Climate Communication: Is Talking about the Scientific Consensus Useful?

(Photo: Franck Boston)

Social sciences have shown beyond reasonable doubt that many of our everyday decisions are not entirely in our control: even if we have all the relevant information about the options available to us, irrelevant features of our environment often end up shaping our decisions, and—what’s worse—we don’t even notice it.

This feature of the human mind has deep consequences for politically contested environmental issues like global warming. Here’s why: even when people have sufficient information about the state of scientific understanding of an issue, this relevant information might be unable to shape people’s attitudes or behaviour. Which is why mentioning scientific facts to your climate-denier friends usually doesn’t change a thing.

What are the psychological reasons for this disconnection between evidence, on the one hand, and beliefs, attitudes, and decisions on the other? For a general introduction, in this video behavioural economist Dan Ariely shows how irrational and contex-dependent our decision-making can often be. For specific research on climate science communication, you should hear the recent debate between two experts, , Stephan Lewandowsky and Dan Kahan.

Here’s the basic issue: many different factors shape our beliefs, and relevant available information is only one of them. There’s also the influence of our worldview—which includes our political ideology. And then there’s also our links of group membership: ‘What do my friends and people like me believe?’

In the debate, organized by Climate Desk, both experts agree that worldview plays a strong role in determining belief. But Lewandowsky’s recent studies conclude that telling people about the scientific consensus does mitigate the  worldview’s influence on belief. So, even if you’re a conservative libertarian, when you hear about the 97% scientific consensus you’re more likely to stop denying that humans are causing global warming. No matter what your ideological position is, going against the huge majority of world experts is something you’d rather avoid.

Okay, that sounds like positive results. The problem, Kahan contends, is that people still are social creatures: even if relevant information is important to them when isolated, once they get together with others they are different beasts. We tend to make our beliefs consistent with those of the groups we belong to (our families, our friends, our colleagues, our churches). This, among other things, is why if you take global warming seriously you’re likely to have no friends who deny it: social groups tend to homogenize themselves, and separate themselves from divergent social groups.

So Kahan’s research suggests that, given the social nature of belief, in order for scientific information to be effective, it must be presented in ways that make it more palatable to the reader, understood as a member of certain groups. More clearly, if you want people to believe something, you have to surround the idea with things that your audience already believes; you have to make it clear that people like them already believe it.

Does this kind of message-framing sound suspicious, or even immoral? Should we just state the facts, and trust on people’s judgement? Well, I must say no. As I mentioned at the beginning, social science has already demonstrated that our capacities for critical judgement are very limited. So, now that we know that apparently irrelevant features of the context strongly affect people’s attitudes to a given message, how could we keep treating them like they’re perfectly rational beings? That would benefit only the interests of our opponents.

South to North this week: Top Environmental News

Penguins taking a dive out in the Antarctic ocean. Will their waters avoid exploitation? (Photo: Phillip Colla)

From the Antarctic sea to Canada’s indigenous lands, here’s a list of last week’s most relevant environmental news across the globe.

1. A Slice of the Antarctic Ocean Might Become Protected

Although 12% of the world’s land territory is protected, only 1% of its oceans are. Nations have agreed to protect 10% of the oceans by 2020, and a new proposal seeks to increase the protection of the seas surrounding the Antarctic. Those rich oceans are home to thousands of unique species (including many, many penguins), so stopping exploitation there would have pretty huge consequences. But a political storm should be unleashed Oct. 21st, when the proposal is discussed in the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources’s next meeting.

24 nations have interests of some kind in Antarctic oceans, and several of them—including China, Russia, and Norway—are likely to oppose the proposal.

2. Argentina: Ills of Biochemical Agriculture & Hopes of an Oil Alliance

We’ve gone from a pretty healthy population to one with a high rate of cancer, birth defects, and illnesses seldom seen before,” says a doctor, member of the Argentinian group ‘Doctors of Fumigated Towns.’ As agricultural biotechnology spread in the country under the influence of Monsanto, populations started seeing health problems, like rises in cancer rates and birth malformations, grow alarmingly.

Argentina’s the world’s third largest soybean producer.

Must biotechnology imply health risks for the producers in developing nations? Would it be profitable if it was actually done safely (let alone sustainably)?

—Meanwhile, the Argentinian government was excited to announce a partnership with Chevron for the exploitation of Vaca Muerta, a Patagonian shale oil reserve so huge that it places Argentina among the four countries with greater shale oil reserves, and second (after China) in shale gas reserves. Political tensions about this abound: on the one hand, Argentina sees hope of avoiding a fiscal crisis through this development; on the other, Ecuador has been trying to corner Chevron into paying its $19 billion USD penalty for pollution costs.

3. China: Smog Alarms

Photo: Sean Gallagher

We have previously reported that China’s air pollution has reached dramatic levels. Today the city of Harbin reported an all-time record of small-particle air pollution that is 40 times higher than the international standard. In some places of Harbin, you couldn’t see further away than 10 metres. Imagine the excitement of driving in that weather!

This new photo essay by photojournalist Sean Gallagher explores China’s environmental challenges.

(Of course, the Chinese are not the only ones facing serious air pollution threats.)

4. Germany: BMW & Merkel fight CO2 caps together

Germany is usually seen as one of the greenest countries, one that’s doing the most work to build a buoyant economy on sustainable energy. Even so, it perhaps comes as no surprise that Merkel’s party (the Christian Democratic Union) received a notoriously big donation from the family who owns the majority share of BMW, shortly after Merkel won the re-election—and also shortly after the German delegation blocked a move by the EU that would have establihsed aggresive caps on automobile CO2 emissions.

The average CO2 emissions of German car manufacturers like Daimler, BMW, and Volkswagen, are far higher than other European companies, like Peugeot or Fiat. Which means German companies stand to suffer more by such measures.

This happens as a UN body makes the first few steps toward creating global emissions policies for airlines: the main agreement was to build a global emissions control system by 2016, which would be implemented at the beginning of the 2020’s.

5. Canada: Fracking meets Indigenous Land

(Ossie Michelin, APTN)

After 3 weeks, protests in Rexton, New Brunswick, had a violent end. Canadian police arrested 40 protesters who were opposing fracking development in their land. The protestors, members of the Mi’kmaq indigenous community, said that the development had begun even before there was proper consultation of their people. A police spokesman said they had to get rough because they found weapons hidden under the protestors’ tents.

“This is crazy. This is not Canada,” said Susan Levi-Peters, former chief of the Elsipogtog aboriginal reserve in New Brunswick. Sadly, for people who remember police behaviour in previous situations, like the G20 meeting in Toronto, this would seem to be Canada.

Meanwhile, fracking policy debates take place around the world. In Europe, particularly, France decided to ban fracking altogether in its territory, with the EU following closely, while Britain approved its development amid controversy.

Tales of Oil: South to North

From Ecuador to the Arctic, the politics of oil are moving and shaping in different directions.

Reuters/Guillermo Granja

It’s no secret that the big oil companies are facing rough times, partly because of the fracking revolution in the US (which now expands through the world), partly because of increasing investments in cleaner energy sources. That said, its power, and the impact its actions can have on the political and natural environment, remain enormous. Here’s a look at recent oil-related stories.

 1. Ecuador’s Paradox

Let’s start in the south: a photo of Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa, shows him raising his hand covered in horrible oil detritus. It’s the mess generated by decades of extraction activities by Texaco (now Chevron) in the Aguarico region, which the company has permanently refused to clean up—even after losing the legal battle in court.

While Correa called for a global boycott against Chevron, the Ecuadorian parliament just authorized new oil drillings in its portion of the Amazon. The government tried to stop this development by asking developed nations to donate for a mitigation and adaptation fund; but since the money didn’t come, Correa says there was no choice but to admit drilling in what arguably is the planet’s most biodiverse region: the Yasuní national park.

2. The Deepwater Horizon Mess Gets Deeper

Further north, British Petroleum is taken back to court for the mess they made in the in 2010. This time the company is facing the possibility of much greater penalties because new evidence suggesting negligence and bad faith has come to light. —But the US court of appeals has given good news to BP: the conditions for receiving compensations will be much stricter, and many will be re-evaluated.

3. The Disinvesting Campaign: Does it Make Sense?

A bit further north, environmental groups headed by the huge 350.org have been urging universities to disinvest the fossil-fuel-company stocks that are inclulded in their endowment funds. Harvard University decided this week that it will not disinvest. Here’s a summary of the argument that Drew Faust (Harvard’s president) provided against the strategy.

Should universities disinvest? Would disinvesting have a positive economic effect on the environment, or is it a mere moral expression? Andrew Revkin does a great job at presenting all sides of the debate, while explaining his own.

4. Russia Seeks to Tap into Arctic Oil

Even further north, Russia plans to go ahead with its plans to drill in the Arctic. Things are delicate for the nation, whose economy depends greatly on oil production, as it claims that without exploiting Arctic reserves its productivity will decrease dramatically in the future. To make things even more delicate, Russian forces jailed 30 Green Peace activists who were caught trying to hang a protest banner on the Arctic drill. 14 of those activists have been accused of being pirates, and face the possibility of up to 15 years in prison. International pressure to release them increases (their nationalities are very diverse).

To go way south, to the other pole, it’s worth remembering that Russia successfully opposed the creation of an environmentally protected zone down in the Antarctic a few months ago.

The Weird Politics of Climate Science

Last week we gathered the key reactions to the new report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Mainly, there are new and interesting policy tools that might move the world toward climate action; but there are also some solid grounds for criticism with respect to the IPCC’s agenda.

A reporter for Yale’s Environment 360 was there at the negotiations, and this week provides a fascinating piece that mentions some of the nitty-gritty political stuff that shaped the report. The piece also delves into the political nature of the Panel, and asks a key question:

Science is not naturally a consensual process. Reaching agreement is hard for people more used to spending their time refuting each others’ hypotheses. So the question arises: Is the IPCC’s self-imposed task of producing massive consensual documents about every aspect of climate science — and then resisting politicians’ efforts to change them — worth it?

The voices of disenchanted scientists criticizing the Panel’s procedures join the debate for re-evaluating the forms in which it should work. But anyway, it’s good to remember that the facts are solid and they do call for strong climate action if we want to avoid further harms to the conditions of human life.

(A good companion to that piece is e360’s anthology of reactions to the report by leading US scientists.)

IPCC’s New Report: What’s New? What’s Relevant? What do We care?

The key environmental event of the week was the first release of the fifth Assessment Report created by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)*.

With its new report, the IPCC’s strategy has both defensive and offensive sides. The report is a defence from criticisms it has received about the inaccuracy of past predictions. And it is also an attack against deniers and inactivists: it makes a stronger case for global climate action, and seeks to help policy-makers get past the deadlock they’ve been stuck in for (too many) years.

Does the new report succeed in defending itself from previous attacks? Here’s our account of the most important opinions and reactions.

Has the IPCC provided strong new policy-making tools? This note highlights the most interesting comments we’ve found about the report’s policy innovations and their significance.

* If you want to know more about the IPCC (what it is, what it’s done, why it matters), this note by Grist’s John Upton should be useful. Also, the report (the Summary for Policymakers) is here. Its two-page reduction, the Headline Statements, can be found here.

IPCC’s Fifth Report: New Policy Tools

(Source here)

Okay, so the new report updates our knowledge of climate change (see here for a good summary of the findings). But why should we care about this report, anyways? This is the Atlantic’s answer:

What makes the IPCC so important is simple: They are required to agree. Last night [Thursday], the group pulled an all-nighter to ensure that representatives from all 195 member countries agreed on every single word of the 36-page “summary for policymakers” (pdf). That instantly makes the report the world’s scientific and political authority on what is happening to the climate, what will happen in the future, and what needs to be done to avoid the worst impacts.

—In other words, the report’s importance is political: it’s such a huge event because it is the scientific tool for practical decision-making in all scales (personal, household, urban, regional, national, international, and global).

So, what is new in this report? Are there new tools that will help make a moral and political case for strong climate action? Let me mention three things.

I. 95%

The report’s most popular claim is that there is a 95% certainty that human action is the leading cause of global warming from 1950 onwards. Many people feel this is a convincing argument to make a definitive case for action: The Debate Is Over!

—But, of course, if the debate is over now, it already was in 2007, when the previous IPCC report confirmed a 90% certainty that global warming was caused by us. This level of certainty might sound like something radically new (and it might justify more headlines), but there actually isn’t much novelty here. It justifies a change of vocabulary (from “very likely” to “extremely likely”), but that’s it.

II. The Ceiling

Now, what really is an innovation is the idea of a ceiling in global emissions.

Here’s a bit of background: Since the Copenhagen accord (2009), scientists and policymakers usually set the target of maintaining warming below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) by 2100. This because if we exceed that amount of warming, the likelihood of disastrous consequences increases considerably.

According to the new report’s calculations, if we burn more than 1 trillion tonnes of CO2, then the increase in temperature will probably exceed 2°C by 2100. So 1 trillion tonnes of CO2 works as a ceiling with respect to the 2°C target.

How close are we to reaching the ceiling? Our best estimates suggest that from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution (1790) to now (2011), we’ve already burnt around 531 billion tonnes of carbon; if we burn more than 469 tonnes, we will go past the ceiling. So according to the numbers, we’re already more than halfway there. —And at current rates we’ll probably get there by 2040.

As The New York Times reports, this number works as a “carbon budget” for humanity: it gives us a clear idea of how much carbon we can “spend” before we are most certainly causing disaster. Importantly, we know that there is way more than that amount buried underground in the form of still untapped oil, gas, and coal. Which means that we will certainly run out of atmosphere before we run out of fuel. Which in turn means that the exit to this problem must be political and cooperative. These calculations provide new vocabularies that allow governments to justify absolute limits to fossil fuel consumption.

(See here for a more detailed account.)

(Update [oct. 19]: this short note by Justin Gillis briefly explains some of the political complexities of talking about a carbon budget or ceiling: how will nations divide the budget? Who stands to lose? The answer, of course, is: the developing nations.)

III. Mid-21st Century Effects

Andrew Revkin chose to focus on a very interesting sentence from the report:

By the mid-21st century the magnitudes of the projected changes are substantially affected by the choice of emissions scenario.

Why is this sentence so important? Well, we have gotten used to thinking of global warming as a problem for our grandchildren. We often think about it in terms of our responsibility to leave an inhabitable world to the people who aren’t born yet. As philosophers know, this raises very complex moral issues about whether we have intergenerational obligations, and to what extent.

But this sentence changes it all, for two reasons. First, it potentially gets rid of the intergenerational problem! As Revkin says,

humanity, by acting in ways that blunt emissions of greenhouse gases, can significantly affect the rate of warming and other related conditions from mid century onward. That’s a time scale that people can reasonably understand. Energy and environmental policies being considered now can matter not just to great grandchildren, but to many global citizens alive today.

And second, this allows for our talks about global warming to shift from threats of danger to opportunities for making a difference: now climate action can be seen not only as what we have to do in order to avoid disaster, but also as actually achieving something good. Our choices now can generate a better future for us. This is important because, as we’ve discussed, psychological evidence shows that freaking people out doesn’t really motivate them; positive messages are necessary to get them inspired.

If used correctly, this new way of expressing the scientific evidence could be translated into a great motivational tool at all scales, from individual action to global decision-making.

The New Report: IPCC’s Defensive Strategy

(Image Source: here.)

All over the internet you find lots of painfully superficial and entirely mistaken skeptical arguments against the IPCC’s report. Luckily, they are easily debunked by taking a quick look at the science. By now it’s obvious that the ice caps are receding; that global warming is happening; and that the main cause is human burning of fossil fuels.

—But there is one particular concern that doesn’t go away so easily. It’s about a phenomenon that people call “the pause,” or “the hiatus”: the fact that global temperature, instead of going up, has been more or less stable in the last 15 years. Did global warming take a break? Did it stop altogether? Or is it just a random feature of the warming process? —More generally, should we interpret this phenomenon as a sign that we don’t fully understand the nature of climate change yet?, or is it a natural part of the complex phenomenon of global warming?

At first sight, the issue shouldn’t be worrisome: just as there might be a cold day in a hot summer, there can be a period of ten or fifteen fresh years within a process of warming that happens in the scale of centuries. Moreover, pauses like this have been already seen in the historical data. But worries about the pause start to sound more complex once we notice that the IPCC doesn’t really mention or explain it in the report.

Why didn’t the report deal with this? Jochem Marotzke, one of the lead authors of the report, “attributed the oversight to a tendency of each group working on each of the 14 chapters to rely on some other chapter to deal with the issue. And anyone who was thinking about it at all thought some other chapter should handle the issue” (source).

This gets serious scientists, like Judith Curry, contending that the IPCC’s program of absolute consensus does not actually work for the good of science: given the political pressures to make a unified case, the reports might end up blocking scientific disagreement in occasions in which it would be important to explore different alternatives, or simply to pledge ignorance.


(IPCC scientists deal with the pause, as explicitly as ever.)

Anyhow, it’s not like we don’t have theories about why this happens. Most probably, the reason is that, since 80 to 90% of the warming is absorbed by the oceans, certain tropical ocean phenomena (like El Niño and La Niña) make more warming sink down to the bottom of the sea. This clearly doesn’t mean that global warming stopped. It certainly provides no solid grounds for optimism. But might it mean that the warming will advance at a slower pace than we feared? Or just that we still don’t know enough to predict the outcomes with relative precision? If so, are we not being told about the pause because that would weaken the political case for climate action?

[Small update: Judith Curry found the IPCC’s explicit reply to the pause question. She doesn’t like it.]