Strategies of Communication on Climate Change

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Climate change: not just a question of the past 15 years.

Recently, it has become fashionable to say that climate change is not a problem (or even that it doesn't exist) because the past 15 years haven't seen a heating of the atmosphere so fast as it used to be the rule. Well, climate change is not just a question of the past 15 years, as Steph explains here discussing the conditions of the Alps at the time of the Carthaginian General Hannibal (Image from

The Alps over time: Hannibal

by Steph.

During the Second Punic War, in September 218, the Carthaginian general Hannibal crossed the Montgenevre pass on the Alps with 20,000 infantry, 6,000 cavalry and 21 elephants. Only half of the army that had started from Spain (90,000 infantry, 12,000 cavalry and 37 elephants) with the aim first to ally with the Gauls and then off to Italy to clash with the Roman armies. But Hannibal made an error of judgment because the Gallic tribes were generally hostile to him unless the king of the Boi, Magilo who helped him to cross the Alps. It was a grueling journey that took the lives of many soldiers. In addition the Carthaginians had to face the harsh winter of the Po Valley and according to Polybius only an elephant survived its rigors.

The Greek historian gives us his account of that event:

Troughout the lowland regions, Hannibal arrived at the foot of the Alps. At the front, there were the elephants (...) the enemies, who had never seen those animals, did not dare to approach. (...) When they reached the pass, Hannibal ordered a stop (...). At dawn (...) the march was resumed, but the descent proved more difficult than the ascent. During the night, snow had fallen and the column moved slowly. Down the steep trails, men and horses slid, falling over each other, barely restrained by shrubs and roots protruding here and there. The passage of so many men and animals turned into soft mush the thin layer of fresh snow, exposing the underlying ice (...).

In September, new snow on the ice below at 1800 m above sea level?? ... what year was this one that Hannibal chose? Where can you find, today, glaciers at 1800 m on the western Alps? Nowhere, I think.

In short: it is the curse of Ötzi (and not just that). The most recent reconstructions (see also here); less recent ones, and even Polybius, remind us that for more than 5000 years in the past the Alps never were so hot as they are today. Perhaps never so hot from the time of the last interglacial. Take into account the fact that the glaciers are not in equilibrium with current climate conditions and if they were, they would shrink even more: it's only a matter of decades.

So, if some people are so impressed that during the past 15 years the surface temperatures didn't rise so much, think of how much they changed from the times of Hannibal. And how much they still have to change in the future.

Here are some data about temperatures in the Alpine region in Europe

Büntgen et al. 2011

Büntgen et al. 2006

Friday, June 28, 2013

Signs of change: are you ready for the great transition?

Signs of change are accumulating, but most people still are not taking notice

By Alexander Ac

Is Homo sapiens a truly serious evolutionary project? And with that I mean sustainable, are we able to sustain  all what we have done and built; constructions, networks, and  knowledge into a (distant) future? Can we choose a dramatically different path that we are currently on?

There are many people thinking deeply and constantly about sustainability, global problems, overpopulation, deforestation, overfishing, soil erosion, air pollution... and on top of everything climate change; since it is a survival issue for our species. But the real question is not whether a certain number of people think about sustainability and try to live accordingly. The real question is whether we (will) do so collectively. In other words, it is not important what 50 000 people do for few hours per day (e.g. protesting Keystone pipeline), but important is what 7 billion people do for 365 days per year.

We can see that the great change from Hunters and gatherers to Agricultural societies was enabled by a stable local climate and predictable weather (and crop yields!) during the last 12 000 years. At the end of the last Ice Age, this planet was inhabited by not more than 20 000 people. We do not really want to leave the Holocene behind us.

Look carefully at the two following graphs:

Fig. 1.: The upper graph shows that we are rapidly leaving behind the Holocene temperatures. The lower graph shows that this Holocene period is exceptionally steady in the 100 000 years of temperature record from Central Greenland. Some people confuse it with global temperature record, which is not the case.

Now, the latest speech of president Obama might sound optimistic for some scientists, and even if the promises are fullfilled, which is highly questionable given the past, consider also the following graph:

Fig. 2. You do not need to be a mathematician, or to fit an exponential function to see that this rate of debt increase is not sustainable. Planet resources will not allow to repay all the debts we have created. Source: St Louis FED. Effect of planet Earth is added for illustrative purpose.

In the graph you can see the Total Credit Market Debt Owed in the USA. The same country in which Obama promised to (finally) solve climate crisis. This is not meant to criticise president Obama. This is to show what we are collectively doing. Everyone with a mortgage, or almost any other type debt is claiming exponentially growing demand on our finite planet resources. How is that compatible with declining carbon footprint?

Debt is basically a claim on the future (energy) resources. So if we are to repay ALL debts, we need to continue in the exponential growth. If we are not going to repay all debts, debt deflation is upon us. And hyperinflation later on. Well, its already happening, despite the ultra-loose monetary policy and "money-printing" (can-kicking experiments), which is in exact opposite to what needs to be done in order to solve climate change and other sustainability related problems. But you will not hear it from monetarists like Ben Bernanke or Paul Krugman.

Of course debt deflation means huge economic problems and social unrest. Again, this is already happening. But it is also a solution for the climate change problem. At least until it lasts. We need to get rid off bad debt, and use good debt to transition away from fossil fuels and climate chaos.

Are we ready for that?

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Why coal has to go

Text originally published at Climate Spectator on 21st June 2013:"

By Ian Dunlop

Australia is belatedly waking up to the implications of the carbon budget, although the concept has been around for years. It simply says that if the increase in global temperature resulting from human carbon emissions is to be contained to a level which will prevent dangerous climate change, the world, henceforth, can only afford to emit a limited amount of greenhouse gases. According to the latest science, that limit will be exceeded if we burn more than 20 per cent of the world’s proven coal, oil and gas reserves. This is confirmed in recent reports from the International Energy Agency and Australia’s Climate Commission.

At current emission rates, the world budget runs out in 20 years, and the Australian budget, as one of the highest per capita carbon emitters, runs out in five years. Major coal companies, as members the IEA’s Energy Business Council , are well aware of these implications.

The carbon budget is the basis for current campaigns, led by organisations such as Greenpeace and Bill McKibben’s, to ensure that budget is not exceeded, in part by stopping the expansion of Australian coal exports,

Recently, the CEO of the Australian Coal Association, Dr Nikki Willliams, hit out at such “eco-activists” who are “ideologically driven to destroy Australia’s coal industry but have no technically and commercially reliable and affordable solution to global climate change,” going on to justify the continued expansion of the industry.

Subsequently, commenting on the Climate Commission’s latest report, Minerals Council CEO, Mitch Hooke, opined that the report, in “calling for an end to the Australian coal industry crosses the line from scientific analysis into environmental campaigning.”

Activists play a vital role in alerting society to critical issues which the establishment may wish to deliberately avoid. But in addition to activists, many more Australians are concerned about the need for serious action to address climate change. Thus the mining industry’s arguments warrant a wide response.

Any balanced risk assessment of the latest climate science and the evidence of warming around the world, would accept that events are accelerating far faster than anticipated. There is now a high risk that our inaction today is locking in catastrophic outcomes; the challenge is far greater and more urgent than is acknowledged officially.

Evidence of climate change and accelerating extreme weather suggests that the world is close to passing climatic tipping points in the Arctic, the Antarctic and elsewhere. Dr Williams facetiously dismissed such concerns: “--- the last time I (looked), the Arctic was still there --- “.  She might have added that the Arctic is warming 3-4 times faster than the global average and that 80 per cent of the Arctic sea ice volume in summer has been lost since 1979, half of it in the last seven years.

On current trends, the Arctic will probably be sea ice-free in summer by 2015 and in winter by 2030. The Greenland ice sheet melt appears to be accelerating exponentially, which if confirmed, may lead to a five metre sea level increase this century. The West Antarctic ice sheet is warming faster than anywhere else on earth. None of this was supposed to happen until post-2100.

These changes may seem remote from Australia, but they have enormous impact on the global climate system, on sea level rise, and thus impact directly upon us.
Science has clearly established human carbon emissions as a prime cause. Despite years of negotiations, nothing has been done to reduce emissions, which are accelerating in line with worst-case scenarios. Despite Mitch Hooke’s boosterism, ‘official’ solutions, such as carbon capture and storage, and clean coal technology, are not working and even if they did, it would require decades for them to take effect, time we no longer have.

Current climate policies, including our own Clean Energy Future package, if fully implemented, will result in 4-6 degrees Celsius mean warming relative to pre-industrial conditions, with the Arctic experiencing 9-12 degrees Celsius regional warming – way beyond the official target of 2 degrees Celsius – worsening an already very dangerous situation.

This would result in a world of one billion people, not the present seven billion, as death and destruction ensue from a combination of heat stress, escalating extreme weather disasters, sea level rise, disease, food and water scarcity with consequent social disorder and conflict. Australia will be severely affected, probably with major population decline, unless emission reductions are accelerated.

Yet notwithstanding the 20 per cent limit on burning the world’s proven fossil-fuel reserves if catastrophic climate change is to be avoided, by 2025, the Australian coal industry is planning to more than double coal exports, and the gas industry to quadruple gas exports, which will make us one of the top five global emitters, exports included.

The Chinese, Indians and other trade partners are in the process of rapidly abandoning a high carbon future.  If our current expansion policies are implemented, it will leave Australia with a stack of stranded assets in mines, ports and railways within a decade, wasting funds which should be spent developing zero-carbon solutions.

This is part one of a two-part analysis. Part two will be published on Monday morning.

Ian Dunlop is a former an international oil, gas and coal industry executive.  He chaired the Australian Coal Association in 1987-88, chaired the Australian Greenhouse Office Experts Group on Emissions Trading from 1998-2000 and was CEO of the Australian Institute of Company Directors from 1997-2001.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Climate change: time for action, at last?

Obama breaks the silence on climate change. Is it the last chance for the frog to jump out of the pot?

My statement on President Barack Obama's climate plan announced earlier today:

Ultimately, we need a comprehensive energy and climate policy that prices carbon pollution and levels the playing field for renewable sources of energy that are not degrading our climate and planet. But given that we have an intransigent congress (the current House Science committee leadership continues to deny even the existence of human-caused climate change), the president has been forced to turn to executive actions. His call for carbon emission limits on *all* coal-fired power plants, not just newly built plants, is a bold step forward. It will go some way to stemming our growing carbon emissions, and the impact they are having on our climate.

The President's comments about the Keystone XL pipeline are also encouraging. He indicated that he will block the pipeline if it is going to lead to increased carbon emissions. Since all objective analyses indicated that the construction of the pipeline *will* lead to increased carbon emissions (because it will lead to far greater extraction of Canadian tar sands), this should translate to a decision not to move forward on that project.

Finally, the president spelled out promising ways forward to (a) introduce greater incentives for renewable, non-carbon based energy, (b) reduce energy usage/improve energy efficiency, (c) encourage developing nations to meet growing energy demand through renewable energy, and (d) adapt to those climate change impacts which are already locked in and unavoidable.

All in all, it is the most aggressive and promising climate plan to come out of the executive branch in years, and President Obama should be applauded for the bold leadership he has shown in confronting the climate change threat head on.

Hansen's dice are rolling

Image from ThreeOak

By Alexander Ac

In a changed world all weather events are created under different conditions than before the Industrial Revolution. A weather that is on steroids, we could say. Or, as climatologist James Hansen calls it, we are "loading the climate dice" towards more extreme climate and weather. Not surprisingly, it is increasingly harder and harder for more and more people to simply "adapt" to weather extremes. Just consider the weather reports from around the planet during the the last few days. They may not by unusual separately, but together they give a picture of quite rapidly destabilizing Holocene climate. The calendar summer of 2013 on the Nothern Hemisphere has just started!

Consider this:
  • Arizona Governor declares a state of emergency in Yavapai County due to fast growing forest fire:

  • Numerous wildfires are currently spreading also in Colorado and this state already contained its most destructive wildfire in history earlier this year, while the previous one occured in 2012.
  • Fires are also raging in Alaska, which recently experienced record temperatures, while California is preparing for the worst fire season in at least 100 years.
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  • Record pollution is choking Singapore as a result of forest fires in Indonesia:
  • Canadian Alberta is suffering the worst floods in at least 90 years:
  • Strong rains caused flash floods in parts of Southwestern France:
  • Strong wind and gulf ball sized hail surprized Switzerland:

  • Much needed monzoon rains came to India, unfortunataly more intense than usually, already killed about 1000 people and caused a lot of damage:

We really need to listen more carefully to what our planet is telling us. And act accordingly. Now.

(h/t to recent events goes to Fire Earth blog and Desdemona Despair blog)

*Correction: As pointed out by a reader, forest fires in Indonesia are primarily caused by human activity and might NOT necessarily be related to climate change. Even worse, they may have been intentionally started by palm oil companies to grow "biofuels", which are supposed to "offset" fossil fuel emissions. See the "moth effect".

Monday, June 24, 2013

Connecting dots, anyone?

(image from "how stuff works)

by Dan Savage, The Stranger, June 19, 2013

Four hundred homes went up in flames in Colorado last week.

"Nature Takes a Fiery Toll Despite a Community's Efforts to Prepare," a June 14 New York Times headline read. They're calling 2013 the "most destructive wildfire season in Colorado history." The last wildfire season they described that way? That would be last year's wildfire season—the 2012 wildfire season—when 600 homes and countless acres in Colorado burned.

According to research cited in the New York Times, six of Colorado's worst wildfire seasons have taken place since 2000.

(h/t Tenney Naumer)

The Gods themselves contend in vain.....

Sunday, June 23, 2013

More Questions than Answers

by Max Iacono

Regarding climate change, peak energy (petroleum, gas and uranium) and limits to growth more generally (or alternatively regarding the inter-related “Three E’s” of Energy, Economy and Environment)  there are clearly “More Questions than Answers”.   Here are my own favorite TOP TEN questions which I think have inadequate answers (though there are also several others): 

1.  It has been decided - but on what scientific basis other than that various countries have “agreed to it” politically?...  that we should not allow Earth’s average temperature to rise 2 degrees above pre-industrial times.  But if 0.8 above is already wreaking such observable ubiquitous havoc what will 2 degrees bring?   When we speak of 2 degrees being “acceptable” do we even know what we’re talking about?  Here is what is happening where I now live. And other such stories abound for many other parts and places around the world.

2. To avoid going above two degrees we should not emit more than another 600 billion tons of CO2 between now and 2050.  (Assuming that after 2050 we can be totally carbon free). Regarding this issue please see the following recent report on world climate and fossil fuels done by the government of Australia. At current rates of emissions we are on track to emit the entire allowable 600 billion tons total carbon budget by 2028.   What happens after 2050 or after 2028?  On what types of energy will the world run?   What human activities will be eliminated?  Or will we simply BUST that budget and head for 3, or 4 or 5 or 6 degrees higher?

3.  Renewable energy is presumably the answer. But even if renewable energy could be ramped up at a rate that beggars belief and fossil fuel energy were rapidly retired and most current energy infrastructure and installations (some of them built only recently) become useless and are written off,  what about all the energy uses (and they are very significant) that do not lend themselves to using electricity? For instance flying airplanes or running ships and trucks or agricultural tractors or heavy construction or mining equipment, and the many other uses which depend on petroleum?  Will ships and airplanes and heavy equipment stop running after 2028?  And what about all those tourists zipping around the planet in ever growing airplane fleets,  will they all stay home instead? Please see the following posts on peak energy and the non-substitutability of petroleum by electricity -regrettably available only in Italian or in Spanish-  by Antonio Turiel,  here, here, and also here.  A related summary in English about the recent book "Plundering the Planet" by Ugo Bardi can instead be found here

4. World population is projected to rise to 8 or 9 (or 9.5) billion people by 2050.  Will the additional 2 billion plus people all be extremely poor or will there be more economic growth that they can partake of?    And if so, using what energy and other dwindling or low EROEI resources to drive it?   (for an explanation of EROEI please see the posts by Antonio Turiel above) Or will there perhaps be a massive redistribution of wealth? And how would it ever be agreed to given that right now wealthy folks and corporations don’t seem to even want to pay their fair share of low taxes?  World population in 2050 according to a recent U.N. report easily could be 9.5 billions.   And here are just some of the likely effects of the increase in human population growth

5.   What about all the other environmental problems such as deforestation, ocean acidification, loss of biodiversity and all sorts of toxic pollution?  How will those be tackled a bit more seriously than at present? And when? A recent summary of how to (at the very least) do a proper comprehensive environmental assessment can be found hereBut after a proper assessment is done (perhaps it already exists) who will then follow up practically and how?

6.  If world society and its economy and politics are going to be totally transformed into something more sustainable (more sustainable than the current globalized neoliberal market capitalism) who is going to design and implement the transformation program or process and when is the work for this going to begin?  (or is it perhaps going to look like one of the many “peace processes” now going on that tend to last forever and achieve nothing and whose purpose appears to be mainly as a fig leaf more than anything else)  Plenty of good ideas and analyses exist on how the current world economy and globalization now work. One can be found here.  And plenty of good ideas and analyses also exist on how the current globalized economy could be transformed and into what,  that might be more sustainable.  One can be found here:  And another one from a different perspective can be found here. And a third one here.  And there are also many others.  But the key question is who is going to decide which of these alternatives should be pursued and how will it then be done?   So far we seem mostly stuck in BAU.  (business as usual) or at best at trying to convince others who for various reasons are less aware that we are actually in big trouble while perhaps hoping that something which is more up to the actual practical challenges will then start to happen after that.

7.    And regarding economies and their problems, what about the staggering gargantuan debt which the major Western countries (and many banks) all have accumulated? How will that be dealt with? Will there be massive hyperinflation and if not,  what else?  Will there be more Cyprus-style “bail-ins”? Here is one very brief summary regarding Italy’s debt situation. There is also fear that the Cyprus-style “bail-in” where depositor’s deposits are confiscated may become the future norm.  Will it? And if so, what will be its effects? (see here, and here). Or will some version or another of the "Chimeric Dream"  (or nightmare) as described in the following article (spelling environmental disaster) perhaps go forward ?  

8.  Will we really try to implement de-growth and economic shrinkage and move towards more local and basic so called “sustainable” economies?  Again, who will do this and when will the process begin worldwide and at scale?  Will it be a managed process or will it be the result of a slow or a massive and sudden collapse? Or perhaps a series of lesser collapses? Will there still be “globalization” and the shipment of various goods that could be produced locally from one side of the planet to the other?  And if globalization will be eliminated or reduced how will such a decision be made and who will implement it?   Some think that globalization is the answer and some think that globalization is instead the problem. e.g. here.  Which analysis is correct and in any case how will any conclusions be implemented?  Can the world economy and globalization be “managed”?

9.   Will there also be an effort to gradually bring down the total number of humans on the planet to a more reasonable number?   For instance back to the roughly 2 to 2.5 billion people who were alive 70 years ago in 1943 i.e. one third of today’s numbers.  In an article by the title “Global Population Reduction Confronting the Inevitable” the World Watch Institute says that population must not only not grow any further but also must be drastically reduced:   And Paul Ehrlich says similar things here.  Who will decide to implement such a program and how,  and where and when will it be implemented and with what political support and commitment?

10.   All sorts of very good analyses already exist (and are constantly being improved and fine-tuned and updated) regarding:  a) the nature and reality of the problem(s)  of climate change, peak energy and limits to growth and the carrying capacity of the planet and of the interaction of the Three E’s (energy, economy and environment)  and…. b) various more specific analyses of different parts of the problem and what CANNOT BE DONE also exist (namely that we cannot keep using fossil fuels and also cannot keep doing many other things we are currently doing). Unfortunately far fewer specific analyses and descriptions exist regarding what SHOULD BE DONE INSTEAD and – more importantly-  how and who should to do it and starting when:  Namely:  a) what a new world society that would be sustainable (for real and not only as a pretense or some sort of oxymoron)  might look like (in specific rather than in general terms)  and -more importantly- b) how and through what measures, policies and programs implemented by whom starting when (and being completed by when) we could transform our current human society on planet earth into that new “sustainable” society. When will this process begin in earnest and more seriously and comprehensively?

If I had the answers to all (or even just to some) of the above questions I surely would deserve a Nobel Peace Prize in Saving the Planet or at least in Saving the Biosphere or the Human Race.   Both being clearly not just merely Noble but also Nobel-level goals.  But since I don’t have the answers perhaps some others can step forward and claim the coveted prize?  Or does the answer lie in simply doing away with Nobel Prizes too?  (when many of the MDG’s failed to be accomplished the goal post was simply moved forward)  In which case a quick petition sent to both Oslo and Stockholm easily could do the trick after which we all could go back to BAU and just wait and see what happens.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

The world as a pressure cooker

A simple and effective statement from George Mobus' blog: "Question Everything
(image from xkcd)

"I'm seeing the world as a pressure cooker or boiler that has been overheated. Some of the bolts that hold the thing together are starting to buckle and the gaskets are starting to leak. Think of all the areas of the world where steam is bursting forth. Actually try to think of a part of the world where that isn't happening. It is a shorter list these days."

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Temperatures are not rising, hence global warming is a hoax

Some years ago, Maria, the Moldovan woman who took care of my old aunt, told me the story of when she had rushed back home from Italy, to see her sick mother one last time.

Apparently, in Moldavia there is the use of lighting up a candle beside the bed of a dying person. Maybe it is to light the way for the departing soul, maybe to remark the solemnity of the occasion, or maybe something else; I can't say. But that was what was done with Maria's mother. The priest had come to administer the Extreme Unction to her and then a candle was lighted up and placed on her nightstand. Her sons and daughters, including Maria, sat in the room, waiting in silence.

Night came and, at some moment, Maria's mother woke up. She opened her eyes, she saw the lighted candle but she seemed not to care. She looked at her relatives, called them by their names, she smiled and she chatted with them of this and that. Maria told me that for a while it seemed that the sickness, the Extreme Unction, the candle, and everything else was forgotten. It was just as the old lady had totally recovered and she would live for many years more.

Then, the old lady said she was tired. She closed her eyes and she fell asleep. In the morning, the candle had burned to the end and the old lady was gone; peacefully in her sleep.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Climate change: why people choose ignorance

Image above from Benvitalis' blog

Excerpt from Yahoo news, highlights by "The Frog"

Why Happy People Hide From Climate Change

Ignorance may be bliss, but bliss also leads to ignorance—at least when it comes to climate change.


The study, published recently in the journal Science Communication, surveyed 736 undergraduate students. After asking them how they felt about the topic, the study then looked to see how likely they were to seek and gather more knowledge about it, said study author Janet Yang, a researcher at the State University of New York at Buffalo.


Most people—51 percent—also say they don't think global warming is caused by people, or don't know, according to a Pew Research Center Survey. In other words, they do not know that manmade carbon dioxide is increasing worldwide temperatures, the conclusion reached by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The most surprising result to Yang was that she uncovered a social "norm" to engage in information avoidance—if a person thought their peers were more likely to avoid information on the topic, then they were more likely to avoid information on it as well. Typically, as is the case with other environmental issues, social norms—what you believe other people want you to do—lead people to seek more information, not less, Yang said.

"If you believe people think you should know more, you are more likely to seek out information," she said.

In this case, if a person spends time with others who avoid information about climate change, then they are more likely to do the same, she said.

The research suggests that when trying to inform people or get them to care about and do something regarding global warming, it may be useful to stir up some kind of emotional response.

"Stirring up emotion and using more visual story-telling—based on the study I think that'd be effective at getting people to seek more information," she said. "We need to deliver a sense of urgency that can effectively stimulate emotional responses to this issue among the audience," the authors continued in the paper.

It could also be useful to portray information-seeking as responsible and favorable. Furthermore, it's important that people understand that they can do something about it; those who thought their actions have no effect were more likely to avoid seeking information, Yang said.

"Risk communication about climate change might benefit from arousing a sense of curiosity or debunking false beliefs about current knowledge so that people are not complacent with what they already know," the authors wrote.

Yang said that she cares deeply about climate change, because it will have "a huge impact on our generation and future generations." When she confronts climate change deniers, she tries to convince them that it's a real problem, if she thinks it's appropriate. But if it's a casual or dinner conversation, "I don't always engage, because I don't want to make people feel uncomfortable," she said. "But perhaps I should."

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Jay Forrester on the nature of the problems we face

In a few sentences, Jay Forrester, still perfectly lucid at 95, outlines the origins of the problems we face with climate change and everything else. In the 1960s, Forrester developed a method of study of complex system that he called "system dynamics" and that was at the origin of the 1972 study "The Limits to Growth." Nearly 50 years later, the understanding of the behavior of complex systems by leaders and policy makers remains primitive at best. And it shows.

"People do the things they think they should do, but do not realize that what they are doing is causing the problems"

"[our leaders] reach maturity and come to positions of influence with a completely incorrect understanding of the systems they are dealing with"

"... and yet we are asking leaders to run systems that are way beyond any possibility for them to really understand them"

(h/t Tom Fiddaman)

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Risk management failure illustrated

"When somebody says something that people don’t want to hear – and certainly don’t want to have to think about or acknowledge – they sometimes self-mockingly stick their fingers in their ears and sing, “La-la-la-la-la.” This is a very literal representation of the essence of denial". 

by Peter Sandman, specialist in the field of risk management. See also "May the force be against you" on this blog

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The moth effect: blinded by too much evidence

A moth flying into a flame probably doesn't see it any more in the last moments before being consumed. Too much brightness creates blindness. Too much evidence is blinding us from seeing the threats we are facing: catastrophic climate change and resource depletion. (image from goodgrieflinus

Many people have been asking me why my new book, "Plundering the Planet" was published in German and not in English (even though I wrote it in English). The reason is simple: it was relatively easy to find a German publisher, much more difficult to find one who would publish the English version (*). When contacted, American and British publishers simply shook their head. They felt that there was zero interest for a book about resource depletion and catastrophic climate change - which form the basic thread of the book. These are both unthinkable and unspeakable subjects in the present debate in the English speaking world except as a fringe opinion held by small groups of contrarians.

I can't fault these editors: they know their market. Right now, the general feeling seems to be that a few years of increasing oil production in the US (and in a specific region of the US) have been enough to completely destroy the very concept of "peak oil" and - additionally - to completely discredit any claim that we have a general depletion problem with all mineral resources. At the same time, catastrophic climate change remains a subject of interest only for polar bears.

The situation is better in Germany, where it is still possible to carry on a serious debate on these subjects and where the press has been highly responsive to the publication of the book. Even in Germany, though, there are signs that the debate may be evolving in the wrong direction; that is closing to all options except to the one involving drilling more and drilling deeper for oil and gas.

Think about this situation for a moment: what the hell is going on? The problems of climate change and oil depletion have never been so clear as they are now. Just look at the Arctic ice cap: would you deny that it is melting, and melting fast? And look at the market prices of all mineral resources: can you deny that everything costs now three times more than it used to cost just ten years ago. And you know that depletion is forcing us to use more coal, and that more coal is bringing more climate change. Come on, dammit: how can you ignore the evidence so blatantly? All this is happening for real!

And yet, the English speaking world seems to be nearly completely oblivious to evidence. I think there is no other explanation that to invoke the concept of the "moth blinded by light". I imagine that, in the last moments, a moth doesn't even see the flame it is flying into. It is totally blinded by it. We must be subjected to something similar. We are flying into total disaster willingly, perfectly aiming at maximizing damage to ourselves, and totally blind.

They say that moths fly into bright lights because their brains are geared for seeking faint lights; maybe for orienting their flying - they simply are not equipped for managing very bright lights. Our decisional system seems to suffer the same problem: it is geared to seek for short term economic profit and it was never conceived for anything else. The evidence of incoming disaster is incomprehensible to it, so it just shuts it off. The more the evidence grows, the more actively the system operates to shut it off. And it flies into the flame.

(*) Eventually, we were able to find a publisher who will take care of the English version of "Plundering the Planet". If everything goes well, it should appear this fall.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The coming ice age and the virtualization of reality

Maybe you have already seen this image (reproduced from Greg Laden's blog). It is part of a campaign aiming at discrediting science and scientists. It goes more or less like this: Those scientists in the 1970s were predicting a new ice age coming. So much that it even made it to the front cover of "Time". And then, later on, they started talking about global warming (which was then transmogrified into climate change to further confuse us). How can we trust these people?

Well, the image on the left is a hoax; such a Time magazine cover never existed. As explained in a recent post by David Kirtley on Greg Laden's blog, it is a Paintshop job. The real cover is this one, not from 1977, but from 2007

The hoax that had "scientists worried about the coming ice age" reminds very much to me the story invented by Ronald Bailey in 1989 to to attack "The Limits to Growth" study. In a paper that he published in 1989 on "Forbes" he stated that the study had predicted that we would run out of some major mineral resources (gold, zinc, oil, and so on) by some specific dates that were already past at that moment. That, of course, showed that the whole study was completely unreliable. Well, Bailey's story was totally invented. There were no such predictions in "The Limits to Growth" study!

Reviewing these stories, it is impressive to see how effective these dirty tricks can be. And they are so simple! Just invent something from scratch; show how those pompous scientists turned out to be making silly mistakes. Nobody will check whether it is true or not but, if it is a good story, it will spread wildly around. This one of "scientists worried about the coming ice age" has done quite some damage to science and to all of us. Others, such as the "climategate scandal", turn out to be even more stubborn and dangerous.

It is also impressive to note how easy it is to create a complete alternate reality which has never existed. Simply changing the title of the cover of a magazine generates a whole parallel universe in which scientists are busy at warning people and policy makers about the need of preparing for an incoming glaciation. It is called, sometimes, "virtualization". We are so much focused on what we see and we read on the internet and on the media that we easily lose track of the fact that there is a physical reality, out there. Then, the ghosts of our imagination take over and create their own reality, complete of heroes and villains, virtues and vices, crime and punishment, and happy endings. But it is a reality made of such stuff dreams are made of.

If we work in communication in climate science, we might be tempted to use these methods. We shouldn't. Virtualizing reality by creating legends is a form of dark magic; not a good thing to get involved with. But, at least, we should know what kind of tricks and ruses we are facing. And, also, we should remember that physical reality, in the end, always wins. 

Monday, June 3, 2013

Books on climate change communication

For a while I have been under the impression that printed books had become useless. Not really. When you need to learn something on a new subject, books are a good way to go into full-immersion, avoiding the infinite distractions you face when you are on line.

The picture shows just some of the books I have been reading (or re-reading) during the past few months about communication on climate change, about communication in general, and about the psychology of the human mind when facing bad news. If I were to pile up all the books I have collected on this subject, the stack would be about twice higher than this one.

So, what did I learn from these books? In short, I learned a lot. And I am still learning: it is a completely new world. I thought that as a scientists all what I had to learn about was science; well, it is not so. There is much more. It is not enough to be scientists; we must learn how to communicate science.

And so, back to the pile of books..........