questioned the fact that adding CO2 to the atmosphere was going to warm it. But the novelty of the concept of peak oil, the discovery of a new field of study, the implications of a decline of energy availability, all that led me to see depletion as the main challenge ahead.

That belief of mine would last a few years, but no more. The more I studied oil depletion, the more I found myself studying climate: the two subjects are so strictly related to each other that you can't study one and ignore the other. I found that climate science is not just about modern global warming. It is the true scientific revolution of the 21st century. It is nothing less than a radical change of paradigm about everything that takes place on our planet; comparable to the Copernican revolution of centuries ago.

Climate science gives us a complete picture of how the Earth system has gradually evolved and changed, maintaining conditions favorable for organic life despite the gradual increase of the solar irradiation over the past four billion years. It is a delicate balance that depends on many factors, including the burial of large amounts of carbon which previously were part of the biosphere and that, over the ages, have become what we call "fossil fuels". Extracting and burning fossil fuels means tampering with the very mechanisms that keep us alive. Climate science is fascinating, even beautiful, but it is the kind of beauty that can kill.

So, step by step, I went full circle. If, at the beginning, I was more worried about depletion than about climate, now it is the reverse. Not that I stopped worrying about peak oil, I know very well that we are in deep trouble with the availability not just of oil, but of all mineral resources. But the recent events; the melting of the polar ice cap, hurricanes, droughts, wildfires and all the rest clearly show that the climate problem is taking a speed and a size that was totally unexpected just a few years ago.

Climate change is a gigantic problem: it dwarfs peak oil in all respects. We know that humans have lived for thousands of years without using fossil fuels, but they never lived in a world where the atmosphere contained more than 400 parts per million of CO2 - as we are going to have to. We don't even know if it will be possible for humans to survive in such a world.

Right now, peak oil is not solving the problem of climate change - it is worsening it because it is forcing the industry to use progressively dirtier resources, from tar sands to coal. Maybe in the future we'll see a decline in the use of all hydrocarbons and, as a consequence on the emissions of greenhouse gases. But, if we continue along this path, peak oil will be just a blip in the path to catastrophe.







Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Climate of intimidation: "Frontiers" big blunder on the "Recursive Fury" paper

(reproduced from "Resource Crisis")



After the recent events in the saga of the paper titled "Recursive Fury" by Lewandowsky et al., I am stating my disappointment by resigning from Chief Specialty Editor of the Frontiers journal



You may have followed the story of "Recursive Fury", the paper by Stephan Lewandowsky and others that the journal "Frontiers" had published in 2013. The paper reported the results of a survey that showed that the rejection of climate science was often accompanied by a similar mindset on other scientific areas. So "Climate skeptics" were also found to reject the notion that AIDS is caused by the HIV virus and that smoking causes cancer. A result not at all surprising for those of us who follow the climate debate in detail.

As it might have been expected, after publication, a storm of negative comments was unleashed against both the authors of "Recursive Fury" and the journal. What was unexpected, instead, was the decision to withdraw the paper taken by the editorial board of Frontiers.

I found the behavior of the publisher already highly objectionable at this stage. However, I could at least understand it (if not agree on it). They stated that "[Frontier's] investigation did not identify any issues with the academic and ethical aspects of the study. It did, however, determine that the legal context is insufficiently clear and therefore Frontiers wishes to retract the published article." The authors themselves seemed to share my opinion when they said, "The authors understand this decision, while they stand by their article"

Unfortunately, now Frontiers has issued a new note where they backtrack from the previous statement and they seem to indicate that they found substantial problems in the paper. The new Frontiers' note is discussed in detail by Lewandowsky himself in a post titled: "revisiting a retraction".


It is not for me, here, to discuss the merits and demerits of this paper, nor the legal issues involved (noting, however, that the University of Western Australia found no problems in hosting it on their site). However, my opinion is that, with their latest statement and their decision to retract the paper, Frontiers has shown no respect for authors nor for their own appointed referees and editors. But the main problem is that we have here another example of the climate of intimidation that is developing around the climate issue.

It is becoming commonplace for scientists to receive personal attacks (including death threats) for having stated their position on the climate problem. This violent reaction often takes the shape of mailing campaigns directed to the institutions of the targeted scientists. There are many examples of this phenomenon; it will suffice, here, to cite the most recent case; that of Professor Lawrence Torcello who recently was the target of an abusive hate campaign, based on the false claim that he had proposed to jail climate skeptics. Fortunately, Torcello's institution (Rochester Institute of Technology) stood for freedom of expression. In other similar cases universities stood by the rights of their faculty members. They did exactly what Frontiers did not do (but should have done) for the paper by Lewandowsky et al.


The climate of intimidation which is developing nowadays risks to do great damage to climate science and to science in general. I believe that the situation risks to deteriorate further if we all don't take a strong stance on this issue. Hence, I am taking the strongest action I can take, that is I am resigning from "Chief Specialty Editor" of Frontiers in protest against the behavior of the journal in the "Recursive Fury" case. I sent to the editors a letter today, stating my intention to resign.

I am not happy about having had to take this decision, because I had been working hard and seriously at the Frontiers' specialy journal titled "Energy Systems and Policy." But I think it was the right thing to do. I also note that this blunder by "Frontiers" is also a blow to the concept of "open access" publishing, which was one of the main characteristic of their series of journals. But I still think that open access publishing it is the way of the future. This is just a temporary setback for a good idea which is moving onward. 







Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Report to Galactic Command: the eradication of the human species is in progress

(originally published in 2012 on "Cassandra's Legacy")




From: Earth Orbital Outpost
To: Galactic Central Command
(note: time spans in this report are measured in Earth orbital revolutions. One Earth orbital revolution corresponds to 4e-10 Galactic years)


Progress report: Human eradication plan


- Strategic Summary

The Earth Orbital Outpost is pleased to report to Galactic Command that the eradication of the creatures termed "humans" inhabiting the planet known as "Earth" is proceeding according to plans. The rapid warming of the planet obtained by the injection of large amounts of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is expected to wipe out most large vertebrates within 40-50 planetary revolutions around the parent star. The planet will be ready for colonization by our species in a few thousand years; when the ecosystem will have been restored.

- The original (1st level) plan

Planet Earth was the object of several preliminary explorations before being selected as suitable for colonization. Upon reaching this decision, the Earth Orbital Outpost was set up with the purpose of facilitating the colonization task. The Outpost proceeded to study the planet, finding that it is dominated by a species, known as "humans", which has appropriated most of the planetary ecosystem productivity. Individually, humans turned out to be highly intelligent and it was soon clear that the species poses an important obstacle to colonization. A necessary step for colonization was therefore their eradication. The decision was reached also upon the consideration that, if left to themselves, humans were likely to reach a technological level sufficiently high to become a nuisance at the Galactic scale.

Several plans were developed to carry out the eradication program. It soon became clear that sterilization with neutron beams, carried out by the Galactic star fleet, was possible but expensive and, besides, humans were rapidly reaching a technological level sufficient to produce a significant opposition. Instead, it was found that humans could be eradicated at a much lower cost by warming the planet at temperatures high enough to make their survival impossible. That could be accomplished by exploiting the human habit of burning fossil carbon materials in order to obtain energy. According to initial observations carried out about a hundred revolutions ago, just letting humans to themselves would lead them to inject in the atmosphere sufficient amounts of greenhouse gases to cause a warming intense enough to destroy most large vertebrates.

In previous reports, we were pleased to describe that the plan was working. 50 revolutions ago, the concentration of greenhouse gases in the Earth's atmosphere had already picked up a trend of rapid growth and it was calculated that it would lead to the collapse of the ecosystem in less than a hundred revolutions. However, as mentioned earlier on, humans turned out to be remarkably intelligent and the brightest of them were able to identify and understand the ongoing process (that they usually referred to as "global warming.") Humans built up a sophisticated planetary monitoring system and created theoretical models of the atmosphere. At that point, they embarked in a planet-wide effort to stop global warming by curbing fossil carbon burning and deploying non-carbon based energy sources.

Having observed this development, it was necessary to alter the original plan and intervene more directly in the eradication task, although still doing an effort to avoid the enormous costs involved in deploying the Galactic fleet.

-  The 2nd level plan

Stopping humans from taking measures to avoid destroying themselves turned out to require a quite modest effort - completely within the resources available to the Earth Orbital Outpost. This result may be surprising and, indeed, some members of the Galactic Command had expressed doubt on being able to convince humans - individually very intelligent - to continue actting in ways that were leading to their destruction. Nevertheless, we succeeded in accomplishing this task.

The key element of our action has been the study and the exploitation of the human information network, that they call "the Web." It is a sophisticated planet-wide information system that has been fundamental for humans in developing their understanding of climate and diffusing this knowledge with their decision makers. However, we found fundamental flaws in the functioning of this network.

In particular, we found that the network is dominated by "super-nodes" which show a higher level of connectivity than most nodes. These super-nodes are called by humans "media" and sometimes "mainstream media". Surprisingly, we found that the supernodes are managed by humans who are quite unable to understand the basic elements of the functioning of the Earth's ecosphere. Even more surprisingly, we found that the humans in charge of these media nodes make no effort whatsoever to check that the information they diffuse corresponds to physical reality.

We also found that the humans in charge of managing the media supernodes are easily influenced by other groups of humans which are called "lobbies," whose role is not easily understood by us. We believe it has something to do with the abnormal interest of humans in a virtual entity that they have created and that they refer to as "money". Although the characteristics of this entity are obscure to us, it seems that humans (especially males) care about being associated with large amounts of this virtual entity and this, in turn, seems to have something to do with the behavior of human females. In any case, we were able to penetrate the human computing centers which produce this "money" and appropriate large amounts of it for our purposes.

In practice, it was sufficient for the Earth Orbital Outpost to take control of a small numbers of leading human individuals; whom we refer to as "avatars." This task was accomplished mainly by our control of large amounts of the above mentioned "money" entity. Using money, the takeover of these minds turned out to be extremely easy: we found little resistence on their part and no evidence that our operation was detected by other humans. Our avatars carried out several tasks, mainly providing the media super-nodes with fake data that contradicted the results of the previous scientific investigation on the degradation of the ecosystem.

A special operation that turned out to be extremely successful was to break into the database of one of their best scientific organizations (called by humans "climate research unit") and diffusing internal data exchanges all over the network. This operation generated considerable confusion among humans as it highlighted several uncertainties in the research; something typical of scientific investigation but that, apparently, most of them are not familiar with.


Assessment of the present situation

The takeover of the human information system (the "Web") by our human avatars was completely successful and we have been able to turn it into an instrument for our purposes. We are pleased to report that most human leaders have been turned into avatars under our direct control or are completely confused about the issue of global warming. It has been possible to relegate the discussion on this theme to only some minor clusters of the information network. All attempts carried out by humans to diffuse it outside these clusters are met by aggressive denial (humans turn out to be extremely aggressive for reasons that to us appear futile).

As a consequence of our takeover of the information network, all attempts of humans to stop the ecosystem destruction have been halted and appear unlikely to be restarted any time soon. The amount of greenhouse gases being emitted in the Earth's atmosphere keeps increasing. That is creating a rapid rise of temperatures, as confirmed by the recent observation of the near complete melting of the North Pole ice cap, a planetary feature that had been existing for several million years of planetary history.

It is clear that the Earth's system is heading towards a tipping point where rising temperatures will trigger a series of phenomena which will lead to runaway warming and to the total collapse of the ecosystem, even without further human generation of greenhouse gases. We have been monitoring the system evolution using climate modeling programs developed by humans, which turned out to be very sophisticated. According to these models, the tipping point could have been already reached or, in any case, will be reached within a few planetary revolutions. Therefore, we expect that the eradication of the human species could be fully accomplished within a few tens of revolutions.

Recent developments and recommendations for the future

Even though the Earth's climate tipping point is likely to have been reached, humans could still, theoretically, react with various countermeasures, such as restarting with the phasing out of fossil carbon burning, deploying non carbon energy sources, shielding the Earth from solar radiation, and so forth. In order to succeed, however, humans need first to regain control of the planetary information system. Our avatars on the planet report ongoing human efforts in this sense, perhaps triggered by the observation of the melting of the North Pole ice cap.

Given these recent developments, the coming planetary revolutions will be critical for the success of the human eradication plan. The Earth Orbital Outpost will keep the situation under strict and continuous monitoring. We do expect difficulties, in particular with our avatars. Their physical integrity cannot be guaranteed if their role in the eradication plan is discovered by humans not under our control. Nevertheless, they have done their job and their loss will not change the rapid evolution of the Earth's climate system.

Assuming that things continue to move according to plans, planet Earth will soon be free of humans and of most large vertebrates that could be a nuisance for colonization. We shall therefore proceed with the second part of the plan, which consists in cooling down the planet by deploying space mirrors. Subsequently, natural processes will re-absorb greenhouse gases and restore the planetary ecosystem in about one thousand planetary revolutions. At this point, the planet will be ready for colonization by our species. Ships with colonists are expected to arrive in about ten thousand revolutions from now. Then, a new planet will be added to our Galactic civilization!


End Report - The Earth Orbital Outpost 





(note: this post was inspired by Isaac Asimov's story "The Gentle Vultures" - 1957)



Wednesday, March 26, 2014

A corollary to Godwin's law: the "law of genocidal intentions"

(image from Corellianrun)



You surely know about Godwin's law (also known as "reductio ad Hitlerium"); the one which says that, given enough time, any Internet discussion will eventually result in somebody being compared to Hitler. This law seem to be almost as strong as the principles of thermodynamics and, recently, we saw it applied to Russia's president - Vladimir Putin - compared to Hitler in a press release by the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton.

But Godwin's law seems to have many variants; e.g the "racist variant". Here, I would like to propose another variant or corollary; one which doesn't necessarily mention the name of Hitler or the term "fascism". It is the "law of genocidal intentions", which can also be termed as "reductio ad exterminium," . It can be described as follows:

Every discussion about environmental policy, sooner or later someone will accuse someone else of genocidal intentions, that is of planning to exterminate most of humankind

This seems to apply especially when the environmental policy being discussed has to do with population. In this form, one of the first examples goes back to the the publication of "The Limits to Growth" in 1972. The sponsors of the study, the Club of Rome were later accused of being an evil organization dedicated to the extermination of most of the world's population. They were even accused to have created the AIDS virus specifically for this purpose. Needless to say, "The Limits to Growth" or the members of the Club of Rome never ever recommended - or even remotely conceived - anything like that. But the legend remains widespread as you can see by googling, e.g. "club of rome" together with "extermination" or "depopulation." See also a post of mine titled "How the Limits to Growth was demonized"

The law of reductio ad exterminium doesn't apply just to discussions about population. It pops out more or less in any discussion involving environmental policies, in particular those related to climate change. In this case, any action designed to reduce the damage involved with global warming may be defined as aiming, in reality, to the extermination of most of humankind. A recent example involves a paper by Lawrence Torcello, where the author expressed the opinion that:

We have good reason to consider the funding of climate denial to be criminally and morally negligent

Note that Torcello said that what should be criminalized is only the funding of climate denial by those who have "a financial or political interest in inaction." He never said that about people expressing their opinion on this matter. But the "law of genocidal intentions" immediately kicked in. For a report on the hate campaign unleashed against Lawrence Torcello, see this article by Graham Redfearn. Here are a couple of examples taken from the Web:

So, what happens when we discover there is not enough prison space anywhere to house the 2/3 of America guilty of Climatic Blasphemy? I guess executions will be necessary, which suits the whole Agenda 21, environmentalism-as-religion philosophy just fine, since such people believe at least 80% of the planet's population needs to be eliminated for things to be sustainable. (link)
and

What is the logical extension of jail time? Taken to its end, Torcello’s philosophy leads to execution. You may think that’s crazy, but you’d be wrong. This is how fascism begins. Liberal philosophy evolved always leads to fascism. As they say, the path to hell is paved with good intentions (link)


These laws, Godwin's law or the reductio ad exterminium, look almost funny, but what we are seeing is the complete degeneration of the debate: a true "reductio ad vituperium." Will we ever be able to set up a rational discussion on any important subject? Probably not, and that's a real tragedy in a moment in which we desperately need to find a consensus on what to do to avoid various impending disasters; including climate change.









 __________________________

Note: "exterminium" is a late Latin term which is the origin of the English term "extermination" (see here). Literally, it means "outside the borders" and figuratively can be taken as meaning "destroy" or "kill". "Vituperium", instead, can be simply translated as "insult" and it has been coopted in various ways in the modern English language. 



Monday, March 17, 2014

Touching a raw nerve with the anti-science tribe: Lawrence Torcello on climate misinformation



Lawrence Torcello must have touched a raw nerve with the anti-science tribe, at least judging from the abuse he is receiving for this article, (just google "Torcello" and "climate" and you'll see what I mean). In his article, Torcello starts from the 2009 earthquake that struck the city of L'Aquila, in Italy, causing hundreds of casualties. There followed a trial in which a number of Italian scientists were accused of criminal negligence and found guilty. In some cases, the judges were accused of "medievalism", but I noted in a comment to Michael Tobis blog that scientists, here, had been carried away by their fear of being labeled as "catastrophists" and ended up telling citizens that there was no reason to be worried because of a possible earthquake. The connection with the present debate on climate is evident and, here, Torcello examines it in depth.





Is misinformation about the climate criminally negligent? 

Lawrence Torcello 
 
 
The importance of clearly communicating science to the public should not be underestimated. Accurately understanding our natural environment and sharing that information can be a matter of life or death. When it comes to global warming, much of the public remains in denial about a set of facts that the majority of scientists clearly agree on. With such high stakes, an organised campaign funding misinformation ought to be considered criminally negligent.
The earthquake that rocked L'Aquila Italy in 2009 provides an interesting case study of botched communication. This natural disaster left more than 300 people dead and nearly 66,000 people homeless. In a strange turn of events six Italian scientists and a local defence minister were subsequently sentenced to six years in prison.

The ruling is popularly thought to have convicted scientists for failing to predict an earthquake. On the contrary, as risk assessment expert David Ropeik pointed out, the trial was actually about the failure of scientists to clearly communicate risks to the public. The convicted parties were accused of providing “inexact, incomplete and contradictory information”. As one citizen stated:
We all know that the earthquake could not be predicted, and that evacuation was not an option. All we wanted was clearer information on risks in order to make our choices.
Crucially, the scientists, when consulted about ongoing tremors in the region, did not conclude that a devastating earthquake was impossible in L’Aquila. But, when the Defence Minister held a press conference saying there was no danger, they made no attempt to correct him. I don’t believe poor scientific communication should be criminalised because doing so will likely discourage scientists from engaging with the public at all.

But the tragedy in L’Aquila reminds us how important clear scientific communication is and how much is at stake regarding the public’s understanding of science. I have argued elsewhere that scientists have an ethical obligation to communicate their findings as clearly as possible to the public when such findings are relevant to public policy. Likewise, I believe that scientists have the corollary obligation to correct public misinformation as visibly and unequivocally as possible.

Many scientists recognize these civic and moral obligations. Climatologist Michael Mann is a good example; Mann has recently made the case for public engagement in a powerful New York Times opinion piece: If You See Something Say Something.

Misinformation and criminal negligence

Still, critics of the case in L’Aquila are mistaken if they conclude that criminal negligence should never be linked to science misinformation. Consider cases in which science communication is intentionally undermined for political and financial gain. Imagine if in L’Aquila, scientists themselves had made every effort to communicate the risks of living in an earthquake zone. Imagine that they even advocated for a scientifically informed but costly earthquake readiness plan.
If those with a financial or political interest in inaction had funded an organised campaign to discredit the consensus findings of seismology, and for that reason no preparations were made, then many of us would agree that the financiers of the denialist campaign were criminally responsible for the consequences of that campaign. I submit that this is just what is happening with the current, well documented funding of global warming denialism.

More deaths can already be attributed to climate change than the L’Aquila earthquake and we can be certain that deaths from climate change will continue to rise with global warming. Nonetheless, climate denial remains a serious deterrent against meaningful political action in the very countries most responsible for the crisis.

Climate denial funding

We have good reason to consider the funding of climate denial to be criminally and morally negligent. The charge of criminal and moral negligence ought to extend to all activities of the climate deniers who receive funding as part of a sustained campaign to undermine the public’s understanding of scientific consensus.

Criminal negligence is normally understood to result from failures to avoid reasonably foreseeable harms, or the threat of harms to public safety, consequent of certain activities. Those funding climate denial campaigns can reasonably predict the public’s diminished ability to respond to climate change as a result of their behaviour. Indeed, public uncertainty regarding climate science, and the resulting failure to respond to climate change, is the intentional aim of politically and financially motivated denialists.

My argument probably raises an understandable, if misguided, concern regarding free speech. We must make the critical distinction between the protected voicing of one’s unpopular beliefs, and the funding of a strategically organised campaign to undermine the public’s ability to develop and voice informed opinions. Protecting the latter as a form of free speech stretches the definition of free speech to a degree that undermines the very concept.

What are we to make of those behind the well documented corporate funding of global warming denial? Those who purposefully strive to make sure “inexact, incomplete and contradictory information” is given to the public? I believe we understand them correctly when we know them to be not only corrupt and deceitful, but criminally negligent in their willful disregard for human life. It is time for modern societies to interpret and update their legal systems accordingly.



Monday, March 10, 2014

Climate change explained to my students




This is a written version of something I said a few days ago to my students of a class for of the "Economic Development  and International Cooperation" school (SECI) of the University of Florence.



The question: Professor, but did I hear correctly what you said? You say that climate change will bring problems for us in decades? Now, I knew that scientists were talking about centuries or even longer times. How can that be possible?

My answer.  You got it right: I said "decades", not centuries and I might as well have said "years" - although perhaps decades is a more correct time scale for the troubles awaiting us - and you in particular, since you are so young. Now, I also understand why you were under the impression that climate change is a question of centuries; something to be dealt with by future generations. This is an unfortunate result of the way some data are presented; in particular by the intergovernmental panel on climate change, the IPCC. They are very cautious, they try to avoid giving the impression of being "catastrophists" and the result is that climate change, according to the way they discuss it, looks very smooth and gradual that goes on for centuries. That's not necessarily the case.

The time scale of climate change depends on what we are considering. Some effects are very slow: if we think, for instance, to the Antarctica ice cap melting and disappearing, well, that will take centuries or even millennia. But if you consider the Arctic ice cap, you see that it is melting down fast and it is melting now! And the consequence is a major change in the weather patterns in the Northern Hemisphere - it is something we are all seeing in terms of droughts, hurricanes, snowstorms and the like.

But it is also true that we won't die because of bad weather and your probability of being drowned by a major hurricane is rather small, especially if you live in Italy. Your question is more specific and I understand it very well: what will be the importance of climate change for people like you, who are now in their 20s?

Let me rephrase the question to make it clearer. I could say that from my personal viewpoint - I am now 61 - I could organize my life on the bet that climate change won't affect me too much for the time I still have to walk on this planet. It is probably a reasonable bet for me (but it IS a bet!). The question is, then, is it reasonable for you to bet in the same way? I think not at all and let me explain to you why.

Let's see.... the life expectancy at birth in Italy is of about 80 years, so you have more than half a century to go, in principle. But let's say that you don't care about getting stricken by the Alzheimer disease. You just want to get, say, to 70 in good health. Then you still have more than 40 years to go; that the time range you should care about, supposing, of course, that you don't care at all about your children and grandchildren - which seems to be the standard way of thinking around us: after all, what did my descendants do for me? Given these assumptions, how is climate change relevant for you?

If you look at the nice and tame IPCC scenarios, you'll see that in 40 years from now we are talking of about 1-2 degrees C of temperature increase. So stated, it looks like a very minor effect. What difference does a degree and half make? Just a minor nuisance. In Summer we'll turn on our air conditioners and in Winter we'll save a lot of money on heating. The same is true for sea level rise: the IPCC is talking of about 20 cm for mid 21st century and what are 20 cm? We can build a 20 cm wall to keep the water out in no time. So, nothing to worry about too much? I am afraid that things are not so simple.

The real problem has to do with the resilience of our society. You may have heard the term "resilience" in various contexts - basically it means the capability of a system to resist changes, in particular rapid or even violent changes. The opposite of resilient is, "fragile". For instance, a glass is hard, but not very resilient, of course; it is fragile. The trick when discussing resilience is that it is often the result of a compromise with performance. If you want to have high performance - say -  for a sport car; then your car will be more prone to breakdowns: think of using a Ferrari F1 for going to the supermarket to buy your groceries.

This kind of problem exists also for much bigger things: the way our world works; say, industry, commerce, transportation, and agriculture. And now that I said that, think of how fragile is modern agriculture. You have probably heard of the "Green Revolution", the new way of producing food that's feeding more than seven billion people on this planet. It is true; there has been such a revolution in the second half of the 20th century. It has been based on hybridizing plants in such a way to obtain higher and higher performance. The grain which is cultivated today has a yield at least ten times higher than the grain which was cultivated one or two centuries ago. It is truly the Ferrari of crops.

Unfortunately, the fact that the new generation of grain is such a wonder doesn't mean it is also resilient. Actually, it is not. As all engineered varieties of crops, it is made to grow in very specific conditions. It needs water, it needs fertilizers, and it needs mechanization. Which is fine; so far we have been able to supply agriculture with all that and in this way we are able to feed seven billion people. Well, not really seven billion. Despite the wonder crops we have, a lot of people are going hungry every day, I read that it the number is around 850 million, which means that more than one person in ten, today, doesn't have enough to eat. In a sense, it is a success because years ago the situation was worse but during the past few years this number has not been going down - the success of the Green Revolution seems to have tapered out. Nevertheless, the problem today is more a question of distribution than of production. In principle, our agriculture would be perfectly able to feed seven billion people - probably even more than that, although we seem to be getting close to the physical limits of what can be produced on a certain area of land.

So, what's the problem? It is that high performance normally comes with low resilience and this is true also for agriculture. The wonder crops of our age are high performance but low resilience. They have been developed for a situation in which climate was relatively stable, now that it has become unstable, it is another matter. Periodic droughts and floods are obviously very bad for agriculture and even a wonder crop is useless without water; it is like a Ferrari without good tires. And think of how floods wash away the fertile soil needed by plants, to say nothing about the damage done by fires.

Don't take me for an agronomist; I am not one. Food production is a complex matter and lots of things may happen that improve (or worsen) the situation. I am just noting that climate change may strongly impact the - almost literally - soft belly of humankind: agriculture. But that's not the only case. Think of infectious diseases, often transmitted by insects such as mosquitoes whose distribution depends on small temperature changes. Think of the mass migrations created by desertification of large swats of land. Then, couple climate change with the other great problem we have, resource depletion, and you'll see that the two problems reinforce each other. We said that a couple of degrees C is nothing if you have air conditioning; fine, but in order to have air conditioning you need energy and that energy - today - comes from fossil fuels. But fossil fuels are fast depleting: will you have enough energy for air conditioning in 30-40 years from now? Maybe, but I wouldn't bet on that.

So, let's go back to the initial question. I was telling you that you have much to be worried about because of climate change during your life expectancy of about 40-50 years. It doesn't mean that you won't arrive to my age; but that it is not obvious that you will. I said before that there are about 850 million malnourished people on this planet and I wouldn't be surprised if they were to become a larger fraction of the total population in the near future. Your problem, in this case, is whether or not you'll be part of that fraction.

As I said, acting in view of the future is like betting on something. If I were you, I wouldn't bet on the fact that the future will be like the past (it never is, actually). So, I think it would be a bad idea for you to plan to pass on the next generation the troubles that will come because of climate change; just like my generation has been doing with you. At some moment, someone has to be left out in the cold (actually, in the heat) and I am afraid that there are good chances that it will be your generation.

That brings the question of what to do to avoid becoming a malnutrition statistics (if possible, avoiding that anyone becomes such a statistics) but this is a long story that we'll discuss in another occasion. For the time being, let me just say that this discussion reminded me of something that Marcus Aurelius said. Citing from memory, it was something like "Everyone lives only in the fleeting moment and you could live many thousand years and that would make no difference to this fact  (*)" So, don't worry too much about how many years of life you have left. You can't know. But you know that you have a lot of work to do if you want to do something useful for you and for everyone else. So, you'd better start doing it now. 





(*) Remember that even if you were to live for three thousand years, or thirty thousand, you could not lose any other life than the one you have, and there will be no other life after it. So the longest and the shortest lives are the same. The present moment is shared by all living creatures, but the time that is past is gone forever. No one can lose the past or the future, for if they don't belong to you, how can they be taken from you? Marcus Aurelius (121-180)